Many 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.