Thursday, May 27, 2010

Call for Entries for the Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception

[I recently received the following information from Brent Plate, editor of the Material Religion journal and one of the editors of this Encyclopedia project. Please consider contributing to this valuable effort!]

Walter de Gruyter Publishing House in Berlin, having recently finished the Theologische Realenzyklop├Ądie (TRE), is now publishing an equally ambitious research tool – an Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception (EBR) in 30 volumes. Volumes 1 and 2 were published in 2009, and volumes 3-6 are currently in production for 2010 publication.

EBR will be published in English and will be the first comprehensive biblical research tool to incorporate fully the history of interpretation and reception into an encyclopedic treatment of the Bible. This project will shape future scholarship on the Bible and its cultural and historical reception. EBR will, on the one hand, trace in comprehensive detail the impact of historical persons, places, topics, etc. on the Bible, and, on the other hand, the reception of the Bible, i.e. the reception of biblical books, persons, places, flora and fauna, pericopes, topics, motifs etc. in the history of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, other world religions, literature, visual arts, music, theater and film.

There are ongoing opportunities for publishing shorter (~200 words), longer (~2000 words), and in-between, entries on topics related to religion and film. 2010 begins the entries beginning with the letter "D."

To give example of the range of topics covered, previous entries on film include:










There are many more entries, but this gives a sense of the range of interests: specific directors, specific films, general biblical topics, and biblical characters and motifs.

For further information, questions, and for examples of already published entries, please contact Brent Plate:

For info on the EBR, see:

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Stumbling into the goldmine

When I was writing my dissertation, my third chapter was devoted to trying to develop a set of definitions and a methodology for examining "the Bible" as both a "linguistic" object (what often gets referred to as the "text" - meaning the intangible ideas "contained" in a book) as well as a physical object (the other, conflated meaning for the word "text").

It took me over eighty pages, and the apparatus was unwieldy at best. Part of the problem was that I was trying to develop, and import, a whole mode of analysis that is very alien to the weltanschauung of contemporary theological studies. In previous generations, theologians were as much text critics as they were proto-philosophers [1]. A survey of the works of Calvin, Luther, Barth and other notables shows as much biblical commentary and exegesis as it does attempts at systematic theologies (and often more so). In the last thirty years, however, a divide has opened between the practice of Christian theology and the practices of exegesis and textual criticism. My chapter was an attempt to "work backward" through this divide, and even beyond and beneath it, to recover a sense (if, indeed, it ever existed) of the importance of the "book-ness" of the Bible. The physical presence of the printed object was and is, I argued, theologically relevant and indispensable.

But I didn't know how to talk about that insight in a simple or straightforward way. Indeed, in many ways I am still working on that very problem (hence attempts, such as the postings on this blog, to address the issue repeatedly in the hopes of improvement).

So I am happy to report a discovery that is going to help this quest considerably.

During a recent visit to the University of Virginia, I had the pleasure of meeting professor of English and book historian David Vander Meulen, and of being introduced to the UVA Rare Book School, housed in the basement of their library [2]. I cannot put into adequate words what has now become available to my scholarship.

In the first place, Dr. Vander Meulen made me aware that the methodologies and vocabulary I have been struggling to invent and grapple with already, to large extent, exist. In the work of bibliographers and book historians, the "grammar" for reading books as physical objects exists and can be learned. The hour I spent speaking with Dr. Vander Meulen was an absolute revelation. Not only was I ecstatic to discover another scholar who was as as excited about the "archaeology of printing" as I was, but I was also shown a series of syllabi and monographs that point the direction to the answers I need.

These monographs were written by Dr. Vander Meulen's mentor, G. Thomas Tanselle - widely recognized as the preeminent American scholar of bibliography and book history.

The Rare Book School has available a wide selection of these works by Tanselle. Upon my return from Charlottesville I ordered several (as well as two DVD's on book production - because I am a total nerd), and the box arrived a few days ago.

