REVIEWS rirt_1013 200. .261
Secularism and Biblical Studies, Roland Boer (ed.), Equinox, 2010(ISBN 978-1-84553-375-5), vii + 219 pp., pb 15.99
This is an odd collection of essays. I expected sophisticated discussionand analysis of secularism, with its history and ideologies, of thediverse nature of contemporary biblical studies, and of the complexinteractions between these two areas of concern. For the most part Ifound something else.
There are sixteen essays in all, from an international range of scholars,many of them well known within biblical studies: Yairah Amit, HectorAvalos, Jacques Berlinerbau, Ward Blanton, Roland Boer, AthalyaBrenner, Mark Brett, Philip Chia, Edgar Conrad, Philip Davies, MichaelFox, Niels Lemche, Joseph Marchal, Heike Omerzu, Todd Penner, andHannah Stenstrm. The book is in four parts.
The tone is set in Part A, Initial Engagement at the Forum, by MichaelFoxs controversial 2006 Society of Biblical Literature Forum essayScholarship and Faith in Bible Study in a revised and extended form.Here Fox sharply distinguishes between faith-based and secularapproaches to the Bible. Since faith, by definition, is belief where evi-dence is absent (p. 15), a faith-based approach must be axiomatic/dogmatic rather than empirical/scholarly and, as a consequence, itstifle[s] honest communication (p. 17), and thus has no place in thecontemporary state-sponsored university. Fox then expresses surprisethat Craig Bartholomew, cited as advocating a faith-based approach, infact uses philological and literary arguments accessible to all (p. 18). Itmay be that Bartholomew is inconsistent; but Fox evinces no awarenessthat his surprise might indicate a problem with his own categories forunderstanding what faith does, and does not, entail. Fox is typical ofmany of the essayists in that the nature of that which is other than thesecular receives only the most cursory of definitions and analyses. Thatmeticulous scholarly discipline which Fox shows in his work on wisdomliterature is not extended to analysis of scholars who think that thecombination of faith and scholarship is not an oxymoron what wouldhe say, for example, about the work of Bultmann or Childs or Greenberg
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or Levenson, or about the extensive recent literature on hermeneutics ingeneral and theological hermeneutics in particular? When Fox selectscreationism and inerrancy as examples of a faith-based approach (p.16), I become suspicious that it is really the American religious right thathe is targeting, yet via generalizing claims that do him no credit.
The agenda for Part B, The Manifesto Debate, is set by Roland Boers AManifesto for Biblical Studies. Here, at least, Boers concern is clearfrom the outset, as his first sentence reads: For too long has the Biblebeen colonized, dominated and (ab)used by church and state, especiallythe religious and political right (p. 27; my italics). Subsequently, he isworried that Everywhere, reactionary and fundamentalist, or so-calledBible-based religion seems to triumph (p. 35), and throughout theessay he urges support for the beleaguered religious left. To be sure,misuses of the Bible are all too easy to find, and can sometimes be tragicin their consequences. Nonetheless, rather as in Foxs essay, any recog-nition that there might be religiously constructive uses of the Bible thatare unaffiliated to the programs of either right or left (occupyingperhaps independent or center ground), or that there might be sig-nificant biblical scholars who handle the Bible in religiously engagedways that are intellectually rigorous and morally and spiritually search-ing is entirely absent. Yet without such recognition Boers essay hardlyqualifies as more than a tirade against the religiously conservativeof whom Boer disapproves. Likewise Lemches essay in this sectionhardly commands confidence when Lemche pronounces: Religion isdefinitely anti-intellectual and will always be that in spite of the objec-tions of many religious people. Placing religion and reason together issimply a contradiction in adjectu. They will never meet (p. 51). So nowwe know. Lemche seems entirely unaware of the irony in an anti-religious approach whereby weighty matters are settled by dogmaticpronouncement, and possible counter-argument (e.g. Is Rowan Will-iams really anti-intellectual?) is pre-emptively ruled out of court. Itshould be said, however, that the two best essays in the book, those byMark Brett and Todd Penner, come in this section they show real andvaluable insight into the diversity and complexity of biblical studiesand of secularism respectively.
