Reflections on “The Philosophy of ‘As If'” by Hans Vaihinger

As I explored why religion scholars often framed fandoms—or aspects of fandoms—as religion, an AAR presentation drew my attention to T. M. Luhrmann’s How God Becomes Real. In her exquisite volume, which I reviewed here, Luhrmann identifies the foundation of one of her chapter sin scholarship on play. Such scholarship on play, she notes, is rooted in Han Vaihinger’s The Philosophy of ‘As If’. So, I naturally purchased Vaihinger’s work and read it to consider the extent to which is could help as a theoretical framework for thinking about the issue I raise on the outset of this paragraph.

In The Philosophy of ‘As If’, originally published in the early twentieth summary, Vaihinger explores how the logical function always function with an as-if framework and doesn’t necessarily, or often for that matter, align with reality. He derives these ideas from previous philosophers, especially Kant. This as-if framework divides any as-if claim into three categories: fiction, hypothesis, and dogma. Typically, dogma is to be avoided because little in our logical function within the psyche aligns with reality. Something is only a hypothesis when it closely and clearly aligns with reality. For the most part, though, most of what we perceive is a fiction. That is not to say, though, that perceiving something as a fiction necessarily means it is wrong; rather, something can be self-contradictory and fictional in terms of the logical function process but of value inasmuch as it is practical.

While much of Vaihinger’s work focuses on examples from the philosophy of science, his work nonetheless touches upon important themes and theories that can aid religion scholars. Regarding the ideas of a soul, god, immortality, etc., Vaihinger draws extensively from Kant, reframing much of Kant’s work to show the value of the as-if framework for explaining the logical function. For example, Part III of The Philosophy of ‘As If’ discuses—and quotes huge chunks of—various places wherein Kant more or less uses or implies the as-if framework, in which ideas are fictions that have practical value.

Now, because his work is so extensive and thorough, this post aim to highlight key findings and criticisms. In particular, I focus on putting Vaihinger’s ideas into conversation with other, more recent scholarship. Through facilitating such conversations, I hope to exemplify how leveraging and utilizing Vaihinger’s work more critically can be be beneficial to religion scholars.\

First, as I am particularly interested in ancient Israelite and Judean conceptual structures, Vaihinger’s discussion of the antithetic error is a fruitful framework for thinking through and defining ancient Israelite and Judean conceptual structures. In general, the antithetic error can be expressed as follow: “If, in fictions, thought contradicts reality,” something that Vaihinger demonstrates well and which is beyond this post’s scope, “or if it even contradicts itself, and if n spite of this questionable procure it nevertheless succeeds in corresponding to reality, then—and this is a necessary inference—this deviation must have been corrected and the contradiction must have been made good” (109). What makes this contradiction good is “an equivalent error of an opposite nature” (109), the method of antithetic error. Such a method uses what Vaihinger calls intermediate concepts, or concepts that enable a practical claim to be made but that drop out in the claim proper. After demonstrating how this method is used in mathematical equations, Vaihinger shifts toward a textual example. He write the following:

M (Man)—P (Mortal)—Man is mortal
S (Socrates)—M (Man)—Socrates is a man
S (Socrates)—P (Mortal)—Socrates is mortal

Here, Vaihinger highlights that “man” is an intermediate concept enabling the claim that Socrates is mortal; however, “as son as the result is attained the intermediate concept drops out” (121). Here, the method of antithetic error is at play inasmuch as “Socrates is mortal” is only possible because of the intermediate concept “man.”

For me, this framework raises a question in how we interpret texts: how can we, should we, do we, etc., identify whether an author’s language dropped an intermediate concept? This question carries weight in many situations of biblical interpretation. Take, for example, Psalm 29:1 (מזמור לדוד הבו ליהוה בני אלים הבו ליהוה כבוד ועז). How do we characterize the nature of the Sons of God in relation to humans? And should assumptions about humans shape assumptions about Sons of God? Vaihinger’s focus on the intermediate concept can help us articulate a possibility:

H (Humans)—G (Glory)—Humans give glory
S (Sons of God)—H (Humans)—Sons of God are like humans
S (Sons of God)—G (Glory)—Sons of God give glory

In this theoretical reconfiguration, we begin to ask now just what is evident in the text but rather what intermediate concepts dropped out in Psalm 29:1 so as to make Psalm 29:1 possible! Indeed, most introductory courses encourage this sort of approach, but Vaihinger’s method/approach is beneficial because we can visualize interpreter’s assumptions and possible intermediate concepts. Moreover, we can clearly link intermediate concepts to biblical texts when those concepts are explicitly at play. Finally, simply using the language “intermediate concept” enables scholars to more effectively articulate interpretive assumptions and claims regarding how the author constructed the text.

Second, Vaihinger’s law of ideational shifts is an alternative, philosophically grounded way to express Luhrmann’s faith frame, not to mention other adjacent concepts in her work. Vaihinger’s law of ideational shifts is straightforward: “it is to the effect that a number of ideas pass through various stages of development, namely those of fiction, hypothesis and dogma; and conversely dogma, hypothesis and fiction” (124). In this context, he identifies that a hypothesis becomes a stable dogma “through repeated confirmation” (125). This ideational shift from fiction to hypothesis to dogma is, in many respects, akin to Luhrmann’s claims that making gods and spirits real demands “intention and attention” (How God Becomes Real, 17). Throughout her book, Luhrmann frequent identifies different aspects of consistent intention and attention that engender the faith frame. Where Vaihinger is beneficial, though, is in allowing the faith frame to have a more specific process linked with the logical function and behavior in regard to the logical function.

Third, although Vaihinger focuses on the psyche and logical function, his description of how we attain knowledge, could be an intriguing approach to literary texts, perhaps beyond his scope but interesting nonetheless. In describing the logical function, reality, and apperception, he writes the following:

The psyche works over the material presented to it by the sensations, i.e. elaborates the only available foundation with the help of the logical forms; it sifts the sensations, on the one hand cutting away definite portions of the given sensory material, in conformity with the logical functions, and on the other making subjective additions to what is immediately give. And it is in these very operations that the process of acquiring knowledge consists, and it is all the while departing from reality as given to it. (157)

Put another way, Vaihinger argues that our perceptions of reality become more distant from reality as our logical functions sift through and add to the original input. This framing could, in fact, yield interesting results about biblical texts. While theorists like Benjamin Harshav advocate for literary texts that unfold, Harshav’s approach paired with Vaihinger could yield an approach focus on how sensations unfold as a form of knowledge. Moreover, such a consideration can also ask, “Did this author intend to represent a departure from reality or a movement and adherence to reality as the characters in the narrative experience more sensation input that shapes their subsequent actions?” For now, I’m not sure, but exploring this question in another post might be worthwhile.

Fourth, I want to end this post with some of my favorite quotes from Vaihinger. While I don’t have much to say about them, his words are thought provoking at least to me: “Thought in this way, creates for itself an exceedingly artificial instrument of enormous practical utility for the apprehension and elaboration of the stuff of reality; but a mere instrument, although we often confuse it with reality itself” (208). A page later, he write what echoes Simeon Chavel’s comment in a Criterion article about Johan Huizinga and religion as “as is” instead of “as if”: “If the psyche regards the general idea as a thing with attributes, it need not be deprived of this convenient and useful game; but the game should not be taken seriously so that the as if becomes a rigid it is” (209).

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Review: “How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others” by T. M. Luhrmann

In How God Becomes Real, T. M. Luhrmann’s goal is simple: to explore and explain why and how humans “conceive of that which is not available to the senses” (xi). And while other scholars highlight imagination’s role in enabling religion, Luhrmann specifically investigates how religious behavior toward the invisible other enables “what is unseen to feel more present and alter[s] the person who performs them” (xii). Put another way, her central claim is that “god or spirit – the invisible other – must be made real for people, and that this real-making changes those who do it.” To substantiate her claim, each chapter works through a different hypothesis.

In Chapter One, Luhrmann argues that “people don’t (easily) have faith in gods and spirits” (xii). She develops this argument first by highlighting that while the modern West has a culturally specific way of thinking about what is real, indeed all cultures do so, humans nonetheless “distinguish what counts as natural from what is beyond the natural, even though they may draw the line in different ways and come to different conclusions at different times about what is on which side of the line” (5). So, drawing on a range of psychological and anthropological literature, she highlights how people – cross-culturally – think about and behave regarding invisible others in a way distinct from how they interact with ordinary objects. Put another way, “one remembers and anticipates as if gods and spirits matter” through religious ritual. Luhrmann makes sense of this line between the material and invisible other by introducing what she calls the faith frame: “In this way of thinking and interpreting, people hold gods and spirits in their awareness as if those gods and spirits are present and engaged” (22). She explains the faith frame via the notion of serious play, wherein Luhrmann echoes previous anthropologists who observed that “the sacred has a play-like quality” in which “the play claims,” namely, claims with no clear root in reality, “are also serious claims about the world.”

In Chapter 2, Luhrmann explores the role of narrative and world building in establishing believable religion [1]. This world, or paracosm, enables religious followers “to sustain their faith frame” (26) and grips their “private imagination so powerfully that . . . they kindle the sense that they are true”: world building and the paracosm make god feel more real. Such religious narratives occurring within a paracosm, a constructed world, thereby enable “us to imagine the characters as if they were real” (29) and build a sort of relationship with characters; however, in Luhrmann’s discussion, those characters with whom we build relationships in the world are gods and spirits. Thus, she effectively and rightly leverages narrative cognitive sciences to explain aspects of religious experience. Moreover, while a religious world, a paracosm, can mirror fiction, the religious paracosm has certain rules of engagement, signs of participation, and means of interaction, and such “interaction with the invisible other is one of the central features that sets the special world of faith apart from fiction” (32). After describing her in-field experiences regarding these through requirements for a religious paracosm, Luhrmann again highlights how serious play, the faith frame, allows practitioners 1) to use narrative and ritual to imagine and represent an invisible god and 2) to create a “private-but-shared imaginative world” (56).

