I want to examine a case of what I think is good Christian scholarship, as an exemplar that we might follow: the work of the sociologist, David Lyon, who has become known as a leading expert on surveillance studies.
Many Christians in the academe adopt approaches that, I believe, are neither effective, nor satisfactory as genuine Christian scholarship. One common unsatisfactory way is to be an ‘upright’ person and a ‘good witness’ in the conduct of the activities of scholarship — but this does not affect the theoretical content of our fields, so our fields are deprived of genuine Christian contributions, and Christians simply acquiesce to the content. Another, does try to affect the content, by trying to bring in God or Christian principles — but this usually ends up as an antagonistic elite position, with little to recommend it to the field.
David Lyon takes a third way, which I find more satisfactory and effective, and ‘resonates’ with me as genuine Christian scholarship. His approach may be described as neither antagonism, nor acquiescence, but treating the world’s thought as impaired insight. As a result, his Christian faith and viewpoint make a genuine contribution to the field, which scholars of other faiths and ‘none’ can value, and the whole field benefits.
What Does David Lyon Do?
To make this contribution, does David cite Bible verses? No (with one exception, below). Does he argue from Biblical principles? No (with one exception, below). Does he argue from a Christian world view? Not even that, as far as I can tell.
He begins from Christian presuppositions. He explains [Lyon 2007, 3]:
“A note is needed at this point on the perspective that underpins this book. While I genuinely try to present an overview of surveillance studies and to be fair to different theoretical positions in particular, I cannot pretend that I myself take no position. … I draw readers’ attention to valuable insights in the work of many thinkers, including those who disagree with each other. Readers will not find the work of a consistent disciple of Zygmunt Baumann, Judith Butler, Émile Durkheim, Jacques Ellul, Michel Foucault, Nancy Fraser, Karl Marx, Georg Simmel or Max Weber here … Yet the analysis done by each of these, among others, contains very helpful ideas. … While I find substantial agreement with others in the field, analytically and ethically, I try to find consistent ways of expression my position. However poorly I live them, my convictions are Christian.”
Let us pick this apart, to see what David Lyon does, which might act as a model for good Christian scholarship.
1. “A note is needed at this point on the perspective that underpins this book.” It is good to be aware that we have a distinct perspective, and in papers or books to tell readers openly what it is. David Lyon does not belabour it, but places his explanation where it is appropriate. Often the appropriate place to do so is in the Introduction after outlining the topic, or sometimes at the end, as a postscript, as is done in Hart  and Basden & Wood-Harper .
2. “While I genuinely try to present an overview of surveillance studies and to be fair to different theoretical positions in particular, I cannot pretend that I myself take no position.” Try to be fair, but do not hide behind any pretence of being ‘neutral’. We all hold a position, so admit it. Readers will trust us more if we do so. David Lyon does not give the impression of arrogance, of holding ‘the truth’, but one of humble offering of the treasure he believes he has.
3. “I draw readers’ attention to valuable insights in the work of many thinkers, including those who disagree with each other. … Yet the analysis done by each of these, among others, contains very helpful ideas.” Affirm the work of extant thinkers in the field. See their insights as ‘valuable’. Recognise that disagreements in the field do not necessarily mean that we have to take sides. Just as when Joshua asked the Angel of the Lord “Are you with us or with our enemies?”, he told Joshua “Nay, but as Captain of the Lord’s Host I come”, so God’s perspective usually transcends the battles that go on in each field.
I saw a website that claimed to be ‘Christian economics’, which was little more than a poor-quality promotion of free-market competitive capitalism, and one-sidedly ignore issues of justice for the poor or for the earth. That site, in my view, dishonours Christ, despite having in one corner a brief statement of the gospel.
4. “Readers will not find the work of a consistent disciple of Zygmunt Baumann, Judith Butler, Émile Durkheim, Jacques Ellul, Michel Foucault, Nancy Fraser, Karl Marx, Georg Simmel or Max Weber here …” Critique the work of others in terms that are relevant to the field — but critique in a way that all reasonable readers would see as valid critique. Here David Lyon signals that every line of thought that he finds insightful, is also open to critique. For example, later in his book, he makes one of the best critiques of Foucault’s thought that I have yet seen — sandwiched between his appreciation of some aspects of Foucault.
Some ‘Christian’ writers criticise Foucault because they don’t like his secularist, postmodern views, and especially not his views on sexuality, and fail to acknowledge Foucault’s penetrating insights and his courage. By contrast, Lyon’s critique is in terms of how Foucault ignores certain aspects that are important in the reality of his field.
5. “While I find substantial agreement with others in the field, analytically and ethically, …” Understand points with which we agree, and write about them. It might require digging deeper, because it it easy to be blinded by the points on which we disagree with them.
• ‘Analytically’, We might dislike some of their theories, especially those that grabbed the headlines, but dig underneath to see what theoretical contribution they have made, perhaps in questioning previous flawed ideas.
