The Anxiety of Old Testament Theology: A Theory of Writing – Part One

I want to explore further what I mean when I say, as I did in my previous post, that Old Testament theology is a verb, not a noun. Those who have understood Old Testament theology as the quest for a noun (e.g. covenant, heilsgeschichte) have been aiming to discover some kind of unifying theme or motif in the Old Testament. Theoretically, someone could eventually stumble upon a noun that would put an end to the production of books entitled Old Testament Theology. The proliferation of such books suggests no such discovery has met with enduring acceptance. So why then, despite their failure to discover the theology of the Old Testament, do we find these works stimulating and continue to consult and draw upon them? Despite their own understanding of and approach to the subject, they still provide a compelling example of the activity of Old Testament theology.

To unpack this, I appeal to Harold Bloom and his book The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. Bloom’s book is difficult to read; his idiosyncratic use of terminology proves frustrating to those (like myself) who prefer a more straightforward approach to critical, academic discussion. His reliance on Freud naturally raises eyebrows, and his prescriptive theoretical program will not persuade those who expect him to demonstrate his thesis using a more scientific, critical methodology. Nevertheless, I believe Bloom’s thesis can prove useful in the discussion of Old Testament theology:

Poetic influence—when it involves two strong, authentic poets,—always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation. The history of fruitful poetic influence, which is to say the main tradition of Western poetry since the Renaissance, is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature, of distortion, of perverse, wilful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could not exist (30).

According to Bloom, every (strong) poet suffers an Oedipal-like anxiety; they cannot improve upon the work of those poets who preceded them. Only through imitation that distorts, perverts, and revises the poems of the past (misinterpretation) can a poet establish their reputation. Bloom’s language is biased toward the work of the past—“poetic influence . . . always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet”—his theory favors the poetical genius of the one who influences over the influenced. By rewriting Bloom’s thesis to speak of theologians/theology and opting for more neutral, descriptive terminology, the significance of Bloom’s argument for the discussion of Old Testament theology begins to emerge:

Theological influence—when it involves two strong, authentic theologians,—always proceeds by a re-envisioning of the prior theologian, an act of creative reorientation that is actually and necessarily a reinterpretation. The history of fruitful theological influence, which is to say the main tradition of Israelite literature since the pre-exilic age, is a history of re-contextualization and reorientation without which modern theology as such could not exist.

To be continued . . .

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2 thoughts on “The Anxiety of Old Testament Theology: A Theory of Writing – Part One

  1. Reading Harold Bloom brings back memories of Senior Seminar for English Majors in undergrad. Everyone in modern English-language literature looks to Shakespeare or someone who looked to Shakespeare. Modern poets/writers then try to “out Shakespeare Shakespeare.” This almost always creates build-up (i.e. Wordsworth reinterprets Shakespeare, Eliot reinterprets Wordsworth, Plath reinterprets Eliot and so on). Most writers (and I would assume most theologians) want to leave a lasting personal legacy and, of course, they would say, arrive at truth. What can be seen happening is a constant desire to produce something new and meaningful that all the while is merely a copying and rearranging of material. Can anything truly groundbreaking or new be produced in this method? I look forward to your next post.

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