In Chapter 3, Luhrmann explores the central role of training and orienting imaginations for their respective paracosms: “Absorption and inner sense cultivation kindle the realness of gods and spirits” (58). That is, based on her fieldwork and academic studies, “something like talent and training facilitates the felt realness of gods and spirits and the kinds of experiences people deem spiritual” (60). This claim is justified first via her fieldwork on witchcraft in England and on Christianity in evangelical Christian communities, wherein individuals learned how to treat what would normally be considered internal phenomena as external with an invisible other. Such an observation is reinforced by the Tellegen Absorption Scale, which shows that “people who score highly in absorption are more likely to say that God speaks to them” and that they have experienced God being present and alive (71) – an invisible other. Furthermore, based on her fieldwork, Luhrmann argues that inner-sense cultivation enables people to experience an invisible other. That is, various traditions encourage practices wherein people treat words and images internally generated as if they were generated externally or developing more vivid mental imagery and explain its origin as externally based on a constructed paracosm. Simply put, developing one’s ability to imagine vividly and to blur the internal-external boundary yields perceived relationships with invisible others.

In Chapter 4, Luhrmann builds on the previous chapters by not just highlighting the inner-outer boundary in one’s mind but by showing how the boundary, or the in-between area, plays a role in the religious imagination inasmuch as the boundaries speaks to how different ideas of “the mind” impact understandings. Indeed, how one thinks about the mind directly impacts how one judges or interprets an event or experience. So, Luhrmann discusses three case studies involving Christian churches. Here, she highlights that people experienced God in different ways in these diverse contexts “because of the specific ways that they attend to their own experience” (100). Similarly, the means by which God “spoke” back differed based on local training, cultures, and other factors. Therefore, Luhrmann effectively demonstrates that how people understand mind-stuff, real-stuff, and the in-between directly impacts how God becomes real for them.

In Chapter 5, Luhrmann’s more technical approach shows how “practices of attention shape the most basic evidence people have that gods and spirits respond” (111). For example, individuals in certain contexts might have goosebumps; and such a stimulus in some contexts is taught to be indicative of divine presence. Therefore, she works to account for this sort of attention to stimuli. First, Luhrmann draws from Emil Kraedpelin’s notion of “kindling” to suggest that religious experiences attributed to a supernatural source shape how one experiences the events itself and future events; and kindling in an ongoing process becomes “more habituated and more fluent for members of that social group” (113). Such kindling comes about through building blocks and event cognition: certain bodily events are “incorporated into accounts of gods and spirits” (114) and “categories through which people identify the events” (114), respectively. With this theoretical framework, Luhrmann designates three broad kinds of events: phenomena with names but no specific bodily anchor (e.g., certain feelings, such as goosebumps, when they perceive god as speaking to them), bodily affordances (i.e., experiences that occur everywhere but can take special meaning in a religious tradition, such as “a Holy Spirit experience” after crying in a church setting), and anomalous events (e.g., sleep paralysis) that “may or may not carry culturally specific labels” (116). While heuristic in nature, these categories nonetheless enable Luhrmann to define how people relate to and perceive their bodily experiences. So, she links these categories with her theory of spiritual kindling from previous work to show that “the theory of spiritual kindling predicts that the frequency of events deemed spiritual is shaped by culture” (120). Finally, she shows the value of this framework through two case studies, one of a US-based charismatic church and the other of Thai Buddhists: both groups pay attention to different things. So, she concludes, “their attentional patterns can alter something as basic as their perceptual experience. ‘Kindling’ is a more specific account of how attentional learning unfolds for people” (135).

In Chapter 6, Luhrmann explores a simple question: why does prayer work? Fundamentally, she describes prayer as a metacognitive process that naturally involves emotion management and thus changes “the way people attend to their own mental processes” (139). Here, she explores how multiple facets function metacognitively: reorienting toward the positive (gratitude), organizing experiences (confession), the assertion of hope (asking), words meaning more when speaking to an other (even an invisible other!), and the brain treating personalized prayer to an invisible other as if a person were speaking to a friend forming a real social relationship. Of all of Luhrmann’s chapters, this was one of my favorites.

In Chapter 7, Luhrmann works to bring the various chapters together by describing more broadly how people create social relationships with gods and spirits, with invisible others. So, she shows how various field experiences of a god’s social relationship can be good for individuals but not the social whole. Such diverse parasocial experiences, Luhrmann suggests, derive from differing senses of inner other and imaginal relationships. And she also shows examples of how social relationships with gods are clearly not good for the social whole. Thus, Luhrmann fundamentally addresses not only “why people think gods and spirits are real but about how they become and are real for them” (184).

Overall, I enjoyed Luhrmann’s work. And because the Ood will undoubtedly sing Doctor Luhrmann’s praise, I will instead focus on engaging with specific aspects of How God Becomes Real.

First, although I agree with and appreciate Luhrmann’s frame for religion, the as-if frame derived from Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, more engagement with H. Vaihinger’s The Philosophy of ‘As If’: A System of Theoretical, Practical and Religious Fictions of Mankind, would have strengthened her notion of a faith frame. Although I do not have access to Huizinga’s book at the moment, Luhrmann’s representation of Homo Ludens does not consider what underlies the work. Vaihinger uses the as-if framework to explain the psyche’s logical function: everything is perceived “as if” because we can never describe reality in the truest sense. As such, the human logical function, or how we perceive things, always uses fiction by necessity. So while Luhrmann rightly draws from how play theorists use Vaihinger’s as-if framework, more engagement with Vaihinger may have enriched her discussion. For example, if we agree with Vaihinger that all human perception is filtered through this as-if framework and that this as-if framework is necessarily a fiction working toward understanding reality, how might that impact her work? After all, the as-if framework aims to describe reality, but focusing on making an invisible other become real runs contrary to this logical function, especially when people using this as-if framework fail to recognize that they are, in fact, using a fictional framework. In short, more attention to Vaihinger would have enriched this study. (Admittedly, this critique may have more to do with the play theorists than with Luhrmann.)

Second, to substantiate Luhrmann’s idea of a paracosm, we ought to turn to an outright construction of a paracosm. Karl Barth’s “The Strange New World within the Bible” explicitly argues that the Bible is not about history but rather leads readers “into a new world, into the world of God” (https://jochenteuffel.files.wordpress.com/2016/12/barth-the-strange-new-world-within-the-bible.pdf). This statement affirms Luhrmann’s comment that a paracosm, or in this case the Bible, enables followers to know their god through narrative. To push this point further: the fact that Barth explicitly theologized a paracosm raises another question: to what extent does intentionality in creating a religious paracosm impact how gods and spirits become real to followers? I ask not only in light of Barth but my own practices. As I reflect on my Jewish spirituality, I know that I am creating a paracosm for understanding and interpreting the world, but I also know that the paracosm is not necessarily reality. Rather, it is fictional. So, how might Luhrmann approach this matter? Put another way, we have three tiers: people who construct paracosms without realizing they are doing so; people who construct paracosms intentionally and perceive them as representing reality; and people who construct paracosms while recognizing those paracosms don’t necessarily align with reality. While I don’t have an answer, I will say that the issue of recognizing whether something is fiction (in Vaihinger’s sense) again highlights that additional consideration of Vaihinger’s philosophy on its own terms may have strengthened Luhrmann’s theoretical constructions.

Third, as much as I enjoyed Luhrmann’s discussion on prayer, her discussion about prayer as metacognition could take into consideration metarepresentation. Within Theory of Mind, metarepresentation is our ability to tag and track information. What if, though, part of the metacognition in prayer is reorienting and retagging our metarepresentations of events, people, and ideas? Indeed, Luhrmann alludes to this idea, inasmuch as she says that prayer is a reflection that attempts “to sculpt, shape, reframe, reword, and remaster thoughts and feelings” (140). Incorporating metarepresentational reconsiderations as part of prayer in some ways aligns with Luhrmann’s comment on confession in prayer, that it enables people “to organize experience” (146). Ultimately, linking metacognition with intentional metarepresentation may be a more precise, helpful way of thinking through why prayer works. Moreover, intentional metarepresentation also becomes a means by which a follower and person praying can reinforce their faith frame, which compliments her discussion from chapter 1.

Overall, I highly recommend How God Becomes real by T. M. Luhrmann. As my extensive marginal notes in the book suggest, her work is a helpful theoretical model for thinking about religious experience and related phenomena.

[1] To be clear, Luhrmann does not use the language “world building” but rather simply a world. I redescribe Luhrmann’s work with world building in light of Building Imaginary Worlds by Mark J. P. Wolf.

Reflection: “Sin: The Early History of an Idea” by Paula Fredriksen

Without a doubt, Paula Fredriksen’s Sin: The Early History of an Idea is a classic, must-read book on, well, the history of sin. Her masterful study insightfully and thoroughly explores how concepts of sin shifted in the first four centuries CE: Jesus’s focus on Jews and the ten commandments as how to avoid sin, repent, and join in the kingdom to come; Paul focusing on pagans as part of a universal redemptive plan including “celestial powers, the lower cosmic gods of pagan pantheons” (138), and their eventual submission to the god of Israel (including the cosmic force called Sin); Valentinus’s claiming that ignorance and not knowing God’s will causes sin via the inability to receive revelation; Justin Martyr’s claiming that intellectual “misapprehension of the divine” leads to sin; Origen’s somewhat sympathetic approach to sin as being caused by beings, who were contingent on God, wavering (i.e., unreason leads to sin); and Augustine’s well-known original sin as linked to Adam. While scholars have undoubtedly spilled many pixels and much ink on Fredriksen’s work and the history of sin with regard to the texts she examines, I want to focus instead on her broader methodology and framework. That is, how does Fredriksen approach sin in the first four centuries CE, and how does that approach impact her discussion?

