Culture, Entertainment and the Bible

Written by George Aichele (ed.) Reviewed By Eric Christianson

These two volumes share an interest in interdisciplinary approaches to the study of the Bible. Most of the essays in the Aichele volume were presented at a Semiotics and Exegesis section of the 1998 SBL meeting, which took place in the rather bizarre setting (given the nature of ‘cultural critique’ in the papers) of Orlando, Florida.

From the first article, the book is a mainly successful attempt to have some fun with the often overly serious enterprise of biblical interpretation in the academy. That said, even in the most entertaining pieces there is an undercurrent of serious critique. Questions about our own perceptions of biblical texts are often framed through analysis of retellings of these texts. This is a potentially useful exercise, though its aim in this volume is not always clear. For example, Heard asks the valuable question, ‘What do we wish our children to emulate in the Bible?’ But why ask that question here? For those interested in accessing interesting retellings (perhaps better ‘re-performances’; as, e.g., Vander Stichele), there are some unusual and provocative examples here (notably from Leneman and Kramer). Walsh’s essay offers a useful ‘gathering’ of portrayals of God in recent literature (with some surprising conclusions re God’s recent psychological profile). Disney certainly comes in for a critical thrashing in two of the essays (Rowlett and Graham; ironic in the Orlando setting). While these raise interesting questions in relation to biblical presentation and cultural reception, they are not as rigorous (in terms of the precision of, e.g., ideological criticism) as those of Tarlin and Runions. These final essays of the book stand out with their subtle methodological analysis, especially Runions, who critically relates Numbers 16 to harrowing personal experience.

The repository nature of the Aichele volume will be useful to those interested in cultural reception of the Bible. However, for a more rigorous introduction to just how we assess those readings, readers would be better served by the other volume under review.

The Carroll R. volume was conceived by former students of John Rogerson as a collaborative project on the application of social sciences in biblical studies, a subject on which Rogerson is something of a world authority. It seeks to fill what Carroll R. identifies in his Introduction as a ‘conspicuous lacuna’: that is, the lack of awareness in the biblical guild of the complexity of sociological tools of study. It is full of useful survey-type essays, most of which attempt to map sociological approaches in specific contexts and (sometimes) with case studies.

The essays by Rogerson and Porter are the most specialised. The former investigates the dialectical approach of Habermas’s tutor, Theodor W. Adorno. Rogerson finds a daring and sincere quality in Adorno’s attempt to construct meaning from unpromising ‘negative’ sources, such as the book of Ecclesiastes embodies. Porter’s entry is not as accessible. In the most specialised work of the volume, Porter argues for a more rigorous model of socio-linguistic analysis, one which takes account of ‘interpersonal semantic relationships’ on an individual basis. This does not fit well with the rest of the volume, in that there is no broader dialogue with the larger discipline of biblical studies and little attempt to make it accessible to non-socio-linguists. While it is clear that cultural context should be analysed to help to understand the ‘semantic structure’ so important to Porter’s approach, it is less clear why the whole enterprise is as valuable as he implies.

The other authors all offer useful methodological reflections. Brett reflects on the relationship of models of intention in interpretative theory to diachronic analysis, suggesting a complexity that demands a plurality in approach. West deals in his familiar territory of South-African liberation theology and asks some hard questions about ideology: Is it recoverable? How can we read the ‘discourse of subordinate groups’ in the public script of the Bible? (Though some concrete examples of interpretation would have helped West’s case.) Dyck helpfully outlines the varied manifestations of what we call ideological criticism, and distinguishes between its descriptive and hermeneutical forms. He goes on to look at the (seemingly unpromisingly) ideologically loaded text of Ezra 2, in which he discerns a struggle for Israelite identity. Carroll R. calls for a recognition of the complexity of ‘popular religion’ by way of analogy to the socio-cultural perception of religion in Latin America. He develops the helpful notion of certain biblical texts as ‘ethnographic report’, subject to the same hermeneutical problems. He then applies this to the ‘popular religion’ of the book of Amos, challenging previous attempts that have depicted the ideological struggle too simply.

The Carroll R. volume is a clarion call to recognise the inherent complexity of the so-called sociological tools of analysis that are regularly employed in biblical studies. In this it achieves its aims admirably, and is certainly the more methodologically rigorous of the two. To be fair, the Aichele volume does not purport to be more than an experiment in the growing field of biblical/cultural studies. I am certain, however, that most of its writers would have benefited substantially from reading the Carroll R. volume.

Eric Christianson

Chester College