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

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.

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Philosophical Friday: Giovanni Boccaccio and the Obscurity of Poetry

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) was an Italian scholar, raised in Florence. He wrote a wide variety of works: allegorical poems, prose tales, romances, and more. Among Boccaccio’s most well-known books is Genealogy of the Gentile Gods, “a mythological sourceboook that would introduce readers to the study of the ancient poets” [1]. One goal of Genealogy of the Gentile Gods was to provide an argument in favor of poetry as a means for locating truth, setting himself apart from Plato who saw poetry as opposed to truth. Instead, poetry is understood as being from “the bosom of God.”

I am interested, though, in how Boccaccio deals with the problem of poetic obscurity and how Boccaccio’s perspective builds off of and develops older traditions. Initially, Boccaccio frames his argument in terms of a caviller, a person that raises petty quibbles, who objects “that poetry is often obscure, and that poets are to blame for it, since their end is to make an incomprehensible statement appear to be wrought withe exquisite artistry” [2].

In response, Boccaccio offers a few example of texts and writers who are equally obscure but not criticized. First, he makes reference to the philosophers. He offers a question: “do they”, namely philosophers, “always find their close reasoning as simple and clear as they say an oration should be? If they say yes, they lie; for the works of Plato and Aristotle… abound in difficulties…” [3]. In short, philosophical writings are unclear. Second, Boccaccio notes that even the Holy Writ is obscure sometimes. Therefore, any condemnation of poetry on account of obscurity results in the blaspheming of the Holy Ghost. After all, even Augustine comments that certain passages of Isaiah are unclear to him.

On this basis, Boccaccio argues that “no one can believe that poets invidiously veil the truth with fiction,” but they rather veil truth “to make truths which would otherwise cheapen by exposure the object of strong intellectual effort and various interpretation” [4]. In other words, the Holy Writ and non-Holy Writ texts alike veil truth as a means of preventing it from becoming worthless and too common. Such an explanation is remarkably similar to how Augustine explains the obscurity of the Holy Writ: “It is a wonderful and beneficial thing that the Holy Spirit organized the holy scripture so as to satisfy hunger by means of its plainer passages and remove boredom by means of its obscurer ones” [5]. In other words, the obscurity in the Holy Writ is intentional.

While Boccaccio and Augustine both discuss the problem of obscurity and poetry, the reason and way they employ it is distinct. Augustine refers to the obscurity of scripture and its divine cause in order to provide a theological explanation for misunderstood and obscure biblical texts. In other words, his formulation in On Christian Teaching is intended to deal with a theological problem. Although Boccaccio draws from Augustine, inasmuch as he notes the theological problem of viewing obscure texts like the Holy Writ as being impractical, Boccaccio takes Augustine’s framework and applies it to non-biblical material. So, whereas Augustine primarily considers obscurity as reasonable within the Holy Writ, Boccaccio expands this to include non-Holy Writ.

In doing so, Boccaccio creates a divide between that which is Holy Writ and that which is not Holy Writ. By distinguishing between a special, select group of texts and all others, Boccaccio implies a distinction akin to the distinction between secular and religious. In his situation, the Holy Writ is a religious text, whereas all other texts are secular texts.

Boccaccio’s distinction is worth emphasizing because it illumines how the foundations of poetry as an academic object of study are themselves historically defined and understood as that which is not Holy Writ. Such a genealogy is worth examining further.

[1] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 201.

[2] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 206.

[3] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 206-207.

[4] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 208.

[5] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism168.

 

 

Philosophical Friday: Augustine of Hippo and Signs

In previous experiences, I viewed Augustine of Hippo, the 4th century Christian writer most well-known for texts like On Christian Teaching and City of God, primarily as a theologian. Although he is concerned with theology, he sought to understand more clearly the Christian biblical texts. One of the consequences of this aim was the development of a link between signs and language, namely signification, a issue most famously addressed by the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. In what follows, I will briefly lay out his view of “signs” and “language” and offer a few thoughts on his ideas.

Augustine defines given signs as “those which living things give to each other, in order to show, to the best of their ability, the emotions of their minds, or anything that they have felt or learnt” [1]. That is, signs are primarily meant to signfify something intended to be transmitted to another person. They include language, shouts of pain, facial expressions, etc. Now, because spoken words, words themselves being signs, “cease to exists as soon as they come into contact with the air” [2], Augustine suggests that writing was invented. From his theological approach, though, writing was invented in order to enable divine scripture to be circulated through the world.

