Having been tipped off at the Bible and Critical Theory Seminar, I am now in wikipedia. And sparkling entry it is too, in the List of Notable Australian Presbyterians. To wit:
5 September, 2013
Having been tipped off at the Bible and Critical Theory Seminar, I am now in wikipedia. And sparkling entry it is too, in the List of Notable Australian Presbyterians. To wit:
31 July, 2013
Here they are, the final paper proposals for the Bible and Critical Theory Seminar. This crazily stimulating event will happen in about five weeks time, this time at a pub in Sydney.
Date: 6-7 September 2013
Venue: Edens Room, Trinity Bar, Surry Hills, Sydney.
More details on the seminar and accommodation here.
The Power of Chusing Moral Good or Evil: Hugo Grotius and the Fall
Can the tree in the Garden of Eden be a good thing, as a symbol of the arts of ‘primitive man’? Indeed, can the curse of labouring in the ‘sweat of one’s brow’ become the blessed origins of property and commerce? Is the effect of the Fall erased by the Holy Spirit so we become free willing individuals? These and other intriguing moves are made by Hugo Grotius, one of the earliest ideologues of what would become classical economic theory. In this paper I explore that Grotius rewrites the story of the Fall so as to produce possibly the first version of the ‘most important story ever told’ concerning capitalism. It is a myth that John Locke and Adam Smith would rework in their own ways, but Grotius was one of the first to so do. I trace Grotius’s retelling, with particular attention to his engagements with the biblical texts, engagements in which he reads the Fall as both fortuitous and displaced.
‘Prepare War Against Her’: The Land as Wounded City in Jer 6:1-8
With an emphasis on the ecological principles of suspicion and retrieval, this paper examines Jer 6:1-8 from the perspective of the Land as city. I suggest that underlying this poem is a rhetoric of sexual abuse and that these verses should be read as a description of the Land’s rape. My analysis begins by establishing the subject of the poem as Zion – a Land place – imagined as a woman. A re-reading of v 2 makes it clear that it is YHWH’s desire to inflict punishment upon this figure. I then explore the multiple sexual innuendos used to describe the attack on the Land. From here I examine the way in which gender operates within these verses to constitute dynamics of power. Within this context violence is conceived as an acceptable means to exert control over this possession. By virtue of their affiliation with the divine, human superiority over Land is promoted as a moral right and the mode of this relationship is one of combative interaction. Finally, I suggest that the Land’s resistance to such sexual aggression can be found in v 4b.
Anxieties of Influence: Liberal ‘New Perspective’ Scholars, Conservative Christian Zionists, and Theological Discourse on Israel as Identity Construction and Maintenance.
This paper discusses the reevaluation of the apostle Paul and his relationship to “Judaism” and “Israel” that is emerging from two distinct social locations. First, we consider the scholarly debate over what is generally referred to as the “New Perspective” on Paul, and the reevaluation of scholarly and theological assumptions about Paul, his ethnicity, his religious identity, and his visions for salvation, the Jews, and the end of time. Second, we consider discourse on Israel through Paul that is emerging, not from Pauline scholars, but from a subset of contemporary Christian Zionists—who maintain that the reestablishment of Israel is a fulfillment of biblical prophecy, signaling the imminent return of Christ. We find that both of these disparate groups have come to surprisingly similar conclusions concerning what Paul might have “really said.”
In comparing these two groups, and their attempts to redeem Paul of the legacy of anti-Semitism to which he has often been attached, we consider the work that each does in each context, particularly as it relates to the construction of a particular liberal scholarly identity on the one hand, and an “authentic” Christian identity on the other. The paper concludes by considering the implications that both groups’ discourses have on “Judaism,” specifically their role in reproducing notions of an unchanging, normative Judaism.
The Road to Awe: Rosenzweig’s Song of Songs
This paper explores truth and the Song of Songs as Aletheia beginning with Rosenzweig’s meditation on the Song of Songs in Star of Redemption, “… in the mirror of this appearance, truth reflects itself.” In this meditation, Rosenzweig’s engagement with Heidegger and his notion of aletheia as double concealment can be recognized. This discourse regarding Aletheia and poetry is repeated in Derrida’s exploration of the truth of the poetry of Paul Celan. In this paper I bring together these two discourses, highlighting Rosenzweig’s contribution with respect to the Song of Songs.
