Posted on October 8, 2012 at 5:55 pm by Dr. Jim
A huge bruhaha is brewing over possible disciplinary action against the world renowned scholar of second temple Judaism, epigraphy, and palaeography, Christopher Rollston (see his blog on ancient inscriptions) by his place of employment, the very small Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Johnson City, Tennessee. I don’t know all the details, and the blog posts and comments are many and varied, but it seems as if Rollston published a piece in the Huffington Post called “The Marginalization of Women: A Biblical Value We Don’t Like to Talk About” to which (EmMANuel) Christian defenders of male privilege and honour got huffy, puffy, and tried saying that Rollston was wrong about the marginalization of women in the Bible: Its really more egalitarian and so is the history of biblical interpretation. Moreover, it is an internal, institutional issue, that should not be aired outside of ECS, especially not in the ear or internet-shot of non-believers.
It does remind me of the uproar this summer in the secular activist/atheist community over sexism at secularist meetings, in organizations and so forth. It seems that some folks like to keep a high wall of separation between atheism and gender issues while others, like me, don’t give a damn about atheism/secularism if we don’t mix it to some degree with issues of equality and men realizing that they should not be assholes. For example, blogger Greta Christina posted about a comment she received by someone who apparently thinks that feminist claims of gender inequality are rather unjustified:
Comment from Tim, in the discussion on the post Atheism Plus: The New Wave of Atheism
“GRETA CHRISTINA YOU FUCKIN HOE… I HOPE YOU GET RAPED YOU FUCKIN FEMINAZI SLUT… GO CHOKE ON A DICK AND DIE
“What are you gonna do, Greta? Are you gonna ban me again? ”
In any case I will post on this issue later, but as a preface to my discussion of Rollston and ECS, I’d just like to say that far more dangerous that the so-called Feminazis (a term which admittedly has not come up in the recent affair) is the Mascu-Klan a term which I think is appropriate for all defenders of the male-biased status quo, from the haters Greta Christina has to put up with the to far less rude and perhaps unwitting defenders of male privilege that includes some of Rollston’s objectors. And hell, even the well manners sophisticated Mascu-Klansmen represent a rather dangerous institution! Hell, they’ve been in power in churches, governments and universities ever since those things existed! My issue is with the “ethics department” (aka, Ministry of Propaganda) of the Mascu-Klan, at least in regards to Rollston’s case.
In brief: Nathan Gilmour, Wes Arblaster, and Micah Weedman took Rollston to task, but got their comeuppance in a long blog post by Thom Stark, who argued well that Rollston’s view on biblical marginalization of women was fair, balanced, and not in any way controversial in the field of biblical studies. Our three self-professed humanists were righteously skewered by Stark in a wonderful takedown. Stark also defends Rollston from the critiques of fellow ECS faculty member, the patristics scholar, Paul Bowers. Tom Verenna also posted an article, “On Academic Integrity and the Future of Biblical Studies in Confessional Institutions” which threw the ball back into the court of Bowers. Many, and long, comments were appended, with Blowers defending his views from the likes of Robert Cargill, Niels Peter Lemche, and Steve Caruso, Joel Watts and others.
Since I wrote post over some time, I didn’t notice that Blowers has published a response to Tom Verenna in Bible and Interpretation, so I’m editing this here and there to add the salient points.
Scholarly bloggers weighing in include James Tabor (Can a Christian be a Historian: Heretic Hunting in 2012, who observe that the ECS comes from a Christian tradition quite amenable to critical scholarly inquiry. Tabor writes:
Chris is being attacked from various quarters for not upholding the theological stance of his institution. The irony here is that what Chris is being criticized for is a very fine essay published in the Huffington Post on the “Marginalization of Women: A Biblical Value We Don’t Like to Talk About,” that could hardly be seen as a violation of any creed–Christian or otherwise. In fact, the “goals” of the Seminary are stated in very “non-creedal” ways that allow for the broadest possible application, see here. Further, the Stone-Cambellite heritage, from which Emmanuel stems, has been historically open to reason and critical thinking in biblical studies going back to Alexander Campbell’s own very textually based and linguistically oriented approach to the Bible. Rollston seems the perfect heir to the higher “end” of that movement, as was my teacher Abraham Malherbe whom I wrote about earlier this week here.