First, Fredriksen’s concept-cluster approach to sin is instructive for approaching any ancient concepts in religious studies. In the epilogue, Fredriksen notes that “ancient ideas about sin provide a point of orientation from which we can move out examine other concept clusters that defined early forms of Christianity” (135). Although she does not explicitly identify a cluster-based approach, she suggests as much by noting “other” concept clusters, implying that sin’s concept cluster serves as a helpful orientation. So, rather than simple lexical studies on specific terms, scholarship should focus more on conceptual categories and mapping those concepts. Admittedly, writing about concept clusters well can be difficult without a broader theoretical framework. While certain critical theorists may prove helpful in this regard, scholars ought to lean more into cognitive studies to map these concept clusters. To be clear, I am not suggesting scholars lean into cognitive studies when it is convenient; rather, religion scholars ought to be well-read in that field, knowledgeable about the specialty more broadly. Moreover, leaning into such a field does not necessitate abandoning theorists. Rather, as Lisa Zunshine articulates so well in Why We Read Fiction, critical and literary theory can and should inform cognitive studies and vice versa. Thus, Fredriksen’s approach is instructive but should be paired with more rigorous analytical models and theoretical frameworks.

Second, while I appreciate Fredriksen’s concept-cluster approach, she does not clearly articulate what terms and ideas function as indices for early Christian and Jewish concept clusters of sin. For example, she cites Josephus’s discussion of the Ten Commandments (Antiquities of the Jews 18.116–119) to reconstruct Jesus’s ideas on sin. In citing Josephus, she focuses primarily on the language of “justice,” “piety,” and “immersion” (i.e., tshuvah, or repentance) in relation to the Ten Commandments. From here and in conjunction with Jesus’s mention of the Ten Commandments (e.g., Mark 10:19), she concludes: “We can infer from all this that Jesus defined living rightly as living according to the Torah, as summed up in and by the Ten Commandments; that he defined sin as breaking God’s commandments” (16). But this claim is problematic on multiple fronts: Josephus’s language; Jesus’s language; and the absence of sin within these passages.

  1. In the passage that Fredriksen cites, she excludes what is arguably central to identifying Jesus’s concept cluster of sin, and this exclusion complicates her subsequent assertion that “he defined sin as breaking God’s commandments.” The problem? Antiquities of the Jews 18.117 explicitly identifies baptism and tshuvah (repentance) as not for the forgiveness of sins: “for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him [i.e., God], if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body” (LINK). Put another way, the Ten Commandments, namely, Josephus’s piety toward God and justice toward others (Antiquities of the Jews 18.117), are indeed linked to immersion/baptism but are importantly decoupled from the remission of sins. As such, this text is a weak foundation for claiming that Jesus’s central idea of sin was that sin meant breaking God’s commandments, especially the Ten Commandments. For while John the Baptist explicitly links baptism and confession of sins, Josephus does not link baptism with sins but rather with purification. And while Josephus links purification with the Ten Commandments, John the Baptist does not explicitly do so (Mk 4:1–6). Therefore, the disjunction between John the Baptist in Matthew 3 and John the Baptist in Josephus problematizes using the texts in conjunction to reconstruct Jesus’s concept cluster of sin because Josephus and Mark’s John (whom she uses to substantiate claims about Jesus’s perspective on sin) seem to use slightly different concept clusters for sin.

    At the same time, Fredriksen rightly highlights that Josephus presumes the immersed individuals “had previously been cleansed by right conduct” (Jesus of Nazareth, 186; italics original) or, in William Whiston’s translation, “that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness” (https://lexundria.com/j_aj/18.117/wst). Put another way, Josephus’s understanding of baptism links with purification and presumes the baptized individual follows the Ten Commandments. By contrast, John baptizes individuals for the forgiveness of sin, a situation in which they confess their sins (Mk 1:4–6). Fredriksen blends these distinctive processes: “Repentance and sincere contrition before God, John and his contemporaries believed, would gain forgiveness” (Jesus of Nazareth, 186). While this generalization is not necessarily untrue, she nonetheless elides that Mark’s representation of John and Josephus’s representation of John understand and nuance the immersion process in distinctive ways: for Mark’s John, baptism is about the forgiveness of sins, although what constitutes sins is not explicit; by contrast, for Josephus’s John, baptism is about purification and presumes righteous behavior in line with the Ten Commandments, although immersion is explicitly not about remitting sin and implicitly not about confessing sin. As such, Josephus and Mark have somewhat distinct conceptual clusters around sin that ought to be discussed in more detail and recognized as unique conceptual clusters with overlap.
  2. A few pages after Fredriksen discusses how Josephus and Mark represent John in Sin, she suggests that Jesus’s mentioning the Ten Commandments in Mark 10:19 implies that he defined sin as breaking God’s commandments. Indeed, her initial step is undoubtedly correct: according to Mark 10:19, “Jesus defined living rightly as living according to the Torah, as summed up in and by the Ten Commandments” (16). However, the broader context implies that Jesus’s speech is not necessarily concerned with sin. After Jesus responds to the man’s question by affirming the value of living by the Ten Commandments, the man replies, “Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth” (Mk 10:19, RSV). Jesus responds, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mk 10:21, RSV). In the broader context of Fredriksen’s prooftext, textual absences problematize her assertion that breaking the Ten Commandments constituted sin. First, a term for sin does not appear in Mark 10. As such, to simplify Jesus’s notion of sin to breaking the Ten Commandments is untenable without additional discussion and data. Second, the apex of Jesus’s speech in Mark 10:19 links the Ten Commandments with entering the kingdom of God, not repentance or sin. Thus, while Mark 10:19 conceptually overlaps with notions of sin, ignoring how the Ten Commandments function in the broader context of Mark 10:19 is untenable and requires additional textual support.

In conclusion, I thoroughly enjoyed Fredriksen’s book; however, her work still retains a problematic trend in scholarly discussions about sin: treating sin as a universal term encompassing social transgressions in religious contexts. While the category of sin can be a helpful heuristic category, distinguishing between a philologically based approach (i.e., indexing how sin as an ancient Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic term functions) and a philosophical approach (i.e., working with something like Ricoeur’s Symbolism of Evil, which shapes discourse about sin) is imperative. When the philology- and philosophy-based approaches mix and we blur the borders, we quickly lose the ability to self-reflect on our methodology and the results that our scholarship yields.  

Review: “Documentality: New Approaches to Written Literature in Imperial Life and Literature” edited by Jacqueline Arthur-Montagne, Scott J. DiGiulio, and Inger N. I. Kuin

Jacqueline Arthur-Montagne, Scott J. DiGiulio, and Inger N. I. Kuin, eds. Documentality: New Approaches to Written Literature in Imperial Life and Literature. Trends in Classics 132. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2022.

Documents are integral in a historian’s pursuits. But what precisely constitutes a document is not always clear. To this point, philosopher Maurizio Ferraris recently raised the question of what constitutes a social document. Such a question is pertinent to late antique scholarship because his theory can address “fundamental questions about the status of (physical) documentary objects, their influence on reality, and the role of subjectivity and intentionality in their creation and reception” (5). As such, this volume’s contributors engage with Ferarris’s theory as a means to interrogate documentality in Rome’s Imperial period. This volume, then, “explores the implications of Ferraris’s documentality for the study of life and literature in the Roman world on its own merits” (8) in light of Ferraris and his interlocutors’ most recent critiques. 

In this review, I first offer a thorough summary of the various contributions. Subsequently, I engage with specific chapters and consistent themes based on what I deem relevant. This review aims not only to summarize the contributions accurately and thoroughly but also to encourage 1) interdisciplinary conversations about documentality and 2) further engagement with this volume and Ferraris’s theory and his interlocutors. 

As per any introduction, Jacqueline Arthur-Montagne, Scott J. DiGiulio, and Inger N. I. Kuin (i.e., the editors) frame the volume through an overview of documentality’s history (e.g., Hayden White, John Searle, etc., up to Ferraris), examines the word “document” and analogs in ancient Greek and Latin, and outline the broad historical context of documents in the Roman Empire. After summarizing all contributions, the editors identify the various contributions’ goal: to “address the materiality, authority, use, and literary interactions of Roman documents, examining different modes of documentation from the early Empire into Late Antiquity” (27). 

In chapter 1, John Bodel examines the role of documents for identity in the early Roman Empire. Based on two example cases, Cicero, and various imperial changes of three centuries, he shows that “classical antiquity never fully emerged from the oral stage of documentary development in which written declarations depended upon witness verification for validity” (53). In doing so, he challenges documentality theorists claiming that a society’s shift toward documents is a part of a given historical, evolutionary process fluctuating through time. Instead, Rome appears not to have engaged in the process as documentality theorists outline. 

In chapter 2, Jacqueline Arthur-Montagne examines how school copying exercises in the first four centuries CE shift ultimately aim for the texts to be stored in memory. With this observation established, she highlights how defining documentation in Ferraris’ terms, that is, the modern sense, does not necessarily map clearly onto Imperial period school texts, especially since the late Roman pedagogy aimed to “eliminate the necessity of the trace [i.e., the trace being a key aspect for Ferraris’s interlocutor E. Terrone] entirely” (70). Finally, after reflecting more broadly on “the practices of copying and memorization in literary education” during the Roman period, she concludes that school copying exercises are intentional traces that “contribute to the construction of intellectual identity and social reality in the Roman Empire” (75). Therefore, “the documentary trace provides a useful model with which to analyze ancient sources that do not conform to the definition of documentation in the modern sense of the word” (59). 

