Saturday, 7 August 2010

The Bible, a Troubling Text

SUGIRTHARAJAH, R.S., Troublesome Texts: The Bible in Colonial and Contemporary Culture (Sheffield, Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2008, pp.vii + 161. £35.00/$70.00/€47.50. ISBN 978-1-906055-38-7; ISSN 1747-9650.

The Bible IS a troublesome text. Its interpretation has been over the centuries the cause of major conflict. It has been used to promote slavery and patriarchalism. It has been the cutural symbol of empire, the basis of education systems in non-Christian developing regions. From it identity is claimed, and land disputes are fomented. Missionaries, by translating God as Ancestor, replaced tribal histories with an over-arching Biblicist ‘history’ in which Adam and Abraham are common ancestors, so biblical violence becomes an acceptable political model, and patriarchy-with-polygamy a legitimate social means of repressing women.

    This thought-provoking collection of conference papers asks uncomfortable questions about Biblical hermeneutics. In ‘Gautama and the Galilean’, 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.
Chapter 2 is on ‘Subjecting the Johannine Letters to Postcolonial Criticism’, concluding that the letters have a dogmatic, imperialistic tone demanding compliance, but that the new message being promulgated owes some informal debt to Buddhism. To ‘walk in the truth’ and ‘walk in love’ is likened to the Buddhism requirement to ‘walk by dhamma’, a praxis-centred practical religion by which ‘everyone who does justice is born again’ and ‘everyone who loves is born of God’ (3 Jn 4, 2 Jn 4-6, I Jn 2.29, 1 Jn 4.7). For the writer, actions not words indicate a person’s faith, salvation by works contrasting with Paul’s salvation by faith and God’s grace. Unfortunately, this worthy ideal is presented as a demand to be obeyed and not an aspiration to be taken to heart. Chapter 3 focuses on the Sermon on the Mount read in India as a basis for ethical spirituality, for example by Gandhi and Roy. He notes that after independence it was replaced by Leviticus 19-26, a ‘roadmap’ for state building, John’s Gospel (mystical), liberation theology and identity hermeneutics. Chapter 4 looks toward next steps: these are for interpreters to explore power-knowledge relevantly. It challenges the dominant hermeneutic by demanding emphases are shifted and silences are vocalised. Chapter 5 explores ideas of God after the tsunami of boxing day 2004, where images of all-powerful and compassionate deity is exploded. Chapter 6 focuses on the link between Bible interpretation and conflict, even violent conflict. Those who study and interpret the Bible from outside the powered elite risk scorn and gagging, even lynching. For Sri Lanka, this is a call for open and honest multi-faith dialogue. Chapter 7 looks at the Bible industry as a form of cultural imperialism, for repression towards a dominant view instead of being a sea of challenging and exploratory stories. Chapter 8, ‘Future Imperfect” calls for attitudes of exclusivity towards the Bible as word of God is replaced by a recognition that the Bible itself was (and is) a site of ideological battle, and has to sit beside the scriptures of other faiths as together charting the spiritual questings of humankind. Chapter 9 ends the compilation autobiographically of the writer’s journey and motivation, calling for creative and imaginative scholarship.