Reflections on “Bible and Poetry in Late Antique Mesopotamia” by Jeffrey Wickes

As often happens at the SBL/AAR annual meetings, book distributors occasionally give away a handful of books on the conference’s last day. In 2022, I snagged a copy of Jeffrey Wickes’ Bible and Poetry in Late Antique Mesopotamia: Ephrem’s Hymns on Faith. Although the subject area was a bit out of my wheelhouse, I nonetheless read the book in its entirety. As a life principle, I work to read every book that I own: no page is left unturned. This post, then, offers a few of my reflections on Wickes’ monograph in relation to my interests.

As a whole, Wickes’ articulates how Ephrem navigates theological debates of his time and how to read the Christian Bible. That is, Ephrem’s poetry is less exegetical and more of a creative, literary world that brings together the horizons of his theological concerns and community with allusions to Christian biblical texts. Rather than summarizing Wickes’ entire argument, I will instead focus on two aspects that are pertinent to my interests.

First, Wickes highlights that Ephrem’s poetry often pushes against any investigation, inasmuch as God is transcendent and thus cannot be investigated and debated. Rather, Ephrem advocated for a stance that theological language and discussion external to the Christian Bible was problematic. To push against the so-called investigation, Ephrem often used narratives wherein individual biblical characters or groups are investigating the divine, for as Wickes’ writes, “Ephrem’s argument is negative, forbidding investigation into the divine: as the simple cannot understand the wise, neither can the wise understand the Creator” (35). The fact that Ephrem reframes and narrates these stories of biblical characters investigating is precisely what I find interesting. In previous posts, I have identified that universal categories like sin are highly problematic and that socially transgressive actions can fall under categories other than sin. Ephrem’s Hymns on Faith and polemic against theological discussion and investigation is an excellent example: his narratives and the characters investigating are not necessarily said to have sinned, only to have committed some sort of improper social relation. We can therefore see that socially transgressive behavior in Ephrem’s Bible went beyond sin. This observation is key because we ought to consider that even texts within the Hebrew Bible might be doing the same thing at moments and that not every transgression is a sin.

Second, Wickes identifies an economic “I,” in that “Ephrem depicts his poetry as resulting from a divine-human transaction” (65). Though I will not go into the details, one consideration was strikingly absent: sin. For all the economic terminology that Ephrem uses, I would have liked to see Wickes engage with Gary Anderson’s discussion about sin as debt. For even if Ephrem’s poetry does not clearly reflect debt as sin, exploring that dimension of Ephrem’s poetry might enrich our understanding of the Hymns on Faith.  

Overall, I recommend this work for individuals interested in late-antique pedagogy and liturgy, reception history, reflecting on the nature of biblical allusions, the history of theological debates, and, of course, Ephrem’s poetry. Although this reflection was brief and only noted one area of interest and one criticism, I do not want those comments to take away from the broader value of Wickes’ scholarship. Overall, I enjoyed reading his work and have no regrets. (Trust me, I have regretted investing time and energy into books.)


Reflections on Johan Huizinga’s “Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture”

After reading T. M. Luhrmann’s How God Becomes Real, I decided to follow up on her discussions about play and religion. Initially, I read Hans Vaihinger’s A Philosophy of As If in order to understand the philosophical framework that formed later discussions about religion and play. Next on this list was Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Notably, this book was originally published in 1949. As such, some of Huizinga’s language and framework made me cringe, especially his frequent reference to the so-called savage and primitive. Nonetheless, this book provided some interesting ideas to chew on.

Huizinga’s central claim is simple: although not everything is named as play, play is a central element in all cultures and is formative for civilizations and societies. He demonstrates play’s role in a range of areas: contest, law, war, knowledge, poetry, philosophy, and art. In general, he offers intriguing examples of play for the respective areas, but much of his discussion is rooted in his definition of what constitutes play and how to identify play (as he discusses in chapters 1 and 2). Thus, I would have liked a more thoughtful, philosophically rooted discussion on what constitutes play. For while his definition of play is reasonable and understandable, it is almost too broad, to the point that everything starts to feel like a degree of play by the end of the book.