With this foundation, Augustine continues by describing the problems in written texts: the meaning of signs in texts “may be veiled either by unknown signs or by ambiguous signs” [3]. In order to deal with this problem, Augustine encourages readers to refer back to the Greek, Hebrew, and Latin original texts. Essentially, he encourages a triangulation of the texts in order to identify the meaning of the text, that is in order to interpret the ambiguous or veiled sign. Another solution to unfamiar signs is simply a problem with knowledge of things. For example, when a biblical text refers to hyssop, Augustine notes that we may not understand the sign in a text because people are “unaware of its power to cleanse the lugns or even (so it is said) to split rocks with its roots” [4]. In other words, in order to understand certain phrases, the reader much have pre-knowledge which will help to inform how certain signs should be interpreted.

At base, then, Augustine argues that knowledge of literature and how literature works, namely the issue of signifiers and the signified. For, “A knowledge of them is necessary for the resolution of ambiguities in scripture because when a meaning based on the literal interpretation of the words in absurd we must investigate whether the passage that we cannot understand is perhaps being expressed by means of one or other of the tropes” [5].

From this brief summary of Augustine’s perspective, I want to emphasize two aspects.

First, Augustine explicitly describes letters, written signs of words, as an extension of speech. Without them, speech ceases to exist when it comes into contact with the air. This is an important point to me because, in my perspective, all texts are, to a certain degree, a simulation of a speech situation. This same principle may be extracted from Augustine’s treatise On Christian Teaching.

Second, and in a similar vein, Augustine recognizes that all people speak in figures of speech: “Almost all these tropes, which are said to be acquired through one of the ‘liberal’ arts, are also found in the utterances of those who have had no formal teaching in grammar and are content with the style of ordinary people” [6]. On account of this, Augustine suggests that all people should understand should understand the metaphorical nature of speech itself. By understanding the metaphorical nature of speech itself, both in literature and ordinary speech, a reader of the Christian biblical texts is more likely to investigate the meaning of the passage.

This comes back to something I observe in the field of Biblical studies and Near Eastern studies: there is a surprising lack of engagement with literary theory. Augustine goes as far as to suggest that those who are ignorant of tropes and the names of certain types of metaphors are uneducated. Though I don’t go that far, I do think he has a fair point: people should know how language works. In my case, this principle is applied to scholars: scholars should know how language works and how literature works. Only in doing so can we begin to more fully examine and understand the texts that we study.

[1] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 166.

[2] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 167.

[3] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 168.

[4] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 172.

[5] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 177.

[6] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 176.

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.

Mesopotamian Monday: A Prayer by Assurbanipal to Assur

Within religious traditions, a primary aim and orientation is sometimes to secure a blessed life for descendants. In Catholic and Christian traditions, this can occur through infant baptism. In Deuteronomy 11:19 and 6:7, teaching children Torah is emphasized. And in any case, depending on social status, the performance and language which are perceived to have efficacy for blessing descendants can vary.

Naturally, Mesopotamian prayers by kings were also aimed at securing blessings for descendants. So, how did Mesopotamian’s performance rituals in order to attain and secure a blessed life for descendants? One way to think about this question is by looking at a prayer by the Assyrian king Assurbanipal [1].

For the majority of the prayer, Assurbanipal praises Assur [2]. For example, the speaker exalts Assur as the creator:

[Let me exalt] the sovereignty of [Assur] forever.
[Cap]able one, profound of wisdom, sage of the gods, princely one,
[Father], creator of what is in the heavens and earth, who formed the mountains,
[Assur], creator of the gods, begetter of goddess(es),
[Whose heart] is inscrutable, whose mind is ingenious,
Lofty [hero] whose name is feared… [3]

Evidently, the speaker attributes creation itself to Assur, views Assur as a warrior, and consider Assur to be the wisest of all beings (i.e. “sage of the gods”).

In the second half of the hymn, we read of a focus on the descendants of Assurbanipal:

Among descendants, in far-off days,
For future reigns, years without number,
May th(is) praise of Assure be not forgotten, may it keep one mindful of Esharra, a temple in Assur.
Let it be in (every) mouth, may it never cease to enlarge understanding,
So that, as to me, Assur will deliver into your hands sovereignty of land and people [4].

