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Colloquium On Violence & Religion



COV&R-Bulletin No. 5 (Oct. 1993)

Abstracts of the COV&R-Conference in Chapel Hill April 22-24, 1993

Besides those major papers which are summarized in an abstract the following papers were presented at the COV&R-Conference:

Jørgen Jørgensen (Hjørring Seminarium, Denmark), Sun, Mind, and Weather

William Mishler (University of Minnesota), Sacred Murder in Ibsen's Pretenders

Judith H. Arias (East Carolina University), The Complicity of Literary Studies with Religion

Richard J. Prystowsky (Irvine Valley College), Projection, Subjection, and Christian Antisemitism in "The Prioress's Tale"

Cesáreo Bandera (University of North Carolina), Seperating the Human from the Divine

Charles D. Orzech (University of North Carolina), The Mechanisms of Violence in Chinese Hell Narratives

Daniel A. Ponech (York University, Ontario), Narratives of Passage: Sepukku in Japanese Literature

Richard Golsan (Texas A & M University), Drieu, Celiné, Montherlant: French Fascism, Scapegoating, and the Price of Revelation

Christopher G. Flood (University of Surrey, England), Collective Violence, Sacrifice, and Conflict Resolution in the Work of Paul Claudel

Dino Cervigni (University of North Carolina), Dante's Body and Soul: And the Word as the Mediator

Diana Culbertson (Kent State University), "Ain't Nobody Clean": The Liturgy of Violence in Glory

Jacque-Jude Lepine (Haverford College), From the Literal to the Metaphorical and Back: The Many Labyrinths in Racine's Phèdre

Susan Nowak (Syracuse University), The Girardian Theory and Feminism: Critique and Appropriation

Gerard Bucher (State University of New York), A Poetics of the Death of God

Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly (Stanford University), The Conference in Retrospect

James G. Williams (Syracuse University), Kingship and the Beginning of Historical Literature

How is writing as the establishment of difference related to kingship? I take it that kingship is one of the primary manifestations of the sacred and is, furthermore, the difference that leads to history writing and literature as we know it in the Western tradition.

It is in ancient Israel that we find the decisive beginning of the process of turning the role of the sacral ruler into a protest against kingship and a tendency towards desacralization. The primary express of this desacralization we now know as "Scripture."

The argument has three parts. (1) Positivist historiography (e.g., Van Seters) does not move far toward identifying the generative center of historiography. Van Seters notes the relation of the genres of the king list, the royal inscription, and chronicles to history writing. But it is only in recognizing the centrality of the king as personification or representative of the sacred, which means above all the sacred social order, that we can begin to trace how historiography emerged. The king plays the advanced role that begins with the differentiation, the reference, the signification which emerges with the victim. The king is a sacred victim who must be executed--unless his power as a sacred persona has grown to the point that he is able to refer his victim status to others.

(2) In the second and longest part of the paper I try to show two things about the story of Saul. a) Even if the text is divided as in traditional source criticism, there are similar and complementary elements in the two main perspectives. In both perspectives the selection of Saul has structure of a sacral process rooted in falling upon a victim (prophetic rapture and being captured by lot). In both there is an unveiling of mimetic desire and rivalry. In both there is an exposure of the monarch as subject to forces beyond his control. b) The source or perspective usually construed as later does not contradict but certainly supplements the other, for it moves from implicit critique to outright condemnation of Saul and the very idea of monarchy. It is a text in contradiction:while it condemns sacrifice it is simultaneously sacrificial and retributive in perspective. In this narrative understanding the God of Israel rejects the first king as a sort of pars pro toto. That is, it is the people who must be punished for demanding a king, but this punishment is achieved through the process of casting lots and selection of one person, the person--the king, King Saul.

(3) In conclusion, the generative level of biblical historiography is a protest against the sacral office of kingship. It would not exist without kingship, but it seeks to overcome it for the sake of writing--thus also for the sake of reading. History writing is a substitute, a religious and cultural differentiation that is put in the place of kingship.

Sandor Goodhart (Cornell University), Reading the Ram: Abraham, Isaac, and the Text of Sacrifice

The predominant understanding of Gen. 22 is that it is a story about blind obedience to divine authority, an understanding upon which both the Christian rejection of the passage and the Jewish acceptance of it is based. The Christian reading considers the story emblematic of the demands of a God of wrath and violence whom it rejects in favor of a God of love. And the Jewish reading finds in it a lesson in the nature of the law of anti-idolatry, an extreme example of the how much is demanded of us.

Both views, however, presuppose that commandment is imperative, that when God says "Take your son, your only son, whom you love, even Isaac, and offer him as an offering ..." Abraham is enjoined to do so, to act first and ask questions later. My own suggestion is that commandment in Torah is always prophetic, a recognition of the path we are always already travelling and a naming in advance of the end of that path, and that our obligation in the face of it is to recognize that reading and act accordingly, which is to say, in this case, to make provision for the future, to refuse the sacrificial violence to which such a course would lead us.