Still, play as a central element in culture can have value as a heuristic tool, a way to make sense of disparate data. For Huizinga, this is particularly true in his discussion of religion including a degree of play. In his words: “In play as we conceive it the distinction between belief and make-believe breaks down. The concept of play merges quite naturally with that of holiness. Any Prelude of Bach, any line of tragedy proves it” (25). This initial comment on play as merging with holiness is helpful for thinking about how religion works not because Huizinga is on to some fundamental reality; rather, his comment reflects a broader understand of how religion was conceptualized via holiness in the early twentieth century. He continues, “Primitive, or let us say, archaic ritual is thus sacred play, indispensable for the well-being of the community, fecund of cosmic insight and social development but always play in the sense Plato gave to it–an action accomplishing itself outside and above the necessities and seriousness of everyday life” (26). He later comments, “Play consecrated to the Deity, the highest goal of man’s endeavor — such was Plato’s conception of religion” (27). Whether Huizinga’s comments are true is beyond this post, but what remains key is how he uses holiness as a universal concept to redescribe religion as a form of play and to link the so-called savage/primitive with the modern person.

As Huizinga’s unversal holiness and savage-primitive language suggests, we ought to be careful when using this religion-as-play model as a heuristic tool, which Luhrmann does well. Nonetheless, I have seen some people reference Huizinga’s work for describing religion, but I’d like to see those people engage more extensively with Huizinga’s discussion when using his framework for religion.

All that said, Huizinga’s approach to play can be helpful for considering aspects of religion without invoking religious language. In particular, a religion-as-play model offers a way to consider socially transgressive acts not solely as sin but also, or instead, as breaking the rules, of being a poor sport. To utilize Huizinga, though, we need to combine his notion of rules with Luhrmann’s discussion of paracosm, the private-but-shared imagined world that religious groups live within and that makes the invisible real. First, Huizinga comments on the centrality of rules in a game: “All play has its rules. they determine what ‘holds’ in the temporary world circumscribed by play” (11). Here, Huizinga’s “temporary world” is equivalent to Luhrmann’s paracosm. Granted, the paracosm isn’t necessarily temporary; however, a paracosm might be stronger or weaker depending on the rituals and spatial circumstances. As such, a paracosm has rules by which the group must play. Continuing with Huizinga: “Indeed, as soon as the rules are transgressed the whole play-world collapses. The game is over. The umpire’s whistle breaks the spells and sets ‘real’ life going again” (11). Here, we see that breaking the rules break the game. As such, breaking the rules of a paracosm can be said to break the imagined world where the invisible can become visible. It is at this point, at the moment when one’s actions begin to splinter the paracosm’s reality, that people within the religious group might identify the transgressors actions as fundamentally bad, evil, or problematic because the individual broke the game’s rules and, thus, is contributing to the world’s collapse and illusion’s weakening power.

Transgressing the boundaries of a game’s rules, of a paracosm’s logic, can be named different things in different contexts and function with a different set of game rules: in the Hebrew Bible, חטא; in Vedic texts, énas and ā́gas (Source); in Mesopotamian rituals, māmītu and hīṭu; in US laws; etc. As such, one strength of using the play framework to discuss socially transgressive actions is that we can group similar phenomena together without leveraging the term “sin,” a word and concept deeply inflected by Western theological discourse. Moreover, even for socially transgressive rules wherein sin may be a useful concept to leverage, this framework allows us to identify different transgression gradations: in the Hebrew Bible, for example, some transgressions can be grouped into subcategories other than sin.

Reflections on David Herman’s “Storytelling and the Sciences of Mind”

When I first purchased David Herman’s Storytelling and the Sciences of Mind, I looked forward to an interdisciplinary approach to narrative, leveraging the best ideas in the humanities and sciences. As my recent thought processes went, with modern scientific capabilities, we ought to start considering what sciences of the mind can tell us about stories, their power, and more broadly, religion. Herman’s work seemed to fit the bill.

Indeed, Herman is clearly a well-informed scholar with an in-depth understanding of narratology, psychology, storytelling, the sciences of the mind, and parallel fields. Page after page, Herman’s erudite, highly technical discussion reflects this reality. However, this in-depth knowledge quickly becomes a problem. Seeing that his work aims to bridge storytelling studies (i.e., the humanities, narratology, literary analysis, etc.) with the sciences of the mind, Herman makes clear his intention to use highly technical language for all the fields he mentions. Unfortunately, his consistent use of highly technical language from disparate fields, while aiming to unite various fields with a multidisciplinary model, becomes a roadblock for scholars in either siloed field. For if you have preexisting knowledge of literary studies in the humanities, you likely do not have preexisting knowledge of the sciences of the mind. And vice verse, preexisting knowledge of the sciences of the mind likely means you don’t have preexisting knowledge of literary studies. But because Herman writes as if his reader already work in both fields, readers from both fields are unintentionally cut off from the fruits of his study.

