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Provincializing Jesus

March 6, 2009

In my New Testament class I work hard to “provincialize” Jesus, by which I mean I try to show that he was a hick Jew from the 1st century—probably socially awkward—who had little to say that is relevant to us today.

I realize this is not necessarily the only way to denaturalize Jesus’ authority in the classroom, and maybe not the best, but it’s the one I’m utilizing at present.

page1087demonIn any case, this week in class I was reading out loud some passages about Jesus casting out demons and being accused of doing so by the power of Beelzebul. I wanted to point out that this story only makes since in a world quite alien to our own. I asked the students, “Have you have had this conversation with anyone? Have you ever argued over whether or not an exorcism was done by the power of Yahweh or the power of a super demon?”

In sum, I wanted them to see that this is weird stuff.

But one of my students came up to me after class and told me that, in fact, demons had been cast out of her, and apparently recently. Let me tell you, it’s hard to know how to respond to this.

This is the sort of thing professors of religion are dealing with over here in North America, where conservative evangelicalism is quite strong.

It’s not fair; the astronomy professors don’t have to deal with flat-earth fundamentalists.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 7, 2009 1:28 am

    Dear Professor,

    I’m finding your blog enjoyable to keep tabs on, as I also identify with the Marxist tradition and I’m am interested in religion. One of my great undergraduate mentors is a professor in philosophy and religious studies. However, I seem to go one step further than you both into the craziness of religion, since I’m a seminarian preparing for ordained Christian ministry.

    So, because of my empathy for you, I also hope to provide some constructive/critical questioning from time to time.

    1) Why use “provincializing” rather than “contextualizing”?

    2) By being a Christian, I obviously have a mode of operation that claims Jesus actually does have a lot to say that’s relevant for us today. We don’t have to do into that too much now, but understanding his political/colonial context is enough to inspire me to use the life of Jesus to critique present-day colonialism/imperialism. I actually assume you have similar uses for Jesus, because otherwise I’d wonder why you’re teaching about him.

    3) Beelzebub. I agree. The bible is freakin’ weird. (That’s partly why I’m still interested in it. Hell, I’m fascinated by it.) And it rests in a ridiculously different cultural context.

    4) I’m from the South, where conservative Christians abound. I know your blog is anonymous, but I’m intensely curious if you’re teaching anywhere I know. Feel free to email me, and trust I’ll keep your subversiveness in confidence.

    5) Here’s the kicker: Since that female student said that demons had been cast out of her, it seems to show that, somehow, some of the ancient (and seemingly ridiculous) aspects of Jesus’ culture have made themselves relevant to this woman. (I’m assuming she’s a Christian.) It’s both fascinating and scary to me that, while I’ve appropriated the liberative/anti-oppressive messages of Jesus (e.g. “woe to you who are rich”), SHE has appropriated notions of demons. To me, that’s the big hurdle as I try to engage the wide variety of people who call themselves “Christians.” What will they have decided is relevant for them? And what will they have totally ignored?

    Good times,

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    March 7, 2009 10:40 am

    Brad: great questions! I’m happy my thoughts are of interest to someone out there other than myself, and I appreciate how nicely you’ve put your concerns! I’ll do my best to respond as gracefully.

    1) Why would I use “provincializing” rather than “contextualizing”? Well, I’m definitely contextualizing, but I want to go beyond just that and additionally contest the unquestioned authority of Jesus in our culture. More on that next.

    2) I personally don’t think anything from Jesus’ message is relevant for our present social/political context. I think he was an apocalyptic prophet who (wrongly) thought the world was coming to an end. Sure, he had what we might call a “preferential option for the poor,” which I appreciate, but a few sayings about caring for orphans and widows doesn’t, by itself, do much for me. Lots of people throughout the ages have said vague stuff like that, but they don’t get the same attention as he does—I think Jesus is of interest today not because he said that but because of the cultural authority he carries.

    Think about this: Let’s pretend you’ve just signed up for a social and political theory course. You’re going to read John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Alexis de Tocqueville, Karl Marx, Mark Twain, Mary Wollstonecraft, bell hooks, Michel Foucault, and so on. Now, would the law code of Hammurabi belong on this reading list? How about the stories about Josiah’s reforms of Judah? The Sermon on the Mount? In my opinion, the level of sophistication of the latter three pale in comparison to the more contemporary social critics above.

    I’m not teaching about Jesus because I think his ideas are useful today. Instead, I’m teaching about Jesus in part just because Christianity falls within my area of expertise and that’s what I’ve been assigned to teach by my college. Also, I teach about Jesus in order to challenge much of the existing disinformation my students have previously been exposed to. Last, I want to get students to see how the authority of Jesus and the authority of the Christian tradition has been produced and sustained. Utilizing Jesus in support of social and political agendas is an old game. As a friend of mine recently put it in an essay he wrote: I’d rather show my students how ventriloquism works than try to out-puppeteer my opponents.

    3) Beelzebub. Yes. Not much more to say about that.

    4) See your email for something on this.

    5) One thing I hesitate to do is challenge this young woman too much. She has a number of serious physical ailments, and it seems clear to me that participation in her church provides her with a great number of psychological benefits. I wouldn’t want to take that away from her. However, on the other hand, I’d rather have a world in which everyone had free access to mental health care professionals that could provide her with the support she needs without the demonic baggage to go with it.

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