By Ian Brown
In a recent and provocative essay entitled, “An Immodest Proposal for Biblical Studies,” James Crossley notes,
Biblical Studies has not really generated unique methods and ought rather to be conceived as a field of study which utilizes methods from different disciples.
Crossley is here addressing an issue specific to biblical studies, but he raises an argument with which those of us who study religion are all too familiar: that we have no methods distinct to the study of religion and our approach is (or at least should be) primarily interdisciplinary in nature. Crossley suggests, for example, that students be trained in the use and influence (as opposed to origins) of the Bible, and argues that students trained in this way will “be more qualified to engage with colleagues in other disciplines and fields than experts in source-critical analysis of the Pentateuch or the Synopic Problem” (167).
While I am in agreement with this statement, I wonder at what point am I okay with biblical scholarship that does not engage with or is unaware of the basic tenets of historical criticism? Perhaps this is the petty complaint of a student who spent the two full years of his undergrad learning about and internalizing historical criticism. But perhaps there is more to it? I would extend my self-examining question to the study of religion more generally by asking: at what point am I okay with scholarship on religion that does not engage with or is not aware of the historic and especially current debates in the study of religion? Is it too much to ask that one working or writing on “religion” be familiar with the contributions and critiques made by Jonathan Z. Smith, Bruce Lincoln, Talal Asad, Tomoko Masuzawa, or Russell McCutcheon? Or for that matter, Weber, Durkheim, Freud, Marx, Levi-Strauss, or Geertz?
I thought I had an answer to this question, but the more I pondered my initial answer the more I realized that I was forgetting the lessons I learned from J.Z Smith; namely, that there is no inherent data for religion nor is there anything that must be taught. So, while I loose sleep tonight wrestling with my own normative notion of just what the study of religion is, I extend my question to you: at what point are you okay with scholarship on religion that does not engage with, or is not aware of the historic, and especially current debates in the study of religion?