Whiteness and New Testament Studies (Part 1)

The 20th century birthed movements that questioned (though not for the first time) the particularity of interpretation, broadly. Our discipline starts, formally, with the advent of ‘scientific’ readings of texts, new methods in discerning proper interpretation. But, movements distanced themselves from these readings as they realised the way that not only Christianity, but our assumptions about texts, silence and subjugate divergent readings. The reality is that readings have material affects. Our readings reveal ideology, and ideology is not simply about abstracted ‘worldviews’, but is about materiality.

It is too bad that postcolonial* readings of biblical texts are marginal. But, David Horrell’s recent BNTC address acts as a sort of wake-up call, one that I hope haunts the minds and writings of those who occupy the centres of NT studies, hopefully directing those with power to sustained recognition of the importance of acknowledging the place of (white) identity within the discipline.

What did he say, though? In the following I will be summarising his address, with brief comments of my own. In a second part of this series of posts I will provide some more nuanced comments, along with some thoughts on the state of the discipline, partially through contrasting with the end of the BNTC this year.**

Interpretive Shifts

Horrell is careful to clarify that his address is primarily concerned with reflecting on how race/ethnicity shape interpretation. He initially illustrates this in the address by comparing a wide range of commentaries on Galatians, honing in particularly on Galatians 3:28. Horrell sticks to these commentaries for good reasons. Commentaries are, often, a culmination of current research on a textual body, and they are also mediums of communication for a wide readership. Influence and excellence, then , are usual characteristics of (some) commentaries.  He also picks the text for a good reason: this section of Galatians is often utilised for universalising (liberalising?) purposes.
It goes without saying, of course, that we are all aware of the diverse purposes and readership of series. Some are for lay people, some for preaching, others for scholars who utilise the commentary for the diverse needs they place upon the text. And so, for good reason, Horrell is not concerned with determining what Paul ‘really meant’ in Galatians 3, but instead he is attempting to note general tendencies in how it has been read by scholars, and further what this reveals about biblical studies and the importance of attending to whiteness.

Horrell begins his review of commentaries by picking several anti- or pre-NPP examples. Ernest DeWitt Burton’s ICC commentary (1921), William Hendrikson’s 1968 commentary, and Leon Morris’s 1996 commentary are prominent examples. All of these exhibit a stark difference between a particularist reading of Judaism (often described as inhospitable to non-Jews) and the universalising theology of Paul.

Following from this brief survey, Horrell points to NPP commentaries, which one would expect to be distinct form previous forms; however, the shift is not quite as substantial as one would think. Dunn’s 1993 commentary, echoed by Walter Hansen’s 1994 commentary, exhibits the same sort of tendencies as the commentaries above, stressing the ‘ethnocentric’ (using Hansen’s word) disposition of Jews. While the stress isn’t laid on Jewish ‘law’, it exhibits the same formula: Jewish exclusivism vs. Pauline inclusivism. However, a crucial difference rests between the two categories of commentaries (NPP: non-NPP). NPP (or those thinkers who have benefited from the broad ‘movement’) point to an abolition of old identities, or at least (for Dunn) their ‘relativization’.

Horrell spends much time detailing some of the distinctions that exist in these commentaries, but he ends this first main section pointing to the possibility of noting the contextuality of these readings, and the importance of pointing to such. He turns to whiteness studies to do so.

Thinking About Whiteness

A brief history and description of whiteness studies is explored. Crucially, it focuses on critiquing whiteness as an identitarian formation which exhibits social privilege (a claim that is, perhaps, especially controversial in a post-Trump world). One of those privileges is the universality of whiteness, it’s characterisation as a sort of default setting, an invisibled race. Whiteness is the universal perspective, untainted by particularity, by place, by space, by time. As a contemporary realisation, the invisibility of the structure is distinct from previous centuries of explicit difference. It was, of course, much easier to talk about the superiority (read: universality) of whiteness in contradistinction with non-whiteness/racialised.

Horrell notes that one of the main goals of whiteness studies is to underscore the racialised identity of whiteness, and especially how it is constructed and maintained. ‘Unmasking’ and ‘contextualising’ whiteness is, then, a main goal. Such serves to make whiteness ‘strange’, disturbing tendencies to universalise whiteness, or treat it as some normative default.

