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Theorizing Scriptures

Theorizing Scriptures: New Critical Orientations to a Cultural Phenomenon

Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 324
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  • Book Info
    Theorizing Scriptures
    Book Description:

    Historically, religious scriptures are defined as holy texts that are considered to be beyond the abilities of the layperson to interpret. Their content is most frequently analyzed by clerics who do not question the underlying political or social implications of the text, but use the writing to convey messages to their congregations about how to live a holy existence. In Western society, moreover, what counts as scripture is generally confined to the Judeo-Christian Bible, leaving the voices of minorities, as well as the holy texts of faiths from Africa and Asia, for example, unheard. In this innovative collection of essays that aims to turn the traditional bible-study definition of scriptures on its head, Vincent L. Wimbush leads an in-depth look at the social, cultural, and racial meanings invested in these texts. Contributors hail from a wide array of academic fields and geographic locations and include such noted academics as Susan Harding, Elisabeth Shnssler Fiorenza, and William L. Andrews. Purposefully transgressing disciplinary boundaries, this ambitious book opens the door to different interpretations and critical orientations, and in doing so, allows an ultimately humanist definition of scriptures to emerge.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-4462-5
    Subjects: Religion, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-x)

    Alberto Manguel, the distinguished Argentinean translator, editor, and novelist, tells us that as a young man he was asked by Jorge Luis Borges to read to him, the elderly Borges’ sight having failed him in old age. He relates Borges’ experience of hearing a text read to him rather than reading it for himself. Borges in his blindness was now “reading” the text through hearing and listening. In another part of his book, he relates the familiar story of Augustine’s great surprise when on his first visit to Ambrose in Milan he found the holy man “reading silently” (see Alberto...

  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    Vincent L. Wimbush
  5. Introduction: TEXTureS, gestures, power: orientation to radical excavation
    (pp. 1-20)

    I aim in this essay to press the case for our reconsideration of a complex phenomenon—what in freighted, masking English shorthand is often called “scriptures.” It is a call for a re-consideration if not rejection of the conventional academic-intellectual-political and socio-religious-political orientations and practices long associated with “scriptures.” It is a challenge to take up “scriptures” and with such to engage in a different type of social-cultural-critical-interpretive practice—a fathoming, an “excavation.” This differently oriented interpretive practice has as its focus not the exegesis of texts but the fathoming of human striving and behaviors and orientations, with their fears,...

  6. Part I The Phenomenon—and Its Origins

    • 1 Scriptures—Text and Then Some
      (pp. 23-28)

      It is a daunting task to address a question about the “phenomenology” of anything. Yet I have had the good fortune to count among my teachers the great phenomenologist, Mircea Eliade, and the undisputed great anti-phenomenologist, Jonathan Z. Smith. If they remain in my psyche as dual influences, although perhaps more Scylla and Charybdis than yin and yang, they also insure there is little that I cannotattemptto address one way or another. So I put prevarications aside. I have been drawn to the study of texts and issues of textuality since the beginning of my career, and it...

    • 2 Signifying Revelation in Islam
      (pp. 29-40)

      The wider context of this essay is to bring about an epistemic shift in theorizing about “scriptures” by making transparent the signifying process and by calling into question the methods and activities by which (scriptural) meaning is made and legitimated. This involves looking from the margins to the center where dominant discourses and frames of reference have established the hermeneutical norms and epistemic regimes for understanding and relating to “scripture(s).” Such a venture invokes the broader question of how to relate to scriptural language given the sacred status that it enjoys. What questions might one ask of “scriptures” and their...

    • 3 Scriptures and the Nature of Authority: THE CASE OF THE GURU GRANTH IN SIKH TRADITION
      (pp. 41-54)

      A quick look inside agurdwara(house of the Guru/preceptor, Sikh place of worship) reveals the high degree of reverence with which the Sikhs hold their “scriptures.” Thegurdwarais literally the house of the Guru Granth (the Guru manifested as the book), which is covered in expensive robes (rumalas) and displayed at the head of a well-lit congregational hall replicating a royal court (darbar/divan). The text is placed on a throne-like structure with a canopy (palaki), and an attendant ceremonially waves a yak’s tail flywhisk over it (chaur). The canopy and the flywhisk, two core symbols of royalty in...

    • 4 The Dynamics of Scripturalization: THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST
      (pp. 55-61)
      HUGH R. PAGE JR.

