The Masquerade

I’ve been increasingly annoyed with theological readings masquerading as objective, non-ideological products of biblical studies.

This is most evident in work on the Historical Jesus or St. Paul. Because a scholar has already committed to a very specific representation of Jesus or Paul, they cannot even fathom the possibility that there can be counter-evidence or different approaches to a specific text. Contrary to what many believe, reading Jesus as an agent of resistance is not as absurd as thinking Jesus was merely a figment of Roman Imperial propaganda. But, attempts to think of Jesus as modeling a specific ethic of political apathy, for instance, is always bound up within a fundamentalist reading of history, one that cannot be qualified, and if qualified the additions or excisions are always already agreeable to one’s own theological agenda.

Sad Jesus

Sad Jesus is Sad.

It’s just a rather usual example of confirmation bias. Qualifying data is thrown out if it at all threatens what the scholars believes. So, in the instance mentioned above, any scholarship that could fall within Empire Studies (as well as any postcolonial readings) would be regarded as, in some way, illegitimate, or simply ignored. It doesn’t matter how sophisticated it may be, it has already been determined to be illegitimate in the eyes of the creator of theologised readings of Jesus or Paul.

What I found most liberating early in my work was recognising my own bias, my tendency to fall into the Great Man myth with Jesus and Paul, to theologise their persons such that I wasn’t able to approach the text except through my very specific lens, one that molded Paul into a sort of figuration that followed my own political/ethical/theological proclivities. It wasn’t that I was naive to the problem, but I did my best to fight against counter-evidence by staking my claim instead on evidence that supported the Paul that mirrored my own reflection.

This isn’t to say that I think aren’t bound to ideology, that I think we can somehow loosen the shackles and escape into a purely objective reading of the text. In fact, it is often those who think so, or who edge toward thinking so, that, blind to ideological sway, theologise when they say they are merely doing ‘biblical studies.’

Instead, what I suggest is that we all are, already, stuck in this mode, and that it is only through acknowledging it that we can even begin to stop producing naive stories.

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Expertise and Denial: Philosophical Edition

Soon after I wrote my last post (too long ago, unfortunately) I attended a wonderful workshop on political theology. The University of Kent’s School of Law, in conjunction with Birkbeck and some other university’s, started a wider project focused on juridification and political theology.

Gil Anidjar

Gil Anidjar

The workshop was wonderful, and including participation from many researchers from Kent, Canterbury Christ Church University, Birkbeck, and other places. Political philosophers, critical legal theorists, theologians, and biblical scholars met and dialogued over fascinating papers. I remember clearly, still, Gil Anidjar walking us through Hobbes, images of war, and the fascinating frontispiece found on early versions of Leviathan.

But, as great as this event was, I recall most vividly a rather concentrated dialogue that many in the room engaged in. What concerned me about this intense discussion was it was filled with misconceptions about, foremost, St. Paul! And, the misconceptions were stated in a confidently intransigent manner.

leviathan.jpg

Thomas Hobbes’s masterpiece Leviathan’s frontispiece.

In a room full of theologians, philosophers, legal theorists, and biblical scholars no one engaged the simplification, which dealt with Paul’s attitude to the law, explicitly. And, this is a big problem.

The philosophical reception of Paul has been encouraging for me, as a New Testament scholar. There have been challenges and an increasing number of figurations that take into account the wisdom found in diverse disciplines because of this movement of the academic wind. But, likewise, it has allowed for some rather naive views to flourish, often unchecked.

My mild reaction, here, against the obvious lack of expertise found in this discussion, also, isn’t merely about being dead-set against creative philosophical Pauline figurations. What I found dangerous was the intransigent, simplistic view of Paul being antinomian (with no qualification) that a researcher excitedly claimed. There was no interest in how a nuanced view of law may change Paul’s significance to discussions on juridification or political theology.

Here’s to hoping, as well, that I’m a bit more bold about speaking out.

It’s a bit difficult, after all, to summon the courage to do so in a room full of well-known scholars.