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Theorizing Scriptures

New Critical Orientations to a Cultural Phenomenon

Edited by Vincent L. Wimbush

Publication Year: 2008

Historically, religious scriptures are defined as holy texts that are considered to be beyond the abilities of the layperson to interpret. Their content is most frequently analyzed by clerics who do not question the underlying political or social implications of the text, but use the writing to convey messages to their congregations about how to live a holy existence. In Western society, moreover, what counts as scripture is generally confined to the Judeo-Christian Bible, leaving the voices of minorities, as well as the holy texts of faiths from Africa and Asia, for example, unheard. 

In this innovative collection of essays that aims to turn the traditional bible-study definition of scriptures on its head, Vincent L. Wimbush leads an in-depth look at the social, cultural, and racial meanings invested in these texts. Contributors hail from a wide array of academic fields and geographic locations and include such noted academics as Susan Harding, Elisabeth Shüssler Fiorenza, and William L. Andrews.

Purposefully transgressing disciplinary boundaries, this ambitious book opens the door to different interpretations and critical orientations, and in doing so, allows an ultimately humanist definition of scriptures to emerge.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vii

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pp. ix-x

Alberto Manguel, the distinguished Argentinean translator, editor, and novelist, tells us that as a young man he was asked by Jorge Luis Borges to read to him, the elderly Borges’ sight having failed him in old age. He relates Borges’ experience of hearing a text read to him rather than reading it for himself. Borges in his blindness...

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pp. xi-xii

This book contains revised essays that were originally read as papers for the inaugural conference of the Institute for Signifying Scriptures. Convened February 27–28, 2004, at the Claremont Graduate University, the conference was international, in terms of the mix of participants and attendees, and comparative and multidisciplinary,...

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Introduction. TEXTureS, Gestures, Power: Orientation to Radical Excavation

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pp. 1-20

I aim in this essay to press the case for our reconsideration of a complex phenomenon—what in freighted, masking English shorthand is often called “scriptures.” It is a call for a re-consideration if not rejection of the conventional academic-intellectual-political and socio-religious-political orientations and practices...


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1 Scriptures—Text and Then Some

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pp. 23-28

It is a daunting task to address a question about the “phenomenology” of anything. Yet I have had the good fortune to count among my teachers the great phenomenologist, Mircea Eliade, and the undisputed great anti-phenomenologist, Jonathan Z. Smith. If they remain in my psyche as dual influences, although perhaps...

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2 Signifying Revelation in Islam

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pp. 29-40

The wider context of this essay is to bring about an epistemic shift in theorizing about “scriptures” by making transparent the signifying process and by calling into question the methods and activities by which (scriptural) meaning is made and legitimated. This involves looking from the margins to the center where dominant...

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3 Scriptures and the Nature of Authority: The Case of the Guru Granth in Sikh Tradition

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pp. 41-54

A quick look inside a gurdwara (house of the Guru/preceptor, Sikh place of worship) reveals the high degree of reverence with which the Sikhs hold their “scriptures.” The gurdwara is literally the house of the Guru Granth (the Guru manifested as the book), which is covered in expensive robes (rumalas) and displayed...

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4 The Dynamics of Scripturalization: The Ancient Near East

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pp. 55-61

The launching of the new Institute for Signifying Scriptures (ISS) and the programmatic vision articulated for it by Vincent Wimbush in the introductory essay of this volume create an opportunity for reflection on an enormous number of issues related to the creation of “scriptures” and the social, political, and other dynamics...

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5 Known Knowns and Unknown Unknowns: Scriptures and Scriptural Interpretations

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pp. 62-66

These were the words of the U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at a press conference. This is indeed a highly complicated use of the English language, at least equivalent to and perhaps surpassing the Bhabha-ist and Spivakian verbiage. The defense secretary may not have had the world of scriptural interpretation in...

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Talking Back

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pp. 67

These essays provoke our thinking about what “scriptures” are, why they are invented, the work we make them do for us. Whatever else scriptures may be made to be for us, whatever else they may be made to do for us, we seem to make them a centering force.1 We allow them to locate us, help define us, orient us—always, of course,...


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6 Signifying Scriptures in Confucianism

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pp. 71-78

“Signifying scriptures” as a social-cultural phenomenon is of critical importance for revealed religions such as Christianity and Islam. As pointed out by the historian Jonathan Riley-Smith in his recent article “Religious Authority,”...

