Tag Archives: postcolonial interpretation

Racial Justice And Science Fiction: Introduction

Or Is Theology the Queen of Sciences?

The Best Science Fiction of the Year 4

I question whether there is not some equivocation in failing to specify the virtues which entitle sacred theology to the title of ‘queen’. It might deserve that name by reason of including everything that is learned from all the other sciences and establishing everything by better methods and with profounder learning …. Or theology might be queen because of being occupied with a subject which excels in dignity all the subjects which compose the other sciences, and because her teachings are divulged in more sublime ways. — Galileo’s Letter to the Grand Duchess Dowager (1615)

 

Today, there is a group of theologians who go by the Radical Orthodoxy project, led by John Milbank and his interpretation of the idea that “Theology is the Queen of the Sciences.” As such, what you get is an ecclesiology that has a huge need for linguistic gatekeepers, since only Christians are able to understand the language of Christianity, ala post-liberalism (at least my reading of it). Each Radical Orthodox book I have read has the same blueprint: engage in what seems to be scathing critique of some “secular” discipline and practice, say, economics, and then use the last chapter to talk about how THE CHURCH is the solution to the problem.

Obviously, this take on RO on a blog may seem polemical, and granted, I am capable of more complex and generous reading of RO theology, but the reason why I introduce RO at the start of my introduction to my series on Racial Justice and Science Fiction. The implications for RO/THE CHURCH theologies is that they are closed, anti-conversational, and more biased/less critical towards traditions that just are not liberating. If indeed the RO/THE CHURCH theologians are correct, what is the point of doing other disciplines for? And furthermore, where in history has THE CHURCH been the leading teacher for solving the world’s problems? It seems to me that RO/THE CHURCH Christian thinkers are way too utopian in their collective praise for Aquinas and company.

Take the literary genre of science fiction, for example. In Adam Roberts’ Palgrave History of Science Fiction, Roberts’ argues that the emergence of Science Fiction happens in part to the Protestant Reformation. Much of the ways of knowing the world (epistemology) that the Reformers promoted was a PROTEST (zing!) against things like Geocentrism and Sacramentalism (according to Roberts), and in Roberts’ words, “Catholic fantasy.” I reject Roberts’ binary (read: Anti-Catholicism) but his argument has some merit. There cannot be science fiction prior to the birth of the scientific worldview. One could say then that Science Fiction, from the beginning was a theological, and continues to be a theological enterprise from its very inception. No, I am not saying that all science fiction works make a case for God or Higher Being of some sort, but what I am contending is that Science Fiction writings, plays, and movies have always reflected our (humanity’s) ultimate concerns.

If theology is seen as a closed conversation, since she is viewed at the top of the pyramid (ala Milbank), then prophetic critiques from the “outside” “secular” voices hold no weight. However, if theology is viewed in a non-hierarchal and conversational manner, then maybe perhaps the “secular” becomes a very integral part of the life of “THE CHURCH.” After all, the body of Christ is to be a community of the Word, which in Scripture, usually means a dialogue, and covenant, which eventually means a quest for justice.

This leads me to this series on Racial Justice and Science Fiction. Sometimes, theologians find the strangest of allies, but when it comes to advocates for racial justice and critical race theorists, perhaps this pairing is a bit too odd. Make no mistake this series will not be a dismantling of any science fiction texts on the level of my and Adam’s take on William P. Young’s The Shack (even though that is a possibility). Instead I have decided to take a random sampling of some of my favorite science fiction writings to share with the audience, and give examples have these texts can “make it plain” to folks what antiracism looks like, and in so doing, opening up the possibility for people to dream, and then work for racial justice, like that great Trekkie, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Texts/Authors included are:

Olaf Stapledon’s The Last and First Men

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World

C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy (special focus on Perelandra–the 2nd piece)

Octavia Butler’s Kindred

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Ishmael & Immigration: A Postcolonial Reading of Genesis 16

Last week, I finished Edward Said’s Orientalism, and I could not help myself thinking about how the way Orientalism infects our reading of Scripture. One of the largely unchallenged biases we read into the story of Ishmael in Genesis 16 is our attitudes towards “the angry violent Arab” trope. I have heard dispensationalist sermons claiming that God’s promise to Hagar and for Ishmael is one in which the Arabs will grow numerous, but they will still be an enraged, uncontrollable group of people, since Ishmael is a “wild” man. This works well with war-mongering pre-millenials and their hunger for a new era of Crusades. However, nothing in the text says anything about the nature of the religions for Ishmael’s descendents. Islam. It is an unnceccesary yet convenient reading, especially in a post-9/11/01 world. Even the more liberal interpretations within Protestantism that may seem to favor interreligious dialogue, fall in line with Orientalism; the idea that Ishmael remains the timeless Arab goes unchecked. That is, until today.