The Symbolism of Evil and the Demons of Luke: Paul Ricoeur and René Girard
Frenchmen Ricoeur and Girard have seldom been seriously read together despite their remarkably close vocabulary and thinking around the fundamentals of the human ‘being’. Finding their work to be similar and critical of conventional biblical tradition regarding evil, I have begun reading them next to the demon narratives in the gospel of Luke. A meeting of their work allows a drawing out of an understanding of the devil and demon entity which functions as a predominant character in the Lucan text.
‘Mimesis’, the concept of representation and imitation brings the work of Ricoeur and Girard into an intertextual relationship allowing their similarities and differences to be compared. These can then be used to read the figure of the devil/demon in Luke in relation to the human, and the human in relation to one another. The central question of this paper is one regarding the symbol of evil in the Lucan narrative, and how Ricoeur and Girard contribute to it.
The Characteristics of Utopia and its Applicability for Interpreting the Gospel of Mark
In this paper I explore the narrative contours of ancient and modern Utopianism. I begin by attending to a number dynamic materialist characteristics of Utopian discourse. These include the dialectic relationship of myth and politics, the economic consequences of literary patterns and the interwoven nature of spatiality and temporality in Utopianism. Following Fredric Jameson I suggest that Utopian discourse is not simply a naïve presentation of an idealised future but rather a site of contention where Utopian ideals are often pressed to their dystopian extremes. In the second part of the paper I suggest that the Sabbath conflicts in the early chapters of the Gospel of Mark may be fruitfully regarded as part of a Utopian conflict. In ancient Hebrew traditions the Sabbath connotes both liberation and oppression. In Jesus’ conflicts over the Sabbath the internal dystopic potential of Sabbath Utopianism is highlighted.
Re-reading Islamic historiography: Birth Narrative, Semiotics and Ideology
In the last decade of the twentieth century, Muhammad Arkun, an Algerian/French professor of Islamic Studies, applied the concept, “imaginary of Medina”, to address the public perception of the foundation stories about the early Muslim community under the rule of the messenger of god. With regard to Islamic traditions, Arkun believed in the need for critical enquiry on “un-thought matters”, including sacred texts. He was thinking that the issue in studying Islamic imaginary is that, while the critical approach is used in investigating biblical material, this kind of enquiry is suspended for Islamic literature, as if the two materials are something substantially different. A few years after his death, in the case of the Islamic imaginary, these ideas of Arkun regarding application of critical methods do not seem to have received much attention.
Following Arkun’s position, the current research applies the theory of ideology and semiotic analysis to one of the most important narratives in Islamic imaginary, the birth narrative provided by Tabari, the grand Muslim commentator of the Qur’an and an historiographer, in the 9th and 10th centuries of the Christian era. The research appraises the application of semiotic analysis, and particularly the method introduced by Barthes in S/Z, to the narration offered by Tabari.
While these methods have been applied to the biblical material in a variety of forms, the current project is one of the few in the fields of critical study directed towards Islamic sacred literature.
The Antagonising Post-political Prospects of ‘Genderqueer’ Biblical Criticism
In her recent book, Beyond Feminist Biblical Studies (2012), Deryn Guest urges for a shift from the antagonising discourse of feminism to an inclusive genderqueer criticism that would incorporate not only traditional feminist concerns but also its tentative connections to masculinity studies, queer theory, and LGBT studies. In this paper I situate Guest’s proposal within the wider context of post-political discourse, that is, the consensus-driven politics of the post-Cold War era in which capitalism and liberal democracy is accepted as the only possible and/or desirable basis for society. While the impetus of Guest’s proposal is to facilitate a more robust discussion of gender identity and biblical interpretation, her study obscures the important role that social class has played within feminist discussions of patriarchy and its structural function underpinning capitalist exploitation.
