Sunday, February 25, 2007

Maximalism and Minimalism?

The terms "maximalism" and "minimalism" are used with great regularity in biblical studies, as those of us in the scholarly world and regular readers of Biblical Archaeology Review are aware. To the best of my knowledge, these terms were coined by William W. Hallo in his 1989 Presidential Address to the American Oriental Society, published as "The Limits of Skepticism" in the Journal of the American Oriental Society 110 (1990): 187-199. Hallo took up the problem of how Assyriologists use cuneiform texts to understand ancient history, religion, and society, and the terms have made it over into biblical studies to label how the Bible is used for these same purposes.

The core issue here, as I see it, is this: How do we read texts? On the surface of it, that seems like a silly question. You read a text, and it says what it says. But in fact we all—scholars and laypeople alike—have reading strategies that guide how we interpret a text. John Barton, a biblical scholar I especially admire for his insight and his ability to articulate important points extremely well, has this to say:
Anyone who reads the Bible is bound to be influenced to some extent by his general expectations about books, and by his experience of reading literature of other kinds. (Reading the Old Testament: Method in Biblical Study [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984] 140)
A reading strategy involves assumptions we make about what a text is, how it was written, how it refers to things in the world, and—at core, really—how language works. We acquire these assumptions tacitly as part our cultures, and sometimes we acquire them overtly as we deliberately reflect on how and why we read the way we do. (My sense is this happens rarely outside the academy, but I could be wrong about that.) Either way, these assumptions play a role in our understanding of how a text means something. We often engage reading strategies without thinking about it. But when we name our strategies, we're able to be more conscious of (and deliberate about) what we're doing when we read. And we're also able to see that ours is not the only reading strategy out there.

In a certain sense, these terms are labels for two different reading strategies. Put very simply, a "maximalist" reading tends to trust that the details about history, religion, and society that we find in a cuneiform or biblical text are accurate. A "minimalist" reading, on the other hand, tends to approach such details with skepticism—not the neutral and healthy "questioning" kind of skepticism that ought to characterize scholarship, but doubt. I think these terms are really a problem, and that using them does us more harm than good. Here are a few reasons why:
  • They describe general attitudes rather than asking more specific questions about how we read texts. Put differently, they allow us to understand our reading strategies only on a surface level. Both "maximalist" and "minimalist" approaches do make specific assumptions about things like how language works. These are rarely laid on the table for discussion.
  • They're polar. They describe only two reading strategies. Actually, there are a lot of reading strategies one might choose from. Structuralism, Marxism, Feminism, New Historicism, Reception Theory—just to name a few. Plus, each of these strategies comes with a theoretical literature that lays out all those assumptions (even if they're not always clearly expressed and easy to read).
  • They're often now used in ad hominem arguments, although this is not how Hallo used them. In other words, we tend to use these terms more to situate ourselves (or others) on one side or another of a very polarized debate and defend a position rather than engage issues with the goal of better understanding.
I see the harm as being twofold. First, use of these terms in a sense prevents us from thinking more deeply about our reading strategies. The more deeply we can think about our reading strategies, the better we can understand why we disagree with others about the meaning of a text. We can better see the strengths and weaknesses of both our own reading strategy and that of another. We can also consider how certain reading strategies might be complementary to one another or yield different kinds of results. (Marxism, for example, works pretty well if you want to know about how texts are impacted by the social and economic factors that go into their production, but it is perhaps not quite as helpful for other things.) One of my goals in this post is to encourage us to think more deeply about how we read text. I deliberately include myself in that "us." I need constant encouragement in this department. It's not easy.

Second, when we use these terms, we engage in a certain kind of discourse. "Maximalist" debates "minimalist" in an effort to see who is right. This gives us only two possible outcomes and vindication of one side or the other, assuming the debate can even be resolved on these terms. (I don't believe it can, but that may be a subject for another post.) What it doesn't give us is new knowledge, better understanding. What's more, it puts us in both scholarly and lay communities at odds with one another rather than working together in dialogue to produce new insights. The difference between these two models of discourse boils down to what our goals for the engagement are and how we envision our roles in it. Is our goal to "win" or come to new understandings? Do we see ourselves as adversaries or partners? My second goal in this post is to prompt us to think more deeply about how we engage one another and why.

I'm personally in favor of abandoning these terms. But it's ultimately not about the labels. It's about what's really going on underneath. Isn't it always?


slaveofone said...

It was in BAR that I first learned of these an article about/interview with a man whose view of ancient Israelite history was labeled "Centrist" because his perspective didn't align with either of these "political" parties.

But I'd agree that it is better to understand and talk about methodologies, epistemologies, and such so one has an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses that underly various perspectives.

The problem with those (like myself) outside the academy is that we are not used to thinking about religious texts scholastically.

Scholarship is an process. It requires a great deal of time to measure and critique competing and conflicting viewpoints in the hopes of refining understanding and bringing new elements that (hopefully) will strengthen and enhance the truth of the matter.

Neither do those outside the academy tend to approach things historically (for many reasons, not least because ancient history is neither close to home nor culturally relevant).

Scholarship and historical investigation can easily be seen from those outside like an intrusion--especially if it involves suggestions antithetical to Orthodox or folkloric concepts.

Perhaps what is needed is more of an interaction from the top down, which explains scholarship and historical inquiry not as disrespect for a text, but as cautionary criteria that, ideally, can help us to treat the text with all the honor, dignity, and integrity it has. Perhaps then the labels will lose power because we have moved away from a reactionary or polemical position into one of respectful agreeing-disagreement.

Kynn said...

Helpful post! It explained a lot to me about these terms and why they're not the most useful way to view biblical scholarship. Thanks!