Use the language of “myth” when describing certain parts of the Bible (e.g., Genesis 1-11) and you are sure to upset many Christians. Creation and flood narratives provide the foundation for the worldview of many sincere believers today. They struggle to see this language as anything but an affront to their cherished beliefs. No doubt many would prefer this language applied to evolutionary biology. But notice what happens when Michael Pollan does this very thing in his recently released book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation:
Like any such theory–indeed, like evolution itself–the cooking hypothesis is not subject to absolute scientific proof. For that reason, some will no doubt dismiss it as another ‘just so’ story, Prometheus in modern scientific garb. But, really, how much more can we expect when trying to account for something like the advent of ourselves? What the cooking hypothesis gives us is a compelling modern myth–one cast in the language of evolutionary biology rather than religion–locating the origins of our species in the discovery of cooking with fire. To call it a myth is not to belittle it. Like any other such story, it serves to explain how what is came to be using the most powerful vocabulary available, which in our case today happens to be that of evolutionary biology. What is striking in this instance is that classical mythology and modern evolutionary theory both gazed into the flames of the cook fire and found there the same thing: the origins of our humanity. Perhaps that coincidence is all the confirmation we can hope for. (p 62)
And perhaps Christians should not feel so afraid of seeing this language applied also to certain biblical texts. Far from an affront to sacred Scripture, this could prove to be one of the more affirming claims made on its behalf.
More on Michael Pollan’s important book:
I’m pleased to announce the publication of my article, “Orders of Discourse and the Function of Obedience in the Hebrew Bible” available in The Journal of Theological Studies 2013 64: 1-24. The brief video below reveals the genesis of and backdrop for my project.
For free full text access to the article, click one of the links below.
Don’t write that dissertation. You know the one. The dissertation sounds relevant because it employs theoretical terminology, even if it is little informed by the dense literature on Theory.
This is one of the points of advice in Tara Brabazon’s Times Higher Education Article, “How not to write a PhD thesis,”
5. Use discourse, ideology, signifier, signified, interpellation, postmodernism, structuralism, post-structuralism or deconstruction without reading the complete works of Foucault, Althusser, Saussure, Baudrillard or Derrida
How to upset an examiner in under 60 seconds: throw basic semiotic phrases into a sentence as if they are punctuation. Often this problem emerges in theses where “semiotics” is cited as a/the method. When a student uses words such as “discourse” and “ideology” as if they were neutral nouns, it is often a signal for the start of a pantomime of naivety throughout the script. Instead of an “analysis”, postgraduates describe their work as “deconstruction”. It is not deconstruction. They describe their approach as “structuralist”. It is not structuralist. Simply because they study structures does not mean it is structuralist. Conversely, simply because they do not study structures does not mean it is poststructuralist.
The number of students who fling names around as if they are fashion labels (“Dior”, “Derrida”, “Givenchy”, “Gramsci”) is becoming a problem. I also feel sorry for the students who are attempting a deep engagement with these theorists.
I am working with a postgraduate at the moment who has spent three months mapping Michel Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge over media-policy theories of self-regulation. It has been frustrating and tough, creating – at this stage – only six pages of work from her efforts. Every week, I see the perspiration on the page and the strain in the footnotes. If a student is not prepared to undertake this scale of effort, they must edit the thesis and remove all these words. They leave themselves vulnerable to an examiner who knows their ideological state apparatuses from their repressive state apparatuses.
I’m currently in the dissertation writing stage of my degree, writing about the ways in which the term “intertextuality” gets appropriated in biblical studies. The impetus for the project arises from this very thing. People desire to use terminology that sounds very trendy and academic, intertextuality hardly being the exception. But their work poorly reflects the theory behind this language.
With this in mind, let me leave you with two suggestions from the introduction of my project:
- That intertextuality, if it has anything to contribute to biblical studies, should bring about a change in our understanding of the biblical text emerged as the first and remains the most fundamental test of any intertextual study.