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7 The Confessions of Nat Turner: Memoir of a Martyr or Testament of a Terrorist?

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pp. 79-87

During the pre–Civil War era, The Confessions of Nat Turner was the most widely read and the most influential African American spiritual autobiography published in the United States. At the outset of the Civil War, one commentator on the Confessions estimated that 50,000 copies of that brief document had been printed and...

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8 Signifying Scriptures from an African Perspective

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pp. 88-94

Indigenous religions are often characterized by plurality, but the term “plurality” is an inadequate descriptor of people’s lived experience. Rather than plurality, in this essay, I emphasize mutuality, accommodation, and balance. The Yoruba religion is one of such indigenous religions that prioritize balance and mutuality in...

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9 Transforming Identities, De-textualizing Interpretation, and Re-modalizing Representation: Scriptures and Subaltern Subjectivity in India

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pp. 95-104

The methodology presented in Vincent Wimbush’s theorizing of “scriptures” introduction to this volume is both complexly situated and conspicuously vested. The methodology of investigating “scriptures” is decidedly embedded in the multiplex and pluriform world of concrete power exchanges within which the...

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10 Signification as Scripturalization: Communal Memories Among the Miao and in Ancient Jewish Allegorization

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pp. 105-114

In his landmark study, Wilfred Cantwell Smith suggests that scripture is a widespread phenomenon associated mainly with human community.1 It is the community that attributes sacrality and authority to a set of texts, an overarching set of symbols, or a collection of canonical images that have extraordinary, transcendent...

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Talking Back

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pp. 115

The baseline center-ing function and operations of “scriptures” notwithstanding, it is important to acknowledge, as have the essayists in this section, that “scriptures” are used for different purposes in different situations and settings in ongoing and in special terms. The different uses in the different settings and situations may...


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11 Conjuring Scriptures and Engendering Healing Traditions

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pp. 119-127

There are numerous meanings that may be given to textuality using comparative approaches, and the religions of the Afro-Atlantic world provide an especially rich terrain for conceptualizing the phenomena of “scriptures” as it appears in the experiences of historically dominated peoples. So in the following discussion I want to...

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12 Visualizing Scriptures

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pp. 128-133

Let me begin by reciting my proof text. A reading from Vincent Wimbush’s introductory essay: “Such folk generally do not stay within the lines; often they go undetected, uncounted, and unaccounted for. They almost always scramble the generalities by which dominance defines itself and the world.”1 It is thus to...

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13 Signifying in Nineteenth-Century African American Religious Music

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pp. 134-144

This essay concerns the role of religious music in nineteenth-century African American culture. Just as religion in African and African-derived cultures is a topic that has received much study, so too has the discussion of the role of music in religion. I find these topics fascinating because both phenomena—music and religion...

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14 Signifying Proverbs: Menace II Society

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pp. 145-154

I begin with several questions. The first is my own question about how the Bible is used in film to propagate white privilege. In the past I have looked at how citation of scripture in film can enable misrecognition of the experiences of oppressed and marginalized peoples. The premises of the Institute for Signifying Scriptures (ISS)...

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15 Scriptures Beyond Script: Some African Diasporic Occasions

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pp. 155-166

Early birdcalls rode the mist as a small procession of three women and two men, slowly and silently wove through tall grasses and reeds to the edge of a tidal creek. The leader, a tall, bearded man, now slightly stooped with age, halted and gazed east toward the nearby sea. As the first pink of dawn tipped the grasses, he raised...

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16 Texture, Text, and Testament: Reading Sacred Symbols/Signifying Imagery in American Visual Culture

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pp. 167-178

Reading sacred symbols and signifying imagery in American visual culture is still one of the most under-explored aspects of visual expression in modern and postmodern art of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Global history has provided the artist with a wealth of examples in the expression and creation of...

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Talking Back

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pp. 179

The essays in this section remind us that the centering force or operation has not always been and is not always associated with or represented by texts. Furthermore, “scriptures” do not even always appear in the form of texts. But even when “scriptures” are represented as texts, engagements have not always been...


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17 Differences at Play in the Fields of the Lord

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pp. 183-194

The televangelical preachers of the 1980s each emerged out of, embodied, and performed particular lineages within the American evangelical Protestant tradition. Their particular lineages were visible in their attire, audible in their voices and...

