Opprobrious Characterization

I have a short essay half-formed in my mind, developing my argument from “La Misère du Littéral” to make the point that the whole discourse of what counts as “literal” interpretation or “biblical literalism” has gone off its rails. The same may be said of “fundamentalism,” as shown by the Revealer’s recent post about “Britain’s cleverest fundamentalist.” The article in the New Statesman to which they link doesn’t go that far; the closest its author comes is to suggest that he’s writing about someone whose “views come across as hardline, explicit and specific, verging on the fundamentalist… because of the gulf between his straightforward expression of belief and the kindly muddle of the old liberals who dominated for so long.”
The theologian in question is Tom Wright. Now, I disagree with Tom about plenty of topics, within our field of mutual specialization and in a broader theological sphere. For all I know, he supports Manchester United and the Yankees. But the Revealer’s characterization of Tom as a “fundamentalist” shows a disregard for the ethics of journalistic precision that reflects very poorly on the site and its contributors. The only rationale I can think of for labeling Tom a “fundamentalist” is that he takes positions on Christian doctrine and ethics that depart from the Manhattanite liberalism that regards any clear dogmatic claim as ludicrous (unless, perhaps, it’s made by a Tibetan Buddhist). Tom is a resolutely critical reader of the Bible, a throughly modern intellectual, and is miles away from the kinds of ecclesiology and theology that “The Fundamentalism Project” analyzed with scholarly precision.
But why let accuracy preclude name-calling? Tom doubts that gay and lesbian Christians can reconcile the exercise of their sexual inclinations with the theology he is entrusted to protect and promulgate. He thinks, risibly enough, that the phrase “of the body” in the millennia-old articulation of Christian faith in the “resurrection of the body“ should actually be understood to refer to bodies. No one sophisticated enough to work at the Revealer could be suspected of so callow a blunder!
I tell you, the more I hear from the prominent voices of Christian progressivism, the more determined they seem to fulfill all their adversaries’ worst opinions of them. If Tom is a fundamentalist, so am I. If Tom is a fundamentalist, all the term can mean is that the accuser thinks he or she is smarter than Tom. Guess what: you’re wrong both about Tom and about yourself.

7 thoughts on “Opprobrious Characterization

  1. Thanks for posting this, AKMA. It is indeed galling that dissent from the liberal establishment is interpreted as “declaring war.” What a Manichean world these folks live in.

    On reflection, and realizing this article and the comments that follow come from Britain, I wonder how much of this is due to the prevailing anti-clericalism that has predominated there for the past half century. Let me narrate: Up to that point, the English church was deeply entangled with the establishment. When the establishment moved on, it expected the church to simply fade into the background, perhaps akin to the harmless symbolism of the monarchy. So when the church wants rather to contest public space (partly by saying that the establishment “has no clothes”), it’s seen as rudely interrupting and ill-mannered. Adding to this is the British (and I understand this a little, living in “British North America”) fear of American cultural incursion. And they can only narrate Wright’s contestation as some species of “American-style religious fundamentalism”, or the culture-wars.

    But it still bugs me to no end!

  2. I’m the guilty party here. And I’ll just say straight out that I agree with you, AKMA. You’re HALF-right. Tom Wright doesn’t sound like a fundamentalist. He does insist on some literalist readings of the Bible, though, and he does make that interpretation sound subtle and interesting. Forgive me for saying so! In fact, in that particular regard he’s in the same camp theologically, if not politically, as Radical Orthodoxy, a theological movement about which I’ve been writing in glowing terms for years.

    The title of the post was a bit of light snark directed at New Statesman — another publication for which I bear no actual ill will, since I occasionally write for them. The tone of the piece, I thought, suggested amazement at the fact that a British Anglican bishop could hold such conservative views. By juxtaposing “cleverest” and “fundamentalist,” I thought I’d signaled some irony. Evidently not.

    So I’m guilty of mislabeling your pal, and my apologies to him. But you’re certainly just as guilty as falling back on the incredibly tiresome accusation of “Manhattanite liberalism.” You should know better, AKMA, and from what I’ve read in the past, you do. Accusing someone of “Manhattanite liberalism” has a “you people” ring to it, and I’m not talking about Yankees fans. That rhetoric is coded anti-Semitism. So deeply coded into the culture now that people who’d never dream an anti-Semitic thought think it’s appropriate to use. Sort of like those people who in all good faith invoke a “culture of poverty” to describe African American communities.

    So it’s ugly rhetoric. And it’s misapplied. One, I’m not a Manhattanite. Two, I’m not a liberal (nor a Buddhist. Certainly not a Tibetan Buddhist, a dogmatic tradition, indeed.) Three, and most importantly, I’ve never, ever, written that dogmatic claims are inherently ludicrous. Nor that fundamentalism is, for that matter.

    In fact, your post is far more contemptuous of fundamentalism than mine. By arguing that Wright can’t be a fundamentalist because he’s a “thoroughly modern intellectual,” you ignore one of the key insights of scholarship, which is that fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon. But one needn’t rely on academic scholarship for that insight — if one bothers to rub shoulders with self-described fundamentalists, instead of sticking to the narrow high ground between religious conservatism and a progressivism you find insufficiently precise, you’ll find plenty of modern people, and a decent sprinkling of intellectuals, too.