- Where scholars can establish their theses without reference to the concept of intertextuality—either by means of other concepts or through more traditional terminology—the presence of intertextuality is a (strictly authorial) convenience that does not change our understanding of the biblical text.
Is biblical studies boring? It’s hard to tell. If you ask my wife, she will tell you that the books I read are boring and irrelevant. And this from someone who reads at least two books a week! If you ask me, I kind of like the books in our discipline. Who wouldn’t want to read The Story of Israel in the Book of Qohelet? Right? Right??
Of course, sometimes I like the idea of reading our literature more than I enjoy the actual practice. Let’s be honest, biblical studies as a discipline doesn’t have a reputation for literary sophistication. We include the words “well written” in our published reviews because there weren’t glaring grammatical errors and the book made sense. We didn’t actually enjoy the reading experience.
But is this a problem? Certainly not! Not if you don’t want people reading in your discipline and finding relevance in your work.
Okay, maybe it is a problem!
Thankfully there are young, innovative scholars working hard to redefine our discipline’s literary habits. The Marginalia Review of Books is actively reshaping our discipline, one book review, interview, essay, and editorial at a time. Online, freely accessible, visually and literarily appealing—MRB is raising the standard, not only by challenging us to write better, but also by creating something worth reading in the meantime.
If biblical studies is boring, MRB is making it a little less so.
My review of Reinhard Feldmeier and Hermann Spieckermann’s God of the Living: A Biblical Theology is published in The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures. In one line, my takeaway is that this work “distinguishes itself as an exceptional work of biblical scholarship, both in endeavor and in execution.”
Interested readers should also consult the article review, “Critical Biblical Theology in a New Key: A Review Article” by John Hobbins in The Journal for the Evangelical Study of the Old Testament, also available online.
News of the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown CT has quickly erupted into an ideological war on gun legislation at social media sites (e.g., #GunLawsNow) and among various news organizations (both satire and serious). Many are saying that, on the day of the shooting, it is too soon to discuss these issues, that the country is too emotional to make rational decisions about a polarizing topic like gun legislation.
It is problematic, however, to argue that emotion is an inherently irrational human experience. Catherine A. Lutz writes in her book, Unnatural Emotions: Everyday sentiments on a Micronesian Atoll & Their Challenge to Western Theory:
When the emotional is defined as irrational, all those occasions and individuals in which emotion is identified can be dismissed, and when the irrational is defined as emotional, it becomes sensible to label “emotional” those who would be discounted. In this society, those groups which have traditionally ‘been conceived of as passional beings, incapable of sustained rationality’ . . . include ‘infants, children, adolescents, mental patients, primitive people, peasants, immigrants, Negroes, slumdwellers, urban masses, crowds, and most of all, women’ . . . . Emotion becomes an important metaphor for perceived threats to established authority. . . . To the powerful, this is their chaos; to the groups themselves, it is their impulse toward freedom.
Certainly events like the Sandy Hook shooting stir up deep emotions within us, but this is not what it means to be irrational. The person who shoots 20 children and 6 adults needs to be our example of a person acting irrationally. In our emotional state, we are reminded that we need to take ”meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this.”
My sympathies go out to the families of the victims and all of those affected by today’s tragedy.
Yoram Hazony has joined the ranks of those who aim to bridge the divide between Athens and Jerusalem. His new book The Philosophy of the Hebrew Scripture, suggests that “the biblical authors used narrative and prophetic oratory to advance universal arguments about ethics, political philosophy, and metaphysics” (i). Initial reviews are mixed, though I think the biblical studies guild will find the critical review of Jon D. Levenson particularly on point. (Hazony’s website links to numerous reviews and promotional spots.)
