Who may rightly defend Chris Rollston?

Police holding back protestersMany Higgaion readers will already have found themselves knee-deep (or deeper) in the brouhaha surrounding Christopher Rollston’s article “The Marginalization of Women: A Biblical Value We Don’t Like to Talk About” (Huffington Post, August 31, 2012). I admit that when I finished my first reading of Chris’s article (the same day it was published), I didn’t give it much additional thought—Chris didn’t break any new ground in the piece. He simply reported, to a mass audience, things that biblical scholars should already know. But then Paul Blowers, Chris’s colleague at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, criticized Chris for the article in a Facebook post that Paul (inadvertently?) made public … and leading bibliobloggers jumped to Chris’s defense, in turn prompting other bloggers and Paul himself to defend the criticism.

I’ve watched with mounting sadness as the online argument between Chris’s critics and defenders has heated up. I’ve held back on any commentary of my own until now, largely because the last ten days or so have been so hectic that I’ve barely had time to breathe, let alone think. The dustup also reminded me, to my shame, of some of my own prior “conversations” with Jim West—and when I recently rebooted Higgaion, I pledged to myself to cultivate a kinder, gentler, more constructive, more Christian web presence. But now, on a quiet Friday afternoon, I find myself drawn back to the conversation around Chris’s HuffPo piece, albeit as a late entrant (and perhaps only in the service of my own catharsis).

In his own contribution to that part of the conversation taking place at Bible and Interpretation, Paul seems to say that people who have no direct connection with Emmanuel Christian Seminary—people who are neither faculty, nor alumni, nor donors, nor part of ECS’s denominational constituency—have no business engaging the discussion. Paul refers to these people as “sitting in the cheap seats.” I confess to not understanding that metaphor completely, but it seems to mean that Paul feels that “outsiders” to ECS have nothing at stake in the matter.

I would like to address that point here, but before I do, I wish to honor Paul’s feelings in this matter by establishing my bona fides. I am no “season ticket holder,” but neither am I “sitting in the cheap seats.” Paul may or may not remember, but I have met and had short conversations with him on several occasions, and as an M.A. student at Abilene Christian University some twenty years ago, I studied Restoration Movement history with one of Paul’s co-editors on The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement. I therefore count Paul as an acquaintance, albeit distantly. I have counted Chris as friend for many years. I taught at Milligan College, across the street from Emmanuel, from 1998 to 2003; during that time, Nathan Gilmour and Wes Arblaster, who have criticized Chris, were two of the most impressive students in taught there. I also taught one course on Genesis as an adjunct at Emmanuel in 2002, when the seminary was short on Old Testament professors. If I recall correctly, Heather Dana Davis Parker, one of Chris’s star pupils at Emmanuel, was one of the most impressive students in that course. Since I moved to Pepperdine University (a confessional institution affiliated with the Churches of Christ, and therefore a “kissing cousin” to ECS) in 2003, my interactions with ECS have been limited to reading the Envoy, chatting with ECS faculty at SBL meetings and Pepperdine lectures, and sporadic online conversations with Chris.

Having now established that I sit in what one might call a liminal space between the “cheap seats” and the “box seats,” I’ll assert that I don’t think my seating assignment really matters. Paul seems to think that people with no formal ties to Emmanuel as an institution have insufficient knowledge of the situation to comment accurately, and insufficient standing to comment permissibly. I tentatively agree with the first point (about knowledge), and therefore eschew any speculation about what might or might not be going on behind closed doors at ECS in response to Chris’s HuffPo piece or Paul’s criticisms thereof. However, I disagree strongly with the second point (about standing). I don’t simply mean that perceived mistreatment of a scholar is properly the business of all scholars, although I generally agree with that statement. I have something more specific, more “local,” in mind. By Internet standards, it seems to me that the community of academic biblical scholars pursuing online public discourse about our field—“bibliobloggers” for short, even though some that I would include in this group don’t actually write blogs of their own—truly merits the term “community.” We care not only about scholarly ideas and values like academic freedom, but also about each other. We occupy a virtual neighborhood in which we look out for each other’s interests. Yes, we occupy different institutional contexts in the material world, but we have forged “here,” in cyberspace, a web of relationships in which personal and professional intertwine deeply—which means that in the travails of any one of us, we are all stakeholders now.

Readers will require no special hermeneutical training to perceive that I have not addressed the substance of Chris’s HuffPo piece or the substance of Paul’s criticism thereof. In fact, I do wish to express an opinion about the merits of the case—but in a separate post, so that any resulting comment threads will be easier to follow.

Earlier today, I taught my students in “Religion 101: The History and Religion of Israel” about the book of Leviticus. Leviticus 19:16b (CEB) reads, “Do not stand by while your neighbor’s blood is shed.” According to peshat, the “legislator” here undoubtedly addresses actual physical violence. But according to derash, our Lord taught us that anger is like unto murder, and anyone we’re in a position to help is our neighbor. To my derash-attuned ears, the outcry from “the cheap seats” sounds like a chorus of Samaritans rising up to live out this ethic.

שָׁלוֹם עָלֵיכֶם

  • http://www.bobcargill.com bobcargill

    To answer the question: I can. And as you’ve written, you can.

    Blowers is a Patristics scholar teaching “theology” and defending the Christian faith from “heretics” like those who study historical and textual criticism, who demonstrate how the text of the Bible (and the religions it describes) evolved and developed over time, especially the Hebrew Bible professors, whom he feel possess a theology warped by the “liberal” sectarian schools like Harvard and Yale and Duke and Princeton and Johns Hopkins and UCLA, that shatters students’ faith by making them actually read the biblical texts in an unapologetic fashion.

