Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cultural Criticism of the Bible

I've just submitted a review of a fascinating recent book by David A. Sánchez, From Patmos to the Barrio: Subverting Imperial Myths (Fortress 2008). The review will appear in Biblical Interpretation.

Sánchez provides an excellent case of an emerging movement in biblical studies, cultural criticism. He begins by interpreting the Woman Clothed with the Sun (Revelation 12) as an appropriation of a familiar Roman imperial myth. The basic argument is that oppressed peoples appropriate the imperial myths of their oppressors and turn them to their own ends; that's what happens in Revelation 12. (To some degree, this isn't news among interpreters of Revelation.)

What distinguishes Sánchez's approach, however, is that he identifies cultural appropriations of Revelation's Woman in two subsequent counter-imperial movements, devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe in seventeenth century Mexico and in twentieth century Los Angeles. Imagery of the Virgin is heavily patterned after the figure in Revelation 12, and it was adopted by Spanish colonizers.

Sánchez's book makes for interesting reading in its own right. For the moment, I'm more interested in what the work implies for cultural studies. Traditional approaches to the New Testament largely restrict themselves to explicating the text's ancient meaning. Over the past forty years or so, that model has been repeatedly challenged in a variety of ways, but it still holds for most interpretations. Cultural studies approaches change the conversation by seeing the Bible as a cultural phenomenon throughout history. Thus, asking how Matthew might play out in African missionary contexts (Musa Dube), or how Luke is interpreted in European art (Mikeal Parsons), stretches the range of biblical scholarship. It's not totally new, but interest in cultural studies, particularly studies informed by a liberationist perspective, is growing.

In response to Sánchez, I'd like to ask two questions.
  1. Will cultural studies require collaboration? From Patmos to the Barrio often relies on select secondary sources. This suggests to me that no individual scholar, including Sánchez, is likely to be expert in ancient Mediterranean discourse, seventeenth century Mexican cultural history, and contemporary Chicano/a movements.
  2. How will cultural studies approaches do history? Though his approach challenges traditional historical critical scholarship, Sánchez often makes direct, "objectivist" historical claims. What is the role of historiography for cultural studies?
I'm grateful for this book, from which I learned a great deal. At the same time, the book intimidates me by suggesting that I'll never learn as much as I need to.