Posted by: Dan | March 11, 2012

Do As I Say, Not as I Do: Academic Contradictions (Biblical Studies and Marxism)

In many areas of education, the instructor needs to be able to demonstrate a certain degree of proficiency in practicing what is being taught.  Dentists teach at dental schools.  A person who practices First Aid, teaches First Aid to others.  A ticketed plumber teaches others how to be plumbers.  A painter teaches others to paint by (amongst other things) demonstrating certain techniques.

However, when one moves to some of the more theory-oriented areas of education, this same point does not always hold true.  Rather, one demonstrates one’s proficiency not in any point of action but by manipulating signs within some sort of game that does not seem to connect directly to one’s life and actions.  Pure mathematics or some realms of physics are probably some of the most obvious examples of this.

The catch here is that some theories are praxis-oriented or praxis-dependent.  That is to say, if one accepts a theory that is like this as “authoritative” or “right” or “true” in some sense, one is also required to act in a certain manner.  This is how one demonstrates both an acceptance and understanding of the theory.  The alternative is that either one rejects this kind of theory (as “non-authoritative” or “wrong” or “untrue”) or simply does not understand the theory (i.e. by claiming to accept it while failing to live into it).

One example of this would be New Testament studies, as performed by those who claim that the New Testament is an authority in their own lives.  It is hard to engage in any sort of sustained study of the New Testament without realizing that the life, actions, and commitments of Jesus — as exemplified particularly well in Phil 2.5-11 — are also to be the model for the life, actions, and commitments of any who wish to follow Jesus or who consider the New Testament to be a sacred text of some sort.  If one teaches Phil 2, or New Testament studies, but does not live into a trajectory of creative solidarity and resistance alongside of those who are being marginalized, oppressed, and deprived of life by the death-dealing Powers of our day, one demonstrates that one has not actually understood or accepted the teachings of the New Testament.  Therefore, to try and teach such material while pursuing tenure in an academic institution (which are clusters of wealth, status and power), or holding some prestigious posting within the institutional church (say, for example, writing a book like Jesus and the Victory of God, while living in the luxury afforded the Bishop of Durham). Is an exercise in missing the point (which also explains why N. T. Wright’s pastoral writings are constantly disappointing, and why he fails to follow through on the implications of his more scholarly works).  It would be like having a non-dentist teach dentistry — sure, they can probably tell you everything, memorize all the approaches and names, problems and solutions, but when it comes down to them showing you how to do a root canal on a patient sitting in a chair, they are going to fuck it up royally.  Which, of course, is part of the reason why we have so many Christian scholars or pastors who can say a lot of nice things about Christianity but don’t have the first clue about what it means to actually live as Christians — those who taught them never showed them.

The same, I think, can be said of those who teach and advocate on behalf of Marxist theory in the academy.  I got thinking about this again because of a recent post by Adam Kotsko at AUFS, and the ensuing comments (see here).  Adam concludes his brief post by asking: “Is the self-proclaimed Marxist with no relationship to the worker’s movement any different from someone who claims to have a Buddhist or Kabbalistic outlook on life without practicing Buddhism or Judaism in any serious way?”

I think this is an excellent question and one that academics don’t seem to like to ask themselves all that much (and they often like it even less when others ask them this question)… although they certainly do a pretty fine job of being appropriately critical about other contexts.  Personally, I do not feel that there is any significant difference between the (majority) of self-proclaimed Marxist academics and the so-called Western Buddhist (whom Zizek has often criticized).  Espousing Marxism is supporting a form of theory that has direct implications regarding a person’s lifestyle, trajectory, and the relationships that person chooses to enter into (or not).  I think Marxist anarchists have always understood this much better than Marxists in the academy (where the anarchists are notably absent… for good reason).  Essentially the Marxist professor who chooses to situate him- or herself within a context of privilege, status, and wealth,  wining and dining at conferences in St. Andrew’s, scouting a position at an Ivy League school, and trying to attain tenure is doing nothing different than the New Testament scholar who plays the same game — i.e. betraying the very position he or she claims to espouse.

That those rooted in the Academy tend to avoid any analysis of this is well reflected in the comments of Adam’s post.  Adam suggests that maybe this means the so-called Western Buddhist isn’t all that bad, another person suggests that the Marxist is better simply by being a Marxist (here the claim to be a Marxist is taken at face value), and another person essentially deploys the “stop splitting the Left” argument because, really, we’re all already oppressed enough by capitalism.

