Why I Support Pope Francis

Many of my secular friends are having a hard time coping with Pope Francis, and I understand why.  He’s an enigma.  We’ve all borne witness to the likes of Pope Benedict, whose status as a theologian was overshadowed by his callous attitude and many missteps.

Pope Francis is in some ways Benedict’s polar opposite. Being a Jesuit—the first ever to hold a Papal tenure—he is humble, attempts to live a simplified life, and understands the plight of the impoverished.  He goes out at night and takes care of the sickly.  He finds humility to be a worthwhile attribute so much that he refuses to stay in the expensive Papal suite.  He gives up the Pope Mobile for an antique.  He speaks out against Capitalism. He walks the walk… even literally.

Meanwhile, Benedict’s tenure saw scandals galore: money laundering at the hands of the Vatican bank played into the notion of a Vatican City awash in Capitalism rather than the ethical behavior one expects to find at the Holy See.  He fumbled—like Bush did with FEMA during Katrina—when it came to dealing with allegations of pedophilia in the clergy.  We witnessed the proclaimed center of Catholic morality, including god’s chosen witness on earth, fall into corruption.

Rightly the secular masses are somewhat skeptical—why Francis to replace Benedict?  Is this the new face of Catholicism or just the guy they are using to spin the church right before they fall back into corruption once he is gone—like a placeholder for the second coming of Ratzinger?  Frankly, I don’t believe the highly-conservative heads of the College of Cardinals would have cast their votes for someone like Francis if they knew he was going to turn as many heads as he has; they have never cared about public opinion before and I doubt highly that they had a change of heart about it.  So the conspiracy theories that Francis is a Publicity Stunt for a dying church is growing a little tiresome.

But while there are your typical conspiracy nuts out there (especially those who just flat out hate religion, or just Catholicism in general), other secular individuals are just downright impractical.  They want Francis to allow women priests, to open up the doors to gay marriage in catholic churches, and if he doesn’t heed their demands, well, then he’s a terrible nonliberal, who does not belong in his position of authority.

Let me be clear: I’m not an atheist, yet nor am I a Catholic (in the practicing sense, but I do believe in a supreme being).  But I was a Catholic—raised into the faith and traditions and the shame (as every good Catholic, even former Catholics, knows well)—and so I am sympathetic towards Catholicism.  For me, even as an Apostate, Catholicism represents the earliest, most ‘accurate’ variant of what might be considered ‘actual’ Christianity; that is to say, it represents, to the best of its ability, the oldest continuing sect of what came from the Romanization of the dogmatic eschatological traditions of the 4th Century (which had already changed dramatically—perhaps almost entirely—from the initial post-Easter kerygma).  I’ve got a bias and I know it.

However I’m not one to let the church off easy for its many sins.  I’ve written scathing articles against the treatment of women, on confessional institutions that limit academic freedom of thought and research, and on certain conservative interpretations of the Bible.  In this respect, I am as much a Catholic as any other—one who is both reverent of its place in the world but skeptical of its own hierarchical claims to authority (said with only part of my tongue in my cheek).

Yes, I do think that the Magdalene Laundries were horrific.  Yes, I think the Crusades were unfortunate and a tragedy—especially for Muslims and Jews.  And, absolutely, I agree with anyone who thinks that every priest who has sexually assaulted or abused another human being—whether that be a child or a woman or a man—should be tarred and feathered and stuck out in the gallows at which people to throw rotten food.  And yet somehow I can’t think of a reason why I should let these terrible and historic events overshadow the present.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you all not to judge the people, or even people in general, because I think that is unrealistic.  Our world wouldn’t run if people weren’t judged by other people (it makes more sense the longer you think about it).  But maybe I’m just a stickler for judging individuals based upon their circumstances and context rather than taking the whole institution as a whole.  Maybe I don’t want to hold Francis responsible for the sins of his church fathers.

Would it be awesome if women were allowed into a priestly role?  Yes.  Shouldn’t the church allow gay marriages?  It would certainly be great for all those practicing Catholics who are also gay and who love just as deeply as a straight Catholic.  But let us be realistic here.  That isn’t going to happen now.  There are lines drawn in the sand.  It is a glorious thing when a Pope decides that it is time to cross one of those lines, let alone several—but we cannot expect total reform.  The Catholic church is a huge and ancient institution (which is a pleasant way of saying that parts of it are rather dated).  Things must happen slowly in order to take hold.

Granted, Francis is accountable for his own actions, in his own time (presently), in the broader context of the current state of the church.  And right now they are the actions of a decent man trying to desperately to teach his fellow Christians how to ‘Christian’ correctly—at least the way he sees as ‘correct’.  Given his predecessors, that is a tremendous leap forward. We should take that for what it is and be grateful.  Any man who risks his own life to sneak out and feed the poor—especially after angering so many dangerous people—is a man who is heroic.  When was the last time we had such a Pope? That is why I support him. Dimidium facti qui coepit habet.  Given time, it is my thinking that his accomplishments will be the light which shines the path for those who follow.

