Sunday, February 27, 2005

Review of Horsley (Final Part)

[Previous review parts: part 4; part 3; part 2; part 1]

[The complete review may be found on my website.]

There is a clear sense in many chapters in this book that Paul cannot be seen as a "rabble-rousing revolutionary" (Horsley, 3). But is seems – fortunately – that we are getting to the point where western scholars can see that there is more to "resistance politics" than open revolt à la Spartacus, Simon bar Kokhba, or Che Guevara. Both Horsley and Heen explicitly refer to James Scott's study, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, which signals an emerging realisation on the part of first-world academics that "the subaltern's response" is complex. Scott argued that the analysis of power relations 'in the real world' must include the subtleties and complexities of the subaltern's response. Direct opposition is not the only form of resistance; there are 'hidden transcripts' not immediately obvious to the outsider. Of course, many who lived and worked in 'marginalised contexts' did not find Scott's work all that new or surprising (though it did offer new conceptual tools): it describes an aspect of the struggle that is being encountered all the time in the real world, where people make day-to-day choices while trying to survive. Paulo Freire's famous concept of the "culture of silence" among the oppressed describes only one aspect, though it is the one most obvious to the outsider. For obvious reasons, we need more sustained work on this aspect of Paul (and indeed the whole of the Biblical witness); and in fact, Horsley apparently just edited a book of essays along these lines. It should not surprise us to find that this may become a fruitful field for further Biblical research.

The essays in this book are to be understood, Horsley emphasises, as "somewhat exploratory ventures into uncharted territory" (19). It is well to highlight the fact that serious study of Paul in this light is still 'young'. However, perhaps this does not pay sufficient tribute to earlier attempts to read Paul in this way. Works like Klaus Wengst's Pax Romana (which analysed the concept of peace as it relates to justice), published almost 20 years ago, began to develop new directions for Paul as well. It seems odd that such work remains largely underrated, if not ignored today – in spite of clear parallels, such as Wengst's overt structural device of contrasting the NT witnesses with the imperial propaganda of Aelius Aristides ("To Rome").

No doubt one could quibble with other details in various essays in this book. For example, Smith at one point states: "If Paul is drawing on the prophetic tradition and especially Deutero-Isaiah in 1 Thessalonians and throughout his corpus, he assuredly is writing resistance literature."(53) This strikes me as a non sequitur; the one does not necessarily follow from the other. In some chapters I wondered whether putting Paul too much in the context of his Hellenistic environment does not fundamentally neglect his rootedness in "the law, the prophets and the writings". At times, one also wonders how influential the often cited – let's call it: generally postcolonial – theoretical literature really has been for this collection of essays: sometimes it looks more like lip-service to what is expected in the secular academy rather than an important, integral element of the study concerned. And finally, some of the essays are clearly more persuasive than others.

But these issues matter relatively little given what is otherwise a series of well argued pieces in this emerging field of study. Much more important than the inevitable minor shortcomings in a book at this early stage is the fact that a strong voice develops that counteracts the dominant paradigm in Biblical scholarship, which is both ideologically tied to global capitalism and theoretically imprisoned by the Western cultural framework which sees 'religion' as private, individual choice in a limited sphere of life. The book's focus on 'imperial order' also clearly resonates with issues we are facing ourselves (Horsley himself is quite explicit about that).

On the whole, then, the emerging body of recent work that is exemplified by Horsley's collection presents a welcome new wave of Pauline scholarship, shaped as it is by recent social-scientific and socio-historical approaches: as such, it opens up the possibility of even closer cooperation between socially engaged theologians in the tradition of liberation theology, and Biblical scholars (not that these are mutually exclusive camps!). Of course, we are no longer at the point that Gottwald criticised in the 1980's: that liberation theologies tended to exhibit an insufficient grounding in serious social-scientific and socio-historical scholarship. And yes, the Biblical work on Paul as presented in this book is in many ways still in its infancy. However, it does seem to me that we are at a point again where 'cross-disciplinary' engagement shows great promise.

It is important to stress though that this book is not all comforting reading for 'the Christian left'. It is not a matter of finding the resources to say at last: "now we have key to read Paul as a subversive theologian". At least some of the studies in this book also signal the alterity of Paul, of his communities, and his world. There is no easy correspondence between 'us' and 'them'. This is a discomfort that is important not to try and sweep under the carpet. Knust's chapter in particular highlights this, and it is not surprising that this happens in relation to recent work on the ancient mediterranean sex/gender concept (and is it an accident that Knust is the only woman author in this book?). Issues of ethnicity in the Bible, including paul, no doubt present another, complex field that will demand close attention in this regard. Paul and his world remain 'other' not only in the sense that they, in their own way, challenge the prevailing consensus of global capitalism, but also in the sense that the 'hidden transcripts' of the resistance of his communities remain partly alien to Christian resistance as conceptualised in the West. But that is hardly surprising in cross-cultural interaction (ie. reading the Bible), and it would be a mistake to think that either is therefore necessarily 'not of the gospel'.
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