In chapter 3, Karen ní Mheallaigh, a specialist in ancient fiction and the ancient scientific imagination, explores what fiction tells us about ancient documentality. To do so, she suggests that Lucian’s True Stories challenges the real–fiction divide by preoccupying his text “with the details of a document’s material nature [to increase] in direct proportion . . . anxiety about its authenticity” (82), to create “the mere whiff of a possibility that the document might actually exist” (83) and to make “these fictions all the more exciting” (83). Examining three instances of documentality in Lucian’s True Stories,  she concludes that Lucian’s treatment shows documents as a place where “the potential for deception is always lurking” (101). As such, Lucian’s representation of documents challenges the extent to which fiction can be documentary and documents can be fictitious. 

In chapter 4, Inger N. I. Kuin examines Lucian to show how “Lucian’s manipulation of epigraphic objects in his imaginary worlds indirectly shows us something about the everyday experience of living with such texts, both from the perspective of those who could read them, and from the perspective of those who could not” (110). Similarly to Mheallaigh, she suggests that Lucian shows “documents are always duplicitous and unverifiable,” thereby rendering the literate and illiterate, who trust their authority, “profoundly vulnerable” (129). 

In chapter 5, Pierre Schneider investigates the extent to which documents were building blocks for ancient geographical knowledge. From a modern perspective on documents, such knowledge was based on documents; however, from an ancient perspective, Schneider shows that ancient geographers “assigned a certain degree of truth and reliability” (149) to different sources (i.e., they did not conceptualize the “‘neutral’ conception of documents as a certain quantity of information recorded and stored” (149). 

In chapter 6, Sjoukje M. Kamphorst draws from documentality theory to show how inscriptions, in particular, monuments, served to coordinate and align cities through a monumental referencing “the decree [that] can be considered iterations of the original act” (162), “anchors of shared knowledge and practice” (164). By the Imperial period, though, Kamphorst shows that such monumental documents began to connect cities to the Roman emperor, thereby enabling cities to become “a constituent part of the new imagined community of the Greco-Roman Mediterranean” (170). With this addition, the original purpose of fostering city relations through monumental inscriptions became less powerful.  

In chapter 7, Scott J. DiGiulio uses Aulus Gellius’s Noctes Atticae to understand “how at least one ancient reader approached reading different material in the Roman empire” (181). Through examining Gellius’s use of epistolaries, monuments and inscriptions, and even instances where documents’ legitimacy is problematized, Gellius aims primarily to document the Latin language. As such, DiGiulio shows that Gellius’s documentary conception differs from Ferraris and that of modern historians. 

In chapter 8, Jean-Luc Fournet challenges the line between literature and document by showing how various epistolary texts and petitions served not as documents but rather as textual exemplars, models for good writing.  

In chapter 9, Yasmine Amory how the role of orality in late-antique letters fits within Ferraris’s documentality frame. First, she highlights how some letters reflect “the unavoidable loss of the oral message that frequently accompanied the written text” (236). Second, she shows how messengers functioned as a sort of living letter accompanying the physical document. Further complicating the picture, she also demonstrates that some letters and oral messages served as small literary pieces for recipients, further blurring the boundaries between documents, literature, fictitious accounts, and the living letter accompanying letters. 

In the epilogue, Mireille Corbier examines how a particular tabula can exist in different contexts at different times. As such, the document takes on different significances, as well as how we or others classify the document.  

What makes Documentality a notch above other edited volumes is its organization. Whereas other volumes often read like disparate academic articles, the editors carefully weaved this volume’s contributions into what feels like a coherent, consistent, well-structured volume. Each chapter references others consistently and well, thereby interacting with each other; the fundamental issue is addressed in each chapter (i.e., documentality via Ferraris and his interlocutors); each chapter clearly theorizes on notions of documentation: these various aspects result in a united, coherent volume that I enjoyed reading beginning to end. 

Additionally, while Documentality is beyond the scope of what I typically read, the volume nonetheless provides a helpful template for engaging with theories of documentality in other fields. In recent discussions with biblical and religion scholars, this book has come to the forefront of conversation precisely because the theory of documentality is playing an important role in ongoing scholarship; however, these folks have not realized that classics scholars are just now exploring this new(ish) theory of documentality. Therefore, I look forward to seeing how this volume shapes conversations in analogous scholarly fields. 

Thus, I recommend reading Documentality, at the very least the introduction and specific chapters related to your interests. And while I could quip with minor points in individual chapters (or should I say documents?), such criticisms would not take away from the volume’s overall strengths: coherency, consistency, strong engagement with an important theorist, and generally interesting, engaging discussions and arguments. 

Reflection: “Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel” by Lisa Zunshine

Although I typically read scholarship directly related to biblical and ancient Near Eastern studies, recent conversations inspired me to begin pushing those limitations. For one, a friend of mine with a PhD in English would frequently highlight that English Literature has already done what many biblical scholars are doing with the Bible. So, I figured reading into recent scholarship in the English literature field would be beneficial to biblical and religious studies. In this case, Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction fits the bill.

As usual, this reflection will first provide a thorough summary. Subsequently, I will engage with specific ideas and issues, either critiquing them or showing how certain ideas would be helpful for scholars of religion.

Summary

Part I introduces Theory of Mind (ToM) and how ToM relates to reading fiction. Using an example of Peter’s trembling in Mrs. Dalloway, Zunshine suggests that recent studies in cognitive psychology show our ability “to explain behavior in terms of the underlying states of mind” (4) and offer insight into how and why we interact with literary texts. So while ToM is often discussed in social contexts, ToM can be helpful for thinking about literature, which “capitalizes on and stimulates Theory of Mind mechanisms” (10). She then offers The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time to explain how ToM can work in relation to storytelling, though she carefully nuances that work in this area of cognitive studies is ongoing. Subsequently, Zunshine highlights an important distinction between literary scholars and cognitive psychologists: whereas literary scholars view one’s effortless mind-reading (i.e., ToM) on a correct-incorrect spectrum, cognitive psychologists view all mind-reading as effortless even if wrong. Next, she draws from various cognitive and literary studies to make one of her key claims (for which she offers much nuance): we read fiction because it tests and makes us aware of our mind-reading capabilities. To exemplify the value of a ToM approach, she reads Mrs. Dalloway and illustrates how we as readers engage with the process of mind-reading through Wolff’s embedded intentionalities. Foreseeing the danger of folks claiming that this ToM approach to literature may one day be the only way, she nuances her claim that this approach is one of many cognitive approaches and that many aspects remain in the realm of literary analysis. Finally, she connects her cognitive analysis to previous scholarship in order to show the importance of interdisciplinary work when it comes to literary studies (in her case with cognitive studies).

Part II shifts from generic ToM to metarepresentation: “Our metarepresentational ability allows us to store certain information/representations ‘under advisement’ [. . .]. The ‘meta’ part of the representation, that little ‘tag’ that specifies the source of the information [. . .] is what prevents the representation from circulating freely within our cognitive system and from being used as an input to ‘many inferential processes, whose outputs are inputs to others” (50). Such metarepresentation, “always context-dependent and potentially fluid” (52), relates to ToM inasmuch as we must track the sources of information when mind-reading (esp. keeping track of ourselves as the source of information as opposed to others). Next, Zunshine articulates how a damaged metarepresentational capability impacts social situations by considering 1) schizophrenia reflects one’s inability to source-monitor and 2) Katerina Ivanovna’s conflict occurs due to her inability to source-monitor. Moreover, as Zunshine shows through an example from New York Times, all people struggle with source monitoring to a degree. And “our capacity for ‘monitoring and reestablishing the boundaries within which each representation remains useful’ thus underlies crucially in our practice of literary interpretation” (64).

These observations engender a bigger theoretical question: How can metarepresentation and source-monitoring explain how we discriminate “among the levels of truth-value associated with a given representation” (72)? Here, she suggests that “our cognitive makeup allows us to stre a given representation with a very strong, perhaps permanent, source tag.” Then, “once we are decided on the overall metarepresentational framing of the giving story (a decision mediated by a variety of cultural institutions), we can process its constituents as so many architectural truths” (72). Notably, this section of Zunshine’s work was remarkably synthetic, bringing together a wide range of voices that can be helpful for theorizing more broadly on literature, truth-value, and metarepresentation.

Before shifting to a range of literature that challenges source-monitoring and ToM, Zunshine begins by showing how even a simple text without multiple levels of intentionality, like Beowulf, nonetheless reflects that our ToM and metarepresentational capacity results in the reality that one can always have a different experience reading the same fictional texts at different times in life. The next five sections go into great detail to articulate various aspects of ToM and metarepresentation through specific examples in the story of Don Quixote, Clarissa, and Lolita. In this context, she addresses Don Quixote’s story as a key example of compromised source monitoring (prior to the more extreme examples in Lolita and Clarissa), the role of an unreliable narrator in engaging and titillating our metarepresentational capacity, the implied author debates as related to the broader “function of the source-monitoring ability paid out in a very particular social environment, that is, among the people self-selected to pay attention to textual ambiguities” (81), the extreme problem of source-monitoring in Clarissa, and the also complicated and problematic source monitoring in Lolita.

Part III explores another aspect of ToM: concealing minds. She does so by examining the detective novel, which she equates to “lifting weights at the gym,” in as much as the detective genre intentionally plays with ToM and metarepresentation. After discussing key elements of detective novels, she concludes that while “all fictional narratives rely on and tease our Theory of Mind, some narratives engage to a higher degree one cluster of cognitive adaptations associated with our ToM than another cluster of such adaptations” (153). Moreover, she draws the broader conclusion that her approach to literature avoids a fear expressed by some literary critics that assuming the fictional reading and writing process is “dependent, contingent, or a mere reflection of other more basic social and psychological processes” (153) is dangerous. Instead, Zunshine argues, a ToM approach enables scholars to see “such narrative as endlessly experimenting with rather than automatically executing given psychological tendencies,” and “this approach opens new venues for literary historians wishing to integrate their knowledge of specific cultural circumstances implicated in the production of literary texts with important new insights into the workings of our brain/mind” (155).

