Of Scholarship and Tribalism

Of Scholarship and Tribalism

When I was working on my MA, one of my professors recommended a paper I had written for publication. He suggested submitting it to the university’s journal, Andrews University Seminary Studies. I was of course greatly pleased to have one of my papers recognized in this way, especially considering the respect I had for that particular professor.

Some days later I was approached by the journal editor who informed me that the paper had been read by one reviewer, and that he wanted to talk to me before proceeding further. Apparently this reviewer had suggested that I was trying to become “a new Wellhausen” and that the paper should not be published for many, many reasons.

Now the fact is that my paper was not as interesting, nor as creative, nor as radical as the work of Julius Wellhausen, and the reader was in no sense commending me by referring to that famous name. Rather, it was his way of saying I was jumping tribes. The editor had several suggestions for me, but the one he favored involved dividing my paper into two parts, separating my interpretation from my discussion of structure, and he would publish the one on structure and then “consider” publishing a separate paper on the interpretation. Considering the interdependence of the two portions of the paper, after seeking some advice, I chose to withdraw the paper.

Now one isn’t supposed to know who one’s reviewers are in circumstances like these, but I found out because the reader cornered me right after graduation and told me. His reason for doing so was that he was concerned for my soul as, if I did work such as I had done in that paper, I was headed straight for perdition. Oh, and he also disagreed with my approach to the scholarship, but that was a footnote.

At the time, I associated such tribalism with conservative and fundamentalist scholarship. I had grown up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church with a belief in the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, a 6,000 year age for the earth, a literal seven day creation week, and traditional authorship for the books of the New Testament, including all the gospels, the pastoral epistles, Hebrews, and Revelation. So I had seen the arguments that would make the same John author of the gospel, the epistles and the book of Revelation. In that context, suggesting I was trying to be a second Wellhausen was to suggest a radical departure from the norms of the tribe.

Well, I learned about jumping tribes. I first became unchurched and uninvolved. After many years I joined a new tribe. I became a member of a United Methodist congregation. In this new tribe, I thought, I would find church without the sort of loss of freedom to think represented by my former denomination. And indeed, there is a substantial difference. Yet there is a note of very similar tribalism.

Repeatedly I have heard in meetings that one should only use United Methodist curriculum. Presumably this is because organizationally prepared and approved curriculum materials are safe whereas others might lead the congregation astray. These arguments come from all sides. At one meeting it was in objection to a piece of Baptist material that was said to have “too much Jesus” in it. Really?

As a publisher, although not an academic publisher, I have noticed this same sort of thing from scholars. There are boundaries to the scholarship one wants to consider and discuss, and these boundaries often don’t have to do with the quality of the scholarship involved.

Excursus: What do I mean by quality in scholarship? Primarily I mean that a scholar should have a good overview knowledge of the literature in the field, have given consideration to opposing viewpoints in forming arguments, cite good sources, include original work, accurately represent opponents’ work, and present arguments based on evidence.

Readers give great latitude on all those points to someone they agree with, and become hypercritical with someone outside their tribe. Considering that people are people, there are always points to be criticized. In academic publishing, that’s one of the points. Hear those criticisms and hopefully improve down the road. The goal is consensus. (The tribes have labels such as “evangelical,” “fundamentalist,” “liberal,” “progressive,” “Methodist,” “Baptist,” and on and on.)

But that consensus comes at a price. Once a consensus is formed, it becomes difficult to get people to reconsider the consensus, because there is a tribe named “mainstream scholarship” and membership in it is desirable. You don’t want to be a crackpot. So the scholars wait for a sufficiently famous individual to break with the consensus or for something earth shattering to happen, that will break the consensus. Then people can move.

But if the consensus can later be broken, then surely it was already fragile even when it couldn’t be challenged, and the various crackpots who challenged it back then, and were summarily dismissed, may actually have been right. But no, we have to move with the consensus. Or so we’re told.

Of course, if a different tribe opposes us, they are just anti-intellectual! Know-nothings! Nobody in our own tribe supports them, so they can be dismissed!

What interests me most is that I see this view all around. Conservatives tell me that liberals are against academic freedom. Liberals tell me it’s conservatives. Evangelicals in the “evangelical mainstream” are accused of being there just because “evangelical” is a good label. Those outside are accused by those on the inside of just wanting the approval of men. The players and the playing field changes; the game does not.

I think it is quite possible for someone who grew up in a traditional background such as I did to have studied the same material I did, and to have concluded honestly that he or she should stick with the same set of views. I should not accuse that person of just seeking the approval of people (the SDA community, for example) because of that conclusion. It is possible for someone who starts from a liberal position to move toward conservative positions. I would like to see these things argued on the evidence. In fact, I don’t think one has successfully defended a position until one has defended it against the folks outside of the tribe.

It is from this view that I get my philosophy of publication. In particular, I designed the Participatory Study Series to represent different views. In this series the study guide to Ecclesiastes advances the claim that Solomon did, in fact, write the book, while the guide to Ephesians suggests that Paul did not write that epistle. It happens I disagree with both positions, but I’m delighted to see both books in the series. I also publish the book The Authorship of Hebrews: The Case for Paul, which claims that Paul did write the book of Hebrews. Three for three: I disagree with all.

Well, I do admit that the last one has adjusted my position. I used to say that it was quite certain Paul did not write Hebrews, but beyond that it was impossible to say. Now I just say that there is no conclusive case on authorship.

Many might (and do) say that I have no idea what I’m doing if I can publish things that differ this greatly. On the contrary I have a very specific aim. If someone studies through the Participatory Study Series, I would like them to have approached the study of various biblical books from a number of different perspectives and developed the ability to evaluate these viewpoints and come to conclusions of their own. I never had, and do not now have, the desire to provide a set of study materials that display just one viewpoint.

This is not because I don’t have a viewpoint. I definitely do. While I never pursued academic work beyond the MA level, and while I do not write scholarly articles myself, I have been a lifelong consumer of biblical scholarship. What I want is for people to interact with these different viewpoints, especially those outside of the views of their tribe, and to be able to make up their own minds and defend their position. I bluntly find all the tribes (including the “no-tribe tribe) to be deficient on this point.

I’m often told that I look scattered. My response is that biblical scholarship looks narrow to me. I don’t mean in the sense that one can’t find a great variety of views, but rather in the sense that there are too few conversations between the various tribes.

My suggestion for the New Year is that you include in your reading a variety of materials written by people who would not be comfortable in your church or in your scholarly “club.” When you do so, try to give them the same benefit of the doubt that you would give to someone who was in your own crowd, or alternatively apply the same critical approach to those on the inside.

I think the results could be great!

One thought on “Of Scholarship and Tribalism

  1. This is a marvelous summation of your approach to your ministry and Energion. Communicating across tribal boundaries is the only way we can expect to learn anything new, or confirm the validity of our own beliefs. It’s also the only way we will ever learn that those in other tribes are really not the enemy, but fellow seekers after God’s truth.

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