[Excavating-Q] Gail Dawson, on the future of historical criticism
- This is the final message and response for the ExQ Seminar. I'd like to
express by deep gratitude to Mark Goodacre and Stephen Carlson for all of
the work that they've done in arranging the seminar in the first place and
in moderating everything so well. I appreciate very much the conversation,
the kind words that some of you have had, and the challenges that you all
have offered. Its a real treat to have participated in this seminar.
Now, on to business:
Gail Dawson picks up a comment that I made in chap. 9, to the effect that
"the Biblical Theology Movement takes narrative (rather than social history)
as the paradigm for theological historiography, and consequently resists any
historical data or social-historical constructions that do not appear to fit
the narrative syntax of the particular 'story' it wishes to tell." She then
observes that in her own theological seminary, there is little awareness of
historical criticism, including Synoptic Problem research, or studies on the
historical and cultural context of Galilee.
"Would you care to comment about what this might portend for the future
relationship of first century biblical studies to theological studies?" she
JSKV: Krister Stendahl once made a sage comment to the effect that once
Christians had realised that they had lost in the arena of history, they
turned to story. (I hope I am not misquoting him--its been a few years).
Confidence in history, and in the importance of history to Christianity has
been with us for a long time, epitomized variously by Hegelianism in the
early part of the ninetheeth century and liberalism towards the end, each
confident that an understanding of history or a recovery of certain
historical figures and their consciousnesses was crucial for civilization,
especially Christian civilization. Even in the wakes of WWI and WWII,
confidence in history was not completely shaken, and after WWII we saw
various -geschichtes-- Redaktionsgeschichte, Überlieferungsgeschithe,
Gattungsgeschichte, Rezeptionsgeschichte, etc., all (I take it) expressive
of a belief that the study of history--history of the formation,
transmission, genre, and reception of Christian documents--and the
explication of those histories in their riches and complexity would be
enriching of the Christian theological and pastoral enterprise. More than
that, it probably rested on a belief (expressed systematically in people
like Moltmann) that history was an arena of revelation (a good hegelian
Sometime between then and now, things seem to have changed. If I can
speculate for a moment (and I'm really only an amateur on modern cultural
analysis), I'd say that the growing (overpowering) consciousness in the West
of pluralism, multiculturalism (a good Canadian term), post-colonial
criticism. It is manifest now that there are other cultural games out there
not not at all self-evident that the Western/Christian game will prevail or
is the morally or culturally superior one. In addition, the authority claims
of most the institutions that sustained Western cultures up to the mid 60s
have been compromised: the presidency of the US after Nixon and Vietnam; the
Vatican after the de facto rejection by North Atlantic Catholics of Humanae
Vitae and now, revelations about Pius IX, XII, and the Jews; a loss of
naivete about the fundamental goodness of institutions like universities,
the scientific establishment, and churches; you all can add your own to this
list). All these have led to a pessimism in any theories of manifest destiny
or that Western "Christian" culture will in the long run win out.
Numerically, Western Christian culture is in a decided minority; Islam is a
major competitor; and even within Christian large denominations, there are
often more non-Western members than North-Atlantic members. I'd guess that
the only location where real confidence in the destiny of "Christian
culture" lingers is in American fundamentalism, which has never been
committed to historical scholarship in the first place.
I wonder whether the turn away from history to story is a matter of taking
refuge (this is a bit polemical, I realise) in the "safety" of stories.
Stories can't be *wrong* in the way that historical hunches can be. Stories
are stories; they're well or poorly constructed; they can be transforming,
inspiring, etc.; they could be boring, but never just wrong.
I don't think this is a very healthy move (but I'm also a bit of a Luddite
historian anyway). The canonizing of "story" over history lets drop from
sight the human forces that went into the production of a text and the human
factors that went into its use and reception, and rob us of effective means
by which to criticize the text. I have in mind the fact that most of our
texts are produced by males, probably males of a very restricted (scribal)
class, and appropriated as canonical by mainly elite educated males. This
undoubtedly filters the texts in important respects and prevents us from
seeing the rich historical experience behind the text, an experience that
included women and all sorts of persons of nonelite status. The text
"canonizes" one sort of experience and perspective, and glosses over others.
To focus only on the "story" itself gives us access only to that one story.
On the other hand, we all know the sorry history of textual appropriation
for purposes of anti-semitism, colonialism, justification of wars, torture,
abuse, and the creation of various underclasses. Narrative approaches,
especially those that reify the text, give us no tools to say No to the
toxic waste that texts produce or to certain uses of the text or portions of
it. Nor do they let us say Yes with any conviction.
Quo vademus? I don't know. I do think that approaches to the text that try
to insulate it from larger forces in history and culture (by privileging the
"narrative" or by reifying a biblical canon) will appear more and more like
whistling in the dark. The certainly won't stop the advancing consciousness
that Christianity is not the only game in town, or the best game. At some
point we all will need to come to terms with how to think about the
totalizing claims of religious beliefs in a situation of profound pluralism
and conflicting constructions of reality. I don't have the equipment to do
this at the moment, but I do remain convinced that the study of history will
be part of that thinking.
Thanks again, Mark, Stephen, and all for a very stimulating set of
This is the _Excavating Q_ Seminar (Oct. 23 -- Nov. 10 2000).
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