Stating the Discipline: Some thoughts on NT Studies

Let’s talk, again, about whiteness and the discipline in light of the last few posts about Horrell’s work. (Interested readers can access these here here and here)

Reports I had heard (unfortunately, I became violently ill and was not able to attend) about one of the final plenaries underlines, perhaps, one of the pervasive problems in the discipline. As a sort of prologue before this final session started, it was said from the pulpit that (in not so many words), despite the crucial realisation by many that the discipline needs to continue to overtly confront questions of diversity, questions of the predominance of ‘whiteness’ (including dangerous religious triumphalisms, as well as the manifestation of these in methodology), and the need to more concretely broaden the boundaries of the discipline, the speaker would continue on with what is traditionally done in the discipline. You know the spiel.

Now, I don’t particularly care about how close the interpretation above comes to the actual event. It serves, instead, as a sort of broader picture of the majority of the discipline. Despite the pandering to ‘diversity’, actual methodological diversity (informed by non-Western methods, especially) is scant. And, in the midst of interest in diverse discourses, no actual sustained interest is shown in different methods (ever read those ‘hurrah’ pieces by major scholars talking up postcolonialism, but never actually engaging in the discourse?). Perhaps because doing so includes the possibility that past work (often hard and difficult work) needs to be augmented in crucial ways, perhaps even re-evaluated.

NT WRIGHT.jpgA prime example of pandering was gestured to in the last post connected to this larger blog project on Whiteness and NT Studies. A common scholarly aside occurs in the beginning of a book or larger project, where a scholar will admit their specific social place. Perhaps they are a white, confessional academic who lived through the tumultuous 60s in America, and has also served in many churches within the diocese of such-and-such. Biographical material may be interesting. It may also be helpful for those who are interested in interrogating how these biographical realities may relativise the scholarship contained in the book or project. They do not, however, affect the material produced! In fact, they quite easily do the opposite of what they pretend to do. They, instead of challenging assumptions, reify them in the work. These are an outworking of ideology in a basic sense, affecting the material relations the subject has, re-inforcing assumptions because they have checked the bare minimums off of the list. They do not have to go any further because, well, they have done the bare-minimum.

Instead, there needs to be a displacement that occurs. This is the point of ‘whiteness studies’, and the importance of a relatively high ranking member of the guild employing and advocating for more of this in the discipline.

Now, this does not mean that everything has to be thrown out, that we need to wipe the slate clean, forget the past of the discipline (instead, noting the strangeness of whiteness allows from a more critical lens with which to view the history of the discipline). And, it also certainly does not mean that Horrell’s work represents some digression from everything that came before it. That would be insulting to those who have worked hard for years employing postcolonial criticism to biblical texts, which has profoundly shaped how directions in reading these texts, in exploring contexts, histories of oppression, and crucially challenging overtly confessional readings, and it would be profoundly racist, as if now that a well-known white scholar has spoken up the world is saved. While this has been a continual tension within the discipline, Fernando Segovia mentions in his essay ‘Racial and Ethnic Minorities in Biblical Studies’ that the initiation of the journal Biblical Interpretation mentioned the importance of a more pluralistic and public discourse around these texts within the discipline. The attempt to de-colonise the discipline has been a frustratingly long project, what he calls a continual struggle.

Sad JesusPointing to whiteness and its connection with Christianity underscores a difficulty with the discipline, one that I have noted over the years, and one that I previously (because of my confessional status) denied: the racial-religious dimension of the majority of the disicpline; the inability to recognise the hubris of claiming objectivity as well as the explicit ways that whiteness and Christianity position themselves as non-placed and invisibled.

I don’t actually have anything mind-blowing to say about the discipline that hasn’t been pointed to by others, most of whom are much better at expressing themselves (and more knowledgable) than I am. But, I do think there is a general tendency to eschew diverse methods, which is a real problem. It’s a problem because it is continuously pointed out, and yet change is always on the horizon. How can change happen, then? Introductions to the discipline need to strive to navigate these issues, and do so in such a way that does not assume a transcendent element in the usual ‘objective’ modes of the discipline. More senior scholars need to approach and do the dirty work that needs to be done, as well as make space for scholarship that furthers this discourse. Early scholars (many of whom have recognised the issues and are producing great scholarship) need to continue doing what they are doing. We need to strive to create spaces and make things happen that will drive change. Not change for changes sake, and not for entrepreneurial reasons, as if we are simply ‘indebted people’ who have been remade in the image of neoliberalism, striving in competition with others in order to produce the next cool thing.

