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)

Advertisements

Teresa Morgan’s Roman Faith and Christian Faith

If you are interested in the diverse ways pistes and fides are used in early Roman and Christian sources, particularly, then take a look at my most recent book review which has been published through the journal Religion.

Image result for teresa morgan roman faith and christian faith

It’s a great resource, if a bit pricey.

Also, I had a bit of hell trying to get this thing written. Last December I took a trip back home to the US and had this book packed away in my check-in luggage. The bag was immediately lost and I was in a bit of a panic for the 5 weeks I was away. Especially because I did not want to shell out 150 bucks for a new copy. Thankfully, Heathrow airport was able to find it after I got back in. The tag had fallen off almost immediately, and so it was sitting around, safe and sound.

Book review.

Interview with Jeph Holloway: Contemporary Christian Ethics and the Importance of Paul

Dr. Jeph Holloway

Interviewing is loads of fun, especially if the person you are interviewing is someone as great as Dr. Jeph Holloway, prof. of Theology, Ethics, and Philosophy at East Texas Baptist University. My last blog post was a quick review of his latest book, published last April. If you are interested in ethics, theology, or philosophy at all check out the book. Link can be found on last post.

This post is the first in a series of transcriptions of the interview we did on January 22, 2014. Check it out below.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Taylor: Could you give a quick “elevator ride” synopsis of your latest book that was published last year? If you understand what I mean by “elevator ride” synopsis…

Jeph: Sure. Yes. If I’m going up the elevator it depends on how tall the building is. But, quickly, my concern is to explore Christian ethics in a way that is first biblically informed, but because biblically informed will be something of a contrast to the way Christian ethics is so often pursued.

I understand the basic message of the bible to be addressing a question of the relationship between God who is the good creator of a good creation and the tension that is evoked with that confession. We live in a world that seems to be so different than the goodness unveiled in Genesis 1. We grapple with the questions of God’s goodness in light of personal struggle, societal conflicts, international tensions, and so on. And so we are pressed to ask the question: What is God doing about evil?

I think that the testimony of scripture in both Old and New Testaments is that God, through God’s redemptive work, is creating a people, whose lives sustained in worship, bear witness to God’s purpose for creation. I state that explicitly in the book, and the book intends to unfold that in a number of different ways, primarily in dialogue with Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. I believe that that sentiment, or that outlook, is canonical. And, if I had time or space in the book, and I had thought about doing it at one point, I would have shown that in the OT in the law, the prophets, the writings, and also in the gospels, in the book of Revelation, and in Paul himself.

I’m persuaded that too often whenever Christian ethics does give some engagement with scripture it does so piecemeal, with little snippets. It has an idea and has a verse that seems to purport that. I’m reluctant at having a large paradigm that I only support with a text here and there without substantive engagement in a prolonged, detailed way the biblical text.

And, so, since Ephesians is only 6 chapters you think “Well, that’s manageable!”  I selected Ephesians as something of the primary frame of reference for exploring these themes. I think Ephesians remarkably puts on display an emphasis that Christian ethics has to begin with what God is doing. So, a theocentric ethic. But what God is doing is what he is doing through Christ, a redemptive ethic. And what God is doing through Christ is not simply granting salvation from this world into the next world for the individual believer , but God through Christ is creating a people whose entire existence is reshaped, redirected, repatterned for God’s purposes in the context of worship where we can then be the kind of people who can exhibit to the world what God intended for creation from the beginning and where God will ultimately take all things.

Now that’s, that’s it in a nutshell. I hope that’s precise and concise enough.

But, what I do want to do with that, also, is to highlight the distinctiveness of this understanding of Christian ethics by way of contrast with other perspectives on the moral life. And so, for example, in the first major chapter, a theocentric ethic, I begin by asking first not “What should I do?” but, “What’s God doing?”. I draw comparison with Immanuel Kant who very intentionally, deliberately sought to drive a wedge between religion in general, Christianity in particular, and the moral life. He was seeking to establish the foundations of morality independent from any theological frame of reference.  Paul’s not doing that. Paul will be very particular in his insistence that the life he seeks to present in his letters is grounded in the character and identity and purposes of God. And so we cannot sever theology from ethics in Paul.

But, that’s just one example of my concern to present what I think is a Christian ethics by way of contrast with other models that so predominate in our culture.

T: I would say that was spot on. Great. It was a long elevator ride too!

Really tall building.

J: Well, there are some buildings that go up, ya know, 70 or 80 floors. If we were in New York we would still be on the elevator.

T: Kind of deviating from the book, but still staying in its realm, why did you first become interested in the study of Paul and did this lead organically to writing on ethics rather than, say, doing work specifically in sociology and foregoing, like some do, the ethical dimension?

J: Well, though there would be some among southern Baptists who might doubt this, I have always, since I became a Christian, been something of a Biblicist. My concern has been to understand what it is we find in scripture. To be frank that is part of why I am at somewhat of a distance from some circles in the southern Baptist convention. That I am willing to do that kind of work that seeks substantive engagement with scripture wherever it might go, even if it doesn’t conform to prevailing patterns of normalcy in some denominations. That’s my intent, that’s my own hunger, to understand what it is that we find in the Bible.

I took my first course in Christian ethics back in 1981 or 82 and became convinced that this discipline is where all the various disciplines in theological studies find their coherence. Asking, ok, we’re studying the bible, church history, theology, philosophy of religion and all that kind of stuff; but, where does it go? And how is this to shape the lives of God’s people in this world? And, so I believe that Christian ethics as a discipline has the concern to bring focus to any of a number of theological pursuits.

