Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Patterson in the SBL Forum

Next up is Stephen Patterson with Rome is Burning, a stimulating series of reflections on how the SBL can speak to a North American society obsessed with and led astray by the Da Vinci Code and The Passion of the Christ. Few could argue with its sound conclusion:
The Society needs to play an active role in bringing genuine critical biblical scholarship to the broadest possible audience, so that its members might begin to participate meaningfully in the discussions that will ultimately shape our common cultural life.
In one respect, of course, Biblical scholars already speak into this culture:
Entering the cultural conversation won't be easy. What do we have to work with? Try the History Channel. How many of our colleagues have been caught off guard supplying the talking-head expert testimony to be spliced in between fantastic stories of mummies, lost arks, suppressed texts, and secret societies? Mysteries of the Bible. This is our media outlet in the modern world.
But this is where I find Patterson's diagnosis of the problem rather depressing. Perhaps this is because the situation is rather different over here in the UK, but I am not so pessimistic about the media's use of academics. It has gone wrong for me once, but on the whole I remain positive (see my short article on this). Where it does go wrong, it can be the academics themselves who are to blame for their refusal to think about how they might try to communicate coherently to those in the media. But I'd want to add here that the History Channel is not the best outlet for academics looking to communicate to a wider public. What about the internet? Why not get stuck into the ways of communicating one's scholarship via this fantastic young medium, whether through scholarly homepages, specialist websites, blogging? Or try talking to publishers about writing popular level paperbacks that aim for a wider audience -- they will be interested!

I am a little surprised by the stident tone of Patterson's comments on The Passion of the Christ:
Conservatives had their historical fantasy last spring in the theaters. Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ was a great example of the same mesmerizing formula [as The Da Vinci Code], the other side of this two-headed coin. Remember how he looked Diane Sawyer in the eye and told her, "I know how it really went down." Here, the ideology — anti-Semitism — achieves its transcendent status in the age-old weave of Jewish recalcitrance in the face of God's offer of eternal salvation.
What surprises me is the notion that "anti-Semitism" is the film's "ideology". I have read dozens of scholarly reviews of the film and thought that I had understood its most vociferous critics as claiming that the film was at worst inadvertently anti-Judaic in its (in their view) uncritical borrowing of depictions from the New Testament and Emmerich. I haven't yet seen anyone who sees the film's very ideology as anti-Semitic, so I find this comment pretty striking.

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