However, as always occurs in this kind of conversation, the argument was made by an additional person that detached Marxist professors are worthwhile in that they create a space where some students can be exposed to some important information, and then those students may go on to be “future activists” who go out and “tear things out.”  This is the classic “do as I say, not as I do” line, and I see professors deploy it all the time.  Of course, the proper response to this is to point out that any students who do go out and do engage in solidarity with the workers, or some marginalized population, or whomever else, do so despite the example set by the professor.

The professor is actually one of the largest barriers to the students going out to “tear things up” (just as children will almost always go on to do as their parents do, not as they say).  The professor is constantly showing the students that they can (supposedly) have their cake and eat it too — i.e. be considered “radicals” or even “Marxists” while continuing to deliberately pursue a life that perpetuates the status quo of capitalism and enjoying all the perks of those who embrace this lifestyle.  Further, lacking a decent practical model, the student who does go out and try to live out what he or she learns, may face serious difficulties (like a dental student who was only taught dental theory and never taught to develop the fine motor skills needed to drill teeth).  This often leads to rapid burn-out or disillusionment (“fuck this, I’m sticking to the books!”), not to mention the harm it can do to others.

Of course, this is not to say that “academia is just a black hole of total worthlessness” (as Adam thinks that some “activists” view the situation).  The knowledge gained in studying Marxism (and the various subjects engaged by Marxism) is very important, but it is important to point out that those who claim to be Marxists (or New Testament scholars), while remaining almost exclusively rooted within the Academy are betraying and working against the very thing for which they claim to act as advocates.  So, really, we need to rework Zizek’s well-known statement that “Christians and Marxists should be on the same side of the barricades.”  The truth is that, all to often, they already are on the same side of the barricades — the side of those who choose to barricade themselves from the poor and the oppressed.



  1. Hey Dan, it’s Aaron Leakey hows it goin buddy?

    I was just thinking after reading this, the reason I like liberation theologians so much is because for them, the theological exercise begins with praxis, and then they theologically reflect on their praxis, which is engagement with suffering people, the poor, etc. In the first world we have come up with all these magnificent speculative triumphalist readings of the text, because we have not yet reflected on the text in the context of suffering and injustice, I think.

    • Of course, we then incorporate the writings of those liberation theologians into our course readings and assume that we are equipped to evaluate them, even though we refuse to place ourselves in the kind of context which (the liberation theologians tell us) is required to judge their writings. Like capitalism, the Academy has an near infinite ability to absorb alternative voices without giving up any of its power.

      Try this in the physical sciences: somebody tells us that, if we perform a certain experiment, we will attain a certain result. However, instead of performing the experiment to see if this is the case, we spend all our time rejecting their conclusion and talking about why we don’t need to to do the experiment in order to know that they are wrong.

      Hope you’re well, Aaron. Fire me an email sometime and let me know what’s going on with you these days.

      • So true man, we are without the context the liberation theologians speak of to evaluate their writings. Our first world context of reading the bible does not give us the appropiate context to understand its meaning either. Although as I’v come to see what we have is a whole phethora of other injustices that take a very different form, like the stuff that comes from capitalism and a society breads us to compete with each other and that ignores most of what happens around the world. I also think the way we read the text outside of this context, of suffering and poverty, disempowers us in the first world; it is our own loss in some senses. Like we’d perfer triumphant, pro-capatalism, moralistic, etc etc etc readings that are actually really paternalistic and oppressive. Reading from the margins and outside of power arrangements is liberating, except that we have to re-consider our financies & allegiances lol- not easy to do. I’d really like to see academic education take that turn to considering context, in a praxis sense, in the theological exersice of bibilcal interpretation.

        Cool buddy, hope your well too man. I’ll hit yah up… peace.

  2. “like a dental student who was only taught dental theory and never taught to develop the fine motor skills needed to drill teeth”.

    I feel like that all the bloody time.

