Both for those who were there and – especially – for those who couldn’t make it but would love to have been there, a report to supplement that of The Dunedin School:
An upper room in a pub called The Bog in Dunedin – the setting couldn’t have been better for our first, full-blooded Bible and Critical Theory Seminar in New Zealand. Of late the seminar has gained a new lease of life, a buzz or a vibe that is hard to pin down, but one that makes us look forward to the next one like nerds to books. I suspect it is a mix of what happens both on the surface and – far more intriguingly – beneath the surface (more of that soon enough) – but also the blend of unconventional setting and conventional paper formats.
But – I sense one or two asking – was this really the first New Zealand meeting? Sure, we had a BCT stream at the International Society of Biblical Literature Meeting in Auckland back in 2008. But this was our first stand-alone gathering in that most southerly point of civilisation (which is really code for depravity) on the globe. It was about time too, since the kiwis have been making the Tasman crossing for well over a decade to join us in Australia – anywhere between Perth, Brisbane or Melbourne.
The setting for the seminar has always been a key factor – a pub with a decent space for us to spread out, relax, talk and listen. On this occasion, James Harding and Gillian Townsley had undertaken a painstaking search of Dunedin pubs to find one that: a) had a room for us (it was upstairs); b) charged no fee (as long as we drank and ate there); c) provided table service during the papers. Never, in the increasingly long history of the seminar, have we had such luxury. Picture, if you will, an afternoon paper being delivered while engrossed participants were served coffee, wine, beer and titbits on plates. High windows, soft Dunedin light, a full bar as the backdrop to papers, comfortable seats with tables on which we could spread out our Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Coptic, and Ethiopic texts – as well as those irreplaceable scribble notes with which to pass messages to one another.
And who should come along for our thirteenth year (and probably sixteenth meeting … I’ve lost count), but a handful of Australians from across the ditch, two from the UK (one an expat kiwi returning for the love fest) and more than a score from all over Aotearoa.
Roland Boer kicked the show off with a study of the young Engels and his heart-rending struggles concerning the impact of (what was then new) biblical criticism on his very Reformed faith. Eric Repphun, resplendent in a vast tattooed web on his right elbow, drew upon the recent debate between Slavoj Žižek and John Milbank to offer a comparative reading of Scorcese’s Last Temptation of Christ and Gibson’s gore fest, The Passion of the Christ. Last before lunch (it was Sunday, the day after Waitangi Day) was John Barclay, enjoying the more human pace of life in southern NZ and offering a judicious reading of Badiou’s book on Paul – Barclay likes Badiou’s emphasis on a radical breakthrough in Paul but wishes Badiou would have made more of the crucifixion punch.
Lunch done (from an Irish-inspired menu that had British colonialism written all over it), we encountered the full frontal of four challenging papers: Christina Petterson introduced us to two key figures, Christina von Braun and Gitte Buch-Hansen, to offer a thought-provoking reread of John’s gospel; Robert Myles (who has since launched a challenge to Dunedin’s eminent innovative status) showed us how Jesus’ call in Mark 1 to become ‘fishers of men’ has a decidedly queer dimension to it, so much so that ‘to fish’ in the gospels may also mean ‘to cruise’ (or at least that is how I read it); Holly Randell-Moon offered a careful analysis of the way different models of Christian nationalism (conservative under Howard or progressive under Rudd) in Australia fail to come to grips with the real nature of neo-liberalism; and Remy Low (a school teacher, PhD student and revolutionary) challenged us to read a tough text like 1 Peter 2 (on slaves) as a survival mechanism in oppressive times in order to nurture the seed of insurrection for an opportune moment.
More than a head full of ideas, but already the sparks were flowing, plots were being hatched, acquaintances made, looks met and matched, but it was time to unwind, drink the bog’s grog and eat its food.
Day two saw Judith McKinlay start us off with a ‘McKinlayic’ reading: a multi-logue between Judith herself, the daughters of Zelophehad and Edward Gibbon Wakefield – questioning, undermining, exploring the social and cultural memories of both ourselves and ancient Israel. Judith now has the impressive record of having been to most BCT seminars (apart from me), having first attended in 1999 when we met in an abandoned church out the back of Sydney. And she was instrumental in introducing others from NZ to the seminar, so much so that the BCT is inconceivable without Tasman comradeship. From there Majella Franzmann introduced us to SPAFF – the Specific Affect Coding System, a method to quantitatively measure whining, joy, contempt and affection – in order to interpret the Gnostic James and Gospel of Judas. Elaine Wainwright took us on a detailed eco-spatial reading of Matthew 3-4 where we encounter, among others, John the Immerser (or, as I prefer, the Amphibian). Yael Klangwisan offered a poetic reading of the Song of Songs, modelling her approach on that of Luce Irigaray, and Kirsten Dawson reread Job (via Žižek’s subjective, symbolic and systemic violence) as a wealthy landowner guilty of a good deal of systemic violence on his own part. And as a fitting nightcap, James Harding treated us to his unfolding study of David and Jonathan, now with the assistance of Jonathan Culler and Umberto Eco. What happens, he asked, when scholars try to have the last word in interpretation by invoking a closed text like the canon? Nothing less than an explosion of meaning.
This was the BCT at its best, with currents of biblical criticism, cultural studies, political theory, feminism, ecocriticism, Marxism, film studies, philosophy and much more all coming together in a provocative and fruitful mix. It did of course help that we weren’t in some anaemic lecture hall or drab university seminar room. For one thing, the periphery refused to remain discreet. So the papers were delivered while plates of steaming food passing by behind us from the kitchen (it was upstairs too), the crowd downstairs watching an American football game continually raised a thundering cheer at crucial moments during at least one paper (James Harding’s), and at one point a squad of mature women appeared wearing pink T-shirts with ‘Tutus on Tour’ emblazoned across their busts.
But what I, for one, enjoy just as much is what runs just beneath the surface. Did those glances signal the spark of something more substantial? Is he/she really available? What was in those bottles smuggled in by one attendee (for which he was busted)? Did someone really ask another for some of his drugs-to-make-long-flights-seem-like-love-ins? And do photographs of scholars on a trampoline really offer the most flattering perspective? More substantially, stories were told of previous highs (especially the Passover lamb) and (deep) lows at earlier seminars, evil and arrogant professors were condemned, generous ones praised, neo-orthodoxy (especially Karl Barth) was scoffed at, and plots were elaborated regarding parasite universities that would provide work for the immense talent currently denied opportunities by universities in crisis. In short, creative and lateral ideas aplenty.
Finally, I couldn’t help noticing that many of those present were postgraduate students working on some very fascinating material, all of which left me with the impression that if this is representative of the next wave of biblical scholars in New Zealand, then things are looking up.