Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 4 (2002-2003) - Review

David Jobling, Tina Pippin and Ronald Schleifer, eds., The Postmodern Bible Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), pp. 381 +xvii. Hardback, ISBN  0631219617. $64.95. Paperback, ISBN 0631219625. $ 29.95.

The Postmodern Bible Reader is the follow-up (supplement?) to the Postmodern Bible, or the "PMB" as it is abbreviated whenever it is referred to (which is frequently) throughout. Indeed, the only unattractive feature of this timely collection is its tendency, particularly in the opening pages, to refer back to the PMB as, say, "a remarkable experiment in collective authorship" or a "rich and powerful" book articulating new approaches with "clarity and passion"--surely not something that authors usually write of their own books, unless they are writing for the back cover, for marketing purposes, where their authorship is usually masked? But then the PMB and the PMBR (?) are not owned in a conventional, singular sense: they are the product of collectives, albeit collectives that are sometimes imagined as coalescing into a single personality. The PMBR describes the aim of the PMB as "consolidating" and "grasping in a single thought" the "excitement and controversy" of the postmodern and then, as if to testify to the consolidating factor, reports what "the Collective thought" (pp. vii-viii).

In itself this is probably not a very significant point--the more important and perhaps not unconnected point is that the big personality called the Collective, in its first incarnation as a group of ten and its second incarnation as a group of three, seem to rather dominate the field of Postmodernity and Biblical Studies and related disciplines in the PMBR. The constant links made between the two volumes serve an important pedagogical function, but the lack of cross-reference to hardly any other work by "postmodern" biblical scholars or the work of scholars in related disciplines is a notable omission. The PMB does provide bibliographies, but the PMBR only provides limited cross-references to the work of R.S. Sugitarajah, Roland Boer, Fernando Segovia and Mary-Ann Tolbert, which means that most of the work on the Bible/Religion and the "postmodern" written between 1995 and 2001 is bracketed out. Given that the PMB (as Collective II, with admirable self-criticism admit) is limited, it would have been very useful if the authors could have at least cross-referenced the work by feminist philosophers of religion on Julia Kristeva, or the work by ethicists and Jewish scholars on Levinas, and given that the collection is so concerned with issues of gender and race, it is strange not to find at least a reference to important recent work by Ellen Armour. Similarly, the extract from Paul Hallam on the cultural legacy of Sodom would have been strengthened by at least a cross reference to the work of Ken Stone and other biblical scholars who have been working with queer theory; and it would have been nice if the introduction had at least mentioned the possibility of readers of the PMBR also consulting A. K. M. Adam's two volume Handbook of Postmodern Biblical Interpretation (Trinity Press International, 2000), to which at least one member of the collective contributed. I mention this point at such length not because I want to score reviewer's points, but because I think it is important: the lack of cross-referencing inadvertently suggests that the collectives are more isolated than they actually are in their passion about the postmodern, and may confirm the prejudices of some biblical scholars about the postmodern being an interest confined to a very small minority group. It also suggests a rather too close relationship between the marketing intentions of the publishers and the content of the book (as if to say "If you want to study postmodernism and the Bible, take the Yale University Press and Blackwells route"). Ironically this subliminal (and I am sure accidental) message could not be further from Pippin, Jobling and Schliefer's view of the postmodern, which is emphatically plural and as detached from the idea of the postmodern-as-a-textual-transposition-of-capitalist-economics as it is possible to be. In this mercifully "shifting-signifer"-- and "interpretative-laissez-faire"-free zone, there are right and wrong (often conflated with the [Christian] Right) readings of the Bible, and it matters whether we read with the inhabitants of the Nicaraguan village of Solentiname and their communist interpretation of the Song of Mary, or with the US and Christian-right-backed Contras who in 1977 devastated their village (see the contribution by Ernesto Cardenal pp. 183-187).

Though I've played with the review genre somewhat by putting my "but" --or reservations--first, it should be said that (though I would have preferred it if the sales patter could have been left purely to the reviewers) this collection is important, well-worth purchasing (!) and unique. This is not a collection of more writing on postmodernity by biblical scholars or those who teach Postmodernity and Religion, though with its introductory "Short Course in Postmodernism for Bible Readers," its detailed introductions to the three sections ("Rereading the Bible"; "The Politics of Reading"; and "The Conscience of the Bible") and 1-2 page introductions to each essay--making a total at least 100 pages of rich explanatory writing in all--it is also this. The volume also includes provocative illustrations (by Warhol and Sherman, for example) and teaching ideas that I shall certainly be using (though not all of us will have the students or the class-opportunities to work through all twenty essays printed here plus the six extra essays recommended for introductory reading, many will find this a very useful collection to delve into, and not just if they are teaching classes on "The Bible and Postmodernism").