Essentially, the speaker Assurbanipal prays for the perpetual reign of his offspring on the basis of his prayers and role in supporting the temple at Assur. Note, though, that Assurbanipal explicitly says “your hands,” with reference to his descendant. Although it is unclear whether he used a 2nd person form because his descendant is present where the hymn is performed or he imagines his descendant as being present, it is clear that the prayer is explicitly focused on his particular offspring, not the general concept of “descendants.”

Based on Assurbanipal’s father, though, this is no surprise. In a famous text typically called Esarhaddon’s Succession Treaty, a covenant stipulates that all people within the Assyrian empire ruled by Esarhaddon commit to serving his son, Assurbanipal, as king when Esarhaddon dies [5]. Thus, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. For just as Esarhaddon attempted to ensure that Assurbanipal maintain reign and sovereignty, so Assurbanipal attempted to ensure that his descendant maintain reign and sovereignty [6].

 Therefore, Assurbanipal’s prayer to Assur uses religious language, imagery, and activities as a perceived means of securing political sovereignty for his offspring. This echoes how Esarhaddon ensured that Assurbanipal maintain sovereignty. At base, it demonstrates how a particular social class, namely that of the royal family, attempts to secure a blessed life for descendants.

 ________________

[1] As noted previously, individuals and groups with different social statuses will have different rituals and performances to attain blessed life for descendants. Now, the prayer which I am analyzing here was written for Assurbanipal. So, at most the text represents the ways in which a very small and wealthy social class sought to attain blessings for descendants. Therefore, we should be careful not to apply the paradigm and rituals represented within this hymn to every social group in ancient Mesopotamia, even if they do overlap is some places.

[2] In particular, he praises Assur as a primeval deity called Anshar. See Benjamin Foster, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature (Bethesda: CDL Press, 2005), pp. 817n1.

[3] Translation by Foster (2005), pg. 817.

[4] Translation by Foster (2005), pg. 818. Italics added for clarity in the text.

[5] For an example available on academia.edu, see Jacob Lauinger, “Esarhaddon’s Succession Treaty at Tell Tayinat: Text and Commentary,” in Journal of Cuneiform Studies, Vol. 65 (2012), pp. 87-123.

[6] Interestingly, perhaps Assurbanipal also looks backwards to his father, Esarhaddon in The Underworld Vision of an Assyrian Prince (SAA 03 032 r. 26). See Ramond C. van Leeuwen, “Cosmos, Temple, House: Building and Wisdom in Ancient Mesopotamia and Israel,” in From the Foundations of the Crenellations: Essays on Temple Building in the Ancient Near East and Hebrew Bible, eds. Mark J. Boda and Jamie Novotny (Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2010), pg. 414.  

 

 

“The Routledge Encyclopedia of Ancient Mediterranean Religions”

Routledge Encyclopedia of Mediterranean Religions. General editor Eric Orlin. NY, New York: Routledge, 2016, pp. 1054.Religion

In a day and age when new encyclopedias seem to be published every other day, The Routledge Encyclopedia of Ancient Mediterranean Religions (henceforth referenced to as REAMR) is a breath a fresh air. Unlike many specialized encyclopedias, REAMR attempts to offer a general overview of a wide variety of cultures and practices relevant to the Mediterranean. These entries provide a cross-cultural perspective, noting unique and distinct elements of particular topics. Similarly, authors for entries were instructed to focus on writing for the Religious Studies field who did not share that specialty. In other words, a scholars writing an entry about the Hebrew Bible would assume the reader is within the field of Religious Studies; however, it should be oriented to a non-specialist in that particular field, such as a scholar of Islamic Studies.

This was, I think, successful for the most part. Although there were a few problematic entries, they generally presented the information in a clear and concise manner. Because the academic environment encourages inter-disciplinary scholarship, this volume offers an entry point into sub-fields distinct from ones own. Furthermore, the volume covers from the Bronze Age up to Late Antiquity. In terms of the traditions, it attempts to be as comprehensive as possible. So, the volume includes, though is not limited to, Judaism, Roman religion, Greek religion, Persian religion, Ugaritic religion, Canaanite religion, Egyptian religion, South Arabian religion, Zoroastrianism, and Islam. Thus, in terms of its diversity of represented religious traditions, this REAMR is distinguished from other encyclopedias.

