Wednesday, January 30, 2013


I will tell you my favorite scene from The Closer which recently finished its run on cable. It starred Kyra Sedgwick as Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson, the head of priority homicide on the Los Angeles police force. I have a lot of favorite scenes from the show, but this one keeps coming back to me whenever I think of what it means to study history accurately, honestly, and with a little passion for the truth.
The Closer had many episodes where Brenda Leigh had to deal with people in power. It might be a Hollywood lawyer or a producer, a movie star, a politician, a prestigious doctor, or a member of a church, even the Catholic Church, and more. It is a theme they persistently followed. In this particular episode, I think the suspect had connections to the mayor. Brenda’s boss, Chief William Pope, is giving her a lecture.
They are standing toe to toe, face to face, about as confrontational as you can get. He is telling her that important people are involved in this case and to tread very carefully (his actual words, I believe). “Are you telling me you don’t want me to solve this murder?,” she asks. “No, of course not,” he answers. “Then let me do my job,” and she spins around and walks away.
I love it. You could call it speaking truth to power. Pope is actually a pretty decent guy. He supports Brenda most of the time. It’s just that every once in a while, because of his position, he feels compelled to remind her of political considerations, but he will still find a way to back her up. He hired her after all because of her phenomenal ability to close cases by finding the truth, often by getting a valid confession.
There is another early episode where she might be on the verge of being fired and her team broken up. She apologizes to them for what is about to happen (it doesn’t come to pass) and explains that in this job, there are political skills and investigatory skills. You can develop one or the other, but not both. They don’t mesh. If you dedicate yourself to one, it means abandoning the other. She made her choice a long time ago and apologizes if anyone gets hurt by it.
I am recounting these scenes from memory, but they are substantially correct. I’ve seen them more than once. Whenever you set out to pursue the truth with integrity—in any field—you are bound to step on someone’s toes and you are bound to be told “Tread carefully” by someone who means it, really means it, and can threaten you with consequences.
Obviously, these shows are written by TV writers and they tend to be an idealistic bunch. They love writing about reality and nuances and shades of grey—they are good at presenting all the complications—but they also love to see pure truth doing battle against the forces that would suppress it. Their message is that somebody has to stand up for the ideal, come what may, and in TV land, the hero or heroine will always survive, if not triumph.
That ain’t true about academia. It varies from field to field, but academia generally does not have heroes like Brenda Leigh Johnson. They won’t survive. What makes it so much worse is that, while in the world of TV drama, there are a few individuals like Chief Pope who sound a warning to the truthseeker to hold back, in the real world of academia it is everybody, the whole system, not just one person, that tries to put the brakes on the truth.
In New Testament scholarship and historical Jesus studies, each scholar’s goal is to fit in with the system and not challenge the dearly held preconceptions: Jesus is only minimally Jewish, he was offensive to his fellow Jews, and Jewish enemies were the main culprits in his death. Anyone who presents evidence to challenge this is a pariah, to be stopped at all costs.
The whole point to William Arnal’s short book The Symbolic Jesus (it’s barely a hundred pages) is to send one simple message to anyone who would dare expose the anti-Jewish prejudices that block the search for historical truth: Tread carefully, in fact back off, do not offend us, or it will go worse for you. Actually, the author goes even further. It’s not just discussion of prejudice that he wants to suppress, it is also any presentation of a fully Jewish Jesus. We will ostracize you if you even bring him up. A Jesus who is a Jew to the max is anathema to us.
Arnal does not even like any reference to Jesus’ Hebrew name. His Jesus is mostly Greek and Arnal defends his choice from any charge of being anti-Jewish by claiming that being Greek is just another way to be Jewish. Arnal is certain that a purely Jewish Jesus would be a diminishment. But the main thrust of the book is to intimidate anyone who sees it differently. And it works. There is really no one who will stand up to this kind of threat.
Every field (history, science, religion, law, etc.) fails from time to time, some more often than others, some quite often. Every field needs voices to bring it back to the true path, to what it is supposed to do—just tell the truth about the evidence. Some academic fields become adept at avoiding this by substituting lip service to the truth.
That’s where Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson comes in. She is that pure voice, that pure investigator, who pays no attention to power, to politics, to threats from professionals, or to reputations. She will not tolerate mere lip service to truth and justice. Every field needs a Brenda Leigh. Some fields, like New Testament scholarship, don’t have anyone remotely resembling her. What we get is a wall put up to keep her out. A wall that always says the same thing: No, there is no room for you here.
© 2013 Leon Zitzer

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