Archive for the ‘Books Reviewed’ Category

Below is my summary review of James Scott’s very influential work. I commend its reading to anyone concerned with domination and subordination. His text offers a global construct, that in my view, is imminently applicable both today and in the analysis of texts, whether biblical or otherwise.

James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven, CT; London: Yale University Press, 1990). Reviewed by Rob G. Reid

James C. Scott is Sterling Professor of Political Science and Anthropology at Yale University. His work Domination and the Arts of Resistance sets forth to apply critical analysis to the task of class relations, specifically between the powerful and the powerless. Chiefly, he is interested in the modes of discourse employed both “publically” and “offstage” between groups possessing socially powerful positions of dominance and those individuals and groups who find themselves under the social, political, economic, and class domination of others. More specifically, this work takes up an investigation of “hidden transcripts,” a mode of communication in the public sphere between groups evidencing a disparity of power and privilege. His work admittedly emerges first from his sociological analysis of class relations in a Malay village.

Scott perceived unique aspects and a strong disparity between the public discourse of both the rich and the poor and the private discourse of both groups. After further consideration, he began to notice the same phenomena on a much broader scope than merely from observations of the Malay village. As a result, Scott’s undertaking seeks to probe the public and hidden discourses of the powerful and the marginalized. Something Scott finds at work universally in all human discourse relative to the power differential between individuals. Scott’s aim is to uncover the “contradictions, tensions, and imminent possibilities” afforded by the creation of “hidden transcripts” by both subordinate groups and those who dominate them (xii). By a comparison of the hidden transcripts of both groups vis-à-vis the public transcript, Scott surmises, that a “new way of understanding resistance to domination” is possible (xii). Therefore, Scott’s work may rightly be classified as a sociological project that provides the analytic tools to decode public and hidden transcripts evidenced by those on both sides of the power divide which serve to penetrate modes of resistance to domination. His work focuses primarily on examples of slavery, surfdom, and caste subordination, which offer more explicit examples from which to extrapolate (x). He presupposes, in offering something of a global theory, that “structurally similar forms of domination will bear a family resemblance to one another” and “that to the degree structures of domination can be demonstrated to operate in comparable ways, they will, other things equal, elicit reactions and patterns of resistance that are also broadly comparable” (xi). At bottom, Scott contends that the hidden transcripts of subordinate groups are often manifest in public discourse, albeit in veiled form, or by means of vehicles such as rumors, gossip, songs, gestures, theatre and others that enable a “critique of power while hiding behind anonymity or behind innocuous understandings of their conduct” (xiii).

Scott’s work is structured in eight chapters that systematically work out, by use of a variety of examples his thesis that hidden transcripts exist and can be readily discerned to the discriminating critic. In chapter one, “Behind the Official Story,” Scott grounds his basic assumptions and the trajectories of his argumentation. Scott begins by asserting that, in the context of “normal social discourse” those routinely exchanged expressions of pleasantries and smiles may well be deceptive. Indeed, discourses in these contexts may often embody a level of discourse which seeks to negotiate power differentials in mutually reinforcing ways in order to mask candor. This is what Scott identifies as a “strategic” dimension—a misrepresentation of ourselves that may engender either positive or negative reciprocal effects. Further, methodologically, this also locates Scott’s concern with “performance.” Here he helpfully identifies actual relationships in which a “public transcript” would occur: the worker to the boss, the tenant or sharecropper to the landlord, the serf to the lord, the slave to the master, the untouchable to the Brahmin, a member of a subject race to one of the dominant race, etc. A public transcript is his shorthand way of describing the “open interaction between subordinate and those who dominate” (2). This discourse, he finds, is usually constructed in order the mutually reinforce the interests of both parties. Thus, the employer’s discourse to the worker reinforces his own interest and likewise the workers public discourse reinforces his location of subordination in her or his own interest. These public transcripts are suspect by virtue of the probability that they are tactical in nature to a deeper analysis. Conversely, the hidden transcript is discourse characterized as that which “takes place ‘offstage,’ beyond direct observation by powerholders” (4). It is a derivative discourse embodied in “speeches, gestures, and practices that confirm, contradict, or inflect what appears in the public transcript” (4-5).

In fleshing these distinctions out, Scott draws on the discourse of a slave after her master had left the kitchen in which she proleptically envisions the vindication of her cause and the demise of her dominator in apocalyptic, religious terminology (5). He further notes that hidden transcripts and “masks” as it were are normative to both parties in the power differential. He proposes that all public discourse between dominator and dominated exist as a collision between the independent public transcripts of each group (13).  Scott  closes the chapter after enumerating three distinctives of hidden transcripts: (1) each is specific to a social site and a particular group of actors, (2) each contains more than merely speech acts, but a whole range of practices, and (3) the “frontier between public and the hidden transcripts is a zone of constant struggle between the dominant and subordinate…” (14).

