Moses at the Mall
Genesis: A Living Conversation
(New York: Doubleday, 1996) 361 pp., $29.95
Companion volume to the ten-episode public television series, which aired 10/16/96 to 12/15/96.
Bill Moyers has done it again. He has used TV—that vast intellectual wasteland—as a tool to make us think. His choice of text is impeccable—the book of Genesis, the first installment of the best-seller of all time. His choice of conversation partners includes prominent intellectuals, theologians and artists, all primed for lively conversation—reproduced with introductions in a handsome volume by Doubleday. The skeptic would warn that ten hours of talking heads on PBS is a potential disaster, a sleeping pill administered in ten doses. But millions loved it, including my in-laws. People talking passionately about the Bible, God and ethics on TV, with nary a televangelist in sight. Who’d have thought it possible? Surely this is a major contribution to public discourse on religion.
At the risk of sounding like Scrooge, or like the family member who made you eat your broccoli, I want to express some unease about the show and about the current Genesis revival in general. While I love Genesis, and think it the most amazing, rare and excellent book ever written, I think that our age has a problem relating to it. The Genesis revival treats the book as a mirror of ourselves—our problems, our aspirations, our fears, our needs. But is this fair? Is the book really a form of therapy? I’m afraid our culture has seized upon this book as the latest thing. After the Scarsdale Diet and aroma therapy comes Genesis. Self-actualization by Holy Writ. Moses at the mall.
Not all of the participants in Moyers’s conversation so treat the Bible. For many it is an object of faith and a spiritual challenge. But even here you get lots of comic lines, like the unmemorable aphorism by one participant: “Faith is what you do between the last time you experienced God and the next time you experience God.” (Did I see this once on a bumper sticker?) But too often one is deluged with stories of the participant’s poignant divorces, or other painful relationships with spouses, parents and children, or scarring ethnic or racial experiences. At one moment the participants share their experiences with heart-bypass surgery. Zen Buddhism seems to come up a lot, too. Now I don’t mean to belittle the personal experiences of these people, many of which create powerful and emotional moments, but it is hard to believe that Genesis is really a guide to dysfunctional families and how to survive them (to paraphrase a couple of the show’s participants).
My deeper unease is with the cavalier method of interpretation embraced by the show and by many of the books that claim its imprimatur. Let’s start with Burton Visotzky, or Burt, since everyone goes by first names on the TV show and in the book. Burt is a rabbi and professor of midrash at the Jewish Theological Seminary and the moving force behind Bill’s project. Burt held a monthly informal Genesis seminar in New York that was rumored to be “the best conversation” in town. Bill transferred the medium to TV, but the format and method came from Burt’s seminar. Burt’s theory of the meaning of the Bible is a sort of loose derivation from rabbinic midrash and postmodern literary theory. Here’s his theory, from the show:
The text is always there. The words don’t change. They’re always the same words, whether it’s Deuteronomy or Genesis. What changes is the way we read. What’s important is how God’s word is heard. God’s word isn’t just in a static book…The words are just there on the page. But as communities of readers, we get together and when we talk, when we debate, when we get heated, that’s when we hear the word of God. That’s when the text becomes revelation.
Burt thinks that the conversation among readers is the thing, the real site of revelation and God’s word. That’s why the show’s subtitle is “A Living Conversation.” Why? Because the text is a dead thing, a “static book,” words on the page.
That meaning is created by readers and their communities is a respectable position in modern literary theory. The postmodern literary critic Stanley Fish entitled one of his books “Is There a Text in This Class?” after a complaint by an undergraduate. In the Genesis seminar and in the Moyers show, the answer for the most part is “No.” There is a static book, but the revelation is in the conversation among the readers—about racial injustice, about painful divorces, about God and faith. The book is dead, long live its readers’ feelings and emotional responses.
Does the text of Genesis stand a chance in this sort of discussion? At one point Moyers notes one of the most vital aspects of Genesis, its terseness and economy.
Bill: This is such a short story. Most of what we want to know isn’t there.
