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Ogling and Othering: My Love-Hate Relationship with Biblical Studies


Ogling and Othering: My Love-Hate Relationship with Biblical Studies

The terms "Middle East" and "ancient Near East" assume a Eurocentric view of the world, and these monikers sum up why I so often feel conflicted about the moorings of my training in biblical studies.

As many of you know, the literature and art of the so called "ancient Near East" (ANE) has provided invaluable insights into the cultural backdrop of the Hebrew Bible. It has heavily influenced my own academic research and creative writings. But the study of the ANE didn’t just emerge at the height of British colonization, but as an extension of it. The whole enterprise grew out of this context and the current discourse carries with it the language and baggage of a Western gaze.

I suppose it makes sense, then, that my favorite scholar on Assyro-Babylonian art is Iraqi scholar Zainab Bahrani. She was educated in Western contexts, but is native to one of the regions (Iraq) that was home to ancient Mesopotamia. (We use "ancient Near East" as a drip-pan phrase to refer to any or all of the ancient peoples and civilizations that lived in these regions over the span of several millennia--talk about generalization! For a breakdown of the modern names, see Wikipedia.)

Because Bahrani is native to Iraq, she has a vested interest in de- and re-constructing the discourse on Assyro-Babylonian art. Much of her work goes into explaining why/how this art has been misinterpreted/seen as inferior because of a Western gaze that exoticizes the East and/or views it as the antithesis of "superior" Western rationalism.

When I reflect on it, I realize that my own interest in writing about Mesopotamian cult images is becoming more and more about truth-telling. As long as the West maintains that it is synonymous with the spread of Christianity and continues to interpret the Bible in this way, it will continue to think of the biblical stories of Abraham and Israel as equivalent to Western rational monotheism. The story then becomes the (Westernized) Abraham/Israel pitted against the otherness of Mesopotamian polytheistic religions, which the Western gaze then uses as its lens to read all Eastern forms of religion as inferior.

All of these are false constructs. The biblical stories about Abraham and Israel are far removed from Western rationalism, as are the literature and art of the many polytheistic religions of Mesopotamia. Even bundling them together under the label "polytheistic" is an unhelpful conflation of distinct histories and religious practices.

I am interested in understanding (as much as any Westerner can) both the Bible and Assyro-Babylonian art and literature as Eastern works that really do challenge many Western assumptions about the nature of religion, politics, spirituality, community, and a host of other things.

When many of these texts were first discovered, they were understood as foils to the Hebrew Bible--their value was in how they would illuminate the world of the Bible. This focus has shifted somewhat to study these texts as valuable in their own right, but the framework of the discipline still carries the Eurocentric baggage.

I am not sure--given the initial ideological moorings of the study--if it's possible to escape them (nor is any reading of history without ideology). But I do believe that the more we are able to see the histories of Mesopotamia as worth studying simply to tell a true story--and not as the "other" to "our" (Westernized) Bible--the more we will understand not only the landscape of ancient of Mesopotamia (in all its myriad, diverse details), but also ourselves and the texts of the Bible.

As a Western Christian (and as a Western human being) it seems important to me to realize that if I think of ancient Mesopotamia as an inferior other, then the logical step is to also understand the texts my Christian faith holds as sacred in the same way, understanding them as equally strange and inferior to contemporary Western ears. But this is not what Western Christians have done. Instead, we have dressed up the Bible to masquerade it as a Western text so that it would support our own ideology instead of challenging it, while at the same time using the Bible as an excuse to read other Eastern texts as inferior.

I want to be honest about the inherent conflict in this gaze, and try as much as possible to relinquish my stranglehold on history. To let go of my gaze of dominance and let history challenge me. If these texts appear strange to me as a Western reader, I need to take them as challenges to my own modern Western sensibilities rather than a sign of their inferiority. These ancient words and images have things to teach us, but so long as we insist on ogling them, we won't be able to hear a word they say.


Divine and Human Space: Shall I Say It Again?


Divine and Human Space: Shall I Say It Again?

It's three weeks until the comprehensive exams, so I imagine I'll spend much of the coming week (Spring break) studying, but I wanted to take this weekend to type up the rest of the handwritten and hand-edited portions of the second draft of my book. It turns out that I've managed to get through roughly two-thirds of this second draft even with all the busyness of school and motherhood, editing out approximately ten thousand words and adding about the same.

The following is the very last section of the book's most recent iteration. I am not sure if I will end up keeping it (it may be a bit too "obvious" for the rest of the book's tenor). I'm not even sure if I agree with all the theology in it. Nonetheless, I'm glad I wrote it, as it is helpful for me to keep the book focused on what I want it to be about.  So, for those of you who asked what the book is about, this is it. Enjoy.