Book Review: Candida Moss – ‘The Myth of Persecution’

15a97f0a723e11e29a6422000a9e06c4_7I had very little knowledge of this book prior to receiving my copy, though I did have high expectations based upon what little I did know.  A professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Notre Dame, Dr. Candida Moss has focused quite a bit on the subject of martyrdom and judging from her earlier work she tends to treat the evidence objectively (while remaining realistic about it), making her a superb scholar.   From the blurb on the book, it looked to be a subject with which I have a lot of interest; it appeared to have that edge, that revisionist quality, of which I felt I would enjoy reading.

There were a lot of ways this book could have failed.  It is not an easy task to challenge a foundational doctrine.  Often books of this magnitude will fall short somewhere, either in interpretation, or in attempts to find bizarre explanations that side-step critical issues.   So it is, in fact, a testament–a μάρτυς, if you will–to Dr. Moss’s abilities that this book finds its footing and takes off running from the very first page.   It does not disappoint.

In the introduction of The Myth of Persecution, Dr. Moss spends a good amount of time laying out the framework for the rest of the book.  She engages, first and foremost, the modern mindset of martyrdom within Christianity–a temperament that she treats carefully and respectfully–and how this contemporary mentality feeds off of a tradition of an ancient persecuted Christian church.  In certain cases throughout the history of the world, persecuted Christians (i.e., those who often face inexplicable hardships, including death) have likened their struggle with the ancient martyr traditions, often dualistically (as in a battle between good and evil).  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, she writes, as “Sometimes this idea inspires great courage and heroism and provides comfort to the sick or dying” (p. 9).  She then goes on to aptly point out the distinction between actual persecutions and the invoked kind.  That is to say, those who would relate disagreements (often minor) between themselves and other political- or social-opposing groups (like those relating to how religious issues should be handled in a secular society which makes allowances for minority rights, for example) to persecution.

QuitSquirming1We all know about this tactic, don’t we?  How often do we hear someone talking about how they are ‘religiously persecuted’ because they can’t force prayer in school?  Or how about those who feel oppressed because they can’t get judicial officials to follow the law of the Bible instead of modern, secular laws?  Dr. Moss highlights this important issue with a good blend of criticism while recognizing the social factors that push this mentality onward.  For that she gets bonus points, in my book.  It is far too easy to get lost in the polemics and vitriol, and yet she somehow manages to avoid all that by cutting right to the social factors and implications, while remaining honest and forthright about the ‘wrongness’ (if I can use it that way) of such blatant word misuse.  But while this is not persecution in the true sense, she argues, this is how modern western societies–particularly in America–interpret the word:

In this polarized view of the world, disagreement and conflict–even entirely nonviolent conflict–is not just a difference of opinion; it is [in the mind of this social entity-Ed.] religious persecution. (ibid.)

Dr. Moss is tactful, never making any accusations or calling into question anyone’s integrity or honesty; she treats these feelings are genuine (though when it comes to politicians, she may be too generous).  Still, her underlying premise is that there are individuals, whether they are religious or political figures, who evoke the language of persecution and–when this occurs–there are real and unfortunate consequences.

It is almost as if they knew I was writing this book review!

It is almost as if they knew I was writing this book review!

These mythical constructs that a person might conjure–specifically those constructs empowered emotionally by persecution language–are far from beneficial.  Rather than drumming up strong convictions, bolstering courage in face of opposition, or seeking out peaceful solutions, those groups within our society who feel persecuted are charged-up by this language, encouraged to become reactionary, and cause tremendous trouble–even to the point of committing acts of violence.  In other words, one who is under the impression that they are being persecuted–rather than simply acknowledging a disagreement in opinion–are likely to find justification in retaliation; that is to say, those who feel persecuted become the persecutors.

Then Dr. Moss throws in the wrench: What if the age of persecution is (mostly) a myth?  What if this deep-seated social memory recall, that many Christians learn from a young age, is not rooted in the verisimilitude of history?  This raises all sorts of questions, and Dr. Moss does a fine job dealing with them all.  As a minimalist, I am always more interested in the ‘why’ than the ‘what’; ‘what is this story saying’ is important, but not as important–in my opinion–as ‘why is this story being told?’.  So I was delighted to see Dr. Moss express this very concept:

When asked to describe the experiences of Christians under Roman Rule,…others might refer to those martyrs burned alive or beheaded or to the extreme tortures and grisly forms of execution that only the most sadistic minds could conjure up. …  This is the picture of the early church that we get from nearly two thousand years of literature, art, and–now–film. .. When it comes to why Christians were persecuted, people are hard-pressed to supply an answer.  (pp. 127, 128)

To be clear, she does not outright deny that Christians are persecuted (or that they were persecuted in antiquity); she is particular in what she says:

There’s no doubt that Christians thought they were persecuted;… Nor should we underestimate the reality of their experiences.  There is no doubt that Christians did die, that they were horrifically tortured and executed in ways that would appall people today,….  At the same time, the statements of apologists like Justin martyr, Tertullian, and Eusebius do not fit the evidence.  We need to be wary of the claims of Christians that they were everywhere and always persecuted, when, in fact, they were not.  (pp. 160, 161)

That said, I have to find something about which to be critical lest I be considered a bias reviewer; to be fair to Dr. Moss, these criticisms don’t have any impact on the value and usefulness of this book, and most of what I have to criticize is superficial at best.