If this can’t be done, the disicpline will continue on in the Sisyphean struggle of attempting change and challenging ideology perpetually. This is, perhaps, most likely. Can’t stop trying, though.  Maybe someone else has a master plan. I’m all ears.

 

 

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Whiteness and NT Studies (Part 2): You Aren’t as Objective as you Think…

After a bit of a lamentable hiatus, let me return to David Horrell’s plenary discussion from the BNTC 2017, covering the latter half where he spends time outlining the importance of whiteness studies for reading Paul. Because of how long this post turned out to be, I will have to withhold any substantial commentary for a third post.

Horrell is concerned here with making a parallel between ‘whiteness’ and ‘Christianness’, how they operate structurally and delineate discourse surrounding texts. For an overview of the text he is using as an example (Galatians 3:28), and the brief history of the interpretation of this text, please see the last post by clicking here. Horrell wants to point out that the interpretive lens of the commentator shapes how the text is read. This isn’t something novel when stated in such a banal way. In fact, it is a fairly standard procedure to do so, now. Pointing out one’s context and history helps a reader identify the biases and probable ways that they shape the discourse surrounding a text. We can’t escape this inevitability.

But, Horrell wants to underscore the location of ‘Christianity’ much more strongly. Horrell wants to identify it so strongly that it is ‘made strange’, just as in whiteness studies the goal of the work is to underscore and recognise the strangeness of whiteness, rather than letting it continue dominating discourse as if it is some sort of default setting. Such is partially done through highlighting the extent.

Horrell, for instance, points to the tendency to portray unity in Christ as a ‘hopeful, inspiring, positive vision’, though in contrast to alternative visions. Oneness and unity are seen as elements exclusively found through Christian discourse, unavailable to others. And, Horrell points out that this is common in many of the sources he identifies previously in his plenary address (Witherington, Burton, and Morris, as primary examples).

But, one may wonder, isn’t this vision hopeful and inspiring? Paul here, after all, is attempting to do away with divisions, which is laudable! Horrell notes that, as has been pointed out by other authors (crucially from non-Christian perspectives; Daniel Boyarin is a prominent example), this sounds awfully imperialistic on cultural, political, and religious levels. Furthermore, it plays the same role that ‘whiteness’ plays in being a transcending reality that attempts a form of universalism by attempting to erase it’s own particularity. Remember, ‘whiteness’ is often located above racial structures, seen as a (often benevolent) default. Here, then, Horrell remind us that, actually, Christianity is operating as an exclusionary category, despite the pretenses of benevolent universalism.

This is proven to be a relevant critique precisely because, as was shown in Horrell’s analysis of commentaries on Galatians, Christianity is a unifying presence in contrast with Judaism (an ‘ethnocentric, marked, exclusionary identity’). Inclusive (universalistic) visions are acceptable only if particularity can be transcended or abolished. In noting the majority of commentators, Horrell incisively characterises the usual caricature of the relation between Judaism and Pauline Christianity as ‘transcending fratricidal snobbery, or ethnocentric pride’, that Paul is insisting people ‘pledge their trust and allegiance to Christ’ because doing so transcends the particularity of Judaism. This, of course, completely ignores the fact that Christianity is itself a boundary, a marker of difference, a call for separation and particularity.

Horrell also points to evidence that can suggest Judaism was, also, seen as highly attractive to outsides, contra to suggestions that it was the ugly counterpoint to Christianity. In fact, in similar ways Judaism allows for a type of ‘inclusivity’ that is just as attractive as the particular mode of Christianity that is moralistically triumphed by many commentators. Why is the similarity denied, and in fact why is there a moral emphasis here? Precisely because the default is Christianity and the discourse is controlled by, overwhelmingly, Christian scholars.

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Rembrandt’s (and others?) The Apostle Paul.

In the final section of Horrell’s talk he goes a step further, bringing together whiteness studies and Christianity, noting particularly how these come together, intertwine and affect biblical studies in its various iterations, but especially in Orientalist ideas that spread in the mid-20th century. Not only religious, but racial, superiority is woven into the very fabric of the discipline. Drawing on Shawn Kelley’s work allows Horrell to note how strong this was until at least the 70s (where Kelley’s analysis stopped), but it certainly hasn’t magically disappeared since then. In our current era, the universalising of the Pauline (or broader Christian) vision in biblical studies has shifted. Now it is seen, instead of racial or religious superiority, as the advent of ‘multicultural liberalism’. Paul becomes, in much work, the place where we discover/uncover/augment liberal values, a foundation with neat correspondence to ‘western’ values. The ways that this recent past has impacted current biblical studies is more subtle than previous examples that were overtly triumphalistic, but the still rely on the same foundation.