The agenda for Part C, The End of Biblical Studies?, is set by HectorAvalos, whose essay The End of Biblical Studies as a Moral Obligationis a compressed version of his 2007 book The End of Biblical Studies. Herewe find such rigorous logic as There is no independent evidence for thelife and teachings of Jesus in the first century CE, and so most modernChristians are not even following Jesus teachings (p. 86). Alternatively,he critiques the Good News Bible for sugar-coating objectionable pas-sages such as Luke 14:26, where the translation Whoever comes to mecannot be my disciple unless he loves me more than he loves his father andhis mother . . . conceals the actual textual requirement to hate father
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and mother, which must be modified lest it make for a bad image ofJesus (p. 89). Yet he does not mention that commentaries routinely noteat this point that there is a good case for hate being, in certain circum-stances, a Semitic idiom for love less, as in Genesis 29:30,31, where Jacobloved Rachel more than Leah is followed by Yhwh saw that Leah washated. Recognition of this idiomatic usage does not resolve the trans-lation problem of Luke 14:26 tout court; but one expects scholars, as amatter of intellectual integrity, to mention obvious difficulties or pos-sible qualifications to their thesis. When Avalos confidently informs usthat bibliolatrous praise for the Bibles literary merit only diverts atten-tion from many other equally or more deserving texts of antiquity thatstill lie untranslated in the backrooms of the British Museum, amongmany other places (p. 94) I find myself wondering how he knows aboutthe equally or more deserving qualities of these texts. Has he studiedthem, but not yet been able to publish his results? Or is the superiorquality of unread texts (which may well often, on past precedent, turnout to be about administration or taxation) in relation to the Bible (fromwhich millions have derived strength and hope) a self-evident axiomfor Avalos? As with Lemche on the nature of religion, this mode ofargument hardly differs from that of the most unreconstructed funda-mentalist. Thankfully, the other essays in this section show better quali-ties, though still with a tendency (especially Marchal) simply to focuson problems, and ignore possible benefits, associated with the Bible.Omerzus thoughtful account of recent German New Testament schol-arship, and the potential in certain recent hermeneutical developments,seems rather out of place in this context.
Part D, The Paradoxes of Secularism, opens with Ward Blantons sug-gestive critique of the categories of religious and secular. As with theessays by Brett and Penner, it is disappointing that there is no interac-tion between the essayists, inasmuch as the categories critiqued here areused rather too unreflectively by some others. Edgar Conrad offers afurther critique of the American religious right, but cannot resist ten-dentious exaggeration for example, that a relatively modest modifi-cation in the wording of the Ten Commandments for public contexts isfully comparable to Thomas Jeffersons rewriting of the gospels (p. 174);and when Conrad recognizes an alternative to the religious right in theperson of Tony Campolo, it hardly commands confidence that Campolois consistently misspelt as Compollo or Compolo (pp. 175, 176). Brenneroffers an interesting study of analogies between exploitation of foreignworkers in the book of Ruth and in contemporary Israel, part of whosepoint seems to be to displace traditional readings of the biblical text why read Ruths famous words to Naomi in 1:17 (where you go, I willgo . . . ) as displaying loyalty and love, when they can be read asshowing that Ruth might have had no choice, at least in her view(p. 188)? Brenners reading has apparently as much if not more validity
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than alternatives (p. 188), such that to resist it is mere romanticizing(p. 189) and so with a little rhetoric (but no serious analysis of alter-natives) a possible reading becomes a superior reading, which onlythose lacking clear-eyed realism might resist. Amit notes a contempo-rary political Israeli use of biblical scholarship on the Samaritans,though with a sharp and unexamined antithesis between the politicaland the scholarly. Finally Philip Davies is confident that the wordsof the Johannine Jesus, my kingdom is not of this world (Jn. 18:36)show that the realms of religion and the state do not intersect (p. 206),rather than that the modern categories of religion and state are oflittle use for grasping the conceptualities of the New Testament text.That the latter might be a significant possibility for a scholar to considerreceives no recognition at all. One wonders if that is because it mightbe inconvenient for Davies thesis that secularism is biblical (p. 205),together with Boers remarkable generalizing editorial gloss on this,that far from a secular program of scholarship [being] foreign to theBible . . . one based on religious commitment is the intruder (p. 11).
