A (P)Salm: Oh Lord, Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood

First, we need some music!

I haven’t been blogging as much as I would have liked since I’ve been so busy with the end of term and two conferences: the AAR/SBL in late November in Chicago and Eschaton 2012 in Ottawa over the first weekend in December. But now that I am desperately seeking distractions from marking (darn you, diligent students!) I thought I would address some of the aftermath of the SBL.

In particular, I’d like to thank the folks who commented on my paper on  ”The Royal Scam: Josiah, Joseph Smith and Believing One’s own Pious Fraud” and especially Diana Edelman, the respondent for the Metacriticizing Biblical Scholarship session. I don’t think the paper is really publishable, but it was fun, and I hope I raised a few questions. The session also featured papers by Kurt Noll, Robert Price, and Rene Salm.

Salm posted about one of my papers on his blog, Mythicist Papers, and his comments do require a response from yours truly, even after a few weeks. They were quoted on Neil Godfrey’s blog, Vridar.

Salm came to his own session on Pious Frauds just barely in time for his Nazareth paper, and so he missed all three of the previous papers including mine on Josiah and Joseph Smith. It seems as if he planned on that). He did come for the second Metacommentating Biblical Criticism session on the Sunday in which I presented another paper: On the Fairytales of Bronze Age Goat-Herders. Ancient Israel as the New Atheists’ Foil.  Salm commented on it thusly:

 Among the others (besides myself) who presented in the Metacriticism of Biblical Scholarship unit was James Linville (Univ. of Lethbrige, Canada). I missed his first paper but the second, on Sunday, was a rousing broadside entitled “On the fairytales of Bronze Age goat-herders: Ancient Israel as the New Atheists’ foil.” Linville is not one to pull punches. He described ancient Israel as “rude, crude, ignorant, misogynist, unjust, and unpleasant—everything we don’t like.” Turning to the contemporary scene (BAR should have been listening), he observed that religion in North America is ultimately consumer driven, that the media overlooks secular scholars in the field, that archaeological discoveries cater to religious conservatives (“nutcases”), that the SBL “does the Church’s work,” and that further separation between secular and religious scholarship is needed. Here here!

I don’t really see much of my paper in most of that description of it.  The most accurate are my purported claims that

“ SBL “does the Church’s work,” and that further separation between secular and religious scholarship is needed.” 

On the one hand, Salm is quite right about my views concerning the need for further separation. I mentioned a number of other people who think so too, including Jacques Berlinerblau, Michael Fox, Hector Avalos, and Phillip Davies. This is not controversial. I also mentioned that I have critiqued the SBL for doing the Church’s work by having various overtly churchy sessions on its program in years past. Here is what my paper actually said:

I’ve joined in the fray and complained on my blog about the SBL doing the Church’s work with such program units as “Homiletics and Biblical Studies.” I claimed that, “there is no more reason for the SBL to help improve Christian preaching than there is for the American Academy of Religion to suggest ways the ancient Mayans might have made bloodier human sacrifices.”  (You can see my views on these earlier blog posts, Here, and Here).

On the other hand, here is something else I said:

I agree with Michael Fox that there is a sharp distinction between secular academic and confessional biblical research and that the former may contribute to the latter but not vice versa.  But as Fox observes, secular does not mean “atheistic” or that believers cannot do secular work by bracketing out their own beliefs. I think that most of the work done in the SBL is oriented towards the secular side of things, and that much of this work is done by confessing Jews and Christians (see: Michael V. Fox, ” Bible Scholarship and Faith-Based Study: My View,“ SBL Forum , n.p. [Feb 2006]).