  3. Jeff — thanks for your acknowledgment, and your very subtle response. A couple of points in response to yours, if I may:
    First, and most important, let me repent (and tone, if possible) for committing “coded anti-Semitism.” I should be more alert to that possibility, though I’ll confess that confronted once again with what looks like a condescendingly urbane response to a well-reasoned conservative position, one that originates from a website under the aegis of NYU, I might once again mistakenly associate that disdain with the only visible geographic marker and with the outlook that most prominently so condescends. Frankly, I was thinking about most of the New York Episcopalians I know — but your point was not about my intentions, and so I will try hereafter to avoid locutions such as this. Oddly enough, in this context, one of Tom Wright’s strongest contributions to theological discourses is his articulate positive account of the Judaism within which Jesus and Paul moved.
    For the sake of accuracy, I confessed my inability to think of a better reason for ascribing “fundamentalism” to Tom; you’ve explained why you called him a fundamentalist now, so my capacity to dream up plausible grounds is no longer relevant. I didn’t accuse you of those things, precisely because I don’t know enough about you to make such an accusation stick.
    “Far more contemptuous”? We’ll leave that for others to judge, OK? You’re quite right that I oughtn’t to have implied that fundamentalism was non-modern — but I’ll push back against your rhetoric ascribing “literalism” to Tom Wright. If we had time, and cared to bore readers with a lengthy Auseinandersetzung, I’d be very curious to learn how your hermeneutic accounts for “literal” interpretation. Presumably, interpreting a grocery list “literally” doesn’t make one a fundamentalist. When is “literal” not OK, and how does one know better than to fall into the error of literalism?
    Anyway, thanks for dropping by and rebuking me, Jeff. The last thing I’d want is to invoke the repellent codes to which you allude, and the next-to-last thing would be for me to be responsible for characterizing you inaccurately.

  4. “Tom doubts that gay and lesbian Christians can reconcile the exercise of their sexual inclinations with the theology he is entrusted to protect and promulgate. He thinks, risibly enough, that the phrase ‘of the body’ in the millennia-old articulation of Christian faith in the ‘resurrection of the body’ should actually be understood to refer to bodies.”

    Well, he gets one wrong and one right. And I also ran across the bit which called him a fundamentalist b/c he believed in the resurrection of the body, and thought, welp, another ignorant journalist.

    But as for the first. this is rather a different beast. NT Wright is a bigot, and that’s rather a shame. There is nothing new with the church having within its ranks bigots, and nothing radically interesting about bigotry. Dressed up fancy bigotry isn’t much better; but the sure sign of it is that you accurate represent his position: that it is the job of gay and lesbian Christians to “reconcile” an A with a B.

    But the press can’t figure out how to deal with that one. They are ashamed of the word “bigot”, and ashamed of saying that the problem with Wright is that he hasn’t bothered to reconcile his Christian faith with his unChristian and uncharitable attitudes toward gay and lesbian Christians. So they say “fundamentalist” or “literalist”, which language has become code word for “bigoted religious person.” And if we realize that this is the code they are speaking, we can realize they are speaking it truthfully.

  5. Thomas, I register your point; but as one of the agents whose behavior and attitudes you bring into consideration, I can say little that wouldn’t constitute caviling or self-defense.

  6. i suppose the question here is this. are we willing to call people to task for the moral character of what they write? it is for this reason i will not study Heidegger: i think that being a Nazi is sufficient reason for me to stop taking someone’s views seriously, to stop buying their books. if that means i won’t understand Tillich as well, it is a small price to pay for a token of solidarity with the victims of Treblinka et. al.

    i am disgusted by the anti-semitism of some of the leading lights of biblical scholarship of the last century and a half, and the seminary discusses and talks frankly about their bigotry and the ways their bigotry infected their biblical scholarship.

    i sit in a seminary chapel and worship in buildings constructed in part by slave labor, and i am ashamed that i benefit in this and so many other ways from that evil, and i am glad that VTS makes such a strong effort at fighting racism.

    i would expect nothing less of these people.

    so it is particularly sad that we–or perhaps this time it’s just you (plural)–are repeating the same damn disastrous crap all over again. in a hundred years you’ll be long gone from the scene, and your successors will be lamenting how that NT Wright could have been such a brilliant man, and so sadly grotesque in his homophobic sinful practice.

    or, and this is the or, we (now 1st person) can learn from the past and not do the same damn thing all over again. just as we should not paper over our racist past, and we should acknowledge Luther’s anti-semitism and its effects, we should not paper over our homophobic present.

    now i’m not sure why you’re one of the people i “bring into consideration”, at least, not as i understand it. or at least, my challenge is, hey, don’t paper it over. don’t pretend that Wright’s homophobic sin is some kind of “oops” that we can just slide past as if it doesn’t really matter. talk about it, say why it’s wrong, that’s what teaching is.

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