By James Crossley
Department of Biblical Studies
University of Sheffield, UK
The cultural prominence of two phenomena – conservative Christianity and an emboldened atheism – has been clear enough this past decade. Unsurprisingly, September 11 was a significant moment. Days after September 11, Richard Dawkins tried to explain the murderous actions behind the tragedy purely in terms of “religion” (Guardian, September 15 2001). Related arguments, including a certain condoning of torture in the name of reason, were developed by high profile atheists (e.g., Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Martin Amis) and this collection gained the now famous label, “New Atheism.” Put bluntly, the emphasis on “religion” as the cause of all things bad has the unfortunate, but ideologically convenient, function of masking and deflecting all the complex socio-economic and geo-political issues underlying war and terror.
New Atheism gave rise to an equally productive mini-industry designed to counter its claims. This is no surprise because a radical form of conservative Christianity, developing since the 1970s, had become perhaps more culturally significant. Think of Karl Rove’s Republican “base,” Intelligent Design, hostility towards anything deemed secular, and, lest us forget, (inaccurate) claims that poor old Christmas cards are no longer religiously themed. Like some of the New Atheist arguments, this “religious versus secular” discourse itself has its own masking and deflecting function from anything economic and complex.
These days we should hardly be surprised that cultural and historical contexts profoundly influence scholarship. A number of scholars are now openly defining themselves or others as “secular,” “atheist,” or “agnostic,” and related work has received a notable degree of scholarly and public attention (e.g., Jacques Berlinerblau, The Secular Bible, Hector Avalos, The End of Biblical Studies), alongside the media presence of Bart Ehrman whose agnosticism explicitly informs his work. On the other side, and in addition to a mini-industry countering anything too atheist-liberal sounding in biblical studies, we have major academic books right at the heart of mainstream biblical studies, something perhaps unthinkable when Bultmann cast a long shadow. Three of the biggest publications in New Testament studies over the past ten years have promoted some highly conservative arguments: Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2006); Larry Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ (2003); and N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003), which goes as far as arguing for a supernatural explanation for the resurrection and the emergence of the Christian movement.
As a sign of the times we might look at collaborations comparatively. I co-wrote a book with the conservative evangelical scholar Michael Bird which involved a believer and non-believer debating Christian origins. It is notable that a parallel book a decade earlier was an intra-Christian debate between a liberal Christian (Marcus Borg) and a conservative Christian (N.T. Wright). Not dissimilarly, the attempt to run the Jesus Project, with its notable atheist and rhetorically “scientific” backing and connections (Scientific Examination of Religion and the Center for Inquiry), was, in its own rhetoric, a kind of alternative to the more obviously liberal Christian Jesus Seminar, the latter being so last century.
This past decade has also seen the rise of views which are peculiar in terms of the recent history of mainstream scholarship. Take, for instance, the idea that Jesus did not exist; at first sight this may still seem a little “out there.” While this rise has gone hand-in-hand with the rise of the Internet and its more conspiratorial tendencies, there have been rumblings on the fringes of academic New Testament study (e.g., Thompson, Price). Whatever we make of the realities behind the ill-fated Jesus Project, it could not disentangle itself from claims that it was going to test whether Jesus existed and, among plenty of “conventional” fellows, those of a more mythicist bent were at the very least a vocal presence.
Alternatively, we might look at Wright’s work on Christian origins, which is effectively the equivalent of Intelligent Design in biblical scholarship: everything can be explained rationally and this includes the supernatural as an explanation for historical change. That said, there is the impression of irrationality some have associated with aspects of postmodernity (and Intelligent Design for all its scientific rhetoric): will we ever forget Wright’s argument that the dead saints of Matthew 27.51-53 might be an accurate recording of events because “Some stories are so odd that they may just have happened. This may be one of them, but in historical terms there is no way of finding out” (Wright, Resurrection, p. 636)? This sort of reasoning takes historical analysis to a new world of fairies and Elvis sightings, does it not?
To highlight the (bigamous?) marriage between the mainstream and conservative approaches, we need only turn to John’s Gospel, traditionally deemed to be the most unlikely resource for understanding the historical Jesus but which has made a recent comeback. Maybe this is not too unusual but, in the largely conventional revisionist approaches of the John, Jesus, and History project, we find an article by Ben Witherington III who claims that Lazarus, after being raised from the dead, wrote the bulk of John’s Gospel (‘What’s in a Name?’, in Anderson, Just, and Thatcher [eds.], John, Jesus, and History, Volume 2, pp. 209-212). Blue skies thinking though that may be, some readers might find Witherington’s suggestion that John of Patmos edited the final version even more difficult to accept.
Sometimes the output of prominent scholars is clearly tied in with some of the agendas of either New Atheism or conservative Christianity. Not dissimilar to the ways in which New Atheism can blame “religion” and deflect uncomfortable issues surrounding violence and religion, Gerd Lüdemann discussed, in two articles on Christian origins published in Free Enquiry (2006, 2007), the dangers of Christian violence and intolerance for the modern world, the role in which Christianity has played in wars and the deaths of millions, as well as the importance of historically debunking Christian claims. Thus, the argument goes, no reasonable person ought to believe in stories about the resurrection. Wright, for his part, continues a relentless critique of the Enlightenment, a development of a theocratic world view centered on the resurrection and a flirtation with a third way between Darwinism and something resembling Creationism or Intelligent Design with his insistence on the “need” for a “primal pair.”
I certainly am not saying all the above scholars have nothing to offer or that they are necessarily wrong in what they say (after all, I include myself in all this and I tend to think I’m right). On the contrary, I would happily pilfer much of the work from most of the above scholars to a lesser or greater degree. I am not saying that the above necessarily believe personally that religion causes all wars, that the Enlightenment is evil, and so on: scholars are perfectly capable of perpetuating agendas without knowing it. Cultural context does not explain everything but it does explain why some of these distinctive issues have come to academic prominence over the past decade.
Perhaps ten years from now we might be talking about how the recession has had an impact on biblical studies – we already know it is having an effect on academic institutions and, as a couple of recent Bible and Interpretation articles have pointed out, biblical studies may well be a potentially threatened subject. If any (admittedly limited) good is to come from these bleak economic times, it might be that some people take seriously the idea that economics really does have a profound impact on historical change and that there is far, far more to historical change than the not-always-helpful idealist and at times convenient notions that religion causes all wars, secularism is responsible for all that is bad, people rising from the dead might explain things, once dead people writing books, and people not really existing or really existing. After all, was not money (or a lack of it) partly behind the fall of the Jesus Project at the height of the recession?