I hope this casts a different light on my presentation. A good part of it was attempting to undermine the sharp “Us” vs. “Them” attitude that marks a lot of modern discourse about religion. Indeed, one of my paper’s primary points was to critique the New Atheist movement’s caricature of the Bible as the fairy tales of Bronze Age Goat Herders that I characterized as a symptom of the “Bronze Age Goat Herders Syndrome”.  Here is what Salm said I said and what I really said.
 Salm: “He described ancient Israel as “rude, crude, ignorant, misogynist, unjust, and unpleasant—everything we don’t like.”
I did not and I really don’t know who this “we” is Salm is talking about, but there is more wrong than that:
ME:           The [Goat Herders] syndrome is a frame of mind in which the Bible, the god it purports to describe, its writers, and indeed, the entire ancient Israelite and Judean society, represent almost everything that an ideal atheistic world would not be: rude, crude, ignorant (perhaps willfully so), superstitious, fear-ridden, violent, racist, xenophobic, clannish, homophobic, misogynistic, unjust, and generally unpleasant: and often, but not always, rural, as opposed to the more urban and urbane atmosphere of the atheists’ utopia…On some levels the syndrome serves a myth-creating function. It informs and shapes how many atheists portray the development of religious behavior as a kind of primordial “Fall.” As Dawkins would have it, religion is a byproduct of otherwise helpful evolutionary adaptations: it is not an adaptation in itself. It is a “misfiring,” and a “virus of the mind” that infects generation after generation. The Fall into a religious dark ages finds its remedy in the heroic, emancipatory struggles of scientists, rationalists and free thinkers; a mythic battle that must be refought as chaos reasserts itself in the guise of a resurgent fundamentalism, a situation that all believers, including moderates and liberals, enable.
Salm had me say something exactly opposite to what I was really talking about! I spent a good part of my talk critiquing Dawkins’ handling of some key biblical passages, even as I was calling on secular scholars not to shy away from adding their voices to the overall discourses over secularism in popular discourse. Thus, even while joining the “New Atheists” in critiquing religious privilege we have to find a way to correct the wildly inaccurate and dehumanizing portrayal of the Bible and ancient societies that seems so central to some of the New Atheists discourses.
Salm:  ”Turning to the contemporary scene (BAR, [Biblical Archaeology Review] should have been listening), he observed that religion in North America is ultimately consumer driven”
 ME:         ” It [Goat Herders Syndrome] depends on the Secularization Theory: that is, that with the spread of Enlightenment rationalism, growing scientific literacy, and increased standard of living, people would slough off religion as redundant. But the modern era has seen not so much the failure of religion but the development of new consumer driven and anti-modernistic modes.”
Again, I think Salm entirely missed my point. I was talking about the rise of  ”do-it-yourself” religions and spirituality, and neo-conservative strands that discount modern intellectualism. These provide a major counter-example to the Secularization Theory. That was my point, not that all modern religion is consumer based and hence evidence against the integrity of Herschel Shanks and BAR. Now, perhaps Mr. Shanks is simply after cash and does not care if he misrepresents the ancient world or sells unprovenanced antiquities or whatever. But you can’t get to that accusation fairly from what I said in Chicago. But damn, its worth a cat…
Salm: ”that the media overlooks secular scholars in the field”

Now this is more or less but not entirely accurate.

ME: As many scholars have noted, when the press needs an expert opinion on the Bible or ancient Israel they often don’t recognize that there is a difference between the secular and the confessional biblical scholar, or that secular scholarship even exists.

“Often don’t recognize” is not a blanket accusation. I also said that secular approaches to the Bible have some common ground with the atheist activists.

ME:    ” Of course, there is some overlap between the kind of secular world the New Atheists value and the intellectual space in which secular biblical criticism takes place.  As is well known, Syro-Palestinian archaeologists and historians frequently bewail the sensationalism of media reports about new discoveries that cater to religious conservatives  and those to whom we give the academically useful, if still poorly theorized, label, “religious nut-case”.

Again, I am not implying that ALL media reports have a pro-religion bias. Also note that my joking reference to “nutcases” is in addition to religious conservatives. Here is how Salm represented that:

Salm:  ” that archaeological discoveries cater to religious conservatives (“nutcases”)”

 The “nutcase” clause (which I ad-libbed a little from my original text) marked a different set of people from religious conservatives, and I had in mind seekers of Noah’s Ark, Atlantis, UFOs, etc. It was also a bit of joke pointed at scholars who employ the term as if it had some kind of agreed upon meaning when it is really a subjective term.

Most importantly, I did not want to imply that the situation with the media was a lost cause, or that nothing was being done except my (and Salm’s) bitching about it.  I did, however, indicate that scholarship needs to make its reasoned, secular approach to the Bible and ancient Israel accessible to religions’ sharpest detractors:

Me: I would propose today that secular scholarship should be publicized not only as an alternative to theological claims but also as a vaccination against the Goat Herders Syndrome. Efforts to popularize the results of academic research into ancient Israel and the Bible, such as Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s BBC television series, The Bible’s Buried Secret and NOVA’s similarly named broadcast, are to be celebrated. The SBL’s “Bible Odyssey Program” also looks promising and is certainly a step in the right direction. Hopefully, the popular critics of the Bible and Bible based religions will employ it.

Anyway, I hope I have cleared some of this up. I realize that it is often hard to remember just what someone else said, but this does seem to be a case of Salm hearing what he wanted to hear.

2 Responses to “A (P)Salm: Oh Lord, Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”

  1. MrPopularSentiment Says:

    The idea that secularism is not the same as atheism (and visa versa) needs to be repeated a few billion times. I wouldn’t want to live in an atheist country any more than I would want to live in a Christian one, but a secular one would be lovely.

    Anyways, tangential to your paper (and your Eschaton talk), I do think that the freethought/Gnu Atheist community needs to take the humanities more seriously. Especially around this time of year when my inbox and facebook feed are full with silly notes that say things like “Born on Dec 25? Twelve disciples? Son of a god and a virgin? Oh, you must be thinking of Mithras!”

  2. My trip to the SBL in Chicago—Part 2 |   Mythicist Papers Says:

    [...]   Dr. Linville consider my comments in some ways a mischaracterization. I direct readers to his blogwhere he clarifies his position in extenso. —R.S. 12/8/12. &nbsp: – “The motif of the [...]