Let me preface this by saying I really enjoyed Dr. Moss’s discussion of the early martyrdom traditions and how, like most ancient literature, there are clear designs at work, where the authors of these traditions show literary indebtedness to other,more ancient narratives (both Greco-Roman and Jewish).  Still, I would have liked to see a discussion of some of the earlier persecution stories dealing with Paul and Ignatius.  While Paul is talked about a bit (especially on his rhetoric of persecution), I don’t recall reading anything about his supposed imprisonment (as this is, itself, a form of persecution.  Both of these narratives have similar (unbelievable) elements (Colossians 4:18, where Paul is supposedly writing from prison, vs. Ignatius’ Epistle to the Romans):  Here they are, captured by Romans for, apparently, just practicing Christianity, and yet these same captors are supplying both Paul and Ignatius with a seemingly endless amount of ink and papyri just to write about the very same religion for which they were arrested.  And just who sent the letters?  It seems rather bizarre to imagine the Romans, who are presented as hostile towards Ignatius, would just do his bidding by sending out mail.  Likewise it seems just as silly to presume that other Christians would smuggle them out.  In the church tradition, Paul is supposedly martyred, but Ignatius reminds us in his epistles that he is supposedly surrounded by all sorts of wild beasts heading toward the Colosseum to be martyred!

Additionally, a discussion of the Abraham/Isaac traditions would have fit nicely into Chapter 1, which deals with the concept of martyrdom prior to Christianity.  While not necessarily a ‘martyr tradition’ in the official sense (read the book to find out why the language is important), in some versions of the story, Isaac is killed by Abraham.  This story also has certain motifs, like with that of Socrates, of a death narrative that was deemed both necessary and pious in certain Jewish and Christian traditions.  In my opinion, the father having to sacrifice his son to embolden a covenant has some interesting (albeit, generic) correlations with the passion narrative itself.

Of course, these minor critiques are nothing to worry about.  Their absence does not detract from the book in any way.  To the contrary, and to Dr. Moss’s credit, what she didn’t include couldn’t hurt her case, but only make it stronger.  The best example? The rather small size of the Christian movement in the first few centuries.  As a barely noticeable religion, a historian would be hard-pressed to find a solid reason why the Romans would even take notice of Christianity, make any sort of distinction between it and Judaism, or find just cause (or any cause) to launch a campaign of persecution against them.  Quite to the point, Pliny, a provincial governor of Bithynia (see his Epistulae) in the early second century, doesn’t even seem to notice them through most of his political career (which is extensive, and he surely would have come into contact with them at some point were there persecutions prior to the period!), and only when someone brings them before him, he acts–but he is utterly confused by them, and has to write the emperor in order to find out what to do with them (besides what he has already done)!  He isn’t even sure if holding the name ‘Christian’ itself or if the actions done under the name are considered an offense.  Had the Christian movement been larger, had there been an edict or discussion or law concerning the persecution of Christians prior to or during his governorship, Pliny would have known about it.  So not only is Dr. Moss right, arguments could be made which greatly support her conclusions in this very important volume.

This is a book about which I could go on and on, but I don’t want to drag this review out any longer (and continue to bore the pants off my readers when they could be enjoying the book I’m reviewing instead).  The Myth of Persecution espouses many truths about modern society and ancient society, both religious and secular.  But it also exposes a truth about humanity as a whole, though quite indirectly: we are satiated by myth.  Humans are simply more inclined to accept a traditional perspective than a factual one.  Man is intrigued more by legends of heroism than by real courage and heroism (and many of us wouldn’t even know where to look for it).  And whether a story is historical or not will never be as important as whether it is good or not.  For that reason, as well, some may not like what Dr. Moss has to say.  Her presentation–sound and verifiable as it is–will not win support from certain social groups and individuals who find the age of martyrs a useful tool in directing the masses to fulfill their agendas.

This guy probably won't buy it, though he is one person who really needs to read it.

This guy probably won’t buy it, though he is one person who really needs to read this book.

For those who are interested in the early church–that is, the best approximation we can find of what that ‘early church’ might have looked like–this book is a dream come true.  It analyzes long-ignored subjects in a tenacious–yet fruitful–manner that will grab your attention and keep you turning pages.  It is an enjoyable read and Dr. Moss has much to say–all of it is engaging, thoughtful, and brilliant.  These are traits that are hard to come by in even the most popular academic books.

