Tuesday, November 23, 2010

SBL Reflections (I): Panel Discussion for Crossley's Jesus in an Age of Terror

Six days in Atlanta went fast. Good sessions, good food, and good company among friends and acquaintances. If it weren't such a pricey event, I'd attend SBL every year instead of settling for every other.

I listened to a lot of great papers, but for now will report on what was easily the most lively session: the panel discussion for James Crossley's Jesus in an Age of Terror, critiqued by Mark Goodacre, Zeba Crook, Bill Arnal, and Roland Boer, followed by a response from James himself. Philip Esler was also present in the audience and had a lot to say during Q&A, which was a treat. As Mark says, these folks are the "cool" guys of biblical studies. No tight-asses to be found here, and I enjoyed the odd mixture of pugnacity, uninhibited honesty, and even vulgar humor, but all of it collegial. Bill and Roland spoke most favorably about the book -- especially Bill, who is an outstanding speaker possessed by a rather terrifying enthusiasm -- and there is much about it that I too like, given my interest in the way agendas, however subterranean, can lurk under scholarship. Mark and Zeba, on the other hand, had less flattering things to say, and I'm going to focus on parts of their critiques that could use more fleshing out.

Mark essentially charged that James has made too much of bloggers' silence on political issues, or their implied endorsement of Anglo-American politics, however unintentional. His most striking point came in the analogy of Jim West, whose homophobia and sexism is well known. Most infamously, Jim likened homosexuality to bestiality on one of his deleted blogs, cited at length by Mark. In his response, James seems to have misunderstood Mark's point, which, as I understand it, is not so much that James was obligated to criticize Jim West for being homophobic and sexist in Jesus in an Age of Terror, but rather, given James' complaints about racist stereotyping and anti-Arab sentiments, there is a deep irony that the only biblioblogger who comes out clean in Jesus in an Age of Terror is a bigot. In other words, if the political silence of bloggers, or their approval of certain things said or done by Anglo-American politicians, is supposed to be meaningful in the way James urges on us, then what are we to make of James' own silence (on his blog, at least, if not his book) regarding Jim West's homophobia and sexism? Do his sympathies for Jim West's minimalist views of OT historiography imply a wider endorsement of Jim's other views (including homophobia and sexism) in the same way that Mark's endorsement of a single comment made by Tony Blair supposedly points to deeper issues? Don't get me wrong: I'm not at all suggesting that James Crossley is a homophobe or sexist (surely he is not), only pointing out that his rhetorical argumentative strategy can be used against him -- and this, I think, was the thrust of Mark's point.

Zeba delivered the most forceful, thorough, and impressive critique. Amusingly, this came somewhat at my own expense, for at one point Zeba pointed out (quite rightly) that I am not the "voice" of the Context Group (unofficial or otherwise), as I can hardly be the voice for a group I'm not a part of, especially as a non-professional in the field. To be fair to James, he seems to have just meant that Loren Rosson is the blogger who regularly uses Context Group models, and habitually defends the group's work -- as he basically said in his response -- but I'm not sure what the best catch-all phrase for this is (I've been called a "stooge" of the Context Group by someone less than kind). I do hope that Zeba's paper becomes available online at some point, and it will hardly surprise readers that I agree with about 96% of it. He comes down on James pretty hard, but rather than revel in what I agree with, let me mention one part of the critique where I think he actually slightly misunderstands James -- just to show how open-minded I can be during certain phases of the moon.

About halfway through his paper Zeba complains about James' parallels between Context Group scholars and right-wingers like Ann Coulter and Paul Wolfowitz: "To suggest, however remotely, that the work of the Context Group does the same thing [as right-wingers, who "condemn or mock others" for their cultural differences] is willfully to misread it." James responded that he never suggested such a thing, and he's actually right, though perhaps you'd not guess it on account of his strong polemic. When I wrote my own review, I tried to be fair and precise in nailing down these parallels between liberal academics and conservative media hounds, and I essentially see James as saying that Context Group members, for all their noble intentions -- and who indeed approach cultural difference out of an implied respect instead of mockery -- can still play unwittingly into the hands of these right-wingers. It's a fascinating point, but one I think is largely irrelevant. It's a bit like saying that scientists shouldn't emphasize nature over nurture for fear of racism, or that "survival of the fittest" is dangerous because of social Darwinism. Put simply: if the models of the Context Group are valid, they should be used regardless of the potential for abuse, or for whatever strange bedfellows could result. But of course, the question of validity bring us to the concern about evidence.

As I acknowledged, James' demand for more evidence is entirely reasonable. But the floor response from Context Group member Douglas Oakman also carries weight. In the session, Oakman pointed out that the Context Group originated in no small part in order to make sense of the real-life experiences of its members. I know that Dick Rohrbaugh lived on the West Bank for many years, and other members have evidently lived abroad too. For myself, I lived for two years in Lesotho, and while southern Africa is not the Mediterranean area, there are plenty of honor-shame behavior patterns to be found there. In this light, to people like myself who have lived and breathed shame-based cultures over an extended period of time, experience is all the evidence you can ask for.

And is there really a mystery here? Is there any doubt as to what formal studies of Mediterranean peoples would demonstrate? There have been studies of honor-shame subcultures of the United States. (The American south is an honor-shame subculture, meaning, more shame-based relative to the north, but compared to places like the Mediterranean region, it starts to look as guilt-based as any part of the U.S.) For instance, a 1996 study conducted at the University of Michigan found remarkable differences between northern and southern Americans, in how they react to people who bump into and swear at them. 65% of the northerners were amused by the bump and insult, and 35% got angry; but only 15% of the southerners were amused -- the other 85% got furious. On top of this, the studies showed that the southerners had strong physiological reactions to being bumped/insulted, with increases in cortisol (a hormone associated with high levels of stress and anxiety) and testosterone levels. Now, if differences like these between people in the United States can be verified and documented, there shouldn't be much doubt that studies of Mediterranean peoples would confirm what Context Group members have been telling us for years, based significantly on direct experience. In any case, formal evidence is always needed, so hopefully James' demand for such will be taken seriously at some point.

I wish more scholars would write books like Jesus in an Age of Terror. Like Bill Arnal's The Symbolic Jesus, it addresses socio-political undercurrents we may be oblivious to in academic research, however disagreeable we find the particulars. I also wish I had managed to keep my lunch appointment with James to hash some of these issues out at more length, instead of waiting for him exasperatedly in the wrong area. Mea culpa!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like a good discussion, especially if scholars of the Context Group were there. What about Malina and Rohrbaugh? I imagine they must have been very angry over the book.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

They weren't there. Esler and Oakman are the only ones I saw and heard from -- and of course, panelist Zeba Crook is a CG member too.


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