Before I offer notes on particular encyclopedia entries, I have one primary criticism of the volume. The beginning of the volume comments on the issue of defining the category of religion: “The term religion is itself disputed, as a number of recent discussions have highlighted. Because we realized early on that we would need to include many headwords to provide cultural background that might not be strictly religious (such as Hellenistic Age), we decided that it was not necessary to offer a specific definition of “religion” in order to exclude material felt to be “non-religious”. (xvii)” They continue by noting that religion was often times not seen as a distinct category from social or cultural. In principle, this decision makes sense.

Even though it is difficult to define religion, the editors of REAMR missed an opportunity. For an entry titled “Religion” could have at least offered a succinct overview of the history of scholarship, problems, and various ways of defining ‘religion.’ This criticism, though, is minor. Even so, the volume is incredibly valuable as a whole. While individuals probably will not purchase this volume, there are two groups in particular for which is will be helpful: small organizations in need of a thorough dictionary on ancient Mediterranean religions [1] and universities with a small library budget. Regarding the latter, the volume is $285 as an eBook (Hardback $408). Because REAMR covers such a wide range of traditions and time periods, though, it is well worth the investment. As far as I am aware, few encyclopedias offer such a comprehensive overview of Mediterranean religious traditions at that price.

Following, I will offer notes on specifics within the volume:

  • Some contributions were unnecessarily lengthy. For example, the entry on ‘Conversion’ is about four pages. So, it seems more like a lengthy argument regarding the topic of Christianity and conversion than an overview/succinct explanation of conversion. Similarly, the following are too lengthy, each for differing reasons: ‘Gnosticism’, ‘Imperial Cult’, ‘Jerusalem’, ‘Jupiter’, ‘Sacred Law’ (6 pages), ‘Mithraeum’, ‘Orphism’, ‘Revelation of John’, and ‘Women’.
  • One contribution is particularly exemplary in terms of providing a broad overview of a major religion topic: ‘Cult Statue’. Although three pages long, it does an excellent job at offering an overview of cult statues in Mesopotamia, Egypt/Northwest Semitic areas, and Greece/Rome (See also the entries on ‘Domestic Religion’, ‘Myth’)
  • The entry on ‘Figurines’ is far too lengthy as an entry. More problematic, though, is that it seems hyper-focused on Greek figurines. It only briefly mentions ancient Near Eastern figures.
  • The entry on ‘Purity’ is far too focused on the Hebrew Bible and ancient Near East. Purity in other contexts is ignored.
  • The beginning of the volume has a series of maps and a chronology. The chronology places the following side-by-side: Near East, Judea, Egypt and North Africa, Greece and Asia Minor, and Italy. Both the maps and chronology are particularly helpful for understanding the broader world events within specific time periods.

Even with these critiques, the volume is excellent. REAMR offers a broad overview of many religious traditions and cultures. Because of this, it is a valuable addition to libraries, in particular to small schools with low budgets. The value of REAMR is well worth the cost.

Typos: pg. 321: “… resemble AGNES” martyrdom.”; pg. 87 “… The Arabization of the Near East let to a decline…” (presumably “led” to a decline); p. 334, ‘Ezra, Vision of’ (the caps formatting is funky).

[1] I make this comment based off my experience visiting a local NPR station. At it, a few encyclopedias were sitting around. I suspect that the were used as general references for reporting on any relevant issues.

Music Wrestling with Religion: Hopsin (Explicit Language)

Lately, I’ve been interested how music reflects upon religion and religious topics. So, I plan on sporadically posting the music of some artists who have wrestled with this issue through their own music. Regarding the explicit language, I am not interest in censoring how people deal with the question and issue of religion.

Ill Mind of Hopsin 7 (Explicit):

What Do I Think About the Hebrew Bible?

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14th century CE copy of the Bible (Source: Wikipedia)

Previously, I posted about how we can think about the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible. As I continue this series, I plan to continue exploring this question. Although it may not seem important, one of the most important things we can do first is ask ourselves a question: what do I think of the Hebrew Bible? Preconceived notions of the Hebrew Bible will often times guide how we read and understand the Hebrew Bible. Interestingly, this can happen across the spectrum. In order to demonstrate this, I will offer thoughts from both sides of the spectrum. I know these are not representative of everybody. I use these generalizations in order to make the point that we have to think about what we think of the Hebrew Bible, regardless of where we stand.