• ‘Ethically’, we might dislike their view of what is right and wrong, especially those for which they are well known, but dig deeper because usually their ethical views are based on an important stance with which we would agree and which was in need of being said.
6. “I try to find consistent ways of expression my position. However poorly I live them, my convictions are Christian.” It is at this point that it is appropriate for David Lyon to mention his Christian viewpoint. He does not try to define what this means, nor does he use many words about it. Rather, he lets the rest of his book speak for itself, just as Jesus did to John’s disciples: he let the works speak for themselves.
I do not suggest that these are the only things we need to do. For example, to Affirm and Critique we might add Enrich, and this is what David Lyon does throughout his book, Surveillance Studies: An Overview [Lyon 2007].
In What Way is This ‘Christian’?
The result is a work that seems to me second to none as a reference point for the field of surveillance studies. It is not just comprehensive but rich, and has a certain ‘feel’ that I like, being not just technical but also ‘human’ in its approach.
What makes it good Christian scholarship, to me, is:
- It is rich, as just mentioned. What I mean is that it covers all the varied aspects of the field. Lyon  discusses legal, the technical, the informational, the social, the economic, the ethical, and the faith aspects, among others. This, to me, is ‘Christian’. If reality is created, rather than ‘just is’, then it is likely to exhibit a diversity of aspects, a diversity of ways in which it is ultimately meaningful. Meaningfulness refers always to an Origin of Meaning. By contrast, many works try to promote one aspect, often one that had previously been overlooked. By doing so, they sing to the tune that reality ultimately has no meaning except what we give it. Good Christian scholarship, in my view, tries to give equal due to every sphere of meaningfulness. Call it ‘non reductionist’ if you like.
- It breathes the coherence of reality. The distinct aspects are woven together as a beautiful tapestry of material. If reality has its Origin in a Loving Creator, then we would expect the diversity to cohere and work together. Christian scholarship, in my view, tries to understand how the irreducible modes of being and functioning all work in harmony to bring something good and beautiful in the field. Christian scholarship can often produce an ‘overview’ kind of work that others will find useful.
- It is ‘human‘, as just mentioned. It recognises that the process of logical thought is never neutral, and that every thinker holds a position. We have seen above that thought is not neutral. At one point, Lyon [2007, 68] says “For me, such commitments are expressed in a quest for …” [see below]. We are responsible for the logic we employ. A sense of responsibility and responsiveness pervades Lyon’s work.
- It is ‘ethical’. It exhibits the attitude that normativity, ethicality cannot be divorced from an understanding of the field. The text above continues, “For me, such commitments are expressed in a quest for the kind of justice that takes special account of the very vulnerable …” [Lyon 2007, 68]. It is the Humanist ground-motive of theoretical thought that divorces ‘Is’ from ‘Ought’, and the Scholastic ground-motive that began to put them into different compartments of our lives, sacred and secular. To a Biblical ground-motive or viewpoint, what ‘is’ has ‘goodness’ built into it (Genesis 1). The Fall has not negated that, though it distorts human views.
- Finally, it can mention or allude to what we believe: God, Christian faith, the gospel and the Bible but in a way that is appropriate, stimulatory and seductive
How and when to mention God, Christianity, etc.?
Seldom, and only when appropriate to the topic. Not in a crass way ‘because I feel it my duty as a Christian to do so’. We have seen above how Lyon  just once mentions his Christian convictions (note, not his ‘faith’). At the end of Lyon  we find,
“Jacque Ellul once noted, reflecting on the fate of ancient cities such as Babylon and Nineveh, that these cultures were closed, too, ‘protected against attacks from the outside, in a security built up in walls and machines.’ Is there anything new under the sun? Yet, against that, insists Ellul, is the vision of a city where doing justice and loving one’s neighbour is put first. From that commitment to responsibility for the Other proceeds peace and prosperity, freedom and security, sought otherwise through false priorities. This is a city whose gates are never shut. It is a place of inclusion and trust. And its light finally banishes all that is now done in the dark.
Notice the allusions to Biblical themes, speaking redemption.
It does not explain how to accept Christ, because to do that would not be appropriate to that book. In my view, it can sometimes be appropriate in other books or papers, where solutions are being discussed, and we can offer Biblical salvation as one such solution. But present it humbly, offered as ‘a’ way, even though we might hold Christ to be ‘the’ way, because by doing so we respect the academic readers’ desire to understand options. And, do take pains to argue how it actually contributes a solution; I find the idea of three dimensions of salvation useful here: not just becoming acceptable with God, not just being filled with the Holy Spirit, but also so that the creation can ‘rejoice’. All three of those dimensions can be argued to be relevant to any field, but it takes a lot of effort to work out how. Are we ready for that effort; it is sacrificial?
Can and Should We Critique Christian Scholarship?
Yes indeed we should. Within God’s creation, and within humanity’s calling to open up the potential of reality, no Christian scholarship can claim to be without flaw.
