Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Book Snap: James Crossley's "Jesus in An Age of Terror"

From the November 2009 E-Block.


Shortly before I began reading Jesus in an Age of Terror, I discovered an argument by the author, James Crossley, that turned out to be representative of his intellectual shortcomings: Crossley answered an argument for the Resurrection which appealed to the considered unreliability of the testimony of women by suggesting that it was the testimony of the male angel that was considered sufficient. Crossley missed the quite obvious rebuttal: The only testimony to the existence and speech of that "male angel" was (cough) female witnesses. 

Such is an example of how Crossley frequently fails in his argumentative endeavors in Jesus in an Age of Terror (hereafter JIAT): Backed into a corner where arguments fail him, Crossley will contrive something in haste, missing quite obvious gaping holes in his thesis. I can say this to be frequently the case in JIAT, at least where subjects I know much of are addressed -- which turns out not to be as much as I expected. I ordered the book on the understanding that it heavily critiqued the Context Group; as it turns out, direct critique of CG and its members comprises less than 50 pages, and the bulk of the book is a shrill political treatise, in which Crossley rides hard astride certain personal hobby horses associated with what would be generally called leftist political causes, with particular reference to the war in Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

So what's the problem? Apparently, Crossley is convinced that there is some sort of connection between political ideology and Biblical scholarship; the hysterical importunings involved in this profession appear to me -- as one with no horse to ride in political debates -- to exhaust the reserves of tinfoil millinery. The first third of the book could have been substantially shortened to a single line borrowed from Dan Brown: "History is written by the winners." There is much talk of scholarship in service of the "elite culture," [4] of "agendas", "us vs. them" mentalities, and so on, all of which is an unnecessary prelude to a convincing argument. My own policy since the inception of Tekton has been to avoid such commentary; it is useless save for emotional effect. Crossley has no such restrictions on his own delivery, but I will say that this sporting of aluminum haberdashery does little to convince me that he is to be trusted when relating the substance or significance of political events. The fact that Crossley failed in his logic on that earlier point then becomes icing on the cake.

And so what then of Crossley's critique of CG? Mostly they are objections to what he calls "generalizations" which he terms to be "racist" though explanations of why these "generalizations" are false, or indeed "racist," are overall limited to "how would you feel if someone said this about you" rhetoric. Crossley is particularly bothered by statements that begin by saying things like, "Middle Easterners..." followed by something descriptive of behavior; this, he supposes, contributes to one of those "us vs them" dichotomies and encourages us to think of the named persons as something subhuman. The CG is Crossley's main target here, and he also spends a few pages scorning blogger Loren Rosson, but he is ecumenical in his criticism: Sam Harris gets taken down a few notches as well.

In any event, so much is made of so little that it is hard to take Crossley seriously for most of this volume. For example, Crossley heavily weighs against what he calls "stereotypical images" and "Arab/Muslims stereotypes" in a particular documentary: "the headdresses, the rotten teeth, the wild hand movements, and the fast-paced alien language..." [104] Beg pardon? Are the headdresses historically inaccurate, then? Has someone informed Crossley that modern dental care was absent from the ancient world (and still much of the modern world) and that "rotten teeth" were par for the course (even among America's Founders)? Aren't "wild hand movements" and "fast-paced language" characteristics of many persons in many cultures (and aren't all other languages "alien" to us until we learn them)? Crossley's assessment here is simply paranoid.

It appears that Crossley has some serious problems with honesty as well. He chooses to critique a posting of Rosson, whom I would remind readers is a professed secularist, as well as a former student of CG leader Richard Rohrbaugh. The posting, found here, discusses the reactions of Iranians to the popular film 300, the story of how a much larger Persian army was defeated by a tiny Greek force of 300. Rosson not unreasonably links Iranian anger over the film to a sense of humiliation at the much larger force, composed of their cultural forbears, having been bested; and now this is turned into a film for the entertainment of the descendants of the "winners".

How does Crossley deal with this? Not in the least honestly. Crossley notes Rosson's summary statement that "Iran feels globally shamed." Crossley then says, "After citing an Iranian, Adadeh Moaveni, Rosson comments that 'we' have an easier time laughing off 'egregious drivel' than people like Moaveni because 'nonsense' is taken 'quite seriously in honor-shame societies'."

The dishonesty in Crossley's report becomes apparent when we see, first, what exactly Rosson was "citing" from Moaveni -- namely, the report of a "native witness" that utterly confirmed Rosson's point:
All of Tehran was outraged. Everywhere I went yesterday, the talk vibrated with indignation over the film 300... Iranians buzzed with resentment at the film's depictions of Persians, adamant that the movie was secretly funded by the U.S. government to prepare Americans for going to war against Iran... Agreeing that 300 is egregious drivel is fairly easy. I'm relatively mellow as Iranian nationalists go, and even I found myself applauding when the government spokesman described the film as fabrication and insult. Iranians view the Achaemenid empire as a particularly noble page in their history and cannot understand why it has been singled out for such shoddy cinematic treatment."
Worse yet, Crossley fails to indicate that the words "egregious drivel" come directly from Moaveni and that Rosson is using it (and the synonymous "nonsense") reflecting what has been stated by Moaveni himself.

After this, Crossley insinuates that Rosson's use of "we" reflects some sort of idea of an alien "other," and objects, "we are not told how Iranian global shame is measured, or indeed any evidence of it." [106] That is something of a convenience, since Moaveni's commentary is precisely such evidence. As far as "measuring" shame, this is an example of a tactic frequently resorted to by Crossley, which I might call the "bet you can't jump over that building" challenge. How is shame measured? The same way things like love, hate, and other emotions are measured: By depth of expression. Clearly Crossley is raising the bar of evidence to arbitrary levels here.

Following this, Crossley rails against Rosson for a full paragraph speaking of how Rosson failed to define "nonsense" and how subjective such a word is, again for failure to grasp that "nonsense" is used synonymously with Moaveni's "egregious drivel."

In the end, although Crossley manages to find a handful of statements from CG members and sympathizers that might be considered injudicious isolated from their broader contexts of serious research, he barely scrapes the surface of their work and seldom does more to refute them than applying labels like "generalization" or "stereotyping" or claiming that they have presented no "evidence" for their positions. Given Crossley's patent dishonesty with Rosson documented above, I am inclined to take such designations by Crossley with a grain of salt.

The final third of the book returns to another hobby horse, that of "Christian Zionism" or support for the nation of Israel. As again one with no horse to ride in the debate, I found it hard to take Crossley seriously here, or even become interested for that matter, but it is worth noting another of Crossley's contrived arguments like the one above. Responding to Hurtado, Crossley notes his indication that Stephen was stoned in Acts 7 because he made a "Christological statement." [188] Crossley contrives in place the idea that this can rather "be seen as a disagreement over the Law and not Christology." But what then of the fact that the stones were not raised until that Christological statement? Crossley admits this, but says, "...this could quite plausibly be understood as a dispute over ultimate authority for Stephen's claims, over who was really doing the will of God..." He then cites several passages where this was indeed an issue, but Acts 7 is not among them, and his "plausibly" is merely created from thin air.

In the end, it speaks to Crossley's nature that he closes thinking that his book will be rejected by other scholars for no other reason than that it is a dissenting view. [199] That it might be rejected because it is illogical or erroneous is obviously not something Crossley wishes to consider, but given his poor record in these instances we have noted, the reader is well advised to consider that as a real possibility.

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