On Pedagogy and The Historical Critical Method

Last semester, I was enrolled in an introductory level class in the New Testament. Or at least, it’s entitled “New Testament” officially. The professor tended to think of the class more as a foray into “Early Christian Studies”, but whatever. It was a class about early Christian scriptures. Interestingly enough, the first half of the class was devoted to an introduction to the various critical approaches to reading texts in the field of Biblical Studies. The broadening of the subject material was a better use of our time, since introductory classes focused solely around a single text seem to lose momentum around the 10th week of class anyways, both the professor and the students.

One of the easily discernible themes of the class, even from the first week of class, was the implicit emphasis on the rise and fall of historical-critical approaches to the text. That is to say, the class and professor note the benefits and heritage of historical criticism, but ultimately it seems as if that paradigm has outlived its usefulness as the main approach to the text. Instead, other approaches, such as post-colonial, feminist, queer, and emancipatory approaches have come to the forefront as the rightful inheritors of the throne in Biblical Studies. I don’t want to be misunderstood as lamenting the downfall of historical-critical approaches to text; in fact, I’m glad that historical criticism is being replaced by other discourses. But what seems ironic to me is that, despite the downfall of the historical critical approach as a hermeneutic, historical criticism has remained the primary approach in the pedagogical dimensions of theological education.

Despite talking about how outdated and misguided historical criticism of religious texts is regarding its goals and self-definition, historical criticism is retained in its pedagogical form as the way to teach a student about other forms of approaching the text. Whenever a reading of an essay or a book is presented that is (I use “is” purposefully here) misguided, the method for correcting one’s reading is to get a wider picture of what it was that the author was trying to do. I used “is” because the common reception of odd readings of texts is either a disingenuous exclamation of the originality of the reading, which masks resentment at the disruptive reading, or the reading is genuinely considered wrong and in need of correction. The historical critical method may have been displaced by other reading strategies but the historical critical method still remains the only pedagogical approach to teaching I have ever experienced in theological education. Essentially, these two approaches to a disruptive reading reveal what formal education is actually about: production. The only efficient means of producing students is through the pedagogical simplicity of the historical critical method.

Furthermore, other approaches to texts are put forward as the “replacements” for the old, outdated modes of thinking. Not to say that all modes of approaching the text are equal, but to posit a feminist perspective as a replacement for the historical-critical method seems to imply that feminism is the new historical criticism. It seems reminiscent of an infomercial or a damage control advertising campaign: Feminism is the new, shiny, and better version of our old approaches; the ones that gave you ugly side effects! Or to put it in terms of feminisms, when white feminism continues to expect from black women to remain subservient to the singular struggle of white women in the world, the radical content of feminist hermeneutics seem to be destroyed, or at least subverted, by the reemergence of the historical critical method, i.e. the reemergence of the white Western experience of reality as the kernel of truth to which the student must tend.

So why? Why does the historical critical approach stick around in our pedagogical methods? How can one think that using the historical critical method pedagogically will not affect the results produced by these students? Why is the “cure” presented as just a subtly new form of the old approaches?

In Joel’s previous post, he writes two sentences that seem to lay out a general groundwork for the commodification of thought. First, “Art in the truest sense is that which directly confronts the ideologies of the society in which it is produced”, which highlights the confrontation of the landscape of ideology and production with truly political and subversive hermeneutics. Secondly, “even the most radical ideas and aesthetic objects which may incite important political mobilization will and have become reified (i.e. made consumable, Erfahrung become Erlibnis) and stripped of their political power.” To continue on, the project of confronting becomes itself a justification for a beneficial method of consumption. Controlling the modes of consumption is the function of retaining the historical critical method in theological pedagogy.
To rephrase, one can see why the political and confrontational power of liberation hermeneutics must be corralled within a general system and purpose in education—without strict boundaries on the limits of confrontation and the exact amount of political autonomy to be found in theological education, the production of theological education cannot function efficiently enough to maintain necessary maintenance of the ideology that promotes proper consumption.

A non-historical critical method of teaching, what does it look like? Does it function on a personal level? An institutional level? A community level? Can it avoid the pitfalls of theological absorption of other disciplines and then the subsequent rejection and abandoning of other academic projects and disciplines? Honestly, I can’t even really imagine what it looks like. But whatever it is, one can assume that the production of “properly” trained individuals for controlling and dispensing consumption practices, both confessional and academic, will itself be abandoned.