While I agree with Levenson on all the major points, I want to highlight a particularly positive moment in Hazony’s book. “The Hebrew Bible is the modern university’s blind side” (20). In arguing that the reason/revelation dichotomy has proved to be an unfortunate impediment to appreciating the Hebrew Bible as a philosophical text, Hazony touches on an important interpretive posture which all readers of ancient (and contemporary?) literature must adopt:
If we refused to study a great thinker every time he disagreed profoundly with our own intuitions there would be no great philosopher left to study. Think of Plato with his divine voices, his realm of ideas, his acceptance of infanticide, and his communism. Or Newton, with his alchemy, his belief in the growth of matter, his absolute time and space, his God deducible from the laws of physics. Or Kant, with his mystical transcendental deduction, his denial that it is right to lie to save the life of one’s friend. Or of William James’s belief in the occult, or Nietzsche’s assertion that our every action is repeated in an eternally returning cycle. The first thing we learn in reading the great works of the past is that tolerating the counterintuitive is basic to the enterprise. (277 n.26; emphasis added)
That being said, I’m inclined to agree with Levenson what he identifies as a potent factor for why the wider academy ignores or disparages the Hebrew Bible: “the deep secularity of most academics, their profound unease with the notion of a personal God who acts in history, has chosen a particular people for a special covenantal relationship, and has revealed his will (much of it mysterious and seemingly unnecessary) to them.” This is not a judgment he makes in concert with Hazony. As Levenson points out, “The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture shares that unease.”
For another Jon Levenson plug, see Charles Halton’s list of books that make great holiday gifts.
Earlier this year I highlighted a popular essay by Jon Levenson entitled, “Why Jews are Not Interested in Biblical Theology.” There have been a few who have taken issue with Levensons claims, even while recognizing the many significant contributions he brings to the biblical theological discussion.
Ehud Ben Zvi has written what is, in my estimation, an equally significant essay, “Constructing the Past: The Recent History of Jewish Biblical Theology.”
This chapter explores how and why a diverse group of Jewish “biblicists” reached the mentioned widespread agreement [that Jews are not interested in Biblical theology], and, in particular, I would focus on the ways in which the construction of the past (and the social memory that it creates) shaped and reflected in this consensus is related to particular social and ideological contingencies. (34)
From the OUP Blog:
From 1990 to 2010, Professor Emanuel Tov (Professor Emeritus, Hebrew University of Jerusalem) served as the Editor in Chief of the Dead Sea Scrolls Publication Project, producing over thirty volumes from the famed 1947 discovery nearQumran. The scrolls — written between 250 B.C.E. and 70 C.E. by a Jewish monastic community (most likely theEssenes) — have had an enormous impact on Biblical studies scholarship over the last 65 years, calling into question, among many other things, the origin and influence of certain practices and beliefs. The volumes that Tov helped to produce during his tenure can now be found in the Discoveries in the Judaean Desert series, the foundational point of reference for students of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Not surprisingly, Professor Tov is also one of the leading experts in the field of textual criticism, a method which aims to determine the reliability of a given text based on its historical context, transmission history, competing versions, and varying interpretations. This is a crucial and controversial process, given that no original manuscript of any book of the Bible has ever been recovered. Rather than consulting an original document, scholars have had to rely on numerous versions that were copied by hand and edited over generations. Complicating matters even further is the possibility that there simply is no “original” text to be unearthed or pieced together — multiple variants may have circulated among religious communities for many years. Though this situation is common among ancient documents, the connection between the Bible and religious doctrine is so strong that it was only recently that the practice of textual criticism has begun to take root, driven in large part by the Dead Sea Scrolls discovery.
In this interview (audio below) conducted for Oxford Biblical Studies Online (OBSO), Professor Marc Brettler (Brandeis University) discusses with Professor Tov his early days as a scholar of Biblical studies, his research into the Qumran scrolls, and the legacy of his work — most notably his landmark book Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible(3rd ed., revised and expanded; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), which continues to set the standard for his field.
Click through and listen to the 20 minute interview!