Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Serving the Word

This blog gets its title from a heartfelt and illuminating ethnography by the anthropologist Vincent Crapanzano, Serving the Word: Literalism in America from the Pulpit to the Bench. It's a study of two flavors of literalist exegesis: Fundamentalist Christian biblical interpretation and "strict constructionist" Constitutional law (think Anthony Scalia and Robert Bork).

I'm writing a critique of it for the University of Chicago's Interdisciplinary Christianities workshop. Here are some notes on what sounds like a riveting paper that was delivered there last year by my friend Alex Golub who is now suffering the slings and arrows of lubricious Hawaii).

The beginning of my critique: Crapanzano's book is basically about hermeneutics on the ground. A hermeneutic is a way people get meaning from language. The book gets its kick from the conflict between two kinds of hermeneutics: his (secular, academic) and theirs (Fundamentalist or merely Conservative, but always literalist). His account of hermeneutics begins with Schleiermacher , a 19th-century German philosopher. But what if you began it with the kind of texts Crapanzano's Fundamentalist Christian subjects actually read and think about? What if you began hermeneutics with the book of John? The formation "literalism" might crack under the weight of this wilder semiotics.

As a philologist, I'm committed to paying a great deal of attention to ancient texts and the ways they tell you to read them. I'm planning to argue that if you look at the accounts of language implied in some ancient (John, as well as the first Jewish mystical treatise, Sefer Yesirah) and early modern (Reformation, esp. the Sacred Panegyrics of the Jesuit scholar Emanuele Tesauro) texts, Crapanzano's hermeneutics may come to seem too narrow and brittle to encompass the things modern Fundamentalists do with sacred language.

The bulk of the paper explores this with a look at the Aramaic language, and non-language, of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ. Can we call a religious artifact like this an "interpretation"? It's certainly literalist. Where did it come from historically, what does the viewer participate in by watching it, and what kinds of problems does this raise, both for literalism and literalism's critics?

A fine can of worms. This is what I do to relax from editing alphabetic cuneiform texts and reading Isaiah? Anyhow, time to go read some Schliermacher.

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