Sunday, May 11, 2008

Politics of Parousia by Tat-Siong Benny Liew

I just finished Tat-Siong Benny Liew's Politics of Parousia: Reading Mark Inter(con)textually (Biblical Interpretation Series 44; Leiden: Brill, 1999). This was a fantastic read that I highly recommend and I will have a published review of this text later next year. However, for current discussion I would like to outline the argument and listen to any thoughts or reflections you might have about it.

From a biblical standpoint, Liew determined that the Markan parousia, stands in a rich tradition of Jewish apocalyptic literature which stands against imperial oppression and subjugation. First, he reasons that the Markan Jesus is painted in stark contrast to the Jewish authorities who are subtly identified with the kingdom of darkness. I found this to be one of the penetrating insights into the Markan narrative offered, that I for one, was previously unaware of or simply missed. At least in so far as he was able to show cogently that several linguistico-rhetorical features of the gospel (e.g. the use of the ἐκβάλλ-verbs, etc.) subtly tie the Jewish elite and "their house" with the dominion of the adversary (evidently this is something Mack and others have already alluded to, which I wasn't aware of). His reading was deeply textual, interacting skillfully with the text and language, more so than I had initially expected (though granted I had little basis for expectation!). Another feature that was rather unforeseen was how richly he treated the narrative from a biblical theology standpoint; this could well be my own (mis)assessment because I have only a marginal perspective of literary criticism as of yet.

The primary thesis he argued for, evidenced in the title of the work, was that the fundamental politic of the Markan parousia as eschatological event was a duplication of the ideology of the colonizer, namely, the Roman's "obey-or-be-destroyed" program! So the totalitarian vision of Jesus' sole judgment of the "righteous and unrighteous" and political reckoning, at bottom, was a repackaged "colonially mimicking" vision of the colonizer's ideology. Therefore, resistance to the colonial regime, being so inculcated by the ideology of empire, takes on the form and vision of empire even in its resistance. Hence, the best way I can describe what I think was his point, is that the vision of Jesus' return (parousia) setting the world to "rights" by the binary standard of "in" vs. "out" chiefly is the projection of the Imperial Caesar's mode of oppression by violence in cosmic religious terms. This is a very provocative thesis in my estimation, not only for what it says, but further what it leaves unsaid. Moreover, as a reader I continually found myself querying as to whether I was reading Albert Schweitzer or Liew. I realize this statement necessitates qualification, but I have yet to put my finger on exactly why, I kept getting that "feel." What does this mean for the parousia, in general? Ah, these are the questions that are forever unanswerable because methodologically we have departed in a sense from history in so far as authorship, date, occasion, etc. are matters out of reach and in a real sense out of bounds in his study. The whole exercise is "constructed" in Mark's narrative-world, which thereby alleviates some of the traditional questions and pitfalls. Maybe that is exactly the genius of the method, namely, dealing with the literature as a "piece of colonial literature arising during a certain historical milieu" and then analyzing the internal construct of the narrative world and actors vis-a-vis the colonial situatedness of the literature. There are still some issues in the method that seem unaddressed and I might well be reading the whole thing incorrectly, but this at present seems like a robust way to deal with the socio-political significance of the narrative in its historical context without the pitfalls of traditional "Introductory" material/debate. Any thoughts?

He goes on to analyze the way mark constructs colonial subjects first with an eye to the way he views "agency" and then to the way he constructs women. Chiefly, he throws several notable scholars' works, who argue strongly for a positive (or semi-positive) presentation of the role of women, to the flames, finding rather a "backseat" and rather negative view of women's role in society. This climaxes in his final chapter which draws together the previous work on Mark and sets it over against the Chinese American colonial experience. From this he harvests the "timeless, universal truth" (not Liew's language!): that the colonized of all times bear the danger of duplicating the ideology of their oppressors and in turn oppressing others (p. 158).

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