Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 7 (2007) - Review

Wesley J. Bergen, Reading Ritual: Leviticus in Postmodern Culture (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplements, 417; London/New York: T & T Clark International, 2005). Pp. 140. Cloth, US$120.00. ISBN 0-5670-4081-X.

Wesley Bergen’s book Reading Ritual: Leviticus in Postmodern Culture has as its primary purpose the genesis of an encounter between Leviticus 1-7 and the (post)modern North-American reader. The book offers a cross-cultural comparison of ritual (a search for parallels in ritual-observance in present-day, mostly, North American society) that seeks to illuminate the effects of reading ritual texts, as well as of watching and performing rituals. Insights abound from the comparative study, shedding light upon the experience of reading ritual in Leviticus and uncovering the relevance of ritual in modern and western practice.

The first chapter of the book lays down the purpose and the interests (as outlined above) of the volume. A series of five ‘stand-alone’ chapters follows, each pursuing an aspect of Leviticus 1-7 in the world today. The insights gleaned from the exercise in comparison are brought to bear upon a careful analysis of Leviticus 7 in a final chapter.

Chapter Two considers the relationship between implications in the portrayal of ritual in Leviticus 1-7 and the practices of the meat-packaging and meat-consumption industry in the United States and Canada. Like the external demands of a deity that drive the reading and practice of sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible, the demigod which is the economic system motivates the slaughter of animals in our world today.

Chapter Three examines the function of enculturation which is endemic to the observance of ritual. Enculturation is effected at the social level (e.g., the element of patriotism inherent to a passion for football) and the individual level (e.g., readerly identification with an individual concerned with the effects of transgression) in Leviticus and through the cultural norms of watching football in numerous homes in North America.

Chapter Four regards theological and practical differences between North Americans and Africans in their views of sacrifice. Bergen’s purpose in the cross-cultural comparison is the highlight assumptions in North American attitudes toward ritual (and religion) that would remain hidden otherwise. For example, an African emphasis on the efficacy of ritual in the aversion of calamities in the natural world reveals, through contrast, a dominant focus upon metaphysical realities (atonement) and afterlife matters (justification) in Christian readings of Leviticus 1-7.

Chapter Five continues with the concern for sacrifice in Leviticus 1-7. The comparison turns to the unique current usage of the term and its attendant concepts in American propaganda for national defense. Bergen explores the perceived requirement for the loss of human life in the cause for ‘freedom’, the defense of American Civil Religion/Society, and the maintenance of national cohesion.

The mutation of the concept of sacrifice between Leviticus and understandings of the term in current national propaganda (e.g., from the sacrifice of animals to that of humans) is evident. Chapter Six picks up the matter of changes in the interpretation of sacrificial rites. Bergen’s survey begins with transformations of the concept in biblical texts (the Prophets and the Psalms), proceeds through New Testament texts and the writings of the church in various periods, and concludes with current discussions within feminist and post-colonialist theological discourse. The unique trajectories of interpretation developed within each geographical and historical location are shown to be influenced by the particular demands and interests of each community.

In Chapter Seven, Bergen presents a dialogue on Leviticus 7 in three voices: the perspectives of the scholar, the pastor and the poet. The last perspective offers imaginative, critical and even subversive insights unfettered by the unique interests and protocols of the first two.

Bergen’s penchant for finding aspects of ritual in the world today and his incisive criticism of the mythological constructs that sponsor those rituals are the most attractive features of the volume. The author, for example, demonstrates convincingly the role the Superbowl’s program plays in promoting a particular brand of patriotism (p. 37). Repeated references to members of the military overseas viewing the game promote sympathy for the national agenda for defense (and aggression), and suppress non-violent expressions of patriotism. The rhetorical methods of sports programming are laid bare, and political agenda exposed.

But this emphasis of the volume on comparison between Leviticus 1-7 and events of our contemporary situation, with its preference for finding ‘ritual’ in mundane acts, is also its most troubling characteristic. The definition of ‘ritual’ becomes crucial for the success of the comparison. The polyvalence inherent to the semiotic significance of any given action in a ritual (p. 6) infects also the semantic range of the term ‘ritual.’ Whose conception of ‘ritual’ and ‘ritualized action’ within a given historical context should we proceed with in demonstrating continuity and discontinuity across historical and cultural distances? In order to lend accuracy to comparison, Bergen deploys Catherine Bell’s criteria for the identification of “ritualized actions” (p. 5). These characteristics of ‘ritualized action’ are formalism, traditionalism, disciplined invariance, rule-governance, sacral symbolism and performance. While these characteristics are attributed to the industrialized actions of animal slaughter in Chapter Two (see pp. 15-18), Bergen does not maintain the discipline of justifying his selection of ‘ritualized actions’ throughout the volume. The use of language (e.g., ‘sacrifice’) commonly associated with ritual becomes the basis for the discernment of ‘ritualized action’ in the collective acts of the American military at war (p. 69). Specificity in the designation of series of concrete actions beyond the general descriptive category ‘war’ is missing. What actions of aggression is a reader to think of as possessive of ‘sacral symbolism’ and the element of ‘performance’ so as to qualify as a ‘ritualized action.’? I believe that Bell’s categories are quite applicable to the various maneuvers of national governments and the military in times of war; but the volume does not demonstrate this applicability consistently.

However, this last matter, in my opinion, is a minor oversight that does little to mar an astute work of comparison between the rituals described in Leviticus 1-7 and those of different times and places. Professor Bergen is to be congratulated for his daring effort, which I consider a success, to reveal the use of ritual in the (post)modern world, and the light this sheds upon the function of Leviticus 1-7.

Bernon P. Lee, Grace College and Seminary