Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Wishing you a Merry Christmas!

A Merry Christmas from me and my family to you and yours!

Photo: Christmas at Mission Espada

Friday, December 18, 2009

A call to dialogue between postmodernists and historical critics

I am so glad that John van Seters published his response (Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 9.26 [2009]) to Aichelle, Miscall, and Walsh's call for dialogue between historical critics and postmodernists (JBL 128.2 [2009] 383-404). I came across Seters article via the Dunedin School blog.

It will be no surprise that I hold very similar criticisms to Aichelle, Miscall, and Walsh's position. I have been wanting to take a moment to respond on my blog to this 'call' for dialogue since I read it last summer. So now appears to be a great opportunity to do so.

1. It has become evident to me especially in the last year that postmodernism is not a method, and should not be confused with a method, and is not a substitute for empirical research. It does not move us "beyond" the rigors of historical criticism. Rather Postmodernism is a set of critiques and attitudes toward texts and their interpretation that are largely dependent on modernism and historical criticism's own hermeneutic of suspicion.

2. The historian relies on empirical data gathered by using a critical, rational, contextual approach to the materials being studied. In Europe this is called "the scientific" approach to the study of religion rather than the "theological approach".

3. The postmodern approach, which divorces literature from historical context and questing for 'authorial' intent, is more amenable to churched traditions and theological readings which have been at odds with historical methods for 200 years. It claims that texts have a diversity of meanings that are located in the point of view of those reading it and the intertextual associations that those readers make. Thus many postmodernists want to conclude from this that historical interpretation is no more meaningful or valuable than any other. It is as 'ideological' and 'mythic' as the next. This conclusion is very dangerous and very inaccurate for some of the reasons that I outline in #4.

4. The historian is no idiot. Every generation of historians has critiqued its outcomes, well aware that personal biases affect the interpretation or assemblage of the data. In fact, this is a point that I first learned when I was an undergraduate in college in a history class. My professor called it "our colored glasses", and how it was necessary for us to be aware of them because they would affect our interpretation of the data. The fact that we all have biases that affect the interpretative process does not suggest that the historical critical method does not work or that it is 'mythic' or equivalent in validity with any other interpretation. On the contrary! The historian's own hermeneutic of suspicion and agreement to employ a critical or scientific approach to understanding our past demonstrates that the historical method works and that over time, as more and more historical interpretations and critiques of these interpretations are generated, we get a better and better grasp of our past and what was going on.

That's all I have time for today. I need to get back to cleaning and organizing my office, but at least it is a start to the 'dialogue' called for by Aichelle, Miscall and Walsh.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

My Debut in BAR

This summer, I was asked to write a column for Biblical Archaeology Review that reflected my research on the Gospel of Thomas. It was just published in the January/February 2010 issue.

What's Up with the Gospel of Thomas?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What's on your desk?

I've been office cleaning this week and still in the process. Thought it would be fun to share five things that I found on my desk that I either forgot about or have been looking for but couldn't find previously beneath the massive paper mounds.
William Hartner, "The Pseudoplanetary Nodes of the Moon's Orbit in Hindu and Islamic Icongraphies," Ars Islamica 5 (1038) 112-154.

Howard M. Jackson, "The Meaning and Function of the Leontocephaline in Roman Mithraism," Numen 32 (1985) 17-45.

Bryan Wilson, Religion in Sociological Perspective (Oxford: Oxford University 1982).

Michael Frede, "Numenius," ANRW 36.2: 1034-1075.

Elliot Wolfson, "Seven Mysteries of Knowledge: Qumran E/sotericism Recovered," The Idea of Biblical Interpretation (2003) 177-215.
What is buried on your desk?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Why do Americans believe so many different things?

The Pew Forum has put out an absolutely fascinating report about a survey they recently conducted in which they wanted to analyze how much and in what ways Americans "mix" aspects of different religions. This report has me captivated since I feel like I am reading a report about religious belief of Christians in the second century.

The argument I have been developing about second century Christians is that they were eclectic, and that gnosticism was an amalgamation of Egyptian astrology and religion, Greek mysteries and Hermetism, middle Platonic philosophy, Judaism and Christianity, with its constituents comfortable attending more than one religious house or being part of a multiple of religious bodies. It is exactly the kind of 'hybrid' that we are seeing today, and may have been seeing since the 1800s. I think it has something to do with 'internationalization', when a variety of religious traditions become available for consumption within a given culture at a given point in history.

I will be returning to this report and analyzing it carefully, and expect to post more thoughts on it. For now I just want to bring it to your attention because it is so fascinating and representative of the religion of no religion that is sweeping America.

Empirical research

This month I have been thinking about our graduate program at Rice, and the biblical field and its direction of research. I have written many posts on my concern that the field's infatuation with theory is causing many universities to produce a generation of new scholars who have become more and more detached from the texts and history and the hard work of empirical research.

When I attended a humanities fellows luncheon at Rice a few weeks ago, a historian of French literature spoke directly to the point in her field. When we do not do the empirical research, but privilege theory and method, we are at a disadvantage, because theory and method are trends that shift and change and go away. But the empirical data does not, and so we need to be the best linguists, the best philologists, the best textual scholars we can be.

Although it is to our advantage to employ a variety of approaches and nuance our approach to history, there is no substitute for the hard work of facing the text at the manuscript level, checking decisions made by editors of critical editions we rely on, being immersed in the literature and culture of the era we are studying, and being attuned to the metaphysical and practical landscape of the text under analysis. None of this is "sexy" or "innovative," and it is not quick in terms of ease of publication. But without it, we are left with theory which is here today and gone tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Mandaeans in Massachusetts

Associated Press just published an important article about the Mandaean diaspora community in Massachusetts. There is real concern that the diaspora will be swallowed into the wider community. So to help preserve their ancient religion, they are trying to fund the building of a community center. Read more HERE.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Question about future of SBL

I am sorry to post again on SBL, but perhaps my frequency since the meeting reflects the intensity of my concern. I am a practical person and it seems to me that there has to be resolutions to some of the problems facing our society, especially as long as we remain divorced from AAR. I'm trying to brainstorm some possibilities for solutions.

So I am curious, especially to hear from fellow members: would consolidation of some of the units be part of the solution? What are the pros and cons? Are there ways to re-envision the formation and structure of units to allow for more interchange among members in our society? Is it possible for units to consolidate while still maintaining individual agendas?

Those of you who are in other organizations that operate with discipline units, how do you organize?