Drawing on the critical theory of Slavoj Žižek, Alain Badiou, Wendy Brown, and bell hooks, I argue that what is required is not an inclusive and expanding hermeneutical toolbox to rescue the biblical text from its culturally-antiquated oppressors (both ancient and modern), but rather a return to a unified class struggle. The prospects for genderqueer criticism will be greatly enhanced if it can penetrate through notions of group identity, that are at present depoliticised from economic considerations, and instead focus on how gender, sexuality, and patriarchy emerge as structural, economic, and ideological formations that might be dealt with in terms of their relationship to class antagonism and the inner-workings of political economy.
Necrosomatics on the Gospel of John
This paper analyses the use of the term soma in the Temple scene in John 2. Jesus is in the temple, he has just driven out the sellers, and says: Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up, to which the Jews respond, you want to rebuild this thing in 3 days, it took 46 years to build. And then, in the middle of this direct speech comes the narrator’s voice in 2:21, helpfully explaining, ‘But he was talking about the temple of his body’. This is the first of several instances where the narrator inserts an explanatory note, which explicitly interprets the ‘present’ event in light of the death and resurrection. Along with 7:39, this verse highlights the disjointed time of the gospel and blend together ‘before’ and ‘after’ to the extent that it is impossible to separate them. This also has repercussions for our understanding of soma. Since soma is generally used in John to denote corpses, we could consider translating it as ‘But he was talking about the temple of his corpse’. Given, however, that it is a post-resurrection statement, it is ambiguous, as is the English word body. The paper will address previous interpretations and discuss how this ambiguity is dealt with.
The Secular Contract: The British Monarchy and White Diasporic Sovereignty
Using the work of Charles W. Mills, this paper critically interrogates how legal and political characterizations of the law as secular work to disavow the settler nation-state’s racialised foundations in colonial violence in the form of a “secular contract”. The secular constitution of nation-states such as Australia and New Zealand presents these nations as liberal and autonomous even as their formation through the imprimatur of the British Crown continues to involve symbolic rituals of exchange and deference to the British monarchy. The paper focuses on two state visits by Prince William to Australia and New Zealand in 2010 and 2011 as an example of what Goldie Osuri and Bobby Banerjee describe as the maintenance of “white diasporic loyalty”. I conclude that secularism must be re-thought of as not simply the operation of law without religion, but also, as complicit with the ways indigenous sovereignties in (white) settler nation-states are negated.
Angeline M. G. Song
The Crucial Difference between Miriam of Exodus 2 and the character of Stephen in Tarantino’s Django Unchained
In Exod. 2:7, Moses’ sister Miriam uses the term עברי/ibri (Hebrew) to describe her own people when she addresses Pharaoh’s daughter, instead of “Israelite’’ or “sons/daughters of Israel’’. Scholars have established that the term, particularly as it is used in Exodus 1 and 2, implies an ideology of Difference and Otherness. It has racist overtones and is potentially degrading to those so (mis)addressed. In this postcolonial reading, I contend that Miriam employed it as part of colonial mimicry (à la Homi K. Bhabha) within an overall pragmatic strategy often pursued by members of the oppressed. She employs this tactic to save her infant brother, in contrast to Stephen, the black head servant in Tarantino’s Django Unchained.
Stephen mimics his master’s every last word in a laughably excessive display of deference, for it is this strange ritual that helps him retain his unique position as favored Other. But his character soon takes a menacing turn when he emerges as one who derives tremendous pleasure from oppressing his own people in order to reinforce his privileged position. This interpretation is being issued from the vantage point of a flesh-and-blood postcolonized reader: I am a Malay-Chinese (Peranakan) female who grew up in a patriarchal, postcolonial country; my ancestors were, I suggest, excellent mimic (wo)men of their British colonial masters and today, my mother tongue– Baba Malay – is almost non-existent. I am currently living as a Minority Other in a predominantly Western, increasingly bi-cultural Aotearoa New Zealand.