And Pauline Interpretation?

Horrell, in his final main section returns to Paul with a particular eye toward how whiteness studies can elucidate modern Pauline interpretation. This post, however, is getting a bit too long. A second post will describe this final section, while including some of my own thoughts about the piece, the state of the discipline, how this plenary fit into this years BNTC, and where I think we go from here.

Thanks for reading!

Jesus-Portriat-Smiling

*I’m not saying, of course, that this is a postcolonial piece.
**Any misreadings or misrepresentations are on me, not David.

(image source: http://imgarcade.com/smiling-jesus-lds.html)

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Paul and Badiou: The Importance of Death

Badiou is nearly inescapable. 
Not that one should really want to escape the purview of such an immense thinker.

Recently I was able to publish an article I wrote on Badiou and Paul. I’ve been fascinated with both of these figures for years, and so it was a tedious joy to write ‘Badiou and Pauline Theology: Detecting a Theology of Death’, which seeks to bring out the crucial role of death in Paul’s work. Underscoring death in Paul, I think, is important for Badiou’s Pauline project precisely because it allows for a more militant Badiouian Pauline figuration.

Simon_de_Vos_-_The_Beheading_of_St._Paul.pdfYeah, I’m not selling this well.

Take a look anyway!

(If the above link doesn’t work, visit JCRT’s page here ; there are some great articles in the issue, including stuff by Hollis Phelps, Carl Raschke, David Congdon, Mads Peter Karlsen, and my friend King-Ho Leung)

The Alleged Subversiveness of Jesus

Over a year ago Robert Myles (NT scholar) descended on Canterbury, taking the city by storm. His “winter” (crazy Antipodeans) break consisted of a nice stay in England. His time kicking around the city allowed for some interesting conversations, a few of which were recorded by moi.

Robert Myles finger

Robert was very excited about drinking some sweet British nectar.

Coinciding with last summer, Robert had an article published in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus titled “The Fetish for a Subversive Jesus”, which critically engaged contemporary scholarship and questioned the various flavours of “subversive” Jesuses, figurations beloved by both sides of the ideological spectrum, from Tom Wright to John Crossan.

Thankfully, a wonderful discussion was caught on camera between Pauline scholar/philosopher/all-around-dude Ward Blanton and Robert.

Check it out here!

British New Testament Society: Some Subjective Thoughts and Highlights

Recently I was able to attend the British New Testament Society’s annual conference for this first time, which took place in Maynooth, Ireland from August 31st through September 2nd. Despite living in the UK and working on my doctorate in, primarily, Pauline scholarship for three years I’ve somehow neglected to attend the BNTS. Perhaps this is to my detriment, as one is expected to network, and attending an annual conference dedicated to my main disciplinary area is, undoubtedly, a great place to meet like-minded people. The prospect of meeting some Pauline scholars I’ve yet to chat with in person, as well as finally having a reason to travel to Ireland, was tempting enough for me to sign-up and come along. Likewise, it is always nice to see friends like James Crossley, Michelle Fletcher, John Lyons; likewise, it is great meeting new people like Paul Middelton, Simon Woodman, and many others. (In hindsight, this looks a little too much like name-dropping; but, really, so few care about NT studies that such a charge should appear foolish!)

maynooth

Maynooth University

I have to note, however, that my research occupies the margins of the discipline. Most of the conferences I have attended since moving to the UK have been variously philosophical, critical theoretical, or theologically focused events. Still, despite my inter-disciplinary interests, I was able to find much going on at the BNTC that caught my eye.

I attended the Pauline section which was, as far as I could tell, occupied by some usual historical-critical scholarship, some presentations dedicated to cataloguing, and overall expected papers (comparing Paul and Phil, for instance…). I, however, broke from attending the Pauline session (though one is encouraged not to skip around) to listen to a tantalising paper delivered by James Crossley. While I was familiar with James’s recent political work, this paper (presented in the Jesus session) reminded me the importance of tracing the use of the Bible in political discourse in various contexts (I’ve done so, recently, with Trump’s electoral campaign). James, for instance, spoke to the various readings of biblical texts by mainstream political figures, namely Thatcher, Benn, and Corbyn. He also answered some questions about the possible ways the Bible’s use could develop in the current and upcoming generations of political activists. After all, one has to wonder about the place of the Bible in political discourse within a nation that is, now, composed of a majority of non-religious subjects.

