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

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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.

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My Science Textbooks, the Demagogue, and God's Missing Body (2)

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My Science Textbooks, the Demagogue, and God's Missing Body (2)

Part 2 of a 4-part post. Here are parts 13, and 4.

Being True to the Body 

Being "true" to a body may mean adherence to the explicitly held beliefs and practices, but it can also mean the implicit values that are inherent to the structure itself. And sometimes (often) we experience tension between our individual convictions (or lived experience) that seem irreconcilable to the larger body. Within the context of the church, departure from orthodox teachings and practices of the church is often viewed negatively.

At the same time, however, Jewish and Christian tradition both have a long history of individual dissent within the body (I’m not saying this is necessarily unique to Judeo-Christian tradition). The Israelite prophets depicted in the Hebrew Bible are some of the earliest evidences of this strain–speaking and performing words against the practices and beliefs of larger bodies, whether the bodies are other nations or Israel itself.

Every prophet views herself as either hearkening back to some earlier teaching or upholding and/or advancing the real heart of the body. It is not understood as a revolt against the body so much as a call to the body to come back to its origins, to its “true self.” A contemporary example of this would be those evangelicals who consider the embrace of Trump to be contrary to the values of the Bible in general (and more specifically the teachings of Jesus). The true structure, they maintain, the real heart of Christianity, has been lost and replaced with a terrifying specter, a false image.

However, as a cradle Protestant, I know how elusive agreement on what constitutes the “true body” (and “trueness to the true body”) can be. To what image do these prophets call the body back?

One of the key features of the Protestant Reformation was of course a call to return to the text of scripture and use this to measure church tradition, teachings, and practices. In the evangelical community of my youth, there was again this odd divorce between what thought and said we were doing, and what we were really doing. On the one hand, we espoused the text of the Bible as primary. On the other hand, the majority of us (even our pastors) didn’t have a lot of education in biblical exegesis and interpretation. We were able to live with the impression that we were under the direct authority of scripture without a Pope or authority to interpret for us. We had a direct line to and from God. We thought we had unmediated access to God’s word. In actuality, we had (as everyone does) presuppositions, traditions, ways of reading that we all brought to the text without knowing it.

None of these mediators–whether they were individual Bible readers, church leaders, the Pope, or Bible scholars– could function as a univocal, definitive authority on how to understand God’s word without the whole system collapsing. We presupposed that presuppositions were inherently bad, that we had to check our theology, our minds, our everything at the door and come to the Bible as a clean slate. But presuppositions are not only not-bad (how’s that for a sweeping endorsement?) but inevitable. Presuppositions can become bad when they are considered normative and the system closed, the body refusing to be challenged by other voices (whether they come from within the body or outside).

If that idea is raising your hackles, I suspect it’s because you (like me) were raised with a closed view of scripture. The idea that scripture speaks univocally is demonstrably false. That’s just not the scripture we have. Such a view taken to its logical conclusion would have to exclude the possibility of Jesus as a new, inbreaking revelation of Yahweh, for in order to understand Jesus’ identity, the New Testament authors simultaneously invoke Jewish scripture and go beyond its original authorial intent.

The Bible (both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament) was composed by many authors speaking in various times and places. This doesn’t mean there is never any agreement between the voices of the Bible or that what we have is a bag of completely divergent voices. On the contrary, there are common themes, metaphors, patterns of thought that keep cropping up. Newer texts engage in dialogue with older texts.  

One point of basic unanimity between the books of the Hebrew Bible is monolatry: worship of one God. (Unlike monotheism, which holds that only one God exists, monolatry allows for the existence of other deities, but maintains that only worship of one particular God is acceptable.) The Hebrew Bible is unapologetically monolatrous. Yahweh and Israel have entered into a covenantal relationship, and thus worship of other gods constitutes infidelity to the covenant. At the same time, within these “orthodox” texts, we have evidence Yahwistic Israelite faith that does not always adhere to monolatrous orthodoxy. An example would be the Israelite worshipper portrayed in Judges 17-18 who does not appear to be familiar with “orthodox” thinking on making cult images (more on images below). Another example would be the cases of religious syncretism in Israel, say, when King Solomon erects cult centers to other gods (1 Kings 11). These are portrayed negatively in the biblical texts. Solomon loses the kingdom for this offense. It is considered a breach of Israel’s covenant with Yahweh. Yet at the same time, these breaches do not disqualify Solomon (or the worshipper in Judges 17-18 for that matter) from the covenant community. They are still Yahwists and still Israelites.

These points of agreement in the biblical text do not negate the idea that the Bible is polyvocal. The Hebrew Bible’s unapologetic monolatry is a actually a very good example of the dynamism of the biblical texts because Jesus’ entrance into the scene redefines monolatry and monotheism  in a way that runs counter to Jewish monotheism. The Bible is not not a closed system. Christianity holds that Jesus is the same God of the Old Testament. That one God exists in three co-eternal person: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is a new idea. This is unorthodox.

Viewing the Bible as a closed system is contrary the Bible’s own polyvocal witness. There cannot be one defining voice. The Word of the Lord, if it is really to speak to us “at many times and in many ways” to different peoples and contexts, must meet us as the words of the Lord–in the smallness, in the lowercase, in the plural. I think you can argue plausibly that this is what God did in the incarnation of Jesus (more on that below).

In short: when I studied biblical exegesis (and a smidge of church history), I realized that the quest to make the Bible the locus of faith is not only wrongheaded, it was impossible. There we were–just me and my Bible. I had all my exegetical tools, my linguistic knowledge and backgrounds knowledge, and all the knowledge that was to be had in the Western intellectual tradition. At last, I could really be my own pope.

But there were three related problems here, as any Bible scholar with an ounce of self-awareness will tell you. First, having better tools with which to study the Bible still didn’t give me unmediated access to the text–I still brought to it all the other structures I inhabited. My social location still influenced how I read the Bible. My whiteness, my economic status, my gender, etc.–I didn’t get rid of any of these coming to the text. The second problem was that being able to elicit more historically-informed readings of the text did not constitute participation in the church, the alleged True Body. Being part of a body isn’t just giving assent to doctrines or even the stories you tell (though this is part of any body, not just religious), but a space you inhabit (whether willingly or unwillingly). Whatever “true participation” means, Bible study alone wasn’t it. The third problem was the just the old issue of what constitutes true participation (we’re back where we started).

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