May 20, 2017

Does Cognitive Surplus Breed Journalistic Scholarship?

Nijay Gupta said something profound on Crux Sola last week that I think represents an encouraging trend. Here's the quote, with emphasis added to the portion of my particular interest.
In many ways, I wish Matt’s book didn’t need to be written. While I deeply appreciate his thoughtful discussion of this subject, to me it represents a reading of Scripture that should simply be clear and assumed, rather than something needing such careful defense. But the reality is that there is a history of scholarship that has locked “faith” (pistis) into being something cognitive, a non-work, and even some have referred to it as “passive”! 
For more on active faith vs passive belief, read the post. Now, let's consider the broader trend which is here represented. Let's examine the idea that "a reading of Scripture" can seem "clear and assumed" and yet require "careful defense" against the oppressive "history of scholarship" that has locked in a wrong-headed view. How could such a thing happen, on both sides of the contrast?

On the one hand, this is not unusual. Nijay Gupta is one of several promising young Ph.D's, establishing themselves in the field, minting worthy new publications with verve, aplomb, and a healthy dose of ambition. On some level, this is how scholarship has always worked. After several generations of academics had shared similar views on a subject, along comes a new generation whose life experience has not been subjected to quite the same degree of cultural conditioning. This is how you get the Reformation, or the Enlightenment, or any other Kuhn-ian Revolution in knowledge and understanding. Specific points of departure are always distinct in each movement, but the overall pattern is as old as academic inquiry itself.

On the other hand, something seems different about our current revolution. It's NOT just that Gupta is a young protestant criticizing old protestants, because that trend is nearly 500 years old. I am also NOT thinking about how Gupta (and Matt Bates) are challenging a core doctrine of Protestantism itself, because that's happened before and will happen again. I am further NOT thinking about how the internet is expanding the scope and potential impact of such turning point scholarship in our day, because the medium in this case isn't really the message.

What I AM referring to is the larger and unprecedented trend of interpretative self-confidence, which we see in several recent movements, from religious "nones and dones" to the rise of mythicism, but also late 20th century trends like the proliferation of independent bible churches and the house church and "emergent" movements. What these all have in common is not necessarily a rejection of experts and authorities but (more broadly) a general lack of fear (lack of consequences to be faced) when separating the intellectual needs of the individual reader from the corporate needs of institutional systems. Thus, again, I call this interpretative self-confidence.

Interestingly, there's an socio-economic parallel to this trend in the rise of vocational transience and the fall of social organizations; the miracle of the modern economy enabled a lot of blue collar workers to worry less (far less than earlier generations) about losing a job, and that kind of economic self-sufficiency makes it less necessary to socialize within civic associations (Lions, Kiwanis, Rotary, Etc) or maintain the facade of religious attendance. One reason church attendance has been dropping in the US (or, historically, tends to drop in most urban industrial areas) is because modern economics makes it no longer necessary to hold good social standing within a local community in order to sustain all prospects of earning a living. In other words, to some degree, this is all just the long-term influence of increasing urbanization and mass-communication abilities, which foster individualism and increase diversity, while challenging the need for existing instututional systems. This even happened on a much smaller scale in the Greek cities post-Alexander-the-Great. Such has it ever been. Such will it ever be.

Still, I do feel today there is something more going on.

Maybe we're just reaching the apex of the socio-economic curve. Maybe it's the rise of technology that's increasing our Cognitive Surplus. My grandparents went through the Great Depression, my parents were highly motivated to achieve economically, I've chosen career(s) that allow me to spend time on creative pursuits, my kids' friends are more likely to assemble a series of gigs than a single career, and my grandkids' generation might someday receive basic income without needing to work. There are doubtless some unpredictable ramifications of all this, if we keep up present trends, but we're already seeing the first fruits of all this Cognitive Surplus today.

Why are there so many protestants today who are willing to hear out the arguments of Matt Bates and Nijay Gupta, without fearfully shutting them down because it runs foul of dogmatic orthodoxy? Why is it just now becoming possible for someone to argue defensibly against 500 year old concept which has served well the systemic needs of Protestant institutions? Why is it starting to feel more familiar when I see one of these young christian scholars arguing boldly in favor of clear and obvious readings in opposition against the traditional views of historical scholarship?

Maybe it's just the latest round of the perpetual cycle, but it feels different, particularly because I can't see where these new arguments serve anything other than the persnickety academic desire to attempt to speak accurately about what we believe we are seeing. In the year 2017, I think educated people are pretty good at recognizing bias, spin, or partisanship, and increasingly - if I'm not mistaken - bias, spin, and partisanship are NOT what's driving these fresh bursts of New Testament scholarship.

When these things grab my attention, like Nijay Gupta's blog post grabbed my attention, there seems to be a genuine spirit of journalism - which is primarily motivated by the kind of person who says, "I saw something. It's relevant and informative. I feel a responsibility to tell other people about it."

Historically, much of scholarship has been critical or apologetic, and "academic freedom" has been most often enjoyed by scholars who happened to get hired by intellectually amenable institutions. Increasingly, however (whether because of the miraculous modern economy, our embrace of diversity, the loosening of religious dogmas, or all three, or something else I'm not aware of) what I think we're starting to see more of is scholarship driven by journalistic desires.

First and foremost, that seems to be a purer form of scholarship as it should be, and I dearly hope the trend will continue.

Secondly, and more pointedly, I hope Protestant institutions turn out to be humbly and repeatedly chastened by a new generation which loves their heritage but does not fear its gatekeepers.

There is so much we need to undo.

Anon, then...

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"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton