Thursday, January 17, 2008

Atheist Thoguht Poilce: Response to Hector Avalos


Hector Avalos' The Ideology of the Society of Biblical Literature and the Demise of an Academic Profession Published on the Society of Biblical Literature forum has set off a firestorm of controversy in the Blioblogsphere.It seems that Avalos believes that Biblical scholarship is a waste of time funded by those who give their money to things they don't understand, and pursued by a privileged elite. Avalos seems to think that Biblical scholars are playing the Glass Bead Game. While his arguments are sound and his criticisms acute in many respects, the author is trendy and chic in his post-leftist identity political self loathing of the intellect and properly postmodern in his denunciation of thought. He declares the greatest writer in the English Languate to be of no intrisic value, but Shakespeare is still worth reading because he enables one to get on with the ruling class and to make connections.

Shakespeare's works, for example, have no intrinsic value, but they function as cultural capital insofar as "knowing Shakespeare" helps provide entry into elite educated society. The academic study of literature, in general, functions to maintain class distinctions rather than to help humanity in any practical manner.

I certainly wouldn't want to impune his expertise in this area. I'm sure he knows a great deal about getting on with and sucking up to powerful people. He seems to be pretty aware of the fact that people in his position are useless and elitist and privileged. I would like to congratulate him on being the first academic to voluntarily quite his job. I think we can follow with interest as brother Avalos joins the peace corps so he can do something useful. There is just one problem with his proposal that Biblical studies be abandoned; he's not really part of the faith. I think he would admit that. He teaches at a secular program and most people in religious studies are dead set on destroying religion. The problem is, we aren't ready to give it up. Those of us who know God exists, who value the Bible, think it's our book and we want to study it. I think most of us want our churches to fund those who do. It's actually none of his business and as he is not a believer and is an enemy of faith it not his place to make such a proposal to begin with.

I say that not as a raving right winger who thinks scholars should be believers and has never heard of objectivity. I say it as a graduate of a major liberal seminary, the student of some of the most liberal theologians in the United States. I am not not shocked by anything he says, but I am mortified by his anti-intellectual attitude. Contempt is not objectivity. Avalos is not objective, he is subjective because hate is subjective. He hates religion, he is passionate about hating Christianity. Passion is not scholarly caution.

I would accuse him of benig anti-intellectual except that all postmodern academics pretend to hate the world of letters and to find no value in what they do. I have yet to meet one that has given up his/her job voluntarily. Just jobs are extremely hard to come by and he should be thanking God for his. But Those of us who actually have faith are going to keep studying the Bible because we like it. We find that it has a lot of value, as does Shakespeare.

Avelos puts it this way:

Similarly, the Bible has no intrinsic value or merit. Its value is a social construct, and the SBL is the agent of an elite class that wishes to retain its own value and employment by fostering the idea that biblical studies should matter.

The idea that the Bible should be studied because of its influence or because "it does matter" overlooks repeated statements, by scholars themselves, that the Bible's influence and relevance might cease if it were not for the intervention of biblical scholars and translators. Since the intervention, successful or not, is selectively applied to the Bible (rather than to thousands of other non-biblical texts of ancient cultures), such an intervention becomes an ethnocentric and religiocentric mechanism by which biblical scholars preserve their own relevance.

Of course he's taking those quotes out of context (note he doesn't actually provide any). Many great scholars have said this sort of thing, I don't know of any who meant it they way Avalos takes it. It's more likely they mean it n the sense that the average person can't go study Greek for several years and go to monasteries and find the ms to argue about the synoptic problem and so on. He tries to have it it both ways in slipping in his identity politcal credentials as well as his Biblical Scholarship credentials:

n the interest of self-disclosure, I should say that I am a secular humanist and a Mexican immigrant. So, in some ways I am on the margins of the marginalized in the Society of Biblical Literature. Despite growing up in a relatively poor background, I cannot deny that I am now part of a privileged and elite educated class. I have experienced real poverty, and this is not it. I get paid to do what I love, though my conscience is increasingly telling me to do something more beneficial for humanity.

