|R. S. Sugirtharajah and Pui Lan, 2010|
I was struck by Sugirtharajah’s suggestion that biblical studies be considered an essential component of Oriental studies. In Orientalism, Edward Said already indicted the philological work of Ernest Renan, a major contributor to the historical quest of Jesus in the nineteenth century (author of Vie de Jésus, 1863). Placing biblical studies within the parameters of Oriental Studies allowed us to distinctly see how Orientalist archetypes have been reactivated in social-scientific approaches to biblical studies. Sugirtharajah denounced the Orientalist construction of the “Mediterranean” in the works of John Pilch and Bruce Malina. The use of cultural anthropology in biblical studies has created the binary of “us” versus “them,” and gives further support to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Said’s contrapuntal reading has been well known in postcolonial criticism. In this book, Sugirtharajah insightfully uses Said’s exposition of “late style” to discuss the writings of Paul and John. Said discusses the two contrasting late styles found in artists and thinkers during the twilight of their creative careers. One is wisdom, serenity, and harmony. The other fascinates Said for its display of “intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction.” In music (Said was an accomplished pianist and music critic), Beethoven, Richard Strauss, and Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” demonstrated this late style.
Sugirtharajah says that Paul’s Romans represents the first late style. According to Acts, he was a troublemaker and arrested for resisting Roman authorities numerous times. But in Romans, he became mellow and told his followers to submit to the authorities (Rom. 13). John’s Book of Revelation represents the other late style, if John is taken to be the same author of the Fourth Gospel. The Book of Revelation is uncompromising in its anti-imperial stance, in sharp contrast to the apolitical nature of the Gospel of John.
The volume addresses the issue that male postcolonial biblical critics have not paid attention to feminist issues. Broadbent’s chapter includes a section on “postcolonialism and feminism” (83-86). Sugirtharajah points his readers to resources on mutual criticism between feminists and postcolonial critics (19-20), criticizes the misogyny in the Book of Revelation (161), and challenges the use of gender stereotypes in the construction of the Mediterranean (107-108). These are good attempts – but much more can be said.
The contribution of queer studies to postcolonial criticism is glaringly missing in the book. The leading queer theorist Judith Butler has written on war, Zionism, and American imperialism. Marcella Althaus-Reid’s work and some of the chapters in The Queer Bible Commentary include analyses of imperial power. Contrary to Sugirtharajah’s comment that the Song of Songs falls outside the concerns of postcolonalism (53), Christopher King’s reading of the Song in The Queer Bible Commentary shows that transgressive love prefers the outsider. This has implications for the construction of the “other,” an issue discussed throughout Sugirtharajah’s book. The intersection between postcolonialism and queer studies has been broached in other fields and ought to be included in discussing the future of postcolonial biblical criticism.
*This review first appeared in the Journal of Postcolonial Networks, November 2011.