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18 American Samson: Biblical Reading and National Origins

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pp. 195-205

The popular 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves opens with a panoramic sweep of Muslim Jerusalem in 1194, five years after Richard the Lionheart’s failed Crusade to retake that city in the name of Christianity. Immediately following this scene, the film jump cuts to a dark prison in which a sword-wielding Arab guard...

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19 Against Signifying: Psychosocial Needs and Natural Evil

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pp. 206-213

To “signify” is to modify texts by “riffing, woofing, scoring, getting loud on something or sometone.”1 Signifying refers to a wide-ranging critical mode of engagement with texts, not merely an exegesis or the search for the content-meaning of texts, including sacred ones. Signifying is also intended to capture the creation of...

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20 Orality, Memory, and Power: Vedic Scriptures and Brahmanical Hegemony in India

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pp. 214-219

Over the past several decades we have seen a shift in the academic study of religion from phenomenological descriptions and analyses of beliefs and rituals to the investigations of the social, political, and economic underpinnings and ramifications of religious practices and institutions. The new Institute for Signifying...

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21 Reading Places/Reading Scriptures

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pp. 220-226

The principal point of this essay is that places are textual and can be read. As texts, places can be treated under textual categories, including the category of “scripture.” I give primary attention in this paper to what I call “personal space.” I do...

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22 Taniwha and Serpent: A Trans-Tasman Riff

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pp. 227-232

This essay is the written form of a verbal presentation containing a two-part riff inspired by Vincent Wimbush’s introductory essay to this volume. Not attempting to own the knowledge, practical familiarity, let alone complexities, of riff production by any means, I hope to contribute to the spirit of this conference from...

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23 Scriptures Without Letters, Subversions of Pictography, Signifyin(g) Alphabetical Writing

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pp. 233-243

I define myself as a Mexican atheist. With such identification I seek to underscore a long history of atheism in Mexico (particularly pertinent to the magistrate), which in my case I trace to a filiation with an anarcho-communist tradition that includes the names of Ricardo Flores Magón, Antonio Gramsci, Walter Benjamin...

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Talking Back

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pp. 244

Yes, yes, the social psychology, the power issues and dynamics—how could these matters not be considered as part of the probing of “scriptures”? These are matters having to do not with the one-time explosive moment in which the originary impulse behind the invention of scriptures is revealed. No, what has been...


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24 In Hoc Signum Vincent: A Midrashist Replies

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pp. 247-255

In an attempt to offer an intellectual patrimony to the literary mode of signifying, and to associate it with an older, sister community that historically experienced oppression, I respond to Vincent Wimbush’s essay1 from the vantage point of rabbinic interpretation of “scriptures” or Midrash. In the spirit of friendship, however,...

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25 Powerful Words: The Social-intellectual Location of the International Signifying Scriptures Project

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pp. 256-267

The inauguration of the Institute for Signifying Scriptures (ISS), which has been initiated by Professor Wimbush, is a historic event that calls for celebration and critical reflection. This international institute is historic because it programmatically intends to study the signifying of scriptures by subaltern peoples rather than...

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26 Racial and Colonial Politics of the Modern Object of Knowledge: Cautionary Notes on “Scripture”

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pp. 268-277

How might we reconsider the topic of “scriptures” in the midst of what the African historian Steven Feierman has called the “general epistemological crisis affecting all the social sciences and humanities”?1 We find ourselves at sea in this crisis every time we write, not just when explicitly describing the other, and can only navigate...

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27 Who Needs the Subaltern?

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pp. 278-283

I read the call for an Institute for Signifying Scriptures primarily as a methodological statement, one that resonates well with my own research affiliations and inclinations. Vincent Wimbush proposes an approach to “scriptures” that shifts attention from the correct interpretation of canonical texts to the use of scriptural...

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Talking Back

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pp. 284-285

Ah, yes, the flipping of the question . . . about the questions, about the questioner(s), about the project. This question flipping, this signifying on the signifying and on the signifiers, is most important and welcome. No fear of such here!...


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pp. 287-298

Notes on Contributors

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pp. 299-302


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pp. 303-310

E-ISBN-13: 9780813544625
E-ISBN-10: 0813544629
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813542034

Page Count: 324
Illustrations: 33
Publication Year: 2008