Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review
Postmodern approaches to reading and interpreting the Bible are a growth industry in current biblical scholarship. Gregory Lee Cuéllar's book Voices of Marginality: Exile and Return in Second Isaiah 4055 and the Mexican Immigrant Experience is a full participant in the ongoing quest to discover new reading strategies that can help us to read the biblical text. Cuéllar's book seeks to bring an Old Testament text about exile and return into conversation with a contemporary experience of the same thing with the belief that by listening to both voices, both texts can be read more effectively.
Cuéllar is an adjunct professor of Old Testament at Perkins School of Theology and Resident Fellow at B. H. Carroll Theological Institute in Dallas, Texas. This work represents the publication of his doctoral dissertation. His primary goal is to demonstrate to the field of biblical studies how, by engaging with the voice of the contemporary immigrant, one might be able to better understand and interpret the story of Israel's exile found in the biblical text. Cuéllar's opinion is that the voice of the “other” is largely ignored in mainstream biblical studies whose traditional approaches favour the use of historical methodologies. Cuéllar seeks to offer a corrective by demonstrating how the exilic experience of Israel, as captured in Second Isaiah not only informs, but is informed by the experience of Mexican immigrants in the United States. In other words by understanding the Mexican experience in the U.S. one can better understand the text of Second Isaiah.
The theoretical framework that Cuéllar chooses to employ is what he (and others) calls Diaspora theology. This approach is designed to invite a multi-faceted conversation between the biblical text and a more detailed, social and political analysis of the processes of exile and return (p. 8). The particular conversation partners that Diaspora theology employs are postmodernism, post colonialism and liberation theology. The employment of these voices and their ensuing ideologies in biblical studies signals that Diaspora theology has social change as an intrinsic goal. Thus, Cuéllar writes, within biblical criticism, Diaspora theology seeks to liberate and empower all readers, by taking into account the experience and culture of readers in the act of reading and interpretation (p. 9). Therefore Diaspora theology allows for a comparison between Babylonian exile and the Mexican immigrant experience and represents an alternative theological analysis that focuses on voices from the margins and offers the potential of liberation for those voices.
The voice of the other that this study seeks to hear is the voice of the Mexican immigrant. This voice is allowed to express itself in a genre of Mexican song called the Corrido. As a style of music the Corrido is a type of folk song that acts as a narrative that describes the Mexican immigrant experience, primarily in the United States, and functions as a vehicle for resistance, empowerment and social critique (p. 68).
Cuéllar suggests that by bringing Second Isaiah and the Corrido into dialogue with one another a reading strategy is born which respects the biblical text's diversity and pluralism and that brings a humanizing element into biblical interpretation in place of a strictly objective, scientific, neutral or impartial reading (p. 16). This reading strategy employs three related elements: the text, the readers of those texts, and those readers' particular reading of the texts. By attending to these three voices a reading of resistance is created that involves critical dialogue and struggle between the text, the reader, and the reader's readings of the texts (p. 16). The result of this engagement is that issues of opposition, prejudice, discrimination, poverty and exploitation are brought into the foreground. This strategy is essential for a Diasporic text because it promotes the marginalized voice, and in both the ancient text of Isaiah and the contemporary Corrido this is a voice that must be heard. Thus Cuéllar's reading strategy creates a back-and-forth dialogue between the ancient text of Second Isaiah and the modern text of the Mexican Corrido where the voice of each informs our understanding of the other.
An example of how this dialogue works is given when the author reflects on how both the citizens of Yehud and current Mexican immigrants function as people who are at the mercy of a foreign empire and as a result are not in complete control of their own destinies. For Judah this was the Babylonian Empire that forced the removal of the Judahites from their homeland and Persia who benevolently allowed for a return to the land, but whose benevolence was still a function of their power over the exiles. For Mexican immigrants, some of whom reside in the United States illegally, their choice to immigrate comes as a result of the American economic empire and its thirst for people who will do manual jobs, often for low pay, and who become trapped in those jobs because of the economic need of their families back home. Thus a clear connection can be made between the experiences of two people groups who, while in vastly different settings, find themselves disempowered and dependent upon a foreign empire. Their mutual reflection on such circumstances allow for a more informed reading of one another's experience and illuminates interpretive possibilities that may not have been there without the voice of the other.
It is the methodology offered in the book that provides it with its potential to make a contribution to the field of biblical studies in general and Second Isaiah in particular. Cuéllar's approach allows for not only inter-textual dialogue, but also interdisciplinary dialogue, for he not only lays emphasis on the text but also on culture, experience and theological reflection in order to assist readers in both their understanding and appropriation of the text. A dialectic such as this surely offers a much more robust option for biblical studies than do some former models.
That said, the book as a whole does not yield any stunning new insights into the understanding of Second Isaiah. While the book is certainly not intended to be a commentary on Second Isaiah Cuéllar's treatment of it offers sharp but largely standard understandings of the text and Judah's experience of exile. In terms of shedding new light on Mexican immigrant experience I am not able to comment. Further, I was not familiar with the Corrido until reading this book. While I found the author's recounting of Mexican experience interesting I sensed that the insights offered in terms of its connection with the experience of ancient Yehud were solid but not revelatory. Further, on a technical level, the book has a number of textual errors that do not live up to the standard that can rightly be expected from a volume such as this.
The exilic period of Old Testament history has become a hot bed for research in the field of Old Testament studies in recent years and there is a movement by some, including Cuéllar, toward understanding that exile may be the best motif by which to understand the Bible's overall narrative. This flurry of activity around exile within the OT guild has spilled over and begun to influence other disciplines as well, including practical theology. While Gregory Lee Cuéllar's book is not an overt work of practical theology it does reflect the possibilities that exilic theology offers to various groups of people as a way of informing their self understanding. Thus the book demonstrates the potential that Old Testament studies can have in shaping the identity of a contemporary social group. Some contemporary authors see the ongoing de-centering of the Christian church in current Western culture as being another place where a dialogue between Old Testament exilic texts and the experience of contemporary people could be highly provocative. One of these is Walter Brueggemann, who is also a primary influence on Cuéllar. Brueggemann and those who share his perspective on the potential of the exilic motif would readily agree with Cuéllar's idea that not only can Israel's exilic experience inform our own, but that as the 21st century church increasingly experiences marginalization, it too will have a new ability to enter into dialogue with Second Isaiah and thus interpret the book in new, and perhaps even more faithful ways. For this reason Voices of Marginality provides an approach to Old Testament studies that deserves to be considered further. It offers a highly practical approach that calls not only for exegesis, but theological reflection and practical application of the text to the real life experiences of contemporary people. And, if it is indeed a fact that the current de-centering of Christian faith in Western society is an ongoing movement, then approaches to scripture such as this will need a much wider employment in the years to come. For that reason Cuéllar's book is a helpful voice in the discussion.