Her final conclusion is simple: in light of an in-depth consideration of ToM and metarepresentation in relationship to literature, “we do read novel because they engage our ToM, but we are at present a long way off from rasping fully the levels of complexity that this engagement entails” (164). Put another way, fiction is a quality workout for our ToM capacities.

Reflections

As implied at the outset of this review, I am less concerned with critiquing Zunshine’s work and more interested in showing the value of her work for the study of religion. So, let’s get started.

First, the broader framework of ToM and metarepresentation is particularly helpful for thinking through book-centered religious traditions. Indeed, fiction is not necessarily “true” in the sense that it does not work to represent lived reality but rather an imaginary world. Nonetheless, Zunshine rightly highlights the tension between the “fiction-history” division as it relates to metarepresentation. Where Zunshine’s use of ToM and metarepresentation can be helpful, though, is in regard to how folks categorize and source monitor religious texts. Beyond modern fiction as a locus for metarepresentation, the same issue appears in biblical texts. For evangelical Christians, for example, the source of the biblical text is less rooted in a real individual and more rooted in a god made visible (thinking with Tanya Luhrmann’s framework). Similarly, Second Temple period literature like the book of Jubilees purports to be from God (i.e., our metarepresentational capacity is direted to tag the source of the narrative to God). I suggest a tension emerges between the god of Jubilees and the god of evangelical Christians precisely because the language for such cognitive metarepresentation is the same, but the actual sources are not. This observation is especially true when we consider evangelical Christians who often claim that Jews and Christians have the same god: even if texts overlap and the same term is used to designate the source of the particular texts, the nature of the source via metrepresentational tagging is distinct.

Second, and especialy in light of Luhrmann’s recent How God Becomes Real, the cognitive processes Zunshine introduces to the study of literature can be equally helpful for theorizing how religion works and how we determine the boundaries for what constitutes religion in the twenty-first century. As Zunshine writes, “Literature pervasively capitalizes on and stimulates Theory of Mind mechanisms that had evolved to deal with real people, even as on some level readers do remain aware that fictive characters are not real people at all” (10). These interactions through our developed ToM are delivered “by direct interactions with other people or by imaginary approximation of such interactions” (10). Key here is the idea of “imaginary approximation.” As Luhrmann shows, people make a god real by treating their imaginative faculty as if it were actually real. Thus, we can see a close relationship between the notion of fiction are representing and recreating a social environment engaging our ToM and a religious text engaging our ToM. While I have no doubts I could take these observations further, this will suffice for now.

Third, recent studies support Zunshine’s work. In a recent study on the brain and fiction, “Researchers found that the more immersed people tend to get into ‘becoming’ a fictional character, the more they use the same part of the brain to think about the character as they do to think about themselves” (https://news.osu.edu/what-happens-in-your-brain-when-you-lose-yourself-in-fiction/). Importantly, brain imaging backed up this conclusion. As such, we can clearly see that how we process fiction and Self directly overlap. Undoubtedly, this idea ties directly into ToM and metarepresentation: as an individual begins to structure information from a novel in her brain, she ultimately thinks with the part of the brain that she uses to think about herself. Perhaps, then, our cognitive metarepresentation is not only tied up in how we perceive others but the extent to which we perceive ourselves and our relations to those sources. Returning to Luhrmann, then, we see yet again that one’s ToM in literature and the neuroscientific way of processing fiction can shed light on how our boundaries between fiction and reality are more porous than we’d like to admit in the West. (Then again, perhaps we shouldn’t talk about “fiction” and “reality” but simply of metarepresentation and physical, observable objects.) In Zunshine’s words, “The pleasure of being ‘tested’ by a fictional text . . . is thus never completely free from the danger of allowing the ‘phantoms of imagination’ too strong a foothold in our view of our social world” (19).

Admittedly, I have many more thoughts on this book, and I plan to reflect on them (or incorporate them into my own work) in the future. For now, though, these three observations suffice. Basically, Zuneshine’s work is particularly interesting in light of recent neuroscientific studies and Luhrmann’s 2020 book.

Reflection: “Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel” by Lisa Zunshine

Although I typically read scholarship directly related to biblical and ancient Near Eastern studies, recent conversations inspired me to begin pushing those limitations. For one, a friend of mine with a PhD in English would frequently highlight that English Literature has already done what many biblical scholars are doing with the Bible. So, I figured reading into recent scholarship in the English literature field would be beneficial to biblical and religious studies. In this case, Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction fits the bill.

As usual, this reflection will first provide a thorough summary. Subsequently, I will engage with specific ideas and issues, either critiquing them or showing how certain ideas would be helpful for scholars of religion.

Summary

Part I introduces Theory of Mind (ToM) and how ToM relates to reading fiction. Using an example of Peter’s trembling in Mrs. Dalloway, Zunshine suggests that recent studies in cognitive psychology show our ability “to explain behavior in terms of the underlying states of mind” (4) and offer insight into how and why we interact with literary texts. So while ToM is often discussed in social contexts, ToM can be helpful for thinking about literature, which “capitalizes on and stimulates Theory of Mind mechanisms” (10). She then offers The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time to explain how ToM can work in relation to storytelling, though she carefully nuances that work in this area of cognitive studies is ongoing. Subsequently, Zunshine highlights an important distinction between literary scholars and cognitive psychologists: whereas literary scholars view one’s effortless mind-reading (i.e., ToM) on a correct-incorrect spectrum, cognitive psychologists view all mind-reading as effortless even if wrong. Next, she draws from various cognitive and literary studies to make one of her key claims (for which she offers much nuance): we read fiction because it tests and makes us aware of our mind-reading capabilities. To exemplify the value of a ToM approach, she reads Mrs. Dalloway and illustrates how we as readers engage with the process of mind-reading through Wolff’s embedded intentionalities. Foreseeing the danger of folks claiming that this ToM approach to literature may one day be the only way, she nuances her claim that this approach is one of many cognitive approaches and that many aspects remain in the realm of literary analysis. Finally, she connects her cognitive analysis to previous scholarship in order to show the importance of interdisciplinary work when it comes to literary studies (in her case with cognitive studies).

Part II shifts from generic ToM to metarepresentation: “Our metarepresentational ability allows us to store certain information/representations ‘under advisement’ [. . .]. The ‘meta’ part of the representation, that little ‘tag’ that specifies the source of the information [. . .] is what prevents the representation from circulating freely within our cognitive system and from being used as an input to ‘many inferential processes, whose outputs are inputs to others” (50). Such metarepresentation, “always context-dependent and potentially fluid” (52), relates to ToM inasmuch as we must track the sources of information when mind-reading (esp. keeping track of ourselves as the source of information as opposed to others). Next, Zunshine articulates how a damaged metarepresentational capability impacts social situations by considering 1) schizophrenia reflects one’s inability to source-monitor and 2) Katerina Ivanovna’s conflict occurs due to her inability to source-monitor. Moreover, as Zunshine shows through an example from New York Times, all people struggle with source monitoring to a degree. And “our capacity for ‘monitoring and reestablishing the boundaries within which each representation remains useful’ thus underlies crucially in our practice of literary interpretation” (64).

These observations engender a bigger theoretical question: How can metarepresentation and source-monitoring explain how we discriminate “among the levels of truth-value associated with a given representation” (72)? Here, she suggests that “our cognitive makeup allows us to stre a given representation with a very strong, perhaps permanent, source tag.” Then, “once we are decided on the overall metarepresentational framing of the giving story (a decision mediated by a variety of cultural institutions), we can process its constituents as so many architectural truths” (72). Notably, this section of Zunshine’s work was remarkably synthetic, bringing together a wide range of voices that can be helpful for theorizing more broadly on literature, truth-value, and metarepresentation.

Before shifting to a range of literature that challenges source-monitoring and ToM, Zunshine begins by showing how even a simple text without multiple levels of intentionality, like Beowulf, nonetheless reflects that our ToM and metarepresentational capacity results in the reality that one can always have a different experience reading the same fictional texts at different times in life. The next five sections go into great detail to articulate various aspects of ToM and metarepresentation through specific examples in the story of Don Quixote, Clarissa, and Lolita. In this context, she addresses Don Quixote’s story as a key example of compromised source monitoring (prior to the more extreme examples in Lolita and Clarissa), the role of an unreliable narrator in engaging and titillating our metarepresentational capacity, the implied author debates as related to the broader “function of the source-monitoring ability paid out in a very particular social environment, that is, among the people self-selected to pay attention to textual ambiguities” (81), the extreme problem of source-monitoring in Clarissa, and the also complicated and problematic source monitoring in Lolita.

Part III explores another aspect of ToM: concealing minds. She does so by examining the detective novel, which she equates to “lifting weights at the gym,” in as much as the detective genre intentionally plays with ToM and metarepresentation. After discussing key elements of detective novels, she concludes that while “all fictional narratives rely on and tease our Theory of Mind, some narratives engage to a higher degree one cluster of cognitive adaptations associated with our ToM than another cluster of such adaptations” (153). Moreover, she draws the broader conclusion that her approach to literature avoids a fear expressed by some literary critics that assuming the fictional reading and writing process is “dependent, contingent, or a mere reflection of other more basic social and psychological processes” (153) is dangerous. Instead, Zunshine argues, a ToM approach enables scholars to see “such narrative as endlessly experimenting with rather than automatically executing given psychological tendencies,” and “this approach opens new venues for literary historians wishing to integrate their knowledge of specific cultural circumstances implicated in the production of literary texts with important new insights into the workings of our brain/mind” (155).

