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.

hugo_weaving_as_red_skull

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.

 

The Etic, Emic, and Everything In-Between: Some Reflections on Adele Reinhartz’s Response to Daniel Boyarin

Recently, Daniel Boyarin published a book titled Judaism: The Genealogy of a Modern Notion. The goal of the book is to explore the history and usage of the term “Judaism”. Though I have admittedly not read the volume, Adele Reinhartz provides a helpful depiction of the Boyarin’s conclusions: “we “should not ascribe to a culture a category or abstraction for which that culture does not have a term.” To do so is anachronistic and therefore bad methodology. The implications for our scholarly practice is self-evident: we should not use the term Judaism when discussing premodern Jews” (Reinhartz 2019). As she notes later in her article, Boyarin’s conclusion is akin to his and Carlin Barton’s conclusion in Imagine No Religion (Fordham University Press, 2016), wherein Barton and Boyarin attempt to describe religion in antiquity without invoking modern the modern category “religion.”

Speaking of “Judaism” as a generic category, Reinhartz comments: “But does not the use of later generalizing terms give free rein to the dreaded sin of anachronism? Why, yes, of course it does. I would argue, however, that some degree of anachronism is inherent to the study of the past” (Reinhartz 2019). I am inclined to agree with Reinhartz. Various authors express similar sentiments about the category of “magic” in the recent volume titled Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic (Leiden: Brill, 2019). For example, Yuval Harari, known for his work on magic in ancient Israel and early Judaism, suggests “that an absolute split between the emic and the etic is impossible, and all attempts to trace the course of an emic approach are based on some presumption about the domain whose emic features we seek” (Harari 2019, 141).

My point in drawing attention to this is simple: many words in our vocabulary are, to echo J.Z. Smith’s perspective of religion, secondary categories [1]. Such categories don’t have a single definition; rather, they have 50 different definitions. The definitions depend on the particular contexts.

As Reinhartz and various authors in Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic point out, the modern categories which we impose on texts are exactly that. They are modern. As such, it is always a challenge to objectively describe a culture or text purely based on its internal qualities.

That is to say, it is particularly difficult to strongly distinguish between emic and etic descriptions. Difficulties distinguishing between these two anthropological approaches lead me to a comment and question worth exploring. While texts/cultures can be described with etic or emic terms, such descriptions are, in reality, too optimistic and unrealistic, as these categories are not precise. As such, how can scholars more systematically and critically map out the space between etic and emic analysis?

Admittedly, I am not incredibly conversant with anthropology. If such studies are available within anthropology, I would love to read them. On the other hand, if such studies are not available, it may be a route worth exploring. Exploring it will enable scholars to better engage with texts and cultures by more precisely defining where they stand between etic and emic [2].

[1] By contrast, though, David Frankfurter, “Ancient Magic in a New Key,” in Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic, ed. David Frankfurter (Leiden: Brill, 2019), 20, comments on “magic” as a second-order category: “While helpful initially to highlight aspects of phenomena, the term “magic” remains too vague to rely on as a genuine second-order category of description – for magic as described here essentially permeates human language, material lives, and social interactions.” That is to say, based on his definition and approach to “magic,” it is always present in societies through time and space.

[2] Though it not available to me at the moment, The Early Mediterranean World, 1200 – 600 BC (Leiden: Brill, 2018) includes helpful discussions about methodology. There may be some fruitful routes presented within the volume.

Philosophical Friday: Longinus and Sublimity

Longinus was a Hellenistic Jew, or at least an author familiar with Jewish culture, from the 1st century CE. He is most well known for his work On Sublimity. In this work, he argues that the best literature is sublime. Though difficult to identify in literature, he identifies five sources of sublimity: great thoughts, strong and inspired emotion, certain kinds of figures, noble diction, and dignified and elevated word-arrangement. Each of these points, he suggests, is a place where the audience of literature can come into contact with the sublime.

What, though, is the sublime? He comments: “When a man of a sense and literary experience hears something many times over, and it fails to dispose his mind to greatness or to leave him with more to reflect upon than was contained in the mere words, but comes instead to seem valueless on repeated inspection, this is not true sublimity; it endures only for the moment of hearing. Real sublimity contains much food for reflection, is difficult or rather impossible to resist, and makes a strong and ineffaceable impression on the memory” [1]. As Jacqueline Vayntrub carefully describes in her volume Beyond Orality, this very notion of literature and poetry becomes a keys in describing and organizing biblical poetry during the modern period.

