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SBL: You call for a re-centering of Biblical studies away from exclusive concerns about the past toward modern African American experiences of the Bible. Can you sum up why such a shift is critical for bible scholarship?

VW: It is a challenge to the dominant paradigm; a reorientation away from the past, and I mean the past primarily through texts. It's a challenge to shift the primary intention, which is not all or nothing; rather it aims to refocus attention in absolute terms away from the past to what I would say is a more comprehensive focus.

Certainly it would include the past that is the ancient world and all that lies in between up to the present. My hunch though is that the kind of antiquarian, almost fetishized system is rather deceptive, because the interpreter always addresses in some way his or her presence. My project aims to make the assumptions about the interpreters present, or to make more explicit the way in which the interpreter is a complicated confusion or amalgamation of a number of pasts or presents; this is what makes interpretation more compelling to me.

We are not just adding more "facts" or "data" to the enterprise, but it is a shift in method, away from as I say a kind of obsession with antiquity.

What I aim to do here is to model a way of studying the Bible that looks at the total history of effects or functions of the Bible in society and culture; this

approach helps avoid falling into the invention of unproblematized segments of the ancient world and the modern world; it is the study of the Bible as the study of culture.

And the African American focus is simply an e.g.; it's a dramatic example because the history of African presence in the West and the ways in which the Bible figured in such presence disrupts the spinning of the story of the West and the spinning of the story about the Bible.

SBL: In your introduction, you suggest that by focusing on the African American experience of the Bible, light is shed on the general process of sacred text interpretation and cultural formation. How do you arrive at this conclusion?

VW: I think what the African American example has done for my thinking is that it has forced me to begin with a prior history of religions, or a phenomenological question that has to do with the whole phenomenon of texts and textuality in the first place.

The West or the North Atlantic World has taken for granted the power of texts, especially the power of texts to mediate the Transcendent. Whereas the African sensibility approaches it with a critical eye or wariness; it raises the question of the silliness of it, the notion that you get in touch with Divinity through a text! And you see it's only when you have those two worlds collide that this kind of critical question comes up. I find that the study of the Bible actually begins with that kind of questioning. My history of interpretation takes that tack, the approach that asks: What is the text doing, how is it functioning in society and culture?

The African sensibility, because of its openness to different mediums of the sacred, when it comes to texts-silly as that is-will still be open to this notion that says: You can access God through texts. Yet you still have the problem endemic to much of the West of making the assumption that that is the only way-and this is where the power issues come in-the notion of canon, textuality, setting a kind of limitation and a kind of closure, and a violence that closure represents. So the power of the focus on texture-people and worlds-presents questions that are prior to the actual practice of interpreting texts in a way that gets associated with the dominant paradigm.

SBL: What experiences or influences, either personal or professional, led you to these insights, this mission?

VW: I was raised in a Black Protestant Free church culture and was fascinated by the biblically inspired rhetorics, sounds, practices and rituals that were around me, especially in connection with my grandparents. And I think that the need to understand these things was surely the beginning of my interests, the makings of the biblical scholar in me.

I actually intended to pursue the study of the Bible as far as possible and I did that in getting a PhD in New Testament and Christian Origins at Harvard University. Now the trouble was-and I guess I was really naive-I thought that if I hung in there with such studies I would be able to address some of the questions I had from those days of listening to and watching my grandparents; but there was never an opportunity in my structured studies to address those questions.

On the other side of the degree, I began slowly but deliberately to think about ways in which I could pursue these matters, and that led to the African Americans and the Bible project.

SBL: Is there anything in preparation or already on hand for Professors to incorporate these ideas and methods into their classroom?

VW: Beyond African Americans and the Bible, there are few other resources available, most notably the collaborative project that has been published as Stony the Road We Trod, Theophus Smith's well-received Conjuring Culture, and some essays and articles here and there. But the larger point is that there are very few resources available for the classroom or as a springboard for research.

The African Americans and the Bible Research Project will soon expand into a more comprehensive focus. This will provide students and scholars with more resources and more opportunities for participation in the type of research that I am calling for. The next major challenge is to model something akin to the research project called for in the departments and programs of religious and theological studies.

SBL: I'm impressed by the cross-disciplinary involvement on the project; how did this work in practice?

VW: The whole experience was fascinating. The project was funded first by the Lily Endowment and then by the Ford Foundation and was set up to convene small group discussions across disciplinary and field boundaries. These groups met for about two years prior to the big conference.

We taught ourselves to think differently and to address one another across disciplinary boundaries; and that made a big difference at the conference. Another effective difference was that we set the terms at the beginning, namely, that the focus was to be on fathoming the making of a people rather than a text.

If you're going to fathom how a people got made, you cannot do that through a single disciplinary focus. People don't just stay in one box. And so to me it made perfect sense to have an inter-disciplinary approach.

SBL: Could this be a new model for bible scholars?

VW: Yes, I would encourage that; the model isn't perfect, but it challenges colleagues to think about the shift from text to texture. And that allows for any number of complex foci-any social group, ethnic group or issue that pertains to the invention and uses of sacred texts for comparative analysis. This approach-the study of sacred texts as the study of society and culture-has the potential to help us orient ourselves rather differently to the study of religion. I think it is a breakthrough model.



http://www.sbl-site.org/Newsletter/02_2002/Excerpt.html, African Americans and the Bible in this issue of RSN.



Citation: Moira Bucciarelli, " Q & A with Vincent Wimbush," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Feb 2005]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=64

 
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