Anyway, being a rather rabid atheist, it might seem that I don’t have a horse in this race, but I do. So, to run the risk of repeating some of the other critics, here is my defence of Rollston and why it matters that secularists-including atheists- defend him.
First of all, the complaints of Gilmour, Arblaster, and Weedman, in their rather inappropriately named blog,”The Christian Humanist,” produce a contradictory, nay, hypocritical, essay that misrepresents Rollston’s position (as noted by Stark), and actually undermines the “humanist” values they claim to hold. In fact, THEIR view can easily lead to continued marginalization of women. They write: “The God of Biblical witness is one who hears the cries of slaves, outcasts, and the marginalized and who demands justice on their behalf.” Well sure, but in other places this god/Bible a) demands genocide; b) treats women as property; c) is fine with slavery; d) forbids women to teach in church; and so forth. As any honest reader of the Bible knows, the balance is against women.They continue:
Concluding Rollston’s article we were left wondering whether Rollston had really lost sight of such basic observations in the rarefied air of specialized ancient history (he is one of the world’s leading authorities in his field) or whether his apparent ignorance was feigned. Either possibility is a painful one, an indictment of the scholarly guilds’ prominence in the life of the seminary as much as a warning in the person of Rollston. Either way, in Rollston’s article, there’s no history, and there’s no theology. But finally, there’s no reverence. And reverence (despite the fact that it is often scoffed at today) remains one of those postures that is most important for listening well. Certainly one would expect that an atheist writer like Richard Dawkins would ridicule the Bible as a litany of backward and offensive opinions. Reductivism is the modus operandi of the irreverent because it enables them to level their own best attacks against said reductionist reading. But Rollston is one of the main teachers of Old Testament at a seminary, a place dedicated to the training of Christian ministers and leaders of faith. This is a seminary in a tradition that holds the canon of Holy Writ to be not only the core of Church authority but also the primary the critiquing agent of theology, that which can call into question any doctrine or ideology or practice of the Church. Rollston’s public attack on the text of the Bible therefore amounts to a radical rejection of his very professional raison d’etre.
First of all, I wonder if these three guys, questioning Rollston’s integrity, know what “humanism” really is. Could “humanists” really go to the defence of an institution’s prerogative over an educated individual’s reasoned (albeit briefly stated) opinions in a non-sectarian venue? Does “humanism” really survive this?
Can they REALLY complain about Rollston’s alleged “reduction” and “misrepresentation” of the Bible’s position when they seem to ignore the parts of Rollston’s paper that were NOT negative about the Bible? Their equation of Rollston’s balanced article with the kind of rhetoric produced by Richard Dawkins is outrageously hyperbolic. I don’t know much about the New Testament but I do remember this “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? (Luke 6:41). As Stark’s long response to the three “humanists” points out, the bulk of the Bible surely does marginalize women, and so does the majority of Judeo-Christian interpretation. Our alleged humanists complain that Rollston doesn’t present historical context and how he separates the Bible from its “context of faith.” But, for their part, they don’t say a thing about how that for the vast majority of Christian history women have been marginalized by various cultural and political views backed up by various modes of scriptural interpretations. Are they feigning ignorance?
The giveaway is that they write of how Rollston should have been paying attention to “those alternative interpretations concerning women that are by no means novel but which have followed the Bible across the centuries as Rabbis, theologians, and ordinary folk have grappled with these sacred texts.” OK, so why are these more egalitarian views on the Bible and society “alternative” (if not exactly novel). Why haven’t they been the foundation of Western civilization and most forms of Christianity over the centuries? The lad
ys doth protest too much, methinks. When they say Rollston should emphasize the alternative interpretations and not what shaped our civilization and the biblical core behind it they are asking him to make excuses for the Bible and for its believers, to brush the ugly under the carpet, to create an essentialist view of what the BIble and Christianity are (or should be regarded as) that runs counter to the bulk of historical evidence. That is not scholarship. The say that God will hear the appeals of the downtrodden. But what about the Church? Has it? It is they who pay but lip service to history and therefore to the voices of those marginalized throughout the ages. What kind of critique of of the Bible and history of Christianity would these three accept as valid? How much does the bad have to be diluted by the good before an assessment can stand? Would the oppressed still have a voice left to hear?
