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biblical studies

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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But Love Troubles My Head

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But Love Troubles My Head

In my last post, I wrote that love doesn’t trouble my head much anymore. But it does.

My freshman year of college, I met my first boyfriend – his name was Biblical Studies. I hadn’t been particularly studious as a high school student. We were homeschooled and school was what we did all the time (it was nothing to get too excited about). But just a few weeks into my Bible classes, I was enamored of it all – the primary texts, the commentaries, the discussion of probing questions that charmed and vexed the soul.

For the first time in my life, I’d found something more thrilling than a boy. Here was a quest for which I would gladly forego meals. (I see now my obsession with Biblical Studies was worse than love – I would never have forsaken food for love of a boy.) The following summer, I took a series of summer classes back-to-back. I got into the habit of going from my (4-5 hr) morning class straight to the library and studying until supper. My stomach would knot with hunger, but my elation was so visceral that I barely felt the knots.

This kind of love still troubles my head from time to time. When I met Josh, the old, troublesome sort of love began to show its true colors. Over time, I began to see that what I had understood to be romantic interest or physical attraction (I never dared to call anything “love”) had less to do with interest in a particular person or subject and more to do with my need for distraction. Of course, it’s never that simple – most of what we do is a complex mixture of real interest and the need for distraction. But mostly it was distraction.

This is why love still troubles my head from time to time – because it isn’t about romance or attraction or sex. It’s a quest to keep our ghosts at bay, to distract us from our raw, wounded insides. This troubles me, but I’ve gotten better at resisting it, refusing to let it rob me of real interest, real love. The source of every human love is God, and when someone loves us as we are, that gives us the confidence to face who we are. We no longer need to be distracted from ourselves. (Josh’s love helps a lot.)

I think of distraction as a kind of gluttony. It keeps you from really focusing on what’s in front of you and loving it. Instead of encountering the gift before you, you’re always searching for more, not because you’re interested in genuine knowledge, but because you’re interested in acquiring, possessing.

As I reflect on my undergraduate education, I see that in many ways, I was not taught to love knowledge. I had to learn that on my own. I was taught to be thrilled with knowledge, and this carried me for a time. But the leisure of four years of full-time study has a way of encouraging gluttony – a swift love affair with books and the meaning of life. It fattens you up with knowledge, but does not give you the tools to pursue knowledge when you no longer have the leisure to do so. And you begin to starve.

At the end of this affair, you are unsatisfied. You have not learned to live with knowledge, only to gorge on it. You are unable to maintain the vigor you once had now that the pressures of work and family life make it difficult to devote many hours to study. You learned to love knowledge in one context: the classroom. You did not learn to talk about the questions when you sit at home and when you walk along the road and when you lie down and when you get up.

Since knowledge was just a distraction, an erotic pang in your love-sick gut, you feel justified in leaving it behind. Fantasies are quickly exhausted, and you need to move on to something new.

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