Chapter two, “Domination, Acting, and Fantasy” suggests Scott’s means of “interpreting” and seeking to understand the political conduct of subordinate groups—namely, by considering the use of disguise, deception, and indirection “while maintaining an outward impression, in power-laden situations, of willing, even enthusiastic consent” (17).  Thus, he takes up considering how the public transcript is constructed, its maintenance, and the purposes, which it serves. Here Scott identifies four varieties of public discourse among subordinate groups: (1) a (safe and public) discourse based in maintaining or supporting the “flattering self-image of elites;” (2) the hidden transcript itself; (3) strategically located discourse between the first two characterized by disguise, anonymity and double meaning taking place in the public discourse (e.g. rumor, gossip, jokes, songs, rituals, codes, and euphemisms); and (4) a discourse rupturing the divide between hidden and public (e.g. the in-breaking of the hidden discourse in public). Of these, the main concern of Scott is the third mode, the disguised, coded, discourse (19). Scott finds that the practice of domination itself ipso facto “creates” the hidden transcript (27). The chapter provides helpful diagrams evidencing Scott’s own deep consideration and theoretical construction of the issues of public and hidden transcripts applied in social circumstances (e.g. 26). Further, he probes the necessary relation between power and language thereby opening up immense possibilities in the consideration of language and power grounded in explicit social cases (e.g. class subordination: Untouchables). Hence, language, power, and performance are bound up and expressed in cases of social, gender, and other types of subordination as a system of reinforcement of domination and subordination (31-33). Further, he finds that hidden transcripts necessarily operate in the realm of mimicry and fantasy, often at the expense of the dominant.

Chapter three explores the “public  transcript” as a performance. Here Scott supposes that “relations of domination are, at the same time, relations of resistance” (45). Here he explores the symbolization of domination through public demonstrations and the actual enactments, in social contexts, of power. He finds that euphemisms often are employed to conceal social stigmatic practices or to veil their severity by subtly endorsing them (e.g. “reeducation camps = prisons for political opponents” [53]). Further, the practice of “naming” itself is a political and power-laden act (54). The public transcript also functions to give the appearance of unanimity in order to create the aura of social solidarity among groups.

Chapter four considers the public discourse in light of conforming behavior of the less powerful. Here he identifies two dominant views “thick” and “thin,” which attempt to explain how dominant ideology achieves its ends (72). Here he offers a critique of the hegemonic view and opts to follow the trajectory, albeit developed and nuanced of the “thin” view—the dominant ideology convinces subordinate groups that their subordination is “natural and inevitable.” Eventually, Scott concludes that subordinate groups, in concrete situations, tent to clothe their resistance in “ritualisms” of subordination serving to disguise their purpose and remain ambiguous enough for “retreat” (96).  Also, groups maintaining dominance, necessarily in justifying their own social location and domination open themselves up for criticism (103). Hence, the language of the elite in this regard provides a vocabulary that can be inverted for resistance (103).

Chapter fives sketches the dynamic connection between the hidden transcript and the experience of domination. Scott employs social psychological findings, the two most significant of which are: (1) forced compliance fails to produce attitudes sustaining compliance, “but produces reaction against such attitudes” and (2) individuals individual beliefs and attitudes are likely to reinforce the dominant ideology if compliance is perceived as voluntary (109).  Scott explores how the negation of self-dignity functions social in means as important in consideration as material oppression. Further, Scott finds two other factors significant to the livelihood of the hidden transcript, namely, social locations (not necessarily physical locations) and public “surveillance from above” and “from below.” These latter two operate within social locations to restrain the expression of hidden transcripts both from the dominant group and indigenously amidst the subordinate group.

Chapter six explores the mode of articulating a politically disguised discourse. He finds this “interstitial space” (my term) between the “two poles” of complete compliance and collective defiance to the territory for a disguised discourse of resistance (136). Herein Scott helpfully enumerates forms of disguise such as anonymous expressions (demon possession, gossip, aggression through magic, rumor, anonymous letters and demonstrations [140]). He, successfully in my view, makes an exceptional case for euphemism offering in the public transcript “an allusion to profanity without full accomplishment of it; a blasphemy with its teeth pulled” (153). Also, dissonance to subordination is found to be expressed through cultural life (157). He further finds that “oral culture” itself tends toward disguise in constructing cultural narratives, perhaps elevating social status to figures of martyrdom to mastery (160). Another realm of political disguise may be found in the inversion of the symbolic world (166).

Chapter seven continues the discussion along the lines of “infrapolitics” of subordinate groups. Chiefly at issue, for Scott, is the systemic underpinnings that enable (e.g. channels of distribution, akin to “infrastructure”) of the discourse of the subordinate groups (184). The consideration takes shape around the notion of hidden transcripts being social poses as well as social practices. He provides a helpful discussion of the possibilities of the hidden transcript in materialist, status, and ideological dominance “below the line” (198). Herein much of Scott’s previous argument coalesces in a cogent, recognizable, and visually appealing form (e.g. chart). This is a vital chapter to fully grasping the significance of Scott’s argument and its tangible praxis among social classes.