But, whiteness studies also reminds us that, as Horrell notes, biblical studies operates as a sort of un-marked space. We can talk about, then, ‘Asian biblical studies’ or ‘black hermeneutics/biblical studies’, or any other qualified ‘biblical studies’, but to do so is to remind us that ‘biblical studies’ operates as does whiteness (and, is, also a uniquely white, European/American endeavour) with a univeralising, non-qualified gesture. There have been attempts at critiquing this, of course (though most substantially on the margins). Popularly, as noted above, it has become popular for a scholar to underscore his/her ‘location’. At the same time, I have to wonder what this really does. So often this admittance does not seem to lead to a qualification of the work. Instead, it serves as a marker that the author has, at the least, gestured to this reality. Have they actually recognised ways that they, particularly, or the discipline, generally, operate as un-marked and non-particular modes of discourse? Too often not. The marker is an after-thought, not a serious movement within the work.
Horrell ends with reminding us, once again, that ‘whiteness’ needs to be made strange through being dislocated, that just as ‘African American’ hermeneutics is often noted as being experientially important, so is the experience of the white scholar who (often haughtily) performs a type of objectivity in regards to the text.

Join me for next time! Hopefully I can finally get around to an analysis of this piece, and how it’s importance is felt when located within the broader movements of the field.

 

British New Testament Society: Some Subjective Thoughts and Highlights

Recently I was able to attend the British New Testament Society’s annual conference for this first time, which took place in Maynooth, Ireland from August 31st through September 2nd. Despite living in the UK and working on my doctorate in, primarily, Pauline scholarship for three years I’ve somehow neglected to attend the BNTS. Perhaps this is to my detriment, as one is expected to network, and attending an annual conference dedicated to my main disciplinary area is, undoubtedly, a great place to meet like-minded people. The prospect of meeting some Pauline scholars I’ve yet to chat with in person, as well as finally having a reason to travel to Ireland, was tempting enough for me to sign-up and come along. Likewise, it is always nice to see friends like James Crossley, Michelle Fletcher, John Lyons; likewise, it is great meeting new people like Paul Middelton, Simon Woodman, and many others. (In hindsight, this looks a little too much like name-dropping; but, really, so few care about NT studies that such a charge should appear foolish!)

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Maynooth University

I have to note, however, that my research occupies the margins of the discipline. Most of the conferences I have attended since moving to the UK have been variously philosophical, critical theoretical, or theologically focused events. Still, despite my inter-disciplinary interests, I was able to find much going on at the BNTC that caught my eye.

I attended the Pauline section which was, as far as I could tell, occupied by some usual historical-critical scholarship, some presentations dedicated to cataloguing, and overall expected papers (comparing Paul and Phil, for instance…). I, however, broke from attending the Pauline session (though one is encouraged not to skip around) to listen to a tantalising paper delivered by James Crossley. While I was familiar with James’s recent political work, this paper (presented in the Jesus session) reminded me the importance of tracing the use of the Bible in political discourse in various contexts (I’ve done so, recently, with Trump’s electoral campaign). James, for instance, spoke to the various readings of biblical texts by mainstream political figures, namely Thatcher, Benn, and Corbyn. He also answered some questions about the possible ways the Bible’s use could develop in the current and upcoming generations of political activists. After all, one has to wonder about the place of the Bible in political discourse within a nation that is, now, composed of a majority of non-religious subjects.

An added bonus to the conference was finally being able to meet some of scholars I had not been able to connect with personally yet. I’ve long been a fan of David Horrell, AKM Adams, John Barclay and several others. It was a real treat to meet them in person and talk a bit.

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David Horrell

The above, however, is personal and largely inconsequential. Most important, in my mind, was the plenary session Horrell delivered on the evening of the second day of the conference. Merely writing the title is perhaps provocative enough: “Paul, Inclusion, and Whiteness: Particularising Interpretation”. It has to be acknowledged that discussing ‘whiteness’ in connection with methodology in NT studies isn’t usual within the discipline, a discipline after all where there is much gesturing to postcolonial, feminist, or ‘postmodern’ (I hate this moniker, but find it difficult to avoid, unfortunately) interpretation but very little (comparatively) done in these areas, such that they remain on the extreme fringes of the discipline.

