On Using Terms Like ‘Incompetent’ to Describe Others in Academia

You all know the drill.  Someone disagrees with an argument made by someone else and they decide this person must be ‘incompetent’ because their argument is different.

This. Has. Got. To. Stop.

This tactic helps exactly zero people.  Unless someone is just plain wrong (i.e., they place the fall of Jerusalem in 40 CE, or something comparable which is completely bonkers, and they defend this point without any evidence), this polemical attack does nothing but alienate sides farther from each other without any real benefit to the audience.  Case in point:

“I will write a complete response to McGrath’s entire review in a future post. However, for now I am incensed enough at his outright incompetence (or is it plain old intellectual dishonesty?) and failure to write a straight and truthful account of Brodie’s Memoir that I will address just one of his remarks.”

Now whether or not James McGrath is missing something, or he is not reading Brodie sympathetically, or he is merely interpreting Brodie differently, is obviously an important part of a discussion.  But this does not ipso facto implicate James as ‘incompetent’ (he isn’t) or ‘dishonest’ (simply because he disagrees with something).  James holds advanced degrees which he could not have earned had he been incompetent (incompetence is when someone barely passes or fails a course–these people don’t generally find work in academia and I doubt many could write a successful dissertation) and he would never have received his Bachelors had he been dishonest (dishonest people are the sort who copy-verbatim-Wikipedia articles and turn them in as assignments; this is something I’ve witnessed happening in my own classes).

So let’s be clear.  James is not incompetent and he is not dishonest.  Is James perhaps guilty of not fully reading the material on which he writes?  Perhaps.  He has been called on this before–but this doesn’t make him incompetent.  It doesn’t make him dishonest.  And if one were to simply direct James to the information responsibly–you know, like civil human beings will do–then James can then correct or amend his claims based upon information he may have missed.  As an academic, James has many responsibilities–responsibilities that an amateur like Mr. Godfrey cannot understand fully (as he does not have these same responsibilities–nor would he likely want them).  But this is why so little is ever fruitful in conversations with Mr. Godfrey.  Every response James gives, regardless of its tone, is understood by Mr. Godfrey as an attack or assault upon some cherished belief.  He will likely interpret this very post as some aggressive move against him, rather than the constructive criticism it is.

So maybe we can start treating each other with a little more respect here?  Maybe we can do away with all the polemical name calling?  It is intolerable and I find that I have a hard time reading through all the vitriol to find the point that is being made.

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.

Joel on McGrath and Mythicism

Joel writes the following:

Tom didn’t like that. He suggests that because McGrath doesn’t believe Thompson and then sees that Thompson is indeed a mythicist that somehow McGrath has failed to read his book.

Here is my problem, however.  The question is about respect for ones own words. If you aren’t reading the arguments in the book, and you fabricate a strawman to attack instead of the actual arguments, you fail as a researcher, as a scholar. I’m not saying James is not competent or that he is in someway a bad scholar (quite the opposite is true), but when you make a claim like ‘what does this point have to do with historicity?’ when clearly Thompson is asking THAT SAME QUESTION about Ehrman’s misreading of his work, then there is a problem there.  Joel continues:

I’m trying not to comment too much on Thompson’s article, finding some personal flaws in it, but it is rather clear that Thompson is a mythicist.

Whether or not Thompson considers himself a mythicist is irrelevant to what McGrath is doing or what I am arguing.  If Thompson writes a book against Q, is his book then a ‘mythicist book’? Or is it a book against the case for Q?  That is the point here. James seems to want to create this false umbrella over Thompson’s The Messiah Myth and label it mythicism. THAT is wrong. That is an example of someone not being true to the sources, not being accurate in their presentation of the data. And if someone just parrots the same mistake, they’re guilty of it too. It has nothing to do about disagreements; it is about being competent as a scholar. Let’s just be clear on that.

Finally, Joel makes this statement:

That’s the problem, ain’t it. Mythicism is being redefined merely as a healthy dose of doubt. I would say that if we are redefining the word, then we should see that it is a healthy dose of the loss of reality…

But this isn’t the case.  I’m not sure Thompson has ever really defined himself as a mythicist.  If anything, it may be that others have hoisted that label upon him, much in the way that others hoisted the label ‘minimalist’ on him decades ago, and he just sort of adopted it.  And that is fine.  All derogatory phrases are, at some point or another, redefined because there is the err of stereotyping and labeling people, while simultaneously fabricating a mythos about them.  And that seems to be what is happening here.

Thompson is no fringe scholar, but it pains me to see James McGrath treating him as if he were, while at the same time ignoring the rather glaring and irresponsible problems with Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist.  In my opinion, Thompson’s work has been far superior to anything that Ehrman has written.  Some may disagree, but frankly, I just don’t care enough to debate it.

People are so quick to jump on the ‘mythicist’ bandwagon anymore, and that is problematic both because it perpetuates stereotypes and stalls any sort of real conversation about the issues–and I’m not talking about historicity, here.  I’m talking about the issues.  Like the value of literary criticism over historical criticism, or the value of the arguments against Q, or arguments over genre criticism, or the function of syncretism, because people are so quick to lump them into categories like ‘parallelomania’ or ‘mythicism’.

And that is what is happening here.  Thompson is explaining, quite directly, that his book The Messiah Myth had nothing to do with the question of historicity.  Even his chapter in our collection of essays doesn’t address the question–it doesn’t bother with it.  Because Thompson finds no use for it.  And neither do I.  And whenever someone talks about it as if it were a book on mythicism, or about historicity, it only proves to me, above all else, that they haven’t read it.  It is as simple as that.