Edit: A little bit of clarification about my use of the “historical critical method” term in response to a comment about differentiating between exegetical methods and hermeneutical frameworks:

Interestingly enough, that distinction was part of the course methodology and something I completely forgot to mention in this post. More or less, the “historical-critical” motif should actually function as a symbol for the wider array of hermeneutical frameworks that accompanied the rise and most influential point of the historical critical method. So, the colonial, patriarchal, eurocentric attitudes that accompanied the historical critical method as an accident of history is the true content of critique in this post, i.e. how those frameworks contribute to corralling other foreign hermeneutical frameworks through the tradition of how the historical critical method has dealt with texts thus far.

So, I worked with the example of the disconnect between white feminism and black feminism. Even though both share the same, at least nominally, hermeneutical framework, some white feminists are unable to understand that white feminism is not *the* replacement for the hermeneutical frameworks of the past but *a* part of the replacement of history’s more kyriarchal frameworks. While the exegetical method itself isn’t biased (maybe?), the synthesis of the totalizing dominance-centered frameworks with the exegetical method produces a similar stance at the pedagogical level that kyriarchal frameworks holds towards the experience of reality held by marginalized groups, e.g. women, blacks, disabled, etc. That is, the attitudes of those who pioneered the exegetical method are carried over as part of educational management.

I really should have defined that distinction a bit better (read: should have at least mentioned it explicitly once). But i definitely agree that conflating exegetical methods and hermeneutical frameworks isn’t helpful for looking at the situation.

Theology and Pedagogy III: Aesthetic Considerations

So far in this series, many questions have been raised, and in my contribution, I’m going to begin to untangle some of the answers. Thankfully, Luke and Sean have framed the problem very well and have raised some really important questions: How do we navigate the double commitment theology seems to have to both the academy and Christian practice? How do we initiate a theological discourse that isn’t self-legitimizing? Is that necessary or even possible? Why do we need theology at all?

We might find it useful to consider these as aesthetic questions. Aesthetics has this same double commitment to theory and practice and this same problem of legitimization. Aesthetic theory has also already faced (and continues to face) a problem that seems central to theology these days: systemization.

I think the first two can actually be answered through the third. It may seem to some that theology is, without question, a systematic discipline. “Systematic Theology” is one way we refer to the discipline in seminaries. Theological systems usually take as their starting point a number of first principles. These are concepts that ground a system and can’t be deduced from any other concept within the system. (What Derrida calls “centers” in “Sign, Structure, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.”) What those are may change, but probably all theological systems include “God.” Some might include sin, love, wisdom, Man, etc. Aesthetics too, from the time of Kant, included an attempt to establish some principles from which to begin evaluation and understanding of the aesthetic object.

While Kant identified three spheres of judgment, understanding, reason, and aesthetics, only the first two have a realm of objects in which they are interested: sensible objects and moral objects, respectively. However aesthetics is a disinterested sphere according to Kant because any object has the potential to be an aesthetic object. Because of this disinterest, in order to determine whether or not an object is aesthetic and its aesthetic value, one must employ judgment by subsuming the object under general categories of aesthetic understanding. These categories are first principles which ground what it is for an object to be aesthetic (beauty and so forth.) It’s important to note that Kant isn’t trying to say that aesthetic judgment can be objective in the same way that the understanding is (in the First Critique.) Rather, Kant’s aim is to separate the aesthetic from the teleological. To establish a purposiveness without purpose for the aesthetic. If the telos is removed from the aesthetic object (i.e. we can no longer say the aesthetic object exists for the purpose of inspiration or the portrayal of divine beauty, etc.) then a completely new way to understand how we know when an object has aesthetic value must be derived. That is Kant’s aim, and his solution is to say that we use the categories. That is, of course, a huge oversimplification, but for our purposes, I won’t be going into the details of exactly how the categories are implemented in aesthetic judgments. It is enough to know that Kant thinks aesthetic objects are subsumed under the categories in making aesthetic judgments.

There are some very important differences between the aesthetic object and the theological concept (particularly with regard to purpose), so I don’t want to say there is a 1:1 relation. But I think the problem that Luke and Sean outlined in their post with regard to the rigidity they find in theological discourse and pedagogy finds a helpful analogy in the problem of systematization in aesthetics.  Namely, theological discourse has typically demanded that the discursive practice of the discipline be subsumed under certain first principles which must result in a system in which every element hangs together with every other without any room for contingency. The discipline, particularly in orthodoxy, becomes a practice of eliminating difference in the hopes of banishing contingent possibilities. It may seem like the solution is just to say we should eliminate systems altogether. But I don’t think that’s the solution. Indeed, I’m not sure such a thing is really possible. Instead, systems need to be laid open, made contingent, not just to allow for the movement and flux of concepts for the sake of concepts, but to make the politically mobilizing potential of theology actual. Adorno’s aesthetics starts us down this path.

