Forum and Book Party in Celebration of the Publication of Theorizing Scriptures and the Inauguration of the Signifying (On) Scriptures Book Series with Rutgers University Press

Zayn Kassam, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Pomona College
Valorie Thomas, Associate Professor of English and Black Studies, Pomona College
Lako Tongun, Associate Professor of International and Intercultural Studies and Political Studies, Pitzer College


Dr. Zayn Kassam, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Pomona College, gave three examples of where the “radical excavation” work of the ISS can be fruitful: (1) in Islamic Studies, where the Qur'an is used in a post-9/11 world to rationalize violence, fear-mongering, empire-building and justify jihad. Here the pernicious equation of Muslim = terrorist serves to render the Muslim as “other” much as similar political agendas rendered the Russian Communist in Cold-War America and the Jew in Nazi Germany. The work of the ISS highlights areas where scripture is signified, appropriated and manipulated for political purposes and can serve to draw attention to this phenomenon, simultaneously serving to highlight social and economic equalities in an increasingly globalized world; (2) how women are also rendered “other” through Qur'anic exegesis; here the ISS, by providing a “safe space” for the re-significations of scripture, can support attempts to address these problematic arenas of identity politics; (3) by focusing on the plurality of ways in which Islam has been understood and challenging the traditional hegemony of the Arabic language in Qur’anic interpretation, a challenge that allows the balance of power to shift towards the signifiers of texts in multiple language systems and recasts the struggle over who has the authority to speak for Islam.

Dr. Valorie Thomas, Associate Professor of English and Black Studies at Pomona College, approached the publication of Theorizing Scriptures by recalling her intellectual development as a young graduate student at U.C. Berkeley. Interested in the Song of Solomon, Dr. Thomas learned that it wasn’t sufficient to learn or talk about texts simply as literature or scripture without exploring the subtexts and inscribed narratives contained within them. For Dr. Thomas, Toni Morrison provided “room to imagine” and she was able to expand her understanding of the Song of Solomon by exploring how the text signifies other realms and realities. Dr. Thomas’ master’s thesis, “African Cosmologies in the Song of Solomon,” showed that this ancient biblical text contained within it echoes and traces of Black sacred space and that more “homework” needed to be done within the field of English literature to facilitate this expanded understanding of text. Dr. Thomas drew attention to the publication of Theorizing Scriptures as a “threshold moment” for the exploration of these possibilities and heralded its appearance as an opportunity not only to re-excavate and reinterpret intellectual problems, but the embodied social, economic and political realities of the world today. Theorizing Scriptures revitalizes the field by drawing attention to the politics of inclusion and exclusion and thereby resisting the marginalization of “other” communities by the dominant society.

Dr. Lako Tongun, Associate Professor of International and Intercultural Studies and Political Studies at Pitzer College, approached the publication of Theorizing Scriptures from a political studies perspective. Dr. Tongun pointed out that the study of religion was earlier ignored by international relations theorists influenced by the Enlightenment project, and that religion was seen as something “outside,” an external phenomenon in the colonial system. Today, however, the conflict between African and European cosmologies and ideologies can be illuminated by understanding the use and role of authority and power in scripture, and this analysis cac help us understand how scripture is used to produce and reproduce the subaltern. From a political science perspective, Dr. Tongun identified “three pillars of power”: (1) the state, which leads to the provocative question: what would have happened if Christianity had not been adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire, a process which led to the sacralization of imperial power?; (2) the economic pillar and how human beings are not only motivated by “religious” concerns but economic realities and greed; and (3) the ideological pillar, in which religion plays a major role, poignantly illustrated by the fact that Dr. Tongun’s homeland, the Sudan, is a place where religious ideology is complicit in genocide. For Dr. Tongun, the publication of Theorizing Scriptures serves to highlight the fact that the production of religion and scripture are essentially universal human phenomena and that such phenomena can and must be approached in concert with the study of globalization.
Finally, Dr. Vincent Wimbush articulated how Theorizing Scriptures serves to model conversation about a complex phenomenon that can be approached in multiple ways by serious, playful and creative thinkers from a number of disciplines. In contrast to the rigid ways in which the academy and confessional institutions have preferred to structure intellectual conversation about scripture, the work of the ISS calls attention not only to the fact that religious texts are always contested sites, but more importantly to the question of: who gets to sit at the table? Theorizing Scriptures is a multidisciplinary conversation that signals significant changes in a field that has long restricted the types of conversations that could take place and the types of people that could participate in those conversations. The publication of this volume, the first in an ongoing series (a second volume in the series, Encountering the Text, is already underway), in its modeling of how people from different traditions, perspectives and disciplines can come together to discuss “scripture,” embodies a welcome and much needed approach not only to the study of religion but to multi-, inter and trans-disciplinary conversations in all fields.

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