Apocalyptic Illiteracy and the Role of Liberal Abstraction in the Formation of Modern Biblical Criticism
In his book From Tradition to the Gospel (1919), Martin Dibelius, often held to be the father of New Testament Form Criticism, enunciated two fundamental assumptions to Gospel criticism: that the early Christians were apocalyptic in belief and thus eschatological in outlook; and that they were, by and large, illiterate. As a consequence, they had no interest or ability to write things down, but as the eschaton failed to arrive, the early company of believers moved from a more ‘charismatic’ faith to an institutional faith with its attendant hierarchy, formation of an exclusive priesthood, and rise of dogma. The problem is that there is no evidence of widespread illiteracy, nor is first century apocalyptic synonymous with eschatology. Furthermore, first century apocalyptic was characterised by an accent on written texts and a hierarchical communion marked by priesthood. How was it that such an unscholarly view came to be held as a truism? This paper explores the role of liberal bourgeoisie ideology in the formation of modern biblical criticism.
28 March, 2013
A new piece on another shibboleth between the religious left and the religious right: Leviticus 25:23 and ‘the land is mine’. It is over at Political Theology.
22 February, 2013
Verse 7 of Psalm 124 reads:
Our life force (nefesh) has escaped as a bird from the snare of the bird-catchers;
the snare is broken, and we are free!
A radical glimpse? These are precisely the types of texts that radicals have treasured, along with famous texts such as Matthew 16:
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
Back to the Psalm. I am intrigued by Calvin’s comments:
Of the same import is the third similitude, That they were on all sides entrapped and entangled in the snares of their enemies, even as little birds caught in the net lie stretched under the hand of the fowler; and that when they were delivered, it was just as if one should set at liberty birds which had been taken. The amount is, that the people of God, feeble, without counsel, and destitute of aid, had not only to deal with bloodthirsty and furious beasts, but were also ensnared by bird-nets and stratagems, so that being greatly inferior to their enemies as well in policy as in open force, they were besieged by many deaths. From this it may be gathered that they were miraculously preserved (Commentary on the Psalms, vol. 5. pp. 87-88).
Uncannily reminds me of Lenin, who observes that a revolution is like a miracle. More pointedly, after the victory of the ‘civil’ war, he points out that his was indeed ‘a miracle without parallel, in that a starving, weak and half-ruined country has defeated its enemies—the mighty capitalist countries’.
30 December, 2012
I have just signed a contract with Fortress Press for a book called Idols of Nations: The Bible and the Development of Classical Theories of Capitalism. It is the follow-up to The Sacred Economy and is due with the press by 1 September, 2013.
The title comes from Jer 14:22 (and Ps 135:15). Since Adam Smith drew the title of Wealth of Nations from Isa 61:6, 12 (and 60:5) and since my book is critical of the way classical economists used the Bible, Idols of Nations it is.
The book critiques the rise of early theories of capitalism in light of their engagement with biblical texts. It traces the way significant theorists dealt with the Bible in order to develop their positions. Why and how did these theorists use the Bible, is that use legitimate, and what are the implications for the influential theories they developed? How did those engagements change over time as those theories developed a life of their own? This study focuses on material often relegated to the margins of analysis. Thus, while Hobbes and Locke found it necessary to build their theories from biblical analysis, Grotius was an accomplished (and ecumenical) theologian and Malthus an evangelical minister, both seeking to reconcile their positions with their theological approaches. The study also traces the way biblical themes are subsumed at a less explicit but deeper level with the later moral emphasis of Smith, Mill and Ricardo.
In more detail: of late a recovery of the looser connection between Christian theology and neoclassical economics has been pursued by some economists and theologians. However, these studies really do not address crucial issues in relation to theology and the Bible. In this light, we find a disjunction: if the Bible is mentioned, it relates to the political or theological thought of the critic in question; where economics is discussed, the Bible does not appear. For example, while secondary literature mentions the Bible in relation to Locke’s political thought, the crucial role of Genesis in the opening section of Locke’s treatment of private property in Two Treatises on Government is ignored or even excised from printed editions. With Grotius, theology in general may be mentioned in his discussion of property, natural law, freedom of the seas and agonism in ethics and commerce, but the Bible is nowhere to be seen. In regard to Hobbes, the central role of religion in Leviathan is noted in relation to politics and ethics but the Bible’s role in his economic thought on property, money and interest is neglected. As for Rev. Malthus, his theory concerning the relation between population and long-term economic stability is recognised as having a general theological basis in theodicy: overpopulation and its problems be divine moral lessons, but ultimate responsibility lies with human sin. Yet the fact that Malthus grounds his moral arguments on the Bible (eg. Gen 1:28) is rarely, if ever, explored in detail.