In Aesthetic Theory, Theodor Adorno agrees that form in the Kantian sense is important in aesthetic judgment, but this must be combined with the Hegelian notion of intellectual import and the Marxist understanding of the social function of art. Thus, what qualifies as an aesthetic object drastically changes. Adorno specifies between two different types of experience of the aesthetic: Erlebnis und Erfahrung. The former is the unreflective consumption of art (what we typically experience when we see a blockbuster film or listen to pop music.) The latter, however, is an engagement with the object in terms of why it qualifies as art, what Adorno says is the “subjective experience directed against the I [which] is an element of the objective truth of art.” By “objective truth of art” Adorno literally means a “transcendent” dimension–an intangible that pushes beyond, sometimes far beyond, where we are already. Aesthetic cognition, then, is not a subsuming of the object under generalized categories. Rather, there is a reversal of transcendental judgment when one is confronted with an object that is truly of high aesthetic value. Art in the truest sense is that which directly confronts the ideologies of the society in which it is produced. It is a shattering of the general categories that transcendental aesthetic judgment would try to impose. It destroys what you thought the beautiful was, what you thought form was, what you thought a human being was, what you thought love was, what you thought God was. And finally, we understand the aesthetic object when we recognize the non-transitive form of the experience—that we cannot restate something without eliminating the original meaning that the aesthetic object disclosed.

The temptation here, especially if you study theology or are a person of faith, might be to jump to the conclusion that Adorno’s account of aesthetic experience can simply be read analogously as an experience of the noumenal per Rudolf Otto or something like that, but I would strongly caution against that. There’s more that we need to consider first.

Gilles Deleuze carries Adorno’s project further in including and focusing his attention on the visceral, embodied experience of the aesthetic object (see: Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation.) What is important for both is to understand how an aesthetic object can break free from its own context. However, judgment for Deleuze is not antithetical to aesthetic experience; rather, it is an epiphenomenon of sense with the potential to commit violence against aesthetic objects. In his essay “To Have Done With Judgment,” Deleuze uses the distinction between combat and war to make this point. Judgment is a war on the senses in its attempt to subsume objects under a particular aesthetic ideal. Combat, on the other hand, is how Deleuze describes not just our sensual interaction with the aesthetic but the way understanding works in general. That is, we are incessantly confronted with “forces” that we must adapt ourselves to in order to proceed, and in that combat, we are changed.

If theology were to abandon its current relationship to “traditioning” and orthodoxy in favor of a new relationship to those modes, we could talk about theology using this aesthetic apparatus. When theological discourse is rigidly subsumed to the first principles and categories of “theological judgment” the latter becomes a war on our theological “senses”–even those that are practical! Paradoxically, however, it is the system which makes theological transformation possible in the first place because it is precisely the calcified system against which we must engage in combat. Therefore, systems, in a new sense, need to exist; however, they cannot be permitted to wage war against us but rather allow us to engage in combat.

Both art and theology become politically mobilizing forces in this way and it is in this way that the politically mobilized force can be both aesthetic and theological (which is, with regard to the aesthetic, to push this discussion in the direction of Jacques Rancière.) That is, if the aesthetic object must be that object which destroys previous formed categories (about sexuality, about humanity, about race, about gender, etc.) then it is also necessarily politically mobilizing. This is one way to answer the question of the legitimacy of the aesthetic.

How can theology produce this sort of effect? It can’t in the same immediate way that aesthetic objects can. But remember, we shouldn’t be drawing such tight parallels anyway. Instead, we might think about the openness of theology in a way that would allow those doing work in the field to produce politically mobilizing theologies–theologies that are allowed to shatter the boundaries of what is even thinkable in theology to begin with. As an aside, I want to stress that radical theology (meaning “death of God” theology) is but one example of this. The death of God isn’t the only unthinkable in theology.

To close, I offer one note of clarification: My point about the necessity of systems may sound like a justification of systems that have been historically oppressive, so I want to make it absolutely clear that this is not what this is. Since this post is already getting quite long, we will have to explore that idea more in a later post, but I will just note that for Adorno (and even more so Walter Benjamin) the reification of art is simply an inevitability in the the age in which we live. That is, even the most radical ideas and aesthetic objects which may incite important political mobilization will and have become reified (i.e. made consumable, Erfahrung become Erlibnis) and stripped of their political power. When this happens, those ideas and objects can become tools of oppression. (Think “saved by grace through faith” or MLK Jr’s “I Have a Dream.”)

I didn’t say much about pedagogy directly; I’ll do that next time. We’ll take a look at what literature departments are doing with theory (and what they’re not doing) and ask why theology couldn’t maybe do something similar as a way to talk about how theory and “practice” might be related without theologians having to pretend that they’re pastors when so many are not.

Pedagogy and Theology II, Or Sean’s Bullshit.


