Thursday, May 19, 2005

Making Sense of Mark's Ending 3

Two of the more popular attempts at making sense of Mark’s ending come from feminist interpreters. The first one, a historical reconstructionist perspective, argues that the women did not remain silent and afraid. How could the gospel ever spread if the first witnesses remained fearful and quiet? The second one comes from the literary perspective. Jesus’s followers drop the ball. The men drop it first. And then the women. The Markan Jesus tells his disciples God will raise him up several times in the narrative. The men don’t believe him. The women came to the tomb to anoint a dead body. They did not go there to welcome a Risen Lord. How about us—the text’s present readers—will we also drop the ball?

If Mark were a movie, it definitely does not end like a Walt Disney movie. It’s open-ended, much like the book of Jonah. The narrative ends at 16:8 with women silent and afraid. I propose the following readings that try to make sense of that ending.

“Watch” the “movie” we call Mark. One can argue that its major theme is suffering-- vicarious suffering to be exact. Its lead character inaugurates a mass movement that begins in Galilee. When the movement eventually reaches the power center of Jerusalem, its leader is executed. Then the young man at the tomb tells the woman that their leader has been raised, and is waiting for them in Galilee, where everything started. And the cycle begins again. His followers are to follow the same path as their leader—the path of vicarious suffering. Wouldn’t you be afraid and silent?

“Watch” the movie we call Mark again. If one focuses on its major characters, one discovers quite fast that most of them are men. Jesus’s disciples are all men until you get to the crucifixion scene, almost at the end, where, like an afterthought, the narrator tells the audience that Jesus had women disciples. Listen to the young man’s pronouncement at the empty tomb—it’s for the men. The risen Christ is supposed to meet the men in Galilee. The women has had enough of this “all men program.” Tama na. Sobra na. Palitan na. Wouldn’t you be afraid and silent when you realize the repercussions of saying “enough” to patriarchy and androcentrism?

If one puts “the vicarious suffering cycle” reading with the “all-men-program” reading together, you’ll have women—by their collective act of disobeying the young man at the tomb-- saying “enough” to the cycles of violence that ultimately always victimize women and children. Now, wouldn’t you be afraid and silent?

A reading of Mark focused on the disciples would soon show that, more often than not, they cannot understand what Jesus does and what he says. Over and over Jesus has to explain his words and his acts. In chapters 8, 9, and 10, Jesus tells them about his suffering and his resurrection, and they misunderstand him. The narrative ends with women coming to the tomb to anoint a dead body. No one among Jesus’s named disciples believed that he will rise again. But one woman in the whole narrative does believe. Read Mark 14. There an unnamed woman gatecrashes a party for Jesus and anoints him with expensive oil. And Jesus says that what she has done will be told in remembrance of her. What did she do? She did an act of faith. She believed Jesus. She anointed Jesus’s body for burial because there would be no body to anoint later. There would only be an empty tomb—as the named women disciples discover when they came with their anointing oils.

Now, if you are one of the many who did not believe Jesus and suddenly the one you thought was dead is actually alive and waiting for you, wouldn’t you be afraid and silent?

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

How does one do Jeepney Hermeneutics?

Canaan Banana posits that the Bible is an important book of the church and that it includes liberating messages; nevertheless, there remains the sense in which, unless one embraces the Christian concept of God, one is not fully a person of God. Mary John Mananzan points out that the Bible in spite of all the reinterpretations, remains a book written from a patriarchal, dominator, imperial perspective and thus must be used to inform and not define Filipino life and struggles. How then does one do a decolonizing reading of an imperializing text? In other words, as Musa Dube puts it, “how does one read the Bible without perpetuating the self-serving paradigm of constructing one group as superior to another?” How does one do jeepney hermeneutics?

It begins with one’s view of scripture. As Daniel Patte points out in conversation, “Traditional roles of scripture are problematic, when they involve submission to the text, or more exactly, defining the authority of the text in terms of moral prescriptions or vision (ideology, religious views, etc.) that it posits or carries.” Many interpreters of Scripture begin with the theological affirmation, explicit or not, that the Bible is “God’s Word” and that it offers access to the Complete and Final Revelation of the One True God, Jesus Christ. Jeepney hermeneutics presupposes that the Bible is a “jeep,” a sword, an imperializing text – a dangerous text, as demonstrated throughout history by the many horrendous crimes committed in its name (see for instance, Susanne Scholtz, ed. Biblical Studies Alternatively: An Introductory Reader [2002]).

