Baker Academic

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Crossley Confesses that He is Not Wrong – my continued review of Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism – Le Donne

Parts I and II of my review are here and here. But those parts are pretty banal, so you might as well stick with this post.

Let me reiterate that I really can't put this book down. If ever I teach my class "Portraits of Jesus" again, I will photocopy this book in its entirety, scan it to pdf, and email it to my class. Then I will tell my students not to read it for fear that it constructs a narrative that they buy into. All the while, I will throw darts at my poster of Margaret Thatcher.

The book is both provocative and well-argued. It is not often that you find both together.  Like I said before, I'm swallowing about 80% of what Crossley is dishing out. In what follows, I'm going to focus (inequitably) on aspects of the other 20%.

In chapter three of Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism, Crossley discusses of the canon of religious and Bible-related bloggers, known in general as “bibliobloggers”. Crossley observes and analyzes two case studies within this largely conservative corner of the blogosphere: (1) various Christian reactions to natural disaster and (2) the “photo negative” persona of N.T. Wrong.

On the subject of the former, Crossley criticizes Ben Witherington III for what he does not say concerning the destruction of Haiti by natural disaster and affluent apathy in 2010. BWIII writes:
Haiti has been a disaster happening and waiting to happen for ever. Had most of the buildings in Port au Prince been strengthened or rebuilt to withstand such disasters, literally millions of people would have been less likely to be harmed in that city by what has just happened. And we have known about these problems in our own backyard for decades. For decades now the U.S. would rather throw good money after bad on military adventures in the Middle East and elsewhere when in fact with a fraction of what we have spent in the last decade on war the entire country of Haiti could have been rebuilt and given decent housing!! Yes its true. And these are our backdoor neighbors. But of course they do not have oil and other commodities to offer us, so we as a nation have largely ignored them and their cries for help, hoping that the piecemeal efforts of small U.N. and Christian agencies would pick up the slack—- which they have been unable to do, so overwhelmed have they been by the grinding indigenous poverty and needs of that whole country, not to mention governmental corruption over many decades [full post here].
Crossley does not push back on any of Witherington’s points here. Of course not. Not only do Witherington and Crossley share similar views on contemporary American military action, they are both quite willing to critique the ignorance and apathy of American evangelicals when it comes to "foreign policy". Systemic sin creates strange bedfellows, it seems.

Rather than taking BWIII to task for what he says, Crossley criticizes Witherington for not saying more about the consequences of neoliberalism (i.e. the economics of corporate and multi-national democratic capitalism and the libertarian/imperialistic perspectives that nurture this reality) and the American king-making efforts that resulted in the exile of Jean-Bertrand Aristide (cf. this article).

Look, I’m well aware that spooning with Ben Witherington III (BWIII) can be career suicide at most SBL receptions, but I can’t find any fault with what Ben says in this post. Moreover, BWIII wasn’t saying that American imperialism wasn’t a factor in Haiti. His focus just happens to be elsewhere. It could be that BWIII doesn’t know the first thing about the history between America and Haiti leading up to the exile of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Not hard to imagine (we Americans are dullards). Or it could be that BWIII thinks that America’s recent sins in the Middle East need to be highlighted to show a more global impact of these wars. I am not in a position to guess.

Crossley's point is that BWIII's critique is banal. Indeed, it is so banal that it simply reinforces a familiar narrative with vague platitudes about God and scripture - platitudes that mask rather than reveal the true nature of the problem(s). While Witherington might look to be leaning to the left with these comments, his feet are firmly entrenched in the safe territory of a credible center. And here we get down to the nitty-gritty:  how do we arrive at a comfortable, centrist narrative?

According to Crossley, skimming from Gramsci, Chomsky, Brown, et al., we locate the "wack-jobs" of society, gather our verbal pitchforks and torches and dismiss or cast out these voices as "not credible" (which, of course, is why Bruce Banner was ostracized from the scientific community). Crossley points to the alternative narrative of Pat Robertson concerning the "pact with the devil" that has caused acts of God in the brown-people-parts of the world: When Pat Robertson claims that hurricanes are manifestations of God's wrath against voo-doo, bibliobloggers (rightly or wrongly) lash out against the "wack-job". This, in turn, reinforces the consensus and establishes a sense of normalcy. Imagined voice: "That is what a crazy man sounds like! So now I know that me and my friends are normal because we don't sound like him."

The underlining point here is that "wack-jobs", like Pat Robertson, are influential voices because they allow the rest of us to construct ideologies by contrast. And, as luck would have it, we conveniently find people to bully on the left of the spectrum. So we orient ourselves in the middle of both extremes. According to Crossley, we can be "right-leaning" and dead wrong, but we sound credible when sitting next to Robertson.

Voilà, there you have your ideological center!

What is interesting to me is that Crossley strongly indicts Ben Witherington for being banal, casually distances himself from Robertson, and then gushes over the mercurial blogging career of N.T. Wrong. BWIII gets the biggest bludgeoning here because he represents the dominant narrative. More on that in a moment.

Crossley writes: “The identity of Wrong has been the subject of some debate (some serious, some humorous) and with this in mind I should point out right now that I am emphatically not Wrong, as much as I wish that I had thought of the idea.” Crossley also writes that Wrong is “easily one of the most broadly learned and intellectually sophisticated of any of the bibliobloggers” (p.49). But in Crossley's program, Wrong serves the same constructive purpose as Pat Robertson. One is to the extreme right and one is to the intelligent left, but both are victimized and marginalized from the neoliberal center. In this case, the center is represented by the right-leaning Christian bloggers.  

It becomes abundantly clear over the next three pages that Crossley’s love for N.T. Wrong stems from his preference for iconoclasts. This seems to grate against his otherwise Marxist thesis. In Crossley's case, it is Marxist in that it undermines individualist, capitalist, and religious ideologies. While he is very critical of the "cult of personality" agenda that has dominated Jesus studies, he seems to be quite attracted to Wrong because of his personality.

More on this book coming soon...


  1. Next post: biblical scholars you want to spoon. Please?


  2. Christ's kingdom is not of this world, Caesar's is. Because of this, I often am surprised when people expect otherwise.

    Ben's a super gentleman and I love him and respect him, if he really thinks any state should or could somehow not follow it's self absorbed, self interests 100%, he's going to be sad.
    States don't die and go to heaven. They just die.

    I don't know when it would be that the USA reached it's apotheosis with loyal believers, but, whenever that was, we were 100% self absorbed as a nation. I doubt we're any different from everyone else, just bigger and wealthier than some.

  3. "Libertarian/Imperialistic"-these are antonyms, not synonyms.