Importantly, I am not the first to make an observation in this vein. Early in the book, Herman comments on one of his reviewer’s observations: “the reviewer criticized my book-plan on the grounds that it contained unnecessary jargon. As someone who has been teaching challenging narratological nomenclatures to students at all levels for nearly twenty years, I am sympathetic to the reviewer’s complaint. But these classroom experiences have also taught me that technical terms, when used judiciously, are absolutely crucial for particular descriptive and explanatory purposes, and for establishing a viable basis for collaborative scholarly work. Thus, . . . this book in turn uses those aspects as a basis for focused cross-disciplinary or rather ‘transdisciplinary’ dialogue” (5). Essentially, Herman wants to use the proper analytical terminology and tools. As he is to his reviewer, I am sympathetic to his comment (e.g., do not get me started on “innerbiblical exegesis” and its subsequent history or intertextuality). Nonetheless, where Herman may miss the reviewer’s point, and perhaps I am refining or reframing the reviewer’s point, is that the jargon is not necessary the problem but rather how Herman uses such jargon.

The analytical terms he employs throughout the work are undoubtedly valuable, but the book does not use such analytical tools in a well-thought, planned manner. Instead, the book reads more like a string of jargon, with little to no explanation of such jargon. And where explanations occur, he relies on other jargon. As a result, the only way to make sense of his writing is to 1) research each concept separately, 2) read each article he references in his discussions, and/or 3) read every endnote.

Such a stringing of jargon is further problematic because, as noted earlier, this book is written for two historically distinctive fields that do not currently have much overlap. As a result, scientists and humanities scholars are likely to lose track of his ideas because they are expected to understand both fields already. Had the book been written in two parts, from the perspective of scientists looking to understand literary studies and then from the perspective of literary scholars seeking to understand sciences of the mind, this issue could have been mitigated, but this is not the case.

As such, Herman unintentionally further complicates the possibility of cross-disciplinary work. For while scholars like Zunshine clearly construct a bridge from the humanities to the sciences and many references in Herman’s work construct a bridge from the sciences to the humanities, Herman seems to find a new chasm, an entirely different rift. But this rift is less transdisiplinary and more an an attempt to establish a distinct field of study altogether. While admirable, dispensing of previous field divisions as such is impractical at this time. Perhaps his work will find more of a place in the future, but now is not the time.

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 chapters on scholarship about 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).

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.


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.


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.


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?



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 (

When Religion becomes Fandom, or Why the MCU and Its Fans Reminds People of Religion

One approach to comic books currently in vogue is to view comic books, comic book culture, and fandoms through the lens of religion. As Aaron Ricker suggests, though, “By choosing what to study as religion, scholars help define religion, and the ways in which we do this can often look lazy and (confessionally and/or professionally) self serving” [1]. This approach follows Aaron W. Hughes and Russel T. McCutcheon’s recent emphasis that “we may be less interested in studying religion than in shifting the ground and, instead, studying the act of calling something religion,” namely, the discourse around religion [2]. Thus, we must ask not whether the MCU and its fans are sometimes interpreted through a lens of religion but rather why the MCU and its fans are sometimes interpreted through the lens of religion. One answer to this question is by exploring the notion of world-building as it relates to both religion and comic book culture. This world-building, I argue, forms a bridge that results in scholars often viewing comic book culture as a sort of religion.

In what follows, I first identify what constitutes world-building and why it is important. Then, I examine the MCU and religion as separate categories through these lens of world-building. Third, I bring the MCU and religion together through the lens of world-building in order to identify one aspect of why religion scholars sometimes us a religious studies lens to approach the MCU. Finally, I show how the flip side of this observation might give have potential, namely, exploring religion through the lens of world-building and fandoms.