The focus of the volume is on work by contemporary theorists who have written in/on/at a tangent to the Bible from outside professional biblical Studies (of the theorists compiled here, only Mieke Bal, Robert Allen Warrior and Katie Geneva Canon have any formal relation to Bible and related discipline[s]) and the contents-list (compiled in discussion with members of the first collective) is something for which few biblical scholars would have had the range and expertise. With the exception of Luce Irigaray, whose absence is lamented (p. 23), the collection features most of the usual suspects--Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Lacan, Helene Cixous, J. Hillis Miller--discussing (in way that will come as a shock to those who have thought of the "postmodern" as by definition secular and anti-religious), Jesus's parables, Jacob's ladder and Genesis 22. In addition, there are several surprises, even for those who thought they could have predicted what might feature in such a collection: I had read Donna Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto but I hadn't come across her essay on "Jesus's Ecce Homo and Sojourner Truth's 'Aren't I a Woman?'"; I confess that I had only just heard of Michel Serres and found his reading of the Joseph story as the first treatise of political economy striking; while the inclusion of work by Zakhia Pathak, Enrique Dusserl, Robert Allen Warrior and Katie Geneva Canon, as well as the more regularly canonised Gayatri Spivak, shows how US- and Euro-centric our accounts of the postmodern generally tend to be. There are also essays by authors who have never identified themselves as postmodern or who have even set themselves against the idea of postmodernity: for example Terry Eagleton's essay on Jonah and speech act theory and Elaine Scarry's examination of the "Judaeo-Christian" tradition in The Body in Pain (1985) which I believe, like the editors, deserves to be "recognised as a major contribution to biblical studies" (p. 253) and is a very welcome addition here. Emmanuel Levinas's brilliant discussion of what is at stake in Talmudic reading is also included, thereby questioning the "Judeo-Christian" that some of the other contributors, including Scarry, seem to invoke rather too easily. Given that the editors are generally very good at pointing out the difference between the essays, it would have been good to hear a little more said explicitly about this difference--an inclusion of one of the recent controversial essays on Post-Zionism would have been useful, not least to signify that Jews and Israelis can be, and are often, other than part of a simple straightforward alliance between "Jewish Zionists and Christian Fundamentalists," allied here on the side of the Right (i.e. the Wrong) against the Palestinians (p. 170).

With its well-informed and well-written introductions and its provocative choice of essays, this timely collection promises to push biblical studies beyond its frequently banal and cliched presentations of the postmodern as, say, a one-way ticket from objectivity to subjectivity, a happy liberation from intention into the orbit of "reader-response," or the outcome of a Franco-Prussian War between (Singular) Postmodernity and (Singular) Modernity, in which US academic capital has weighed in in support of France and ensured domination by a new more progressive and Enlightened "Pomo" regime. But at the same time it takes the idea of the postmodern so far--in a way that is (generally) so faithful to the idiosyncracies of "its" practioners--that it raises the question of whether postmodernity is still the best or most useful term for what these writers are doing. While sometimes the editors are frank about rebel-theorists' outright opposition to the term (in the case of Eagleton for example) at other times they seem to be working too hard to cajole them into the postmodern fold. The case for "postmodern" Scarry (pp. 253-254; p. 275) is weak and does not seem to be able to entertain the idea that she may "rarely use the term" (p. 274) because she does not consider it adequately descriptive of what she is doing, while Derrida is located firmly at the centre of "postmodernity" in a way that entirely ignores his critiques of "postmodernity's" false reliance on straw men caricatures of Modernity and Enlightenment, and his absolute refusal to ally himself with postmodernity or indeed any other form of neologism, seisism, or intellectual apocalypse. The authors clearly intend, if I might say so, to present postmodernity as a contested site rather than as something monolithic, but ultimately I am left wondering whether even the idea of a "contested site" is itself something of a euphemism, suggesting that, despite their diversity, all these theorists are aiming for roughly the same place. In fact, I wonder whether, if it hadn't been for the constraints of the title (marking connection to the 1995 PMB) this rich and thoughtful volume might not have even gone further in questioning the usefulness of the term "postmodern" and in critiquing postmodernity's own Grand Narratives.

Yvonne Sherwood
University of Glasgow, Scotland