Metacriticism of Biblical Scholarship at #AARSBL on Saturday Afternoon

This session focused on canon and fan fiction, making comparisons between science fiction and other genres on the one hand, and Biblical studies on the other. Frauke Uhlenbruch presided. My paper was up first, and it turned out there was no projector, and so my slides – which had no point to them other than to add an additional element of humor – didn't appear. I will blog about my own paper separately at some later point, and have already had some posts here that touch on the same points I made in the paper. I will also build on the paper in part of a book I am working on.

The second paper by Krista Dalton was on canon and Biblical allusions as fan fiction. The paper compared ancient scribal approaches to the Biblical literature and the modern phenomenon of fan fiction. Walter Benjamin has said that “Canon is a perception.” Midrash makes meaning by interacting with earlier texts and contemporary context, inventing the past and creating the future, in a way that mirrors fan fiction. Fan fiction has three main points of interaction with canon: a character, a gap, an allusion. We might view 1 Enoch as an example of the first, and the Genesis Apocryphon as an example of the second, while the third is the main type Dalton focused on, with emphasis on Tobit and Neil Gaiman. The latter sought to bring Sherlock Holmes and H. P. Lovecraft together in “A Study in Emerald.” Gaiman has canons in mind, but is contextualizing for a particular moment in American history, the impact of the war in Afghanistan. Turning to Tobit, Dalton mentioned Novak's description of the biblical text as a “co-author” of the work that it influenced. Novak also talks about the author of Tobit's “biblical aims.” Dalton questioned the idea that a phrase like “the two went along together” must be doing something with the biblical occurrence of the same phrase. Each culture has a limited palette of phrasing and may return to them without intending to echo earlier uses of the same terminology. And in view of that, we can understand the use of canonical texts in terms other than “authority.” Thinking of ancient texts as fan fiction might help us to view them in other ways. In the question time, someone asked about the implications of choosing Neil Gaiman as an example, since he is an established author in a way that most fanfic authors are not. Dalton mentioned a piece of fan fiction by Mallory Ortberg, a story imaging the world of Harry Potter but without Hermione Grainger doing everyone's homework.

The final paper was by Rebecca Raphael, and is inseparable from the other session the metacriticism program unit has this year, asking about the “big tent” approach of SBL and confessional scholarship. She focused on the imaginal world of Star Trek, and the last episode of the original series to be broadcast (the penultimate in production order), “Turnabout Intruder.” The sexism of the episode, and the depiction of Starfleet as one which also shares that sexism, are both controversial among Trek fans. It is interesting to see the different interpretations fans have offered of the statement that women were not allowed to become starship captains, suggesting it was a lie or a delusion. These suggestions are at odds with what Gene Roddenberry has said, and the author of the teleplay have said, as they admitted they were sexist. The later series Enterprise featured a starship Captain Hernandez. We see in all this the desire of fans to avoid having their imaginal world tainted with sexism. Raphael then made comparison with Sharon Betcher's work on disability in the Bible, which seeks to create a postmodern liberationist reading. Betcher focuses on the mutilation and disablement of victims by Assyrian conquerors, and interprets circumcision as an act of identification with slaves. Betcher then treats language in Isaiah 42 and elsewhere not as literally stigmatizing the disabled, but as symbolic of political oppression. Raphael finds this problematic as historical reconstruction, noting Betcher's language: “may have meant,” “needs to be read.” We see there, and in Star Trek fandom's rejection of a sexist interpretation of “Turnabout Interpreter,” examples of liberal or liberationist prooftexting. Historicism is used selectively in the service of constructing an imaginal world. Raphael mentioned wanting to teach a course that imagines that a religion has been constructed around Star Trek, without some of the evidence that we have, in order to illustrate what happens in interpretation and imaginal world construction. We need labels to distinguish between different activities. World construction, and secondary discourse analysis, are different activities. Practices connect with identity, and people with one identity may engage in more than one practice. In the discussion afterwards, it was suggested that appeals to ancient texts and artifacts to “prove” points is pseudo-modernist, and so it is ironic to see it used by purported postmodernism. Another person in the audience articulated a point running through all the papers in terms of fans not wanting the texts of our canon to hurt us. Raphael suggested that a trans analysis might attempt to redeem the episode, since Sandra Smith plays Captain Kirk for part of the episode.

