Monday, July 10, 2006

Shame on Rosson and the Context Group

In the spirit referenced here, I welcome guest critic Leonard Ridge to speak about the honor-shame culture of the bible and contemporary multiculturalism. Leonard hasn't been pleased with the things I've been saying over the past year and wants to set the record straight. So without further ado, I'll give him the floor.

Shame on Rosson and the Context Group: The Fallacy of Multiculturalism
by Leonard Ridge

Thus speak two members of The Context Group:
"The awareness of multiculturalism would require us to be sensitive to differences among cultures... If we wish to understand the persons of the ancient Mediterranean world, persons from the world of Jesus and Paul, we should be prepared to learn entirely new ways of perceiving so as to assess those persons on their own terms. Otherwise, we will be perpetuating the long-standing problem of being "Ugly Americans", a phrase coined to describe the utter failure of U.S. personnel at the beginning of the Vietcong insurgency to understand the ways of that mysterious culture." (Bruce Malina, Portraits of Paul, pp 2, 4)

"To comprehend [the New Testament authors] is an exercise in intercultural understanding. We wish to understand them in their otherness, perceiving their horizon to be situated where it should be, separate from ours, with a separation that persists in spite of our conversation... For an "I" to dialogue with a "You" entails a respect for the alterity, the radical otherness, of the other; there is no need to try to reach agreement. It is our attitude to the other that produces genuine dialogue and communion." (Philip Esler, New Testament Theology: Communion and Community, pp 86-87)
... and thus speak those who rightly decry the above multiculturalist agenda:
"The multiculturalist "preservation impulse" is identical to the fascist one, except that it's addressed to members of non-dominant, often oppressed, groups... [But] the logic and rhetoric of multiculturalism actually undermines its stated goals. We should reject the preservation impulse, along with the notion that a culture can even have an authentic identity. The only truly emancipatory move is to instead embrace the relentless force of cosmopolitanism (pejoratively called "cultural genocide") -- which takes place in the world's racially and culturally integrated urban centers." (Nick Woomer

"Safety demands that religions be put in cages when absolutely necessary... A faith, like a species, must evolve or go extinct when the environment changes... Many Muslims agree with this, and we must not only listen to them, but do what we can to protect and support them, for they are bravely trying, from the inside, to reshape the tradition they cherish into something better, something ethically defensible. That is -- or, rather, ought to be -- the message of multiculturalism, not the patronizing and subtly racist hypertolerance that "respects" vicious and ignorant doctrines when they are propounded by officials of non-European states and religions." (Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, pp 515-517)
Loren Rosson is practically a walking advertisement for the Context Group, the body of biblical scholars who have devoted a Herculean amount of labor to help us understand -- and more importantly, "appreciate" -- the honor-shame culture of the bible. In that culture what other people believe about you, and how they perceive you, is far more important than what is actually true. Questions of innocence and guilt are sidelined, and concerns for truth and the preservation of individual rights take a back seat. But if this world seems primitive and barbaric to us, then, according to Loren and these scholars, it is we who need to readjust our perspective, not vice-versa. Their wisdom fits in with the wider multiculturalist agenda which has been dividing the liberal left for some time.

Multiculturalism may sound progressive, but it's not. It celebrates ethnic diversity simply because it is diversity, uncritically approving ethnic pride, groupthink, honor-shame codes, and all so that people can "comfortably be themselves". By-products of this agenda include moral relativism, hypertolerance, and a patronizing racism that end up doing far more damage than good. On top of that, there is the irony observed by Nick Woomer, that while "multiculturalism looks very enlightened and liberating, it is being expropriated to serve a reactionary right-wing agenda".

Well guess what? That's exactly what's happening in biblical studies. Evangelicals like Ben Witherington, David de Silva, and J.P. Holding have taken turns championing the work of the Context Group, and no surprise. What better apologetic tool for eliciting sympathy for primitive biblical teachings? If Jesus condemned divorce in order to protect the honor of families (as Context Group members say), that plays right into the hands of modern Republican "family values". (Contrast with the claims of John Dominic Crossan and Elizabeth Fiorenza that Jesus was an egalitarian who criticized divorce in order to empower women.) If we can sympathize with the way a culture uses invective and polemic (as in Rom 1:18-32), then we can perhaps get even more comfortable with our own religious bigotry. That a group of scholarly rebels (the Context Group) has found wide favor amongst conservatives -- rather than, say, their liberal cousins on the Jesus Seminar -- should be a cause for concern.