Chapter eight seeks to address the issue of what occurs when the hidden transcript becomes manifest openly in the public discourse. His discussion surfaces the issues of psychological release experienced by the subordinate in the somewhat euphoric expression of “truth” in the teeth of power along with the social meaning of tearing down the wall of silence between the public and hidden discourse. Finally, he finds that the in-breaking of this hidden discourse also offers immense personal satisfaction for the subordinate on the grounds that they had previously policed their anger and aggression, often through displacement, and in the moment of breaking the silence experience such a release (213).

Overall, Scott’s project is very broad by nature, nuanced and complex, evidencing a breadth of critical social inquiry stratified across a body of divergent, yet similar social circumstances of domination and subordination. His intent was to articulate modes of discourse, especially a “hidden transcript” elicited amidst social classes operative under disparate power-bases. His argument, in my view, is exceptionally compelling and deeply insightful. However, by the nature of the inquiry, his insights provide something of a roadmap towards other scholars to apply said method to unique texts and peoples in identified social and historical circumstances, thus betraying perhaps the greatest value of the text—sociological analysis of power relations readily available for use across disciplines. Scott exemplifies cautious handling of the matter, albeit striding forward to openly construct a plausible structure to explain the discourses between dominant and subordinate groups that seem to transcend one social, political, racial, or gender-specific circumstance. His work will doubtless continue to be a tour de force in social, political, and anthropological dialogue.


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Itumeleng J. Mosala, Biblical Hermeneutics and Black Theology in South Africa (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989). Reviewed by Rob G. Reid

Mosala sets forth articulate a historical-materialist critique of the development of biblical hermeneutics within the constellation of black theological reflection in South Africa along with proffering a corrective, generative biblical hermeneutics of black theology. A driving impetus within Mosala’s project is his assertion that “…black theology has not yet emerged as an autonomous weapon of struggle” (2). To that end, his work proceeds to articulate the general scope of black theological reflection as an emergent phenomenon eliciting a flurry of articles, theses, and monographs, which have, to his chagrin, failed to satisfy the necessity of black theology’s potential as a means of social transformation for blacks. Chiefly at issue in this failure, Mosala argues are the “class and ideological” commitments undergirding black theology’s biblical hermeneutics (3). In that regard, Mosala identifies two main issues necessitating his formulation, namely, (a) the presuppositions of black theology’s biblical-hermeneutics are founded in misunderstood or misappropriated historical-cultural moorings and (b) a “clear cut break” must occur ideologically and theoretically from dominant theological structures in order to make way for clear self-definition of black theology in contradistinction from other theologies (3-4).

Mosala identifies his project as methodologically standing with the tradition of Marxist historical-materialist method thereby appropriating the analytical tools of such a method in order to surface issues of class, cultural, racial, and gender relationships, and social structures. His work is structured in three parts. The first section (chapters one and two) set forth to identify the failings of current biblical hermeneutics in black theology foregrounding issues of ideological captivity to white theology and Western civilization along with idealist epistemology. Moreover, chapter two critiques the present trajectories on social-critical biblical hermeneutics. Mosala finds these trajectories too captive to oppressive ideological and cultural assumptions. The second section contains one chapter (chapter three), which articulates Mosala’s proposed modality of biblical hermeneutics by centering on “the black struggle for liberation” as necessarily basic to black hermeneutics. Indeed, he identifies “struggle” as his analytic tool of choice in proceeding to articulate biblical hermeneutics of black theology. Chapters four and five offer a materialist reading of Micah and then an argument for Micah’s “case,” respectively. Corresponding in structure to the previous two, chapters six and seven execute the same strategy on another text, Luke chapters one and two. This is concluded with an epilogue.

In chapter one, Mosala identifies black theology’s biblical hermeneutics as constructed upon white and Western ideological convictions as well as an idealist epistemology. He laments the present state of affairs, which his forebears in the development of black theological biblical hermeneutics have fallen prey, namely, to appropriating the means of those whom they resist in self-definition and hermeneutical praxis. He identifies the typical foundation upon which black theology has been constructed as the text as “Word of God,” which is to say a divine, sacred text—the means by which experience is analyzed. Hence, he locates Cone along this trajectory, willing to hold in tension two guiding factors in the development of his hermeneutic, text as “Word of God” and the black experience of oppression. Further, he proceeds to identify even Cornel West as falling prey to the same error, albeit granting him grace in having a more nuanced definition in which not only does the text interpret black experience, but also black experience mutually interprets the text (14). Rather, Mosala identifies that predicating divine status to the text ipso facto participates in idealist epistemological concepts and grants white and Western constructs regarding the text. Mosala asserts that a properly liberational black theological hermeneutics must grant that the texts themselves are complex matrices of oppression, subjugation, and class struggle—within the Israelite community (20-21).