Her final conclusion is simple: in light of an in-depth consideration of ToM and metarepresentation in relationship to literature, “we do read novel because they engage our ToM, but we are at present a long way off from rasping fully the levels of complexity that this engagement entails” (164). Put another way, fiction is a quality workout for our ToM capacities.

Reflections

As implied at the outset of this review, I am less concerned with critiquing Zunshine’s work and more interested in showing the value of her work for the study of religion. So, let’s get started.

First, the broader framework of ToM and metarepresentation is particularly helpful for thinking through book-centered religious traditions. Indeed, fiction is not necessarily “true” in the sense that it does not work to represent lived reality but rather an imaginary world. Nonetheless, Zunshine rightly highlights the tension between the “fiction-history” division as it relates to metarepresentation. Where Zunshine’s use of ToM and metarepresentation can be helpful, though, is in regard to how folks categorize and source monitor religious texts. Beyond modern fiction as a locus for metarepresentation, the same issue appears in biblical texts. For evangelical Christians, for example, the source of the biblical text is less rooted in a real individual and more rooted in a god made visible (thinking with Tanya Luhrmann’s framework). Similarly, Second Temple period literature like the book of Jubilees purports to be from God (i.e., our metarepresentational capacity is direted to tag the source of the narrative to God). I suggest a tension emerges between the god of Jubilees and the god of evangelical Christians precisely because the language for such cognitive metarepresentation is the same, but the actual sources are not. This observation is especially true when we consider evangelical Christians who often claim that Jews and Christians have the same god: even if texts overlap and the same term is used to designate the source of the particular texts, the nature of the source via metrepresentational tagging is distinct.

Second, and especialy in light of Luhrmann’s recent How God Becomes Real, the cognitive processes Zunshine introduces to the study of literature can be equally helpful for theorizing how religion works and how we determine the boundaries for what constitutes religion in the twenty-first century. As Zunshine writes, “Literature pervasively capitalizes on and stimulates Theory of Mind mechanisms that had evolved to deal with real people, even as on some level readers do remain aware that fictive characters are not real people at all” (10). These interactions through our developed ToM are delivered “by direct interactions with other people or by imaginary approximation of such interactions” (10). Key here is the idea of “imaginary approximation.” As Luhrmann shows, people make a god real by treating their imaginative faculty as if it were actually real. Thus, we can see a close relationship between the notion of fiction are representing and recreating a social environment engaging our ToM and a religious text engaging our ToM. While I have no doubts I could take these observations further, this will suffice for now.

Third, recent studies support Zunshine’s work. In a recent study on the brain and fiction, “Researchers found that the more immersed people tend to get into ‘becoming’ a fictional character, the more they use the same part of the brain to think about the character as they do to think about themselves” (https://news.osu.edu/what-happens-in-your-brain-when-you-lose-yourself-in-fiction/). Importantly, brain imaging backed up this conclusion. As such, we can clearly see that how we process fiction and Self directly overlap. Undoubtedly, this idea ties directly into ToM and metarepresentation: as an individual begins to structure information from a novel in her brain, she ultimately thinks with the part of the brain that she uses to think about herself. Perhaps, then, our cognitive metarepresentation is not only tied up in how we perceive others but the extent to which we perceive ourselves and our relations to those sources. Returning to Luhrmann, then, we see yet again that one’s ToM in literature and the neuroscientific way of processing fiction can shed light on how our boundaries between fiction and reality are more porous than we’d like to admit in the West. (Then again, perhaps we shouldn’t talk about “fiction” and “reality” but simply of metarepresentation and physical, observable objects.) In Zunshine’s words, “The pleasure of being ‘tested’ by a fictional text . . . is thus never completely free from the danger of allowing the ‘phantoms of imagination’ too strong a foothold in our view of our social world” (19).

Admittedly, I have many more thoughts on this book, and I plan to reflect on them (or incorporate them into my own work) in the future. For now, though, these three observations suffice. Basically, Zuneshine’s work is particularly interesting in light of recent neuroscientific studies and Luhrmann’s 2020 book.

Review: “Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation” by Mark J. P. Wolf’

Mark J. P. Wolf. Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation. New York: Routledge, 2012.

In Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation, Mark J. P. Wolf develops a framework and criteria for describing and examining imaginary worlds, subcreated worlds. Indeed, Wolf accomplishes this goal, exploring various issues related to philosophy, narratology, storytelling, readers, characters, authorship, transmedia storytelling, and more. Thus, Wolf’s volume is quite thorough. At the same time, some of Wolf’s analysis felt cut short and left me wanting more. Nonetheless, the book forms a helpful foundation for analyzing and exploring notions of world building not only in fan fiction, media, and cultural studies but in other fields as well.

Summary

In the Introduction, Wolf acknowledges that while some readers are primarily and only interested in narrative, other readers may be especially interested in the world building aspects of a book inasmuch as those elements enhance the reader’s experience (e.g., glossaries, maps, timelines). As such, imaginary worlds do not necessarily rely on narratives. Thus, the nature of imaginary worlds and reader preferences necessitate a critical approach distinct from one focusing on narrative. Moreover, building imaginary worlds, Wolf rightly contends, is a universal human behavior [1]. Additionally, Wolf provides a general overview of how previous writers and theorists explored making imaginary worlds. Much of this work was written by the world authors themselves or took a distinctly philosophical perspective of “possible worlds” and modal logic. Wolf’s book, though, continues this discourse by focusing not only on the language and text of imaginary worlds but by including the audiovisual aspects of imaginary worlds in his analysis. This shift away toward media studies for understanding world building is pertinent because, as Wolf highlights, media consumption patterns are changing with media types (i.e., more focus on world building through audiovisual elements) and “the more traditional literary criticism are not world-centered and constitute a different focus” (12).

In Chapter 1, Wolf describes various aspects of how an imaginary world, subcreated world, or Secondary World works. As a jumping-off point, he briefly explains the history of imaginary worlds within philosophy, otherwise known as possible worlds. While foundational to fictional worlds more broadly, such philosophical approaches, Wolf contends, inadequately address audiovisual-based worlds, instead focusing primarily on literature. He shifts to world-builders themselves and traces a thread regarding how those people approached fictional worlds. Beginning with the notion of imagination presented by Coleridge and George MacDonald’s considerations of such imaginative worlds necessitating internally consistent laws, Wolf leans especially on J. R. R. Tolkein’s works. Because humans are created by a god, Tolkein asserts, so human have the ability to subcreate, which Wolf describes in detail: “Subcreation . . . involves new combinations of existing concepts, which, in the building of a secondary world, become the inventions that replace or reset the Primary World defaults . . . . The more one changes these defaults, the more the secondary world becomes different and distinct from the Primary World. It is not surprising, then, that secondary worlds will in many way resemble the Primary World . . . . Secondary Worlds, then, have the same ddefault assumptions as does the Primary World, except where the author has indicated otherwise” (24). In light of this idea, Wolf starts to discuss to what he calls the “secondariness” of a world, namely, the degree to which it is connected to the Primary World. Secondary, imaginative worlds are best arranged “along a spectrum of attachment to, or reliance on, the Primary World (as we know it) and its defaults” (27) so that people experience different worlds in different ways.

These worlds are often more than a story, though. As Wolf comments, “A compelling story and a compelling world are very different things, and one need not require the other” (29). A text, then, can become world-building when the narrative goes beyond what is necessary to advance the story. He articulate the aspects of world-building through three categories: invention, completeness, and consistency. These categories link to three descriptions of how one experiences a world: immersion, absorption, and saturation. Speaking less about the reader’s experience and more toward how readers fill gaps, he discusses the world Gestalten of ellipsis, logic, and extrapolation, or how “a structure or configuration of details together implies the existence of an imaginary world, and causes the audiences to automatically fill in the missing pieces of that world, based on the details that are given” (52). Shifting away from perception and Gestalten, Wolf draws attention to catalysts of speculation, how certain worlds make people curious and result in people attempting “to answer questions in more etail, either by the world’s originator, by those authorized to add to it, or even by unauthorized fan additions” (61). Finally, Wolf concludes by highlighting that the framing of clear boundaries between Primary World and Secondary World has lessened overtime as people have become more used to these imaginary worlds.

In chapter 2, Wolf broadly descries the history of imaginary worlds. He begins with transnarrative characters and literary cycles, suggesting that wold build begins to take off when characters from one story appear in another, thereby causing audiences to fill the gaps of such transnarrative characters. Moving forward, and in some cases at the same time, world building happened in mythical stories, such as in the Odyssey, Herodotus, Lucian, or Plato. The next major shift occurred closer to the turn of the first millenium, which gave rise to travelers’ tales during the age of exploration (up to the nineteenth century), of which many explorations were simply fantastical stories with world building. During this time, we also see the emergence of utopias and dystopias. Beginning in the nineteenth century, and based on the various world-building groupings before, fantasy and science fiction books emerged and proliferated as a genre. Such proliferation changed how people understood such imaginary worlds: “People grew more accustomed to experiencing and forming a mental image of distant parts of the world through media representations, which often involved a wide range of sources of varying reliability. In this way, mass media helped to lessen the gap between real foreign countries which were experienced solely through media, and imaginary worlds, which could only be experienced through media” (112). So emerged new forms of world building in mediums that readers of the twenty-first century are more familiar with: early cinema and comic strips, the first world building of Oz, pulp magazines, movies and theater, radio and television, Tolkien’s work, and the rise of world-building media franchises (e.g., Star Wars, Dune, Star Trek, etc.). With technology changes in the last fifty to seventy years, we have also see interactive worlds, such as video games, become a major medium for experiencing other worlds. Overall, Wolf’s outline of world-building history demonstrates the role of secondary, imaginary worlds as places where humans have been able to perform art and thought experiences.

