The Aesthetics of Violence in the Prophets

Article excerpt

The Aesthetics of Violence in the Prophets

Edited by Chris Franke and Julia H. O'Brien

T & T Clark, 208 pp., $120.00

Lately there has been a surge of studies variously construed as focused on "religion and violence," "the Bible and violence" or "God and violence." Most of these studies are not very helpful, for they dismiss the shrill reality of violence in facile ways. Among the strategies of dismissal are an evolutionary hypothesis that religion has outgrown such primitivism, assertions that texts must be taken symbolically rather than literally, and a flat-out Marcionite maneuver that selects the good stuff and rejects the negative--a move that produces what Yvonne Sherwood, in this edited collection, terms "the Liberal Bible":

   The Liberal Bible ... represented a
   compromise settlement between the
   Bible and proto-democracy and signalled
   the transformation of Bible
   from a complex and variegated text to
   a cultural symbol or icon--a reduction
   of Bible to a few axiomatic politico-theological
   principles that could be
   liberally applied.... The Liberal Bible
   maintained that true scripture must be
   ethical and legal; it supported the universal
   and denounced the arbitrary
   and capricious; and it supported consensus
   and consultation and shunned
   acts of sovereign exceptionality and
   raw force.

The Aesthetics of Violence in the Prophets is unlike such dismissive trivialization. It takes violent rhetoric seriously as a powerful datum of the Bible that is substantive and intentional and not as simply an embarrassing side issue. The book consists of nine essays by scholars who are skilled in theory and are acute in their interpretive capacity and theological sensibility.

The collection emerged from a section of the Society of Biblical Literature in which these scholars labored almost unnoticed for years until they went public with their findings. The production of the book is a testimony to what is entailed in serious study: we get a picture of these scholars meeting year after year in a small hotel room, sharing their work and encouraging each other to move beyond usual assumptions. The volume is an invitation to think again about violence in the Bible--not to dismiss it as objectionable and unacceptable, but to recognize it as an inescapable vehicle for saying what must be said in a society narcotized by denial and despair.

The focus is on the prophetic rhetoric of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, and the defining word in the title is aesthetics. The contributors understand the violent rhetoric in the prophetic literature not as a collection of revelatory divine utterances but as strategic, artistic articulations of reality that were designed to exhibit and construe vexed, disordered lived experience that is beyond easy management or understanding.

The most programmatic essay in the collection is Sherwood's. She writes about the "Literary Bible" as well as the Liberal Bible. The former is an academic exercise in "Romanticism and Rhetoric." Appealing to poet Sylvia Plath's poignant formula about words as axes, Sherwood takes prophetic words to be an ax of dangerous divine sovereignty that comes when one (God?) "acts as if one were alone to act":

   The word and voice of God is performed
   as massive, irresistible, unanswerable,
   hypermasculine--a world
   away from the collaborative environment
   of the Liberal and Literary
   Bibles, with their models of reader-response....
   God makes himself felt
   in the world as an irresistible force
   meeting an infinitely movable and
   impressionable object.

That rhetoric, moreover, must appeal to bodily imagery of a hard, wounding kind in order to draw close to the lived reality of an unbearable social reality that will not be covered over by smooth speech, pious doctrine or elite cant. …