2016-03-05

The Politics of the Bibliobloggers

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by Neil Godfrey

jesusterrorA number of readers have on occasion requested that I remove my political content to another blog and leave Vridar as a standard biblioblog. These requests always bring to mind “The Politics of the Bibliobloggers”, a chapter in Jesus in an Age of Terror: Scholarly Projects for a New American Century (2008) by James Crossley. Excerpts follow.

Concluding the chapter Crossley writes:

[W]e have now seen how contemporary New Testament and Christian origins scholarship, though in the broader context of biblical studies scholarship, is also tied in with some of the key political issues in Anglo-American mainstream media. The decision to focus [in this chapter] on blogging was deliberate because here we have the perfect medium for scholars to air their opinions explicitly. It is clear that the views of New Testament and Christian origins scholars on the internet are in many ways self-censoring, pushing anything too dissenting away from the spotlight, and tend to match effortlessly the agenda of Anglo-American foreign policy.

This now gives us a firmer foundation upon which to analyse the implicit assumptions of scholarship in the more conventional printed form (books, journal articles, etc.). . . . [T]here has [sic] been gaps in arguments that ought not to be there if as much evidence as possible were genuinely being discussed. So before we look at New Testament and Christian origins scholarship in more detail we need to examine in further depth the kinds of broad political and intellectual currents that dictate the gap-making in scholarship, how they are seriously problematic, and how they are intimately tied in with the agendas of mainstream intellectual, political and cultural power. (pp. 51-52)

Examples of the above from earlier in the same chapter:

Crossley on the Herman-Chomsky propaganda model:

Any group dominated by people with overarching similar interests will obviously have such interests reflected in its literary and rhetorical output. Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky showed this with reference to intellectuals and the mass media in their development of a “propaganda model.” . . .  Disagreements reflect disagreements among the elites. Although individuals may hold very different views from the agenda of the mass media, these views will not be seriously reflected in the overall agenda or agendas. Fundamental dissent is largely missing from the press: it is more likely to be squeezed towards the back pages or left to some marginalized press. Censorship, then, effectively becomes self-censorship behind the rhetoric of free and open debate. . . . 

As this analysis is focused on the media, I will apply and modify it in the next chapter on biblical scholars as bloggers. However, Herman and Chomsky’s work is obviously applicable to a variety of areas, including scholarship, particularly as it analyses how dominant groups control the presentation of data. . . . I have also analysed the ways in which the results of New Testament scholarship reflect the interests and ideology of the dominant participating groups. Moreover, while Chomsky’s work may have focused most heavily on the elite media, he has also shown that propagandistic tendencies are present in intellectual scholarship . . . (pp. 3-4)

Biblioblogging is important for the topic at hand for two main reasons. First, unlike academic books and articles, the blog format provides a medium whereby scholars can voice their political (and other) opinions explicitly. This makes it much easier to outline the ways in which contemporary ideologies impact contemporary biblical studies and form a basis for, and further support for, the subsequent analyses of contemporary scholarship in this book. Secondly, the internet format is arguably more closely related to Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model (see Chapter 1), and it is notable that numerous mainstream newspapers now run their own blogs, as do many mainstream journalists independently of the newspapers for whom they work. Consequently, we might expect bibliobloggers to conform to the same kinds of patterns Chomsky and Herman found in their analysis of the mainstream media. (p. 22)

[B]logging is intimately tied in with the world of the mainstream media, suggesting that it may well be replicating its patterns. More specifically, the biblioblogging world is intimately tied in with the world of the mainstream media (p. 23)

[N]otice how Davila has focused most heavily on correcting basic facts and ideological problems with Arab and Muslim presentations. There is no concern to provide any kind of alternative media that would challenge the ideology of the Western media too much. On the contrary, as would be logically expected from his arguments, Davila appears to want to be part of it and strengthen it. (p. 24)