Thus, we argue, that to the extent that Abraham would initially raise the knife to slaughter Isaac he fails the test. If he succeeds, finally, he does so because he recognizes such a course to be an abomination--even if God Himself directs him to it--and performs the sacrifice he should have performed all along. Obedience to the demands of human relations in Judaism are never in conflict with obligation to commandment or God but its expression. And this lesson, we suggest, is reflected in Abraham's naming of the place where his encounter occurred Adonaijireh, which recalls his calming response to his son on the way to Moriyah, rather than Moriyah which is where the slaughter would have taken place. It is also reflected in the Rabbinic commentary on this passage which asserts that God never said to "slaughter Isaac" and that "offer him as an offering (or sacrifice)" should be translated "prepare him as a sacrifice," a reading which thus enacts such a prophetic understanding in the very act of rendering it.

Wesley A. Kort (Duke University), Response to James Williams and Sandor Goodhart

The two papers differ sharply from one another. Williams is interested in origins to which narrative owes its birth; Goodhart opposes an interest in what transcends narrative, seeing such an interest as potentially destructive both to texts and to human relations.

Williams posits a unity that is broken when an institution is constructed and potentials for its deconstruction are released. Monarchy in Israel and historical narratives that threaten its continuity arise together and form contraries. While I agree that the languages of construction and deconstruction interact in biblical texts, I do not believe that they arise from an original unity. Nor do I agree with Williams that narratives play the deconstructive while lyrics play the constructive roles. A genre distinction cannot be constructed on this division of labor; narratives can confirm institutions, and lyrics can call them into question.

Goodhart opposes origins and all transcendence as starting points. When a reader moves from them to the text, violence is done of the sort that Abraham almost commits on his son. The reader should begin with relations and not with something that transcends or precedes them. Goodhart uses Emmanuel Levinas to point out how the conflict between transcendent imperatives and human relations can and should be avoided. As the Decalogue should be read backwards, from the tenth commandment to the first, scripture should be read not by beginning with God and the transcendent but beginning with human relations, beginning where we find ourselves.

However, Goodhart should notice that while Abraham fails to situate himself in his relation to his son, he does resist the lure of transcendence in his relation to place, also a significant matter in the narrative. He does not demand to know the exact location for the sacrifice before starting out, and he recognizes the place when he arrives. Abraham's orientation to place is a model for the relation to others that Goodhart advocates. I agree: The sacrifice that needs to be made is not of other people nor of places but of our desire for transcendence, our need for origins and certainty that justify violence to other people and our environment.

James G. Williams (Syracuse University), Response to Wesley A. Kort

Professor Kort had a copy of my paper prior to the meeting at Chapel Hill, so he has only to consult it to see that I do not say one of the things he attributes to me. He states, "Nor do I agree with Williams that narratives play the deconstructive while lyrics play the constructive roles. A genre distinction cannot be constructed on this division of labor; narratives can con-firm institutions, and lyrics can call them into question." First of all, I say nothing in the paper about lyrics, nor would I ascribe an exclusively constructive role to "lyrics." Secondly, I was not talking about narrative in general but the beginning of that kind of narrative we call "historical." When I emphasized that "'historical' biblical narrative, which is the first form of historiography in human history, arises out of protest against the institution of kingship," I was clearly focusing on the kind of historical narrative we find in 1 Samuel. I am well aware that narratives, ranging from myth and legend to modern history writing may have a founding, constituting, or constructing function. However, I was commenting on the critical protest function of certain biblical texts and how they related to kingship.

René Girard (Stanford University), Is There Antisemitism in the Gospels?

A certain number of passages in the synoptic Gospels and John are often accused nowadays of being anti- Jewish or even "antisemitic." These passages are really wider in scope than traditional exegesis believes. They claim that the victimage or scapegoat mechanism which is present in the crucifixion was also present in a long series of collective murders that began with "the foundation of the world."

These texts reveal the scapegoat mechanism as the foundational principle of human culture. As long as Christians do not acknowledge the true significance of these passages, they will remain unable to counter the charge of an antijewishness that belongs to the Gospels themselves. Their own interpretation effectively limits the significance of these texts to a gratuitous attack against the Jews.

Raymund Schwager (Universität Innsbruck), Suffering, Victims and Poetic Inspiration

The influence of the Gods on the lives of human beings is taken for granted in the Greek tragedies. Yet in these same tragedies, especially those of Euripides, the gods are sharply criticized because of their vindictiveness. The poetic inspiration of the tragedians lives from this ambiguity. In a similar manner, Job accuses God of persecuting him and yet, at the same time, Job takes refuge with God. The poetry of the dialogues in the Book of Job lives as well then from this ambiguity. Girard's interpretation of Job and of New Testament attempts, however, to resolve the ambiguity of this image of God. Thus one may ask: Does Girard's interpretation eliminate poetic inspiration in the process of eliminating the ambiguity? - Kierkegaard and Dostoevski are examples of how an unambiguous image of God in Girard's interpretation can still be compatible with genuine poetic inspiration. The ambiguity of the world is preserved and leads to the creation of complex figures with complex rolls. The roll of the one who suffers is here of special significance. While God is for the one who suffers no longer a God of violence, God is nevertheless mysterious and incomprehensible (just as God was for Jesus, abandoned on the cross). Influenced by the Christian tradition, modern poetry is no longer able to evoke images of heroes who either hope for God's violent intervention or glorify their own acts of violence. Yet modern poetry does quite often evoke images of those who suffer persecution and cannot comprehend why they have to suffer.