1. Introduction: Concerning the Bible and Economic Theory
The book begins by emphasising the importance of the Bible for early theorists of capitalism and the simultaneous neglect of precisely that feature of their work. Rather than peripheral scaffolding that may conveniently be ignored once the theories have been erected, the Bible and their modes of engaging with it are crucial for understanding the development of those theories. The work focuses on four key economists who used the Bible extensively: Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), John Locke (1632–1704) and Thomas Malthus (1766-1834).
2. Grotius and the Biblical Seas
Concerning Grotius, an analogy may be identified between his Arminian theology and his doctrine of the ‘free seas’ (developed against claims to dominance by other European states) . Following Jacob Arminius (professor of theology at the University of Leiden until his death in 1610) and his followers, Grotius believed that salvation involves not merely God’s inscrutable decision concerning election (predestination), but also the faith of each individual. This faith is eternally known, but the shift from orthodox Calvinism is crucial: God elects all who have faith. In other words, a window is left open for individual human agency, even if it is foreknown by God. The analogy with his doctrine of the free seas may be cast as follows: instead of states monopolising the sea, each state and individual is free to use the seas for trade, unhindered by any other state. That is, anyone who could be shown to be a user of the sea was thereby entitled to do so; so also, anyone who shows the true marks of faith is thereby one of the elect.
3. Hobbes and the Natural State of ‘Man’
Hobbes the materialist was the son of a vicar, taught by the puritan, John Wilkinson of Magdalen Hall, Oxford, and held rather unconventional theological views. Sporadic attention has been given to Hobbes’s economic thought, especially in terms of its contradictions, working on the tension between self-interest (greed) and public welfare, between homo economicus and absolutism, between the state and the need for individuals to engage in buying, selling and the pursuit of profit, but also of his anticipatory naturalising of capitalism’s functions as intrinsic to human nature in a way that universalised a particular form of economic activity (Levy 1954; Macpherson 1962; Viner 1991). Yet, what is not noticed is that Hobbes develops these arguments through extensive engagement with the Bible. Most significantly, his treatment is highly critical (he is often seen as a precursor to historical critical methods of interpretation), with scepticism concerning miracles, prophecy and traditional views of authorship. Here then I pursue a close analysis of precisely those sections of Leviathan where Hobbes develops his politico-economic arguments through his critical analysis of the Bible.
4 Locke: The Problem of Paradise and Property
Locke is particularly interesting, for he struggled to overcome the profound difference between the Bible and his own economic context. For Locke, the Bible ‘has God for its author; salvation for its end, and truth without any mixture for its matter’. Given that it contains infallible truth, he vowed, ‘I shall immediately condemn and quit any opinion of mine, as soon as I am shown that it is contrary to any revelation in the holy scripture’. The problem was that on his reading, the state of paradise, when human beings were in harmony with God, contained no private property. Human beings had free run of the Garden, with no sense of owning any part of it, since it was God’s creation. How then did private property arise? Through tilling the soil and using the earth for human sustenance. From this first step, the ever more complex patterns of private property developed. Locke thereby elaborates on Hobbes’s preliminary effort to develop the myth that capitalism is the eternal unfolding of basic human proclivities. Three points are worth noting. First, the Bible is naturalised as part of a grand myth of capitalism. Second, he embodies the very difference between the Bible and his own context by the effort to overcome the contradiction of property. Third, the development of private property becomes a result of the Fall, for the human beings only begin to till the soil after they have been expelled from paradise.
