Kathryn J.S. Smith, Biblical Studies, Azusa Pacific University
"Teaching Postcolonialism in a Colonial Environment"
On February 8, 2007, Professor Kathryn Smith, Chair of the Biblical Studies department at Azusa Pacific University (an evangelical institution), presented “Teaching Postcolonialism in a Colonial Environment” at the Institute for Signifying Scriptures’ Brown Bag lunch series. Dr. Smith is currently seeking to create a program in “Global Biblical Hermeneutics” at Azusa which will draw heavily from postcolonial biblical criticism, a relatively new method in biblical scholarship. Smith began her presentation by defining postcolonial biblical criticism as a way of approaching the Bible that looks at issues of empire and colonial power and names them. She also pointed out that postcolonial criticism draws from postmodern approaches to meaning, i.e. that meaning is not derived exclusively from texts, but also resides in the contemporary interpretive communities that read texts. Postmodern approaches also destabilize the privileged place that biblical texts have long assumed by studying them in conjunction with other cultural signs and symbols that produce larger webs or networks of meaning.
According to Smith, for the last 150 years biblical scholarship has been characterized by a liberal-conservative divide, a binary opposition between secular, humanist values and exegesis that clings to pre-modern, dogmatic and fundamentalist positions. Smith’s implementation of a postcolonial studies program at Azusa has consequently made some members of the administration and Biblical Studies program uncomfortable. This in turn has led her to ask: What causes evangelicals to become nervous and concerned about postcolonial biblical criticism? Smith posits several reasons. First, postcolonial biblical criticism rejects the idea that there is any absolute meaning of a text, a perspective that challenges and sometimes even rejects canonicity among religious elites. On the other hand, she noted that evangelical communities do have roots in the lower classes and that a fundamental principle of postcolonial criticism is deconstructing abuses of power and language discourses that serve to marginalize and exclude people based on class, race, gender, culture and ethnicity. Smith argues that evangelical communities are more complex than the binary construct so frequently encountered in the media and public discourse. Smith goes even further by suggesting that (some) evangelicals might even be willing to embrace postcolonial criticism because many of the most vocal proponents for social justice and concern for the poor in the nineteenth century were evangelical Christians (an argument recently supported by Jim Wallis in God’s Politics).
Why, then, are so few evangelical scholars using postcolonial criticism? Smith provides us with four reasons: (1) because postcolonial criticism is a critical method that challenges the canonical authority of the Bible. Postcolonial theory requires giving equal attention and methodological rigor to the construction of contemporary meaning as well as to historical-critical readings of texts. Here, however, the expansion of the idea of “canon” could play a role in making postcolonial criticism more palatable to evangelicals; (2) postcolonial criticism challenges the exclusive claims of Christianity. Smith uses the model provided by Daniel Boyarin’s Borderlines to describe how powerful ancient religious elites used the language of heresy to silence, exclude and destroy unacceptable elements from their traditions. Smith notes, however, that these heresiological models can (and should) be challenged; (3) postcolonial criticism is a postmodern construct and contains an inherent critique of modernity, approaches that are often less than palatable to evangelical Christians; (4) postcolonial criticism is subversive; it challenges and undermines contemporary power structures, especially the status quo of American civil religion embraced by (white) evangelicals.
Smith’s analysis of the challenges postcolonial criticism poses to evangelical communities is insightful and timely. She raises important questions about the role of biblical criticism in the academy and how scholars should be responding to the ways in which interpretive communities make sense out of biblical texts. Postcolonial biblical criticism challenges the binary opposites that divide people into artificially constructed camps, undermines discursive constructs that use language to control and contain reality and renders problematic the existence of hierarchical structures that dictate how only particularly qualified elites can interpret biblical texts. These challenges raise important issues for those of us in the academy.
Questions for Reflection:
What is the role of the academy in supporting postcolonial criticism? As an elite institution dispensing credentials that signify authority and power, the academy is paradoxically both a place in which power dynamics can be criticized while serving as a power structure that creates those very same power dynamics. How can the academy (positively, constructively) change the way power is used, constructed, authorized?
What are the ethical obligations of the postcolonial critic? How can an academic reconcile being part of a dominating system while still maintaining a stance of academic resistance to the abuse of power? Is “academic resistance” an oxymoron? What happens when resistance is no longer academic? Are those of us enjoying the fruits of privilege in the academy responsible enough to those for whom colonialism is still an oppressive force?
If it is tempting to gain support for postcolonial theory from evangelical circles using appeals to scripture (e.g., prophetic calls for social justice, Jesus’ concern for the poor, etc.), what are the problematics involved with using scripture in this way? Can oppression be effectively resisted with the tools of oppression? Do subversive interpretations of the Bible (or scripture) not then become virtually necessary prerequisites for societal change?