(This is the second part of a three part interview with James G. Crossley. Part 1 can be found here.)
Craig Martin: What elements of neoliberalism do you find most repugnant? Are you optimistic or pessimistic in the face of what appears, to me at least, an unstoppable juggernaut?
James G. Crossley: There are lots of examples from countless contexts. From the book, the aftermath of the Haiti disaster was a particularly prominent repugnant episode with mainstream intellectuals hardly showering themselves with glory. And patterns of disaster can be found everywhere, from the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq to the experiments in Chile. I wouldn’t know where to begin.
While hardly comparable in terms of human cost, even in a relatively prosperous country like the UK we see some unfortunate developments all around us. Most obviously, the language of cuts and sacrifices being ‘inevitable’ has somehow managed to become accepted fairly widely whilst the state still protects corporate interests (irrespective of whether the individual ‘bad apples’ are thrown out). Or again, in my home town the once trumpeted ‘jobs for life’ in the shipyards saw a massive decline in the workforce with short term contracting becoming increasingly common. I’m sure everyone is aware of similar stories. In terms of education (but I’m sure people in different jobs will recognize this), Mark Fisher has shown the connections between contemporary capitalism and bureaucracy very well and how the endless committees and paperwork justifying things we all know are fairly pointless just grows and grows. There is more to education than this, isn’t there?
Despite everything, I retain some optimism because thinking about the bigger picture can at least show what you are up against. I can see why you call neoliberalism ‘an unstoppable juggernaut’ and you may well be right, particularly when we think of its vastness. But empires have fallen before. There are interesting moments in history which show potential ways forward. But whether revolutionary Spain or the Arab Spring, heroic idealism will always be up against power that will be trying to crush or, if that fails, absorb critique, not to mention a range of alternative reactionary movements. Of course, I’m not saying those of us in the UK or North America are in the same situations or that we should do the same things but offering an appealing alternative is vital if we are not going to give in. The crisis of 2008 has shown cracks in the system and I’m not sure how long the argument about supporting ‘wealth creators’ is going to be viable without looking ridiculous. And if studying neoliberalism tells us anything it is that neoliberalism is not eternal. Yet, despite all the catastrophes of neoliberalism in recent years it has, so far, survived and intensified. So …
CM: You note in the book that scholars of the Bible are good at seeing biblical texts as products of social contexts, but are not as good at seeing biblical scholarship as a product of social contexts. Any thoughts on why this is the case?
JGC: I think the problem is more precise: not as good at seeing biblical scholarship as a product of contemporary social contexts. I think there’s enough willing acceptance of how cozy biblical scholarship got with Nazism, even if the ongoing ramifications are typically only mentioned when ‘doing a Fox News’ and comparing a Jesus scholar we don’t like with Nazi Jesus scholars. Scholars are always happy to criticize previous generations as ‘Lutheran’ or the Whole of the Nineteenth Century as ‘liberal.’ Of course, ‘we all have presuppositions’, it might be argued yet again, and if we write it and say it enough then it isn’t as bad, right?
Maybe I’m being a little too sarcastic but there is clearly less interest in the kinds of social contexts dictating contemporary scholarship, if by contemporary we mean the past few decades or so up to the present. Presumably, the main problem is that people don’t like to see themselves exposed in public and we should really be waiting until they are dead.
Yet, it is also correct that social histories of scholarship more generally are not high on the agenda of biblical studies. I’ve been to some fantastic sessions on the social history of scholarship and they are not typically well attended. The more widely referenced histories of biblical scholarship have historically been idealist and theological histories and they are usually ‘one offs’ and supposedly ‘definitive.’ It is clear that biblical scholars have been much more interested in finding out what the biblical text ‘really means’. I’d guess that this is the ongoing influence of Reformation thinking: the ‘biblical period’ and text in its earliest context is what we should really be studying and what comes after is of increasingly limited intellectual (read: theological) worth.
CM: What direction would you like to see biblical studies take? What avenues are opening that look most promising? What avenues would you most like to see closed down?
JGC: Clearly, I think there is a great deal of potential for more and more social histories and ideological critiques of biblical scholarship. There have been some very good and original books in the past 15-20 years and I’ve read drafts of forthcoming work by various people which looks just as good.
I think reception history of the Bible could, and almost certainly will, be developed more and more. I would like to see more work on the ways in which the Bible has survived, particularly implicitly. There is a lot of scope for research to be done on the ways in which the reception of the Bible is tied in with dominant ideological positions and I’m particularly thinking of the bigger picture (e.g. the Bible and liberalism, the Bible and neoliberalism and so on).
In terms of historical criticism, I would like to see more materialist explanations for Christian origins and understanding of historical change and the production of ideas which does not relentlessly rely on the Great Man (usually Jesus or Paul). I’m not confident that this will happen because, while there are exceptions, the appetite is just not there on a wide enough scale and, rightly or wrongly, biblical scholars seem to be most interested in exegesis, the ‘original meaning’ of the texts and idealist histories.
I’m not into closing down any areas of thought, even though I think there’s enough weird stuff in biblical studies that I wish wasn’t around. I mean, I can’t say my heart bursts with pride when scholars in the field want us dedicate so much time to telling us that miracles probably really happened because All of Africa, apparently, believes in miracles.
(Look for the third part of this interview tomorrow.)