Katrina Van Heest

Grafting Dominance: Scriptural Logics and Their Afterlives

Katrina Van Heest’s presentation on the topic of “Grafting Dominance: Scriptural Logics and Their Afterlives” draws on her dissertation project, which analyzes the property-related metaphors that Paul embeds into his expansionist rhetoric. She then applies these logics to recent historical issues in South Africa and theorizes the meaning of this phenomenon for understanding histories of dominance in our own globalized world. The aim is to stimulate conversation between fields for ongoing metacritical discourse, especially the sociocultural roles of scriptures. Such discursive postures are premised on Jonathan Z. Smith’s challenge to the field of religious studies for a responsible method for comparison that incorporates diachronic and synchronic analyses.

Van Heest’s work focuses on Paul’s metaphors of “free gift” grounded in the Christ event and agricultural “grafting” in Romans. The Christ event, a term that she uses to reflect that Paul’s positioning of the figure Jesus, is less about his person than about his pivotal role in a cosmic drama. The Christ event, for Paul, is not just for the so-inclined slice of society, but for all of humanity, writ large. The Christ event and its significance are Paul’s particular way to add exclusivism to his universalism. In an effort to show two aspect movements in this metaphor; an inward movement in the Christ event and an outward movement to the world, Van Heest invokes the Vertigo effect, a camera trick in film which is achieved when the subject in the foreground of a shot remains stable while the background noticeably expands or contracts. To achieve the dizzying background effect, the camera moves forward, encroaching on its foregrounded subject at the same time that the lens zooms out. Her project hypothesizes that this simultaneous encroaching and zooming out can be observed rhetorically in the writings of the apostle Paul.

The free gift metaphor in Romans 5 comes from Paul’s use of a scriptural generality—the “fall” of Adam into sin—to frame his characterization of Christ and the cosmic significance of the Christ event. The free gift is perhaps a confusing categorization since it does not carry with it an option between (1) slavery to sin and (2) perfect freedom. Accepting this gift of grace means transferring oneself into new ownership; it does not remove all authority or absolve one from all duty. By referring to the works of Marcel Mauss, Jacques Derrida, and Pierre Bourdieu, Van Heest shows that no gift can truly be free of obligation or reciprocity. Yet, a free gift, like the one Paul invokes in Romans 5, is defined by its nonreciprocity. What’s free about it is not that it is costless, but anybody can receive it; it is unlimited.  That tension created what Van Heest calls the Vertigo effect that privileges the Christ event in simultaneously zooming out to put it in the unbounded context. In the awareness of the moment, significant dizziness takes place.

The grafting metaphor derives from Paul’s explanation of his vision of Gentile participation in an otherwise Jewish movement by referring to a figurative “cultivated” olive tree to which a “wild” olive shoot is “grafted.” Van Heest suggests that the metaphor reveals a broader conception of history and the positions of various peoples rather than just the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. This grafting imagery emphasizes a central growing organism with which alien elements fuse.

Paul used these two metaphors of free gift and agricultural modification to explain how he envisions the cosmos working. Paul’s logic is one of the expansion and exclusivity holding on the acceptance of the Christ event. The Christ event is a divine transaction and all humans slave to one or another master that represents the sort of Western idea of ownership or property. The idea of free gift is shown to encapsulate the Vertigo effect, and the agricultural grafting emblemizes the cultural dominance constructed in the free gift’s dizzying wake. katie2.jpg

Van Heest turns to historical moments where she sees Paul’s metaphors of free gift and grafting echo in South Africa. The early nineteenth century, with the founding of the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS) in particular, marks what biblical scholar R. S. Sugirtharajah calls “the defining moment for scriptural imperialism.” The BFBS’s introduction of the Bible to places such as South Africa marks a decisive moment in the history of modern international relations, as the Bible symbolized not only the inherently exclusive monotheism of the West but also the textedness that greased the gears of European capitalism. Missionaries to South Africa also made inroads with the African population through means closely associated with the new economic system. The Comaroffs have argued that mission gardens performed twin ambitions of colonialism: civilization and commerce. Missionaries used their gardens to model and teach British agricultural practice and broader social values. Against the nomadic agriculture of the Africans, the imperial effort was to seize land and institute an ownership system of property. The twin free gifts of the Bible and European agricultural methods aim to graft Africans into such a way of life.

In more recent years, Bill Gates’ other establishment, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has approached Africa in apparently purely charitable terms. Responding to the food shortage and hunger crisis on the continent, the organization teamed up with the Rockefeller Foundation in 2006 to initiate the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa to “improve the productivity and incomes of resource-poor farmers in Africa.” In part, AGRA depends on seed development, which will eventually produce genetically-modified crops. For those farmers who do decide to accept the free or subsidized seed and farming inputs, they become dependent on those systems. Buying into a system based on the allure of higher yield is what begins this cycle of dependency and creates markets that were nonexistent for large Western corporations prior. The system is only binding, though, in the context of intellectual property. Intellectual property, as Van Heest argues, is traced back to Paul’s idea of humanity being own by God or by sin. If God can own you, why can’t you own your ideas? Why can’t corporations have a perfect control over the biological inventions? Echoing the scriptural logics in Paul, such multi-national corporate mechanisms instantiate the rhetoric of expansion veiled as free gifts, and the passion for their intellectual property or stricted products.

Questions for further discussion

1. If Paul’s logic is advanced in a particular way that determines the modern world, then what constitutes the reading(s) of Paul? In what way(s) has history of modernity shaped us as who we are in engaging Paul or “scriptures”?

2. If Paul is used to study histories of dominance in our globalized world, what are some of the issues and problems in the relationship between reading of “scriptures” and reading of the world?

3. What is at stake in taking either the “insider” or “outsider” positionality when employing scriptural logics to critique Western imperialism? How do one’s intellectual investments inform the comparative project that spans disparate worlds of Paul, Bible as scripture, and colonial and neocolonial South Africa?


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