In the next few days I will be writing up some more posts that present David Horrell’s plenary session in more detail, while also contextualising it within the discipline.

I want to spend time doing so because not only do I think the presentation was important, but also because I don’t want the emphasis of such a presentation to lose momentum. I fear that, if the momentum is lost that most will simply forget that there is needed serious self-criticism within the discipline, that there is very little done which acknowledges significant ideological issues.

I recall reading a back-and-forth in the blogosphere by Larry Hurtado (a senior scholar) and Robert Myles (an early career scholar). It became apparent to me in reading the exchange that while senior scholars will readily acknowledge their situatedness, that they occupy a perspective, that they are ideologically motivated subjects, not often is this taken as seriously as it should. With Horrell’s plenary session, we can see an acknowledgement of not simply the ‘checklist’ of subjective realities a scholar occupies and must note before doing some good ol’ objective historical work, but the problematics of the discipline as a whole. It is because of the seriousness of the critique, and the venue that it occurred in, that I find it important to ruminate further.

 

Jesus and Homelessness, with Robert Myles

Recorded earlier this summer, but only recently edited, was a nice discussion on Jesus and homelessness with Matthean scholar, Robert J. Myles (Auckland).

In this video he answers questions and discusses some of the topics related with his ground breaking study on homelessness, Jesus, and the gospel of Matthew using political philosophers like Slavoj Zizek and others.

Robert J. Myles and the Homeless Jesus

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If interested in this book, here is a handy link.

Subversiveness and NT Materials

Prompted by the excellent work of James Crossley, Robert Myles, and Ward Blanton, I have been challenged to think recently about the themes of subversiveness, neoliberalism, and the bourgeois subject in connection with (primarily) the figures of Paul and Jesus.

James G. Crossley (the scholar, not the body builder, though James does have a

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James G. Crossley

rather impressive jawline) has written numerous works that look at biblical studies from a cultural lens, noting the importance of paying attention to trends and critical theoretical frameworks so as to elucidate some of the ways in which scholarship is produced along ideological lines. So, one of his most recent books, Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism, takes an in depth look at the nuances of neoliberalism and how certain aspects of its cultural power have pervaded and influenced Jesus scholarship.

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An Excellent Book.

Robert Myles has focused on numerous aspects of Jesus scholarship, often noting the importance of attending to a Marxist reading of texts, but most recently publishing an article on the “Fetish for a Subversive Jesus” (Journal for the Study of Historical Jesus 14, no. 1), wherein he notes the varied constructions of ‘subversive’ Jesuses. Both Wright and Crossan provide these ‘subversive‘ Jesuses, despite their obvious differences within the range of NT scholarship. Subversiveness becomes a trope that allows for diametrically opposed readings of Jesus’ actions, and likewise allows for theological constructs that point to both conservative and liberal worldviews (the hippie Jesus of Crossan vs. the ‘doubly subversive’ Wrightian Jesus that follows conservative dogma). Jesus either authorises radical toleration, or provides the conservative with the authority to create boundaries which appear “counter-cultural” in a society which, for instance, allows for sexual expressions that fall from the (old) norms (note, here, how Wright approaches issues of sexuality in his various writings, and specifically of how his NT translation deals with thorny translation issues…).

This isn’t any different if applied to Paul who, like Jesus, often becomes a sort of prototype of the Great Man in history (the capitalist conception of history which often ignores social conditions which cause change), or becomes a thoroughly theologised and idealised figure of perfection, or possibly both.

Paul, then, embodies the “subversive” trope that allows for either liberatory or conservative action, deliberation, and thought. Neither, as well, does there appear to be room for maturation or error in the varied, and dynamic, moments that lay behind Paul’s epistles and projects.

These are errors of thought that I do notice in myself. My Pauline figuration skirts the theologization and idealism, though I do believe I have avoided turning him into a ‘Great Man’ of history; discussing my own faults, however, may be for another day.

It is, however,  through paying attention to bordered work in NT that I have come to notice these issues. This is, perhaps, one of the major problems with the attempt of “purity” within biblical studies. Blanton, Yvonne Sherwood, Crossley, and Myles are pushing the boundaries, many of which are ideological constructions of a relatively conservative academic discipline, and this is necessary for the discipline to be, going beyond its usual parameters, both interesting and dynamic. 

Pay attention to the buzzwords, the fetishes, the blind spots. We need to move past them.