As Luke’s first post alludes, theology is—as an academic discipline—in some pretty serious trouble. The general commodification of university discourse, the fideistic reproduction of confessional identity, and the un-rigorous appropriation of other academic disciplines (especially philosophy and social theory) each threaten the credibility of theological work in an academic setting. This situation is not, I think, a new one; in my (extremely cursory) analysis, theology has been hobbled with just this sort of limp ever since the death of any serious traction held by the ontological argument for the existence of God.⁠1 With the severance of any sort of organic linkage between God and the basis for knowledge as such, theology necessarily turns elsewhere for authority. Because this situation is not new, I don’t think we should mistake this limp for a sign that theology’s days are coming to an end; theology has continued to be studied, and I think will continue to be for the forseeable future.⁠2 Luke, as I said, has offered a pretty coherent introduction to these problems in the way theology is done, and while I could expound further I’ll save that for another time. For now, what seems to me to be the more interesting question is: how does a theological discipline perpetuate itself so thoroughly baselessly? In other words, if we examine theological thinking as a certain sort of production, by what means do the relations of production reproduce themselves? How can theology have continued this long without needing to know what it is thinking for?


In his Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci makes a distinction between what he calls “traditional” and “organic” intellectuals. Roughly, traditional intellectuals are those cognitive laborers whose professions imply membership in a kind of distinguished class; the intellectual class is like one giant subject-supposed-to-know, imagined to be, in a sense, ‘unaligned,’ outside and objective with regard to the bourgeoisie and proletariat. “The traditional and vulgarised type of the intellectual is given by the man of letters, the philosopher, the artist. Therefore journalists, who claim to be men of letters, philosophers, artists, also regard themselves as the “true” intellectuals.” As one might imagine, the traditional intellectual is, in the last analysis, far from a neutral figure for Gramsci. Because the traditional intellectual is bound to a certain relations of production (the university, etc) that are themselves indebted in feudal Europe to the landed aristocracy and in capitalist societies to the wealth of the urban bourgeois (distributed either directly or by the state), traditional intellectuals are always materially tied to power. That this tie would color the inquiry of the traditional intellectuals is thus, pretty obvious; and we could talk about the rise of economics as a prominent and esteemed discipline as just that sort of obvious effect. What’s less obvious, but also at play, is that it is in the best interest of the hegemonic order to flatter the traditional intellectuals; as subjects supposed to know, they offer an air of legitimacy and necessity to the order that depends on their appearance of freedom and objectivity. If there are no non-functional, or dissenting disciplines and opinions among the traditional intellectuals, the spell of the traditional intellectuals are broken; their freedom to think against an order is, paradoxically, precisely why they never actually do anything to bring down that order.

If Gramsci’s discussion of traditional intellectuals teaches us one thing, it’s that the relations of production (capitalist, marketplace of ideas, etc) have already factored in the fact that many of us attempt to think against them. This is The Matrix Reloaded’s one good idea; (spoilers for a godawful movie) when Neo fulfills the function of the One, it turns out that the function of the One is, in fact, part of the setup of the Matrix; it is a kind of release valve on inevitable dissent. The ‘outside’ of the present set of relations is always already factored into the ‘inside’ or else the system could not have reproduced itself for this fucking long.

What does this have to do with theology specifically? Theology as a discipline depends on material ties to the academic apparatus, on the one hand, and denominational legitimation on the other. Most formal training in theology takes place in institutions (seminaries, divinity schools, etc.) that train pastors alongside researchers, and so, for most students, even work that questions or attacks confessional identities is done in the midst of material practices that are explicitly designed to reproduce those institutions and identities. Note, by the way, how neatly these two institutional demands (academy and denomination) map onto Lucas’ original divide between sets of resources (theoretical and traditional) that students in theology are expected to utilize. Note also that the more comfortably seminarian the learning environment, the less emphasis will be placed on the “theoretical” toolkit, and vice versa. That these two toolsets don’t mesh—don’t come with with a relation that is built into the grounds for theological inquiry itself—is just the kind of inconsistency that should alert us to the presence of ideology. It is precisely these inconsistencies that provide both the tensions and the release valves by which ideology can fully interpellate its subjects.


If we want to understand the material pressures to become certain kinds of theology students without need of a recourse to ‘why,’ we will also need to remember Louis Althusser’s treatment of Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) and Repressive State Apparatuses (RSAs). To be wantonly brief, ISAs are those institutions and practices which reproduce ideology by interpellating subjects who recognize themselves in ideology; they act (mostly) invisibly, without any explicit threat to those who don’t conform. Althusser’s prime example is, of course, the school; it’s in school that you learn skills to interact in the world that shape your interactions for the ideological order. RSAs, on the other hand, are things like the police, militaries, etc; the hanging threat of force and consequence by which an order disciplines its subjects. To anyone who’s read my other blog posts here or elsewhere, this might come across as harping, but [1] I think we forget Althusser too often at our own peril, and [2] what I want to highlight here is what seems like it should be most obvious, but seems to go most unnoticed; when the theological academy’s function as an ISA begins to slip, when ideological interpellation doesn’t work quite correctly, the ISA will become an RSA pretty damned fast.

