Monday, July 20, 2009

Material Scripture and the traditions of Biblical Theology

Let me begin by recalling briefly a conversation Jimmy Barker and I had with James Barr, a couple of years before the distinguished professor's untimely death. We (Jimmy and I) had spent the summer reading through the classic texts of Old Testament Theology, and we wanted to know whether the discipline of Old Testament Theology, in Barr's opinion, should be considered a branch of theology or a branch of biblical studies.

Without hesitation, Barr answered that it was a sub-discipline of biblical studies.

I mention this to give context for the assertion I am about to make regarding the "proper" taxonomy for Material Scripture. If, as Barr avers, "Biblical Theology" is not a discipline of theology per se, but rather the practice of biblical scholars applying theological categories to the texts they study (a debatable claim, certainly, but reasonable enough to assume for the present discussion), we might, mutatis mutandis, consider that Material Scripture is what it looks like when theologians attempt a form of textual criticism of the Bible.

This is to say, as biblical scholars adopt and borrow from established theological categories in the practice of Old (and New) Testament Theology, so too can theologians delve into the methods of biblical studies with regard to the study of the sourcing, assembly, redaction and reception of scriptural texts.

In both cases the various methods, in the hands of the new practitioners (or, following Orson Welles, perhaps I should say practioners), will both resemble and depart from their settled and established origins. Hence Material Scripture's preoccupations in the practice of textual criticims may differ markedly from those of the established field within biblical studies. This, of course, is to be expected. Just as some biblical scholars (at times, proudly) flout the conventions of we systematicians, so too can the tactics of close reading and source analysis find new trajectories in the hands of the theologian. On both sides of the mirror, experts become novices, at least for a season, and interesting results follow.

Thus, in the first place, Material Scripture is a strategy. It is a means of (re)introducing the inescapably ethical dimension of the act of reading. To read (in the present age, and likely in all ages) is to participate in a number of simultaneous economies--some overt, many implied. The so-called "marketplace of ideas" exerts lines of force during the process of reading, as do the more tangible (and fungible) aspects of the "real" marketplace, through which both the book itself, and the funds with which to procure it, come into being. Material Scripture is a strategy against the reification and abstraction of such economies precisely to the extent that it is able to focus on concrete readers and specific imprints of texts in its praxis. If you will, Material Scripture attempts to maintain an ethical commitment to what might be termed the "breathing reader," the reader with flesh and bone.

Material Scripture is thus a close reading, though not necessarily of only the text itself (although this as well may certainly play a part), but also of the "marginal" aspects of the imprinted text, referred to by Gerard Genette as paratext and hypotext. That is, matters such as footnotes, introductions, graphic design, editing and editorializing, not to mention the effects of marketing and advertising, become available for theological analysis in a Material Scriptural reading. Everything that the given book "is" is open for discussion and reflection in this process.

Furthermore, because Material Scripture intends to focus on the reader and the physical book though their interactions during a "real time" of reading, it has a peculiar relationship to scholarly notions of "history" and "the past." While not denying that events have happened, and that such events can and are documented meaningfully, Material Scripture finds much more value in asking how such documentations and reconstructions of "the past" function in the rhetorical struggles and power dynamics of the "present moment." That is to say, in its methodological procedures, Material Scripture telescopes the questions regarding "the past" into its present analysis, probing how these reconstructions function as "expert narratives" and "commanding voices" during the process of reading and textual assembly (that is, the hypotextual process is always already caught up in the arguments about, and imaginings of, the reconstructed "past").

Consonant with this, Material Scripture maintains a methodological suspicion regarding the matters of "authorial intentions" and "original texts," choosing to treat both as manifestations in the "present" moment of a "breathing reader's" encounter with a physical imprint of Scripture, rather than as some fixed master narrative that exists, isolated but accessible, somewhere in "the past."

This stance of methodological suspicion is not a denial of the past or its importance. Rather, it is an attempt to keep the focus more on the matters of the "present" (a term, I realize, that is almost as fraught with ideological baggage as referring to the "past") to maintain the thickness of discourse around all the rhetoric, politics, and power relations that are constantly at work in each of the various biblical disciplines.

Material Scripture, therefore, remains aware that it is a constructed posture within a traditioned set of conversations that occur at the overlap of academic discourses. A material scriptural reading or analysis will resemble, in some respects, styles of reading and textual analysis that occur in more traditioned discourses. However, such readings will also interrupt assumptions and conventions of those discourses, much in the same way that a biblical theologian might, at times, interrupt the established assumptions and conventions of systematic theology.

That being said, I am not proposing that Material Scripture is in some manner to be construed as a "response" to biblical theology. Similar to what I write about Scriptural Reasoning last week, there is a level of complementarity at work between the practices. However, it should also be noted that certain practices of the biblical theologian may be challenged by the practices of Material Scripture, simply by grace of the interest the latter has in making explicit the unspoken conventions that have been "encoded" into the physical objects of Scripture.

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