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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 51, 2003

B. Green, Mikhail Bakhtin and Biblical Studies: An Introduction (Atlanta: SBL Publications, 2000). Pp. Vii+205. $US 24.95.

At the outset of this volume, Barbara Green acknowledges that it risks “being another seemingly fruitless foray into the shrubbery of how literature means” (p.1). But her own belief in the practical value of Bakhtin’s work for the field of biblical studies prevents it from ever becoming so. A self-confessed “recovering formalist” (p.4), Green identifies two crucial issues with which biblical interpreters today must wrestle: “subjectivity/alterity and representation” (p.2), and her concern throughout is to demonstrate how Bakhtin facilitates, indeed necessitates, this engagement.

This she does over four main sections: a biographical sketch of the twentieth-century Russian literary critic; an outline of his central ideas; a Bakhtinian reading of 1 Samuel 17.55–20.42; and a survey of how some other contemporary biblical scholars have made use of Bakhtin. The third of these is by far the longest and may assume too much familiarity with the text for the non-specialist.

The opening biographical section is refreshing, as it pays more than lip service to the much-subscribed-to thesis that “aesthetics and ethics are interconvertible” (p.3). Towards its end, Green describes Bakhtin as being less subject to the hermeneutics of suspicion than some of his postmodern heirs and successors, “since his dialogic and polyphonic ways of approaching the text offered adequate pathways for resisting the control of meaning” (p.23).

Green prefaces her exposition of Bakhtin’s theory in section two with four questions to biblical scholars, relating to methodology, historicity, notions of authoring, and genre (pp.27–28). It is in posing and systematically responding to these questions (pp. 57–65) that Green makes perhaps her most original contribution, albeit in the light of Bakhtin’s writings — one that sounds a strong note caution for any resurgent biblical theology movement. After tracing the philosophical, theological, scientific and literary influences on Bakhtin (pp.28–32), Green discusses at some length what she sees as the most relevant aspect of his thought for biblical studies, namely the mechanics of authoring with respect to self, other and art (pp.32–43). The potential for biblical narratives to serve as literary topoi — sites for the dialogical teasing-out of multiply presented and contested truth — is helpfully illustrated here.

In her extended treatment of one hundred verses of the Saul narrative (pp.67–134) Green depicts the struggle of this character to ‘author’ and maintain his status over against God, David and others (p.73), via a Bakhtinian analysis of reported speech. Notwithstanding some useful insights into the deuteronomic history’s “sustained, critical reflection on the cost of dynastic leadership” (p.76) and an intriguing description of the narrator as “Saul’s analyst” (p.92), Green seems overly reliant at this point on the deconstructive approach of Robert Polzin (see n.1, p.69), and it is not always clear amid the detail how the theory of the previous section bears on the reading offered.

Polzin is one of the four scholars whose application of Bakhtin's thought to biblical texts is reviewed in what is, by comparison, Green’s disappointingly brief final section, the others being Kenneth Craig, Carol Newsome and Ilana Pardes. Craig’s work on Esther as an instance of Bakhtinian ‘carnivalesque’, for example, receives just over three pages. The book’s lack of indices is similarly frustrating, although Green’s comprehensive bibliography and careful use of subheadings throughout do compensate somewhat.

In her conclusion, Green addresses the question, ‘Where can we go with Bakhtin?’ If she is right to claim that “[h]is root insight about disciplined but ubiquitous relationality opens windows all over the house” (p.187), then many different directions suggest themselves. Of these possibilities, Green points to two of significance: the interdisciplinary potential and stimulus Bakhtin's work offers the field of biblical studies (pp.189–90); and the greater sense of accountability on the part of readers for the way biblical narrative is appropriated, given an understanding of language whereby “any reading that is totalitarian, absolute, or fundamentalistic in any sense is on the ropes” (p.191).

Review by
Revd. Richard Treloar
Trinity College Theological School
Parkville, Victoria