I should now confess that I have run a blog since the summer of 2005. Like Davila, my main reason involved the media but, unlike Davila, my main reason also involved questioning the very basis of mainstream ideology of the Western media. What I noticed when reading the biblioblogs was that the general political views of bibliobloggers were very much akin to the political views reflected in the mass media. In an interview, I discussed why I started to blog. The reasons given were more tied in to academics but it equally applies to the mainstream media:

One key reason was political, and in different senses of the phrase. It now seems naïve to me at least, but I once thought there were more politically radical people in scholarship, though I don’t think that anymore. This disappointed me when it hit home and it disappointed me in terms of blogging because there, I thought, more than anywhere in biblical scholarship, would such views be found. The situation is quite the opposite, I think.  (p. 24)

In the opening quotation (from Crossley’s conclusion to the chapter) reference was made to “gaps”. . . .

For now I want to focus in particular on the gaps in logic and evidence used by the bibliobloggers and how their arguments on international politics owe more to contemporary Anglo-American mainstream media agendas than simply a well-reasoned argument. I want to look at what kinds of detail their political arguments omit and why they might be omitted. . . . (pp. 24-25)

In most cases I do not think people are deliberately pushing political agendas; I think a lot of what is said and omitted is just representative of a broader cultural context, consciously, unconsciously, or subconsciously. In some cases I acknowledge that my arguments are very polemical, particularly in cases where I think the writer really ought to know better and is more likely to be deliberately avoiding basic facts. (25)

The issue of Iraq and the Middle East is probably the most important issue for US and UK foreign policy in the post-Cold War era, at least in terms of media coverage, a point to which we will return in more detail in the next chapter. For now, it can simply be noted that there is little doubt that the media have played an important part in endorsing the various actions in the Middle East over the past 15–20 years, the latest instalment of Orientalism as critiqued by Edward Said. So, in a geographical area intimately related to Christian origins and biblical studies as a whole, how have the bibliobloggers reacted? The defence of, or at best the non-critical attitude toward, the Iraq war has been dominant among the bibliobloggers. . . . . (p. 25)

Iraq, the Middle East, and the “War on Terror”

[D]espite the lack of overt interest in the Iraq war on the biblioblogs, we should not be hasty in suggesting (should someone wish to do so) that there is no important ideological underpinnings relating to the “war on terror” in less politically extreme biblioblogging. In this light it is also notable that, with the exception of Jim West, the Iraq war is virtually ignored on the other biblioblogs, as indeed are Jim West’s blog entries on Iraq. In the world of biblioblogging, as elsewhere in the mass media viewed through the propaganda model, what remains significant is that which is ignored and downplayed. One particularly important example is the London bombings of July 7, 2005, because bibliobloggers were blogging on that very day. . . .  (p. 31) [see the next extract for the continuation of this point]

The Myth of Unique Suffering

A propaganda system will constantly portray people abused in enemy states as worthy victims, whereas those treated with equal or greater severity by its own government or clients will be unworthy…the U.S. mass media’s practical definitions of worth are political in the extreme and fit well the expectations of a propaganda model. While this differential treatment occurs on a large scale, the media, intellectuals, and public are able to remain unconscious of the fact and maintain a high moral and self-righteous tone. This is evidence of an extremely effective propaganda system. Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky (p. 31)

In none of these cases [biblioblog posts and comments] was there any mention of UK foreign policy. In fact, the absurdly self-righteous yet chilling speech by the London bomber, Mohammad Sidique Khan, makes direct reference to Muslims killed in British foreign policy as part of his justification. No matter how deluded and perverse this logic seems to many of us, it is unlikely he would have mentioned this had it not been a serious motivation or an issue which would resonate with at least some people. Given that we are dealing with murder it might be hoped that, like a criminal investigation, such motivations were investigated. Consequently, given what was mentioned on the biblioblogs (especially a positive mention of Blair and the emphasis on the “why” question) it might have made people think more about the underlying motivations, including the role of Blair’s actions. As it happens, in a Guardian/ICM poll conducted shortly after the London bombings two-thirds of people felt that Blair’s involvement in Iraq was “responsible” in some degree for the bombings (33% believed Blair bore “a lot” of responsibility; 31% “a little”). Yet despite foreign policy being a notable aspect for many British people and even a bomber himself, what was presented on the biblioblogs reflects the emphases of the British government, which refused to make a connection between Iraq and July 7. (p. 33)