    Sound about right? (And sound familiar?)

    The difference is that Blowers sits in a position of authority as the Chair of the Area Chairs at Emmanuel, and has a say in whether or not Dr. Rollston is fired. Of course, since Blowers has already publicly divulged the existence of an otherwise privy disciplinary action seeking to make Dr. Rollston “resign or be fired”, it is a bit different of a case.

    It’s not just a case of whether a seminary can fire a scholar because they don’t like his research. It’s a case of an accredited institution with AAUP Academic Freedom language copied word-for-word into their faculty handbook attempting to fire a tenured professor by claiming a ‘for cause’ reason of “we can’t recruit conservative students who would otherwise pay tuition” or “we can’t land the six-figure donation because that donor doesn’t like you”.

    It’s not just a case of inbred Stone-Campbell theology and generational nepotism (again, sound familiar?), it’s a case of money. Follow the money.

    And it’s a case of a big fish in a very small bowl, a bowl in which the other fish are about to bail, and a bowl that is getting no attention from the passers by (with the exception of the fish in the other glass bowls, who can quite plainly see what’s going on, cheap seats or not.

    I’ve watched a game from the cheap seats. I can still see the action. I can still see who is winning and who is losing and which manager is arguing and who is getting kicked when he is down.

    I don’t have to be sitting in the owner’s box to know when a team has committed a personal foul.

    Cheers,

    bc

  • http://zwingliusredivivus.wordpress.com Jim

    very, very nicely said chris.

  • http://gravatar.com/theologyarchaeology theologyarchaeology

    I think that your post is a bunch of BS. You all are whining because you all want to be free to do whatever you want and make your own rules. You do not want others to say you are wrong and punish you for your indiscretions.

    If you want academic freedom to do what you want then quit your jobs and start your own organizations. When you work for someone else you are under their authority, their rules, and their disciplinary actions.

    God’s rules trump all thus there is no such thing as ‘academic freedom’. If you do not teach the truth, then you are a false teacher and in a lit of trouble especially if you turn students’ faith away from Jesus.

    • http://drchris.me/higgaion/ Chris Heard

      David “theologyarchaeology” Tee, I must confess that I struggle to see the obvious relationship between what I wrote in my post and what you wrote in your comment. Admittedly, my post mentions academic freedom in passing, but the post is not about academic freedom, nor did I seek to defend Chris on the grounds of academic freedom. (I don’t disagree with that defense, but that’s not the point.) The post above is about who has the “right” to defend—or, for that matter, criticize—Chris with regard to his Huffington Post article. Your brief tirade here against academic freedom is entirely beside the point.

      At the level of implicit relevance, though, something very curious is happening here. You seem to thing you’re disagreeing with me. However, by your behavior—by which I mean choosing to insert yourself into the ongoing conversation about Chris’s article—you have implicitly endorsed my position. Since I know next to nothing about you, I cannot be 100% sure that you have no ties to Emmanuel Christian Seminary as either a current or former faculty member, student, donor, trustee, or denominational constituent. However, since you consistently get the school’s name wrong in your own blog post of October 9 (it’s Emmanuel Christian Seminary, formerly Emmanuel School of Religion, but never Emmanuel Christian University), I’m pretty confident that you’re “sitting in the cheap seats” just like Joel Watts and Thomas Verenna and other folk that Paul has tried to “shush” with that metaphor. My point in the post above was that you don’t need a formal tie to ECS as an institution to have a stake in what’s happening to Chris. Given that you seem to have no such ties to ECS, and yet you’ve posted about the matter on your own blog and commented about it in various other forums, you surely must agree with that point.

      • http://www.bobcargill.com bobcargill

        Chris, this is actually a very keen and well-reasoned point.

        Expect it to go right over David Tee’s head.

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  • Patrick

    I disagree with Rollston’s point. His treatment is a separate issue.

    IF Jesus is our highest and best interpreter of scripture and He is IMO, then how is it any scholar under the sun who is confessional can’t see that any biblical documentation demonstrating less than loving God and your neighbor as yourself is not God’s desire for us to live by? It then has to be what God tolerated, not what He desired of His people.

    That would include among other issues mistreatment/marginalized treatment of women.

    If Rollston simply pointed out the marginalization of females as an ANE cultural topic in the bible God had to deal with( He had and still does deal with lots of other flawed stupidity as well) then he would have been right, as it stands, he has given the impression “the bible” teaches us this flawed stuff is “biblical”. Not IF Jesus is our icon it is not. In fact, it is anti biblical.

    IF “biblical” means what God wants His people to think and act like as opposed to what He tolerates, then the marginalization of women which is < loving Yahweh and your neighbor as yourself is not biblical. I think any confessional scholar should factor this in before going before the world and inadvertently marginalizing the true value of the bible narrative by associating it with cultural flaws of the ANE that the bible relates.

    This interpretation I think Christopher should re-examine honestly.

    The treatment of him and others needs to simply be within the highest and best "biblical" Christian ethic noted above.

    • http://drchris.me/higgaion/ Chris Heard

      Patrick, as you no doubt realize, the above post focused not on Rollston’s point, but on the question of who has “standing” to address his situation. Unless you have some kind of organic institutional tie to ECS, then by commenting on the issue at all, you’re implicitly agreeing with my point.

      But as for the sense of the word “biblical,” why should “biblical” mean “what God wants” rather than the more obvious definition, “of or relating to the Bible”? And if one intends to use the Bible as a guide to “what God wants,” how could one possibly disregard or write off as “not what God wants” the words of the Torah’s commandments, which appear in the text as first-person divine speech?

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