An insightful scholar named Chris Heard -- clearly one of Loren's betters on the biblioblogs -- has noticed the same thing. He says:
"I run into a lot of conservative Christians, especially among my students, who act like cultural relativists with respect to ancient Israel alone, or the ancient Near East generally, but not with respect to contemporary cultures -- yet I can find no consistent basis for this. Might an honor-shame culture operate in such a way that it socialized its members to believe that honoring one's adult male guest took precedence over ensuring your children's wellbeing? Yes, and if that's the case, it should be well understood when evaluating relevant texts and stories from that culture. But that does not mean that it should be endorsed any more than slavery, polygamy, or pogroms should be endorsed. Cultural moral relativism really bugs me, but selective cultural moral relativism bugs me even more."
And that's the irony. Liberals have embraced relativism for the sake of oppressed groups whose voices tend to go unheard, and conservatives have done so more narrowly for the sake of their own creed. The bible just happens to be relevant to both -- to the former in terms of its origins, the latter in terms of contemporary interpretation. Is this lost on Context Group members? Does history teach them nothing? Once the minority voices of the early Christians became co-opted by the state in the fourth century, they became lethal, and Jewish people suffered for centuries because of it. Do we really want to be so wonderfully open-minded about minority groups and third-world cultures who speak the language of intolerance and outdated virtue as much as their oppressors -- just because it's fashionable to be "culturally sensitive"?

Loren -- the Context-Group stooge of the biblioblogs -- appears to think we should. He lends an alarmingly sympathetic ear to things which should horrify anyone in their right mind. He says, for instance, that the honor-shame code only seems oppressive to those of us who live in the west, implying that our indignant reactions to honor-rapes/killings are misplaced. He uses safety-disclaimers, of course -- he doesn't want "to excuse what's going on in India and Pakistan, rather to understand the rape-phenomenon and the values from which it derives" -- but the underlying message is loud and clear. What Loren really wants, like Malina and Co., is for us to loathe ourselves more than anyone or anything else -- that is, our cultural imperialism; our western arrogance.

It's because of people like Loren and the Context-Group members that the Euston Manifesto has been recently drawn up, for truly progressive democrats who:
• decline to make excuses for, or to indulgently "understand", reactionary regimes and movements for which democracy is a hated enemy... and draw a firm line between themselves and other left-liberal voices today quick to offer an apologetic explanation for such political forces

• hold the fundamental human rights codified in the Universal Declaration to be precisely universal, and binding on all states and political movements, indeed on everyone; violations of these rights are equally to be condemned whoever is responsible for them and regardless of cultural context

• reject the double standards with which much self-proclaimed progressive opinion now operates, finding lesser violations of human rights which are closer to home more deplorable than foreign violations that are flagrantly worse
If putting such a manifesto into practice would make us "Ugly Americans" -- as Bruce Malina worries about in the opening citation of this post -- then, Christ-on-crutches, we need to be ugly about this. Dennett and Woomer are right. It's time to call out multiculturalism for what it is, an inverted fascism that exacerbates problems relating to intolerance and the violation of human rights. It's time to recognize honor-shame cultures as inherently inferior -- and say so, damn it, without piling on sweetness and disclaimers. It's time for those cultures to evolve. And it's high time to view the people of the bible -- even the occasionally counter-cultural Jesus -- for what they were: primitive and wrong about most things, part of a world whose passing should be our goal.


Blogger Gary said...

Will Leonard be responding to comments here? Just wondering if a little dialogue will be possible.

Just off the bat I might point out the possibility that Malina (in particular) does not always present things in the most cautious and nuanced way, and thus a critique of his rhetoric isn't really much of a slight on the Context Group's contributions as a whole.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...