69237_10100195428741034_1733929245_nFinally, I would add–in light of today being International Women’s Day–that The Myth of Persecution is defining in others ways not directly relevant to the subject of martyrdom.  There is something really exhilarating and refreshing about a book like this, which defies centuries of church tradition dominated by a testosterone-run hierarchy, written by an intelligent and (dare I say) attractive woman, in a profession (academia) also dominated by men (though, finally, the dynamics are shifting–yet not fast enough).  Scholarship (and society, more broadly) needs more of just this sort of thing; it needs more books that shake the foundations of long-held presuppositions by bright female scholars like Dr. Moss.  I hope she helps keep studies like this coming (and I also hope she lets me keep reviewing them).

I hope readers will check out the other reviews along this review tour:

Wednesday, March 6th: RMP

Wednesday, March 6th: A Philosopher’s Blog

Thursday, March 7th: A Book Geek

Saturday, March 9th: The Musings of Thomas Verenna

Monday, March 11th: Aspire2

Tuesday, March 12th: Earliest Christianity

Wednesday, March 13th: 50 Books Project

Thursday, March 14th: Do You Ever Think About Things You Do Think About?

Monday, March 18th: The Way Foreward

Tuesday, March 19th: The Dubious Disciple

Wednesday, March 20th: Exploring Our Matrix

Thursday, March 21st: The Gods Are Bored

Monday, March 25th: Broken Teepee

Also check out her interview at the Huffington Post and check out her book trailer here:

Bill O’Reilly and the Polarizing Political Figure of Jesus

It has come to my attention that Bill O’Reilly will be publishing a book on the life and death of Jesus. This news has been making the rounds on the interwebs and of course I’m concerned. It isn’t necessarily because I don’t like O’Reilly, or because I find his views on generally everything to be atrociously flawed and morally questionable, but I am concerned because the last thing we need to happen is a “Which way would Jesus vote?” debate start dominating the conversation about the figure of Jesus.

Of course I’m aware that Jesus is often called upon by various politicians of all affiliations. But politicians most likely use this rhetoric to reflect what popular culture supports and, unfortunately, culture supports some crazy ideas. Consider sites like Rapture Ready (a website for fundamentalist Christians who believe the world will end within their lifetimes) which make the following (generally popular) claims about Jesus found in certain wings of evangelical Christianity:

There is one thing certain we can state, based upon the integrity of Bible truth. Jesus would never endorse or be a member of any party whose platform supports abortion, gay rights, and a general hostility to Bible-believing Christians.

Interestingly, Jesus is portrayed to have spoken thousands of words between all four Gospels, yet not one of those words was about abortion or gay rights. So what should one do about people who are hostile to Bible-believing Christians? Well, it gets a little hairy in this area, but there is that oft-quoted phrase “turn the other cheek.” So I’m not sure how certain anyone can be about endorsements for any particular political party.

When it comes down to it, scholars have enough trouble coming to any sort of consensus on what Jesus may have said and what he might have done, let alone what his political views might have been.

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And now that we’re on the subject, I don’t really hate bankers, or what they do, I just don’t want them doing their business in my house!

And those politicians on the right side of the aisle are not the only culpable ones. While Jesus spoke of social change in theological terms, he was not the liberal, leftist ideologue that some would suggest (like those at Jesus is (was?) a Liberal believe). He did not come to bring class equality, he did not come to preach against the corporate state (‘render unto Caesar’ and all that), he did not bring it to ‘the man’ (‘the man’ crucified him). He did not resolve to rid the world of poverty, he only eased their suffering by promising them a better world when they died (of leprosy, of starvation, of a beating by a slave owner, etc…); he certainly never promised the poor their freedom from their current, earthly state of poverty-stricken existence.

Yes, the authors of the Gospels portray him as feeding the multitudes, but he only does that occasionally as a demonstration of his similarity (sameness?) to Elijah/Elisha, who both performed similar miracles, and to show the power of god (which the poor would see when they died). He never lifted a finger to end poverty. The Jesus of the Gospels could care less about class warfare; in heaven, he would argue, the tables would turn. Here on earth, well, you’re stuck with what you have–even if that is nothing.

And while it may shock some of you, on occasion, he got involved in a little saber rattling. Jesus was not portrayed as a pansy. He had his moments of testosterone (can god have testosterone?) fueled rage and sometimes he was pretty blunt about what to do with those who crossed him (“those who are not with me are against me” and “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” and “these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them in my presence”).

Many of these verses were used during the inquisition to torture heretics and were justifications to launch the crusades. Whether they were right or wrong (wrong, in my opinion) it just demonstrates how that liberal, hippie (not to be confused with ‘hipster’) Jesus with the ‘anti-war’, pacifist attitude is a myth (in John 2.15, Jesus made a whip out of cord and he whipped the crap out of people for goodness sake!). But it is a myth in the same sense as the conservative, anti-gay, pro-guns Jesus that the right loves so much.

“I’m saving this lamb from the evil butchers–it’s free-range for this guy!” – Said Jesus never.

