Notes on the Sociology of Religion (16)

John C. Rankin

Segovia, Fernando, Decolonizing Biblical Studies: A View From the Margins (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000).


  1. Summary presuppositions: a) “They began to speak in other tongues” used as a reverse metaphor, namely, not focusing on diversity in service to unity per Acts 2:4, but in highlighting unity in service to diversity − 1. “ I argue, therefore, that what is occurring is actually the reverse of the Lukan agenda: not at all a movement from ‘Jerusalem” out to the world at large, but rather one decentered from ‘Jerusalem’ (for ‘Jerusalem’ no longer exists) and in the world at large. I see it as a process if liberation and decolonization” (p. 7); b) “For cultural studies, therefore, all exegesis is ultimately eisegesis, that is, interpretation and hermeneutics go hand in hand” (pp. 50-51).
  2. Personal story: a) Chapter 7, “My Personal Voice” is helpful to understand before looking at the arguments in chapters 1-6, 8; b) Segovia situated outside as well as inside the field of biblical studies − 1. emergence of “cultural studies” 1968ff,  i] concern for “diversity and pluralism, for the quotidian and plebian, for the excluded and marginalized … for the personal voice” (p. 146); 2. history of “colonial” and “Eurocentric” hegemony of the field detailed in prior argument; for which the presence of the “personal voice” was anathema; c) Cuban descent, exile living in the U.S., lay Roman Catholic; d) beginning of academic career in late 1970s − 1. modest academic article citing “a particular structure in a passage under consideration” brought a thunderous response from the reviewer: “The structure of a passage lies in the passage itself, not in the eyes of the exegete” (p. 147), i] equaled an initial voice of protest “against the hegemony of historical criticism” (p. 147), ii] such historical criticism = German in origin, and epitomized in the 1960s by Krister Stendahl, iii] “To raise the issue of personal voice in interpretation was to commit theunthinkable and unpardonable sin” (p. 148); e) in the 1990s, encounter with a peer chiding him for “abandoning the path of historical criticism … proclaiming ex cathedra that historical criticism, as a scientific method, posed no ideology” (p. 150) − 1. response: no such thing as a disinterested reader, and text has no meaning without an interpreter, 2. revolution here = “The personal voice was here to stay in biblical scholarship” (p. 152); later encounter with older scholar in historical criticism school, who “discreetly dropped” the subject of “cultural criticism,” thus, gathering momentum of cultural criticism, then into “postcolonial criticism” (p. 153), 3. “after ‘subjectivism,” there is perhaps no term more objectionable for any universal reader-construct, such as that behind the homo eruditus, than “ideology” (p. 154); f) model of postcolonial studies = “hermeneutically rewarding and personally satisfying” (p. 120) − 1. based on Cuban heritage and its history with colonialism: “In the light of such a long and distinguished pedigree, it should come as no surprise that I regard myself as carrying imperialism and colonialism in my flesh and in my soul, as a human subject and as a real flesh-and-blood reader – and hence as a biblical critic, as a constructive theologian, and as a cultural critic” (p. 125).
  3. Argument: a) starting thesis for biblical studies: “The long dominance and swift demise of the historical-critical model of interpretation, in unquestioned control for the first three-quarters of the twentieth century but in broad retreat during its last quarter” (p. 3) − 1. personal life interface: moving from “text-dominant to reader-dominant approaches” (p. 4), 2. moving out of “objective” academic setting into “sociopolitical arena” (p. 5), i] diagnosis of colonialism, ii] ongoing project; b) three competing models (each “broadly conceived”) + fourth new one − 1. traditional historical criticism “may be summarized in terms of the medium of text as means … to the author who composed it” (p. 8), i] Myth of objectivity, neutrality of the exegete, “In the process, to be sure, the position of the critic emerged as highly authoritative and powerful, within a hierarchal system consisting of text-critic-readers” (p. 14), ii] entrenched; product of the Enlightenment, 2. distance from the text, 3. formalism (“form criticism), 4. text full of aporias – “textual unevenness, difficulties, or contradictions” (p.13), 5. positivistic foundation and orientation; empiricism, 6. pedagogical model = “highly pyramidal, patriarchal, and authoritative” where the teacher/critic dominates (p. 62), 7. “implied reader” and “implied author” (p. 66), and elite context of academia, i] suppression of the personal voice of the reader, 7. how are ancient texts to be approached, what is the history of their approach, that of the critic, and what is the role of the reader?, i] Critique of ex cathedra, ii] “Implied reader” (p. 66); c) literally criticism: “text as medium … from author to readers” (p. 8) − 1. “From a theoretical point of view, historical critics proved no match for literary critics” (p. 17), 2. for sender and receiver, main focus has shifted accordingly, 3. highly atomistic approach, essentially ending age of aporia, but reader remains faceless; d) cultural criticism, per neo-Marxist lines, “may be summarized in terms of the medium or text as both medium and means, but with a much greater emphasis on the signified than on the signifier … radical contextualization” (p. 9) − 1. began from the margins; against dehumanization of prior models, 2. “The text as means, as evidence from and for the time of composition” (p. 24), 3. “For cultural criticism, therefore, the economic, social, or cultural dimensions of the biblical text proved far more