Leonard may respond in due course. You're certainly encouraged to comment as you see fit.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I'm confused. Was Rosson endorsing the honor/shame culture in the referenced posting? Or was he pointing out that Jesus was, in a way, fighting fire with fire on behalf of those victimized by that culture? Sensitive Westerner that I am, I find the contemporary honor/shame culture of the Middle East & south Asia repugnant; should I content myself with blanket condemnation rather than tracing its roots & precursors in the first century CE?

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Was Rosson endorsing the honor/shame culture in the referenced posting?

Loren isn't inhumane, he's just obtuse. And he's not going to openly "endorse the honor-shame culture". But by urging us to go soft on these people who have been socialized to "think in very different ways" than we do, he's part of the problem. Loren may respond if he feels I've misrepresented him.

Blogger Jimmy Archer said...

I've been reading CG material for a few months, and I'd be very surprised to learn that they intend to promote acceptance (i.e. "this is fine"). I've also been reading Rosson's blog ever since it started, and I'd be very surprised to learn that he intends for his readers to believe that suiciding out of shame is morally acceptable. I don't see where he says that the honor code only seems oppressive, but I do see that he thinks so-called honorable acts are in fact oppression. Writing about Jesus, "he went out of his way to side with and defend the victims of systematic ("honorable") oppression..." Does this label of systematic oppression come from one who wishes others to condone "honorable" acts?

When I read Rosson, or any other cultural anthropology material, I see what I see historians doing--reporting, to be [very] simplistic. It seems silly to demand moral judgment from, say, historians writing on the atrocities of WW2, and then to suggest that they wish us to condone such atrocities simply because they discuss the circumstances. Anthropology-wise, I am going through an article on ritual purity in Igbo culture (Ritual Dirt and Purification Rites among the Igbo, Emefie Ikenga-Metuh, Journal of Religion in Africa, Vol 15, 1985, pp. 3-24), and the author does not provide moral judgment when explaining the dynamics of Igbo ritual purity. This is fine.

The reason this is fine is because that author's intent is to report. So is the case with Rosson and the other members of the Context Group--though I would change my views if you provide expositions of their expressed moral judgments. However, I think it's clear in their material that this is a matter of hermeneutics, not ethics. They write, for example, "Readers and writers always participate in a social system that provides the clues for filling in between the lines. Meanings are embedded in a social system that is shared and understood by all participants in any communication process." (Social Science Commentary on the Synoptics, 9)

In other words, they do not come as judges, but as students wishing to understand the ancient Mediterranean social system--and through that understanding, see the texts of the New Testament with eyes similar to it's original audiences.

We're talking about changing the image of "sweet and tender Jesus" who plays with little children, into an image of an honorable Mediterranean man to whom women brought their dying children for healing.

In important ways Rosson forces us to consider what our judgment must be--the question WWJD is completely rewritten from a cute spiritual excercise (I caricature) into a serious question of ethics AND cultural relativism. If we do what Jesus did, we may well respond with a sharp insult... amusing as that may be, it is obviously at odds with the West. The problem should be clear.

(Speaking of cultural relativism, Heard should say ethical relativism. Cultural relativism simply refers to the diversity of cultures.)

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...


Thanks for a spirited critique. For now I'd like to comment on the following:

Multiculturalism may sound progressive, but it's not. It celebrates ethnic diversity simply because it is diversity, uncritically approving ethnic pride, groupthink, honor-shame codes, and all so that people can "comfortably be themselves". By-products of this agenda include moral relativism, hypertolerance, and a patronizing racism that end up doing far more damage than good.

I should point out that one of the Context-Group members you target, Philip Esler, has explicitly refuted what you ascribe to him here. The point of the passage you cite from his New Testament Theology -- indeed the point of the entire book -- is that Christians need to respect all ethnic differences even when in disagreement. Esler, for his part, does not condone "uncritically approving ethnic pride, honor-shame codes..." as you say; just the opposite. Why else do you think he argues that Paul's letter to the Galatians is inappropriate for modern theological guidance?


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