Indeed, the argument goes further to instantiate that among these stratified layers are different deities representative of different class structures within Israelite society and thereby embody ideologies and concerns of said group (28). As a result of this analysis, Mosala argues for a holistic break from the assumption that the text is “Word of God” in the sense that it presents a monolithic narrative conducive to properly locating black experience of oppression and the necessity for liberation. The reader gets the sense that one should essentially elevate the place of “struggle” as liberative analytical tool along with black experience as criterion of analysis of the biblical texts. This is appropriated along with modes of “decoding” the textual power plays, in my view, something akin to Postcolonial analytic tools (hybridity, mimicry, etc., albeit with alternative labels). Here Mosala lays out, following Stuart Hall, three strategies for decoding the text relative to perceiving the hegemonic voice, a negotiated code, and an oppositional code (41-42). Thus, the text should be critically engaged from three vantage points of discourse or levels of “script” to borrow terminology from J. C. Scott. This chapter ends somewhat abruptly, without much by way of concluding analysis, however, such plays into Mosala’s inductively perceived method of constructing a cumulative project of criticism and construction.

In chapter two, Mosala directs his labors toward critiquing social-scientific criticism as a viable means to the development of black theology and black biblical hermeneutics of liberation. Herein Mosala articulates the advent of social and social-scientific criticisms within the constellation of emerging critical theories. He finds great value in the theory’s shift in focus to the text as “ideological products of social systems,” noting the works of Robert Wilson and others (45). Further, he appreciates how social-scientific criticism uncovered the appropriation by the bourgeois of the historical-critical method in legitimizing and perpetuating the class power of the elite. Next, he turns to critique social-science criticism by first setting it within the socio-temporal grid of “late monopoly capitalism” (47).  He sets forth the deficiencies and relative relationships with the social model and its inability to entirely dislodge from late monopoly capitalism and its ideology. Further, the argument is developed that sociological approaches to biblical criticism specifically, are more properly identified with literary-critical approaches in terms of their political analysis, which emerged from the economic crises in the late 1970’s (53). He finds these methods “politically deluded” citing West, which then enables him to propose an alternative (54). Furthermore, he engage the Weberian school and other modes finding them suffering from “theoretical poverty” as a result of their implicit idealist-positivist problematics among other things (61). In the final analysis, Mosala is discontent with the sociological approaches by virtue of the absence of an “ideological and political agenda” (65).

In chapter three, Mosala begins his own constructive project of attempting to “periodize” the historical and cultural struggles of black people and articulates that, namely, the struggle itself as a hermeneutical starting point. In keeping with his avowedly historical-materialist model, his primary concern is production as a sort of epistemic, historical ground for inquiry. Therefore, he draws heavily upon archeological findings in order to reconstruct three primary periods of black South African production relative to oppression and struggle. His periodization project articulates three periods: the communal mode of production, the tributary mode of production, and the capitalist mode of production. Mosala finds little by way of substantive historical evidence for the communal period as a result of the nature of the period; however, he reconstructs a situation in which property is communally owned and labor communally appropriated (69). Production during this period has a strict “use” value. Indeed, this period was characterized by morality (72). That is to say, the distribution of labor and goods occurred in light of direct needs, thereby understanding the force driving production as human need and well-being. The second period in question, the tributary mode of production, defines by the mode in which goods were transferred. During this period, various class structures arose, thereby necessitating a need “at the top” to extract goods and production in order to distribute it according to its own whims. He notes the rise of chiefs, as opposed to a “Father”-headed household as the fundamental unit. With this period is also the rise of formal conscripted military service, all factors of production analysis. Mosala views this as a progressive trajectory from households, to homesteads, toward the nation as an entity (83). It is this period, in which, Mosala argues the emergence of black resistance to ruling class ideologies took place, which would continue on into the capitalist mode period (84).

The third mode of production in his schematization is the capitalist mode. Along with capitalism enters the age of colonization, subjugation, and extreme class exploitation. He delineates factions within the class structures, which illustrate inherent contradictions in desires. He bifurcates the resistance of blacks on two levels: to the former pre-colonial chieftains and also to the colonists and their ideology (88). He views the incipient imperialism as taking root through economic and militaristic means. However, he notes a significant observation, that once the state is formalized, the British imperialists deceived the black peasants into fighting the Boers, thereby setting up an internal conflict in order to distract the peasants from the permeation of capitalist ideology (91-92). Thus, he adequately shows that the black struggle was not homogenous, but rather complex (98).  This lays the groundwork for Mosala’s subsequent readings of biblical texts vis-à-vis the black struggle.

Chapter four executes the construction of a materialist analysis of Micah, surfacing the issues of historical industrial development. He seeks to identify the primary modes of production in order to properly frame the text in terms of its materials (103). He notes especially the transition from premonarchial to monarchial times and the correlative productive forces and means of monetary extraction in order to sustain the expanding empire and the ruling class.