This problem exists, I think, because the problem is a broader cultural one and not a personal one. Individually the bibliobloggers, like most journalists, are probably all perfectly decent human beings; certainly the ones I know are. Yet the bibliobloggers, however unintentionally, show clear signs of sympathy with “those like us” and not “those unlike us.” It would seem that they have also inherited, unwittingly, the mechanisms of Chomsky and Herman’s propaganda model from the mass media leading to some dubious omissions and inclusions. (p. 36)

Some of my Best Friends Are . . .

There may be one reason in particular why the propaganda model has much to say about biblioblogging, namely the fact that Islam happens to be the major religion of the Middle East, the area where the interests of Anglo-American foreign policy, biblical studies, and certain Christians meet. Unsurprisingly, there is a notable hostility towards Islam among the Christian bibliobloggers: Islam is, after all, a historic rival. While there are plenty of Christians with positive views of Islam there is almost no end to the Christian material with some extremely hostile things to say about Islam. Likewise, there is plenty of secular hostility toward Islam. Muslims, it is regularly argued (e.g. Sam Harris), are so obviously violent and so obviously deluded that something must be wrong with this religion in particular. Similarly, as we will see, such views are also found in the biblioblogging world. As we will also see in detail in Chapter 3, this hostility – whether religious or secular – toward Islam is prominent in the media and intellectual thought with almost no end to the material on the subject of the clash of civilization, with the emphasis on, naturally, the superiority of Christian and “western” values and the inferiority of “Muslim” or “Arab” values.

Anti-Islamic sentiment in some form or other is bountiful in the biblioblogging world. (pp. 37-38)

Israel/Palestine

Crossley discusses the politics of archaeology with reference to those who conclude there is no evidence for a Jerusalem Temple at the time of Solomon being labelled as “Temple deniers” and compared with anti-Semitic Holocaust deniers.

There are notable exceptions to the general stance of over-sensitivity toward Israel and the downgrading of Palestinians. Paul Nikkel has produced some short, sporadic and completely ignored critiques of the portrayal of the Israel-Palestinian situation, despite reference to other bibliobloggers.78 The major exception is Jim West. West has been critical of Israeli state aggression against the Palestinians (and has been denounced for this). But controversies also come through in his handling of ancient history. For example, West is not entirely convinced by the argument that there was an extensive first Temple in Jerusalem. Following such suggestions by West, there were open attempts to marginalize his views . . . (p. 44)

Concluding his discussion of Chris Tilling’s blog series on Christian Zionism . . .

Tilling soon felt the pressure to conform to the limits of this debate and to what could and could not be discussed. (p. 47)

Another blogging scholar, Michael Bird, spoke movingly of a visiting Arab Christian’s address to Westerners and admonished his readers:

Personally, I remain perplexed as to why certain Christians, predominantly Americans, feel a closer degree of affinity with the secular state of Israel than they do with Palestinian Christians! I’m not antiIsrael (I think that the President of Iran, Ahmydinnerjacket [Bird’s sic!], has more fruit cakes in his head than an Aussie Christmas party) but we should support the plight of our Christian and brothers and sisters in the land of Palestine and object when they are boxed into ghettos. 