In my course of study I took a course on Ethics and the Letters of Paul. Ever since I had became a Christian and started reading the Bible I found Paul intriguing. That course further deepened my interest in and hunger to understand what Paul was up to. And I think, stepping back from it, for this primary reason Paul is the first one in the NT, the first of the writers of what we find in the NT, who is doing what I think Christian ethics needs to be doing: asking, “What does life within the sphere of the Gospel look like?”

And, exploring that, detailing that, writing about that within the context of real life issues in the early Christian communities that he primarily sought to establish, whether at Corinth or the churches of Galatia, or Philippi, or the churches in and around Ephesus.  Paul is the first one whose writings we have in the NT that is seeking to take the story of Christ, the Cross, Resurrection,  the fulfillment of the incorporation of the gentiles into the people of Israel through Christ, all of that and exploring, “All right, what does life look like for us?” And, “what is our calling in this world in light of how we understand God to be at work?”

So, I consider the letters of Paul to be fundamentally pastoral in that respect.  And, I think, that’s a basic reason why I’ve been so intrigued by the letters of Paul all this time. And, it’s been with me for the last 30 plus years, in teaching courses on ethics in the letters of Paul, on writing my dissertation on ethics and the letters of Paul. Then when Dr. Harris [Dean of School of Religion at ETBU] asked, “Well, we’re going to be starting a graduate program at ETBU; what course would you like to teach?”  It was, “Well, duh! Ethics in the Letters of Paul!”

Because I see in Paul that model of what I think Christian ethics needs to be, I find him to be a premier resource of what I hope to offer in terms of Christian ethics needs to be. 

Christian Ethics: Why???

I have always been fascinated with Christian ethics.

Well, not always. I mean, when I was not a Christian I really didn’t care, and later on when I had become one I didn’t realize that I already had an affinity for the discipline.

What I mean by that is as follows: Christian ethics is where it all comes together.

While talking to one of my professors I realized this anew. Dr. Jeph Holloway, professor of Christian Ethics at ETBU, was discussing my academic journey and I was letting him know that I was conflicted about what exactly I wanted to pursue my doctoral studies in. I have always admired the depth and breadth of Jeph’s knowledge. His concerns are near limitless with knowledge ranging from sociological studies on ANE and Ancient Mediterranean culture, to a fluency in Koine and Ancient Hebrew, on into wide ranging concerns with most branches of philosophy and ethics. Because of this his recent book on theodicy and Christian ethics is pretty top notch and takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of those disciplines that intersect with ethical concerns.

Anyway, he mentioned to me that he settled on Christian ethics because of how panoptic the discipline is. But, beyond that all of the concerns of Christianity come down to the theological/ethical, the notion of how one is engaged in believing/doing. The practical is of extreme importance.

But, by “practical” I do not mean “devotional.” Not in the least. Usually devotional studies tend to rest on individual concerns or spread a sort of decisionistic disease. It borders on the ethical, but by ethical a different understanding is iterated, one that I think is harmful and deficient, sub-Christian. Too bad it makes up the majority of popular Christian writing. Devotions usually are all about “self” and how the individual is to reframe his/her own singular life. When ethical questions come up the foundation is the decision and life is reframed in a decidedly economic manner. We are those disconnected minds who assert and come to conclusions wholly consciously and do so for every decision we make; the infinite res cogitans within a finitude of decision. One can see this strange Christian ethic in, say, Scott Rae’s popular ethics books that are common in evangelical institutions. The idea of virtue, or walking along a certain path, are just denied existence. As is the reality of manipulation through popular means of media and how this shapes the individual.

This type of literature tries to engage the practical, and parades in a facade of practicality and doing justice to the scriptures, but it falls short, I believe (which I will leave for a future discussion).

But, even with these particular types of ethical responses that I find to be deficient I see a desire to engage all relevant materials.

Jeph’s new book “The Poetics of Grace: Christian Ethics as Theodicy.” Seriously, pick it up on Amazon. You won’t regret it. Top notch writing and scholarship.

. One has to care about the scriptures, has to know what they believe about hermeneutics, about ancient and modern history. One also has to understand philosophy, must know why they are not a Kantian or a Cartesian or a reductionist. One has to engage different theories on the nature of morality and ethics, and follow through with logical consistency. And so there is an amount of difficulty. When I have written on ethical theory and economics I must take into account Paul’s collection effort, which necessitates that I understand sociological studies, literary criticism, exegetical and hermeneutical concerns, but also I have to reply to and understand neoclassical economic theories, market manipulation, contemporary advertising sociology, and of course various philosophical analyses on contemporary modernistic and postmodernistic capitalist culture. It can become a sort of endless spiral of tails to chase.

But, most important is the Christian factor. It calls for one to interpret situations based on tradition and scripture. It necessitates that the interpreter pays attention to nuance from a Christian perspective. And this can be difficult because the further question is asked, “What Christian perspective?” And the answer is not cut-and-dry or simple. But, suffice it to say, it must be a perspective that holds the reality of theology/ethics, that realizes that moral discernment concerns the “who” moreso than the “what” or “why” (another tidbit gleaned from Jeph), that the Christian is engaged in a community of believers who are called to make things right by engaging in the tasks of the Kingdom, and that Christ is the Lord of Peace, not of envy, strife, anger, hatred, or violence. Many more niceties could be added, but the whole of Christian ethics calls for the Christian to realize that they are a “who” that is called to differentiate from the world and yet love the world, to engage in tension through being within the tensions created daily, to effect change through peace.

This is very different from an ethics of autonomy, of individualism, because it assumes that the “who” is engaged within a community and is more than an “I”, a ghost in the machine of the body who is disconnected from the material world, nor is the autonomous self a wholly material entity reduced to chemical determination.

How do you look at ethics? Do you realize the interconnectedness of the ethical, or do you think we are just autonomous beings who create our lives completely (in otherwords, beings who are realized through the Now)?