As Candida Moss has pointed out, Jesus did offer some semblance of free health care, healing poor and curing people without ever taking a cent. Obviously there were some caveats, because god, but these were largely faith-based (you don’t see poor people acquiring a referral because of their HMO in order to be touched and healed by Jesus, for example). So the whole concept that Jesus wouldn’t stand behind universal health care seems a little out of place.

The Gospels are also pretty clear that being poor and being a Christian are sort of hand-in-hand. He tells a rich man that in order to follow him, he must give up all his possessions (because he will be rewarded ten-fold by his faith after death in heaven):

“Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property.”

After this man left, he states that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” In other words, according to Jesus, get poor or GTFO! This doesn’t quite jive with conservative capitalism, does it?

Similarly, while not in the Gospels, god (and therefore Jesus) advocates communism over capitalism and those who refuse to adhere to it cannot be a part of the Christian church. Period. Do not pass go, do not collect eternal life. And if you refuse to give up all your possessions and then lie about it, well, god strikes you dead.

So am I concerned about O’Reilly’s foray into historical Jesus studies? Oh, god yes. I’m terrified. But I’m terrified because of the way lay people and politicians will continue to construe and deconstruct the Jesus we have–even as unstable and contradictory an individual as he may be–and scholarship will continue to remain within a relatively isolated community of experts. In other words, books by the Bill O’Reillys and the Clint Willises (author of Jesus Is Not a Republican) of the world are the only books on Jesus that anyone will read. Because they will be the only books available and accessible.

Besides, broadcasters and talking heads don’t have the facts straight when it comes to their actual jobs (reporting the news). Bill O’Reilly can’t seem to figure out what causes the tide, so just how well do you think he’ll do getting the historical Jesus right? Keep in mind, scholars can’t even seem to figure it out entirely–and they’ve spent their professional career trying to find answers. I’m betting that O’Reilly will not produce a very accurate picture.

He is already imaging Jesus much like how he views himself, a “beloved and controversial young revolutionary” who is constantly persecuted, but who fights for that in which he believes. It is a stunning pseudo-autobiographical portrayal of Jesus through O’Reilly’s eyes. And had O’Reilly been trained in the field, he would know that George Tyrrell pointed out this troublesome factor of historical Jesus scholarship decades ago. But O’Reilly isn’t a scholar, nor even an educated layman on the subject; he is a pundit on a news network with an agenda (like all politicians and political-pundits). That is precisely the problem.

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“I should write a book on Jesus… but also on aliens.”

Jesus’ portrayal in the Gospels is multifaceted because we have at least four portrayals. But the nuance of the figure of Jesus is much greater, and so limiting Jesus to particular synchronic values does nothing but narrow his value to everyone. Even as a secular student of history, I can find value there because the study of these nuances is important to all–not conservatives, not liberals, not any particular sectarian group. So this is my plea to everyone: leave Jesus out of politics. You are not salvaging history, you’re destroying the future (of history).

Calvin on Happiness and Ignorance

Quite relevant to today’s political crises:

In Support of Christopher Rollston (and a Reply to T.M. Law)

Today, Jim West published an article on Bible and Interpretation calling upon Emmanuel to do what is right, from a Christian perspective–and he makes some very good points.  Jim Davila wrote a well-thought-out piece in support of Chris Rollston.  James McGrath posted an examination of the marginalization of women in the Bible in a very useful way, and yesterday he also published a nice roundup on the current situation involving Chris Rollston and Emmanuel (specifically Dr. Blowers).  And he shares these apt statements with his readers:

But in this case involving Chris Rollston, a direct contravention of the school’s statement of faith doesn’t seem to be the issue. And so I want to avoid all potential side issues, and focus on one central point: If Chris is wrong about the marginalization of women in the Bible, as those who are seeking to have him disciplined or fired surely think, why not just disagree with him? There are plenty of Christians who agree with him, plenty who disagree, and no classic creed of the Christian churches takes a stance on this issue (not that that should matter to an institution connected with the Stone-Campbell tradition). Nor does the position statement of Emmanuel Christian Seminary as found on their web site takes a stance on this particular matter.

If Emmanuel Christian Seminary has failed to communicate to its students, some of its faculty members, and its board of trustees how to disagree constructively as Christians, and that it is possible to disagree as Christians without punishing, firing , expelling or otherwise using authority in an attempt to silence the person you disagree with, then they have failed to engage in the most fundamental mission of any educational institution, and have failed to live up to their identity as a Christian institution.

An action like this can only ever be self-defeating. For surely if your own stance were self-evidently true, a simple correction or pointing out of the error would be sufficient. Resorting to the use of power and exclusion indicates fear, not confidence. Rest assured that the views you fear will get increasingly more attention as you try to silence those who articulate them.

via In Support of Christopher Rollston.

I was not aware of T.M. Law’s recent comments about it until reading this roundup (can be found here) and that is a little disheartening since Law addresses me directly (I would hope Law would just send me a note directing me to his discussion in the future) but, while I am glad to see he is back to blogging, I am not at all persuaded by his position.  In fact it is a little discouraging.

