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.

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