Yes in the interest of self disclosure. Nothing is more chic and gives more cultural capital than being marginalized. Of course he's still in the elite after all. But he's a marginalized elitist, a true postmodern dream. Now in the interest of self discourse let me say a bit about myself. I am a middle class gringo. But I was a communist. I worked for years in the Central America movement, went to Nicaragua and was spied upon by the FBI as part of Dallas CISPES. I'm still pretty much of th left. So nothing I say should be understood as right wing or fundamentalist. That being said, I do not wish to get into a "lefter than thou" discussion with Dr. Avalos. Let me move back in to the essay.

But now that he's primed the pump properly by waving his credentials about before he speaks, he gets down to business:

The alien and irrelevant nature of biblical worldviews is admitted by many academic scholars. James Barr notes, for example, that "the main impact of historical criticism, as felt by the earlier twentieth century, has been to emphasize the strangeness of the biblical world, its distance from the world of modern rationality."[1] Likewise, the literary critic Lynn M. Poland, in evaluating the work of Rudolf Bultmann, observed, "Bultmann astutely perceived the central issues with which a specifically modern program for biblical interpretation must wrestle: the alien character of the world views represented in the biblical writings for twentieth-century readers."[2]

Now somehow this alien nature of the ancient world view worries Dr. Avalos; and it seems odd to me. All the professors I had in graduate school seemed to enjoy learning though they understood that the average person didn't understand 90% of what they had to say. It was still worth learning even though it was "strange." I don't understand, except that I do understand, why is this scholar is afraid of learning? To fear strange ideas is to fear learning, I think. The Philosophy of Dr. Avalos the scholar seems oddly anti-intellectual. Except that this is what the fashionable postmodern identity politics quasi liberal is into now days. Of course since he quotes Barr one would expect Barr would also be anti-intellectual. Of course the quote Avalos uses doesn't say the Bible is rubbish let's forget it. It says it is strange to modern people. But then why is he studying it? Rather than writings books about the Bible because he wants to forget it, I rather think it's because he wants to teach it. Thus one mist assume this statement is actually saying, "yes the Biblical world view is strange to us, but its worth learning and thus that's why we need professors like me to teach it." This is very typical of identity politics, if the masses can't understand it in the fields and factories without having to actually learn something, it can't be depicted in a mural, then destroy it and and lead a strike instead. Of course most actual labor action is beyond these post new left types. This is just climate of opinion in what is left of post modernism after Derrida. So Derridian to see no value in Shakespeare. No better proof Post modernists don't know anything about literature.

Now comes the bit about how terrible the Bible is. Notice the postmodern politically correct identity politics buzzers and buttons:

And one need not go far to see how different biblical world views are from modern ones. Biblical authors, usually elite male scribes, believed that the world was formed and ruled by a god who is otherwise barely recognized in contemporary texts outside of ancient Israel. Genocide was sometimes endorsed, commanded, or tolerated. Slavery was often endorsed or tolerated. Patriarchalism was pervasive. At least some same-sex activity was persecuted. Illness was often attributed to supernatural causation, and illness could be used to devalue human beings. The idea that the Bible bears "higher" ethical or religious lessons to teach us, as compared to those found in the texts of other ancient cultures, is part of an ethnocentric and religiocentric mythos. Given such admitted irrelevance and "otherness" of the Bible, the main sub-disciplines (e.g., archaeology, literary criticism, textual criticism, translation) and hermeneutic approaches (e.g., "reappropriation," "recontextualization") of biblical studies are simply mechanisms by which the relevance and value of the Bible and biblical scholars are maintained.

A lot goes on here in this paragraph. Let's try to capture it all.

(1) He's laid out a manifesto of his values and demonstrated that the Bible violates them.

So the Bible doesn't reflect his values, therefore its' worthless. But why would anyone think that a modern person seeking social justice, or even a decent set of moral values, would not want to understand where humanity has been? How can the fact that the Bible is an incredible record of the history of ancient near east, the struggles of people, the drama of human tragedy, how can this escape the son of the soil, the marginalized elitist scholar of the people?