      The launching of the new Institute for Signifying Scriptures (ISS) and the programmatic vision articulated for it by Vincent Wimbush in the introductory essay of this volume create an opportunity for reflection on an enormous number of issues related to the creation of “scriptures” and the social, political, and other dynamics that obtain when individuals and other social aggregates inscribe themselves on, read their life experiences through, or employ as basic building blocks for their identity construction and community formation, texts of various genres. In particular, scripturalization itself appears to convey, both covertly and subtly, some interesting issues, themes, motifs,...

    • 5 Known Knowns and Unknown Unknowns: SCRIPTURES AND SCRIPTURAL INTERPRETATIONS
      (pp. 62-66)

      These were the words of the U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at a press conference. This is indeed a highly complicated use of the English language, at least equivalent to and perhaps surpassing the Bhabha-ist and Spivakian verbiage. The defense secretary may not have had the world of scriptural interpretation in mind when he uttered these profound thoughts, but what he said has some relevance to the discipline.

      There are known knowns, there are things we know we know.

      There are certain things about sacred texts, their interpretation and their interpreters, that are fairly well known.

      Colonialism played an important...

    • Talking Back
      (pp. 67-68)

      These essays provoke our thinking about what “scriptures” are, why they are invented, the work we make them do for us. Whatever else scriptures may be made to be for us, whatever else they may be made to do for us, we seem to make them a centering force.¹ We allow them to locate us, help define us, orient us—always, of course, in obvious relationships to some circle or framework. This means that no matter the passionate rhetorical claims and arguments, no matter the long-standing and widely held assumptions, no matter the entrenched practices and rituals in relationship to...

  7. Part II Settings, Situations, Practices

    • 6 Signifying Scriptures in Confucianism
      (pp. 71-78)

      “Signifying scriptures” as a social-cultural phenomenon is of critical importance for revealed religions such as Christianity and Islam. As pointed out by the historian Jonathan Riley-Smith in his recent article “Religious Authority,”

      Christians and Muslims believe in an interventionary God who has revealed something of his nature, his intentions for mankind and the future of the created cosmos through prophets and inspired scriptures and, in the case of Christianity, through a personal intervention in human history. Given such a belief it is, of course, vitally important to decide what God’s messages are, particularly as they are expressed through a medium,...

    • 7 The Confessions of Nat Turner: MEMOIR OF A MARTYR OR TESTAMENT OF A TERRORIST?
      (pp. 79-87)

      During the pre–Civil War era,The Confessions of Nat Turnerwas the most widely read and the most influential African American spiritual autobiography published in the United States. At the outset of the Civil War, one commentator on theConfessionsestimated that 50,000 copies of that brief document had been printed and circulated throughout the United States.¹ Although we don’t know why so many people read Turner’sConfessions, I doubt that a large proportion of its audience took the narrative seriously as a spiritual autobiography. Nor has more recent scholarly and critical analysis treated Turner’sConfessionsas a major...

    • 8 Signifying Scriptures from an African Perspective
      (pp. 88-94)

      Indigenous religions are often characterized by plurality, but the term “plurality” is an inadequate descriptor of people’s lived experience. Rather than plurality, in this essay, I emphasize mutuality, accommodation, and balance. The Yoruba religion is one of such indigenous religions that prioritize balance and mutuality in relationships between God and humans, humans and nature, and in interpersonal relationships. Dividends of this stance can be discerned in power relations, gender relations, and power utilization among adherents of Yoruba religion.

      The agenda of the Institute for Signifying Scriptures (ISS) seeks to problematize the use of normative paradigms, including “plurality,” in the definition...

    • 9 Transforming Identities, De-textualizing Interpretation, and Re-modalizing Representation: SCRIPTURES AND SUBALTERN SUBJECTIVITY IN INDIA
      (pp. 95-104)

      The methodology presented in Vincent Wimbush’s theorizing of “scriptures” introduction to this volume is both complexly situated and conspicuously vested. The methodology of investigating “scriptures” is decidedly embedded in the multiplex and pluriform world of concrete power exchanges within which the phenomena operate. “Scriptures” become powerful agents of discursive practice in a complex of worlds entrenched in power. “Scriptures” are thus stripped of their exclusive transcendental wrappings, which have been historically utilized to save them from critical interrogation. Rather “scriptures” have been reassembled as subjects/objects of immanental influence in the messy and concrete world of interconnected power generators and power...