To be clear, I’m all for ‘toning down rhetoric’ but it seems as though Law is not really up to speed on everything.  Also, and I don’t mean to suggest that Law did not read my article carefully, I do find it a little perplexing that he would make criticisms against me that restate exactly the same things I say as if I never said them (more on that in a moment).  But there are more curious oddities in Law’s presentation of my arguments.

I won’t press the issue, but something that deserves some mention is the apparent condescension throughout his piece.  It appeared (from my point of view) to be dripping through his suggestion that I’m somehow ignorant of confessional institutions (but I will say this is neither true nor demonstrable from my article—even when Law takes snippets of my arguments out of context, my words ring of someone who understands confessional theological institutions quite well; but whatever).

I’m also not quite sure why he writes that, had he been an administrator at Emmanuel, he “wouldn’t answer a blogger to begin with” because (a) I’m not just a blogger, but a student at a research institution who is actively engaging scholarship, (b) my article wasn’t written on a ‘blog’ but in a credible online journal (Bible and Interpretation, though as an Op-Ed piece), and (c) Law is also a blogger and I’m sure that had he felt the urge to press a question, published it in an academic forum, would probably not enjoy being called just ‘a blogger’.  This rhetoric seems out of place in an entry meant to encourage a more level-headed approach to this whole mess.  Maybe it was not meant to offend, but then why bother including it?  I will give him the benefit of the doubt, but I hope that in future correspondence, we can make do without such notions.  So let’s move on to the meat of his arguments (which, again, are difficult to address since where he believed we disagreed or where he calls me ignorant, we’re actually on the same page).

(2) Law argues what everyone knows: confessional institutions have different goals than other (secular) institutions and staff at these confessional facilities work under those goals.  But I’m unclear if Law thinks it acceptable to ignore the tenure process at these institutions because they happen to be faith-based, or if he believes it is acceptable for them to fire tenure professors at will, without any reason or cause because a small fraction of the staff are disturbed by what another member of their faculty wrote publicly?  He expresses concern for Chris Rollston, but doesn’t seem to address this.  He spends all his time telling us about confessional institutions but no time at all addressing the crux of the issue (which is what my article was about): academic integrity and intellectual honesty at these institutions.  The ambiguity of his position is rather bizarre.

(3) Law goes on to suggest that because these institutions function differently:

“As far as legality is concerned, confessional institutions also whistle a different tune to the one heard in the universities. They do not have to pinpoint a specific violation of a specific doctrinal point in order to terminate a faculty member. All they must show is that the employee in question has espoused a view that is contrary to the spirit of the confession. The spirit, not the letter. And even if their legal counsel is not satisfied, there are a host of other options on the table.”

But that is the precise function I’m trying to nail down here.  And this is why I believe that Law could have probably read my article more carefully.  The issue is not whether I understand this function (I blatantly talk about *this very function* in my paper), but why this is acceptable and—more directly—why Rollston is being ‘disciplined’.  Now Law might argue on the side of Emmanuel; that Rollston’s article was ‘contrary to the spirit’ of the school.  But he would be wrong, since the self-appointed(?) representative of Emmanuel, Dr. Blowers (he uses ‘we’ a lot, really likes talking in the first-person-plural), has stated over and over that this is not a heresy case (which is precisely what one would need to show in order for the firing to be legal) and that the goals of Emmanuel are in line with open and free dialogue.  So we have the most senior member of faculty, who is also an administrator at the school and Chair of the Area Chairs, and whose parents were high-level donors to Emmanuel subverting Law’s own argument that “[s]ome…confessional institutions would even consider ‘academic freedom’ just as subversive and dangerous as any form of liberal theology”.

But that is the whole point I’m making!  Emmanuel is sayings one thing and doing another.  And while that may be fine to Law, that is unacceptable to me.  You have someone as prominent as Dr. Blowers making offensive and charged public statements about Chris Rollston who also, very publicly, claiming that ‘disciplinary action’ *will be administered* (his words: “We are looking at disciplinary action” which intimates it is already in-motion).  Again, the issue is not about whether or not I understand these sorts of institutions, but about how some will say they are one thing and do another.

As an aside, Law writes that “[t]hey may in fact receive legal counsel not to talk publicly about what they are doing.” But it is too late for that.  The cat is out of the bag.  I’m in agreement with Jim Davila where he writes:

“The real issues, which I have not yet seen either Professor Blowers or Emmanuel Christian Seminary address, are that, first, an academic at this institution has apparently violated fundamental confidentiality principles by disclosing an ongoing disciplinary case against a colleague to someone not involved in the case and, indeed, apparently someone not at the institution at all. That the improper disclosure went public through a misunderstanding of how Facebook works only exacerbates the breach of confidentiality and illustrates why rules of confidentiality exist in the first place. This is arguably an internal matter for the institution, but given that the issue has gone public, it can hardly be kept quiet now. (If Professor Blowers or Emmanuel College have commented substantively on this and I have missed it, I would be grateful for the link.  Apologizing for accidentally making the breach of confidentiality even more public is not addressing it substantively.)”