Another Example of Misreading: James McGrath on Thomas Thompson

James McGrath writes:

He points out, as he does in his book, that Jesus in the Gospels is depicted using motifs and echoes from literature about earlier royal figures. It is hard to imagine that anyone could make a claim to kingship in a Jewish context without doing so. And so it is not clear why anyone thinks that the points in Thompson’s book have any bearing on the historicity of Jesus.

via An Odd Diatribe from Thomas L. Thompson.

But James, you need to read it all.  Because Thomas’ book has no bearing on historicity.  And he even makes that abundantly clear:

Bart Ehrman has recently dismissed what he calls mythicist scholarship, my Messiah Myth from 2005 among them, as anti-religious motivated denials of a historical Jesus and has attributed to my book arguments and principles which I had never presented, certainly not that Jesus had never existed. Rather than dealing with the historicity of the figure of Jesus, my book had argued a considerably different issue, which, however, might well raise problems for many American New Testament scholars who historicize what was better understood as allegorical. Rather than a book on historicity, my The Messiah Myth offered an analysis of the thematic elements and motifs of a particular myth, which had a history of at least 2000 years.

That is the point; evidence that Ehrman, and apparently now James McGrath, have not read Thompson’s The Messiah Myth.  Had they read it, they would know that his book does not address such a question.  So again, we have scholars who would rather spend time attacking strawmen than the actual issues.

James McGrath and Melchizedek

James wrote a very interesting post on Carrier’s response to Thom Stark.  I thought he made some useful points which need to be addressed (and I did send along a link to Carrier, so hopefully when he is caught up he will respond), but one in statement in James’ post struck me as peculiar.

“I can only assume that he considers it self-evident that the term translated “cut off” in Daniel 9:26 can only mean “killed,” which suggests he may unwittingly be reading it through the lens of later Christian interpreters.”

Richard Carrier Illustrates Historical Jesus Methodology.

This comment surprised me; I’ve been doing a great deal of research on 11Q13 for a paper I am in the process of writing for publication and in all the authoritative works I’ve read, the phrase ‘cut-off’ is generally accepted to mean ‘killed’.   The author(s) of Dan. 9 used the phrase to explain that Onias III was the messiah, who did die, so in this context it definitely does mean ‘killed’ and there certain was a tradition of linking Melchizedek with a dying messiah between the point of 11Q13’s composition and the Nag Hammadi version as the Gnostics certainly interpreted ‘cut off’ to mean ‘killed’ when they wrote their version of 11Q13 in Melchizedek (who they link with Jesus).  So while it doesn’t eo ipso mean ‘killed’, in the interpretation of this phrase from Daniel 9, in 11Q13, in the ongoing messianic beliefs from the Roman period to Late Antiquity, it probably does mean ‘killed’–with a higher probability than any other meaning, and enough probability that it is unlikely that its interpreters used it to mean something else.

I would also like to point out something about this argument:

But I would point out that Christians did not merely expect a Messiah who would die. They believed that the Messiah had died. And that surely has relevance to whether or not there was a historical Jesus. Perhaps others expected such a figure. Christians believed – and we have no evidence that their contemporaries disputed this point – that the figure had in fact appeared and had died.

The problem with this is that we have written accounts (clearly fictional) of earthquakes, the sun going dark, the dead rising from the graves, and these were written down and never once disputed by any contemporary.  This is the problem with this criterion.  Belief, as strong as it is, does not determine historical certainty.

In other words, just because Christians believed their messiah lived and died does not mean it definitely occurred.  And simply because no contemporary disputed it does not ipso facto  imply that it did happen.  Certainly, it might have happened.  But when wholly fabricated world-effecting events like earthquakes or the sun going out can exist without any recorded disputation, then certainly a fabricated individual could have gone completely undisputed as well.  I just don’t believe that this is a valid argument to make, when clearly more extraordinary events go completely undisputed by contemporaries; the plights of a peasant Jew in Galilee seem insignificant to dispute when one considers the scope of the sun going out. And this is a point Carrier makes in his Proving History that James should really consider reading (though I understand his hesitation–reading about method can be rather dull).

But I do thank James for his otherwise interesting and insightful post.

Where Have James McGrath and Joel Watts Been Lately?

Fighting off zombies, of course.  See the video of their exploits here:

 

James McGrath Responds to Richard Carrier and….

…he once again proves my point: He doesn’t read things with which he has a predisposition to disagree.  He reacts to them.  This is precisely the criticism I gave to him before.  And because he doesn’t critically examine things he just flat out disagrees with, he makes gaffes and is then called on them and then he has to apologize and eat humble pie (he hasn’t yet, but perhaps he should).  Which is a shame.

James McGrath responded to Richard’s criticism of Ehrman and anyone with eyes who read it could see clearly that he was missing point after point and his defense of Ehrman was dogmatic, to say the least.

Richard has made this all too obvious.  Unfortunately, this is not the first time this has happened where James, forgetting exactly how educated Richard is, just runs off on a tangent without really reading what it is he is supposed to be arguing against and then has to back-peddle and apologize later when he is called on it.

As I’ve said before, I like James a lot and think he is usually lucid and erudite, but when he deals with the subject of Mythicism it is like he falls into an abyss where all logic and critical thought just vanish and all he can do is make hyperbolic claims and throw around appeals to authority without ever feeling the need to challenge what is actually being addressed by his critics.  I do hope this will end after today.  I believe he can bring a lot of good to the discussion, that is, as soon as he starts getting involved in it.

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