Expertise and Denial: NT Studies Edition

In the late 2000s-early 2010s it was particularly in vogue to respond to the work of various philosophers who had expressed interest in St. Paul, perhaps the most monstrous figure Christianity had on offer.

Paul and the Philosophers

While Jesus is often above significant reproach (note Nietzsche’s divergent feelings toward these figures…), Paul is often a figure of backwardness, misogyny, a sort of lawful lawlessness, a static-rule filled Christianity that just can’t get in line with the radical Jesus who fulfills the dreams of both conservative and liberal readers.

This interest helped to bring back shades to Paul that were often missing outside of the discipline. But, the figurations of Paul created have often be loathed by NT scholars. Why?

Well, a rather obvious answer is that the plaything of the discipline was being shared outward with disciplines that seem to lack the critical tools to deal with the apostle. There is a shared difficulty here: while the charge could be true, the ability for many biblical scholars to understand the nuances of what is actually going on in these figurations of Paul is stunted.

I don’t recall many Pauline scholars orienting themselves around the works of Schmitt, Benjamin, or Taubes in order to better understand how Agamben is utilising Paul, and whether it coincides with what could be said about Paul from popular disciplinary readings.

But, what I find more annoying is the half-baked reading of theory that often happens in the discipline. I recently noted this happening in regard to the concept of ‘gift’ and the fixation on Derrida. Which, really, is fine to do. Derrida is, after all, well-known for his work on the gift. But, every time I have found Derrida in contemporary NT studies, he is butchered and lays on the page as a sort of scapegoat, sacrificed for just not getting what the gift really is (he should have just paid more attention to Mauss, obviously…).

Except, every time he comes up in this regard, he is understood in a facile manner. And, while it may not ruin the argument being made by the writer, it is certainly egregious because Derrida is asking questions that pierce to the heart of the issue!

It was while ranting about this on social media that Jonathan Bernier noted the importance of treating scholarship like a dialogue with not just a thinker, but the community of scholars who are working on that thinker and within a separate discipline. This is surely something we need to keep in mind, especially when attempting to use work that is outside of our usual disciplinary marker.

Let us read more, listen more, and respond with caution.


Who Isn’t into Theology?

In the wake of tragedies we all question, ponder, examine, or make the choice to make no examination whatsoever (which is by itself the result of examination!). While I by no means would attempt to address the sort of causation-fascination the media is attached to in order to garner attention from their listeners, readers, and watchers, I do believe it important to realize the reactions of humans in the wake of tragedies like the elementary school shootings at Sandy Hook in Newton, CT. The same, of course, occurred after the 9/11 attacks, after the Aurora theatre shootings, in the wake of any sort of horrid tragedy that the media picks up on and rapes from any angle it can in order to sell the sort of reality they portray. 


OK. That was a bit pessimistic and a borderline harangue, perhaps. The more immediately interesting issue, to me, however, is the intense theologizing and philosophizing that occurs immediately in the wake of these terrible happenings. Mike Huckabee, for instance, immediately issues a statement that includes God in which he alludes to a certain type of theodicy. In whatever rhetorical manner he intends he makes theological pronouncements concerning the causation of such horrific instances. God being shoved away from society has brought about a situation wherein evils can occur in schools. I do not think it is particularly helpful to dissect someone like Huckabee, but I do think it is helpful to realize that this is a perfectly natural reaction: to orient the situation in a certain way that what has occurred makes sense in regards to the particular schema we live our lives by.


If one makes a quick trip on any social media site they see the same being done by most people, whether church-going types, theists who are not engaged in a community of believers, pagans, atheists, agnostics, and whatever other sort of nebulous categories we can come up with. Whether religion is a topic immediately engaged or not, big subjects such as the nature of human existence, bioethics, entitlement rights, power rights, virtue, dualistic tensions inherent in reality, the overall nature of reality, etc… are heavy on the minds and hearts of individuals. We all philosophize. We all theologize.


While not seeing philosophy and theology as coterminous, I do think the two are necessarily linked. If one were to attempt some sort of grand survey of human existence it would become quite apparent that the distinction between “religious” and “secular” is quite new (the Ancient near Easterns certainly would not see the distinction, neither would those in the Hellenistic regions). In fact, some would say that there is no real separation between the two even now. William Cavanaugh, DePaul University Professor of Theology, has written several volumes which have engaged this subject such as Migrations of the Holy:God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church. His analysis leaves one realizing that the “secular state” really has become the holy order taking the place of religion, mirroring the societal aspects that religion once inhabited, attempting to replace the importance that religion once held; holiness has simply migrated from overtly religious institutions to covert theological institutions. Stanley Hauerwas, along with Cavanaugh, has for instance noticed the sacrificial language used in relation to the soldier, who lays down not only his life but also his distaste for the taking of life in order to serve the means of the state. In a more direct manner, Giorgio Agamben, atheist Italian political philosopher, has written in his  volume The Kingdom and the Glory that “in modernity, theology continues to be present and active in an eminent way” (loc.203 Kindle version). Here he sides with Carl Schmitt, and not Max Weber, in his analysis, though he deepens the paradigm from Schmitt’s early comments. Agamben implements the ideas of the signature found in Foucault’s work in order to explain the relationship between the secular and the religious (the signature is “something that in a sign or concept marks and exceeds such a sign or concept referring it back to a determinate interpretation or field, without for this reason leaving the semiotic to constitute a new meaning or a new concept” (loc. 203).)


Suffice it to say, the secular is a type of religious, even if one does not want to go as far as Agamben. It orients the individual to schematize reality in certain ways and to relate signs and symbols of reality in these certain ways. The demythologization of reality is another mythologization, just of a different type (sorry Bultmann!). The difference is simply that it is the reigning myth and is asserted as the hierarchical victor (though it exists in constant tension and will eventually topple, if we take Derrida seriously).


With all of that said (and I admit it was a lot and may seem a bit technical to some) I must come to the main part, perhaps the important challenge, that I want to impart: as Christians we must know our theology.


Too often after tragedies it becomes easy to make these simple statements, many of which are good meaning but carelessly said. We state, “God has his will,” or question, “Why would God do this?” or, “Where was God in the midst of this tragedy?” or, “Why would someone do this?”. We comfort those in sorrow with well-meaning but misplaced words. This is certainly not to say that all of the above is not valid, nor correct; I am not attempting to evaluate the statements, but the background of the statement made or position held. We need to be careful with what we say. We need to engage theology and philosophy very carefully. Our theology and our philosophy reflect our worldviews, and often our worldviews are the result of the global culture industries we spend the majority of our time engaging in rather than the Scriptures, or Plato, or Aristotle, or Thomas Aquinas.


Please, challenge yourself to drop the popular god of comfortability, the god of pleasure, the god of the media, the idols that are thrust upon us often. If you are a Christian, engage in studying who the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is. Justify through the Scriptures and through other interpreters of the Scriptures what you know of God, the world, who the human is, what sin is, what economics is, etc… This is necessary, of the ultimate importance, for the Christian. It is also a difficult and lifelong commitment.


To become literate in the language of Christianity is quite easy; to become fluent in that language, however, is difficult and must be worked toward.