It is worth noting the underlying philosophical and theoretical principles which inform, support, and frame Longinus’ understanding of the sublime. His notion of the sublime is based on a broad generalization about humans, namely that humans have “in our minds from the start an irresistible desire for anything which is great and, in relation to ourselves, supernatural” [2].  He proceeds by describing how people admire the large rivers, not the little streams. Likewise, people feel awe before volcanoes, not candles.

In pointing to this, I wish to make one observation: the way we describe the quality of literature and engage with it is often informed by the way we describe the quality of nature and engage with it. This is certainly the case with Longinus. Underlying his notion of sublimity is an assumption about how humans relate to nature.

[1] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 148.

[2] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 161.

Benjamin Harshav and Literature

Benjamin Harshav is a splendid theorist for considering literary texts, especially as it relates to reading Biblical texts. In what follows, I will briefly note and discuss a few of his ideas which stood out to me.

First, in his essay “The Structure of Non-Narrative Fiction,” he distinguishes between two levels of textual organization: the Text Continuum and the Reconstructed Level. The former describes the organization of the object as a linear text, one which unfolds as the audience reads the text. It is only in the Text Continuum that one can see a high degree of organization through the structure of the text. By contrast, the Reconstructed Level describes things like the characters, plots, ideas, etc. Instead of being a continual, linear unfolding, the Reconstructed Level is “built by the reader from discontinuous elements in the text and are reorganized according to their inherent principles”, such as how “time elements are reorganized in their chronological order” (179). With this distinction, Harshav comments that “in many theories and interpretations it is not always clear whether the scholar discusses something given in the text or something constructed or understood by himself as a reader” (179).

This comment is apt for Biblical Studies because it is true: scholars tend to not be explicit about whether their discussion addresses how a text unfolds or how they can reconstruct a certain aspects about the text based on the linking of certain discontinuous elements. As such, Harshav’s comment is a welcome methodological guide for approaching literary texts.

Second, in his article “”Literariness” Revisted,” Harshav outlines a few key aspects which qualify a text as literature (as distinguished from other types of texts. Listed briefly are a few key aspects for literature: a chain of speakers and positions within the text, complex meanings and references, a text formation (i.e. framing, segmentation, meter, etc.), an Internal Field of References connected to an External Field of Reference, a fixed and isolated textual object which is transferable to new reading contexts, use of various norms, conventions, and devices that are specific to a particular culture and time period, and concreteness in the sense of anchoring abstract ideas, and individuation. Though I won’t go into detail for each of these, suffice it to say that Biblical texts qualify as literature. As such, though I know I am beating a dead horse, scholars should be careful to distinguish when they are reading a Biblical text as literature as opposed to a historical text. That is to say, one may be able to derive historical things out of something like Kings; however, it should first be approached as a literary text.

Of course, this is not necessarily how an ancient reader approached Kings. Rather, an ancient reader more likely approach Kings as simultaneously a historical text and literature, not distinguishing between the two. In light of literary criticism and developments in historiography, though, we must distinguish between literature and historical texts in our analysis if we wish to makes helpful observations about the object/text in either respect.

Third, overall I greatly appreciate Harshav’s description of literary texts. Undoubtedly, his framework for approaching texts will serve as a guide for my reading and description of texts in the future.

“Fictionality and Fields of Reference: A Theoretical Framework” by Benjamin Harshav

In Chapter 1 of Explorations in Poetics, Benjamin Harshav lays out his basic theoretical framework for literature. This frame is, I think, a particularly good starting point for modelling literary texts and mapping out their systems.