World-building is an idea in the field of media studies that Mark J. P. Wolf recently synthesized and developed in Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory of History and Subcreation [3]. Simply put, world-building is the subcreation of a secondary world, not simply a fictional world but a world in which the represented reality is “different enough (and usually detached or separated in some way) from the Primary World [i.e., our world and reality] to give them ‘secondary’ status” [4]. Importantly, world-building is distinct from narrative. Whereas a narrative is a means by which the world is experienced, world-building is a separate act which does not always include narrative. As Wolf highlights regarding Oz, L. Frank Baum’s best world-building occurred outside of his well-known work The Wizard of Oz, other works often counted as his weakest stories regarding narrative [5].

World-Building in the MCU

A recent example of world-building as opposed to story in the MCU is Disney’s She-Hulk. Although I’m only on the fourth episode, my wife and I agree on one thing: the story is mundane, unadventurous, and no particularly engaging. Such a narrative contrasts starkly with, for instance, Disney’s Shang-Chi and the Legends of the Ten Rings, which included all the elements of a good story paired with world-building. Because She-Hulk‘s narrative is so mundane (and frankly somewhat boring), the show’s reception has been relatively poor. Where She-Hulk excels, though, is in world-building. In the first four episodes, She-Hulk has worked to map out the MCU world, itself a subcreation, by showing the audience how things work and raising key questions that enable viewers to engage with the world: What happens when superheroes and villains just want to be normal? How do casual viewers perceive the folks with superpowers after the events of the first three phases of the MCU, more commonly known as The Infinity Saga? Can previous-known villains be rehabilitated and become good (e.g., Loki)? These questions are what She-Hulks explores, and the show makes secondary the importance of the narrative.

Importantly, most MCU fans or casual viewers expect that the world-building will pay off in someway down the road with more consistent and inventive films [7]. (At least I hope so.) Put another way, world-building is engaging and interesting for certain MCU fans because it pushes, (re)articulates, and clarifies the boundaries of the secondary world, the subcreation, that Disney developed since the first Iron Man movie. And this world-building keeps viewers interested. (Naturally, we need some quality stories soon.)

World-Building in Religion

World-building is also a feature in some religious traditions. In particular, though, I am interested in religious traditions that look toward history to illuminate, for instance, the “world of the Bible.” For many scholars in the twentieth century, fields like Assyriology and classics were not an end in and of themselves but served to expand the world of the Bible, sometimes the Hebrew Bible and sometimes the New Testament. Notably, though, world-building in relation to religiously authoritative scriptures, otherwise known as “the biblical world,” is not typically viewed as fiction. Instead, the world-building of a secondary world isn’t secondary in terms of reality and plausibility but only along the lines of history. And as L. P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” [8]. Thus, although world-building in relation to the Bible in religious studies is not necessarily about constructing a new, all-together separate secondary world, the world-building that occurs around the Bible nonetheless is a sort of world-building activity that is separated from the Primary World due to time and history, even if folks practicing religion view such things as reality to a degree.

Why the MCU as Religion via World-Building?

As noted, both the MCU and religion tend to partake in world-building. The difference, though, is that religion’s world-building does not decouple the subcreation from the Primary World, from reality, whereas the MCU clearly expects the audience to decouple the subcreation from reality. (Note that I know of specific children who believe that that MCU was part of the Primary World.) Such overlap in world-building, I propose, is why some religious studies scholars like to see the MCU and its fandom as religion. Although they may not say as much, fandom practices and comic book culture more broadly participate in the world-building activities of the MCU in the same way that some religious communities participate in the world-building activities of the Bible. Such a parallel creates an impression that the MCU and its fandom should be understood as a sort of religion.

The Coin’s Flip Side

The observation that religion scholars view comic book culture through the lens of religion opens up other fruitful methods for approaching religion. What if rather than approach religion through the lens of religion we instead utilized tools from fandom and media studies to explore religion and religious studies discourses as a form of world-building? This approach would essentially follow Hughes and McCutcheon’s approach of exploring why we call some things religions as well as generate new, more fruitful theories of how religion works in the twenty-first century.

[1] Aaron Ricker, “The Third Side of the Coin: Constructing Superhero Comics Culture as Religious Myth,” Arc 43 (2015): 104.

[2] Aaron W. Hughes and Russell T. McCutcheon, Religion in 50 Words: A Critical Vocabulary (New York: Routledge, 2022), 250. This emphasis reflects a broader, more recent trend in religious studies. See the referenced page for further references.