5. Malthus: Theodicy and Political Economy
The Reverend Malthus brought the problem of theodicy into the heart of political economy. How could an all-powerful, all-knowing and loving God afflict human beings with overpopulation and thereby famine, disease and starvation? On the one hand, the results of overpopulation may be seen as a moral lesson in order to make us reform our social modes of life. But God is not responsible, argued Malthus, for human beings are guilty (Gen 2-3). In order to counter the objection that Gen 1:28 encourages us to be fruitful and multiply, he argued that we have been reckless and misinterpreted that text, for we have not been fruitful in a responsible manner. Malthus’s answer was characteristic of early 19th century theology: repentance from sin requires a strictly moral life, with sexual abstinence and honest lives (only his followers proposed contraception). Malthus also signals on a theological register a central feature of economic thought, namely, its deeply moral nature.
6. Sublating the Bible: Morality and Classical Economic Theory
Thus, in the chapter on ‘sublating the Bible’, I focus on the work of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and J.S. Mill. Apart from Malthus, economic theory separated from theology in the 19th century (Waterman 1991; 2004), thereby producing the theoretical perception of an economic sphere independent of all else. In the process, explicit biblical engagements are increasingly sublimated by moral concerns. Thus, the Bible is peripheral in Smith’s work – Wealth of Nations is drawn from Isa 60:5 (and 61:6; 66:12) and the ‘invisible hand’ is a short step from the inexplicable and ubiquitous ‘hand of God’ throughout the Bible – but his argument is deeply moral, with an emphasis on both compassion and self-interest as universal elements of human nature that determine economic behaviour. In Ricardo, this moral focus is manifested in the theory of comparative advantage, while J.S. Mill sought to counter the element of greed in these theories by emphasising that at the end of capitalism, when profits, capital, industry and population had become static, people would turn from selfish to altruistic concerns – the ultimate maximisation of pleasure and happiness. A mark of the sublimation of biblical and even theological concerns is that Smith was a deist, Ricardo a Unitarian and Mill an agnostic who saw the moral and aesthetic power of religion in providing ideals and hopes for human improvement.
7. Conclusion: Economising the Bible
The conclusion explores the paradox in which it seems ‘natural’ to apply neoclassical theories of capitalist economics to the Bible, despite the evident difference between its economic context and capitalism. Two paths may be identified. For some (Locke and Malthus), the Bible presented them with a profound difference between its context and their own. Their work functions as both a recognition of that difference and a sustained effort to overcome that difference in order to naturalise the Bible. For the later theorists (Smith, Mill and Ricardo) and their moral focus, they assumed that human nature is always the same, being a mixture of self-interest and altruism. By connecting that human nature and the core drives of capitalism as a natural fit, they easily moved to the assumption that the history of economies is an unfolding of the same principle. Both paths converge with the myth of a long history of capitalism in which earlier economies function as ‘capitalism light’ – those ‘primitives’ did not know the complexities of fully-fledged capitalism. In regard to the Bible, it thereby seems perfectly ‘natural’ to apply neoclassical economic theory to studying its context. Yet, since it can be shown that early theorists misappropriated the Bible, and since biblical economies were very different than they imagined, such economic theory becomes highly problematic for the study of non-capitalist economies.
9 December, 2012
Back in 1911, Anatoly Lunacharsky – in the second volume of Religion and Socialism – offered what is arguably one of the more astute political readings of Paul’s theology. Lunacharsky calls him the ‘poet of early Christianity’.
In sum, the argument goes as follows: In response to the delay in Christ’s return, Paul constructs an idealized, mystical, and other-worldly theology that spiritualizes a very earthly and political movement. The heavenly face of Christ now overshadows the worldly person (1911, 53). Yet by means of that spiritualization Paul breaks through to a more international and democratic form of Christianity. It is no longer ethnically and nationally limited, for it belongs to all. The analysis of Paul becomes even more subtle, for in internationalizing Christianity, he overcomes yet another tension, now within early Christianity. That form may have been resolutely communistic, yet it was trapped within a fierce nationalism and hatred of foreign oppressors. Paul’s response both moves away from that early communism and negates its fiercely nationalistic focus. Indeed, he was able to do so only through an anti-communist spiritualization. And yet, at this higher level (Aufhebung) Paul offers a new revolutionary doctrine: justification by faith is itself deeply revolutionary, for it destroys the privilege of the rich and powerful (1911, 55). Finally, it is precisely this mystical theology that makes of Paul the great myth-maker, producing a reshaped narrative of the dying and rising Christ, a myth that Lunacharsky admires for its sparkling poetic power (1911, 41-45, 53, 58-60).