Within a text, he distinguishes between the Speakers, Internal Field of Reference (IFR), External Field of Reference (ExFR), referent (r; plural rs), and frame of reference (fr; plural frs). Overall, the IFR in the constructed fictional world within any text. Within the IFR exists both rs and frs. rs is anything which can be spoken of, real or non-existent, idea or event. frs are “any semantic continuum of two or more referents that we may speak about.”[1] A fr has various kinds: unique description in time (“they used to eat”; “during the exciting birthday party last year) or general (“autumn”); real or non-existent. Moreover, frs within texts are sometimes indeterminate because they are not known or understood by the reader. At last, frs are what a text is about: as a network of references integrated into the broader IFR, they describe “what the text is about.”[2] Meaning is also related to the EFR, though, namely “any FRs outside of a given text,” such as history or a philosophy.[3] For example, when an authors claims that “on the 14th of August, PN1 spoke aggressively to PN2 in the streets of New York”, the text evokes the EFR, namely New York, and incorporates it into the IFR.

Concerning the relationship between IFR and EFR, Harshav comments on Tolstoy’s War and Peace: “to what extent Napoleon, as presented in the IFR, should be taken within the presented limits and to what extent the reader may, or should, draw on the Field of outside knowledge cannot be decided in advance, but has to be negotiated in an interpretation.”[4] That is to say although Harshav distinguishes between EFR and IFR, the r or frs that are evoked by the IFR as originating from the EFR are subject to interpretation, in terms of how much of the r’s or fr’s world and characteristics should be drawn into the IFR from the EFR, even if absent in the IFR.

Undoubtedly, the ideas here are somewhat complex, simplified within this blog posts. What I want to point to is a few benefits of using Harshav’s theoretical framework. First, his framework is helpful for thinking about the relationship between a text’s fictional world (IFR) and the real world from which it draws material (EFR). As illuminated through his comment on War and Peace, though, the relationship between the EFR and IFR are subject to interpretation. Nonetheless, his framework at least provides clear domains which enables scholars to identify the fr in the EFR and IFR so that they can subsequently analyze the degree to which aspects of the fr in the EFR are evoked in the IFR. For Biblical Studies, this is related to the issue of historical context. That is, what sort of referents function as frames of reference within the fictional world of the literary text and to what degree does a literary text, such as Genesis 1, evoke and incorporate those frames of references and associated characterization from the EFR?

Second, Harshav’s model is helpful for identify the location wherein readers must place their own imagination into the texts. This occurs as a result of multiple frs being brought into tension with each other. Chapter Two, wherein Harshav discusses metaphors, is more clear on this point: readers must gap-fill when a frame of reference is mentioned. Naturally, this can vary in terms of what is evoked. For example, if a text says, “In the month of March,” the text may evoke distinct things for readers. For an individual in Washington, it may evoke weather which is rainy and around 50 degrees. For people living in other regions, though, the fr “March” may evoke other sorts of weather. At base, then, what is helpful is that Harshav’s theory and modelling of texts enables critics to more precisely identify where readers diverge on things evoked texts.

Finally, I have not yet finished Explorations in Poetics. I have no doubts, though, that Harshav’s other discussions will provide helpful theoretical foundations for analyzing biblical texts.

[1] Harshav (2008), 5.

[2] Harshav (2008), 39.

[3] Harshav (2008), 23.

[4] Harshav (2008), 27.

Reflections on Milan Kundera’s “The Art of the Novel”

Admittedly, I am not particularly familiar with the novels by Milan Kundera. Nonetheless, I read through a significant portion of Milan Kundera’s book The Art of the Novel because it was mentioned in footnote from a professor whose work I follow. In my reading, there are a few points which stood out to me. As such, I want to briefly present and discuss them in this blog post.

First, Part Four: Dialogue on the Art of Composition, includes some helpful terms and methods for describing novels and other literature. Kundera deems one category of description “lighting of the characters.” This is the mathematical structure of how the speech is divided throughout the novel. For example, Kundera describes his novel The Joke, for which he describes the lighting of the characters: “Ludvik’s monologue takes up 2/3 of the book; the monologues of the other three together take up 1/3 (Jarslav 1/6, Kostka 1/9, Helena 1/18)” (86). Such an approach to any literary text can be productive, inasmuch as describing the lighting of characters throughout a biblical text can help in precisely describing the text. After all, “Each character is lighted at a different intensity and in a different way” (86). By systematically and numerically tracking the lighting of characters, the data can help in comparing distinct biblical texts and their thematic thrusts. More generally, by noting possible similarities in terms of the lighting of characters, we can get a better sense of how scribes employ particular linguistic conventions by forming texts in certain ways.