Chapter five provides the actual analysis, hermeneutically, of the text with black struggle as the modus operandi of his biblical criticism. Herein he engages in a project of identifying several classes of texts: A, B. C, etc. and then rearranges the text of Micah that each grouping may be read together. Then he proceeds to analyze the text in that regard by reflecting upon its usefulness or complicity with oppressive tactics and whether, in fact, blacks in the struggle could identify with or find any liberative power therein. Principally, he dismisses both texts C and B as being either overtly imperialist in the sense that evil is not named directly and finds them to be functionally operative in the furtherance of imperialist agendas, not to the benefit of the peasant, exploited class. This should be nuanced in some sense, because he finds in the B-texts an inherent ambiguity and thus as a result of their silence they are neither liberative nor can the struggle find solace in them. Mosala finds the A-texts to name the evil, to be in some sense anti-imperial in terms of concerns. However, he finds this text too, less than acceptable for the black working-class to identify with in terms of liberation (149). Continually, reference is made to glaring “absences” in the text that speak volumes to the lack of underclass concerns. Finally, he assorts a group of A-B texts, which in some subtle ways reflect in the interests of oppressed. He finds in these texts the ability, dialectically, to mutually interpret the oppressed ancients and the present black experience of struggle, thereby providing a “positive hermeneutical connection” with struggle (153).

Chapters six and seven are structured identically to the former two. Here, Mosala analyzes materially the background or rather material foreground to the texts in terms of economic and class concerns. His work is commensurate in its conclusions with most present analyses of the imperial structures and class structures of Horsley and other imperial-critical scholars. His engagement with the Lukan text is both provocative and revealing. Firstly, he discusses the significance of the opening pericope locating the book as a sort of historiographical account, underscoring the ideological moorings of such an enterprise (). Most importantly, he concludes that black hermeneutics of liberation must read the text suspiciously, perceiving overt silences relative to class and production. He proposes reading the text in a political way, in an appropriative way, and in a projective way—all means to employ the text for black liberation (180-185).

In Mosala’s epilogue, he confirms that his argument has succeeded in two primary results. First, as a result of the multifarious and complex dynamics of power, production, class, and struggle will likely produce a multiplicity of black theologies of liberation. He identifies some of these as stemming from various class locations from within the black struggle (190-191). Secondly, as a result of the diversity of class, race, and gender within South African society a necessity for a plurality of biblical hermeneutics exists; however, he constrains such a notion subsequently by identifying the proper bases for such hermeneutics as independent of non-black ideology, epistemology, and theory (192). He concludes that his approach reads the text “backwards” thereby engaging in mutual interrogation of the texts and (present) situation (192-193).

Mosala’s text is of no little significance for the development of and emergence of a distinct black biblical hermeneutics of liberation founded upon historical-materialist methods. While, in a very positive sense, Mosala pushes to the fore of the hermeneutical scope of vision the vital issues of material, production, and class, one must wonder whether other factors should be included in mutually criticizing the text—namely, power and the dynamics of how power discourses function to name only one. What is more, Mosala finds little in the text itself to explicitly identify with liberation. This is due in part to his identification of the text as cultural product and indeed product of elite-class’ (often) interest of self-legitimization. As a result, Mosala therefore focuses on the silences of the text drawing inferences relative to material conditions and then, in most cases, judges the text as insufficient to sustain a black theology of liberation. However, in several accounts, he is able to surface points of intersection, in struggle, that enable the black South African to read the text “against the grain” in order to sustain a genuinely liberating essence. Finally, the thrust of Mosala’s work presupposes the necessity of a Marxist, that is, historical-materialist method to rightly interrogating the texts in question to produce a genuinely independent meaning independent of capitalist, Western, white ideology, epistemology, and theoretical foundation.  Is that, in fact, the only rightly independent mode of criticism? Readers will have to judge for themselves.

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I would like to direct your attention, to what I view as a both fair assessment and scathing critique of Kaiser’s position in Three Views. Steve Moyise has articulated a very insightful review, available in the Review of Biblical Literature May 2009 Edition (see the RBL blog). I believe that Moyise has captured the subtle nuances and significance offered in this volume by both Bock and Enns, while rightly identifying the naivete offered by Kaiser’s outmoded hermeneutical suggestions.

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As a grader at for a graduate exegetical class on the book of Romans, I am constantly looking for cutting edge critical resources. Two years ago, I heard a most compelling paper at a conference held at Southern Methodist University called Religion and Empire which hosted a robust panel of critical scholars from various disciplines within biblical and theological studies. Among the presenters were SzeKar Wan, Abraham Smith, Joerg Rieger, Namsoon Kang, Marc Ellis, and others. One lecture that stood out was presented by SzeKar Wan, Professor of New Testament at Perkins School of Theology. Later I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Wan, who was not only an engaging scholar, but a genuinely kind man. I found out that his paper was subsequently published as “Coded Resistance: A Proposed Rereading of Romans 13:1-7” in The Bible in the Public Square: Reading the Signs of the Times, eds. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, Ellen Bradshaw Aitken, and Jonathan A. Draper (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008), 173-84.