(2) The Bible is elitist and patriarchal and it's opposed to gayness.

in other words its opposed to all of his political ideologies, and right or wrong, better or worse, Avalos would not have the credentials he has if he did not also benefit form some of these things. Then why does he not call for the banning of Universities? If we should walk away and forget the Bible because it's from a by gone era, then why not do away with all earning, books themselves. Books are filled outmoded ideas, and someday all books available now will be part of a strange and outmoded way of thinking. why don't we forget the whole education thing and become illiterate? It would be a lot easier than actually to teach people about the ancient world. Avalos is contributing to Marcue's one-dimenstional man, by helping to close the realm of discourse to prevent any unsactioned ideas from beyond the realm of neo-facism disguised as political correctness.

(3) typical game of the postmoderns. The played it at Perkins all the time. You are discussing something and you mention a work the other person hasn't read. Instead of assuming "O I am not as well read because I didn't know about that" they say "you are excluding me by saying things I don't know about." So if you have knowledge they don't have you are wrong, you are violating a rule, you are to be shunned and you are putting them ill at ease. Thus one is penalized for knowledge and taught not to learn and not to excel. Unless of course a feminist does it. they mention texts no one has heard of of and that makes them bright girls who are on top of everything because they are so superior to males. This is the same game. Denude the church of what little knowledge it has. "hey you don't' wont learn all that boring stuff. wouldn't you really father work in a factory and go dancing?" So this way the postmoderns take control of the sources of knowledge and any other sort of knowledge is anathema. this is what Avalos is trying to do with biblical scholarship. It's bad it's evil it's ancient it has all kinds of outmoded values. But aren't there some other texts with those same values from those same milieu that he wants read? Let's look further.

At this point he begins to move into some actual criticisms of biblical scholarship:

(e.g., archaeology, literary criticism, textual criticism, translation) and hermeneutic approaches (e.g., "reappropriation," "recontextualization") of biblical studies are simply mechanisms by which the relevance and value of the Bible and biblical scholars are maintained.

Scholarship is just a means for the elite to promote their world view. But wait, he just got through promoting his values by decrying the values the disvalues in the Bible. He's a scholar so he's doing the thing he criticizes scholars for, and he's also using those same scholars to decry the outmoded nature of the Biblical world view.

Most findings, few of which are truly novel, remain locked up in journals and books most people will never read or understand. Most findings, few of which are truly novel, remain locked up in journals and books

Lack of a God forbid that people should ever have learn about anything they don't know about. that's not what education is for is it? Universities are there to destroy learning right? Most people will never understand brain surgery should we do away with rain surgery? Most people will never understand higher math,should we just forget higher math. I'm sure that Avalos will defend these reductionist hobbies on the grounds that they are useful. Only useful things can be allowed. Despite their useful nature, such esoteric pursuits will always be beyond the realm of the average peasant in the third world. We don't really need a space race if we the corps don't' fail. Why bother with learning at all? Of course those who actually enjoy learning know that there's more to it than just the intimidate utility of a text. this is what is strange to me, a professor who cant' understand the values of learning about the past.

Whatever new knowledge is applied (e.g., new readings from the Dead Sea Scrolls), it is usually for the benefit of faith communities who read the Bible. The fact is that biblical studies is still functioning as a handmaiden to theology and faith communities rather than as a discipline relevant to those outside of faith communities (something unlike law, medicine, or even philosophy, which is also being marginalized). Let us not forget he's actually begging the question to assert that the Bible endorses slavery an genocide. We might also bring up the fact that he has not discussed the canon. He asserts that Scholars make the canon. ON this point I think the professor needs to do some reading because it bishops who made the Christian canon. He has not actually discussed this. We cannot discuss the attitudes of God in the OT until we talk about the nature of OT authority and the nature of the canon. But Avalos chooses not to get into anything specific in this essay.