I would like to remind the reader that this particular issue has nothing to do with what the ‘general faculty and staff’ at Emmanuel think—this inquisition (which is really what it is, despite what Blowers says) is the result of one man’s agenda and nothing else.  This isn’t a matter of the whole of the faculty coming out against Rollston, but one man who has seemingly taken it upon himself to speak out against, and threaten, his job.  We need to be clear on that.  Maybe behind the scenes there are other happenings, maybe the faculty is split, but they aren’t spouting off unforgivable statements, playing defense, or otherwise splitting hairs about the so-called secular agenda on blogs or public forums like Dr. Blowers has done since this all began.   It is clear to anyone with two eyes and a brain that Dr. Blowers has been on some grand crusade since Rollston’s article was published; until other evidence presents itself, we should keep this in mind.

(4) I am not at all convinced by Law that these institutions are somehow removed from the rest of the academy (at least, that is the impression I get from his blog post).  I do not believe that any accredited institution can simply ‘ignore’ the workings of academia and just go on doing its own thing without wanting to engage it or be a part of it.  All institutions of Higher Ed are inexplicably linked and none (mo matter how much they despise it) can remove themselves from it—James Tabor is absolutely right about this. Students of Emmanuel are future scholars–they will interact with and through the academy.  They will publish papers, join faculty, and move through the tenure process elsewhere.  So it is not at all fair to suggest that institutions like Emmanuel should just get a free pass here because this is ‘how they are’ and if we don’t ‘get them’ tough.

While Law may be correct that their “idea of what defines a “successful education” is different than, say, a research institution like Rutgers, he is wrong if he thinks that such a belief excuses them from academic judgment when they state they seek to provide “a rigorous academic experience” but then back-peddle on that very issue.  That is neither fair to the students who pay money to attend Emmanuel, nor fair to the faculty who are trying to educate their students in the best way they can (and now, finding out, they have to tip toe around for fear of losing their jobs over something they might write—as basic and uncontroversial as it might be).

This, along with point (2), cause me to wonder how anyone can ask “But who is pretending, and what are they pretending?”  I can only presume at this point that Law just is not investigating this issue beyond what must have been a cursory glance through my paper.  Who is pretending?  Emmanuel, Dr. Blowers—they have presented themselves as something they are not (and they continue to do so).

(5) Contrary to law, I was careful with my wording, I was measured and level-headed (not reactionary) to the events that have unfolded.  I was also careful with generalizing; I recognize that many confessional institutions are what they claim to be and get along just fine, and I’m fine with these institutions.  But there are certain confessional institutions which are owed judgment for what can only be called ‘lying’.  My issue is not with ‘confessional institutions’ as a whole, but specifically those which preach from the pulpit one way and when the class leaves the pews, do the exact opposite of what they just preached.

Now far be it for me to belabor the issue, but if Law is saying that these institutions are using words incorrectly, or using words to present themselves as ‘scholarly’ while not really agreeing with the true definitions of those words (‘critical’, ‘tenure’, ‘Christian’, ‘academic’, etc…) then that is a problem.  Because students will pay for what they believe to be a challenging education at Emmanuel, and if Law is correct in his interpretation of confessional institutions that “of what defines a “successful education” is different”, then they need to state that clearly.  They need to be directly honest about their positions on critical scholarship, what they think about the way women are treated in the Bible, how they mean to educate their students on their campus about these matters.  At this point, neither Emmanuel, nor Dr. Blowers (who again continues to speak for the school), has stated anywhere that this is the case.  In fact they have argued the exact opposite of this and have instead pushed forward with the notion that Emmanuel, in line with the Stone-Campbell tradition, is all about challenging their students.

I must reiterate my earlier argument here, as I did in the comments under Dr. Blower’s article: Had this been just an academic disagreement, no one would have blinked an eye towards Dr. Blowers, Emmanuel, or this situation. Academic disagreements happen *all the time* and are the staple of credible, critical scholarship of which Dr. Blowers believes to be so vital to his institution and to himself. And this is, after all, how Dr. Blowers continues to present his defense–this isn’t a censorship, but a disagreement over how Rollston’s article was presented.

But this has not been a simple matter of disagreement, or a friendly sparring match between two colleagues over nuance (which it should have been, by all accounts—Dr. Blowers states that *he* feels that Rollston was unprofessional and irresponsible in his presentation of the marginalization of women, again demonstrating that he is behind the charge and he is speaking for Emmanuel). No, Dr. Blowers may be displeased with Dr. Rollston’s HuffPo article, but he took it from a general disagreement to something much more scandalous. He has threatened a colleague with ‘disciplinary action’ and he did so *in the public forum*! This doesn’t come from the blogosphere but Dr. Blowers himself.

