Monday, February 2, 2009

Embedded Scriptures

"Materialist criticism refuses to privilege [Scripture] in the way that [biblical] criticism has done hitherto; as Raymond Williams argued in an important essay, we cannot separate [the Scriptures] from other kinds of social practice, in such a way as to make them subject to quite special and distinct laws. This approach necessitates a radical contextualising of [Scripture] which eliminates the old divisions between [Scripture] and its 'background', text and context... This attention to social processes has far-reaching consequences. To begin with it leads us beyond idealist [Scriptural] criticism--that is preoccupied with supposedly universal truths which find their counterpart in 'man's' essential nature; the criticism in which history, if acknowledged at all, is seen as inessential or a constraint transcended in the affirmation of a transhistorical human condition."
-- Jonathan Dollimore, adapted from his essay, "Shakespeare, cultural materialism and the new historicism," in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, Dollimore and Sinfield, eds. (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988)

(In the quotation above I have used the term "Scripture" to replace the phrase "arts and literature" that appears in the original.)

One of the key tenets of any cultural materialist approach to Scripture would be the suspension of the assumption that "Scripture" can be spoken of as a natural given, or an uncontested unity. Thus the task of any material theology of Scripture would involve the foregrounding of the embeddedness of Scriptures into communities and in a variety of physical forms.

Thus there is a difficulty in agreeing with certain general claims about the nature of Scripture. For example, John Webster's assertion that "the texts of the canon are human realities annexed by divine use" ("The Dogmatic Location of the Canon," Neue Zeitschrift fuer systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie 43, no. 1, 2001, p. 32) will, following Kelsey, function properly as a claim within a confessional tradition, but will not and cannot function as a general claim.

In other words, the claim that the canon has a dogmatic location (and that it can be thus mislocated) is a claim that itself must necessarily occupy a dogmatic, not a natural or general, location. It is an argument made from within an ecclesial location--not from a universal vantage point.

The purpose here is not to single Webster out. Rather, it is to articulate that a materialist approach to Scripture does not necessarlity deny the "holiness" of Scripture--the divine "annexing" spoken of above. This holiness, however, must not be understood as a simple given or a universal quality (which is often the arguement made tacitly by theologians) but rather as a very complex interplay of an object (or, more properly, objects) embedded into one of several contentious communities in a given time and place.

This complex context is too-often streamlined in the classroom or in our discussions about Scripture. At the root, the Bible is a book, and thus functions like a book. That is to say, each copy of the Bible we might consider has a complex genealogy: a material history of its publication and distribution, as well as an ideological history of its assembly from fragments, previous translations and artifacts.

From a dogmatic vantage point, we can certainly make the confessional claim that this material genealogy has been "annexed." What we cannot claim, however, is that such annexing somehow renders the Bible as a special case above or untouched by material circumstances. That is to say, no matter how holy the book is, it can still be studied and examined simply and justifiably by theologians as a book.