Saturday, 21 June 2008

Ethnography and Exegesis

In my post Heaven and Historiography I introduced a fascinating book by P. Minear on how the New Testament can challenge the categories the modern historian uses to read it. His book reminded of me of issues that were raised in my cultural anthropological studies. Seeing that the excellent Biblical Studies List, moderated by Jim West, Chris Tilling and Niels-Peter Lemche is primarily focussed on the historical, cultural dimension of the Bible I shared the following thoughts on how Minear's book relates to contemporary cultural anthropology:

Though Minear doesn't make the connection, I think his approach connects well with some modern developments in cultural anthropological methodology. In the 1986 Marcus and Fischer spoke of the "crisis of representation" in ethnography (Anthropology as Cultural Critique), where the ability of the ethnographer to represent "indigenous" cultures was questioned both on epistemological and ethical grounds. Fieldwork, for example, came to be understood as a complex dialogue between the ethnographer and "the natives," a joint venture out of which meaning and interpretation emerge. Amongst the various methodological implications (e.g. treatment of "ethnography" itself as a literary genre; a focus on interpretation and meaning reather than causality and behaviour; a trend away from grand theory and generalization; a renewed emphasis of relativism; author-saturated rather than data-saturated ethnography) was an understanding of ethnography as dialogue. An attempt is made for the objects of study ("natives") to become subjects in a dialogue with the ethnographer, who is herself as much a cultured being. Ethnographies became written in the first person and were accompanied by analyses of the anthropologist's own epistemology and subjectivity. As Nader has obeserved, "Anthropologists have moved from insisting that the anthroplogist stay out of the ethnography to having the anthropologist's presence dominate the ethnography" (1988: 153). Ethnography is no longer simply a vehicle for supplementing the West's knowledge of "foreigners," as if we can take their belief systems and simply integrate them into a pre-existing scaffolding that is assumed to be true. Rather, it has become a vehicle for critiquing the cultural prejudices of the West and thus hopefully lead to some form of renewal at home.

In the same way, Minear's collection of essays attempts to trace the disparities between the worlds of modern historians and biblical authors (New Testament, in this case). He uncovers the particular historicist metaphysic undergirding modern historiography and points out how it is not only different from but actually challenged by the "historiography" of the New Testament writers. He claims that,"The task of contemporary exegetes is to allow Scripture itself to criticize both the assumptions and the methods that are used in its study." If neither worldview is objectively grounded, what are the methodological implications for the historian who finds that the particular eschatology, ontology and cosmology which emerge from the New Testament texts are convincing? What categories of thought are required to get at the subject matter which these texts are talking about? How do our conceptions of "ultimate reality" either open up or mute the witness of these texts?

I've read the book far too quickly to summarize his complex and fascinating suggestions. I just wanted to share it with the list, as it is one of the most interesting, provacative and - dare I say - enriching books I've read in a long time.

Details of the book can be found here. You can read his obituary here.

1 comment:

Blogger said...

If you want your ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend to come crawling back to you on their knees (no matter why you broke up) you have to watch this video
right away...

(VIDEO) Text Your Ex Back?