On one level this is an important point (though it is odd that Bird has to distance his views from those of Ahmadinejad, of all people, when defending his attitude towards Israel: the two views are barely comparable). Yet we should not lose sight of the fact that compassion is only shown to Christian Palestinians. We should recall that non-Christian Palestinians also live in such conditions, including those have behaved with a sense of social justice towards those in need. (Indeed this is one of the standard reasons given for Hamas’ popularity and their electoral victory!) Bird may well have such sympathies with Muslim and non-Christian Palestinians but, if he does, it is significant that such views do not filter through. Whatever, in the case of Bird we have a particularly useful example of the Christian impact on my use of the propaganda model discussed in Chapter1. (p. 48)

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Neil Godfrey

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5 Comments

  • Bee
    2016-03-05 11:10:07 GMT+0000 - 11:10 | Permalink

    It’s not just political bias; it’s also religious. Most Christian bloggers were educated by a hundred church sermons. That insisted that the New Testament, and Jesus, and Christianity, was absolutely the totally loyal continuation of the Old Testament. And the God of the Jews. Never mind that Jesus offered us his blood to drink – while eating blood is a capital offense, punishable by death, in Judaism and in the Old Testament.

    Never mind that Jesus worked on the Sabbath; another capital offense in the Old Testament, and the laws of its god, the laws of the Jews. Never mind that much of the New Testament, Paul, attacks the Old “Law, ” or Torah, of the Old Testament, and the God of the Jews. And offers a “new covenant” or religious law in its place. Never mind that most modern Christians and Jews alike, instinctively think of their religions as different. No matter what ecumenist and harmonizing theologians claimed.

    Modern theology and biblioblogging, and modern statecraft or foreign policy, support modern Israel and Judaism, over Islam – in large part because of very old and rather questionable theological positions. Positions that emphasized the alliances between Christendom, and of all nations, only Israel. But those theological positions, I suggest, did not read their Bibles closely enough.

    My own position is that Christianity did to be sure, have considerable historical ties to Judaism and Israel. But Christianity was never absolutely tied to them.

    Therefore? Neither our State departments, nor our theologians, nor our biblioblogging, should always favor modern support for Israel, over and against all other regions. Including Islam, Muslims, and the rest of the Mediterranean basin.

  • Mark Erickson
    2016-03-06 04:47:26 GMT+0000 - 04:47 | Permalink

    I didn’t know that about Jim West. Good for him. Can you tell how comprehensive Crossley’s survey of biblioblogs is?

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-03-06 06:18:55 GMT+0000 - 06:18 | Permalink

      I wish. Jim West and James Crossley have both dug their knives into me. Both have refused to engage in any correspondence with me, one falsely attacking me on his blog and the other responding with insults and then misrepresenting Vridar in a recent publication of his. They are not nice types — except, no doubt, among their own kind. They are/were both closely knit with Maurice Casey and Stephanie Fisher — if that helps you understand the background at all.

      • Bee
        2016-03-06 08:19:14 GMT+0000 - 08:19 | Permalink

        Best of luck with the Old schoolers though.

        I think Crossley at least has some flexibility on these issues. Probably Crossley and others will warm to the mysticism. position eventually. Particularly as 1) Vridar becomes more and more obviously professional. And 2) as a truely objective critical perspective on religion is at last allowed, by millennials.

        I’ve been working with the more liberal old-schoolers. Trying to at times meet them halfway. Or to speak within their frame of reference. To help them see a clear and continuous path from Liberalism, to Mythicism.

        For that matter to be sure, I now and then entertain any new evidence for an HJ. Though to date, there I see not one but dozens. Of at best, only semi historical figures. And not just one, but dozens of them. Mixed, conflated, into one. Including many clearly mythical figures. Like Dionysus and Bacchus; the God of wine.

        “This wine could be my blood,” Jesus rightly says. In which case, Jesus has Greek mythological blood.

  • Bee
    2016-03-06 07:58:36 GMT+0000 - 07:58 | Permalink

    To some extent it is a generational conflict. Religious study even today remains dominated by older beliefs. Even most of those Baby-boomer liberal scholars, who feel they are daringly objective critics of traditional beliefs, seem almost irredeemably conservative and “faith-based,” based on “The Book,” to younger millennials on the Internet.

    But by the way? Increasingly non-religious millennials will one day run the world.

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