Their essentialism runs counter to their post-modernist pretensions but it is quite pronounced. They criticize Rollston for pretending to know what the bible REALLY says: i.e., that it seeks the marginalization of women. But the Christian or even atheist might cry, “Scribes, pharisees, hypocrites!” when Gilmour, Arblaster, and Weedman write,”The God of Biblical witness is one who hears the cries of slaves, outcasts, and the marginalized and who demands justice on their behalf” and later,
For example, when asking whether “the Bible marginalizes women” certainly it is also important to ask, “And what does the God of the Bible charge us to do concerning those who are marginalized?” The answer to this is one that anyone who has spent time in Sunday School should be able to answer.
It seem to my that these three have a pretty darn clear view (at least to their own satisfaction) of what the Bible “really” teaches and what “real” Christianity preaches despite the pseudo-post-modern posturing in some of their article about multiple subjective frames of reference, interpretations etc.. Indeed, in my experience, post-modernism as it is employed in many religious contexts, is but a thin jargon filled smokescreen hiding a rather authoritian mode of thought. It denies that anyone can make a non-subjective claim against the faith and then turns around and affirms the old religious status quo. Our three propagandists write:
Ultimately we found it difficult to believe this was not an effort to marginalize the Bible itself from its revered location as the central moral guide for people of faith. In doing this Rollston expresses little of that virtue which we have been speaking of and which has been so central to the cultivation of the Biblical faiths: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”
Gilmour, Arblaster, and Weedman are not the only ones who think Rollston was wrong to embarrass Christianity in the secular press. As for Paul Blowers, many of the other bloggers and commenters more than adequately dismiss his misrepresentation of both the Bible and Rollston’s article (see especially Stark and Verenna, linked above and below), but his view that Rollston should not have published his piece in a secular publication and that disciplinary action is an internal affair really riles me up.
Stark’s article quotes some of the conversations on Blowers’ Facebook wall ( since removed). Stark writes:
And then there’s this. Remember very early on, when Dr. Blowers said that in his “humble judgment,” Dr. Rollston had not lived up to his responsibilities as a representative of the seminary? Remember that I said there was nothing at all “humble” about Dr. Blowers’ judgment? Yes, well, here’s why. After the Three Young Men published their blog post, Dr. Blowers wrote on his Facebook wall, in full public view, that he had sent their blog post to the President, Dean, and one other professor. He then wrote, and I quote exactly,
We are looking at disciplinary action in the next few days. I still scratch my head trying to figure Rollston out. He seems to be totally atheological and now interested simply in selling the “Rollston brand,” no matter how it might reflect back on Emmanuel.
Now, Dr. Blowers insists he posted this in public accidentally. It was meant to be posted in a private message to a former student. I struggle to see how that makes this OK. Dr. Blowers has a history of sharing his grievances about Dr. Rollston with students. Dr. Blowers eventually deleted this comment from Facebook, but not before several current students, formers students, and God knows who else, saw it and gasped. And not before one former student had the foresight to copy and paste the text of Dr. Blowers’ comments into a document.
So, he calls for disciplinary action against Rollston for writing publicly about something that is COMMON KNOWLEDGE within biblical studies circles and especially felt in feminist circles WITHIN the Christian Church. That it affirms what many non-believers know (if only in part and in a sometimes hyperbolic way) about Christianity, is beside the point. According to Verenna, Blowers wrote:
[W]hen you teach in a seminary your first audience (and responsibility) is the religious community, not the secular blogosphere, and the expectation is that what you publish “out there” will still reflect that responsibility responsibly (i.e., putting things “out there” in fairly blunt and minimally nuanced form, without due consideration for the hermeneutical complexities within the interpretation of ancient texts received as sacred within faith traditions, does not seem, in my humble judgment, to meet that responsibility).
Blowers’s comment(#4) to the Verenna piece says in part:
There is no “heresy” trial whatsoever operative and you have way spoken in ignorance if you think there is. The issue discussed publicly is not at all one of posting biblical evidence on the marginalization of women per se. The issue in public discussion has been the identification of it as a “biblical value” pure and simple, without any really substantive, balanced consideration of the countervailing evidence even within the Bible (esp. the NT). Certainly there is no “heresy” (the word that you have chosen) in airing concerns about the historic marginalization and subordination of women, which we will all agree is a wretched reality past and present in many cultural contexts.
