Friday, 18 June 2010

Troublesome Colonial Texts

A brief review of the following will appear in The Society for Old Testament Booklist for 2011 and I offer here an extended version:
Sugirtharajah, R.S.,Troublesome Texts: The Bible in Colonial and Contemporary Culture (Sheffield, Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2008. £35.00/$70.00.
This thought-provoking collection of essays asks uncomfortable questions about Biblical hermeneutics. In ‘Gautama and the Galilean’ (chapter 1), Sugirtharajah uses his Sri Lankan background to explore how and why Victorian theologians constructed lives of Buddha and Jesus, revealing rampant racism. There is however another side to this: enough ‘Orientalists’ took the task seriously enough to contribute to the preservation of texts which has turned Buddhism from a local cult to a respected global world religion.

Buddhism was encountered as an indigenous religion separately in Nepal and in Sri Lanka, and gradually the similarities and differences between the two observed and the conclusion reached that these were two traditions of a single religion, which came to be named Hinayana (lesser vehicle) and Mahayana (greater vehicle). Hinayana (also referred to as Theravada) was regarded as purer than Mahayana, which was considered syncretistic with local pagan deities and spirits. Today, Mahayana belief and ritual would be treated philosophically and symbolically. The Dalai Lama (leader of Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism) is globally known and respected for his spiritual wisdom. Sugirtharajah notes that the reason for the study of Buddhism was to discredit it, and finds many quotations to support this. There is another side to the story and academic study of Pali texts began, albeit slowly. Lives of Jesus have abounded over the past two centuries, are mostly devotional in intent (some thrive on being controversial), and tell us more about the writer than about the historical Jesus. My view is that even the canonical gospels are fictional hagiography which owe more to the need to demonstrate fulfilment of scripture than to historical recollections. Unfortunately, fewer sayings of Jesus have survived than words of the Buddha. Using colonial/postcolonial analysis, Sugirtharajah points to cultural and religious imperialism by Christians, designed to promote Christianity as the ideology of the empire, the acceptance of which removes indigenous peoples from being regarded as heathern savages.
I have written further about missionary activity in
[critique of chapter 2 on the letters of 'John' to follow]

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