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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 57, 2009

CYNTHIA BRIGGS KITTREDGE, ELLEN BRADSHAW AITKEN & JONATHAN A. DRAPER (eds), The Bible in the Public Square: Reading the Signs of the Times (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008). Pp. v + 267. Hardback. $US27.00.

This collection of essays is in part a response to Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s presidential address to the SBL in 1987 in which she urged biblical scholars to engage with and be accountable to their social and political context. In the words of the Introduction, “biblical scholars have a responsibility to take that context into their work and use their specialised knowledge for the good of the wider community” (2). The Introduction serves in large part as an appreciation of the work of Richard A. Horsley, to whom the volume is dedicated. “As a historian and biblical interpreter, Horsley has brought the Bible into the public square both directly and indirectly” (2).

There are three parts. The first is entitled “Biblical Insight into the Present Moment,” and contains six essays: Warren Carter (Church Bible Studies, Ancient and Modern Empires, and the Gospel according to John); Barbara Rossing (Hastening the Day when the Earth Will Burn: Global Warming, 2 Peter, and the Book of Revelation); Jonathan A. Draper (Biblical Hermeneutics in a Secular Age: Reflections from South Africa Twenty Years after the Kairos Document); Cynthia Briggs Kittredge (Echoes of Paul in the Speeches of George W. Bush); Allen D. Callahan (American Babylon: Days in the Life of an African-American Idea); and Norman Gottwald (Do Not Fear What They Fear: A Post-9/11 Reflection on Isaiah 8:11–18). The work referred to in the title of Draper’s essay is the 1985 Kairos Document: Challenge to the Church: A Theological Comment on the Political Crisis in South Africa. Of particular interest in the first essay is Carter’s critique of the view that John’s Gospel reflects a situation of Roman persecution. His conclusion is that “persecution does not comprise the central dynamic for the gospel’s complex interaction with the empire” (21).

The second part is entitled “Questioning the Ekklesia and the Academy” and contains five essays: Max A. Myers (Hermeneutics in the American Empire: Toward an Anti-Imperialist Theology); Gerald O. West (Contending with the Bible: Biblical Interpretation as a Site of Struggle in South Africa); Steven J. Friesen (The Blessings of Hegemony: Poverty, Paul’s Assemblies and the Class Interests of the Professoriate); Abraham Smith (‘Nobody Tasted Blood in It’: Public Intellectuals Interrogating Myths of Innocence in Biblical Studies); and Robert Ekblad (Jesus’ Subversive Victory Shouts in Matthew 27: Toward an Empowering Theology of the Cross).

The third is “Prospects for Politically Engaged Biblical Studies” and contains four essays: Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (Reading Scripture in the Context of Empire); Sze-kar Wan (Coded Resistance: A Proposed Reading of Romans 13:1–7); Neil Elliott (A Famine of the Word: A Stringfellowian Reflection on the American Church Today); Antoinette Clark Wire (Communities Reading the Bible and Public Vision). There are endnotes and an index of names and subjects. Potential readers of this volume should be aware that its interest in bringing the Bible into the public sphere is not simply a ‘return’ to the evangelical and missionary campaigns of earlier times. A significant, even major, difference is the modern critical attitude to the Bible itself and this is reflected in a number of the essays. The range of approaches is well expressed in the Introduction which states that the authors, some of whom are pastors and preachers, look to the Bible “as a positive resource, a source for criticism of culture; as a negative model to recognise and resist; as a powerful text with an ambiguous history” (2). The emergence of a highly secularised society, coupled with the exposure of the Bible’s limitations by critical analysis (e.g., the feminist critique of its patriarchal bias), means that one can no longer assume that it will have the authoritative status in the public domain that it once enjoyed. The Bible is still seen by some as a challenge to society and as a power to transform it or parts of it (see, for example, the essay by Ekblad), but it now also comes under scrutiny and challenge from different segments of society.

A useful feature of the collection is that it reflects this many faceted attitude to the Bible in the modern secular world. Another useful feature is the way a number of essays critique modern critical approaches to the Bible; for example the historical-critical approach. For most exegetes, there can be no return to what is called the ‘pre-critical’ period (although the Ezra and Nehemiah commentary reviewed in this issue of ABR could be seen as an attempt to do so). Providing access for the public to the wide-ranging debate that goes on about the Bible in academic circles is an honest and welcome move. It will be interesting to see what impact this has on the Bible’s impact in the public sphere.

Review by
Mark A. O’Brien
St Dominic’s Priory
816 Riversdale Road
Camberwell VIC 3124