  3. I am not sure I agree when it comes to marxism. For at least some (many? most?) marxists, marxism is a tool of analyses, and has little if anything to do with personal morality. Coming from a christian background, initially when studying socialism I presupposed that socialists where socialist for ethical reasons. I guess some are, and some are, but want to hide it for ideological reasons, but at least there are many socialist for which the question is self-interested class struggle and not “justice” in a moral sense. If you have a marxist materialist perspective on the world, actions can be futile and inappropriate if the timing is wrong etc. As a marxist you also need to accept a that you need to use means in achieving the goal that is not in line with the goal (for example the state, but I guess also other positions of power).

    I agree though when it comes to teaching the New Testament.

  4. What about those marxist/socialist academics who consider their heavy engagement in unions as full engagement in the worker’s movement?

    • I’ll preface this by saying I’m no expert on unions in our present day. But I think it depends on context. Who, when, where… not sure if you have a particular example in mind…

      Historically, I think that unions were important and I think they have the potential to be pretty important again both now and in our immediate future.

      However, over the years, a number of unions became pretty removed from the working poor. They actually started excluding marginalized segments of the population in order to hold on to the wealth and privilege they had gained, and they also started mimicking and replicating the same old oppressive power structures of the capitalist. owners. Thus, a lot of union leaders started betraying the workers, much like a lot of leaders from marginalized populations — say a black President, or a female vice-president in the USofA — betray those populations.

      Of course, with the unions and workers being under assault today, all this is suddenly throwing a number of unions back into a degree of solidarity with the working poor and other marginalized folks that they have been trying to avoid for awhile now so it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

  5. But can this possibly hold (1) in a secular context – such as biblical studies decoupled from theology, or a public university – and (2) absent an agreed understanding of what correct religious or political orthodoxy/praxis entails? It just strikes me as a recipe for pious dysfunction from my perspective in a public university.

    • BY,

      Fair questions.

      (1) For those who engage in biblical studies from a secular perspective none of this is all that relevant — which is why I include the proviso that those who engage in NT studies and view the NT as, somehow, authoritative or relevant for how they live their lives, are the target of my criticisms.

      (2) And, yes, that the content of orthodoxy/praxis is contested is part of the problem. A good number of NT scholars, who consider themselves confessing Christians, would argue that they are living out the NT in their lives by adhering to the general standards of bourgeois morality (which they consider to be rooted in the NT).

      That said, I’ve been fortunate enough to see a number of professors who have modeled a non-dysfunctional way of operating within the Academy and other spheres of lived engagement or “solidarity.” For example, one of my former professors taught at the university, but was living in a house wherein everything was shared with people experiencing homelessness and poverty (they did breakfast and dinner daily for street-involved people, shared their house — internet, lounge, etc. with the same people — had a room reserved for anybody who needed it, and built storage lockers in the backyard so that people could store belongings there as well. Additionally, he was very involved in direct actions and other forms of resistance in Vancouver’s dowtown eastside (which is notorious as the poorest urban postal code in Canada and is widely known for drug use and being the space in the Western world that has the highest concentration of people with HIV/Aids). Another former professor of mine did much the same. For example, while teaching at the university of Manila he also lived in the slums of Manila and assisted in organizing the community there. A third former professor also devotes the majority of his time to working with Latin@ migrant farm labourers, “illegals”, and also prison inmates.

      These commitments mean that all of these people have been sidelined within the Academy — they’ll never get tenure, they don’t play the conference game, they publish very little — but they still teach and are excellent professors (in part, I think, the Academy keeps them around because the students constantly rate them very highly… in part, I suspect because they are embodying the content of their teaching).

      So, yes, perhaps this could lead to some dysfunction, but I’ve seen it work rather well.

  6. Maybe I’m reading this post wrong, but the impression I’m left with is that it is another attempt to narrowly define/barricade who’s “in” and “out”, who’s “good enough” and “not quite good enough”.

    • You’re out for reading the post wrong! ;)

      And it’s not a question of “good enough.” Who is “good enough”? That’s a question that I don’t find much worth in pursuing. Rather, it’s a matter of recognizing that the very nature of our lives is structured in such a way that we already are harming some and helping others. I know that this sort of analysis doesn’t fit with your “can’t we all be friends?” approach but the truth is that, by living in some of the ways we do, we are not at all acting as friends to a good many people who need real friends (i.e. not people who just talk nice but people who do things).