Second, Kundera describes some types of narrative, not simply suggesting that narrative is a singular thing. Here are few examples of types of narratives presented by Kundera: continuous narrative which shows a causal connection between chapters; oneiric narrative; discontinuous narrative which does not show causal connection between chapters; and polyphonic narrative (87). Though somebody may have already done it, it would be interesting to consider how these types of narratives, or narrative modes, may be re-deployed for describing biblical texts. Alternatively, different narrative modes should be sought after by describing narrative in the biblical texts themselves.

Third, Kundera has some helpful comments on tempo: “Because tempo is further determined by something else: the relation between the length of a part and the “real” time of the event it describes” (88). Of course, some scholars have already begun to explore the issue of tempo and time in biblical texts. In particular, I think to Liane M. Felman’s recent dissertation on the priestly source, wherein she explores the tempo of the Priestly Source: “In a composition notable for its brevity, the sheer verbosity of this single eight-day episode raises many questions. Why does the pace of the storytelling grind to such a halt at Sinai? What is the function of the extended divine speeches containing ritual instructions? How do these instructions relate to the rest of the story, if at all?” (“Story and Sacrifice” by Liane Feldman). In other words, one of her main concerns is the purpose for the tempo change in the Priestly Source. This, I think, is a productive way to think about any literary text.

Fourth, and finally, is the interaction between the text of a novel and the reader: “the reader’s imagination automatically completes the writer’s” (34). That is to say, though the novel presents a story, aspects of the story are filled in by the imagination of the reader. This is akin to Barbara Smith’s discussion about literature and linguistics, wherein she suggests that the power of poetry, or perhaps more broadly the power of literature, is the fact that the reader must fill in aspects of it with imagination. Without the imagination, the poetry, or literature, becomes meaningless. Though I can appreciate this description of the relationship between text and reader, I do struggle with the implications of it: when a critical scholar describes the ways that a text works, namely the way it is structured and employs distinct linguistic conventions, what should our orientation be? Is our goal to find the base meaning of the text by interrogating the “true” meaning? Or is our goal to open up texts in new ways so that reader’s can re-imagine them with new understandings about the text’s history and composition? I have no answer. Though, I want to think through these things as I move forward.

Marvel, Religion, and Cloak & Dagger

One of the problems in Religious Studies is thinking about what constitutes religion.

For this reason, I was particularly impressed by the critical acumen of the script writers for the Marvel TV show Cloak and Dagger. In one scene, one character leads a tour through a church in New Orleans. Click here to watch the video clip on YouTube.

What stood out to me was the following line: “But you see Voodoo isn’t always its own religion; that’s a misconception. Voodoo is, at its core, a diverse collection of religious and cultural traditions that can either stand alone or be added to your faith.”

This description of the relationship between Voodoo and religion is, I think, helpful. Essentially, the character, and therefore the scripter writer(s), accurately captures the liminal nature of Voodoo. That is, it isn’t exactly religion. Why, though, is this so?

A brief look at the US Department of State’s coverage on Haiti can help to explain this. Describing the role of Voodoo in Haiti, the US Department of State reports: “While society generally is tolerant of the variety of religious practices that flourish in the country, Christian attitudes toward voodoo vary. Many Christians accept voodoo as part of the country’s cultural patrimony, but others regard it as incompatible with Christianity, and this has led to isolated instances of conflict in the recent past” (Haiti). In other words, a conflict exists between Voodoo and Christianity, some viewing it as legitimate, some regarding it as not legitimate. Unfortunately, with the rising predominance of Christianity in Haiti, Voodoo has become categorized as a sort of religion. What is the significance of being considered a religion?

As a practice (not necessarily a religion), Voodoo functioned historically within Haiti as a means to “contain and control a potential parallel political power in Haiti”, a political power which stood in distinction to Euro-American political power (Religion and Revolution in Haiti). As Voodoo has come to be categorized as religion, though, this function of Voodoo is problematized. As a religion, it is simply became “a mark of alterity (for Euro-Americans)”. When not categorized as a religion, though, it served as “the threat of rural, popular political power (for Haitian political elite).”