22 November, 2012
Apart from my thrills at the book display theme park, I did actually attend some paper sessions, presenting at a few, listening at others. And a conference – even with 10,500 people – is never worth it until you encounter a really abysmal presentation and find one really good idea.
The worst: curiously, it was on a panel called ‘Race Matters in Political Theology’. And the moment was what may be called ‘Imperialising Theory-Speak’.
To begin with, I thoroughly enjoyed what Kowk Pui Lan and Eleazer Fernandez had to say, urging other US-based scholars not to become wrapped up in their own parochial concerns and ignoring the rest of the world. And the effort by some of the others present to defend Judith Butler, after I had dumped on her liberal and hypocritical ethics, left me somewhat bemused.
But the self-styled radical, Andrea Smith (who has written her own Wikipedia page), provided two moments of stunning imperialism. The first was to cut off a question regarding class, especially the complex interweaving of race and class in the USA.
She replied: ‘Seeing race as a superstructural dimension of class was demolished ages ago …’
‘That’s not what I said …’ interjected the questioner.
‘Let me finish my sentence’, she cut in. The sentence lasted another ten minutes.
The second moment was in response to my point – following on from Kwok Pui Lan – about the implicit imperialising of debates in the USA, especially the way specific issues with their own particular histories are assumed to be everyone’s issues. Again, in a stunning example of precisely that process, Andrea Smith asserted through a torrent of theory-speak that her position is indeed universal. Given that she also dominated question time and made sure she had the last word, I gained the distinct impression of being hectored into submission – the effect was much like being bombarded by a theoretical aircraft carrier.
The best: Christine Mitchell’s paper on the myth of the benevolent Persians. It was a timely reminder not to be seduced by the propaganda found in inscriptions from the halls of power. Christine focused on the Persian self-representation as benevolent imperialists, only to rip it apart. They simply refined the brutality of the Assyrians – much like the democrat version of imperialism in the USA, I guess. But it reinforced my growing awareness of the way so many scholars who deal with politics and economics in the ANE take at face value the self-assertions of ultimate and far-reaching power, let alone their paternal loving-kindness. The land is the mine, claim the rulers, and every one is my vassal, to whom I extend mercy. The reality was quite different.
Actually, there was one further moment, more a trigger for thinking about an unresolved question. It emerged from the murky depths of my mind during a session on domestic space in the ancient world. Amidst much discussion of ‘house sizes’ and so on, I recalled the curious practice in Mesopotamia with the transfer of domestic space. To begin with, measurements are always given for the internal space, inside the walls. One does not measure by means of the outside walls (to maximise the profit from the sale). And there is no document or contract that cites the acquisition of a whole dwelling. Instead, we find a room, or more commonly part of a room. The space was measured by spreading emmer wheat over the floor and then the space was transferred. But what does that mean concerning the sense of space, of lived space? How can you live in one third of a room, while your neighbours live in the other two-thirds? Did they have completely different notions of the demarcation of space, or perhaps the lack of such demarcation? How did they imagine, think and live space? No one on the panel knew the answer and no one who has written on this has one either. I spent much of my time on the way back to Berlin pondering this conundrum as part of the Sacred Economy project, wondering whether this act of experiential imagination is beyond us.
21 November, 2012
One of the glorious features of the USA is that the only criterion for getting anything, or indeed getting admitted to anything, is money. If you have the cash, they’ll let you do it. Take the biggest book display on earth – in the area of religion theology and biblical studies. It was a veritable theme park, with all sorts of wonderful people hawking their wares. The fact that this was my sixth conference in about five weeks meant that my mind was wired to enjoy this other, fascinating dimension at the book display.