Imperializing texts, according to Musa Dube, take many forms and are written by a variety of people, even by the colonized, either collaborating with the dominant forces or yearning for the same power. She adds, “Regardless of who writes imperializing texts, they are characterized by literary constructions, representations, and uses that authorize taking possession of foreign spaces and peoples… Reproduction of imperial strategies of subjugation is also evident among many interpreters.” I draw heavily from Dube’s work with the following questions in explaining why many biblical texts are imperializing and why many of their interpretations are the same. (1) Does the text have an explicit stance for or against the political imperialism of its time? (2) Does it encourage travel to distant and inhabited lands and how does it justify itself? (3) How does the text construct difference: is there dialogue and liberating interdependence, or is there condemnation and replacement of all that is foreign? Is there celebration of difference authentic or mere tokenism? (4) Does the text employ representations (gender, ethnicity, sexuality, divine, etc.) to construct relationships of subordination and domination?

Next comes a proposal on how to transform a jeep into a jeepney, on how to beat a sword into a plougshare. Jeepney readings have at least three distinct characteristics, three explicit choices—textual, theological, and contextual—made by the reader. First, as far as textual choices are concerned, it involves reading texts by disregarding, setting aside, or resisting imperial rhetoric, its agents and those who mimic them (getting rid of the jeep's machine gun mount). This means privileging what Renita Weems calls “random aberrant outbursts in a world otherwise rigidly held together by its patriarchal attitudes and androcentric perspective.” This means privileging the subaltern in texts, not just the “voices from the margins” but also the “voiceless from the margins,” what Leela Gandhi describes as “the ones who disappear because we never hear them speak. They only serve as medium for competing discourses to represent their claims,” like the pais in Matthew 8:5-13 and Onesimus in Paul’s letter to Philemon. This fundamental choice, this switch of focus from center to periphery allows the marginalized in the text to “mirror” the plight of the marginalized in front of it. This is akin to Delores Williams’ argument about the power of Hagar’s story to inform and inspire the continuing struggle of many African-American women.

A second characteristic of jeepney hermeneutics involves a fundamental theological claim that the insights, stories, and answers the Bible provide (like the three-seater jeep) are not enough and may even be wrong or hurtful for the questions being asked by many communities, thus the need to create space for other texts that help inform—not define—peoples’ lives and struggles (therefore, the necessity of the sixteen, or more, passenger jeepney). Jeepney hermeneutics creates space for other voices, for Filipino “traditions, myths, legends, to harness insights, values and inspiration towards the full flowering of communities and persons” (Mananzan:176-177). Jeepney hermeneutics then takes seriously the affirmation that God and God’s activity is bigger than the Bible, bigger than Christianity, and even bigger than Jesus Christ. God did not arrive in the Philippines in 1521. God was already here. According to Mark Taylor: “The Bible, once the “sword” of the imperial spirit, will have to find its new possibilities amid many other spirits that its Christian bearers often spurned.”

Third, jeepney hermeneutics as an example of “reading like a Canaanite” (Donaldson, Weaver), “re-invading the land” (Guardiola-Saenz), re-claiming stolen spaces, and building houses (jeepneys as Filipino homes on wheels) addresses contextual issues, concrete life settings among Filipinos. “The Canaanites are, of course, the much vilified people who occupied the ‘promised land’ before the arrival of the wandering Israelites. Yet they also stand in for all peoples whose lands have been conquered and expropriated” (Donaldson: 12). Filipinos, as one of the most colonized peoples in the world (Fernandez), are modern-day Canaanites. Reading the Bible inside a jeepney simply means creating space, offering a home for Filipino “Canaanites” to think, to speak, to sing, to commune in Canaanite languages.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Window, Story, Mirror

Most interpretations can be summarized into three categories: those that locate meaning “behind texts,” those that locate meaning “in the texts,” and those that locate meaning “in front of the texts.” Those interpretations that fall under the first category presuppose that scripture serves a referential function, the text is a “window” to a privileged past—to Israel, to the historical Jesus, to the gospel writers and their intentions, to the early Christian communities, etc.—that could be recovered. Interpretation is therefore aimed at first establishing what the text meant in order to arrive at what it means for today. The task of the interpreter is to recover meaning from behind the text to the historical setting from which it came. Traditional historical-critical methods like form, source, redaction criticism, and contemporary Historical Jesus research would fall under this category.