I just finished reading Tanselle's "Sol M. Malkin Lecture in Bibliography," entitled Libraries, Museums and Reading, delivered in 1990 to the Columbia University School of Library Science. I am absolutely blown away. In thirty-one pages he clarifies several of the questions with which I spent all those chapter pages wrestling and grappling. Though his focus is not on biblical interpretation, I can easily see how many of his insights will be directly applicable to the project of Material Scripture and my research. I am absolutely ecstatic.

I need to read the lecture again, and study it more closely, before I can adequately express to you the connections I see. I hope, as the summer progresses, to bring several of these insights into the blog and talk about the lecture piece by piece. I think that would be the most profitable approach.

For now, however, let me lift out this one quotation:
Scholars who concentrate on the transmission of texts - that is, textual critics and editors - have often been misunderstood by other scholars, their work greeted condescendingly as if, however basic, it lacks the intellectual challenges of supposedly more creative historical and critical scholarship. What editors actually do is to read the documents (what else could they do?), trying to read all the evidence these objects have to offer and assessing it critically. The process of criticism does not begin when a literary critic or a philosopher takes up a text provided by an editor; it begins with the editor's own work, which reflects an attitude toward all the issues that critics confront. But editors' work suffers in the eyes of many scholars from the taint of the physical: work involving physical evidence is thought to be mechanical and objective, in contrast to the higher critical powers required to deal with the intangible intellectual product. The body has been chosen rather than the soul [pp. 27-28, underlined emphasis mine].

I could not agree more with this analysis. Translating it into my own project, let me gloss the quotation thus: "The process of [biblical and theological] criticism does not begin when a [theologian] takes up a text provided by an editor [and a publishing staff]; it begins with the editor [and publisher]'s own work, which reflects an attitude [and a set of theological and community commitments] toward all the issues that [theologians] confront."

Nearly all the 340 pages of the dissertation were trying to build toward an insight such as this. Here, in Tanselle's work, I find a scholar who has done much of the methodological development (with which I have been fumbling these past several years) to help me more elegantly frame and ground these suspicious intuitions I have had about Bibles and theology.

Though Tanselle and I are ultimately interested in a different set of questions, I am very encouraged that this overlap exists where we have come upon a problem with a similar trajectory. I have no doubt that Tanselle's insights (and indeed, the work of book historians like David Vander Meulen and others) will prove invaluable not only to Material Scripture, but to related projects such as the Syracuse Iconic Books center.

I feel like it's my birthday. I can't wait to read more.

[1] For an excellent example of this, consider D. Moody Smith's The Composition and Order of the Fourth Gospel: Bultmann's Literary Theory, in which Smith demonstrates how Bultmann reconstructed and re-edited the Johannine text to fit a trajectory of theological assumptions that he considered to be more "original" than the textual evidence currently available in ancient manuscripts and fragments, in effect creating a "new" and heretofore unseen Gospel of John. My thanks to my colleague Jimmy Barker for bringing this example to my attention.

[2] My thanks to Rebecca Rine, Ben Maton, Scott Yakimow, and Luke S.H. Wright for these introductions.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Panel proposal on "Material Scripture" accepted by AAR

I am happy to report that the panel we have proposed to discuss the growing fields of "Material Scripture" and "Iconic Books" has been accepted. We will be presenting the panel during the Sunday "wildcard" sessions at the American Academy of Religion conference this fall in Atlanta (October 30 - November 2).

The one update of note at this point is that Brent Plate, with regret, has withdrawn his paper, as he has received a grant to study material religious culture in Japan that will take him out of the country during the dates of the conference. We have just confirmed that James S. Bielo, author of Words upon the Word: An Ethnography of Evangelical Group Bible Study, will take Brent's place on the panel.

I will post more updates as they are available. Meanwhile, if you plan to be at the conference, or in the area, please make plans to attend. It's going to be a great discussion!

