Conservative or Liberal? Why Biblioblogs Should Not be Labeled

Categories: Biblical Studies

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The good folks over at the Top 50 Biblioblogs have suggested that they may reinstate the categorization of biblioblogs from “very conservative” to “very liberal.” I think such a categorization is extraordinarily problematic and should be avoided (like one avoids poison) for several reasons:

1) It can have the effect of “ghettoizing” various blogs. People tend to seek confirmation rather than disconfirmation, so a conservative who comes across the list of blogs is likely to ignore potentially useful blogs categorized as “liberal,” while a liberal would likely do the opposite. Why is it not preferable simply to allow people to explore the content of blogs (getting exposed to the various ideas) and then make up their minds in that fashion? Simply because people are asking for it doesn’t mean it should be done.

2) I am convinced that a single-axis categorization scheme is inherently faulty when referencing the field. I’ve stated this in a post on innovation and “radical ideas”:

This connects to a conversation I once had with a colleague about how ironic it is that so many “liberal” biblical scholars are so conservative in their approach to scholarship, while sometimes scholars with a more “conservative” reputation are more willing to try radical ideas. We concluded that all too often the liberal/conservative labels tell very little of the story, with the additional axis of unorthodox/traditional often having more to say about a scholar’s work. (And I’m certainly not suggesting that conservative scholars tend to be more radical or open to unorthodox ideas or methods than liberal scholars as that’s probably not the case; I’m only suggesting that there are two axes to consider, not just one.)

So what is to be done with an “unorthodox conservative” or a “traditional liberal”? If there is to be some sort of categorization, it should be done on at least two axes, not just one (making it a more difficult proposition). To top that off, one could add a third axis as well based on methodological issues: “critical” vs. “uncritical.” It seems to me that this sort of trend towards categorizing camps of scholarship is usually counterproductive, inhibiting the free exchange of ideas as people ignore those recognized as outside their camp. This sort of partisanship and the herd mentality it fosters should be resisted as much as possible within scholarship—especially in the blogosphere, where there should be a bit more freedom in this sort of field.

3) What is to be done with biblioblogs primarily dealing with things like translation issues or other topics that can be approached in a somewhat “neutral” fashion? Or what of a blog by a political liberal who tends to interpret the Bible rather conservatively (or vice-versa)? Again, such categorizations only cause problems while providing little benefit.

4) Who is to choose which blogs fall where on the spectrum? Is it a matter of self-identification? Or is this a third-party decision? What if the author of the blog disagrees with where he/she is put on the spectrum? Whose perspective should be trusted in such a matter? Subjectivity is a necessary element of virtually everything, but why inject it where it’s simply unneeded?

5) Implications for job prospects or opportunities within the field should also be considered. Branding someone’s blog “liberal” or “conservative” could have major implications when that person goes on the job market (or in other professional aspects). I could definitely see a relatively “conservative” seminary avoiding the hire of someone who has a “liberal” reputation in the blogosphere (and likely see things working the other way in some fashion as well). Labeling someone—especially those who are non-tenured and have a blog—could have deleterious professional consequences.

6) What is the payoff? Why do this at all? Is there any other reason than that people want to be able to visit the “Top 50 Biblioblogs” site and select the ones that they figure will more likely approximate their own views? How is acquiescing to such a desire positive for the flow of information and ideas in the least? How would such labeling and categorization aid critical thinking? As an educator, I have long thought it was part of my job to get people to see beyond labels and partisanship, to teach people to think critically based on as much data as they can find rather than making snap judgments based on labels or categories. The last couple decades, I have watched the USA operate in just this sort manner, politically speaking, with far too much public opinion (and political decisions) being dominated by labels and stereotypes, as Edward Luce has pointed out (citing Richard Hofstadter):

America, [Hofstadter] pointed out, was a relatively rootless society, which meant that anyone suffering from economic or status anxiety, particularly its struggling white middle classes, was particularly susceptible to the politics of scapegoating. Although also exhibited on the American left – think of the indefatigable Noam Chomsky, who sees a conspiracy under every rock, or Ralph Nader, the former consumer activist who believes corporations run everything – Hofstadter saw the paranoid style mostly as a right-wing phenomenon.
His theory holds up very well in 2009. Anyone who visits a few of this month’s rowdy town hall meetings can grasp that opposition to Mr Obama’s healthcare proposals is a lightning rod to a far larger world view, which seeks to protect American values and the US constitution from an alien takeover.

I submit that this sort of labeling and stereotyping is the sort of thing that should be avoided—if for no other reason than that we should endeavor to maintain communication and ideological debate even with those with whom we disagree. When is this sort of labeling ever truly productive? Let those who want to find like-minded views search a little harder. Let’s not limit the scope of their search. It may feel a bit less convenient for them, but it will only help them think more critically in the long run.


Thankfully (Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, by the way), Top 50 Biblioblogs will not be categorizing biblioblogs on a liberal/conservative spectrum, after all, though I think Rick Sumner might be right that Jim West’s minions came to the right conclusion for the wrong reasons.

West himself seems to have missed the point when he (rightly) observes that we all make categorizations every day and then perceive things based on/according to those categories all the time. The point is that it’s not a good thing to have a hub like Top 50 Biblioblogs telling people how to categorize/perceive blogs before even visiting it—let people make their own categorizations rather than aiding prejudice with labels that already carry a great deal of baggage.

I do think light-hearted “political compass” sort of quizzes (initially suggested by Loren Rosson based on point #2 in my original post) that bloggers could take on a voluntary basis, something the Top 50 folks presumably are alluding to when they reference “periodic surveys of bibliobloggers on various topics,” could be fun for those who would want to participate.

I think Stephen Carlson summed up the biggest concern nicely in a comment on Rosson’s post:

The reason why some (including me) strenuously object is that should categorization too easily enables scholars to be pigeonholed (as liberal and conservative) and then ignored without addressing the merits of their views.

I suppose we all pigeonhole each other, but there’s no reason to centralize this.

I also agree with Carlson that I have tried very hard to approach this field in a way that transcends “this tired liberal/conservative stuff.”

Anyway, I’m grateful that we won’t have to deal with a centralized stereotyping system. Instead, we can identify ourselves as we see ourselves or leave that sort of categorization to those who read our blogs.

Tags: Biblical Studies

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