The notion that a human being immutably represents his future progeny continues to be a problem in late modernity and Christianity; if you recall, in my post debunking the Curse of Ham, I rejected Canaan as being the essential black criminal male rapist, one of the many stereotypes that propped up African enslavement. It would only be just for me to start to dismantle our imperialist readings of Hagar & Ishmael.

So if Ishamel is not our Essential Oriental, are there any other more liberative readings of the text? I would say yes.

First, let us start with Ishmael’s mother’s name: Hagar. Hagar resembles the Hebrew term hager, meaning “resident alien” “stranger” or “sojourner.” In the context of Genesis 15:13, whereby God promises Abraham’s offspring will be “ger” or aliens in a foreign land for 400 years is a reminder for the Jew in exile that part of their covenant with YHWH entails justice for the resident alien. Fast forward to Genesis 20 , and Abraham himself is considered a “ger” (20:1; 21:23; 21:34), and receives hospitality and compassion from Abimelech king of GERar. This treatment should be seen in stark contrast to Sarah’s banishment of Hagar and Ishmael. Finally, Clare Amos, whose article “Genesis” I am depending upon in the translation of the Hebrew noun “ger,” suggests that Genesis 16:12 is fraught with ambiguity, and that it really does not have to mean that Ishmael “would live at odds” with Isaac’s children. She prefers to hold this reading in tension with another possible translation that Ishmael would live “alongside his brothers.” This allows us to understand the image of Isaac and Ishmael burying Abraham in Genesis 25:9, in Hebron [the city where David begins his reign as king, btw], as a kind of closure.

There is much to learn here for our 21st century approaches to immigration. Thanks to Celucien Joseph, I learned of Congressman Luis Gutierrez’s protest against the President’s immigration policy, and rightly so. While there are those on the Left worried about the Arizona S.B. 1070 law that was passed, hardly anyone speaks out against the President allowing over 1 million deportations, splitting up families, handing over children to the state. During African enslavement, separating families was the norm; I guess somethings never change. At least in the story of Hagar and Ishmael, they are kept together as a family. I believe that the best way forward, and the most pro-family position, is to aim for comprehensive immigration reform, one in which by law, legal authorities would not be allowed to take away parents from young children. Anti-Immigration, pro-deportation activists, while claiming they are for limited government, actually are supporting MORE power to the government. The small government and the more compassionate position is Comprehensive Immigration Reform, like the one groups such as Christians for CIR are promoting.

For more, please see the Global Bible Commentary, pages 1-16

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The Parable-Driven Life: The Parable of the Minas (Luke 19:11-28)

Or How the Kingdom of God is A Bad Business Model

Last week, after meeting with former biblio-blogger Kurk Gayle and Chad, I asked,

After the meeting and much reflection, really, shouldn’t Christians do as Jesus do with their lives? Shouldn’t they recite narratives that are all too familiar to their culture, and but with a Gospel twist? Is not this what Christian witness is all about?

Thus began an attempt by Chad and I to start a Tuesday series on reflecting on how Jesus’s parables can shape and change our lives. Today, I start with my own attempt to grapple with the American church’s favorite parable, the parable of the Talents (a real misnomer in many respects as I will explain in my excursus). I would first like to do a re-telling of the story that brings the parable to life in a contemporary context.