      On a side note, I think this points to a blind spot in your approach. Take, for example, your immediate refusal to consider a book about the history of the police in North America because of the title (Our Enemies in Blue). You didn’t like the word “enemies.” Didn’t sound nice or conciliatory enough. However, that then negates the very real lived experiences of many people — mostly poor, mostly non-white (although that market has been expanding in recent years and may continue to do so) — who are beaten, raped, targeted, abused and even murdered by the police. Maybe you don’t want to talk about “enemies” but the police act as though they are enemies of a good number of people. That needs to be recognized. We can only come to a place of renewed relationship and healing if we first recognize the situation we are already in (so, yeah, I’m about peace and love and reconciliation, too, but not at the cost of the lives of others).

      Volf’s book, Exclusion and Embrace — written from his experiences in the Balkans during the war there — is important here. Yes, we desire embrace, but sometimes exclusion must precede embrace. Would like to hear your thoughts on that book.

      • I think your response unnecessarily pigeonholes my work, assuming for example that my teaching does not address the harm that we all generally perpetrate, or more specifically acts of injustice that some police choose. Further, I’m particularly averse to the term reconciliation and I view my work more as addressing harm than being about “can’t we all just be friends”. In fact, my own analysis might not be that far removed from yours, however our approaches may be.

      • Fair enough. I do think your analysis, in several areas, is becoming less removed from mine than it used to be.

      • Sometimes, when I write with people who know me well, I don’t show the same caution as with others, so then I sometimes come across like I want to be a hyper-critical douche (maybe that’s who I really am?) but that’s not my intention. Upon further consideration, I would say that the substance of your original comment, paired with the remarks I mentioned about not a reading a book that has the word “enemies” in the title, make it sound like you are trying to gloss over the divisions that already exist (but that we try to ignore or that are hidden).

      • [The following comment is from jude… for some reason he is having trouble commenting on my blog. If anybody else has that problem, let me know.]

        Rather than using the language of “good/bad”, I should have said that this post seems like you are holding a measuring stick, where very few can actually stand tall enough. I acknowledge divide(s), but my goal is to recognize that in many ways I’ve got a foot on both “sides” and my hope is to act in a way that bridges people. It’s less, although not entirely, about judging individuals and more about pointing the finger at systems. It’s about addressing harm not furthering people from each other

  7. […] Dan Oudshoorn has a long post on what boils down to the old problem of hypocrisy, the connection between what one says and how one lives. His targets in particular are the ‘tenured radicals’ of academia, and his favoured examples are those who hold to Marxist theory but not a Marxist ‘lifestyle’ (I wish Dan had chosen another word here, since ‘lifestyle’ has that foul odour of bourgeois ‘freedom of choice’). He compares them with biblical scholars who assume some normative claims from the Bible and yet steer clear of any collective religious involvement with marginalised people. […]

  8. Dan, how does the fact that there were variegated levels of wealth in the New Testament church align with what you are saying here in terms of New Testament scholars? For example, see the following: 1) Deacons were required to govern both their children and their households well (1 Timothy 3:12). 2) The phrase kai ton idion indicates that household includes more than wives and children, in fact slaves (cf. 1 Timothy 6). Housing accommodating more than a nuclear family would have been available only to the wealthy. 3) 1 Timothy 2 indicates that there were wealthy woman in the church. See: Reggie Kidd, Wealth and Beneficence in the Pastoral Epistles (Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1990), 83-86.

    • You’re probably not going to love this response, but I actually think much of the content in the Pastorals represents a corruption and perversion of the values held by the movement that coalesced around Jesus and that was spread by Paul and his co-workers (I also don’t think Paul wrote the Pastorals). You’ll have to wait til I’m done my Paul book to see why I think that this is the case (at least in relation to Paul and his co-workers).

      The Pastorals are useful in that they help us to see how quickly so-called “radical” movements (that experience rapid growth) become incorporated into the ethos and values of the dominant culture. They aren’t all that useful as a guide for the sort of things valued by Jesus and Paul.

      Of course, the OT is full of stories that tell us how not to think about God or how not to act towards others (for example, nobody would use the story of David and Bathsheba as an example of how to act). What we miss is that there is also this element in the NT. We miss it because we think that epistles are not stories and so have some sort of different authority. However, the epistles are simply another form of story-telling (Marilynne Robinson’s book, Gilead is a good example of a narrative that is written as a letter) and, as with the OT stories, we need to read them with a critical eye .

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