Does the Center Need an Extreme?

By James Crossley
Department of Biblical Studies
University of Sheffield, UK
June 2010

Much has already been made of Ronald Hendel’s recent article in Biblical Archaeological Review concerning the apparent “battle royal between faith and reason” and with particular reference to SBL. SBL has even responded to Hendel and invited further reflection by its members.

Hendel is part of a growing criticism in biblical studies concerned with the rise of vocal evangelicals and “fundamentalists” at SBL (including a claim of proselytizing) and calls for a clearer commitment to critical biblical scholarship. I do not wish to support or criticize Hendel’s main points on their own terms, but as an aside I would add that I have actually had proselytizing attempts on my life at academic conferences, even if I did find it an entertaining novelty and was impressed by the doggedness of those doomed to failure in the task at hand. (People now seem to have given up, not that I’m encouraging more, I hasten to add). I also feel infinitely more comfortable in environments where (say) questions of supernatural intervention in history are simply not an option worth discussing, to act as a historian might in a history department, for instance. But answering questions on accepting the role of faith in the academic world is not want I want to do here (see the SBL website for possible answers). Instead, I want to raise the question (with the probably obvious answer) of whether constructing a stark opponent ends up being important in creating a specific academic identity and perpetuating certain cultural trends.

One function of the constructed extremes, as it is in contemporary politics, is to maintain the credibility of the center. If we accept the argument (as I do) that academia is deeply embedded in societal power structures, then such argumentation takes on another dimension: one function of loving to hate the extreme(s) is to discredit certain challenges to power. In political terms, as numerous analysts of power have pointed out, a cultural function of the far right (particularly in its European manifestations) is not only to make the power of the liberal consensus look respectable but also to discredit challenges to liberal stances on class structure, poverty, foreign policy, etc. To take a relevant but slightly different route, if there is one non-religious figure presently constructed as an extremist it is Hector Avalos. Whatever we may think of his arguments on the “end of biblical studies,” here is at least a moral core which gets brushed over or deflected in all the uproar and controversy: in one of his critiques of biblical scholarship and SBL (on the SBL Forum, as it happens) he raised the issues of class and poverty, claiming in part of his argument that he “saw scholars nearly trample homeless people while rushing to yet another appointment or session, perhaps one on the supposed prophetic call to help the poor” (the responses to Avalos are worth consulting).

In Hendel’s article, we read: “While the cultured despisers of reason may rejoice—including some postmodernists, feminists, and eco-theologians—I find it dispiriting.” I have little time for a lot of what has happened with the rise of postmodernist, coupled as it is with a ferocious form of hyper free market capitalism, and its accompanying irrationalism (and, ironically, I think the prominent work of that critic of post modernity, N.T. Wright, is part of the very trend he seeks to critique – the risen dead of Jerusalem anyone?). However, it is notable that “some” feminists and eco-theologians have been tied in with this critique. I am not sure what sorts of feminists and eco-theologians Hendel may have in mind but the critique remains sufficiently general to taint two approaches to the criticism of power, including one which is potentially involved in tackling perhaps the most important issue of our time, climate change. Of course, I may be pushing Hendel’s personal argument and beliefs too far but without a notable qualification there is not only the obvious distancing but also, rightly or wrongly, a discrediting of views constructed as extreme.

This sort of reasoning obviously makes a certain kind of scholarship normative and, if we were to push strands of the logic, perhaps immune from the political problems famously associated with “fundamentalism.” In his response in the SBL discussion, John van Seters (counter) cites H.D. Betz’s 1997 SBL presidential address and the importance of a space where “critical inquiry can take place” and is to be “kept free from external interference by religious institutions, political policies, ideologiacl [sic] warfare, and commercial exploitation,” adding that this is, in fact, “the danger in which the SBL now very much finds itself.” Yet, there is a problem if this line is pushed too hard, or even taken to its logical conclusion: the ideal center can apparently avoid these issues given the right circumstances. However, what might reasonably be called the rational center in the history of scholarship has long been affected by political trends, whether we like it or not, and whether scholars knew it or not. The Nazi Jesus was carried out by learned German professors, developing cultural trends of superiority before them and continued in important (non-fascist) scholarship after which it in turn, as Shaun Kelley has shown, found its way into liberal (including politically liberal) and mainstream North America scholarship. Cultural positioning concerning Palestine and Israel are deeply embedded in the history of mainstream scholarship, as heated debates over the past fifteen years have shown, while the past forty years has seen the (re-emergence of stereotyping “the Arab world” in mainstream scholarship. Further examples could, of course, be given but the point ought to be clear.

The debate over whether SBL and biblical scholarship can incorporate issues of faith will no doubt continue and the numbers on both sides are sufficiently high that we may not get a “winner” in the immediate future. But what I would stress is that whatever model is taken, it is not going to be likely that the political battles we see in contemporary culture will be so easily avoided. Indeed, if the idea of a more pure and uncorrupted center were to win through, then we have good reason to believe that political warfare will be perpetuated by more subtle means. And where “fundamentalists” and evangelicals may find the rational liberal center important in maintaining their credibility, the liberal rational center may too find that “fundamentalists” and evangelicals are important in maintaining their cultural value and intellectual credibility. Maybe we are really dealing with a love that dare not speak its name...?

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