There are any number of repressive pressures that threaten the theology student who would question the basis for theological inquiry. Any student who gives enough of a shit to be studying theology at the graduate level probably has, or has had, some significant level of confessional investment. Thus, there’s a certain amount of threat inherent involved in probing the basis—or lack thereof—of theology; threat of psychological trauma due to loss of faith, loss of identity, altered relationships with friends, family, peers, and colleagues, all of which are heightened by the amount of time and money that has been poured into study; the student simply has a lot to lose. Additionally, success in the theological academy is contingent upon the approval of professors and other figures. There is a real and manifest power over student thought wielded by professors that shapes the bounds of legitimate inquiry for students. It’s frankly much easier to reproduce variations upon existing lines of thought then it is to question the basis upon which professors think, for fear of rejection.

The Theology Studio facebook exchange around Phillip Blond’s proposal of military academies in the UK is, unfortunately for my purposes, no longer accessible⁠3. Among the choice exchanges in that thread was a peculiar attempt at public shaming executed by a more academically, err, powerful, theologian against Craig Keen, one of my academic mentors. This theologian (I’m sure you can figure it out) used me, Craig’s student, as a sort of built-in audience for the shaming, directing his grand pronouncements about the vapidity of Craig’s thought towards me, as if he was showing me, rhetorically, just how out-of-bounds a thinker can get as a kind service. Craig and I actually found this strange encounter sort of hilarious, and I still remind him of the comical extremity of the insults hurled from time to time, but this was a very real attempt at shaming and thought policing, and one clearly directed at a student in order to keep them from following similar lines of thought.⁠4


Obviously, if you’re buying any of this, it’s pretty debbie-downer. I plan to follow this post up in the next few days with another, detailing possible modes of engagement with these institutional relations and pressures, along with my own working answer to Luke’s question: “why theology?” Since this post is already 1600 words, I’ll leave it for another day.


1 So, probably since about Kant, although it’s certainly not a clean break. I want to be clear, too, that I know there are still people who take the ontological proof seriously; I just think that those people are essentially equivalent to six-day-creationists or flat-earthers; at a certain point, only the most extreme partisans can place any weight on this sort of thinking.

2 By most accounts, affluent Western capitalists are getting less religious, of course, but these numbers aren’t playing out that way much of anywhere else. Why that means academic theology has a long life ahead of it even if it looks patently ridiculous is a long argument I’ll have to make at another time.

3 All those angry posts will be lost in time like tears in rain.

4 “You imagine you are a fallen astral being from the realm of the archons somewhere up in the supernovas. Thus civilisation washes over you from the outside like an earthquake.” Gotta give the guy credit for a robust insult.


Luke’s Bullshit Reflections on being a Student…Or, Introducing our New Series on Pedagogy and Theology

On Commodizing thought (even though we are all “Marxists”…)   Image

The word “performance” is quite appropriate to the world of academia. Such a world exists often to perpetuate itself in its cloistered conferences, panels and endless need to produce for consumption publications in order to justify continued funding for whatever department in whatever school of a university one finds oneself. In such a context, it is difficult to avoid seeing the commodization of thought which Horkheimer and Adorno seek to combat in their work Dialectic of Enlightenment. This production and consumption logic permeates even discourse that seeks to ground itself in whatever reinvigorated neo-Marxist theory is “sexy”, making what once was of true utopian significance another “it” to which one may come to identify and perpetuate. Thought as commodity and we, the academics, have not an idea of what we are as that entity which enquires nor what exactly it means to enquire or what we even are enquiring about. Rather, we perform and construct programmes for others to consume, conceptually, but more narcissistically, in the construction of a picture of the academic.

This is the person defined as that bourgeois individual who seeks not the betterment of humanity as their impetus for study, but some trifling selfishness hidden behind an excuse of blunt “curiosity” or because they find that they have a knack for writing. There is no revolutionary potential in this person, this person who most assuredly wishes to write and speak and publish about freedom and emancipation with no courage to affect the change their poetic prose suggest. This is a dangerous person, insofar as this academic squelches the fiery passion what enquiry can be, namely, a rigorous pursuit of truth as that which empowers and frees individuals from the oppression of delusionary ideals and material oppression.