One can only wonder if Blowers would have called for disciplinary action had Rollston written that gender egalitarianismis a “biblical value” but had neglected to comment on the all the disparaging comments in the Bible about women and their proper place in society. Would THAT misrepresentation elicit an objection or disciplinary action? I don’t think so. It would certainly constitute a misrepresentation of the evidence, something Blowers seems concerned about. In his own Bible and Interpretation article Bowers writes:
I went public with my criticism of the essay, and still believe that it is not a responsible presentation of the full biblical evidence on the treatment of women, as it barely skims the “push back” texts in OT or NT and has no mention whatsoever of Jesus’s interactions with women in the Gospels.
Hell, Rollston’s article barely skims the misogynistic texts of the Bible, too, but he doesn’t seem to have a problem with that lack!
In the same comment ot Verenna’s article noted above, Blowers chastises Verenna thusly:
As it stands, your location is a secular university, where many faculty are “primed” for anything that remotely smacks of censorship, and where the canons of academic freedom differ greatly from confessional institutions.
Bob Cargill’s responses (#13, 14, 15) really hit home: He writes:
Do you not realize that your repeated (non-)responses of “it’s just our internal business” [ in comment #7] and “you don’t have all the information” makes the recent events at Emmanuel appear all the more scandalous, as these are the typical responses of an organization that is attempting to cover up and distract from something that goes against all rules of professionalism and academic propriety?
My views exactly. The idea that this is an affair “internal” to Immanuel Christian smacks of the same kind of “mind your own business” response one gets when criticizing human rights abuses in places like China. Or in a “cult”, where the individual is subsumed under the requirements for strong group solidarity and thus truth can be easily sacrificed to group honor, especially in its dealings with outsiders. All I see Blowers or the three “humanists” or their cheerleaders producing is a sophistic pseudo-championing of “balance in scholarship” while they are desperate to have 2000+ years of biblical dirty laundry hidden behind new billboards advertising Christianity’s purportedly time-honoured and steadily improving technology to get those clothes clean (technology friendly to women whose job it is to do the laundry).
But is it really my business to be concerned? Of course it is. Another admission, most regular readers of this blog know my own view on the existence of god(s) can make Dawkins look like a quaker, and I advocate a VERY sharp break between the Church and Scholarship, yet I’m a realist. That break does not exist in my own discipline or many others in the humanities. The secular and confessional disciplines will always be there, to one extent or another, and I’m happy with that. I’m also very aware that “secular” does NOT mean “atheist”. Most people doing secular work in Biblical Studies are believers. Many of friends and colleagues have strong Jewish and Christian beliefs (with a few Muslims thrown in there, too), I got my PhD from the faculty of Divinity at the U. of Edinburgh, and I’m sure I drove the believers as crazy as they drove me, but in the end we all would go out for a pint together, talk about our research and learn from each other.
The world of scholarship (biblical or otherwise) is interconnected: between countries, between individual institutions, between scholars, and between students. Reinforcing these connections are the fundamental human traits of camaraderie, empathy and generally being decent to others. It should be the role of the administration in academic institutions to make such interconnections work. Therein lies the heart of academia. It is not the quest for private knowledge jealously guarded, but a system of sharing knowledge. Anyone who gets in the way of this is being rather counter-productive and like those who are offended by the results of honest research and the content of honest teaching, should get out of the business. They have no place in it.
Thus, the view of a certain “Dr. Tee” who comments on Verenna’s article (#21) is pure nonsense.
I side with Dr. Blowers on this issue and it should be kept internal at the University. Unbelievers and atheists have no right to interfere in a private University matter especially when they are not employed by that University.
Disciplinary action taken by an institution that will affect a scholar’s career and perhaps influence how other scholars publicize or suppress their own work is hardly a purely internal matter. And so it does really affect me at least to some extent. I work in the same broad discipline of the history of ancient Israel’s religion and belong to some of the same scholarly organizations as the accused. How Rollston is treated can impact how others are treated if other schools enforce a pro-institutional censorship in the name of an absurdly construed notion of “completeness” that plasters over an deeply engrained social inequality. If Emmanuel Christian wants to be completely isolated from the rest of the intellectual world, then fine: They should just be big enough to admit it publicly, release all their academic staff with very generous severance packages and admit they want nothing more to do with the search for knowledge.
