Friday, January 08, 2010

on defining biblical scholarship

In the process of putting the finishing touches on an article, I returned to Clifford Geertz's The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), a book I first encountered early in 2002 as I groped after the theoretical basis of my Master's thesis at Cincinnati Christian University. And I came across this:
Cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete. And, worse than that, the more deeply it goes the less complete it is. It is a strange science whose most telling assertions are its most tremulously based, in which to get somewhere with the matter at hand is to intensify the suspicion, both your own and that of others, that you are not quite getting it right. But that, along with plaguing subtle people with obtuse questions, is what being an ethnographer is like.

There are a number of ways to escape this—turning culture into folklore and collecting it, turning it into traits and counting it, turning it into institutions and classifying it, turning it into structures and toying with it. But they are escapes. The fact is that to commit oneself to a semiotic concept of culture and an interpretive approach to the study of it is to commit oneself to a view of ethnographic assertion as, to borrow W. B. Gallie's by now famous phrase, "essentially contestable." Anthropology, or at least interpretive anthropology, is a science whose progress is marked less by a perfection of consensus than by a refinement of debate. What gets better is the precision with which we vex each other. (Geertz 1973: 29)

I am currently engaged in proposing a semiotic approach to gospels scholarship, a proposition that began in Structuring Early Christian Memory but that I'm realizing more and more I need to push and expand before moving on to my other interests (particularly the "parting of the ways," my analysis of which will depend thoroughly on this semiotic approach).

The most common criticism I have received, from multiple quarters, is of my rather uncontrolled, open-ended, fluid understanding of ancient tradition and how that tradition was expressed in and related to written texts. So, naturally, I like Geertz's idea, in which biblical scholarship's "progress is marked less by a perfection of consensus than by a refinement of debate." More precise, controlled, "scientific" biblical scholarship isn't "better" if its precision and control—its science—are distortions that provide an "escape" from the historical processes and communities and texts at the heart of our analyses.

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