Sunday, January 25, 2009

"Orientalism" revisited

The class I am teaching on modern hermeneutics concludes this week. There have been stimulating discussions in the class sessions as we have reviewed the history of biblical interpretations in the church, with a particular emphasis on the contributions of women, Latin American scholars, and those in a "postcolonial" world in these last 200 years. The title of this last group is to denote biblical scholars in countries which shed the domination of European and American imperial rule after World War II, and who now look back on the contributions that "western" missionaries made in the 19th and 20th century, and approach these with a "hermeneutic of suspicion".
To say more about what is meant by the term Orientalism, let we start with the picture at the left, a French painting of the early 19th cenury of the "Battle of the Pyramids". This was when French troops under Napoleon defeated a Mamluk Egyptian force in 1798 and temporaily occupied Egypt. Napoleon hoped to expand his empire by adding much of the Middle East, even offering to become a Muslim (which would have included being circumcised) to complete the deal. (The offer was rejected by Islamic leaders, and the British with their control of the seas soon ended his dream for a near eastern empire). If you want to read a recent book about all this, see: Mirage, Napoleon's Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt, by Nina Burleigh. But what Napoloeon did which had more far reaching results was to bring an eager group of scientists with him (one great discovery being the Rosetta Stone, which allowed modern scholars to translate the hieroglyphic writings of ancient Egypt into modern languages). This produced a tremendous fascination for all things Egyptian and Near Eastern. Also, by the mid 19th century, missionary zeal in England and the United States led to the influx of Protestant teachers, at first intent in helping to revive the Coptic Orthodox Church, but then to establish their own schools and churches. One of the anchoring points for our class in hermenuetics has been to review the hermenuetical principles of John Calvin, which would have been a part of their teachings here in Egypt. These were taken from a book by Gerald Bray, entitled: Biblical Interpretation, Past & Present.

This fascination with all things of the "East" produced an outpouring of books and articles, written by European and American authors which interpreted for the "West" what the cultures and religions of these Middle Eastern lands were, seen through the lenses of westerners, who too often began with a superiority complex. A book (pictured on the right) we are using to explore this dynamic was written in 1978, and begins with this comment:
Orientalism is a history of the ways in which the West has discovered,
invented and sought to control the East. [This term Orientalism] tells
us more about the Occident than it does about the East.
Edward Said was writing at the time of the establishment of the state of Israel, and notes how the earlier pictures of the East played a significant part in attitudes in the West toward Islam and Arabs as well as in the development of the views of Zionism and Christian Zionism.
And one particular comment which caught my eye, given the recent events in the Gaza territory (remember, this book was written in 1978), was his evaluation of the life of the Arab Palestinian as distressing: a result of the web of racism, cultural stereotypes, dehumanizing ideology, which puts these people at the bottom of the garbage heap. When we add the dynamic of terrorism and Muslim extremist of a few to this already devastating picture painted of these human beings, we begin to understand how perceptions built up over decades and centuries can cloud our vision and can influence our policies.
One of the over-all objectives of this class and of others in the graduate program is to encourage the students to question what they have previously been taught and to evaluate it in the light of the scholarship of others and their own abilities and perceptions, hence, "a hermeneutic of suspicion".
More later. Hope all are well. Roger R.

Monday, January 12, 2009

January Course on Biblical Interpretations begins

Greetings again in the new year from Egypt. This week I am beginning to teach a three week course entitled: "Hermeneutical Developments in the 20th Century". Hermeneutics is the way by which we seek to draw out all possible meanings of a Bibical text, by using the methods and insights developed by biblical scholars of different times and different contexts, as well as our own - so that we can apply these truths to our own lives and witness. These movements which came to fruition in the 20th century were by women, Latin Americas Liberation theologians, and biblical scholars in countries which freed themselves from Western colonial rule after World War II (now called the postcolonial hermeneutic).
Let me illustrate some of this by translating the last line of the part of a poem (to the right) about Bishop Oscar Romeo, who was martyred in El Salvador, Central America for standing against the oppression of the ruling junta and siding with the oppressed poor of the land. The last line translates:
(as you accompanied them)
"The poor taught you how to read the Gospel".
As a priest in the Roman Catholic Church in the 20th century, he would have learned all the traditional methods of interpreting the Scriptures which had been developed from the beginnings of the Christian Church, but now in his love and care for his people he came to see the Gospel through their eyes. This transformed his ministry.
The second picture was painted by a Sudanese artist, who is now a refugee in Egypt because of the warfare in his own land. As I purchased it, I asked the merchant why the face of one woman and half the face of another seemed to have been left unpainted. He assured me that it was not because the artist had not finish his work (in his desire for a sale), but that it represented a part of southern Sudanese culture that expresses itself in a dualism, the opposing forces of light and darkness, or what is hidden in shadow and what is visible in the sunlight. I wished that I had had more time to visit with him, and I have been unsuccessful so far in contacting the artist to ask more about this.
But for now, one thing the painting suggested to me is how the different phases of the moon are visible to all in the nighttime sky (as in these faces). Because of how the sun's light is reflected from it to earth we sometimes see a full face (but only one half of the moon), and a half face -in shadow and in light, and a time when all the moon is all in shadow. I have no way of knowing if this was the artit's intention, or if it holds any credence (for I am still an amateur art student). But I think that it is possible to describe how we know others in much the same way, (where parts are in light and parts in shadow) As I start the class, I am going to put a toy parrot on the table in the classroom and ask each student to describe what he or she sees (without moving around to view it from other angles) or asking others. The point of this simple exercise will be that we also experience life from our own vantage point and through our own lenses. We need help from others to expand and enhance our knowledge. (Maybe it is a little like the limits of our knowledge of the moon we had before cameras and people from earth were able to take pictures from the dark side).
In the matter of interpreting the Scriptures, we will be looking into how others help us with the areas (with our limited perspectives and locations) which we may not have yet seen clearly. Often those who received the Scriptures in their own languages for the first time in the great mssionary movements of the 19th century are now (postcolonial hermeneutics) questioning just how much of Western culture and values came along with the Bible, even in the ways it is intended to be interpreted. This is called a "hermeneutics of suspicion". Women were the first to point out that most biblical scholars over the centuries were men, and too often had a decidely male-centered perspective. We will explore what these "new" colleagues from other countries and others cultures, and women, can teach us.
As I write this, the presiding bishop of the ELCA, Dr. Mark Hanson, and many synodical bishops are completing their trip to Jerusalem. If you want to learn more about their reflections, check to see what is written on the ELCA web page ( or your synod's web page. Could help us to understand more of what is happening and what we can do.
Peace, justice and joy, Roger R.