In archaeology, new inscriptions, even the most fragmentary and the barely comprehensible, are announced with great fanfare when there is a remote connection to the Bible. Meanwhile, thousands of more complete texts of other cultures still lie untranslated. Euroamerican perceptions of what is important still dominate the entire Society, as witnessed by repeated full attendance at sessions on archaeological "artifacts" versus sparser attendance in sessions on more "humane" aspects of biblical studies, such as disability studies or non-Euroamerican understandings of scriptures.

Here he has a splendid point. but there's one problem. It's opposed to the values he just stated. To study these forgotten, strange, unknown texts, which the average West Texas farmer or the average peasant int he third world would know noting about, is a complete back peddle on everything he just said. Is the Bible the only ancient world document with a strange view? He has a good point about neglected aspect of the field and they will certainly stay neglected if we follow his way of thinking. He has a strange way of getting people to care more about neglected "marginalized" aspects of the Bible, by forgetting about it and not studying it.

He drags gender inclusion translations through the mud as hidden mechanisms of patriarchy. He identifies the existence of such translations as proof of the Bible's backward nature. This is something that really confused me at Perkins. All these Feminist theologians such as Joette Basler and Danna Fellwell who were opposed to Egalitarian scholarship. They didn't even know about the major figures in the egal movement (such as Bushnell and Gilbert Bilezikian) but they pooh poohed every egalitarian translation I brought up. Why? Because they have a vested interest in showing that the Bible is backward and evil. They hate the bible they hate religion they don't want to give it a break. They have no interest in really translating the work. Of course I'm sure Dr. Avalos would not stop to this kind of manipulation after accusing his opponents in the other camp of being that way. That's why he's lobbying against the Bible since it speaks against this value system. Apparently that's how he knows so well the scholarly games of manipulation, because he plays them so much.

Now we don't see that kind of manipulation on Avalos' part in his appraoch to Robert Alter's attempts to make the Bible relevant:

Robert Alter, as he attempts to reconcile his personal enjoyment of biblical artistry with some serious purpose: "but the paradoxical truth of the matter may well be that by learning to enjoy biblical stories more fully as stories, we shall also come to see more clearly what they mean to tell us about God, man and the perilously momentous realm of history."[5]

This is no this is not the kind of manipulation he speaks of above, this is a different kind.

Alter's judgment is a subjective one, and we can just as easily argue that the Bible is no more beautiful nor has any better lessons to teach than many other texts. One could just as easily make the subjective judgment that at least some biblical texts are ugly, not to mention horrifically unethical, but we don't have many books touting that. That would be bad for business. Here he is castigating this believer for enjoying the text, as though this some sort of anathema. No other ancient world text was barbaric. The Greeks never oppressed anyone or valued slavery did they? Only the Jews. The enjoyment is subjective that's his argument. It's only subjective. One might think that enjoyment would be a valid reason to read a text, but not in the Spartan world of Dr. Avalos. Now of course he plugs the reading of other ancient world books, which I am willing to bet my pay are not accepted by the masses, not known to the public and just as "strange" and ancient in their view point but somehow we are supposed to accept hem as valid candidates to survive and be studied but not the Bible. I'm sure those other guys had slaves, killed people, did all the things Don Avalos hates in the Bible, but somehow its ok in the other books. I would hate a world in which only science and engineering books were allowed. But even that would at least be consistent.

Then he rounds out his essay by accusing the early SBL founders of being religious. What a shame that the major organization in America that deals with Bible study is flavored with a large element of religion! While I agree that Bible scholars are often too ideologically motivated, that many of the major reference works ar shamelessly doctrinally biased, and that there is not enough objectivity, Avalos in this article offers us nothing in the way of objectivity. His arguments have been extremely ideolgoical and subjective. What would have been helpful would have been if he had dealt with the progress made. Had he talked about things that actually benchmark our current understanding of the ancient world view, that would have actually contributed something to learning. But he did not and perhaps its just as well. I'm sure that he will be getting out of the field soon, since it is such a waste of time. We will all miss this keen analytical mind and all those insights he's giving us.

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