I critique Lyon  work for one thing: The ‘solution’ he seems to suggest, to bring about the state of affairs where the ‘very vulnerable’ are properly taken account of, relies on juridical and informational processes and structures only. In my view, he does not adequately discuss the attitudinal or faith aspects of this solution. He does allude to the attitudinal aspect in Lyon , in his passage quoted above, but does not develop the theme.
I might also wish a discussion of how surveillance fits into a wider set of concerns of society, especially that of climate change. I might also question whether the post-2008 ‘recession’ might change anything. But to expect those in his book would be unfair.
What David Lyon does is to adopt a Biblical presupposition about the nature of reality and the nature of scholarship. His approach is neither antagonism, nor acquiescence, but treating the world’s thought as impaired insight. He does this from an understanding of reality (of the world of surveillance) that is deeply formed and informed by Biblical presuppositions. He does mention his Christian faith once or twice, and he does allude to God once or twice, but only where it would be appropriate in the eyes of others, and not to ‘evangelise’. He adopts a three-point strategy:
– He affirms each thinker’s view where it seems to him valid.
– He critiques each thinker’s views, from his wider view.
– He enriches the views of those thinkers, so they can be taken further.
As a result, his work is valued throughout the field as of high quality and useful, and his work has become a reference point for his field. But it takes a lot of effort to achieve that. I trust this overview of his work is useful.
Andrew Basden, April 2015
Hart H. 1984. Understanding Our World: An Integral Ontology. Wedge Publishing, Toronto.
Basden A, Wood-Harper AT (2006) “A philosophical discussion of the Root Definition in Soft Systems Thinking: An enrichment of CATWOE” Sys. Res. and Behavioral Sci., 23:61-87.
Lyon D. 2003. Surveillance after September 11. Polity Press.
Lyon D. 2007. Surveillance Studies: An Overview. Polity Press.
2 thoughts on “A Case of Good Christian Scholarship: David Lyon”
Thank you for your thoughtful remarks. Very helpful essay to prompt further study and reflection.
I’m not sure that this line is as helpful as you would like –
“…His approach may be described as neither antagonism, nor acquiescence, but treating the world’s thought as impaired insight.”
Further down, you say, “I saw a website that claimed to be ‘Christian economics’, which was little more than a poor-quality promotion of free-market competitive capitalism, and one-sidedly ignore issues of justice for the poor or for the earth. That site, in my view, dishonours Christ, despite having in one corner a brief statement of the gospel.”
Clearly this case of “economics” would be an example where the so-called “christian” thought is the “impaired insight.”
Maybe it would be better if Christian scholars simply made a claim to “offering an idea/ set of ideas” drawn from the riches of their tradition, and then waiting to see how people respond. Just because an idea is called “christian” does not necessarily mean that it will be better, nor even less impaired than all the other ideas of other people. Whether an idea will qualify as an “insight” will require more than an adjective calling it “christian.”
Said another way, people who decide to become Christians are not then blessed with the gift of genius. We are all fallen creatures, seeking to make our human way in the world. Christians may live in the hope that their spiritual disciplines will provide greater discernment than they once had, but they know only too well there are no promises of this.
In short, we all offer our ideas, hoping that some provide insight, and also knowing that others will not. Some of the insights will come from Christians, and very many from non-Christians – as we all know so well. I need not cite examples.
So as Christians, we offer our ideas as gifts. Some may be blessed with great insight – for many reasons. Others might not – again, for many reasons. We do our work humbly, and make no claims to being “right” because we claim to be “Christians.”
Again, very interesting prompt for further study and conversation.
Thank you for your comment. I partly agree with you, when you say that “as Christians, we offer our ideas as gifts” and “people who decide to become Christians are not then blessed with the gift of genius”. So “Christian” views are not necessarily any better, per se, than what I called the world’s “impaired insight”. The piece you mention, which labels itself “Christian economics” is indeed a case in point.
However, I might qualify my agreement in two ways.
1. Is it not the case that, when we stand back and take a longer view, that we see that the Gospel of Christ has brought blessing to the world, including in the academic era? (This is what Tom Holland has done in his 2019 opus ‘Dominion’ which offers an historian’s view of the impact of Christianity.) As an example, I might cite Michael Farday, whose idea of magnetism as a force acting at a distance was enabled by his Biblical religious beliefs. David Lyon, I believe, is another example. Is there not something about a Biblical perspective that brings valuable insights, which the Scholastic or Greek or Humanist perspectives cannot?
2. I used “impaired insight” to denote the world’s theories and ideas. I do not include the self-styled “Christian economics” view in this. It is certainly impaired, but I believe it is driven by a false dichotomy, not unlike the sacred-secular divide. It stands in a different relation to the view expressed in this article than does the world’s thought. However, your question has revealed that, in a way, I put myself against it, because I think it dishonours Christ. However, your comment makes me think: what if I were to include it as impaired insight?
22 June 2020
(which is when I received the request to sanction and reply to the comment made five years ago!! Apologies for the delay.)