Firstly, I would like to commend this entire volume to those interested in engaging the biblical texts through an imperial-critical optic. This text happens to be dedicated to the influence of Richard A. Horsley (something I was not aware of prior to owning the volume) and contains a host of provocative essays on a variety of biblico-theological issues from some world class thinkers: Warren Carter, Cynthia B. Kittredge, Steven J. Friesen, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, and many others. The articles are arranged in a tripartite framework, namely, Biblical Insight into the Present Moment, Questioning ἐκκλήσια and the Academy, and Prospects for Politically Engaged Biblical Studies. Leaping from the Table of Contents are several topics such as C. Kittredge’s “Echoes of Paul in the Speeches of George W. Bush,” A. Callahan’s “American Babylon: Days in the Life of an African-American Idea,” S. Friesen’s “The Blessings of Hegemony: Poverty, Paul’s Assemblies, and the Class Interests of the Professoriate,” A. Smith’s “‘Nobody Tasted Blood in It’: Public Intellectuals Interrogating Myths of Innocence in Biblical Studies,” and E. S. Fiorenza’s “Reading Scripture in the Context of Empire” just to name a few.

Secondly, I would like to commend specifically SzeKar Wan’s article for anyone critically engaging Romans 13:1-7, a text that has been frequently democratized into a biblical mandate for American patriotism. That is not to say that everyone has been compelled by such a prima facie reading of imperial complicity, but many have. What Wan proposes is a “rereading” with an eye to the conflictual nature of the text and its readers; indeed, he underscores the duality of the discourse as read by “insiders,” those Roman Christians who would be familiar with the message of the early Jesus movement and Paul’s thought over against the powerful, ruling elite who may read the text as reinforcing the dominant class’s own view of themselves (174). Wan employs a “two-level reading” (a development inspired by Herzog, “Dissembling”) akin to John C. Scott’s public and hidden scripts (cf. Domination and the Arts of Resistance). This reading strategy offers the tools to decipher a functional duality within the text, a surface reading through one socio-politically situated community and a reading that individuals in a shared cognitive environment, privy to the religious convictions of the early Jesus movement, would have likely perceived. Moreover, this unmasks the “coded resistance” evidencing the “safe” reading for the elite, which enshrines the subversive, subtle script of resistance. Wan’s lexical, exegetical, and biblical-theological moves are cohesive, cumulative, and should be reckoned with by those who tout the tacit Western imperial reading.

I have intentionally omitted a detailed analysis of his argument because I think it a very worthy read. However, I will say that his points regarding several subtleties in the text necessitate consideration, such as Paul’s explicit fight elsewhere over the title διάκονος and its use in this passage (Wan, 179-81), the shift of number between ἐξουσίαις and ἐξουσία as well as οἰ ἄρχοντες and ἐξουσίαν (180-83), and others which are amply sustained with detailed observations illustrate the thought and effort Dr. Wan has exhibited in this work as well as the justification for his argument to be grappled with by those with opposing viewpoints.

Indeed, if one probes Wan’s argument long, the question necessarily arises as to why the reigning reading of Romans 13:1-7 by the majority of so-called orthodox/conservative Christianity has been Paul acquiescing to Caesar and justifying the empire and her behavior; this, in turn, has translated into the legitimation of the Christian Right’s theocratizing tendenz; and the commissioning of complicity with the whims of imperial leaders and their programs among the populace, regardless of the degree to which those enterprises stand in contradistinction to the way of Jesus. The implicit answer, I think, is because the modern American necessarily, devoid of the lexico-syntactic Κοινή indicators that Wan identifies (i.e. unable to see the subtlty couched in an ancient language and text), coupled with a Weltanschauung constructed largely by imperial power and legitimation, read the text as the ruling elite, as the world superpower, as the empire by which all peoples should do obeisance. Might the standard reading that Paul, contrary to his other stances toward empire, be instructing Christians to obey the rulers because disobedience is tantamount to disobeying God be a self-condemning reading, thereby convicting the imperial reader?

Regardless, Dr. Wan’s exegetical case is one that must at least be considered when interacting with this text. As a grader, nothing is more of an affront than a paper that does not illustrate a clear and concerted attempt to find alternative viewpoints and weigh them critically, irrespective of the conclusions reached, whether one finally arrive at a “conservative” or “liberal” judgment, academic integrity necessitates a fair consideration of opposing viewpoints.

I will likely comment on several other chapters at future dates, but time presently does not permit it. Whatever tradition one finds themselves in theological or ideologically speaking this volume is one that should be reviewed by all.