Sewanee's School of Theology chosen as one of six sites for project exploring the function of the Bible in the worldwide Anglican communion

[Posted originally on the University of the South alumni webmail, here]

The School of Theology at Sewanee: The University of the South has been chosen as one of six sites worldwide to host a regional group working on a major new project of the Anglican Communion. The School of Theology will host the North American group that will be part of a new exploration of the ways the Bible functions in the life of the Church.

The Rev. Robert MacSwain OGS, instructor of theology and Christian ethics at Sewanee, has been named the coordinator of the regional group, which will organize the project’s case study work within Canada and the United States.

The Bible in the Life of the Church” project was launched by the Anglican Communion late in 2009. It aims to explore how Anglicans in different contexts actually use the Bible by exploring Scripture together and reflecting on the encounter; to produce resource materials for use at all levels of Christian education; and to re-evaluate the ways in which Anglicans have heard, studied, and received Scripture.

This major three-year project was mandated by the Anglican Consultative Council at its Jamaica meeting in May 2009. It has been described by the Archbishop of Canterbury as a “serious examination of how the Bible is used in our [the Anglican Communion’s] worship and decision-making.”

While much of the project’s work will be prepared by the regionally-based groups and brought to a Communion-wide coordinating group, local groups within each region will take part in the project by contributing to and testing the material that emerges from the work of the regional groups. MacSwain says, “In this way, the project will involve wide grassroots
participation from around the Communion, as well as draw upon the work of academic biblical scholars and theologians.”
Other regional groups are based around theological education institutions in East Africa, Southern Africa, South East Asia, Oceania, and Britain.

The Very Rev. Dr. William S. Stafford, dean of the School of Theology, says, "With our faculty, who all think hard and care deeply about the Scripture's use in the church, and with Education for Ministry spreading particularly effective ways for adults to reflect on the Word and their lives, Sewanee is a natural site for a project such as this. We are honored to serve the Anglican Communion in this way."

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Magisterium, delivered right to your door

In the May 7, 2010 issue of Commonweal, Kenneth Woodward offers an extended reflection, "Church of the 'Times': A Dissent," in which he examines the weltanschauung of the editors and staff of the New York Times. I will leave it to my readers to judge for themselves the legitimacy of his overall claims about the newspaper's purported allergy to religions (particularly the Roman Catholic Church). I think that is a worthy conversation to have, though I am not sure this is the forum in which to have it.

However, this one paragraph caught my attention and I wanted to take a few minutes here to make a comment or two about the issue he raises (since I think this is the proper forum for such an issue): the Church of Rome, the Times exercises a powerful magisterium or teaching authority through its editorial board. There is no issue, local or global, on which these (usually anonymous) writers do not pronounce with a papal-like editorial “we.” Like the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the editorial board is there to defend received truth as well as advance the paper’s political, social, and cultural agendas. One can no more imagine a Times editorial opposing any form of abortion—to take just one of that magisterium’s articles of faith—than imagine a papal encyclical in favor.

In my doctoral dissertation, The Covert Magisterium: Theology, Textuality and the Question of Scripture, I make the suggestion that Bible publishers (and the larger corporations of which many of them are now a part) exercise a de facto magisterial authority over the shape and form of printed Bibles. That, in itself, is a relatively uncontroversial claim.

What interests me about Woodward's assertion above is the ideological power that is brought to bear when these magisterial effects are wedded with certain types of material objects. That editors and corporations control the content (and therefore, to an arguable extent, the possible readings) of books and newspapers is plain. But the Bible is not an ordinary book, just as the Times is no ordinary newspaper, in terms of the relative cultural power wielded by both.

By virtue (is this the proper word?) of their respective material presentations, the editorial decisions that go into the construction of an imprint of a Bible version or an issue of the Times are of an elevated ideological nature. Words in the New York Times are different, in their weight and influence, than similar words found in the Chattanooga Times, for example.

Similarly, though I bemoan the fact, I can cite numerous instances when my students (undergraduate and masters level, both) have pointed to a footnote, chapter heading, or editorial introduction in their various "study Bibles" and quoted it with the authority of Scripture itself. These aspects of printed Scripture that (arguably) are not Scripture perform as a sort of "blurred space" at the margins of scriptural authority. Gerard Genette calls these sorts of additionals the "paratext," and he (along with Phillipe Lejeune) argues that these paratextual elements shape and control how a given reader reads the text.