      (pp. 105-114)

      In his landmark study, Wilfred Cantwell Smith suggests that scripture is a widespread phenomenon associated mainly with human community.¹ It is the community that attributes sacrality and authority to a set of texts, an overarching set of symbols, or a collection of canonical images that have extraordinary, transcendent meanings for the community that subscribes to that scripture. If so, one could be excused perhaps for thinking that “scriptures” are an inherently unstable category bound up with the life and changing fortunes of a community. To conclude thus, however, would be wrong. While a community renews itself in the vicissitudes of...

    • Talking Back
      (pp. 115-116)

      The baseline center-ing function and operations of “scriptures” notwithstanding, it is important to acknowledge, as have the essayists in this section, that “scriptures” are used for different purposes in different situations and settings in ongoing and in special terms. The different uses in the different settings and situations may sometimes represent resistance to and undermining of the center-ing force; they may also simply reflect in different ways the reality and power of the center. These differences are the stuff of ongoing social-cultural dynamics—differentiation, conflict, negotiation, formation, deformation, reformation.¹

      In relationship to the issues raised in the essays in part...

  8. Part III Material and Expressive Representations

    • 11 Conjuring Scriptures and Engendering Healing Traditions
      (pp. 119-127)

      There are numerous meanings that may be given to textuality using comparative approaches, and the religions of the Afro-Atlantic world provide an especially rich terrain for conceptualizing the phenomena of “scriptures” as it appears in the experiences of historically dominated peoples. So in the following discussion I want to put forward some examples from black American religions that demonstrate how practitioners make use of “scriptures,” sometimes in unique ways.

      The traditions on which I will focus form a locus of beliefs and practices that have been identified as “black folk religions.” The religion scholar Theophus Smith has characterized these traditions...

    • 12 Visualizing Scriptures
      (pp. 128-133)

      Let me begin by reciting my proof text. A reading from Vincent Wimbush’s introductory essay: “Such folk generally do not stay within the lines; often they go undetected, uncounted, and unaccounted for. They almost always scramble the generalities by which dominance defines itself and the world.”¹ It is thus to “such folks” that I turn. To discuss “such folks”—as we all know—is no simple task. Such folks are everywhere but they are not easily found. They populate our memories but not our textbooks. While it is easy to say that we would like to know the signifying predilections...

    • 13 Signifying in Nineteenth-Century African American Religious Music
      (pp. 134-144)

      This essay concerns the role of religious music in nineteenth-century African American culture. Just as religion in African and African-derived cultures is a topic that has received much study, so too has the discussion of the role of music in religion. I find these topics fascinating because both phenomena—music and religion—are central to African peoples. Music scholar J. H. Kwabena Nketia writes, “The most compelling reason for music making in Africa derives from religious experience, for it is generally believed that the spiritual world is responsive to music and deeply affected by it…. Hence worship always finds its...

    • 14 Signifying Proverbs: MENACE II SOCIETY
      (pp. 145-154)

      I begin with several questions. The first is my own question about how the Bible is used in film to propagate white privilege. In the past I have looked at how citation of scripture in film can enable misrecognition of the experiences of oppressed and marginalized peoples. The premises of the Institute for Signifying Scriptures (ISS) have challenged this way of thinking, however, by asking how “scriptures” can also be used to talk back to oppressive stereotypes and politics. This question has given me cause to think more specifically about how black filmmakers in the United States might use scripture...

    • 15 Scriptures Beyond Script: SOME AFRICAN DIASPORIC OCCASIONS
      (pp. 155-166)

      Early birdcalls rode the mist as a small procession of three women and two men, slowly and silently wove through tall grasses and reeds to the edge of a tidal creek. The leader, a tall, bearded man, now slightly stooped with age, halted and gazed east toward the nearby sea. As the first pink of dawn tipped the grasses, he raised his arms and spread his fingers wide, praying in a language only one member of the group, an elderly woman, remembered from her youth. A tear coursed slowly down her cheek and the young man and woman came up...

      (pp. 167-178)

      Reading sacred symbols and signifying imagery in American visual culture is still one of the most under-explored aspects of visual expression in modern and postmodern art of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Global history has provided the artist with a wealth of examples in the expression and creation of objects, artifacts, and monuments inspired by personal motivation and religious belief systems. Modernity has posed challenges to the artist’s need to connect with a spiritual core fundamental to living a meaningful life in a world of global conflicts and civil wars. Encoded meanings have mandated that the elements represented in contemporary...