On the far right, we have conservative groups. These groups may be Christian or Jewish. Often times, when more conservative readers approach the Hebrew Bible, there is a preconceived notion that the text of the Hebrew Bible is holy in some manner. Being holy, it will speak the truth. Therefore, what we see in the bible is probably historically accurate.

Naturally, this view is not necessarily wrong. As I pointed out previously, some parts of the Hebrew Bible may be historically reliable. Other parts of it may not be historically reliable. So, in one sense, it is good that conservative groups automatically assume the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible. Many part of I and II Kings, for example, are historically reliable.

However, this view is also problematic. Think about, for example, Genesis 1:1-2:4. Many would argue that this text reflects and records the history of how God created the universe. When we look the Hebrew Bible’s historical context, though, it becomes apparent that there are many versions of how deities created the world and established kingship. Historically, these texts were never meant to present a material history of exactly how the deity created; rather, they were meant to demonstrate that the deity was a legitimate ruler. In other words, the goals was not to write history.

Therefore, it is problematic to see Genesis 1:1-2:4 as a historical account of how God created the world. I make this claim  based on the historical context of Genesis 1:1-2:4.

On the other side of the spectrum, though, we have people who are strongly opposed to religion. And the Hebrew Bible is a religious book. Therefore, we should be extremely skeptical about it [1]. In reading the Hebrew Bible, they may be substantially more skeptic about accepting anything in it as historically reliable. This approach, of course, is valuable. Like I posted previously, some part of the Hebrew Bible are absolutely not historical. Genesis 1:1-2:4, for example, is myth. It is not history.

However, some part of the Hebrew Bible are historically reliable. So, viewing the Hebrew Bible entirely skeptically is problematic. Consider, for example, II Kings 18-19. In this passage, we see an account of Sennacherib attacking Jerusalem. What is more, we also have written documentation by Assyrians during that period which reference this attack upon Jerusalem. Although both texts differ in how they understand the event, they nonetheless point to the same event. Therefore, we should be cautious to quickly dismiss the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible.

In either case, whether conservative or liberal and strongly opposed to religion, we must recognize that we often read our own preconceived notions and ideas into the Hebrew Bible. These notions may sometimes be valuable, such as skepticism of the historical reality of Genesis 1:1-2:4. Or, on the other side, acceptance of the historical reality of Kings. In either case, the reader needs to be critical not just of the text; rather, the reader needs to be critical of where they come from.

By asking ourselves, “What are my preconceived ideas about the Hebrew Bible,” we are able to approach it critically. We are able to ask questions which we normally wouldn’t ask. Only by doing this are we able to think about the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible [2].

[1] Please let me know if this is totally inaccurate. This was not my background. So, it is more difficult for me to explain.

[2] This is a constant process. No matter how long one has been reading the Hebrew Bible or studying the ancient Near East, we must constantly ask ourselves what our own preconceived notions are.

Is the Hebrew Bible a Historically Reliable Text?

The following is a draft which I am developing for Ancient History Encyclopedia. Although I will be writing on ancient Israelite and Judean religion, the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible is problematic for many, scholars and non-scholars alike. In particular, the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible’s portrayal of ancient Israelite religion is problematic. Thus, I wrote this piece to undergird my presentation of ancient Israelite and Judean Religion. As I proceed, I will add more layers to the issue. My goal, though, is to make the information comprehensible. 

The historicity of the Hebrew Bible is a complex issue. In order to decide whether or not it is historically reliable, we must pay close attention to the text, archaeology, and other literature from the ancient Near East. After analyzing the Hebrew Bible alongside other ancient Near Eastern literature and archaeology, we can make an informed decision as to whether or not we should utilize the Hebrew Bible for understanding the history in the regions throughout the Levant (the Levant is the area encompassing modern day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria).

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Source: Wikipedia

In seeking to understand the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible, though, we must take three factors into consideration. First, we must consider that the Hebrew Bible was not originally written and composed as a single document; rather, it is an anthology of ancient writings. The ancient writing were written by many authors, over a long period of time. Thus, any attempt to answer the question must consider the varying degrees of historically reliability of texts within the anthology. Some texts may be historically reliable. Some texts may not be historically reliable.