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Deconstructing Jesus. By Robert M. Price. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2000. 266 pp. $34.00

The provocatively titled Deconstructing Jesus does not fail to disappoint in its erudite facility with the intersection of New Testament studies, literary criticism, historical criticism, and philosophy. Price presents his volume in eight core chapters framed in vitriolic, often humorous, and fundamentally skeptical prose. Price holds “Jesus Christ” to be a socio-religious moniker entailing a host of tertiary theological formulations and presuppositions (e.g. Chalcedonian Christology, nineteenth century views of inspiration and literalism, etc.) all of which necessitate critical reflection and deconstruction (pp. 11-12). Price eschews the very idea of so-called “historical Jesus” projects or “reconstructions” as “practically impossible and ill-advised” (p. 12). Indeed, he argues that because so many Jesus reconstructions are plausible that they therefore “cancel each other out” which gives rise to Price’s own “Jesus agnosticism” (pp. 16-17). With the tone set, Price scrupulously proceeds to “deconstruct” the various Christianities within the plethora of ancient sources in order to undermine the modern notion of “Jesus” as a monolithic and even known figure.

In chapter one, Price assails the “myth of the early church” arguing for widely divergent “Christianities” many of which would hardly have been recognizable as “Christian” in a normative sense. Hailing F. C. Baur and Walter Bauer as “[t]wo of the most important investigators of early Christianity” he employs their initial formulations as starting points and seeks to press some of their conclusions (however tentative they might have been) to what Price perceives as their logical ends. With the degree of mention Price makes concerning philosophy throughout the work, it is rather odd that he failed to note even once the influence of Hegelian philosophy with its dialectic-evolutionary presuppositions embedded in the analyses of both Baur and Bauer. This betrays what later appears as Price’s own underlying presupposition of a dialectical, history of religions approach to the materials (cf. pp. 29-32, 35-44).

Nevertheless, he proceeds to question the ideological factions perceived in the nascent documents. On the one hand, Price raises excellent questions of whether “orthodoxy” as such were existent at all in the way later historians (e.g. Eusebius) presented the story; however, Price’s invective rhetoric persistently chiding any semblance of “Christian orthodoxy” seriously inhibits the effectiveness of much of his argumentation. The balance of chapter one through three yield, following Burton L. Mack’s “pre-gospel” classifications the following movements: the Q community, the Pillars (Peter, James, John), the “heirs of Jesus” (the brothers of Jesus and James), the “community of Israel” (those who saw Jesus as the new Moses/Elijah figure), the synagogue reform movement, and the “Christ cults” (which he parsed into several cults). Each of these movements represents a rather diverse and independent cluster of religious followers each movement having its own “take” on Jesus. Price undermines the “big bang” theory, that is, the idea that the resurrection occurred giving rise to various trajectories of interpretation whether orthodox or heterodox. Rather the picture is one of a diversity of meanings of “Jesus” some completely removed from any notion of suffering/death or resurrection, which falls in line with and makes more complex the “Christ-myth” position. This is the case because Price finds Gnostic Redeemer myths already widely in circulation in the religious landscape of the Judean peoples of the time.

In chapter four Price argues extensively that the construct of Jesus in the NT supposedly antagonistic of “Pharisees” and “religious leaders” betrays the anachronisms embedded within the document. Rather, the Messiah of the NT is something of a “midrash” or compilation figure presented through a complex construction of layer atop layer with a bedrock of diverse, contradictory, Cynic sayings of “Jesus” (p. 100). Indeed, the “Son of Man” in the NT is merely a cipher for a hiding sage’s agenda allowing “the dubious authority of some early Christian sage to recede behind the Torah-like clout of the Lord Jesus” (p. 103).

In chapter five, Price copiously labors to place the “Sufi” Islamic sayings of Jesus (twelfth century) alongside Q and Gospel of Thomas sayings developing a case that Jesus’ death was not part of the original story. Indeed, he concludes “if we plot the trajectories of Christian evolution through the New Testament documents as Mack does, we will come up with multiple Christianities all the way back…” (p. 149). Hence, this constellation of Christ mystery cults and Jesus movements having nothing to do with one another validates both Price’s idea that the Jesus could ever be known or indeed whether he, as such, ever existed.

In chapter six, Price courts Rene Girard’s theory of the sacred scapegoat, bemoaning Girard’s failure to press the theory through the Christ myth (p. 176). Herein Price posits the transposition of names for others all the while implying that Peter might be the Caiphas-figure and the disciples put him to death, or his death could have been faked which would comport with other ancient stories (a la Chapter seven). The book culminates with Price following Earl Doherty in seeing the construction of Jesus as midrashic compilation of OT antecedents which supposes that none of the events of Jesus are historical in any sense.