The "editorial shape" of a printed object is an artifact of larger ideological positionings within a set of cultural disputations. Ancillary to this claim, it is important to distinguish the claim that certain printed objects will have (within a given set of contexts) greater ideological forcefulness than others. This is why, while it might be appropriate to examine the ideologies involved in the editing and printing of an edition of The Joy of Cooking, I would be hesitant (at least in the current set of contexts) to interrogate that object as an example of a (covert) magisterial artifact.

Both the many (and multiplying) imprints of Holy Bibles and The New York Times, however, are currently situated within our culture such that the interrogation of their editorial and paratextual shaping can yield good critical fruit.

For example, Woodward later quotes Times editor Daniel Okrent, who says, “If you are among the groups the Times treats as strange objects to be examined on a laboratory slide (devout Catholics, gun owners, Orthodox Jews, Texans); if your value system wouldn’t wear well on a composite New York Times journalist, then a walk through this paper can make you feel you’re traveling in a strange and forbidding world.”

I interpret this to mean that the editorial position of the Times does not exist in isolation, but rather as a part of a larger set of overlapping ideologies and communities within our cultural landscape. Certain "types" of readers identify with the editorial positions of the Times, and others will feel alienated by them. They are influenced by the Times. But these various groups are also influencing the Times through their economic power (whether or not they purchase the paper, for example, or whether or not they patronize the advertisers within), their reaction to the Times in the wider cultural discourse (articles like Woodward's, for example, as well as the blogosphere). Additionally (but not finally), the Times also exists as an abstracted totem, a crumb that is gnawed as a morsel or hurled as an insult within the over-simplified posturings that pass for political discourse currently (a totem of "Eastern elitism" or "informed journalism," alternately).

So the Times, so the Bible. Or, that is to say, so the many Bibles available as objects within the retail sphere (which, today, is the only sphere that matters). Just as certain readers will not feel at home reading the Times, we might easily be able to think of certain classes of readers made very uncomfortable the The Patriot's Bible, and other classes equally uncomfortable with The Green Bible. The editorial decisions that shape these objects are part of a much larger milieu of cultural and ideological disputes that are not one-way in their influences. The differentiation of Bibles creates hospitable (and inhospitable) ideological and theological space for differing classes of readers. These classes, moreover, are themselves complex and overlapping. In fact, it is the negotiation of publishers, wrestling with demographic data, with as many of these overlapping groups as possible that leads to the multiplicity of Bible imprints currently available.

All this is to say that I think Wooward's observation that the New York Times exists as a type of magisterial entity is right on the money (quite literally). Within the wider ideological landscape we are navigating with this analysis, it is an insight well worth exploring.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

International conference in Denmark: Invention, rewriting, usurpation: Discursive fights over religious traditions in antiquity

I just found out about this upcoming conference. It is too late to get a paper proposal in to them, but if you are near Denmark, and interested in questions of ideology and canon formation with regard to ancient Scripture, this would be right up your alley. Wish I could attend.

Invention, rewriting, usurpation: Discursive fights over religious traditions in antiquity

International conference 31 May - 4 June 2010

How did ancient religious texts and traditions attain status as normative and canonic? Which ideological and rhetorical strategies were used in the struggle for normative status of specific texts and traditions? The conference will explore these questions under the following five headings:

  1. Reuse, Rewriting and Usurpation of Biblical and Classical Texts
  2. Invention and Maintenance of Religious Traditions: Theoretical and Historical Perspectives
  3. Orthodoxy and Heresy
  4. Formation of the Biblical Canon
  5. Canons, Classics and Foundation Texts in Antiquity: A Comparative Perspective

Organiser: Centre for the Study of Antiquity and Christianity, Faculty of Theology, Aarhus University

Conference website available here