The question posed to someone studying in the humanities “why does this matter?” cannot be written off as rooted in simple ignorance. To so relegate the realist concern for what and why this or that discourse is to continue in an oppressive programme of hegemonic domination of thought by this constructed picture of the academic. Someone is always deciding, deciding what thought matters and what thought can be dismissed. The power to decide is associated with the picture the academic projects of her/himself. This becomes the real truth insofar as the projected individual or group of individuals makes the ultimate decision through their perceived credibility, whether or not their followers really understand the conceptual frameworks being advanced.


            As I reflect upon my own situatedness in academia I am taken with the idea that for my own discipline to survive we must continually be revisiting what it means to be self-reflexive about who, what and why we are. I am specifically situated as a postgraduate student working at the intersections of theology, philosophy and literature. The previous paragraphs of this brief post reflect the fact of my own wrestling with the reflexive task insofar as I have in mind specific interactions born of this place within academia. In particular, it seems that theology can formulate no clear direction for itself as a discourse among discourses in the academy. This is certainly a broad statement but I want to continue in my assertion if only to spark conversation here and in the following weeks posts.

Theology students are given a variety of reasons with regard to the “why” question of their education. However, two poles seem to suspend the spectrum of theological education. On the one instance, the student is fed resources proper to whichever denomination lays claim to their academic soul. On the other, students are given a myriad of theoretical resources, usually in the realm of sociological and continental theory, and then told to not only understand these resources, without rigorous historical training in philosophy, but also told to apply them somehow to theology (which usually nets the very underwhelming sort of writing I myself exemplify in my first post about Badiou and theology…fuck my life).

In the former, theology appears to justify itself by appeal to an internal logic. The bible or the creed or whatever authoritative idol provides the definition for the who, what and why of discourse. Other modes of enquiry must simply learn that theology dictates their own functionality and, by way of some sort of genealogical analysis of history in which the theological becomes secularised, their very existence. This is what some might call a textbook version of fideism, as it cannot but recourse to itself for its justification. In the latter instance students are not given any clear vision for why they are using the various theoretical resources and the end result appears just as fideistic. They are given a common sense of political involvement and social concern appropriate to the Democratic National Convention and told that the god of Christianity not only exists but exists in something that looks very much like this pseudo-activist. This is true even when they say god is not this sort of liberal-democratic citizen given his apocalyptic transcendence or whatever.

In reality, theirs is a hoped for god who resembles very much the bourgeois academic described above. Theirs is a god both radically other yet still somehow immanent enough to warrant the bastardised usage of theory that has nothing to do with their theological disposition. In short, students associate with trends and construct their own projects in line with the motivations mentioned above. Some jettison belief but insist that they do not by speaking of Christian atheism or radical theology. Others dig into the apocalyptic, utilizing it as a trump card similar to those who appeal to the internal validity of theology’s “logic” as authority.  The apocalyptic in this sense functions for the student as a means to avoid realist concerns and becomes a means by which the theologian seeks psychological comfort. This is understandable, albeit regrettable, since who would want to admit that the “academic” life they have been leading is really a fantastical projection?

            Given this state of affairs, and it is ‘given’ insofar as I am the one giving this as the state of affairs out of my own perspective, the state of theology as a discourse in the university seems to be one of confusion. If theology cannot dialogue with other disciplines without either subsuming them or abusing them, if theology cannot account for itself in a way that is intelligible to the thinking person who seeks to understand from the outside of this particular language game (to say nothing of how delusional we are if we really think that relativizing language by abusing Wittgenstein and Gadamer in this way is legitimate), then “why does this matter”?

The Humanities

             “I am. We are. That is enough. Now we have to start.” Ernst Bloch’s refrain, penned in his work The Spirit of Utopia, I take to give us the beginnings for how to begin to reflect upon what/who we are as enquirers, what/who we enquire about and the initial why for our continued participation in the educational process. The humanities can only be justified if we retrieve its namesake, if we again and again come back to the human. Regardless of the overarching metaphysical trappings we may gravitate toward, our ontical existence gives us our starting point and it is here that we can discover our camaraderie as fellow sentient beings living with one another. In this sense, the self-reflexive task for the academic in theology is both deeply phenomenological and deeply social.

Thus, the reason for the current rant/introduction to a new series of posts here on FoT. In the following weeks Sean, Joel and I will be exploring the nature of pedagogical theory as this relate to the humanities in general and to theology in particular. My hope is that this will inspire some real conversation on the blog about what the fuck we are all doing in our respective places in academia. Furthermore, I am hoping that our conclusions, differing, as I am sure they will be, will point toward a basic responsibility to society. Academia must account for why it matters and we as students and future professors must be so in order to affect difference in society, even if this turns out to be a futile and tragic process. 