attractive than its ideological or religions character. The meaning of the text was seen as residing in the world behind it” (p. 24), 4. assumptions of cultural anthropology: “Main concern is not with the Bible as the Word of God but with the Bible as a cultural record of antiquity” (p. 70), 5. diachronic not synchronic, 6. goal = “true exegesis” in sense of “codes of the world behind the text” (p. 25) + “readers behind the models” who are no longer faceless (p. 26), 7. pedagogy = diversity of readers at outset; assumes reality of imperialism and colonialism; from a lay Roman Catholic perspective, i] diversity of texts, within texts, within cultures, within paradigms, among readers (including academic readers), ii] metacanonical approach over and against historical canon; shift the ground of authority accordingly, iii] Dissenting voices, iv] expand input into the text as much as possible, 8. text as “construction” (p. 29), i] reader-centered, ii] “real readers,” iii] human identity factors: “sexuality and gender; socioeconomic class, race and ethnicity; sociopolitical status and affiliation; socioeducational background and level; intellectual moorings; socioreligious background and affiliation; ideological stance” (p. 47), 8. texts as constructs, or re-presentations; re-creations and re-constructions, i] discourse is ideological, ii] “The text has no meaning and history has no path without a reader or interpreter” (p. 45), iii] multiple interpretations, varieties: “no final or definitive text or meaning as such” (p. 104), iv] “There is not and cannot be a meaning for all readers at times and in all cultures. No meaning can dictate and govern the overall boundaries and parameters of Christian life” (p. 49), v] “This is a model that calls for an abandonment of the long-established practice of learned impartation and passive reception in favor of a self-conscious, highly critical, and global dialogue involving unceasing and ever-shifting processes of impartation and reception” (p. 90), vi] the Bible is too ideological to be used, on its own terms, as a means forliberation of all men and women; e) postcolonial criticism − 1. “I regard the emergence of these models of interpretation as a gradual process of liberation and decolonization” – leads to “postcolonial criticism,” 2. fFocus on “the other,” marginalized, 3. Marxist critique where “Western capitalism and expansionism” (p. 58) are part of colonial evil, 4. change in this direction = for the better, i] not linear progress, but “open-ended and hence a sort of nonresolution, ii] Need in the academy for African-American, third-world and feminist iii] Influence of Gustavo Gutierrez, 5. the reality of empire affects the bias of how “ancient texts” are understood, i] early imperialism (European, fifteenth century, primarily Catholic), ii] high imperialism (1492-1792), again, primarily Catholic, iii] late imperialism (1792-present); Protestant elements of missiology (e.g. William Carey), iv] binomial nature throughout – “us” versus “them,” 6. need for a “The Postcolonial Bible” (p. 133ff), i]  David Jobling, ii] Marxist view that the Bible was produced under one mode of production – tribute-slavery; now we live in late capitalism, so how can the Bible speak to our world? It only speaks to antiquity, 7. pedagogy: solidarity with the “other,” 8. postcolonial critic = pre-eminence of the personal voice, 8. stages, i] entrenched historical criticism through the 1970’s, ii] literary criticism gains and dominates in the 1980s and 1990s, iii] cultural criticism thereafter, iv] postcolonial criticism is a newer and greater cognate.
  4. Summation: a) neo-Marxist evolution from 1] hegemony of historical criticism where the text and author are the medium, but exclusion of the personal voice; to 2] aporias of literary criticism where text remains the medium, but in the hands of faceless readers; to 3] cultural criticism where the medium is both the medium and the means, enfranchising the reader, and begins from the margins; to 4] postcolonialism where the reader is the other who is the focus, replacing the text ultimately; b liberation and decolonization are thus achieved.
  5. Critique: a) inconsistent use of the terms exegesis and eisegesis; b) reactive to real injustices, but no proactive remedy − tiresomely tautological at many points – the whole book could have been written in 1/3 to 1/2 the length; c) the only basis to proactively and redemptively include “the other” is in the biblical rootedness and self-interpretive lens of creation, sin and redemption; d) the “personal voice” is heard in the Bible; but to put the present “personal voice” as the interpretive judge is to ultimately dispense with the text; e) the “historical criticism” of JEDP (the “documentary hypothesis”), as reacted against, and as it has lost its dominant position, is not the same as the historical criticism of an evangelical understanding of the text as rooted in creation, sin and redemption, and the self-assumedly historical nature of the text to begin with and as composed long before either Josiah or the post-exilic world, indeed, back to Moses himself and the oral/written traditions he inherited within the covenant community;  f) no articulation of any teleological hope; g) in dispensing with universal applicability of the Bible, no universal applicability of the postcolonial model is contemplated; h) in assessing the binomialisms of the “dominant” over “the other,” the only change offered in postcolonialism is to put “the other” over the “dominant,” exchanging places and creating a new “dominant,” now set for a new “other” to rise up; i) if the Bible only speaks to antiquity, then why bother with it at all?; j) postcolonial liberation and decolonization = “freedom from,” not “freedom for.”


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