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

[4] Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds, 25.

[5] Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds, 29.

[6] I am intentionally ambiguous regarding what I mean by “Bible” because I don’t have sufficient time to sift through Jewish and Christian times when this sort of thing happened and happens.

[7] Regarding world-building, “audience members and critical approaches that center on narrative, then, may find such excess material to be extraneous, tangential, and unnecessary, while those that consider the story’s world will find their experience enhanced.” Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds, 3.

[8] Wolf mentions this quote in Building Imaginary Worlds, but I was unable to find it in the book.

Religion in The First Avenger: Magic, Canon, and Cosmos (Part One)

Since 2009, Disney has earned roughly $18.2 billion on the Marvel Cinematic University (MCU). All of the events in the MCU, introducing the heroes, villains, and objects, culminated with Avengers: Endgame. For various reasons, the MCU offers some interesting parallels for understanding various elements of religion. So, over the next 20 weeks, I will be watching the MCU films in chronological order, thinking about how they can shed light an religious studies topics.

This week, I watched Captain America: The First Avenger (TFA). Though TFA is chronologically prior to Iron Man, it was released in 2011, after Iron Man (2008), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), and Thor (2011). The film is about Steve Rodgers, who volunteers for a special physical enhancement test in the US Army. After a successful test and due to unseen circumstances, Captain America, who is Steve Rodgers, saves the world from a Nazi group which split off from Nazi Germany and nearly destroyed the entire East Coast with the Tesseract. Red Skull the villain, sees himself as harnessing the power of the gods through science. At the end of the film, Captain America stops Red Skull; however, Captain America crash lands in Greenland. The film ends by showing how Captain America was buried in ice for 70 years, discovered in time to become part of the Avengers team.

In what follows, I will lay out of few general observations about TFA and issues in religious studies. Many of these thoughts are undeveloped and will receive more thorough treatment as I re-watch all of the MCU Phase One films.

First, TFA represents a strained relationship between science and magic/religion. Red Skull is mocked by his peers during the beginning of the film for seeking to find the Tesseract in order to power his weapons. He comments at one point: “What others see as superstition, you and I see as science.” That is to say, there is recognition of the boundaries between science and magic/religion. In finding and utilizing the Tesseract, the film effectively illuminates how the boundaries between “religion” or “magic” and “science” are sometimes more porous than we realize. For example, turning towards Mesopotamia, is the Maqlû rituals, anti-witchcraft rituals, magic, religious, or scientific? The practitioner uses various objects as material technology to push against the witch’s  possession of victim. Though most would not categorize this as scientific, the ritual was perceived, in some respects, as harnessing the power of the deity. Thus, though they are not the same, Red Skull’s use of the Tesseract and a practitioner’s use of the anti-witchcraft rituals are an interesting parallel in terms of the relationship between magic, religion, and science.


Second, issues of canonization arise in the MCU. After all, the films were not made in chronological order. This emerges most clearly with Howard Stark’s character, who is the father of Tony Stark/Iron Man. TFA introduces Howard Stark as a wealthy arms dealer for the US Army. If we watch the movies in chronological order with no background knowledge from the comics, his character is not significant; however, if we watch the movies based on release-date order, Howard Stark becomes more significant. Such an issue is equally important in the Hebrew Bible: which book was composed first and which book is imagined to be chronologically first? Moreover, should one read the Hebrew Bible in the Jewish canonical order, or should they read it based on composition date? For, if you don’t read the texts based on composition date, certain elements which occur chronologically earlier, though later in terms of composition, may be unclear. Such issues are relevant for both Biblical Studies and the MCU because they point to an even more central practice: what are the reading/watching practices for audiences? Though I have no answer, it is worth comparing more in the future.