Divine and Human Space

As I near the end of this small book of fragmented narratives, I find Eliot’s refrain from The Four Quartets turning over in my mind: You will say I am repeating / Something I have said before / I shall say it again / Shall I say it again?  To say it again, however, I must determine what I said.  What did I mean to say?  And what have I actually said?  To determine what I meant to say, I must go back to the beginning.

You thought I began with my lineage: the space bequeathed to me by Christianity and Judaism, the religious legacy of my parents.  And so I did.  That is what I said.  But what did I mean?

I meant: if I were to trace my origins, the place of my birth, I would have to go back to my Creator, the divine being who came to earth as a human being.  I was born on his land, in his home.  He is my father, my mother, my resting place.  The God who set up shop in this world is the same God who will renovate it in the end: Jesus.  The earth is God’s temple, but Jesus is his temple, too.

God did not wish to demolish his temple, though it had become a wasteland because of human sin.  So, instead, he tore down Jesus, all the while planning to raise him up again so that the whole world could live in him.

Jesus is where I begin.

But what precisely, what really, have I said?

My point–my life, my hope, my joy–is the simple yet baffling reality that God has built his house among humans.  The Eastern Orthodox Christians have a turn of phrase that sums up the incarnation nicely: “God became man so that man might become God.”

Now, of course, when they say “man might become God,” they don’t mean that humans become the ontological equivalent of the Creator God or that they supplant his unique divine status.  They mean that humans become “deified” in the sense that Adam and Even were meant to be “like God” in Eden–being and doing in small what God is and does in large.  If we put this in spatial terms, we might say: “God lived in human space so that humans could live in divine space.”  Jesus left his Father’s house in heaven to come be with us.

When I was a girl, I thought the story of my life with Jesus was all about sin.  In some sense, it was, but this was not the beginning nor the heart of the matter.  The beginning of the story was not my sin, but God’s act of love in building the world for his creatures to enjoy, a divine house–a temple–where humans could work and dance before the divine.  And there was hope of immortality in God’s good land through the Tree of Life that God planted in the garden of Eden.

And you know the story after that–how our spiritual ancestors were told they didn’t need God in order to inhabit divine space, that they could be gods of their own temple instead of images in Yahweh’s temple. 

And so I was born into the world thinking, like my ancestors, that I could be queen of my own space, the center of my own little world.  I was not beholden to those who came before me or those who would come after me.  I had no obligation to share space with my neighbor or any deep sense that everything I owned had been given to me by someone else–that there was no “my land,” “my house,” “my space,” only God’s space.

But God looked at me–looked at us–shook his head, and said, Not good.  I will show them what it looks like to share space.  I will visit them again.  Though they sought to exile me from this land, to shove me back into heaven, I will come to them.  I will teach them how to live in divine space, how to be at peace in the world again.

And so for years and years he came to us in many different ways.  He spoke to Cain and Noah and Abraham.  He even appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre, Yahweh announcing to the patriarch his promise of a son.  He showed his face to Jacob as they wrestled by the River Jabbok.  God showed himself to Moses on Mt Sinai and disclosed his words to Israel through the giving of the law.  His presence came upon the tabernacle, his glory filled the Israelite temple.  He spoke to us through the words and visions of prophets.

Then, in the fullness of time, he came to us in his son, Jesus.

As I write this, my son dozes beside me in his stroller, his tiny lids fluttering open now and then only to once again close in deep sleep.  How little he knows about the world he has entered.  For nine months, he has known only the compact, comforting space of my womb, where he was always fed, always secure.

For nine months, I shared my body with him, though he knew it only as his own space.  But now he must relearn his dependence on me and learn to participate.  I will feed him, but he must also learn to eat.  Day by day, he will grow bigger and develop a sense of independence from me–that we are two separate human beings sharing divine space.

My mother used to write to us in little notebooks when we were young, hoping to give us a sense of our infancy when we were older.  I carry on this tradition, every so often jotting down short notes in Marshall’s notebook, telling him about himself and sharing with him my hopes and dreams for his life.

I tell him that I want him to be able to pursue the activities that intrigue him the most, knowing that God loves it when we cultivate his good gift of creation and human activity.  I tell him that a full life is a thankful life, a life lived in gratitude to God for coming to live with us.

Most of all, my dear, sweet boy, I want you to know Christ and the re-creative power of his resurrection.  I want you to know the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, in his broken body.  We are dying already, you know–me, you, Dad, everyone.  We will suffer no matter what.  We will die one day, whether that happens tomorrow or one hundred years from now.  But when God came to live with us, he came to die with us, too.  And he promised that if we would suffer and die with him, that we would also be raised from the dead in order to live with him forever on this earth.  This, my Marshall–my love, my life–is my prayer for you.  Christ became like you–may you become like him.