One thing is certain; when someone at an institution uses the editorial “we” (in the sense of “We are looking at disciplinary action in the next few days” – Dr. Blowers) because one scholar doesn’t like what another scholar said–we call that censorship. Maybe at Emmanuel, ‘the church’ comes before all else, including the respect deserved of tenure, or of the many loyal years devoted to the institution by the colleague being ‘disciplined’. But let’s be absolutely clear. Dr. Blowers has stated:

“Within our own Stone-Campbell heritage, Emmanuel has been a “moderate” school, trying to avoid the polarizations of liberal and conservative and providing a healthy environment for students to be challenged in their faith, put through the refiner’s fire of tough questioning, and yet given strong theological and spiritual resources to build for future ministry.”

But one must wonder how threatening the job of the most prominent and well-respected member of faculty at your institution with disciplinary action for putting students “through the refiner’s fire of tough questioning” is in line with that *stated* goal. And one has the right to ask, directly of Dr. Blowers and of Emmanuel itself: what sort of standard is being set when they can so easily disregard the tenure process, can disregard its colleagues, and also, quite directly, their student body in the process?

This is a question that I posed to Dr. Blowers directly last week; and over 3,000 words later, Dr. Blowers has not taken the time to answer it.

Law is correct that we need a measured approach to this, and we must be careful in our engagement of the evidence.  But let’s be real here.  There are ways in which a responsible, respectable institution handles itself.  Emmanuel has, in the course of a few weeks, publicly announced disciplinary action against a tenured faculty member about an article he wrote which was neither against the Stone-Campbell heritage nor out of line with any of the current scholarship (that even Emmanuel states it embraces), has seen its most senior faculty member commence with a public heresy trial (on blogs, in comments, on his Facebook) and then state that is *not what he’s doing* (though it is clear to everyone else).  Then that same faculty member refuses to answer any question relating to the matter—after he had already made the issue public (which isn’t conspiracy, but it may be a scandal), and that I take issue with any of this is…what are Law’s objections exactly?  That this is a result of my misunderstanding of the way confessional institutions do business?  Sorry if I don’t find that particular line of reasoning to be very persuasive.

Bob Cargill Sets the Record Straight on Emmanuel and Chris Rollston

Over at my article on Bible and Interpretation, Bob Cargill makes the following salient points to Paul Blowers (snippet below):

Dr. Blowers,

As an alum of, and former adjunct professor at a Restoration school (Pepperdine), and as a colleague of Dr. Rollston’s, I have taken an interest in this developing story, one that increasingly looks like an attempt by the administration at Emmanuel Christian Seminary to terminate a tenured professor at the urging of a professor of church history, who just happens to be the son of a wonderful and well-loved regent of both Emmanuel and Milligan College. (That would be you.)

So as one who was raised in the Churches of Christ, and as one who now proudly teaches Religious Studies at the University of Iowa, and who is heavily involved in the Digital Humanities, I have taken additional interest in this story because so much of it has taken place in the form of YOUR public comments in the online realm, such as Facebook and blogs.

HOWEVER, as a member of the academy, and as a scholar and a professor engaged in the academic enterprise, it is every bit my, and ALL scholars’ business to know whether or not a supposed institution of higher learning is abiding by fundamental academic principles like tenure.

Do you not realize that your repeated (non-)responses of “it’s just our internal business” 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?

If Emmanuel has terminated a tenured professional, and one that is as respected as Dr. Rollston, for doing his job – offering an interpretation of scripture based upon his expertise, but one which you, as a Professor of Restoration history, happen to disagree with, and for which you have publicly chastised him – then there will be such a professional and public outcry against Emmanuel that whatever is left of their credibility will instantly be flushed away and the only individuals who will support the institution, and the only students who will attend the college are the far-right leaning, bordering-on-fundamentalist conservative Stone-Campbell sectarians who regularly champion anti-intellectual causes and badmouth any form of critical biblical scholarship. Are you TRYING to make Emmanuel look even MORE anti-intellectual than Glenn Beck University?

via The Bible and Interpretation – On Academic Integrity and the Future of Biblical Studies in Confessional Institutions.

You will want to read all of Bob’s points (spread out over three comments #13-15).

Joe Hoffmann on Romney, Mormonism, and Lying for the Lord

I don’t always agree with Joe Hoffmann, but when I do, you can be sure it is about something he says epically.  Here is a snippet:

No one expected the enemy to take this form. At one point, in reply to Romney’s third asseveration that he was not advocatng a three trillion dollar tax break and that the President’s statements were “simply inaccurate,” (“I don’t know where you’re getting this stuff”) Mr Obama simply looked disappointed and mildly shook his graying head. How many at that point wanted someone to say pointedly “I’m getting it from you, Governor–it’s what you’ve been saying for eighteen months.” Except we all know what Romney would have said, in that Jon Lovitz/Tommy Flannagan style he had adopted: “No I didn’t. You’re making that up, too.” Post-truthfulness, to be effective, must be pathologically coherent.

via Lying for the Lord: The Mormon Missionary Rides High « The New Oxonian.

Visit his blog and read the rest.

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