Third, Red Skull finds the Tesseract in sculptured mural of Yggdrasil:

“Yggdrasill, the world tree, is an energy field that supports and connects the Nine Worlds. It is represented as a tree the roots and branches of the tree each connect a different realm… and the earthly realm of Midgard through which all the connections pass.” – (Source)

In other words, the location of the Tesseract implies that it has a connection with the cosmic Yggdrasill, a mythical tree from Norse cosmology and mythology. Put another way, an object of power (Teseract) was found amidst a religious symbol of a cosmic power (Yggdrasill). The significance of Red Skull’s finding the Tesseract would have been notably less were it not associated with a cosmic power. That is to say, the way in which one interacts with their material environment can be understood different based on the associations and links. For example, when a Mesopotamian king captured an enemy temple, the temple was not simply a building for gods; rather, it was a microcosm of the macrocosm, of the universe. So, the significance of capturing temples was heightened through associating temples with a greater cosmic significance. Thus, while Red Skull’s finding the Tesseract is distinct from a Mesopotamian king capturing a temple, there is a similar pattern in both: the material object is associated with a cosmic power in order to make more significant the material item.

Review: “An Obituary for “Wisdom Literature”: The Birth, Death, and Intertextual Reintegration of a Biblical Corpus” by Will Kynes

Will Kynes. An Obituary for “Wisdom Literature”: The Birth, Death, and Intertextual Reintegration of a Biblical Corpus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. XVIII + 324.

“Wisdom Literature” as a generic category has been used for centuries. Will Kynes’ central aim in An Obituary for “Wisdom Literature” is to critically analyze the category of “Wisdom Literature” and provide an alternative approach to the corpus via intertextual reintegration. In what follows, I will summarize the volume and provide subsequent critical reflection.

In Chapter One, Will Kynes describes how modern scholarship’s use of the category “Wisdom Literature” is fundamentally flawed. Often times, “Wisdom” becomes a generic or thematic category which obscures biblical texts. As such, up till now, only two options have been available: amputate the category all-together or allow pan-sapientalism to contaminate all biblical texts. He substantiates his argument by identifying unintended consequences of the category (adaption of “Wisdom Literature” into Assyriology and Egyptology; presupposition of modern categories within texts; connection of “Wisdom Literature” to an administrative scribal class; the near universal application of “Wisdom Literature” to the biblical corpus), briefly reviewing 20th and 21st century scholarship about “Wisdom Literature” (illuminating how the criteria for “Wisdom Literature” remains inconclusive, hazy, and subjective), diagnosing particular issues of “Wisdom Literature” (pan-sapientalism with in the wisdom category; failed attempts to treat the issue via genre and scribal setting; and potential future problems in associating the entire Hebrew Bible with wisdom literature), and identifying similar issues in biblical studies (Psalter, Qumran, ancient Near East, and Pan-Deuteronomism). Hinting towards subsequent chapters, he proposes an approach via intertextual connections in order to deal with what has traditionally been considered “Wisdom Literature.”

In Chapter Two, Kynes examines how ancient textual traditions engage with what are typically considered Wisdom literature. He does this in order to determine if the “wisdom category has an ancient pedigree” (60). First, drawing from groupings of texts in early Christian literature, he highlights how these groupings, though akin to “wisdom” groupings, include no explanation or category as to why they are grouped together. Within the Writings, what Kynes calls the Hebrew order, the wisdom texts appear not to be correlated with wisdom as a genre proper. Likewise, although texts typically grouped as wisdom literature appear in Greek texts, the classification is not equivalent to wisdom, being more united through the notion of didactiscism. Second concerning association between Solomon and texts, the association is not reflective of genre. Even within these associations, Jewish and Christian traditions recognize the diversity of ‘Solomonic’ texts and exclude Job. Third, he notes that while features are common to traditional “wisdom” texts, shared characteristics are not strong enough “that they could be considered a distinctive category” (75). Fourth, he shows how the Hebrew Bible shows no evidence for wisdom (חכמה) as an emic genre category. Fifth, he shows how medieval interpreters had no wisdom category, though this section employs far less textual support and could be significantly improved. Having outlined the flimsy foundations off wisdom’s ancient pedigree, he effectively illustrates that the origins of “Wisdom” must be sought in the modern period.

In Chapter Three, Kynes continues describes the origins of wisdom of a literary, generic category. Tracking the origins of ‘wisdom’ through footnotes and references, he suggests that Johann Bruch’s Weisheits-Lehre der Hebraer (1851) is the first place wherein the notion of ‘wisdom’ as a generic category appears. While various figures like Hegel, Vatke, Herder, Schleiermacher, and others influenced Bruch’s work, Bruch’s investigation of Hebrew “philosophy”, or as he calls it “wisdom teaching,” is the first synthesis of trends in biblical scholarship and philosophy, resulting in a category “Wisdom Literature.” Though subsequent scholars pushed against Bruch, they, nonetheless, framed “their interpretation of these texts… by Bruch’s association of these texts with philosophy and against theocracy” (100). As such, the origins of ‘wisdom’ as a generic category are fundamentally flawed, being primarily the result of 19th century philosophical discourse and theological concern. Moreover, “the definition of Wisdom Literature is so vague that it invites interpreters to import their own modern presuppositions into the texts to fill it out” (103).