Returning to Cloak and Dagger, the previously discussed material is precisely why I appreciate the show’s description of Voodoo in relation to religion and culture. It recognizes that Voodoo cannot simply be categorized as religion. In doing so, Voodoo is deprived of its social and historical value and contexts. Instead, the script writers were careful to describe Voodoo as something not equivalent to religion, being a form of social protest derived from Brazilian and African traditions and giving practitioners a place in society that is not framed solely by Western notions of belief and religion.

Reflections on Barbara Smith’s Approach to Literature

In a previous post, I provided a summary and reflections on Chapter One of Barbara Smith’s On the Margins of Discourse: The Relation of Literature to Language (1978). Rather than summarizing the entire book here, I want to summarize two points which stood out to me.

First, one of the major concerns in Biblical Studies is thinking about how texts relate to history. Smith, in my opinion, offers a helpful perspective on this idea. In her view, a text’s composition, namely the time when it was actually written down, is a historically determinate event (34). Put another way, since the composition of a fictive utterance is a historical act, some of the meaning is absolutely historically determinate (138-139). A fictive utterance may be defined in contrast to a natural utterance: where a fictive utterance is usually present in imaginative works of literature like poems, tales, and drama (20), a natural utterance is a historical event, occupying a specific point in time and space (15) [1].

Elements which are historically determinate, of course, may be argued. For example, when reading Ps 29, the scribe’s poem was informed by a unique cultural library of linguistic conventions. Unfortunately, such conventions are not always evident to modern readers. As such, scholar must explore the historically determinate aspects and meanings of a Psalms by looking at other ancient Near Eastern literature in order to identify linguistic conventions and patterns. In doing so, scholars can better understand the historically determinate meaning of Ps 29, as well as other texts. Without identifying the linguistic conventions, there are errors of identification: “Errors of identification produce erroneous assumptions and bring into play inappropriate conventions. Conventions are conventions, however, and they may change over time and, under varying conditions, be alters” (141). Put another way, if we don’t understand the linguistic conventions of biblical poetry, we can’t understand the meaning of the poem that is historically determinate.

Simultaneously, though, scholars should be careful not to restrict the historically indeterminate meaning, namely the aspect of meaning which depends on the reader to bring to it life experiences and assumptions which results in the poem being “interesting” (154). This tension between historically indeterminate meaning and historically determinate mean is shown by Smith to be a spectrum. Adopting this perspective for biblical texts would be, I think, productive. Through clearly distinguishing between the types of meaning, scholars may engage with the text at two levels: the historically determinate level which informs intellectual and social knowledge and the historically indeterminate level wherein the human spirit exists and thrives.

Additionally, Smith’s “discourse” is informative regarding biblical genres on two fronts: didactic and proverbial. First, she defines proverbs as “sayings” which seem to have no known original speaker. As such, “it appears uncontaminated by ordinary human error or bias, and thus oracular” (72). Her comments indicate that proverbial sayings are unique on account of their seemingly non-human origins. Though I won’t divulge into discussion of how this perspective may impact biblical interpretation, suffice it to say that it has potential to do so.

Second, Smith discusses “didactic” in terms of poetry: “we may not say only that the line between didactic poetry and pure poetry is hazy, but that all poetry is didactic. We usually refer to a work as “didactic” when such propositions are explicitly formulated within them. But all works of literature may be seen to imply propositions, most of them not stated explicitly and many of them unstable – unspeakable – in terms of the formulated wisdom of the culture” (142). In short, poetry is all didactic. This make me think of the problematic characterization of Ps 78 and Ps 49. Both Psalms begin with remarkably similar language and style; however, they differ in terms of content. Ps 49 does what Smith comments on what is typically called “didactic” poetry: it is explicit concerning wisdom. By contrast, the content of Ps 78 takes a narrative form, the propositions not stated explicitly. On account of the distinction between the content of Ps 78 and Ps 49, there is not much consensus concerning the relationship between the texts. By employing Smith’s approach to didactic poems, though, it may provide a more productive way of thinking about their relationship. Moreover, it may provide a more productive way of thinking about biblical poetry generally.

[1] It is important to note that a natural utterance may also be written, namely an inscription. In an inscription, a natural utterance is performed upon reading it because the inscription, like a personal letter, is a historically unique verbal event, analogous to a speaker in discourse (20).