"Liberal" and "Conservative" Labels

It looks like The Biblioblog Top-50 might reinstate the practice of labeling us by our liberal/conservative leanings. I can’t say I’m upset by this idea in the way Jason Staples is, and wonder if strenuous objections owe to a certain insecurity about the way one is perceived. We shouldn’t take this stuff too seriously. I’m amazed at how I’ve been pegged over the past five years: flaming liberal, moderate liberal, secular liberal, Christian liberal, moderate conservative — one reader even thought I was an evangelical if you can believe it — but it’s been more curious than troubling.

For the sake of fun experimenting, however, I do like Jason’s proposal (in the second of his six reasons for objecting) about expanding our platform for assessing what it means to be liberal/conservative. It puts me in mind of The Political Compass which rates one’s politics on two scales — a social axis and an economical one. For example, I’m a strong social liberal (way down on the vertical axis) but a fiscal moderate (only slightly to the left of center on the horizontal one).

In like manner, Jason proposes three axes to assess liberal/conservative leanings in biblical studies: a theological axis (one’s reputation based on personal beliefs), a scholarly axis (one’s openness or resistance to new scholarly ideas), and a critical axis (one’s willingness or not to engage and interact with those outside one’s camp). This isn’t a bad start, and based on the way Jason describes them I suppose I’d be liberal across the board. I’m obviously a secular liberal in terms of personal religious beliefs (or lack thereof); I continually endorse thinking outside the box; and I’ve always warmed to the philosophy of John Meier which is mirrored on the biblioblogosphere — interacting with and taking the best from all camps of scholarship, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, evangelical, agnostic, and atheist alike.

Why is it, then, that I’ve been pegged as conservative on some occasions? The only thing I can think is that certain conclusions I reach are rather traditional — and perhaps boringly so. But as Mark Goodacre often says in his podcast, being scholarly sometimes requires being a spoilsport. (I.e. Biblical scholarship can’t always do for us what we want it to do, and sometimes the traditional, trite and mundane is exactly what was originally meant.) So maybe we need a fourth axis for Jason’s model, based on conclusions one reaches after testing ideas however wild and radical. On this axis I suppose I could be properly construed as a “moderate” or even “moderate conservative”, which would account for the way I’ve been pegged in certain quarters.

So here’s a homework assignment for someone: come up with a test analogous to the Political Compass, but with four axes instead of two, and we’ll have a decent way of assessing ourselves. But smile and have fun about it, if we really must. Getting down to it, I don’t care too much how I’m labeled — whether by the Biblioblog Top-50 or others — even if it’s interesting to see the variety of perception.

UPDATE: Stephen Carlson makes crystal clear how he feels about the issue.

UPDATE (II): Rick Sumner weighs in, and it’s been nice to see him blogging again.

UPDATE (III): The Biblioblog Top-50 has decided not to proceed with the idea. They will introduce “periodic surveys of bibliobloggers on various topics” instead.

Looking Back: The Most Thought-Provoking Books of the Past Five Years

I started this blog five years ago and thought it was a good time to revisit the most thought provoking biblical studies books I’ve read since then. Note that I don’t necessarily endorse the arguments of the following titles (though I happen to agree largely with many of them). I like them for the way they grab our attention and challenge us to see things we may not be inclined to see, for better or worse. So here they are, the most stimulating books of 2005-2009 — a baker’s dozen of them, so there’s no chance of being shortchanged. I’ve reviewed all of them (see hyperlinks).

1. Resurrecting Jesus, Dale Allison (2005). For the best study of the resurrection, and brilliant essays about the relationship between the historical Jesus and modern needs.

2. Gospel Hoax, Stephen Carlson (2005) & The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled, Peter Jeffrey (2006). For putting Morton Smith’s defenders in an embarrassing spotlight, and forcing unavoidable questions about academic integrity.

3. The Deliverance of God, Douglas Campbell (2009). For a massive appraisal of the New Perspective and opposing theories of salvation in Paul’s writings.

4. New Testament Theology, Philip Esler (2005). For a powerful explanation as to why theology should be more about dialogue/communion (and disagreement) with the biblical authors than about liking what they have to say.

5. The Symbolic Jesus, William Arnal (2005). For underlining how agenda-driven the question of Jesus’ Jewishness is, no matter what side of the fence we’re on.

6. The Ethics of Obscene Speech in Early Christianity and its Environment, Jeremy Hultin (2008). For an incredibly fascinating survey of something I love to use: foul language.

7. The Background and Content of Paul’s Cultic Atonement Metaphors, Stephen Finlan (2005). For a sharp assessment of Paul’s different and contradictory death metaphors, which blend together and work despite themselves.

8. The End of Biblical Studies, Hector Avalos (2007). For arguing that the discipline of biblical studies is a waste of time. (But it’s fun, Hector!)

9. Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas, April DeConick (2006). For an oral approach to the layering of Thomas –- a breath of fresh air, and much needed alternative to Patterson, Koester, and Arnal.

10. A Marginal Jew (Vol IV): Law and Love, John Meier (2009). For putting the classic criteria into action big time, while showing they can only do so much for us, despite the author’s confidence.

11. Jesus in an Age of Terror, James Crossley (2009). For showing how liberal scholars can unwittingly play into the hands of conservative pundits and culture critics when analyzing the Middle-East.

12. Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective, Francis Watson (2007). For taking the best of the New Perspective and pointing to a beacon that promises more and better.

13. Jesus and His Death, Scot McKnight (2005). For an amazing analysis of the historical Jesus’ understanding of the way his death would atone –- you might be surprised this book was written by an evangelical for the way it banishes plenty of gospel testimony (ransom redemption, covenant ideas, etc.) to post-Easter developments.