Sunday, June 3, 2012

A Personal Note on The problem of Decontextualized Public Readings

 I was recently asked to read a scripture at a public event.  I chose my scripture, as requested, and submitted it. A day later, I was sent a “recommended” NIV scripture reading. I looked at the text and knew/felt instantaneously that I could not read it. I asked the sender of the email if it was really “recommended” so that I could stick with the text I originally submitted at their request.  Her boss replied that he “preferred” that I read the “recommended” scripture.  I replied that they should choose another person to perform the public reading; I could not. And I did not think the venue the proper place to engage in an un(sus)expected critique of the guest’s text.

Having just completed my lectures for a new prep course “Postcolonial Biblical Criticism” in which I challenged students not to simply reinscribe oppressive, imperialistic and/or unjust relations, descriptions, characterizations, and representations found in the sacred scriptures without contextualizing, unraveling and critiquing them, I could not do it. I barely blinked between the time my heart said no and my fingers keyed the words with my final reply; I could not read the text. Please choose another person to read it. 

Over the years, I’ve challenged my students to do the same critical and contextualized reading in different courses.  I could not with enthusiasm, spiritual fervor, or oratorical sophistication recite a sacred text in which God is likened to an exacting slave master, even if the translation reads servant instead of slave (both translations of the Greek word doulos).

In my past life as an uncritical, doctrinally circumscribed, and passive bible reader whose consciousness about oppressions in the text, beyond the issue of women called to preach, had not been raised, I would have read the text without blinking.  And no doubt many of my students will read such texts without critique and without a second thought (just as many seminarians revert to using nonexclusive language in their sermons and writing). But some will be uncomfortable, at the least.  And they should be uncomfortable with such “texts of terror” (a phrase derived from Phyllis Trible), for slavery often allowed for the social and bodily dismemberment of people as well as the brutal rape and murder of human beings considered as property to be bought, sold, used, and abused at will.  And ancient Roman slavery was no less brutal and inhumane than slavery in any other slave society. Slavery in any context is an ideologically justified systemic and institutionalized commodification of human beings who are seized, dehumanized, brutalized, and sexually abused; it involves the exacting of under- or unpaid-labor from one human being by another.  Slavery is no less terrorizing than the rape and dismemberment of a Levite’s concubine wife or a sister of Judah. Just because it is in the Bible, does not make it okay. Just because some biblical writers had no problem likening God/Jesus to a slave master, does not mean we should not be bothered. If I have contributed to a student’s discomfort with “texts of terror,” then my learning and teaching is not in vain.


Chris Cahill said...

Your post begs a question arising from my own experiences: A few years ago I was invited, as a pastor, to "give an invocation" at a large gathering but was advised against doing so "in the Name of Jesus." I told them I understood that I was a guest in their house, but to me what they were saying was the equivalent of inviting a dentist to speak to the group, as a dentist, and say nothing about teeth. So I wonder what the organizers of the event were hoping to accomplish by inviting you to read such a scripture that they had apparently predetermined for you, even after "inviting" you to submit one you deemed appropriate? Thank you for declining the invitation, by the way. Christians may want to be "all things to all people," but that doesn't mean we always have to do whatever they ask.

WomanistNTProf said...

Good question Chris? If the speaker's text was only recommended, the reasoning for not allowing the original scripture that they requested from me escapes me. But also the unwillingness to stop and think even for a minute that I might have a valid point or a point that deserved some sensitivity. Right, we don't have to do whatever is asked of us. And when we make the choice not to we have to be at peace with it. I think sometimes we fear being labeled as difficult or whatever, but I decided that what others' thought was not my number one concern.