Détourning the Christian Text

            Détournement is the practice of hijacking, distorting or simply plagiarizing a political message or advertisement.  The term détournement has fallen out of use in recent times in exchange for terms like “culture jamming.”  However, here, the term détournement is most appropriate.  Détournement is two fold, in one sense it is rhetorical.  One may détourne a message into strategic for a radical end.  However, the second mode of détournement is the practice of communicating subversive themes through radical practice.  Examples of détournement can be seen in many places and can be done among many media, though can the Christian text, that is biblical scripture and church tradition, be détourned?  Certainly, those not invested in the church and Christianity parody and perhaps détourne Christian texts and tradition, but can the Christian perform a détournement?  To what extent can Christians play with their own texts and traditions?  Here, I want to set up three goals of this project.  First, can Christian scripture and tradition be détourned?  Second, ought scripture and tradition be détourned?  Maybe, one can détourne Christianity, but to what end and why would a Christian want to hijack the text?  Third, what might it look like for Christianity, the bible or church tradition to be détourned.

            Christian texts and tradition can be détourned.  In fact, if one is to look at the life of Christ, the archetypal figure for a Christian ethics, one may find détournement in the text already.  Perhaps, Christ is not as witty of a culture jammer as one may find in Banksy or AdBusters.  Though, Jesus has an interesting rhetorical style one might make note of.  “You have heard it said…but I say” and “but who do you say I am?”  For example, in the gospel according to Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount, Christ lays down a number of You-have-heard-it-said’s. 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

Clearly, this is a highjacking of a previous commandment.  It is using one statement or maxim to convey a different counter-message.  If one is to take up an ethic of Christ, then perhaps there is some ethical practice to be found in the rhetoric of Christ.

            Can Christian scripture and tradition be détourned?  It is the case that we can find examples of Christ détourning ideas, but can the Christian détourne the Christian text?  This is to say, does the Christian have the authority to hijack, plagiarize or distorting the bible?  In truth, this questions runs far more philosophical than can rightly be discussed here.  What is the text? What does it mean to read and interpret a text?  The assertion I make here is that whenever the bible or Christian tradition is “read” one may highjack, plagiarize or distort the text.  However, it is the case that this is the only way to interact with a text.  Détournement is simply overt, honest and intentional about this hijacking.

            For example, when the fundamentalist says, “God hates X” is this not a hijacking of the text?  Likewise, when the so-called progressive Christian calls for “social justice” according to the gospel, is this not also a hijacking?  Certainly, the purity of a meaning through any medium is impossible. 

            Détournement, however, is not the same as interpretation.  Détournement can be simply the rhetorical plagiarizing or hijacking of a message.  However, this is something fleeting: one plagiarism among a sea of advertising or other public messages and communications.  Détournement is also a playful subversive action.  Détournement is not simply a rewriting or rhetorical play, but the creation of an event or situation that flips things on their head.

            What would it look like to détourne Christian texts or tradition?  At least, a little bit blasphemous and certainly revolutionary.  The détournement of a text can target any injustice and work at creating a situation that implodes certain relations of power.  Jesus uses the phrase “You have heard it said…but I say” to détourne a certain message in the Sermon on the Mount.  Christ invites a similar play later in the gospel when he asks Peter “Who do you say I am?”



On Justice Part 2

This is the second part of a series on justice that began quite a while ago here. In that post, I posed this question:  Why should it make sense to us to tie justice primarily to punishment when the gospels seem to tie it to liberation? To put it another way, why should God’s justice ultimately be a penal justice? I also acknowledged that the first post was leaving things a bit messy. We’re going to begin to untangle some of that here.

I want to point out up front that, despite the title, this post is not going to be primarily about justice; rather, I want to set up the current situation that gives rise to the questionable conception of justice I outlined in the last post–namely, the moralization of justice.

To do that, we need to first examine the concept of sin. In western Protestant traditions, sin has been conceived of in two partially related ways. First, it is the general condition of human beings (Original Sin) that we are born into and must “work” to get out of by accepting the grace offered to us through faith. Second, there are individual “sins” that are indicative of the more general condition but which can themselves be identified, outlined, placed in hierarchy, and appropriately condemned. This condemnation is a markedly different formulation than what we find in the Catholic tradition. In pre-Reformation Catholicism, acts of sin are counted against you in a sort of running tally with your works of righteousness; the more righteous you are, the less time spent in purgatory. But in the Protestant tradition, broadly, the condemnation of sin is tantamount to the rejection of the world which is always at odds with the kingdom of God. This was by no means Luther’s view. It doesn’t quite accurately describe Calvin either, but it was the Reformed movement that gave rise to a strong version of this understanding in America.

