Neoliberal Jesus

Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism: Quests, Scholarship and Ideology by James Crossley. Routledge, 2014. 256pp.

Is all history political? In at least one sense, yes. If we take this statement to mean that all history-writing is political, then it is so because historians write from a particular perspective and so their arguments, however critical and objective, still belie a political orientation of some kind. Some scholars think objectivity is possible, others do not, and much depends on how we understand the historian’s methodological process. To me there is no “ideology free” approach to the past, but there is a distinctive set of practices and a community which constitutes critical history, and which distinguishes it from things like communal memory. But I think both critical history and communal memory are political, in a broad Aristotelian sense. When I approach the topic of atheism in early modern Europe, I’ve done so governed by the norms and practices of critical history, but I still do so in ways shaped by an ideological framework that is itself informed by my personal history, by my beliefs, and by my own social, cultural, and political context.

All of this brings me to a recent book I read, suggested to me by a church friend. We were talking about Bart Ehrman because our book club was set to read The Gospel of Thomas and Ehrman’s introduction to that text, and because I had recently listened to a podcast in which Ehrman debated early Christianity with Richard Baukcham. If Ehrman, a former evangelical, represents the liberal mainstream of historical scholarship on early Christianity, Bauckham, a British evangelical, sits on the more conservative side.  On the podcast they were discussing the significance of memory studies for the scholarship of early Christianity. In that conversation at church I expressed my dismay at what seemed like the lack of any attention to the politics of Ehrman and Bauckham’s scholarship, and so my friend suggested reading James G. Crossley.

In Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism Crossley is interested in teasing out the connections between the scholarship on Jesus in the Anglo-American world of the last 40 years and what he takes to be the dominant ideology in that Anglo-American world: neoliberalism. I would characterize this book as a study of the ways in which the ideological rhetoric of historical Jesus scholarship correlates to the contemporary consensus promoted by neoliberal power. What Crossley has actually shown is simply that there are such links, but not a great deal more.  The book doesn’t really establish the nature of the relationship between the historical context of the second half of the twentieth century and the trends and arguments found in the scholarship on the historical Jesus.

At one point in his book Crossley presents an example of two scholars of early Christianity. These two scholars make an argument for dropping the use of the word “Jew” in New Testament scholarship in favour of what they take to be the more accurate, less anachronistic word for the period, “Judean”. They characterize “Judean” by relating it to communal belonging and land, and in doing so they are careful to distance themselves from present-day anti-Semitism. As Crossley observes these two scholars do not make similar mention of Palestine. He then asserts that the way to make sense of this is to relate it to the dominant neoliberal foreign policy of the USA, which he characterizes as pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian. This sort of interpretive statement is made repeatedly in Crossley’s book. And while it seems intended to make some sort of powerful claim, to me it simply validates the sense in which all scholars approach their subject in ways that reflect the broader society and communities of which they are a part. Hardly an earth-shattering revelation. Crossley even says that this link is basically unsurprising upon reflection. Yes indeed. His broader argument in the book is also a familiar one, and one which I endorse: that we should be aware of how our arguments can replicate the consensus established by the dominant ideology in our society. I do wonder whether many academics will find this particular argument surprising, however, or how revealing its operation in historical Jesus studies will change things. I’m sure Crossley’s aware that his book could actually function in ways he doesn’t intend. One can imagine a scholar saying: “oh look, we have this curmudgeonly guy over here telling us we’re all dupes of the system. Now that he’s said it, we can acknowledge it, ignore it, and move on as usual.”

Why might scholars be inclined to simply “move on”? Well, Crossley engages in rhetorical practices which are in keeping with his adversaries. And it’s hard to see how anyone who wouldn’t already be inclined to agree with him being persuaded by Crossley’s method. Frequently academic authors point out the sources used by our adversaries, we critique their assumptions, we probe the use of given authorities, and we assert a contrary claim by appealing to our own sources, authorities, and so on. Crossley likes to cite Chomsky, Marx, Gramsci, Zizek, and Eagleton, in order to expose what he sees as the neoliberal consensus at work in a biblical scholars such as N. T. Wright. But Crossley’s interpretive authorities are rarely questioned. Just how many people will be likely to agree with Crossley if he simply takes Zizek and Chomsky as his methodological starting point? I realize all of us have to start somewhere, but there does seem to be a question here about whether or not this is merely preaching to the choir (and I’m in the choir!).

Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism offers no critical appraisal of Chomsky’s “Propaganda Model”, for instance. I am unfamiliar with this concept, and I haven’t read much of Chomsky’s political writings, but anyone who has been in academia will know that such a concept is unlikely to go unchallenged, even by those whose share political outlooks. Does the “Propaganda Model” in fact adequately describe the process it sets out to explain? I’m actually fairly sympathetic to much of what I’ve read about and heard Chomsky say about politics. But I do disagree with him on major issues like how language works and his general explanation of human behaviour. I find some of what he says, in relation to his sympathies, about the Anglo-American tradition to be a telling admission (basically: “Hume got things right”), and somewhat puzzling given his politics.  But perhaps further reading on my part would clear that up. All this is to say that I’m sure I could target one of Crossley’s main authorities in his book and question it’s status, relating it to his ideological orientation. The same question could be raised about Zizek. What exactly does Crossley think he will achieve by invoking Zizek as if he’s got the final say on ideology? Surely he doesn’t expect to convince Simon Schama, whom Crossley sarcastically mentions in this book, someone who has been vocal in his dismissal of Zizek’s cultural and political analysis.

To me the most serious and puzzling gap in Crossley’s book is its lack of historical reference. I did a scan of the bibliography, and after reading the whole book, I cannot recall a single reference to a single work of contemporary historical scholarship on the twentieth century in general, or on its politics or the history of the university. There are lots of references to Marxists, and Marxist historians such as Eric Hobsbawm, and to other forms of journalistic writing, such as the work of Noami Klein. But there are no references whatsoever to histories of the twentieth century. Surely if we were to make strong claims about the relationship between scholarship and politics it would make sense to situate the changes in scholarship to the social, cultural, and political contexts relevant to such changes? Such situating would illuminate in a much deeper way the how and the why of the way neoliberalism relates to scholarly trends, questions, and arguments. Crossley complains that the social scientific approaches to the historical Jesus are far too often dismissed in Jesus scholarship for ideological reasons, but as far as I can tell he makes not a single reference to the social, cultural, or political history of the Anglo-American world in the twentieth century. If failing to mention Palestine is an ideological tell in Jesus scholarship, as Crossley maintains, what are we to make of his complete silence with reference to the history of twentieth century? Sure, he makes casual references to things like the Iraq War, but frankly these references rarely get specific. They are more often stated than developed.

What seems to be happening in Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism, then, is the establishment of a correlation rather than a cause. Both are valid forms of argumentation, depending on how they are used. That there is a connection between scholarship and ideology seems obvious. Showing where such correlations occur is indeed a service,  if historical Jesus scholarship has its head in the sand about such connections (something I’m not competent to judge, in any case).  But the more interesting, valuable, and difficult question, to me at least, of how, when, and why this correlation takes the form it does is left almost completely unexplored in this book.

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