Ultimately, Price succeeds to offer a chiding work sure to evoke consternation. However, his arguments are convoluted and predicated upon a host of presuppositions that are at best tenuous. For instance, how probable is it that Luke-Acts was written so late that Marcion’s version represents the earliest version of Luke [!] (p. 80). Where are opposing views to Price’s radical theses? One will search the bibliography in vain finding a list of highly selective and agreeable sources to Price’s unambiguous agenda. The work is fraught with a continually arising false dichotomy setting Price and his theories as representative of “critical scholars” over against fideists and Christian apologists. What is more, does Price actually represent “critical scholars” or only those who agree with himself (likely a more limited group). Is everyone who disagrees with Price’s constructs ipso facto a fidiest? The irony, however, is that it is difficult to imagine how believers in Jesus, who he derides, exercise more of a fidiestic “leap” in supposing Jesus existed, died, and was believed by his followers to have been raised than Price himself exercises in supposing his “critical eye” discerns the layer upon layer upon layer of texts, communities, and confluence of myths to reach communities behind the communities exposing that “Jesus” is a construct and historically incredible. What of the non-Christian historical attestation to Jesus’ existence? Nevertheless, his arguments would have been more compelling if they were better documented and argued in greater detail. The work took on so many radical theories that it did not prove convincing or probable in most of what was offered.

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I just finished Tat-Siong Benny Liew’s Politics of Parousia: Reading Mark Inter(con)textually (Biblical Interpretation Series 44; Leiden: Brill, 1999). This was a fantastic read that I highly recommend and I will have a published review of this text later next year. However, for current discussion I would like to outline the argument and listen to any thoughts or reflections you might have about it.

From a biblical standpoint, Liew determined that the Markan parousia, stands in a rich tradition of Jewish apocalyptic literature which stands against imperial oppression and subjugation. First, he reasons that the Markan Jesus is painted in stark contrast to the Jewish authorities who are subtly identified with the kingdom of darkness. I found this to be one of the penetrating insights into the Markan narrative offered, that I for one, was previously unaware of or simply missed. At least in so far as he was able to show cogently that several linguistico-rhetorical features of the gospel (e.g. the use of the ἐκβάλλ-verbs, etc.) subtly tie the Jewish elite and “their house” with the dominion of the adversary (evidently this is something Mack and others have already alluded to, which I wasn’t aware of). His reading was deeply textual, interacting skillfully with the text and language, more so than I had initially expected (though granted I had little basis for expectation!). Another feature that was rather unforeseen was how richly he treated the narrative from a biblical theology standpoint; this could well be my own (mis)assessment because I have only a marginal perspective of literary criticism as of yet.

The primary thesis he argued for, evidenced in the title of the work, was that the fundamental politic of the Markan parousia as eschatological event was a duplication of the ideology of the colonizer, namely, the Roman’s “obey-or-be-destroyed” program! So the totalitarian vision of Jesus’ sole judgment of the “righteous and unrighteous” and political reckoning, at bottom, was a repackaged “colonially mimicking” vision of the colonizer’s ideology. Therefore, resistance to the colonial regime, being so inculcated by the ideology of empire, takes on the form and vision of empire even in its resistance. Hence, the best way I can describe what I think was his point, is that the vision of Jesus’ return (parousia) setting the world to “rights” by the binary standard of “in” vs. “out” chiefly is the projection of the Imperial Caesar’s mode of oppression by violence in cosmic religious terms. This is a very provocative thesis in my estimation, not only for what it says, but further what it leaves unsaid. Moreover, as a reader I continually found myself querying as to whether I was reading Albert Schweitzer or Liew. I realize this statement necessitates qualification, but I have yet to put my finger on exactly why, I kept getting that “feel.” What does this mean for the parousia, in general? Ah, these are the questions that are forever unanswerable because methodologically we have departed in a sense from history in so far as authorship, date, occasion, etc. are matters out of reach and in a real sense out of bounds in his study. The whole exercise is “constructed” in Mark’s narrative-world, which thereby alleviates some of the traditional questions and pitfalls. Maybe that is exactly the genius of the method, namely, dealing with the literature as a “piece of colonial literature arising during a certain historical milieu” and then analyzing the internal construct of the narrative world and actors vis-a-vis the colonial situatedness of the literature. There are still some issues in the method that seem unaddressed and I might well be reading the whole thing incorrectly, but this at present seems like a robust way to deal with the socio-political significance of the narrative in its historical context without the pitfalls of traditional “Introductory” material/debate. Any thoughts?

He goes on to analyze the way mark constructs colonial subjects first with an eye to the way he views “agency” and then to the way he constructs women. Chiefly, he throws several notable scholars’ works, who argue strongly for a positive (or semi-positive) presentation of the role of women, to the flames, finding rather a “backseat” and rather negative view of women’s role in society. This climaxes in his final chapter which draws together the previous work on Mark and sets it over against the Chinese American colonial experience. From this he harvests the “timeless, universal truth” (not Liew’s language!): that the colonized of all times bear the danger of duplicating the ideology of their oppressors and in turn oppressing others (p. 158).

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