Burt: But we have the opportunity to flesh out the story.
So let’s flesh it out. I’m mad at my Dad, or my ex-wife, or the patriarchy, or the Nazis for gassing six million Jews in World War II. How can God let this stuff happen? And so on. As the Cole Porter song says, “Anything goes.”
And so I’m not a fan of the Genesis revival. Bill thought that he was promoting intelligent discourse about religion and the Bible on TV. And he was. But he was also promoting a theory of interpretation that in the nineties becomes a veil for our narcissistic culture. Anything I say about Genesis is valid, because I assert my will to power over the text, and there isn’t any right or wrong anyway. I self-actualize by talking about Genesis, I dance over the inert text, and God is in the dance, God is the dance itself. Anyway the text is in a funny language, its grammar is often obscure, the 014ancient versions of the text sometimes diverge, and sometimes the text contradicts itself or simply doesn’t make plain sense. Why bother with the details, nuances, uncertainties, culture or history of a dead thing anyway?
Jesus the Healer: Possession, Trance, and the Origins of Christianity
Stevan L. Davies
(New York: Continuum, 1995) 226 pp., $22.95
Contrary to the view so cherished and uncritically perpetuated by academics, the New Testament does not portray Jesus as a teacher. Rather, it presents him as a spirit-possessed healer, an exorcist and a prophet. At least that’s what Stevan Davies argues as he attempts a more plausible portrait of the historical Jesus.
Drawing on cultural anthropology and psychology, Davies, professor of religious studies at College Misericordia, writes in a popular style, but readers must be forewarned: He seriously misuses anthropology and seems unaware that contemporary psychology is so modern and Western in nature as to be almost useless for analyzing persons from the ancient Near East.
Throughout the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus heals people who are possessed by demons. According to Davies, demon-possession is a form of what psychologists today call “conversion disorder.” This disorder affects certain classes of people who cannot respond aggressively to oppression and insult. Their repression of guilt and anger leads, in turn, to physical problems. According to this interpretation, demon-possession is a coping mechanism for abusive relationships, often those involving the most subordinate members of families: children and women. The resulting problems (in the New Testament these include deafness, muteness and blindness, among other things) are easily remedied by a faith healer, such as Jesus, according to Davies. (Sometimes Jesus used ad hoc placebo devices like spittle and mud.)
Jesus too is possessed, but by good spirits, writes Davies. The spirit of God possessed Jesus at his baptism, and he experienced an altered state of consciousness. When this spirit was active in him, Jesus thought he was the Son of God.
Jesus’ sayings and parables, according to Davies, formed part of his therapeutic technique as a spirit-possessed healer and exorcist; they did not serve as a body of wise teaching. Jesus’ speech—especially as recorded in John’s gospel—was intentionally cryptic so as to disorient the listener and enable that person to enter a hypnotherapeutic trance in which to experience God’s kingdom. For Davies, the sayings in John’s gospel (which the author identifies as historically authentic) confirm Jesus’ identity as a spirit-possessed healer.
The equally confusing content and dissociative rhetoric of Paul’s letters suggests to Davies that the Christian movement continued to exist as a spirit-possession movement for a generation or two after Jesus’ death and resurrection. But, as time passed, the direct action of the spirit in the lives of early Christians began to recede and Church authorities turned to the idea of an inspired text in its place.
Davies’s understanding of Jesus the healer requires extensive refinement and correction from the disciplines he has consulted as well as those he has neglected. For example, Davies argues, on the basis of modern Western psychology, that abusive relationships within the family led to demon-possession as a coping mechanism. However, Mediterranean culture was agonistic, that is, highly competitive. Each person had to defend his or her honor against challenges from others. Thus Mediterranean women and children were socialized to respond forcefully and effectively to oppression and insults and would not have been damaged like Western family members.
Further, given the ever-growing number of biblical scholars who have been using social scientific methods to interpret texts for more than two decades now, it is surprising to read Davies’s accusation of “anthropological ignorance” on the part of New Testament scholars writing on possession. He cites none of the biblical scholars who use social scientific methodology.
