This is the final installment in a series of pastoral reflections from 2020 about academic research: “Researching Christianly.” Read the previous post, “Research as Foot-Washing.”
As we prepare to send our writings off to journals (or have papers or projects snaking through the pipeline already), the process can seem rather opaque, as we have learned from Prof. Belcher’s book and through previous experience. The peer-review process is far from perfect, and does not ensure that only The Truth™ is permitted to enter the canons of knowledge. Given that the public relies on us to seek and present the truth, we should all be concerned about deficiencies that undermine the credibility of academics in society.
Those who hold the “secret knowledge” in a community can abuse that power for personal gain. They maintain their power through an opaque process. In the Old Testament, God gave tremendous responsibility to the Levitical priests, to whom he entrusted the knowledge of how the people could approach God.
While some priests showed themselves worthy to minister, others abused their power and shielded themselves from criticism. In 1 Samuel 2 we read of Eli’s sons, Hophne and Phinehas, who wickedly insisted on an unapproved process for sacrifice that would allow them to have the best cuts of raw meat, for themselves or for resale/curing (1 Sam 2:12–17). In one of our earliest recorded #MeToo moments, they also slept with the women who ministered at the entrance of the sanctuary (1 Sam 2:22).
Generations of priests came and went. Some were faithful, but many were corrupt. The prophet-priest Ezekiel was taken in a vision from his exile in Babylon to the Jerusalem temple, and given a hidden-camera-style peek into the inner courts, where the priests and elders thought no one could see (again, this is all in a vision):
Then He brought me to the entrance of the court, and when I looked, behold, a hole in the wall. He said to me, “Son of man, now dig through the wall.” So I dug through the wall, and behold, an entrance. And He said to me, “Go in and see the wicked abominations that they are committing here.” So I entered and looked, and behold, every form of creeping things and beasts and detestable things, with all the idols of the house of Israel, were carved on the wall all around. Standing in front of them were seventy elders of the house of Israel, with Jaazaniah the son of Shaphan standing among them, each man with his censer in his hand and the fragrance of the cloud of incense rising. Then He said to me, “Son of man, do you see what the elders of the house of Israel are committing in the dark, each man in the room of his carved images? For they say, ‘YHWH does not see us; YHWH has forsaken the land.’” And He said to me, “Yet you will see still greater abominations which they are committing.” (Ezek 8:7–13)
Food, money, sex, power—all sought by manipulation, under cover of darkness. Where there is something of value (here, knowledge), there is the possibility of corruption. We have all heard stories (and perhaps some of us have experienced personally) of this stark kind of corruption in research: test results or expert testimony manipulated through bribes; publications fabricated or plagiarized in exchange for money or favors; “looking the other way” and thereby permitting a coworker or supervisor to steal or abuse.
There are subtler threats to the credibility and transparency of the academic process that are probably more common, because they don’t require any malicious intent. The system of publication is biased toward novelty; in the sciences, this manifests itself as “p-hacking,” and in the humanities we have ever-proliferating perspectival “readings,” sometimes little more than autoethnography with a veneer of scientism or objectivity. As publication costs are driven close to zero, mediocre journals pop up to meet the demands of researchers who wish to publish, and editors and peer-reviewers happy to present themselves to hiring/tenure committees as gatekeepers. Thus we have found ourselves with a replication crisis, and susceptibility to the “grievance studies” affair.
How then should Christian researchers approach our task? One reaction is to denounce the system as altogether corrupt, and eschew publications accredited by such a system. It strikes me that Ezekiel, rather than regarding the Zadoqite family of priests as having delegitimized the Jerusalem cult, envisions a restored, reformed priesthood in a glorious future, that has some measure of continuity with the old corrupt system (Ezek 44:15–31). Of course, modern secular academia is not divinely-ordained—so my analogy only goes so far.
Our work as Christians within the academic system should be redemptive. For those of us at early stages of our career, perhaps this means that we should seek—never at the sacrifice of integrity, always resisting corruption and mediocrity—to obtain the credibility within the system that would allow us to make reforms. Those in middle or later stages of their careers may take more active steps to restructure systems of publishing, to lift up and reward others for talent and virtue, and perhaps even to create alternate structures where God’s truth can be drawn out into the light, where all can benefit. And along the way, we must be prepared to sacrifice security and “insider” status when integrity demands that we bring matters out into the light:
“This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.” (John 3:19–21)
May our deeds—and our words, written and spoken—be shown to have been “wrought in God.”
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