The Parable of the Wicked Senator

The crowd was listening to Jesus of Nazareth, the Anointed One. Because he was near Jerusalem, the blessed city, they expected the Messiah to tell them when and how the kingdom of God was to come, and they wanted it right here and now. So, Jesus said to them,

“An aristocrat travelled to the capitol to network among the statesmen and enter his name on the ballot for Senator.  The next day, he returned to his plantation to check on his sharecroppers.  The oligarch summoned ten of his tenant farmers and gave them ten crops of land for them to raise cotton.  Some of the Negro citizens on the other side of town were outraged; they did not want this man to tell them how to run their lives.  The rich man received word that he had won the election to become a member of the Senate.  Having returned to his property, the Senator-elect summoned his ten tenant farmers to see how well they had done by taking care of the land he had lent them.  The first tenant walked up to the landlord, and said, “Massa, yer one plot of lan’ has yielded enuf cotton to fill ten plots o’ lan’.  The Senator replied, “You are one of the good Negros, I reckon.  Because you have made a profit for me, you shall receive ten farms from that other side of town.”  The second farmer walked softly up to the Senator, with him head down, and said, “Massa, good sir, I have given ye ‘least ‘nuf cotton for five plots of land.”  The ruler said to him, “You shall be given five farms.” A third tenant farmer, who stood defiantly in front of the Senator, said, “Good Sir, I know youse is a harsh man. I was afraid of you so I took this land, and covered it with a blanket. You take what you do not invest, and you reap what you do not sow.  You are a thief.” The Senator answered, “you are judged by your own words, for yes, I am a harsh man, yes I do steal what I do not work for. Why did you not grow cotton in the land I let you borrow? You are one lazy coon!”  To the bystanders, the rich prince said, “Take away this man’s land; I say to you all: to all those who have much, their riches will increase.  But to the ungrateful Negros on the other side of town, as well as this man, bring them here to be lynched right in front of me.”

After Jesus had told them this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

Excursus

Some of you may be wondering, “What is wrong with the traditional interpretation of the Parable of the Talents?” Isn’t it just about Jesus teaching us that we need to use all of our gifts, and that we will be rewarded for doing such?  It would be easy to slip into an approach, but there are many complex issues at work, with the text, and with the picture of God in general in this parable.  As a faithful Protestant Christian, one has to wonder, where is the grace in this story? Is not Sola Gratia one of the top five important doctrines?  If one is to take this story at face-value, and attribute God as the harsh aristocrat/prince (one with royal power) [verse 12] who rewards us for our works/giving us what we deserve, how does this line up with Jesus’s other teachings on God’s providence? (Matthew 5:45)?

If God is traditionally understood as the harsh (severe, exacting, in a favorable/unfavorable manner–the Greek root word for austere) murderous ruler, what does that say about our image of God?  Is one to believe that God abandons humanity in order to passively permit injustice to reign, or is God omnipresent throughout the world, actively confronting evil as God did through Israel and in Christ? How are we to understand God as the Almighty if God has to leave and take royal power from somewhere else? (19:12)  Moreover, in the context of the canon, God in this parable, traditionally understood, functions in a way that contradicts God’s preferred way of being just, i.e., that being the case of forcing usury upon the impoverished (cf. Leviticus 25:35-38 and Deuteronomy 15:7-11).  If we divorce the parable from its historical context, the one in which our Jewish rabbi who was all too familiar with the Hebrew Bible and its dictates, it makes this parable that much easier to hold in cultural captivity (U.S. American corporatist-capitalist logic).

What makes the history of the Western reception of this parable and the up-liftment of usury all that more problematic is that in the Reformation era, the Laws pertaining to the prohibition of interest of loans for the disenfranchised were viewed as ideas not to take literally.  The body of evidence, considering the agrarian nature of the Palestinian economy in the second century B.C.E. as well as Jesus’s Jewish identity lead me to believe that the harsh ruler is none other than Satan/the wicked powers that be itself.  Even if there was an exception to the law that interest was to be taken from Gentiles, perhaps Christ, if the third servant is non-Jewish is inviting equal treatment for the poor of all ethnicities.  But it makes more sense, at least in the literary placement of the parable, where Jesus is close to Jerusalem, and then walking up to Jerusalem, that the third servant is actually the Messiah himself.  Jesus is discussing the kingdom of God (verse 11), and the kingdom of God is accomplished not by anything that human beings can do, but the Triune God alone accomplishes. Jesus exposes the Enemy as a liar, and looses his life because Jesus is the Truth (John 18:38).  Subsequently, in the same chapter, Jesus weeps over his beloved city of Jerusalem,  because they did not recognize God visiting them (19:44).  Jesus the Anointed One, in his death, initiates God’s reign here on earth.

Truth and Peace,

Rod

For further resources on this possible interpretation of the Parable of the Wicked Ruler, please see William Herzog’s Parables as Subversive Speech as well as God is Not religious, nice, one of us an american a capitalist by Brent Laytham