In chapter 3, Wolf explores various aspects involved in structure imaginary worlds and the systems therein. While narrative plays an important role in world-building, he focuses more on the specific experiential elements and how those elements can overlap: maps, timelines, nature, culture, language, mythology, and philosophy. World-builders can tie together different aspects of these categories to create infrastructure for a complex, imaginary world. What makes this chapter more than a simple description the aspects involved in constructing a world is that Wolf make clear how world-builders incorporate these elements in distinct ways and in distinct contexts. Similarly, he explains how these particular elements function to form the infrastructure for a secondary work.

In chapter 4, Wolf examines how “narrative operates within a world and helps to structure it” (198). He first discusses narrative threads, braids, and fabric, drawing on narrative theory to explain how the weaving together of narrative braids can play a central role in world-building. Although Wolf does not give this example, Game of Thrones (at least the TV show, as I haven’t read the books) is a great example of how various narrative braids are woven together into a fabric to construct a broader world, each braid coming together to form a fabric. Second, and related to the issue of narratives, Wolf highlights the importance of backstory and world history, and such stories often have “low narrative resolution” (202) and involve characters different from the original stories. He also calls these “nested stories” (204), which link stories within an imaginary world. Third, he addresses sequence elements and internarrative theory, which concerns how world-building occurs through sequels and prequels, and even stories coming in between stories, which Wolf coins midquels, interquels, and intraquels, and framing stories, which he coins transquels. These various ways to think about world-building and sequencing provide helpful categories for describing the history of world building. Third, he addressing retroactive continuity (retcon) and reboots. Fourth, he identifies how crossovers, multiverses, and retroactive linkages can create larger, overarching world. Moving to a different form of media, and fifth, he addresses how certain technologies enable interactivity and alternate story lines that “raise questions regarding the status of a world and the canonicity of events in that world” (221). Finally, he discusses how “making of” documentation serve world-building by highlighting details, demonstrating world consistency, and adding new content. And narrative links all of these things together.

In chapter 5, Wolf addresses the next level after subcreations: when a subcreation creates its own subcreated world. In these contexts, words play a central role because they give rise to a sub-subcreated world. With this process in transmedia, creators often bring a degree of self-reflexivity to the table, reflecting on their own acts of subcreation. So, Wolf identifies multiple examples. Within this context, he highlights evil subcreators, who become importance to the broader narrative fabric of a story and world.

In chapter 6, Wolf describes how worlds grow not just in books (e.g., Baum’s Wizard of Oz) but in different media forms (i.e., transmedia) either via adaption or growth. Key to this matter is transmediality, which is “the state of being represented in multiple media” (247). And while acknowledging that exploring how each media form transfers to another would be valuable, it would also be repetitive and lengthy. So, he focuses mainly on looking “at each of the properties present in different media, their capabilities and peculiarities, and the process of using each as a window that reveals an imaginary world” (248). He focuses, then, on five elements: description, something often originating with words on a page and relates to “describing the experience of perception as much as the object being perceived” (252); visualization, which uses a certain vantage point “to further comment on the scene, enhance aspects of it, and suggest a certain attitude towards what is portrayed” (253); auralization, which uses sound to create a world; interactivation, combining various forms of media into an interactive media (e.g., video games); and deinteractivation, fixed forms of media such as turning Super Mario Bros. into a movies and dispensing of the interactive elements. For these various media windows, Wolf highlights they can be experienced in a variety of ways as follows, and not always in the same order, thereby changing the viewer’s experience: “order of public appearance, order of creation, internal chronological order, canonical order, order of media preference, and age-appropriate order” (265).

In chapter 7, Wolf discusses the circles of authorship and how the relationship between various stakeholders involved in the world-building process, or recipients of it, maintain a degree of authorship, depending on the media. To address this matter, Wolf first distinguishes between closed world and open world, though he recognizes the role that things like merchandise and fan fiction can play in expanding even a closed world. Based on these categories, he also identifies how different worlds can have different levels of canonicity. When it comes to canonicity, many folks are involved, each with a different type of stake in the media or product: the originator and main author; estates, heirs, and torchbearers; employees and freelancers; approved, derivative, and ancillary products, and elaborationists and fan productions. He discusses nuances for each of these groups. In a somewhat secondary category, he discusses participatory worlds as places where authorship also plays a role, such as in MMORPGs. He concludes the chapter, and indeed the book, by highlighting how subcreation “renews our vision and gives us new perspective and insight into ontological questions that might otherwise escape our notice with the default assumptions we make about reality” (287).

In the appendix, Wolf includes an appendix of imaginary worlds.

Discussion

In this section, I lay out a range of criticisms, engage constructively with Wolf’s work, and push the boundaries of where Wolf’s method and approach to world building might help fields outside media studies.

First, though media in the modern world is undoubtedly more diverse than it was seven hundred years ago, Wolf may have missed an important opportunity to consider world building in light of diverse, historically contingent frameworks for what constitutes different types of media. Indeed, he is right that “books, drawings, photographs, film, radio, television, video games, websites, and other media,” as well as their proliferation, “have opened portals through which these world grow in clarity and detail” (1-2). Likewise, such world building through these new media forms is undoubtedly historically unique due to the role that sound and images often play in the process. But in describing the history of world building, he should have considered how different societies perceived and enacted world building with their various media forms. For example, although we of view pamphlets, printed manuscripts, hand-written manuscripts, and scrolls as similar things, namely, some form of parchment or paper on which people wrote, the art, physical texture, creation process, general appearance, and general assumptions differed. As such, people would have different experiences reading the various media forms, comparable to the difference between watching movie on a small laptop as opposed to in a movie theater.

Second, one major weakness Wolf’s discussion of world-building history regard transnarrative characters. In particular, Wolf comments that “the simplest literary indication that a world exists beyond the details needed [. . .] is a transnarrative character. A character who appears in more than one story links the stories’ world together by being present in them” (66). He then mentions King Nebuchadnezzar II as an example of a historical, transnarrative character because he appears or is mentioned in 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Jeremiah, Daniel, and Josephus. This perspective, though, fails to consider these texts and Nebuchadnezzar’s representation in each text. Moreover, since his representation in these various texts did not collectively aim to construct a complex, nuanced world (i.e., world-building), how Nebuchadnezzar is somehow a transnarrative character related to world-building is unclear.

Third, although beyond the scope of Wolf’s work, his discussion of Bibles is pertinent to tracking how the Christian religious imagination developed between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries through books. In particular, he highlights that “during the 1500s, maps were already appearing in printed Bibles, which may have encouraged the inclusion of more maps of imaginary worlds” (156). Admittedly, I would have liked if Wolf demonstrated how maps in printed Bibles and maps for imaginary worlds were (or were not) historically related to each other, the former giving rise to the latter. Nonetheless, if we accept Wolf’s assertion, we can make some preliminary observations on the nature of imaginary worlds and world building regarding conceptions of religion in the 1500s. First, I wonder to what extent world-building and religion overlap cognitively to the effect that some world-building groups become perceived as so-called religious. Indeed, some folks in the 1500s perceived the world of the Bible as something to be expanded upon, something that needed world-building in its own right. And we see this trend continuing today, to a degree, through new study Bibles, replete with essays, maps, historical context, and more. That is, religious practitioners build out and seek to better understand the Bible’s historical contexts in order to expand its universe. And fandoms perform such intellectual endeavors as well for fictional books. Therefore, this overlap in creating an imaginative world may explain, in part, why some scholars have looked at fandoms and viewed them as a sort of quasi-religious group.

Fourth, Wolf’s work would have been stronger if he had identified alternative ways of framing world-building. In the boo, he frames world-building as a form of subcreation, an idea from Tolkien’s work about humans being created by God and thus subcreating other things. Even at the end of the volume, while he rightly points out that world-building “renews our vision and gives us new perspective and insight into ontological questions that might otherwise escape our notice within the default assumptions we make about reality” (287), Wolf nonetheless brings everything back around to appreciating “the Divine design of Creation.” One alternative to simply wrapping his conclusion back to a sort of theological conclusion would be to explore the notion of world-building through an interdisciplinary lens, to show how anthropology, neuroscience, and psychology might shed light on the phenomenon of world-building.

Conclusion

Overall, Mark Wolf’s book is worth reading and offers a helpful way to approach, frame, describe, and think about world-building, a important skill in a world wherein world-building is becoming more important than the narrative itself, where franchise trumps story. And while the book has a few shortcoming, it offers a range of avenues for future scholarship.

[1] Vulcans might not be interested in building imaginary worlds, but they are part of an imaginary world. In facts, Vulcans in this light may be an imaginative opposite of what constitutes a human being.

She-Hulk’s K.E.V.I.N.: The Good and the Bad

A few weeks ago, I suggested that She-Hulk excels in world-building. I also expressed the hope that such world-building would pay off. Indeed, She-Hulk the final episodes of She-Hulk, especially the season finale, offered an inventive, enjoyable, creative conclusion to season 1. As part of this conclusion, Jennifer Walters (aka She-Hulk) rewrites the end of her episode with one universe’s Kevin Feige (i.e., Knowledge Enhanced Visual Interconnectivity Nexus). Aside from being an interesting way to build out the MCU world, the story telling raises some interesting conundrums and challenges: the relationship between an audience and the show’s creators and the nature of a text regarding truth.

The Audience and the Creators

Some shows include dialogue that often responds implicitly to audiences. In particular, I think of Stranger Things. At one point, Steve asks Dustin about the flashlights: “Where’d everyone get those?” Dustin replies, ““Do you need to be told everything? You’re not a child.” This line may well be a critique that the creators are raising against the audience. Indeed, events and choices should make sense in a story and a world, but good story telling does not involve revealing every single detail, explain why every single individual choice was made. Instead, Stranger Things says, “Hey, if you are a smart audience, you can fill the gaps of the narrative on your own!”