Phillip Davies’ questions (in the very next comment to Verenna’s article), are quite apt. He questions Blower’s claim that academic freedom in confessional schools is different from that in a secular university, where many faculty are “primed” for anything that remotely smacks of censorship.” Davies writes (emphasis mine):
What are the canons of academic freedom in confessional institutions? Specifically, what makes them ‘academic’ and what constitutes the ‘freedom’? I can accept that even in secular institutions the value of received knowledge is sometimes over-protected, too, but that knowledge is usually based on academic enquiry, which can be challenged on its own terms, while revealed ‘knowledge’ and traditional church teaching – it seems to me – are not. I am really puzzled as to why an institutions that already knows the truth about the Bible would bother to entertain critical enquiry. What would be the point?
For my part, I can see none. All the bluster Blowers and co. blows amounts to little more than that Rollston is being crucified, figuratively speaking, for choosing not to bury fair accusations against Christianity and the Bible under a pile of exaggerated counter-examples, red-herrings, rhetoric and apologetic book-cooking. Protecting reputation is NOT scholarship but its antithesis! But lets not forget that, according to the New Testament, questioning institutions was part of the reason Jesus got himself crucified in the first place, literally speaking! Why are Blowers and co. so legalistic about Rollston’s obligations to his Seminary? The “Law”, be it civil or religious, does not totally embody justice. Is this not what is behind Jesus’ castigations of the Scribes and Pharisees? Is there not a deeper principle than doing what the “Law” and its self appointed defenders say you should do? It is this kind of thing that can lead to many good people doing horrible things in name of following orders. Academics is SUPPOSED to question loyalties and the status quo, not simply affirm them. That’s why free thinking eggheads are so often among the first up against the wall when dictators take power. Rollston’s objectors talk a lot of his OBLIGATION to the Seminary, the honour of the Church, and so forth. But does any contract Rollston signed really remove every moral obligation ECS has toward him? Is it exclusively a one way street? Did he really sell his soul to the
This raises an important question for all academics, religious or secular, given that education is rapidly becoming a business oriented “commodity” that is now dominated by outside interests (industry, etc): Who comprises the REAL educational institute, the administration and the school’s donors, or the teaching and research faculty? All too often the school administration think they are the real institution and that teachers and researchers must serve their interests rather than the institution serving the needs of those directly engaged in learning and teaching and the pursuit of knowledge.
Blowers’s Bible and Interpretation article comment on Rollston’s 2006 professorial inauguration address, and Blowers true colours as Churchman and not a Scholar show through (again, emphasis is mine):
Dr. Rollston, in his 2006 installation address for the Nakarai Chair in OT at Emmanuel, reflected on his own journey from a very conservative upbringing to an elite university education in Semitic studies. In the address, he declared to a broad audience that Emmanuel’s real purpose in educating students for ministry should be precisely to cultivate “religious elites” and “public intellectuals” (his phrases). I think not—especially if being a “public intellectual” means cavalierly undertaking commentary on sacred revelation in the secular blogosphere just to take shots at the fundamentalists and biblicists (the “biblical values” folks) whom Dr. Rollston already left behind long ago.
What I want to know, then, is why the administration of ECS hired Rollston as an expert in several fields including biblical studies in the first place? And why is Blowers so damn defensive about church history (he is a church historian!). Rollston can be “caviller” because there was nothing that is academically incontestable about his brief article and it was far more balanced that Blowers’ disingenuous response to it. ECS even BRAGs about Rollston’s elite expertise on Rollston’s ECS webpage. So why not let him show it off? If they have no intention of learning what he has to teach, then why hire him? If there is one thing to learn from all of this, it is this:
If you hire a professor, don’t be surprised if you get professed at.
In his Bible and Interpretation article, Blowers writes:
One could easily draw the conclusion, as have some of my Emmanuel colleagues, that Dr. Rollston hasn’t been listening at all to our conversations on women in the Bible and women in ministry (an issue we’re passionate about in an ecclesial tradition often resistant to opening doors to women in ministry). Well, I’m listening, how do you get more women in the ministry? Hell, how many women are at ECS? Why aren’t you, Dr. Blowers, talking about that? Is this why?