Second, we must consider the length of time over which the Hebrew Bible was developed. As Sara Mandell notes, the history of the Hebrew Bible is “a historically late, redacted composite that presents the diverse religious and historical perspectives of its several layers of editors.”[i] In simpler words, the Hebrew Bible consists of texts which were edited by many people. By the time of the earliest, fully compiled version of the Hebrew Bible (c. 300 BCE), the text had been developed and edited for nearly 600 years. Because it was developed over such a long period of time, it contains traditions and ideas which reflect the culture of the 10th century BCE. Yet, it also contains traditions and ideas which reflect the culture of the 3rd century BCE. So, when we think about whether or not the Hebrew Bible is historically reliable, it is essential that we recognize that it was written and edited over a long period of time and in many different historical contexts, not just one.

Third, the Hebrew Bible is not just history. Within the Hebrew Bible, there are many different genres of texts. For example, the Psalms contains liturgical hymns used in temple contexts, lamentations, personal prayers, and many other genres of literature. Additionally, texts like 1 and 2 Kings are historiography, historiography being an attempt to tell history through a particular worldview. In the case of 1 and 2 Kings, the author(s) viewed the history through a theological lens. In addressing the historically reliability of the Hebrew Bible, then, we must think about the genre of text. Would one read Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) like it is a poem? Absolutely not. Darwin’s book is about scientific observations. It does not fall within the genre of poetry. Likewise, we should be aware of the genre of text we read within the Hebrew Bible. By doing so, it can help us to understand how relevant the particular text in terms of its historical reliability.

To summarize, the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible is not a simple question to answer. We must take into consideration archaeology, other ancient literature, and the complicated nature of the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Bible is, after all, (1) an anthology of many texts and traditions from the ancient Levant. (2) These texts were developed over a period of nearly 600 years! 600 years ago from 2017, the USA did not exist, France was not established as a country, and the events which inspired some of Shakespeare’s plays were still taking place. In other words, a lot can happen in 600 years, both in Europe and the ancient Levant. Within the anthology of texts composed over a long period of time, namely the Hebrew Bible, (3) things were written in many different genres. By being aware of different genres, we can think about how we should read the text. Should we read Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games as a story? Or should we read it as a history like Edward Gibbon’s History of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire? These are pertinent questions and considerations when thinking about whether or not a text within the Hebrew Bible is historically reliable.

 

[i] Sara Mandell, “Israelite Religion”, in Encyclopedia of Judaism, vol. II.

How Should We Think of Religion in Ancient Israel?

 

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The Merneptah Stele (originally at Wikipedia)

In a 2015 article written by Christoph Uehlinger, he questions how scholars who study ancient Israel think about ancient Israelite religion within its larger southern Levantine and West Semitic context. His point is that how scholars approach ancient Israelite religion is often problematic.  They either argue that “Iron Age Israel was no different at all from “Canaanite” or “West Semitic” religion” (13). On the other hand, some scholars consider ancient Israel to be the distinct “other” in the West Semitic religious milieu.

On these grounds, he challenges scholars of religion, especially biblical scholars: how can we re-think our approaches to ancient Israelite religion in a way that accomplishes the two major tasks, namely situating ancient Israelite religion within a broader Near Eastern, West Semitic, and Levantine context and simultaneously conceputlizing the distinctiveness of ancient Israelite religion? Uehlinger says it best: “the bigger challenge lying before us is to reconceptualize distinctiveness in terms of diversity without neglecting the equally obvious, and plausible, commonalities” (14).

This tension between commonalities and differences is exactly what I am interested in exploring. Though, even if scholars develop a model that accurate portrays the tensions of ancient Israelite and Canaanite religion (or should I say Israelite, Edomite, Moabite religions?), the greater challenge will be finding a way to effectively communicate the understandings to the public. Even if complex, nuanced, and thorough models are developed for approaching and interpreting religion in a West Semitic and South Levantine context, those models will not be comprehensive for the public.

The question I raise, then, is this: in midst of developing new approach to “West Semitic religion,” how might we simultaneously work to make the analyses comprehensible for a public audience?

 

Uehlinger, Christoph. “Distinctive or diverse? Conceptualizing ancient Israelite religion in its southern Levantine setting.” In Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel (1), vol. 4, 2015. Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck.