2014-04-23

Biblical Scholars in a “Neoliberal-Postmodern” World

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

jesus-in-an-age-of-neoliberalism2This is part 2 of my review of Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism: Quests, Scholarship and Ideology by James G. Crossley. (Once again I invite Professor Crossley to alert me to anything he sees in these posts that he believes is a misrepresentation of his views.)

The point of chapter 2, Neoliberalism and Postmodernity, is to

provide the broad contextual basis for analysing some of the ways in which Jesus has been constructed in scholarship and beyond in recent decades. (p. 21)

To explain postmodernism and postmodernity Crossley directs us to Terry Eagleton’s understanding in The Illusions of Postmodernism, p. vii:

The word postmodernism generally refers to a form of contemporary culture, whereas the term postmodernity alludes to a specific historical period. Postmodemity is a style of thought which is suspicious of classical notions of truth, reason, identity and objectivity, of the idea of universal progress or emancipation, of single frameworks, grand narratives or ultimate grounds of explanation. Against these Enlightenment norms, it sees the world as contingent, ungrounded, diverse, unstable, indeterminate, a set of disunified cultures or interpretations which breed a degree of scepticism about the objectivity of truth, history and norms, the givenness of natures and the coherence of identities. . . . Postmodernism is a style of culture which reflects something of this epochal change, in a depthless, decentred, ungrounded, self-reflexive, playful, derivative, eclectic, pluralistic art which blurs the boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture, as well as between art and everyday experience.

Crossley explains that he will attempt to link “postmodernity with the political trends in Anglo-American culture”, if not precisely, then by means of a “general case” that itself will be “a strong one”. We’ll see how strong it is as we progress through these reviews.

Crossley did say (see the previous post) that

This book is at least as much about contemporary politics, ideology and culture as it is about Jesus, and in many ways, not least due to unfamiliar approaches in historical Jesus studies, this is almost inevitable. (p. 10)

Now there is much about Crossley’s politics that I like. I share his despair at the political conservatism, the lack of critical political reflection and awareness among his biblical studies peers. I like his idealism and frustration with his peers as well as his respect for their individual decent natures. Unfortunately I sense that too often Crossley loses himself in his efforts to politically educate his peers that he only maintains the most tenuous links with how these political views influence the shape of the historical Jesus produced by these scholars.

The chapter is wide-ranging as we expect when discussions of postmodernity and postmodernism arise. The cultural, economic and political context involves a broad-ranging discussion that consists masses of data: “near hagiographical treatments of the ‘material girl’ Madonna and her MTV stage”,  “Steve Jobs, advertizing his iPoducts as the machinery of the casually clothed”, the politico-cultural symbolism of decaffeinated coffee, television parodies of entrepreneurial culture, 1970s Chile, the recession and oil crisis of 1973, the “sharp rise in personal image consultants in the 1980s”. . . .

Only passing mentions to biblical scholars are found in this chapter (for the reason I mentioned above) and I will focus on those in this post.

symbolicjesusThe first of these mentioned by Crossley is William Arnal whose earlier work, The Symbolic Jesus, is much shorter and (I think) a far more cogent argument explaining the larger cultural forces behind the various scholarly portrayals of Jesus. Certainly the concept of Jesus as one of Western culture’s major symbols being manipulated by various interest groups coheres well with the propaganda models of Harold Lasswell, Jacques Ellul, Walter Lippmann and Sheryl Tuttle Ross. The only propaganda model Crossley addresses is that of Herman-Chomsky, and that model, significantly, given Crossley’s dedicated focus on politics, sidesteps discussion of the power and manipulations of symbols. The Herman-Chomsky model concentrates on the filtering of political viewpoints in mass media.

This is a major oversight or lopsided emphasis in a book that leads us to expect an analysis of how political and economic ideology has influenced Jesus scholarship. A book professing to explore the relationship of an iconic figure like Jesus with the broader cultural and political forces of the day is going to be very limited in its value if it ignores the way interest groups manipulate symbols.

Crossley’s reference to Arnal and The Symbolic Jesus here is slightly bemusing. One of Arnal’s main themes is what he calls the “manufactured controversy” among modern scholars over the “Jewishness” of Jesus. Scholars like Crossan and Mack who have argued for, say, a Cynic-like Jesus are criticized by others for not, according to their own criteria, fitting Jesus into a normal Jewish setting. Yet Crossley’s own scholarly arguments about Jesus fall right into Arnal’s critique of having far too narrow a perspective on what Jewishness meant in first century Palestine — and this argument for what constitutes Jewishness by Crossley has decidedly political-racial overtones. Arnal’s argument finds Crossley himself among those guilty of being overly sensitive as to what constituted Jewishness and for creating a stereotypical, even possibly anachronistic, Jesus for modern political-cultural reasons. I anticipated that Crossley would defend his own position against Arnal but I don’t recall that ever happening anywhere in the book even though Crossley cites The Symbolic Jesus once or twice more.

I am left with the impression that Crossley fails to recognize his own place in other propaganda models that place major importance on the use of symbols to shape and influence the views of others. Crossley certainly does his own manipulation of the Jesus icon for such purposes and he does so entirely unselfconsciously. It is actually where Crossley does manipulate his Jesus symbol that I part company with him on his political views and find him acting every bit as a “mask” for the power of select interest groups himself. But that will have to be explained in due course.

Two other biblical scholars make their debut in this chapter, both of The Context Group (their website): Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh. The Context Group attempt to understand Jesus, the gospel narratives and the world that produced both through anthropological and sociological studies. The first things we need to understand in order to figure out Jesus is the social and cultural world he inhabited. Crossley introduces Malina and Rohrbaugh to illustrate a political point. This point is from Eagleton: it is that “cultural relativism” that is spawned by certain strands of popular postmodernist thought actually works to defend dominant cultures from outside criticism. Since “passing judgment” upon other cultures is “bad”, it follows that people of other cultures should not criticize us! Crossley points the finger at the work of Malina and Rohrbaugh here:

[W]e might think of scholars such as Richard Rohrbaugh and Bruce Malina who tabulate difference and/or talk of the ‘Mediterranean’, which too often blurs into the (contemporary) Middle East’, in descriptions of the social world of Jesus and the New Testament, and rebuke scholarship for repeatedly imposing ‘ethnocentric’ misunderstandings on the Other. . . . The Malina-inspired line has the force, does it not, of protecting the opposite in its grand geographical and ethnic constructs (usually ‘the West’ . . .) from similar criticism, namely that it would be ‘ethnocentric’ for anti-Westerners to complain about the ways in which ‘our’ corporations and governments work? (pp. 24-25)

I don’t quite know how to understand this rhetorical question since Bruce Malina is an ardent political supporter of certain “anti-Westerners” who criticize the way the “West” uses its corporations and governments in neoliberal neo-imperial adventures. Crossley might argue the systems of power will dictate how research appears at the publication end despite the personal beliefs of the scholar. However Malina is using the research of cultural anthropology and tends to set up comparative tables so readers can compare the cultural traits of an ancient Mediterranean culture with a modern American one — a process that to my mind would encourage some self-reflection and criticism.

I can sympathize with Crossley’s intention to break through political conservatism and the tendencies of his peers to go along with assumptions and narratives that indirectly or directly support government and corporate actions that are very often harmful to others. I can’t help but question whether he is trying a little too hard to find fault where it is debatable.

The next chapter is on biblioblogging. That’s where he engages much more interestingly with a number of biblical scholars.

 

7 Comments

  • Geoff
    2014-04-23 14:04:58 UTC - 14:04 | Permalink

    The cover of Crossley’s book, itself, tells us a lot about why liberal atheists have difficulty questioning the historicity of Jesus. The symbol of Jesus is a powerful political tool against right-wing evangelicals. Holding up the example of an “authentic” Jesus who stands against religious fundamentalism and for things that liberals find worthy (compassion for the poor, etc), is a useful cultural weapon.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2014-04-23 19:48:01 UTC - 19:48 | Permalink

      Interesting point. Conversely (atheist?) Crossley’s ‘own’ historical Jesus is very much the stereotypical (conservative religious) Jew and he uses this symbol to fault Christianity for seeing itself as superior to Judaism. I take from Crossley’s arguments a strong criticism of Christianity coupled with a strong sense of political correctness in relation to questions that are collated under the rubric of antisemitism today.

    • Tim Widowfield
      2014-04-25 22:51:28 UTC - 22:51 | Permalink

      Speaking of that cover, what is Crossley trying to say about himself? That he’s a revolutionary? A martyr? Or is he going for some kind of “edgy”irony?

  • Greg Pandatshang
    2014-04-26 00:10:07 UTC - 00:10 | Permalink

    Personally, I’m quite sympathetic to the postmodernist style of culture as Crossley defines it. I quickly stop being sympathetic, however, when postmodern affectations are employed on behalf of intensely judgmental political attitudes, which seems all too commonly the case. To use the outward forms of a style of thought for purposes that are fundamentally antithetical to it can only be described as hypocrisy.

  • 2014-05-09 22:10:25 UTC - 22:10 | Permalink

    If one atheist believes Jesus never existed and another says He existed but rejects His claims and the gospels which record those claims, the fate of them both is the same. Both will remain seperated from God for all eternity. Their is no virtue in accpeting the historical Jesus while rejecting the Son of God and His atonement on our behalf. Just thought a bit of perspective might help concerning the bigger picture here.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2014-05-09 22:38:00 UTC - 22:38 | Permalink

      i would gladly remain separated from such a God who so abuses persons for using their rational faculties (a faculty given by that same God) to the best of their abilities and with the most sincere intentions to be as honest as they can be regardless of where that journey leads. How can anyone respect a God who punishes for eternity people who strive to be as honest as they can be with the gifts supposedly given by that God?

      The only answer to this question is to accuse such persons of being exalted in their vanity and self-deception. If God is that bad a judge of character, one who judges according to the stereotypes he himself has inspired in his written word, he is not worthy of any respect at all, let alone worship. The thought of spending an eternity with such a God is utterly repulsive.

    • Steven Carr
      2014-05-10 06:42:08 UTC - 06:42 | Permalink

      So Christians now go in for after-death threats. A lot better than death threats, but still not great.

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