To begin with, I was intrigued by the logo of IVP Press. Must be an Aussie who designed this one:
Missionary position, anyone?
Then there were the friendly people from ‘Ravel Unravel’, waiting expectantly for a string of religion scholars to sit behind a camera, answer four questions and promptly find themselves on the internet:
For some strange reason, no one was tempted. Then I met the lovely, quiet Buddhist man, hoping to sell one book and offering free pins. I loved it.
Of course, there is an ‘I’ in the Dalai Lama, who was present at the meeting, vying for attention with Heerak Christian Kim.
Not to be missed was the intriguing project:
That should reshape the whole debate over secularism.
And then I met the founder and (to my knowledge only member) of the International Nimbarka Society.
I dream of having hair like that. He was a little nonplussed, though, when I mentioned that my main interest these days is Marxism and religion.
However, the highlight was the ‘Simple Truth’ stand. Here one began by throwing cloth balls (that’s Sean Burt) …
… into the mouth of a green frog:
One then fished for a Bible verse with a fishing rod, after which and depending on how many balls the frog swallowed, one was given either a beautiful badge:
Or an absolute must, a mobile phone screen cleaner:
Or a ‘tote bag’:
Or best of all – a t-shirt:
That’s pretty much my Christmas shopping done.
So enthused was I after my first visit that I brought others to undergo the stimulating experience:
That’s Tripp Fuller of ‘Homebrewed Christianity‘ (who interviewed me for a podcast), Jeremy Rollins and Clayton Crockett, both theologians.
The caption at the top left is, um, somewhat appropriate. By this time, the people at the stand began to know me rather well, welcoming me back with a smile.
11 October, 2012
For some reason that is beyond me, apart from the lure of at least some fascinating places, I have found myself undertaking the following crazy sequence of keynote addresses and papers over the next five weeks:
1. Spiritual Booze and Freedom: Lenin on Religion
- 13-15 October: keynote address at the 50th anniversary of Beijing Languages and Cultures University.
2. A Revolution is a Miracle: Lenin and the Translatability of Politics and Religion
- 20-23 October: paper at ‘Lenin’s Thought in the 21st Century‘, Wuhan University, China.
3. Venerating Lenin
- 20-23 October: paper at ‘Lenin’s Thought in the 21st Century‘, Wuhan University, China.
4. Old Wine in New Wineskins: Reassessing Dynamic Equivalence
- 25-28 October: keynote address at ‘Translation and Interpretation in the Age of Globalization: Looking Back and Looking Ahead‘, Central Universitar Nord din Baia Mare, Transylvania, Romania.
5. Antonio Negri and the Bible
- 2 November: keynote at ‘The Book of Job in Philosophical Perspective‘, Faculty of Theology, University of Oslo, Norway.
6. Miracles Can Happen
- 8-11 November: paper at ‘Weighs Like a Nightmare‘, Historical Materialism 2012, SOAS, London.
7. What Exactly Did Credit Mean in the Ancient World?
- 17-20 November, paper at The Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, Chicago, USA.
8. Living a Life of Luxury? Subsistence Versus Trade in the Ancient Economy
- 17-20 November, paper at The Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, Chicago, USA.
9. Race Matters in Political Theology
- 17-20 November, panel at The American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, Chicago, USA.
2 October, 2012
Every now and then I come across that old saw: the Bible (and thereby the ‘Judaeo-Christian’ tradition, whatever that is) introduced for the first time a notion of linear history, one that moves from creation to eschaton, from a beginning to an end. All those other ‘primitives’ were locked into a cyclical idea of history, prisoners of the cycles of the seasons and agriculture. Thereby, any historian who follows a linear narrative is by default indebted to this biblical heritage. Nice piece of quasi-theological special pleading, that one. Strange thing is that there is plenty of cyclical stuff in the Bible, and I can’t help noticing that ‘primitive’ texts such as Enuma Elish or the Epic of Gilgamesh, let alone the annals of the Assyrian kings seem to be quite linear as well.