Wednesday, August 25, 2010


The semester is ready to begin at Earlham School of Religion and I am again welcoming the combination of the intellectual, creative and spiritual that the school offers as I prepare for classes in Bible and Christian history, writing and spiritual formation. I have never attended a school quite like this and find the synergy exciting and energizing.

I have stumbled across the Dutch thinker Mieke Bal, who I vaguely remembered as an art history critic who wrote an essay I once read about Vermeer and the navel. She's also a specialist in narratology and has written a book about women in the Bible called Lethal Love. The book is old, dating to the late 1980s, I believe, but I am playing catch-up. Bal is "out there"--and I don't agree with her reading of the Adam and Eve story-- but it is precisely her challenge to everyday thinking that I find stimulating and provocative.

A quote from her chapter in Lethal Love on Eve speaks to my heart (and, as I realize she theorizes about "quotation," I recognize that I am re-contextualizing her):

The alternative readings I will propose should not be considered as yet another, superior interpretation that overthrows all the others. My goal is rather to show, by the sheer possibility of a different reading, that "dominance" is, although present and in many ways obnoxious, not unproblematically established. It is the challenge rather than the winning that interests me. For it is not the sexist interpretation of the Bible as such that bothers me. It is the possibility of dominance itself, the attractiveness of coherence and authority in culture, that I see as the source, rather than the consequence, of sexism.

What do you think? I love the idea of a space of equality and integrity, for the play of ideas without a "winner;" I fear the "too neat" package (why I am ever railing against formulations such as "religions are different paths up the same mountain"); I also fear (as do Bal, and Derrida, whom she is reacting to) a mindless chaos, an anything-goes individualism, a Tea partyism gone off the deep end.


Bill Samuel said...

I think many Biblical ideas and stories can not be fully encapsulated in a neat package. It does them a disservice, IMHO.

Ideas/theories about them are useful, as long as we understand that they are a window showing part of the truth, not a definitive interpretation. It can be more helpful in trying to grasp the richness of the message to have the benefit of several different ideas/theories/readings rather than just one. They aren't necessarily equal, but a number of them may shed light on the real message, and so they shouldn't always be viewed as competitive with each other.

Such an approach both reflects the value of theoretical constructs and recognizes their limitations. It is content to admit of some mystery in Biblical truths. It is relatively humble, befitting the fact that none of us humans is God and recognizing that we need to learn from one another.

Diane said...

Thanks Bill.

Bill Cook said...

It would be good to be at a place in which we can define and affirm ourselves without having to prove others wrong. Even more, in which we discover how enriched we are by others who are very different.

Power is an issue. Jesus embodies the kind of power that gives life rather than takes it, that loves and serves rather than dominates to prove its own greatness.

Too often we have defined something as the essential truth without realizing that it was simply the posture of those who had the most power. I so love the rise of contextual theology.

thanks for your post. - Bill

natcase said...

"It is the possibility of dominance itself, the attractiveness of coherence and authority in culture, that I see as the source, rather than the consequence, of sexism."

Yes. And as homo sapiens our relationship to power is contradictory but more sympathetic: the search for power may be a kind of corruption (or the source of corruption) but it is also, like mortality, built into our animal selves. Attempts to scour dominance and the deisre for dominance out will leave us less human.

Perhaps we need to see the drive towards equality and the drive for dominance as two halves of a whole. This would mean people who are driven primarily by one or the other would need to see that God is not on their side of this ball game, or on the other.

Jim said...

Too hard for me. I can hold that particulars of any condition defy my rules - save that this too becomes a suddenly coherent position of dominance against those who would blaspheme against it. Something like the (caricatured?) Quaker testimony of peace vis. violence, or any other testimony where some act always is or nearly always is wrong. Or as if the dominance of diversity and variety is no less dominance. It’s easy to play with theoretical options and call them just theoretical until one’s favorite injustice happens and calls for a coherent response.


Hystery said...

I'm not sure the tea party is a good match for the idea of "relativism" as many call various postmodernism. In fact, what I hear coming from the Tea Party pretty much demonstrates the opposite of the discipline, judgment and gentleness required to operate within a system of multiple and varying narratives. I think the problem with that kind of "individualism" is that it is based on a constructed narrative of American values which is actually not historically accurate or nuanced. The proliferation of narratives in social justice inspired academic work in biblical studies, theo/alogy, history, etc. is not so much about creating chaos as it is about deconstructing the hegemonic influence of any one narrative which may obscure important information about the fullness of human experience. The other narratives have always existed even if they have not yet been acknowledged.