James A. Noel, American Religion, San Francisco Theological Seminary

"Significations, Black Art & African American Biblical Hermeneutics"

On March 8 the Institute for Signifying Scriptures welcomed to its Brown Bag Lunch Series Dr. James A. Noel, professor of American religion at the San Francisco Theological Seminary.  Dr. Noel began his lecture on African American art and biblical interpretation by identifying himself as a professor, pastor, and artist.  It is the intersection of his personal and professional formations that gave rise to his hermeneutic for artistic expression, which he calls "the aesthetic mode of religious apprehension."  Noel seeks to understand how acts of human understanding take place through art.  He argues that human perception takes place through aesthetics, not through enlightenment rationality.

The question that initiated Dr. Noel's presentation was: What were the early African American slaves hearing when they heard the Gospel? Or in his words, "what was the aesthetic that allowed people to discern meaning when they got off the boat?"  However, Dr. Noel's work suggests that a salient source for constructing an African American identity is the counter-hegemonic artwork of American slave religion.  

Noel's presentation was based upon his essay in the forthcoming volume, True To Our Native Land: A New Testament Commentary (Fortress Press, forthcoming).  Noel thinks that the human imagination makes conscious and materializes aesthetic and religious experiences through art.  This conceptualization not only registers, but also distinguishes, human imagination from aesthetic perception and religious experience.  Human imagination is distinct from discursive thought and speech and expresses itself through art.  Noel's conceptualization leads him to suggest that, "African American art is one of the most productive sites for excavating the 'archaic' dimension of African American consciousness, because the Black religious experience is a form of aesthetic experience."

The only way for an interpreting subject to bridge the gap between the archaic, which is deep and can be obscured, and its socially cultural grounded expression is "to enter into a participatory mode of conscious."  The interpreter seeks to be in one accord with the consciousness of the form.  Before moving to issues of biblical interpretation, Noel demonstrates "the aesthetic mode of religious apprehension" from the example of the African wood sculpture named boci or nkisi.  The boci was present in Western Africa prior to and during the nineteenth century.  Boci is the name given to a carved figure with cords that often was pierced with nails.  Apparently, the boci was used to displace or transfer personal fears; what the self dreads experiencing is performed onto the boci.  Noel is dependent upon the work of Suzanne Preston Blier who argues that the boci was a poignant symbol in the face of terror and trauma that faced Africans.  The boci also is a symbol of hope that was supposed to protect and ward off potential evil.

At this point in the presentation, Dr. Noel presented the contemporary African American artist Renee Stout's reappropriation of the boci art form.  The importance for the boci art form for Noel is that it helps explain the acceptance of Christianity by some African slaves.  Noel suggests that the enslaved African did not understand Jesus' death through missionary proclamation but through an aesthetic apprehension.  Noel writes, "through their aesthetic mode of religious apprehension they 'got it' all at once and understood Jesus hanging on the cross as their nkisi."  Noel's use of John M. Janzen's study of affliction cults in West Africa stresses that an afflicted person's healing could also begin his or her initiation process to become a healer.  Noel links this idea to the scarification from whippings as well as the scars of a man about to be lynched, and he suggests that the African American collective consciousness made connections to their scarring and their initiation into Jesus' crucifixion.

Noel suggests that the horrors and experiences of African American slaves provide the lens through which one can engage the New Testament.  He suggests that biblical text be reflected through the consciousness of the African American slave experience.  In other words, he negotiates the meaning of New Testament texts through his aesthetic engagement of African American Art.  This leads to the most provocative suggestion regarding Noel's work.  Noel suggests that African American art provides a recorded moment that can be understood through the "the aesthetic mode of religious apprehension."  This aesthetic appreciation-even self-actualization-creates possibilities for the re-creation of African American identity.  Noel's presentation of African American artwork provides a trenchant example of the way sacred texts, conceived in the broadest sense, work in the world.  Early African Americans made sense out of and spoke back to their oppressors' through biblical images conveyed through art. 

Questions for Reflection:

In his introduction to African Americans and the Bible: Social Texts and Social Textures, Vincent Wimbush presents the framework of the "Cycle of life-in-marronage" for understanding social engagement with "scriptures": De-Formation, Re-Form[ul]ation, and Formation. Where might we locate-not with any finality but with fluidity-Dr. Noel's work on African American art and "the aesthetic mode of religious apprehension"?

Noel suggests that the imagery/aesthetics of trauma drew African Americans towards Christianity, and that evidence for this attraction can be found in art. Alternatively, how might Noel's hermeneutic and subject matter explain African American slave resistance to, and even flight from, the American Christian myth?
Noel explores the possibilities of African American art providing a lens for biblical interpretation, but how might we develop his idea that the artwork itself can be read, understood and interpreted as a kind of "scripture"?

In his essay Noel writes, "What African Americans aspired to was not the world of appearance-the world of their enslaved, Jim Crow conditions-but rather, the world they could imagine and wanted to make."  Further probing in this direction could lead to some fascinating inquiries concerning the role of religion.  What might this exploration suggest about early African American engagement with American Christianity?  What is the social psychology of painting as a subversive form of speaking back to power?  Do any consistent symbols, motifs, or colors emerge? 

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