    • Talking Back
      (pp. 179-180)

      The essays in this section remind us that the centering force or operation has not always been and is not always associated with or represented by texts. Furthermore, “scriptures” do not even always appear in the form of texts. But even when “scriptures” are represented as texts, engagements have not always been strictly in terms of textuality, namely exegesis. In spite of the force of center-ing operations, there have always been vernacular traditions. Such traditions tend to expand greatly the range of understandings about and uses of the textual and of literacy (cf. Henry Louis Gates Jr.,The Signifying Monkey;...

  9. Part IV Psycho-Social-Cultural/Power Needs and Dynamics

    • 17 Differences at Play in the Fields of the Lord
      (pp. 183-194)

      The televangelical preachers of the 1980s each emerged out of, embodied, and performed particular lineages within the American evangelical Protestant tradition. Their particular lineages were visible in their attire, audible in their voices and sermons, and legible in their actions and writings.

      The Arminian pulse of reversible, repeatable salvation punctuated the testimonies and lives of Pentecostal preachers Jimmy Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker with episodes of moral backsliding, devil wrestling, and deep spiritual crisis. The content of Swaggart’s preaching was marbled with fundamentalism in regard to morality and the end times, but his histrionic preaching style was hard-core...

      (pp. 195-205)

      The popular 1991 filmRobin Hood: Prince of Thievesopens with a panoramic sweep of Muslim Jerusalem in 1194, five years after Richard the Lionheart’s failed Crusade to retake that city in the name of Christianity. Immediately following this scene, the film jump cuts to a dark prison in which a sword-wielding Arab guard amputates and then casually tosses aside the hand of a screaming white—and presumably British—man. Viewers soon discover that he was punished in this manner because he allegedly stole another inmate’s loaf of bread. After another English prisoner denies stealing bread, the guard curtly gives...

      (pp. 206-213)

      To “signify” is to modify texts by “riffing, woofing, scoring, getting loud on something or sometone.”¹ Signifying refers to a wide-ranging critical mode of engagement with texts, not merely an exegesis or the search for the content-meaning of texts, including sacred ones. Signifying is also intended to capture the creation of symbols, meanings, and approaches that are unsettling and made by the social categories defined as subalterns, nondominant populations, minorities, populations on the margin of society, subordinated groups, the oppressed, and the exploited. I will refer to all of these social categories in the following as “subalterns” or “nondominant populations.”...

      (pp. 214-219)

      Over the past several decades we have seen a shift in the academic study of religion from phenomenological descriptions and analyses of beliefs and rituals to the investigations of the social, political, and economic underpinnings and ramifications of religious practices and institutions. The new Institute for Signifying Scriptures (ISS) at the Claremont Graduate University is directed at investigating precisely such sociopolitical dimensions of “scriptures” cross-culturally. This essay focuses on how social prestige and political power are related to the production, transmission, and preservation of scriptures in India within the priestly class of Brahmins. Although limited in scope, I hope some...

    • 21 Reading Places/Reading Scriptures
      (pp. 220-226)

      The principal point of this essay is that places are textual and can be read. As texts, places can be treated under textual categories, including the category of “scripture.” I give primary attention in this paper to what I call “personal space.” I do this not because I think that it is the most important kind of place in any theory of human spatiality but because it is the least valued these days and the most difficult to clarify. It is the least valued because spatial theory is primarily oriented to and by socially, politically, or economically constructed and determined...

    • 22 Taniwha and Serpent: A TRANS-TASMAN RIFF
      (pp. 227-232)

      This essay is the written form of a verbal presentation containing a two-part riff inspired by Vincent Wimbush’s introductory essay to this volume. Not attempting to own the knowledge, practical familiarity, let alone complexities, of riff production by any means, I hope to contribute to the spirit of this conference from a Trans-Tasman (Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia) perspective. It occurs to me that the concept of a riff is particularly suited to this perspective given that indigenous peoples in Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia have oral, not written, traditions. Writing came with a “Western” colonizer early in the eighteenth...

