I recently interviewed James G. Crossley—with a little help from Philip Tite—about James’ recent book, Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism: Quests, Scholarship and Ideology (Equinox, 2012). According to the book’s description, it “analyses the ideology underpinning scholarly and popular quests for the historical Jesus in a neoliberal age, [… focusing on] cultural and political concerns, notably postmodernism, multiculturalism and liberal masking of power.” I greatly enjoy James’ critical bite, and his willingness to “historicize with a hammer” (to twist Nietzsche’s phrase).
Craig Martin: I can tell you’re someone who writes out of frustration (and I mean that in a good way—I do the same!). Which of your frustrations motivated this book the most?
James G. Crossley: Yes, while I don’t think I’m as bad/good as I used to be in letting frustrations dictate writing (I am even curious about some things), I still find much of the self-congratulatory tone among too much New Testament scholarship irritating. For instance, despite all the work done in the past ten years or so showing how problematic the discussions of ‘Jewishness’ are, mainstream historical Jesus (and New Testament scholars) continue to profess, without awareness of such critique, their love for a Judaism they construct … before making Jesus better, of course. I’ve also long been frustrated at the dominant scholarly idea of a historical Jesus as an autonomous figure who changed everything without any scholarly awareness of just how ideologically convenient this is.
What else? I was also frustrated by the idea that when a dominant ideological or cultural trend is evident in scholarship people think that it can’t possibly be present in their work if they personally really, really don’t believe in a given ideological position (‘My work can’t be anti- or pro-whatever because I’m personally a nice guy’). It should be obvious that human beings replicate and transmit all sorts of ideological and political ideas whether they know it or not, or like it or not. But unfortunately it isn’t. It is significant that historical Jesus scholars always talk about seeing the face at the bottom of the well rather than the background scenery. And if I read the tokenistic phrase ‘we all have presuppositions’ one more time …
I was frustrated by the influence of British-based theologians-cum-part-time-Jesus-scholars (e.g. John Milbank) and the whole Red Tory movement that are behind the scenes of the present government here in the UK. For a group of people who have claimed—and still claim—to be anti-liberal, anti-neoliberal, anti-neoconservative to be supporting (or, more laughably, ‘influencing’) the very system they claim to be challenging just shows how easily bullshit and ideology can mix.
I could go on …
CM: What part of the book do you like most? What are you most proud of? Are there any parts, in hindsight, you wished you had written differently?
JGC: I don’t know if I’m ever proud of anything as such. Overall, I hope this book can be part of the bigger effort to put social history of biblical scholarship more firmly on the mainstream agenda. Maybe I’m happiest with the chapter/section on intentions. The overall point is obvious but I think the extreme example of a scholar who is anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian and has an unconventional interest in Nazi Germany, ends up contributing significantly to a dominant scholarly trend that is anti-Palestinian and Zionist will hopefully make the point clear (I’m simplifying the positions but you get the idea).
I enjoyed (or whatever the right word is) writing the chapter on blogging because it highlights explicitly some of the deadly ramifications of neoliberalism (the Haiti disaster) and the absurdities of remarkable technological developments which have allowed us to see the top ten list of favourite scholar-pinups and how many scholars don’t like fisting or being called ‘very conservative.’ No matter how many times I read NT Wrong (the blogger responsible for illuminating such absurdities), I still think the character is the funniest and best thing to happen in biblical studies for years.
I always feel I could do things differently with a bit of distance but that’ll always be the case whatever I write. Who doesn’t, I suppose. More specifically, I wondered if it would have been worth including more exegetical work in order to show how neoliberal and related trends work themselves out in the precise detail biblical scholars are rightly famed for. On the other hand, I wanted to make sure I got the bigger picture rather than the point getting lost in exegetical detail. I still don’t know what the right thing to do would’ve been but, as I’ve probably mentioned before, it isn’t the sort of thing I lose too much sleep over. Besides, I know people who are working on more detailed aspects of the outworking of neoliberalism (or the like) in exegesis (e.g. Robert Myles and Michael Sandford) and the arguments will be much stronger thanks to such people who are dedicating their time to this.
CM: What parts of the book do you expect will be received well? Which parts will be most controversial?
JGC: It is always difficult to predict what will be received well or otherwise. A lot depends on whether it has an impact on mainstream historical critical scholarship or not and if recent history is anything to go by then this sort of work may well be ignored in such circles. I wouldn’t be surprised if chapters which we might summarize as ‘we all have presuppositions’ will continue to open historical critical books … before continuing as usual. However, I think things are changing and ideological readings of scholarship are now making their way into mainstream journals (even JBL) and at conferences. That said if there is greater discussion in historical critical circles then I can’t imagine such scholars being overly happy at their work being read in such a way.
I think the aforementioned chapter on Zionism, anti-Zionism and Holocaust deniers might not go down too well and might be controversial among the people analysed but it has been well-received when I’ve delivered it as a paper so who knows?
Arguments about the patronizing construct of ‘Jewishness’ in the hands of New Testament scholarship should have been controversial well before now. Maybe the message might finally hit home. Maybe …
CM: You suggest in the book—citing Noam Chomsky—that radical scholars can, in a sense, “neutralize” themselves by finding comfortable places in academia, places from which they will not be a threat to anyone. I imagine both you and I think of our scholarship as radical, but what are the chances that your critique could be turned back on us? Are we a danger to anyone, really, other than our students? Another way to put this might be to ask: is academia structured in such a way as to make all radical scholarship toothless?
JGC: Yes, it would be very easy to turn the criticism back and not without reason. Worse still, we know what happens to certain scholars when they touch a nerve (I’m thinking of, for instance, Nadia Abu el-Haj and Keith Whitelam, among others) and it isn’t pleasant. Who would really want that? However, there are things we can do and discussing some of these issues in the classroom is still possible. Providing an education that resists a model that it must somehow have economic value is still possible (and this stretches well beyond our kind of scholarship). We can also try to have greater influence beyond universities and colleges—it is clear various activist groups are reading radical scholarship.
I’m not sure if academia is precisely structured to render radical scholarship toothless but university and college connections with state, private and even church power will inevitably mean that there are implicit restrictions. Some of the restrictions require buy-in from academics—how many stories do we hear about academics who won’t write on certain topics or openly support certain ideas because of fear that they won’t get promotion/tenure or be liked by the good and the great? Academics will often do their best to kiss arse but they have more control over the educational modes of production than they realize and there are radical scholars with jobs, who get promoted and so on if that’s your thing. There are, therefore, some things we (and I include students in the ‘we’—universities typically fear them more than the staff) can do and every now and then small victories are gained, which is better than nothing. This is all limited, certainly, and victories can be absorbed by power structures easily enough, but it’s not without potential. But I am also very wary. I’ve seen enough people in university management with a deeply cynical attitude towards neoliberal ‘reforms’ of the universities who will say how we still have our educational ideals yet go ahead and implement these ‘reforms’ nonetheless.
(Look for the second part of this interview tomorrow.)