She-Hulk likewise makes implicit comments on the nature of the show itself. Indeed, Jennifer Walters is speaking to K.E.V.I.N., seemingly critiquing the AI; however, the critique seems more oriented toward the audience than to K.E.V.I.N. Consider this comment from Rotten Tomatoes: “If they make another season, I hope it’s better and sticks to more about She-Hulk and her life as a superhero instead of a lawyer” [1]. This perspective on the show is precisely what the creators are critiquing about the audience: Must we also have a larger-than-life superhero fighting cosmic forces? Why can’t a show focus on the mundane of life? And Jennifer Walters suggests as much, arguing toward K.E.V.I.N. that the stakes of the show are her experiences, her life, her struggles. The show does not need to be about She-Hulk as a superhero but can rather complicate the relationship between one’s superhero and non-superhero personas.

And the show generally executes this division well. Aside from the explicit dialogue with Bruce Banner and Matt Murdock, as I write I find myself unsure whether to call the lead character She-Hulk or Jennifer Walters. Quite frankly, this division is an important challenge to folks in culture and society who either wrap their entire identities up into one thing they do (I see you academia) or expect others to have a simple, two-dimensional identity. In reality, humans are complex creatures, and we bring a range of experiences, activate different aspects of ourselves at different times, and sometimes struggle with differentiating between those aspects when social contexts overlap. For this reason, I appreciate She-Hulk and how it critiques the audience, the audience’s expectations, and what people in society expect of others more generally.

The Text and Truth

Although I appreciate She-Hulk in many respects, the show’s representation of K.E.V.I.N. left a bad taste in my mouth with regard to the lived experienced of creators. In the final scene, for example, K.E.V.I.N. comments that the animators and special effects folks moved onto another project. Therefore, She-Hulk needs to become Jennifer Walters off camera. If we take the text as face value, that is, the text the world constructs, the animation is simply a matter of people starting something else. The implication, perhaps, is that poor CGI is the result of Marvel Studios producing many films and TV shows. I wonder, though, if this text of She-Hulk is meant to reorient the audience from a serious problem in Marvel Studios.

Through July and August, many websites published about the ongoing controversy between third-party CGI animators and Marvel Studios. The VFX vendors argue that Marvel Studios overworks and underpays the workers, resulting in lower-quality shows [2]. Thus, the claim that the VFX artists have simply moved onto another project at some level redirects the conversation away from VFX artists’ lived experiences.

Admittedly, this observation is on shaky grounds. I can’t prove that She-Hulk intended to redirect the conversation. My claim is very much conjectural. Nonetheless, we need to consider such issues when we watch media. How do the claims in the show interact with lived experiences? When using a meta approach to story telling, how does that shape not only how we see the story but also how we see the creators themselves? And to what extent does the story telling reframe how we see a multi-billion dollar corporation? And what real-world damage might such reframing do?

[1] https://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/she_hulk_attorney_at_law/s01/reviews?type=user

[2] https://www.cbr.com/marvel-create-own-vfx-house-worker-backlash-mcu/

Game of Thrones and Guilt Culture: The Faith of the Seven as a Means of Explaining the Emergence of Guilt Culture

I finally started watching Game of Thrones on HBO Max, not House of the Dragon but the original TV show. At this point of season 5, Cersei has given power to the High Septon of the Faith of the Seven (the Faith), and he is using that power to strengthen the Faith’s grip on society. Particularly striking to me is how the show’s representation of the Faith and it confessors’ actions parallel the practices developed in Europe between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries. As such, Game of Thrones is particularly useful for providing folks with a tangible experience of how guilt culture emerged. Importantly, this experience, albeit an experience mediated through a TV show, has the potential to demonstrate and inform folks that divine command theory is not the only and best explanation to moral conscience but that cultural forces can, and I think do, offer a more helpful explanation for the notion of a moral conscience.

What, though, is the emergence of guilt culture? Jean Delumeau’s monumental work Sin and Fear: The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture, 13th-18th Centuries lays out a remarkably thorough history of sin and fear in the west. Essentially, he shows how the art, sermons, and literature of these centuries evince a macabre culture. This culture thus emphasized the centrality of humanity’s redemptive needs, human fragility, and human sin. As such, data from the thirteenth to eighteenth century evince an increasing focus on and practices regarding a consciousness of guilt for the sake of salvation and redemption. As he writes, “the focus would be placed on this confession itself (which ultimately designated the entire penitential process), and thus on the examination of one’s conscience,” “the evolution toward a culture of guilt” (197). Importantly, though, this emergence of and evolution toward a culture guilt originated in monastic communities. Therefore, the notion of a moral consciousness and the accompanying behaviors was not, in fact, the result of some intrinsic human nature but rather the result of authorities pressuring and shaping society through various mediums.

This process, I think, is likewise evident in Game of Thrones. In seasons 1-4, the religious fanatics, as they are referenced in the show, are merely in the background, a seemingly small monastic group. Only in season 5 do they begin to reinforce and assert power through a sort of guilt culture, examination of the conscience, and demand for penitence with the goal of human redemption. Through the Game of Throne‘s story, then, the audience can experience a world prior to the Faith’s practices around and responses to what they perceive as immoral and an affront to the Faith of the Seven. Likewise, the audience witnesses how High Septon normalizes societal practices and behaviors in order to reshape how society thinks, acts, and behaves. This process, I think, nicely parallels the history of guilt culture in the Primary World (i.e., our current world). (And while seasons 5 and 6 may offer more parallels, recall that I am only in the middle of season 5.)

Why does this parallel between Western history and Game of Thrones matter, then? Such a parallel matters for many reasons. First, Game of Thrones exemplifies that social processes shape how people think and act. Importantly, though, this knowledge and understanding comes not through academic books or lectures but rather is evident through a screen telling a story and constructing a Secondary World (i.e., a world similar to but vastly different from our own, the Primary World). As such, the show forces audiences to consider how society shapes one’s moral conscience at least within the world of Game of Thrones. Whether an individual then puts that consideration into conversation with the Primary World is another question.

Second, and building on the first point, the parallel between Game of Thrones and Western history offers a helpful way to teach. That is, with Game of Thrones being such a major cultural touchstone, teachers (especially university professors) would be wise to leverage Game of Thrones to teach more concrete, complex material rooted in our world, in the Primary World. (In fact, I can’t help but wonder how much students might enjoy a two-semester course introducing humanities through all eight seasons of Game of Thrones.)

Third, the parallel between Game of Thrones and the Western history of sin, fear, and guilt may explain, in part, why and how religious affiliations, practices, and trends are shifting in contemporary culture. Rather than asserting that a particular form of guilt and moral conscience existed in the same way throughout time and space, Game of Thrones demonstrates how societal forces shape perspectives, behaviors, and assumptions. This demonstration as mentioned in my first point, enables people to reconsider their assumptions regarding Christian hegemonic claims about morality and divine command theory. This reconsideration may, in part, explain the decrease in people identifying as religious in the last thirty years (https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2022/09/13/how-u-s-religious-composition-has-changed-in-recent-decades/).

Biblical Law and Contemporary Law: Some Thoughts on Copyright Law, Facts, and History

I spent a chunk of time at work last week reading about copyright and fair use laws. Unsurprisingly, the laws surrounding copyright and fair use are quite complex and situational. Particularly interesting to me was the conversation about public domain, “creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copy right, trademark, or patent laws. The public owns these works, not an individual author or artist. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it” [1]. Simply put, people can use public domain material in their content because the material itself belongs to the public.

Laws, for example, are considered public domain. In a 2002 case [2], a court ruled that an entity cannot sue for copyright infringement regarding laws, such as building codes. The court justified this ruling by noting that “when a model code is enacted into law, it becomes a fact—the law of a particular local government” [3]. The fact in this context, though, is somewhat ambiguous. Indeed, the Supreme Court doesn’t explicitly call laws fact; however, laws parallel census data, scientific facts, historical data, and biographical data inasmuch as “they may not be copyrighted and are part of the public domain available to ever person” [4].

This framework—namely, the modern US legal conceptions of law in relation to data and facts—raise interesting issues regarding biblical and ancient Near Eastern law: To what extent have modern US legal conceptions of law and copyright impacts how we approach and think about the function and creation of law (broadly construed) in the ancient Near East? More specifically, how does contemporary copyright law impact studies regarding things like innerbiblical exegesis, Pentateuch studies, law in the Hebrew Bible, redaction criticism (et. al), and in light of Milstein’s recent work, ancient law more broadly? (Literary studies undoubtedly play a huge role, as well as other methodologies. Still, identifying how this particular issues impacts conclusions and studies, if at all, might be a worthwhile endeavor.)

While I can’t answer these questions here, these questions are part of the reason why I appreciated Sara Milstein’s book Making A Case. Rather than framing biblical texts through a distinctly modern legal framework, her work takes into greater consideration how the Hebrew Bible fits with broader historical trends. In doing so, her approach to biblical law moves beyond other approaches that contemporary law impacts to a great extent.

The problem of copyright and public domain in US law likewise raises another question: To what extent did facts exist in ancient Near Eastern law? And how did different ancient communities draw the line between fact and opinion, if at all? Again, I have no answer to this question, but the issue is worth thinking about. (At least I think the issue is worth considering.)

[1] https://fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/public-domain/welcome/#are_local_laws_in_the_public_domain

[2] Veeck v. Southern Building Code Congress International, Inc., 293 F. 3d 791 (5th Cir. 2002).

[3] https://fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/public-domain/welcome/#are_local_laws_in_the_public_domain

[4] https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/appellate-courts/F3/293/791/521953/