Is there a conversation around political theology (as concept, field, method, or however you understand it) from the past twenty years that continues to fascinate you?
The narrow formulation of the concept of Political Theology as the tracing of Protestant theological categories in contemporary political thought presents some challenge for the historically oriented biblical scholar. Indeed, so too does the broader articulation of the field as the intersection of religion and politics. Both, as is perhaps readily apparent, display a proclivity for the Protestant bias in the study of religion, wherein the very division of politics from religion functioned for the establishment of disciplinary identity and political gain. Thus, the problem of a kind of Christian anachronism lies before the biblical scholar seeking to read the texts together with Political Theology—after all, both “religion” and the division of the cult from the royal administration were foreign ideas for the ancient communities.
Still, the very articulation of Political Theology as scholarship at the intersection of religion and politics alerts the reader to the importance of both in the worldview articulated in the extant texts. To this end, while not typically employing the language of politics or political theology, the focus in Biblical Studies in the last two decades on Empire and, especially, on the emergence of the literature within the matrix of imperial domination, subjugation, and resistance continues to be especially helpful for reading and re-reading the biblical narrative. On this, Anathea Portier-Young’s Apocalypse Against Empire is exemplary, but ought rightly be read together with numerous other works employing a postcolonial lens for historical reconstruction and interpretation.
The benefits of such works have been and will continue to be numerous. As an illustration, one might look to the dream of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4. While that story has most often been read as a moralizing tale intended to encourage humility before the divine, re-reading the story while attending to the political implications of Empire suggests that the narrative provides a deeply subversive vision of the Persian administration for the diasporic and repatriated communities descended from those Judahites exiled in Babylon. Further, such reading not only illuminates the political content in the biblical literature, but also unveils the Bible as, in the words of James Barr, a “political document.”
What conversations working with the concept of political theology do you find most fruitful today?
Of course, biblical scholarship is not only oriented toward an ancient historical context. In this regard, the recent turn in biblical studies towards reception—and its recognition that, for as long as the texts have been read, there have been readers and hearers making meaning with them—has produced a new space in which to think about the Bible and politics. Such a view locates the biblical literature within reading communities as the product of and (one of) the means through which the political imagination is formed.
Here, I have found the work of Susanne Scholz in The Bible as Political Artifact especially helpful as it deconstructs the politics at work in contemporary academic discourse on the Bible—and reorients problematic interpretations as, at least in part, the outworking the dynamic and multiplex lifewords of readers.
Finally, I would be remiss not to mention Marc Brett’s Locations of God: Political Theology in the Hebrew Bible as an exciting development at the intersection of Political Theology and Biblical Studies. Brett’s work blends an exploration of the political theologies preserved in the literature with reflection on the reception of the texts in the colonial project. Further, Brett argues—rightly—that an “. . . understanding of [the Hebrew Bible’s] internal debates will continue to be relevant for those who still live within its history of reception” (page xix).
Where do you hope to see discussions of political theology in 20 years?
As Marc Brett suggests, the reception of the Bible as a political artifact has no discernible end point. Rather, the Bible continues to operate a locus for the political imagination up to and including the present moment. While the field of Biblical Studies has been largely oriented towards the past, whether ancient or otherwise, I would like to see the field grow to include the study of the Bible in use, the Bible as what Hannah M. Strømmen has recently called “lived scripture.” (Paper delivered at the 2019 SBL Annual Meeting, “Bibles and Bible Users in the Era of Populist Politics.” No digital link.)
As noted above, the primacy of the role of the reader in meaning-making is by now widely accepted, producing a wealth of studies on the history of the Bible’s reception. To my mind, contemporary reading communities and their own particular modes of meaning-making—and, especially, meaning-making unto ethical and political action—ought to be included among such studies of reception. Here, I would be especially interested in contemporary use and re-use of the biblical literature in response to climate change, in efforts towards reconciliation and decolonization, and in response to mass migration and the refugee crisis. Understanding these modes of reading is not only of scholarly interest, of course, but is also the means through which we might enter into a publicly engaged biblical scholarship.
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