ECS’s site lists 11 faculty members, of which only two are women: the only two assistant professors on the list! One man is President, another Librarian. There are three men holding named professorships (including Rollston and Blowers), one “Distinguished Professor,” and three “Professors”. The list of Emeritus and Part Time Faculty has one woman in a named chair (emeritus), three male professors and a male lecturer. Only one woman serves as Adjunct Faculty alongside eight men, so that’s four women out of 25 positions. Of course, this is not the result of marginalization at ECS as a product of the status quo in the wider society, is it? Of course, I cannot comment on the relative pay-scales of the men and women as that information is not provided. Might be comparable. Might. Granted the sample size is small, but still, does ECS have something against women or their role in higher education?
And what of the students? Here is the information I could find on their website, cut and pasted:
Master of Divinity/Master of Arts in Religio Students (Fall 2011)
12.7% International Students
1.2% African American
So there are more female students per capita than there are female faculty members, but still, it’s THREE TO ONE male/female student ratio! Is this representative of Tennessee higher educational institutes as a whole? I can’t believe that! Does this really reflect well on a theological viewpoint that upholds the Bible and Christian history as advocates of the socially disenfranchised as Blowers and co. would have it? Really? The demographics of this Seminary give lie to Blowers’ propagandistic answer to Rollston.
It seems Rollston has been listening and perhaps shaking his head at the empty words! All I can say is, Physician, heal thyself! (Don’t know where I got that from, some old book quoting some other guy).
Now, to be fair, I work in a small Religious Studies department (5 full time faculty) which is all male. In our defence, in the two searches I was engaged in for the two most recent hires we considered a lot of female candidates. In both cases we hired men because of their areas of study fit what we were looking for, and their excellent teaching skills and research potential, and with the unanimous support of the whole committee. More than half of the women and a good number of the men who applied for the Islam position were more theologically oriented towards Christian interfaith dialogue with Muslims rather than the secular study of Islam and Islamic thought per se (which is what the ad was for). A woman we interviewed for the Buddhist position made it abundantly clear that, being from New York, she would really not enjoy living in little Lethbridge, so we figured even if she took the job she wouldn’t stay and we would be back to square one in a year or two. Our dean is very concerned with getting a proper gender balance across the faculty, and had to be convinced that we were not discriminating against women and that the two guys we wanted to hire were the best candidates (they both worked out fine). Across the board at the U of Lethbridge, the balance between male and female faculty is fairly even, but I don’t have the figures to hand. There are certainly more than 16% per cent women! And the university’s student body is probably 50% female or even a little more. There are usually far more women majoring in Religious Studies and taking most Religious Studies courses than men.
As far as “race” goes, Lethbridge and the university are predominantly Caucasian (about 4.7% of the students self-identify as First Nations, Metis or Inuit, apparently the highest percentage of Alberta’s universities), but given the large population of African-American and Latinos in the USA, that they represent only 3.6% of ECS’s student body is striking. Why is it that traditionally marginalized people in society are so underrepresented at ECS? Again, how do Tennessee’s other institutions (including the secular ones) compare?
There is a stand of argument in the various posts about whether the “We” in Rollston’s subtitle, “A Biblical Value We Don’t Like to Talk About” refers to academia as a whole or only ECS. Perhaps in the end it does refer only to ECS, and so this really why guys like Blowers are so defensive about Rollston going to the secular world? It seems that Blowers et. al. DON’T like to talk about the marginalization of women since it seems so poorly addressed in ECS’s own demographics! It seems to me that the secular world is doing a better job when it comes to including women and minorities in higher education than they are! Perhaps if we are to criticize Rollston’s paper for anything we should call attention to his lack of directly relating the Biblical Value of gender discrimination directly to his own school’s realities! In this light, it seems as if he was defending ECS after all.
For as much as I like to post about Slinky Jazz Babes, and Slinky Bible Babes and therefore deserve the wrath of the feminists, I would have to say that academia and society as a whole would be far better off with more feminists in positions of authority over education and without Mascu-Klansmen like Blowers and the “Three Humanists” championing the status quo in such a disingenuous fashion against a fine scholar who was only doing his job!