In Chapter Four, Kynes lays out a new way to think about and to approach the problem of genre. He frames his approach as a movement away from traditional taxonomic and rigid approaches. First, he describes genre as “nothing more than a formalized version of intertextuality” (110), drawing attention to how generic classification varies based on the horizon of expectations. As such, he suggests that “any genre-driven interpretation… constantly runs the risk of deforming a text’s interpretation by illegitimately restricting its manifold significant intertextual connections” (112). To explain how genres emerge, then, he suggests that they emerge as “”symbols of relationship”… through readers’ perceptions of the patterns of affiliations between texts” (114). As such, genre is only valid relative to a reader’s position socially and culturally. To elucidate how a reader stands in relation to a text as it concerns genre, Kynes draws from conceptual blending theory, a two stage process of identifying internal relations between texts and the giving shape to the relations, resulting in genre.

A significant factor in conceptual blending is accounting for cultural influences, namely “how the genres that readers apply to the text are themselves shaped by historical and ideological forces” (122). He suggests that network theory serves to offer “a helpful means of understanding the culturally influenced nature of this emergence of genres” (123). The aforementioned discussion contributes to what he calls a multidimensional approach to genre, where genre is relative to one’s location, just as the Orion constellation is different based on an individuals location in the solar system. In doing so, he highlights “the plurality of texts, genres, and subject positions” (126).

As a consequence, genre, he suggests, is helpful inasmuch as it encourages comparison of textual groupings relative to texts’ history of interpretation and reception. Wisdom, then, may be understood as a relative and partial generic classification. Moreover, his approach to genre deals with issues of particularity/generality and subjectivity/objectivity by enabling interpreters to triangulate meaning, thereby resulting in “more objective interpretation” (140). Likewise it accounts for stability and change in generic classifications. This discussion, Kynes notes, is equally important for other biblical categories.

In Chapter Five, Kynes considers various genre networks of Job. First, he highlights three problems with reading Job as wisdom literature: (1) canonical division, preventing scholars from associating Job with non-wisdom texts, especially with regard to literary re-use; (2) theological abstraction with a perception of job as a didactic, philosophical text; (3) and hermeneutical limitations, though it is unclear what he means. Second, Kynes describes a wide variety of ways that scholars have described the genre of Job, including pre-19th century, ancient Near East, adapted, and meta generic distinctions. Taking these various perspectives into consideration, he suggests that the network approach may offer a more “comprehensive understanding of its meaning”; however, he doesn’t show how the network approach yields new analysis or results about Job.

In Chapter Six, Kynes considers Ecclesiastes in light of his methodology. First, he provides an overview of the pervasive confusion surrounding the nature of Ecclesiastes. Through such confusion, though, the assumption that Ecclesiastics contributes to wisdom literature remained consistent and unexamined. As a result, Ecclesiastes runs into the same issues as Job: canonical separation, theological abstraction, and hermeneutical limitation. Next, he describes the intertextual network of Ecclesiastes from three perspectives: genres before “Wisdom Literature” (Megilloth, poetry, solomonic collection), other genre groupings (Torah, history, prophecy, and apocalyptic), and genres from the ancient world, which Kynes claims often limit interpretation. Like the chapter on Job, he suggests that the multiperspectival network approach “will enable readers to see these diverse features more clearly” (217).

In Chapter Seven, Kynes considers Proverbs with regard to his new model. As with previous chapters, he initially illustrates how Proverb’s modern categorization as Wisdom Literature problematically results in canonical separation, theological abstraction, and hermeneutical limitation. Next, he outlines pre-Wisdom Literature generic groupings.: Sefrei Emet, poetry, and Solomonic collection. In terms of Solomon’s wisdom, he identifies four sub-genres: political education, ethical paraenessis, cultic guidance, and inspired instruction. Third, he describes Proverbs as part of ancient Near East groupings. Finally, he synthesizes these genres as part of his network approach, highlighting that boundaries and borderlines between such genres should be temporary and permeable (242).