We then had open discussion.

In my own paper, I compared scribal changes to canonical works, and authorial revision of the depiction of a character such as David between Samuel and Chronicles, with the special editions of the original Star Wars trilogy. The point was that one can agree on what works are canonical, and yet still not agree on details. This was the picture I would have put up on the screen while making that point:


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  • arcseconds

    Very interesting discussion.

    As might be evident, I’ve been dabbling in hermeneutics for the last few years (on and off, when time permits). And I’ve become fairly convinced that the authors’ intentions, the reception of the work, and the thinking of the time are not authoritative for interpretation.

    A case that illustrates this point very clearly is if an author writes something they intend satirically, but it actually contains a valid deductive argument with true premises. In this case, we should believe the conclusion even though the author does not, and attest that the passage contains this argument and proves this conclusion even though the author wasn’t aware of this and didn’t want to prove that conclusion.

    Also, as I have pointed out from time to time, works like Genesis don’t even have authors in the usual sense, so it’s not clear whose intentions to pick out, or which audience to pay attention to.

    The most useful statement as to the ‘meaning of the text’ I have found so far is from Ricœur, who, after denying that we should be looking at the author’s intentions or anything to do with the author and the original readers, writes:

    What has to be appropriated is the meaning of the text itself, conceived in a dynamic way as the direction of thought opened up by the text. In other words, what has to be appropriated is nothing other than the power of disclosing a world that constitutes the reference of the text.

    A text can disclose a world different to the one the author had in mind, and can also disclose multiple worlds, just as an object can cast different shadows depending on the light.

    This does, of course, mean that approaching the text as a reader, a hermeneut, and perhaps as an acolyte, wishing to grasp its wisdom or whatever else it has to offer, is a different activity than approaching the text as a historian, where reconstructing the text’s reception may well be the primary activity.

    (Obviously a text can have different receptions at different times or among different people and a historian doesn’t need to be interested in which receptions, if any, are ‘right’ or justifiable. Indeed, perhaps they ought not be interested in this question as historians. )

    On a different but related note, I’ve also become a bit more sympathetic towards ‘spurious’ readings after reading a book on textual analysis from a cultural studies perspective. This book (and I understand cultural studies in general) wasn’t too interested in ‘proper’ interpretation, but in what interpretations people actually gave a work, regardless of whether or not they were defensible. So for example it mentioned a study which showed that gay adolescents and gay men actually did interpret the relationship between Batman and Robin as a gay relationship in the 50s and 60s. The dearth of any gay narratives in mainstream media at the time, and the isolation that a gay teen would typically experience at this time gives me considerable sympathy for such a person taking this interpretation, even though I don’t care for it myself.

    Interpretations differ as to how much material is being provided by the interpreter. There’s an interpretation whereby Han Solo’s statement about the Millenium Falcon completing the Kessel run in a certain number of parsecs is in fact accurate: the run on this interpretation is through a region of space involving many black holes, so one can do the same overall route in less distance by making use of the distortion of space near the black holes. This is clever, but it’s clear that the material is almost entirely being provided by the interpreter in this case.

    So we could ask what the case is with women not being allowed to be starship captains? Is that something the fans are bringing to the work? Clearly, but can it also be justified by the text?

    If we only look at the original series, then I think we would have to say that the world we see there is a rather sexist one. However, in the later series, it is less sexist, or at least, less overtly so. Women can be starship captains. There’s no suggestion that this is a recent thing that happened in the last few decades. So this would support the sarcastic or ironic reading of the statement that women aren’t allowed to be… although even an ironic statement like this suggests the world of Trek is not exactly free of sexism.

    • James F. McGrath

      It sounds as though one can choose between two ways of approaching Trek comparable to two ways of approaching the Bible. One insists that if it was written anywhere, it remains authoritative. The other recognizes that there are developments and trajectories in the corpus with which one may choose to align oneself, and perhaps even follow further than the text ever does.

      • arcseconds

        Surely the only coherent position for a Trek fundamentalist is to of all the episodes of all the TV series, only accept Enterprise as canon :-)

        (possibly ‘The Cage’ could also remain canon…)