    • 23 Scriptures Without Letters, Subversions of Pictography, Signifyin(g) Alphabetical Writing
      (pp. 233-243)

      I define myself as a Mexican atheist. With such identification I seek to underscore a long history of atheism in Mexico (particularly pertinent to the magistrate), which in my case I trace to a filiation with an anarcho-communist tradition that includes the names of Ricardo Flores Magón, Antonio Gramsci, Walter Benjamin, Antonio Negri, and Alain Badiou. This legacy leaves room for maneuvering outside the narrow antireligious vein that has dominated anarchism and communism.

      I seek to respond to—or better, expand—on a certain critique of subaltern studies.¹ Instead of working with assumptions that subalterns embody a revolutionary consciousness, subalterns...

    • Talking Back
      (pp. 244-244)

      Yes, yes, the social psychology, the power issues and dynamics—how could these matters not be considered as part of the probing of “scriptures”? These are matters having to do not with the one-time explosive moment in which the originary impulse behind the invention of scriptures is revealed. No, what has been addressed in the foregoing essays are some of the ongoing historical and new and widely varied social-psychological needs and power dynamics and issues that focus on peoples’ situations.

      The pointed question is this—do we need scriptures? If so, why? What offices or functions do we make them...

  10. Part V Signifying on the Questions

    • 24 In Hoc Signum Vincent: A MIDRASHIST REPLIES
      (pp. 247-255)

      In an attempt to offer an intellectual patrimony to the literary mode of signifying, and to associate it with an older, sister community that historically experienced oppression, I respond to Vincent Wimbush’s essay¹ from the vantage point of rabbinic interpretation of “scriptures” or Midrash. In the spirit of friendship, however, allow me to call this response not “critique” but rather, to use Wimbush’s vocabulary, a bit of “riffing, woofing,” perhaps even signifying on his essay.

      Text and canon are the identifiers around which certain communities form and around which a communal identity is shaped by readings of “scriptures.” This is...

      (pp. 256-267)

      The inauguration of the Institute for Signifying Scriptures (ISS), which has been initiated by Professor Wimbush, is a historic event that calls for celebration and critical reflection. This international institute is historic because it programmatically intends to study the signifying of scriptures by subaltern peoples rather than to focus on the biblical text and its ancient contexts. At the same time this event calls for critical reflection because the ISS intends to do so within the disciplinary parameters and interdisciplinary opportunities of the university. It will not come as a surprise that I engage in such a critical reflection on...

    • 26 Racial and Colonial Politics of the Modern Object of Knowledge: CAUTIONARY NOTES ON “SCRIPTURE”
      (pp. 268-277)

      How might we reconsider the topic of “scriptures” in the midst of what the African historian Steven Feierman has called the “general epistemological crisis affecting all the social sciences and humanities”?¹ We find ourselves at sea in this crisis every time we write, not just when explicitly describing the other, and can only navigate its politics successfully if we recognize the dangers of what Emmanuel Levinas termed an ontological imperialism where otherness vanishes as part of the same of modernity.²

      For Feierman this crisis has centered on the gradual dissolution of unilinear narratives of world history as the spread of...

    • 27 Who Needs the Subaltern?
      (pp. 278-283)

      I read the call for an Institute for Signifying Scriptures primarily as a methodological statement, one that resonates well with my own research affiliations and inclinations. Vincent Wimbush proposes an approach to “scriptures” that shifts attention from the correct interpretation of canonical texts to the use of scriptural material in practice. Understood as phenomena, “scriptures” derives their meaning not from authorial intent but from their activation in everyday life in often unintended and surprising uses. Shifting from “what ‘scriptures’ mean” to “how ‘scriptures’ mean,” Wimbush also directs our attention to the range of scriptural materials evident in the meaning-making, or...

    • Talking Back
      (pp. 284-286)

      Ah, yes, the flipping of the question … about the questions, about the questioner(s), about the project. This question flipping, this signifying on the signifying and on the signifiers, is most important and welcome. No fear of such here!

      Phenomenology? The basic approach? Yes and no: I want once more to try to be as clear as possible in asserting that the “phenomenon” of focus isnottext, but “scriptures.” The latter is shorthand—for social textures, dynamics, behaviors, orientations, power dynamics. The focus is not upon texts per se. And so the phenomenon focused upon is not the focus...

  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 287-298)
  12. Notes on Contributors
    (pp. 299-302)
  13. Index
    (pp. 303-310)