How and why does scholarship become unscholarly advocacy in away that mirrors the kind of mindset it purports to oppose? I amwriting this review at the time of the SBL meeting in San Francisco, anda good number of the papers in this book arose out of various SBLmeetings. I wonder if the famous extensiveness of the SBL programmay not illustrate part of the problem with this book. There are now somany subdisciplines and diverse concerns in biblical studies that it ispossible to go to an SBL meeting and spend most of your time talkingin groups which self-select according to common interests and priori-ties. Some of the contributors to this book give the impression that it isa long time since they were in a serious discussion with people who didnot already share their outlook (or subscribe to the religious right).Perhaps all of us who attend SBL should resolve to get out and about abit more.
Walter MoberlyDurham University
Between Philosophy and Theology: Contemporary Interpretations ofChristianity, Lieven Boeve and Christophe Brabant (eds.), Ashgate,2010 (ISBN 978-1-4094-0060-8), 237 pp., hb 50rirt_1014 203..264
Theology is called to dialogue with philosophy, and even to look therefor inspiration and stimuli. This vocation can be seen as part of a
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broader program calling for a deep engagement between faith andreason, one providing credibility to the theological enterprise. Theendeavor is vast, since the scenarios of reason are variegated, and thereis more than one philosophy. Indeed everybody in the theological fieldcan choose his or her own interlocutors for that engaging dialogue. Itcan be expected that every theologian will look for those philosophersthat he or she consider more congenial, or who better represent theevolution of contemporary reason.
Keeping in mind the described pluralism, the so-called Continentalphilosophy certainly represents a legitimate approach to philo-sophical reason; and inside this tradition, postmodernism should beassumed as a tendency that has gathered many outstanding philo-sophers, at least since the eighties, and has produced a specificand somewhat original approach to religion and Christian faith, notalways easy for theologians to digest. The aim of this edited collectionis to offer an overview of the main contributions of postmodernistthinkers to religion and Christian topics; to show its own approach tophilosophy of religion or philosophical theology; and to display someof the consequences for theology, especially for the subdisciplineknown as Fundamental theology.
The book gathers a series of lectures that took place in the Universityof Leuven (Belgium) in the academic year 20072008, organized by theresearch group Theology in a Postmodern Context. The main voices of thisparticular line of philosophy of religion are often introduced by shortessays of scholars well informed on their production, which helps tobetter contextualize the sometimes obscure developments in this way ofthinking about God. Often the Editors and Contributors remind thereader about the significance of such approaches, as they take place invery secularized and pluralist societies, of which Belgium is not anexception.
The volume is divided into three sections: Overcoming onto-theology, Reconstructive philosophy of religion, and Philosophicalinterpretations with political theological consequences. The firstsection offers four essays. Lieven Boeve, one of the Editors, introducesthe thought of Richard Kerney, an Irish scholar known for his book TheGod Who May Be (2001). His main point is a proposal of God beyondconcepts of power and self-sufficiency, to overcome a triumphant onto-theology and moving to a poetic understanding of the divine, more intune with possibility and an alterity concerned with the weakest in ourworld; its source can only be the particular texts of Judeo-Christiantraditions, arguing for more radical hermeneutics. John Caputodeserves an introductory essay and a text of his own, in which hepresents a Theology of the event. After a harsh criticism of contem-porary colleagues Marion and Milbank, he goes into his project of aweak theology, as allegoric expressions of the event, a previous
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category of uncertain significance providing the basis for religion andcalling for performance and confession. As for Kerney, God becomesweakened in a move that resembles forms of negative theology, never-theless able to instantiate hope and to render this world restless. Thefourth essay introduces the thought of Jean-Luc Nancy, by JoeriSchrijvers, as a deconstruction of Christianity starting from insideitself. Further steps bring forth the idea of complete secularization, as adisplacement of every theological meaning into immanence, now seenas a realm of nihilism and capitalism. God becomes absent in a Chris-tianity devoid of any meaning and whose main legacy is the kenoticmove toward alterity.
The second part, more reconstructive, offers five essays aroundthree authors: Graham Ward, William Desmond, and Kevin Hart.After a presentation of Wards work, his own essay offers a criticalappraisal of Michel de Certeau and his understanding of believ...