The Puritans, who were Calvinists, held two narratives together that deeply shaped the way they viewed the world and how God interacts with it. First, was the narrative of persecution–what is called a “jeremiad.” The Puritans (who really were persecuted in England) believed that they were the only truly elect. They saw themselves as a pure (hence the name) distillation of what it is to be a member of the elect and as the last bastian of morality and decency among a rapidly degenerating, horrifically evil world (which included Catholics, Anglicans, and other Protestants.) They fled to the New World in order to establish the City of God, free from the dangers that the evil outside world presented. Second is their understanding of how God acts in the world, which is also necessarily tied to their belief in election. While they believed in election, they also believed it was impossible to know for sure who was actually elect. But they thought that if a person had been blessed with election by God, it would be naturally reflected in the abundance of blessings that surrounded him. If one is a member of the elect, one would live a righteous life and be abundantly blessed. The righteous life necessarily includes abstaining from “the world” which requires a black-and-white knowledge of what is righteous and what is worldly. Thus, a life devoted to and focused on Christ is primarily about one’s own moral behavior.

Furthermore, if one were to err, punishment would be the only way to ensure a truly repentant heart and a commitment to returning to the right path. Those who do not repent are in danger of eternal punishment.

The effects of this sort of moralization of Christianity are numerous and far reaching. The most important effect is that the significance of Christ for our lives, “following Jesus,” is primarily about not doing bad stuff simply for the sake of not doing it. We hear a lot of sermons and sing a lot of songs about following Jesus, giving him control of our lives, etc., etc. However, we rarely hear about what that should actually look like. We’re left to draw concrete conclusions from the abstraction of Christ as “the center” of our lives, and that has predictably resulted in the separation of Christians from the “sinful world” strictly for the sake of “not sinning” itself. Separation is, after all, the safest way to be a Christian, since it allows one to live in a protective bubble safe from the dangerous world. I’m not just talking about families who homeschool their kids and only have friends from church, etc. Even those who live in the world can still take Jesus’ command to not be “of it” as a prescribed morality. You can live among the sinners, just don’t be one of them–simply because you shouldn’t. Jesus and God just don’t want you to. There is no other reason given. The focus of our whole Christian life, what makes us distinct from the world, becomes the fact that we don’t participate in activities that are rather arbitrarily designated as sinful because they correlate with some notion of “what the world does.” If we abstain, pray sometimes, serve others sometimes, read the Bible, and go to church, we’re devoutly following Christ. Christianity becomes a life of inward contemplation with its outward signs restricted singularly to church-going, occasional service projects and negative action (i.e. I don’t do a, b, or c.)

In this familiar version of Christianity, sin becomes the barrier that keeps us from abstractions like “being close to God” and “following Christ.” But I don’t think either are primarily about “not sinning.” Scripture makes it pretty clear that to follow Christ, to be close to or love God, to be “in relationship” with both, to [insert any other relationship to the trinity you can think of], is accomplished in loving others in a such a way that radically subverts the worldly order–the orders of power, privilege, and the oppression that those naturally bring. When I love and serve those that seem impossible to love and serve, I am loving and serving Christ. If that becomes the focus of the Christian life, then sin takes on a very different role. It is that which prevents us from that love and service. It is that which we seek after and prioritize over that love and service. In other words, it is idolatry.

This understanding of sin is not new. I’m following a whole host of people (thinkers as far apart as D.A. Carson and Peter Rollins, for example) in defining sin as idolatry. We typically think of idolatry as one sin among many, another moral guideline, but that sort of thinking (that there is a list of rules which, once broken, constitute a list of sins) is exactly what we’re trying to get away from. If we conceive of sin in this way, we can begin to see that our moralization of sin has actually prevented us from identifying some really pervasive sin barriers. Our own comfort and security. Our privilege. Our politics. The prioritization of our allegiance to the nation-state. We can easily imagine how these might impair our ability to engage in selfless acts of mercy, justice, and compassion to those who are poor, oppressed, and helpless (which we also might say represent the bare minimum as expressions of a life devoted to Christ), let alone to develop a posture of service and humility, one in which relationship and solidarity with the “refuse of the earth” becomes a part of our very identities as Christians. We too become the scum of the earth. In an interesting, ironic twist, the moralized view of justice has in fact prevented us from actualizing what I think is clearly biblical justice.

This doesn’t suddenly mean that activity we once saw as sinful is no longer sinful. The reason for its categorization as sin as well as the contingent consequences of sin have changed. While the elimination of morality from our conception of sin may seem like I’m watering it down, the contingent consequences of sin are actually far more severe. Under the view I’ve outlined, sin not only has damaging consequences for us, but  In the next post, we’ll begin to look at the cosmic