The second category of interpretations employ “closed reading” focused on plot, characters, setting, discourse, structure, implied authors and implied readers in order to get at “what is in the text.” If the first category privileged the past that the text referred to as the source of meaning, the second category privileges the text itself. This category would include most literary methods like narrative, structural, and rhetorical criticism. In such cases interpreters presuppose scripture as “story,” a text that “has life all its own.” And this “living” text is able to create or conjure up communities of readers/hearers.

The third category would include readings that privilege social location. Meaning, in this category, is not located in the past or in the text, but in parts of the text that point “beyond the text” or “in front of the text”: its rhetorical features as well as all the signs of ideological tensions, whether these are socio-economic, political, cultural, religious tensions that are recognizable, despite the fact that the text seeks to suppress them, for instance by marginalizing characters, institutions, or events that would manifest these tensions. These rhetorical features and ideological tensions are textual features that point “beyond the text,” in the sense that they are recognizable by the ways in which they powerfully affect readers in situations similar to those suppressed by the text. Thus, these “in front of the text” textual features are most directly recognizable when they are activated by present-day readers. After all, interpretations are, as Mark Taylor puts it, “constructs of socially located flesh-and-blood readers.” Scripture then serves as a “mirror” that helps inform--not define--concrete life settings. Most advocacy approaches—feminist, liberationist, womanist, reader-response criticism, cultural studies, and post-colonial studies—would fall under this category.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Salamat, Fr. Carl...

Sequels are usually less exciting than the originals. In the case of Backpack of a Jesus Seeker: Book Two, it is not. In A Third Look at Jesus, Fr. Carlos Abesamis offered us his construction of Jesus that does not look anything like the blue-eyed blond, liberal messiah most contemporary researchers' works portray. Through nineteen chapters, which he calls "stop-overs," he "travels" through Jesus' life, death, resurrection, and promise of return. But he does not take this journey alone. He walks with companions: fisherfolk, laborers at the picketlines, mothers, daughters, farmers… maraming kasama. In Backpack… Book One, Fr. Carl—as one voice among a community, a symphony of voices—articulated the essence of Jesus and Jesus’s proclamation of God’s reign. Through a series of dialogical vignettes, readers encounter a Jesus who had a bias for the poor; a Jesus who was a rebel, a heretic, and an apostate; a Jesus who did not just die but was executed; a Jesus whom God raised from the dead and thus Immanuel—God-with-us. This time around in Backpack… Book Two, Carl, the Seeker, and the Backpack welcome a host of God’s wonderful creatures (a butterfly, heavenly bodies, mud, gold, jeepney drivers, indigenous peoples, and others) in dialogue. This bigger symphony of voices challenges us to address concrete, earthy issues; issues most armchair theologians can’t even dare imagine: corporate globalization and its disastrous effects; Clarissa Ocampo, Emma Lim and Erap; the Church of the Poor and Good News to the Poor; the evils of human suffering… As in his two previous “Jesus” books, we are not alone in this journey. Jesus is risen. We are never alone.

The Spirit blows wherever it wills, and what Fr. Carl has done in these three books is locate the Spirit at work among the Filipino ochlos (masses) and ptochos (wretched poor); those whom Conrado De Quiros calls the pango, pandak, at negro in the peripheries of many narratives, the voices from the margins. Fr. Carl locates the locus of God’s liberating activity among fisherfolk, farmers, laborers in the picketlines; with those who rejoice in thanksgiving over tuyo, kamatis, kanin and among mothers who want durian for pasalubong; with the religious who offer their lives protecting their students, and among country doctors whose lives teach preferential option for the poor. Through them we get God’s surprises of grace. Sila ay nagsisilbing mga patikim ng kaharian ng Dios.

Salamat, Fr. Carl. I can’t wait for Episode III