An added bonus to the conference was finally being able to meet some of scholars I had not been able to connect with personally yet. I’ve long been a fan of David Horrell, AKM Adams, John Barclay and several others. It was a real treat to meet them in person and talk a bit.

horrell

David Horrell

The above, however, is personal and largely inconsequential. Most important, in my mind, was the plenary session Horrell delivered on the evening of the second day of the conference. Merely writing the title is perhaps provocative enough: “Paul, Inclusion, and Whiteness: Particularising Interpretation”. It has to be acknowledged that discussing ‘whiteness’ in connection with methodology in NT studies isn’t usual within the discipline, a discipline after all where there is much gesturing to postcolonial, feminist, or ‘postmodern’ (I hate this moniker, but find it difficult to avoid, unfortunately) interpretation but very little (comparatively) done in these areas, such that they remain on the extreme fringes of the discipline.

In the next few days I will be writing up some more posts that present David Horrell’s plenary session in more detail, while also contextualising it within the discipline.

I want to spend time doing so because not only do I think the presentation was important, but also because I don’t want the emphasis of such a presentation to lose momentum. I fear that, if the momentum is lost that most will simply forget that there is needed serious self-criticism within the discipline, that there is very little done which acknowledges significant ideological issues.

I recall reading a back-and-forth in the blogosphere by Larry Hurtado (a senior scholar) and Robert Myles (an early career scholar). It became apparent to me in reading the exchange that while senior scholars will readily acknowledge their situatedness, that they occupy a perspective, that they are ideologically motivated subjects, not often is this taken as seriously as it should. With Horrell’s plenary session, we can see an acknowledgement of not simply the ‘checklist’ of subjective realities a scholar occupies and must note before doing some good ol’ objective historical work, but the problematics of the discipline as a whole. It is because of the seriousness of the critique, and the venue that it occurred in, that I find it important to ruminate further.

 

Expertise and Denial: NT Studies Edition

In the late 2000s-early 2010s it was particularly in vogue to respond to the work of various philosophers who had expressed interest in St. Paul, perhaps the most monstrous figure Christianity had on offer.

Paul and the Philosophers

While Jesus is often above significant reproach (note Nietzsche’s divergent feelings toward these figures…), Paul is often a figure of backwardness, misogyny, a sort of lawful lawlessness, a static-rule filled Christianity that just can’t get in line with the radical Jesus who fulfills the dreams of both conservative and liberal readers.

This interest helped to bring back shades to Paul that were often missing outside of the discipline. But, the figurations of Paul created have often be loathed by NT scholars. Why?

Well, a rather obvious answer is that the plaything of the discipline was being shared outward with disciplines that seem to lack the critical tools to deal with the apostle. There is a shared difficulty here: while the charge could be true, the ability for many biblical scholars to understand the nuances of what is actually going on in these figurations of Paul is stunted.

I don’t recall many Pauline scholars orienting themselves around the works of Schmitt, Benjamin, or Taubes in order to better understand how Agamben is utilising Paul, and whether it coincides with what could be said about Paul from popular disciplinary readings.

But, what I find more annoying is the half-baked reading of theory that often happens in the discipline. I recently noted this happening in regard to the concept of ‘gift’ and the fixation on Derrida. Which, really, is fine to do. Derrida is, after all, well-known for his work on the gift. But, every time I have found Derrida in contemporary NT studies, he is butchered and lays on the page as a sort of scapegoat, sacrificed for just not getting what the gift really is (he should have just paid more attention to Mauss, obviously…).

Except, every time he comes up in this regard, he is understood in a facile manner. And, while it may not ruin the argument being made by the writer, it is certainly egregious because Derrida is asking questions that pierce to the heart of the issue!

It was while ranting about this on social media that Jonathan Bernier noted the importance of treating scholarship like a dialogue with not just a thinker, but the community of scholars who are working on that thinker and within a separate discipline. This is surely something we need to keep in mind, especially when attempting to use work that is outside of our usual disciplinary marker.

Let us read more, listen more, and respond with caution.