After a bit of a lamentable hiatus, let me return to David Horrell’s plenary discussion from the BNTC 2017, covering the latter half where he spends time outlining the importance of whiteness studies for reading Paul. Because of how long this post turned out to be, I will have to withhold any substantial commentary for a third post.
Horrell is concerned here with making a parallel between ‘whiteness’ and ‘Christianness’, how they operate structurally and delineate discourse surrounding texts. For an overview of the text he is using as an example (Galatians 3:28), and the brief history of the interpretation of this text, please see the last post by clicking here. Horrell wants to point out that the interpretive lens of the commentator shapes how the text is read. This isn’t something novel when stated in such a banal way. In fact, it is a fairly standard procedure to do so, now. Pointing out one’s context and history helps a reader identify the biases and probable ways that they shape the discourse surrounding a text. We can’t escape this inevitability.
But, Horrell wants to underscore the location of ‘Christianity’ much more strongly. Horrell wants to identify it so strongly that it is ‘made strange’, just as in whiteness studies the goal of the work is to underscore and recognise the strangeness of whiteness, rather than letting it continue dominating discourse as if it is some sort of default setting. Such is partially done through highlighting the extent.
Horrell, for instance, points to the tendency to portray unity in Christ as a ‘hopeful, inspiring, positive vision’, though in contrast to alternative visions. Oneness and unity are seen as elements exclusively found through Christian discourse, unavailable to others. And, Horrell points out that this is common in many of the sources he identifies previously in his plenary address (Witherington, Burton, and Morris, as primary examples).
But, one may wonder, isn’t this vision hopeful and inspiring? Paul here, after all, is attempting to do away with divisions, which is laudable! Horrell notes that, as has been pointed out by other authors (crucially from non-Christian perspectives; Daniel Boyarin is a prominent example), this sounds awfully imperialistic on cultural, political, and religious levels. Furthermore, it plays the same role that ‘whiteness’ plays in being a transcending reality that attempts a form of universalism by attempting to erase it’s own particularity. Remember, ‘whiteness’ is often located above racial structures, seen as a (often benevolent) default. Here, then, Horrell remind us that, actually, Christianity is operating as an exclusionary category, despite the pretenses of benevolent universalism.
This is proven to be a relevant critique precisely because, as was shown in Horrell’s analysis of commentaries on Galatians, Christianity is a unifying presence in contrast with Judaism (an ‘ethnocentric, marked, exclusionary identity’). Inclusive (universalistic) visions are acceptable only if particularity can be transcended or abolished. In noting the majority of commentators, Horrell incisively characterises the usual caricature of the relation between Judaism and Pauline Christianity as ‘transcending fratricidal snobbery, or ethnocentric pride’, that Paul is insisting people ‘pledge their trust and allegiance to Christ’ because doing so transcends the particularity of Judaism. This, of course, completely ignores the fact that Christianity is itself a boundary, a marker of difference, a call for separation and particularity.
Horrell also points to evidence that can suggest Judaism was, also, seen as highly attractive to outsides, contra to suggestions that it was the ugly counterpoint to Christianity. In fact, in similar ways Judaism allows for a type of ‘inclusivity’ that is just as attractive as the particular mode of Christianity that is moralistically triumphed by many commentators. Why is the similarity denied, and in fact why is there a moral emphasis here? Precisely because the default is Christianity and the discourse is controlled by, overwhelmingly, Christian scholars.
In the final section of Horrell’s talk he goes a step further, bringing together whiteness studies and Christianity, noting particularly how these come together, intertwine and affect biblical studies in its various iterations, but especially in Orientalist ideas that spread in the mid-20th century. Not only religious, but racial, superiority is woven into the very fabric of the discipline. Drawing on Shawn Kelley’s work allows Horrell to note how strong this was until at least the 70s (where Kelley’s analysis stopped), but it certainly hasn’t magically disappeared since then. In our current era, the universalising of the Pauline (or broader Christian) vision in biblical studies has shifted. Now it is seen, instead of racial or religious superiority, as the advent of ‘multicultural liberalism’. Paul becomes, in much work, the place where we discover/uncover/augment liberal values, a foundation with neat correspondence to ‘western’ values. The ways that this recent past has impacted current biblical studies is more subtle than previous examples that were overtly triumphalistic, but the still rely on the same foundation.
But, whiteness studies also reminds us that, as Horrell notes, biblical studies operates as a sort of un-marked space. We can talk about, then, ‘Asian biblical studies’ or ‘black hermeneutics/biblical studies’, or any other qualified ‘biblical studies’, but to do so is to remind us that ‘biblical studies’ operates as does whiteness (and, is, also a uniquely white, European/American endeavour) with a univeralising, non-qualified gesture. There have been attempts at critiquing this, of course (though most substantially on the margins). Popularly, as noted above, it has become popular for a scholar to underscore his/her ‘location’. At the same time, I have to wonder what this really does. So often this admittance does not seem to lead to a qualification of the work. Instead, it serves as a marker that the author has, at the least, gestured to this reality. Have they actually recognised ways that they, particularly, or the discipline, generally, operate as un-marked and non-particular modes of discourse? Too often not. The marker is an after-thought, not a serious movement within the work.
Horrell ends with reminding us, once again, that ‘whiteness’ needs to be made strange through being dislocated, that just as ‘African American’ hermeneutics is often noted as being experientially important, so is the experience of the white scholar who (often haughtily) performs a type of objectivity in regards to the text.
Join me for next time! Hopefully I can finally get around to an analysis of this piece, and how it’s importance is felt when located within the broader movements of the field.