Finally, while Davies draws admirably and appropriately from medical anthropology to explore the healing activity of Jesus as symbolic healing, Davies could have strengthened his case had he drawn additional, basic concepts from that discipline. Medical anthropology distinguishes between curing (a very rare occurrence even in modern science) and healing (an event in the life of every sick person—all people find meaning in their condition, even if it is resignation to death). Curing destroys pathogens; healing restores meaning whether or not the actual condition improves. Curing is individualistic; healing is social and communitarian. Without a microscope and medical records it is almost impossible to determine whether anyone was ever cured in the ancient world. But many people were healed—many times over (in antiquity and through the middle ages, the same people went to shrines on a regular basis to be healed of the same problem, in some instances, year after year).
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. The fatal flaw in this book is too little knowledge about healing, a complex issue in antiquity that is foreign to the modern world.
Judaism in Persia’s Shadow: A Social and Historical Approach
Jon L. Berquist
(Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995) 282 pp., $23
Judaism in Persia’s Shadow casts light on the Persian period in Palestine—a dimly understood time in Jewish history. Succeeding the Babylonians as the major imperial power in the Near East in 539 B.C.E., the Persians were relatively benevolent rulers concerned with maintaining peace and order. Jon Berquist maintains that Persian control, which lasted some 200 years, was the central fact in the development of early Judaism. The codification of the Pentateuch, the emergence of a canon of Scriptures and the focus on the Temple, according to Berquist, all took shape under and were molded by Persian colonialism.
Unfortunately, Berquist relies excessively on social theory and textual sources, but ignores archaeology. To be fair, the archaeology of Yehud, as the western Persian province was called, is not as well known as that of other periods and is only recently becoming better understood. Nevertheless, if Berquist had utilized the recent studies by Kenneth Hoglund,1 the book might have come to some dramatically different conclusions. To cite one example, where Berquist finds scant literary evidence of early returnees to Palestine from the Babylonian Exile (which began in 589 B.C.E.), Hoglund points to archaeological surveys indicating a sudden emergence of new settlements in Yehud in the late sixth century B.C.E. This evidence for the return of exiles from Babylon should have been taken into account in a social-historical study of early Judaism. Berquist also seems unaware of Joel Weinberg’s widely discussed study that highlights, among other things, the administrative role of the Temple during the Persian period.2
Theoretical approaches always run the risk of outstripping the evidence, rather than just explaining it. Berquist’s deterministic use of the colonialism model results in some questionable reconstructions. In his reading, Zerubbabel, the Jewish governor of Yehud, served the Persian king Darius by providing him with loyal leadership. Going beyond the evidence, Berquist suggests that Darius forced the rebuilding of the Temple on an unwilling populace as a means of centralizing Persian rule—in line with the Persian policy of using temples in distant colonies as administrative centers. Berquist claims that the prophet Haggai, who worked to purify cultic worship, told of a coming messianic age in order to pacify popular discontent with overtaxation. Ezra, Berquist claims, was actually a Persian governor (contra Nehemiah 8:9), whose mission was to secure Yehud as a loyal Persian colony. Finally, Berquist suggests that the Pentateuch was written down as part of the Persian policy encouraging subject nations to codify their laws.
Judaism was thus shaped, in Berquist’s view, by prophets and priests who were political lackeys of the Persian empire. This is an extreme interpretation: It overestimates the importance of the tiny and impoverished province of Yehud to the Persian Empire, and it underestimates the independence of the human spirit and its authentic religious motivations.
Although this review highlights the possible excesses in using social theory, I quite enjoyed the book. Berquist brings a fresh perspective to a seminal period in the history of the Jewish people. Given the fashionable scholarly belief (though not consensus) that the Hebrew Bible was entirely composed during the shadowy years of Persian rule, a grounding in social and historical reality is most welcome. There is a lot to learn from this book, and it should be both engaging and informative for BR readers.
Moses at the Mall
Genesis: A Living Conversation