Offering closing notes, Kynes summarizes his chapters and describes wisdom as a genre category to be dead. Instead, he proposes moving forward in a way that only uses wisdom as a concept and not as a genre.

Part One (Historical Metacriticism; Chapters 1-3) is by far the most outstanding portion of the volume. He provides sharp, well-thought out criticism of recent scholarship about Wisdom Literature. His work in Part One is akin to Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion, Jonathan Z. Smith’s “Religion, Religions, Religious”,  or David Lambert’s How Repentance Became Biblical with regard to the penitential lens inasmuch as Kynes clearly and carefully illustrates how the modern origins of the category distort objects under analysis. Undoubtedly, Part One is essential reading for biblical scholars.

Part Two (Chapter 4), wherein Kynes lays out a new model for approaching texts, is less developed. First, although Kynes cites theorists like Bakhtin, Frow, Geertz, Duff, and Bloom as he discusses intertextuality, he does not mention a wide variety of other important critics and interlocutors: Michael Holquist, William Irwin, Jenny Luarent, H.P. Mai, Russel Meek (certain articles), Piotr Michalowski, Geoffrey Miller, H.F. Plett, Christopher Hays, Lyle Eslinger, etc.. He also excludes the most important figure for intertextuality, namely Julia Kristeva, a French literary critic known for her work on intertextuality. To develop an entire method of “intertextuality” without mentioning Kristeva is akin to developing a method for Pentateuchal source criticism without referencing or acknowledging Julius Wellhausen. For example, Kristeva does not support the notion of genre in her writings. For Kristeva, genre carried a negative charge, perceived as (a) carrying a power of precedent based on ‘convention’ and ‘decorum’; and (b) and “as a repressive mechanism by which cultural institutions sought to classify, commodify and control artistic production.” Such criticism of genre is also present in Derrida, Barthes, Maurice Blanchot, and Benedetto Croce, as early as 1900 [1]. As such, Kynes’ uncritical combination of genre and intertextuality needs to be justified through engagement with, not just citation of, literary critics and interlocutors.

Additionally, Kynes’ entire methodology is based on a very particular definition of genre: it is “nothing more than a formalized version of intertextuality” (110). Setting aside the previous criticisms of Kynes’ combination of intertextuality and genre, his restricted definition essentially sidesteps and ignores any definitions of genre which interlocutors from chapters 5, 6, and 7 may have held. As such, any criticisms of their work with regard to genre is questionable because their understandings of genre is subordinated to his understanding of genre.

Concerning the actual methodology, it is unclear how his approach is helpful for biblical scholarship. In Chapter 4, wherein he presents his methodology, he includes multiple graphic illustrations in order to demonstrate how people conceptualize the relationship between texts. Chapters 5, 6, and 7, though, do not use the graphic illustrations which make clear his approach to genre as an intertextual grouping. Moreover, although he describes how scholars identify distinct generic groupings, he never triangulates various generic groupings in order to provide a more objective interpretation (see summary of chapter 4). That is to say, Kynes seems never to demonstrate the network approach as an effective tool and method for analysis of biblical texts.

Finally, though Kynes’ argument for the origins of wisdom literature in the 18th and 19th centuries CE is solid, it is too much to say that “[to] avoid perpetuating the hermeneutical distortions Wisdom has created, the field must recognize that the taxonomic category has been detrimental and is now dead” (245). In the field of religious studies, most scholars recognize “religion” as a modern, second-order category; however, most scholars have not concluded that religion is dead. Rather, religion must be approached in a critical and nuanced manner, the concept or genre explained in relation to the particular historical or literary context. Such an approach to the notion of Wisdom Literature is more reasonable; any commentary on Wisdom Literature must define the particular parameters of the category.

In conclusion, Kynes’ An Obituary for “Wisdom Literature” is invaluable in terms of how it traces the genealogy of wisdom as a generic category; however, the alternative methodology and approach proposed by Kynes needs refining before it can be useful for biblical scholarship.

[1] Duff, David. “Intertextuality versus Genre Theory: Bakhtin, Kristeva and the Question of Genre.” In Paragraph Vol. 25, No. 1 (2002): 54-73.