The New Testament and Culture
This semester, the students in my New Testament as Literature class are going to be completing a group project in which they develop a literary critical reading of the New Testament and apply it to some cultural situation, text, or artifact. I plan on writing this essay alongside them. I thought it would be interesting to post the brainstorming list that I came up with over the past few days. There’s lots of possibilities here, but more suggestions and/or comments are appreciated. Here are the topics:
Studies in Apocalypse: Ever since the earliest days of the Christian movement, people have speculated, projected, and anticipated (perhaps too eagerly) the return of Christ. The NT has influenced apocalyptic thinking in a variety of ways, and likewise an incredible number of people have used the NT to posit an apocalyptic vision that resembles the rapture and NT eschatology. Consider Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind Series, the interpretative movement Dispensationalism that is associated with the Scofield Reference Bible, the radical political-eschatological manifestos by Hal Lindsay (The Late Great Planet Earth), Edgar C. Whisenant (On Borrowed Time: 88 Reasons Why the Rapture will be in 1988), and others. Or, consider the tragically apocalyptic movements of the recent past, like the Jonestown settlement and the Branch Davidian cult. Or, consider the tactics of creating an insider/outsider distinction in Don Thompson’s 1970s rapture thriller, A Thief in the Night (which we’ll watch in class). For a scholarly analysis of these and other cultural events related to the apocalypse, see Ian McEwan’s article “The Day of Judgment” or Amy Johnson Frykholm’s Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America. What might a literary critical study of the New Testament reveal about these moments? Why are people so fascinated with “end times?”
Political Zionism and anti-Judaism: In what way(s) might the NT speak to the current violent relationship between Israel, Palestine, and the United States? As of 2005, the United States has given Israel at least $145 Billion dollars in support of its military conquest of Palestine. Yet many people are in favor of reaching a peaceful solution. What has motivated US political and economic support of Israel? Consider the politics of Zionism in terms of the NT. How can a literary critical study of the NT help untangle this complicated aspect of our nation?
Typology in early America: As Puritans settled the New England area, they saw themselves as a new manifestation of Israel, a people set apart by God to establish a New World. This view is, of course, highly problematic, yet it persists in political rhetoric today. How does the language of early Puritan leaders like Cotton Mather instill a theological meaning to nation building? What is the role of typology in this process? How is the literature of people like Nathaniel Hawthorne a commentary on this theological-political vision? Consider works like Perry Miller’s Errand into the Wilderness and Northrop Frye’s The Great Code as you build your analysis.
Contemporary Political Discourse: Apparently, Cotton Mather’s vision for a New World has influenced political discourse today. Just consider Sarah Palin’s image of America as a “city on a hill,” a shameful appeal to American exceptionalism. President Bush also has relied on John’s metaphors of light and darknesses to color our perception of global terrorists. President Clinton before him claimed that his life is a model of St. Paul’s hymn to love. What is the effect of biblical language surfacing in contemporary political discourse? What is the intended effect? Can a close analysis of the ways that politicians appeal to the Bible reveal anything about the function of the Bible in our culture?
Apocalypse Everywhere: The apocalypse is a trope that extends beyond its immediate NT context. It has been associated with nuclear destruction, environmental destruction, war, and many other arenas. Apocalypose is everyhwere. Why is the apocalypse such a powerful and flexible thought pattern? Does an understanding of how apocalyptic thinking in the NT operates help us to make sense of these “extra-biblical” apocalyptic contexts?
The NT and Environmentalism: Our planet is in peril. Global warming, population increase, and exploitation of natural resources threaten our potential to survive as a species. Many people have traced attitudes of animosity toward the earth to the NT. Perhaps the problem is that it is believed that Christians are to be “in the world, but not of the world,” as it says in the Gospel of John. 2 Peter claims that “the earth and everthing that is done on it will be burned up” (3:10). Can we locate a restorative environmental ethic in the NT? If so, how, and where? Can products like the Green Bible help this process? What would an ecological interpretation of the NT look like?
Gospel themes in popular culture: There have been attempts to identify NT motifs in many popular culture productions, including The Simpsons, Disney, Harry Potter, Seinfeld, and Napoleon Dynamite. Are the proposed connections between the NT and these texts compelling? What is the significance of saying that texts like these display NT themes?
Christianity and Capitalism (Consumer Culture): Christianity has always existed in an uneasy relationship between the material and the spiritual. Now, in many cases it seems that Christian doctrine is hard to separate from the values of the marketplace. I heard of one church that advocated a “high definition Christianity by highlighting various 16:9 verses in the Bible (since, of course, the aspect ration of high definition television screens is 16:9). This is just one example of the blurred line between the NT and consumer culture. As Omri Elisha explains, this is complicated issue. What does a reading of the NT tell us about the values of the marketplace and the values of Christianity?
Bible and Slavery: Revisit this topic from our earlier class discussion. What is the tradition of people using the NT to argue that the institution of slavery should be upheld in the United States? How did abolitionists also counter with biblical arguments to argue that slavery should end? Can a reading of the NT help us sort through this problematic aspect of U.S. history?
Sex and Gender Roles: How is the NT, especially passages like the household codes and instructions from Paul, used to uphold patriarchy in culture? What does the NT have to say about sexuality? Can we locate these themes in other aspects of contemporary culture?
Living with War: We exist in a culture of war, and we live in a nation that professes allegiance to a faith tradition that values peacemakers, turning one’s cheek, and loving one’s neighbor. Yet has Christianity ever been a faith tradition of peace? What aspects of the NT have perhaps contributed to a culture of war?
Economic policy and the NT: What might the NT have to say about the recent sub-prime morgtage collapse and the subsequent decision by our government to bail out Wall Street firms for their gambling mistakes? A crucial first step is, of course, understanding what happened in the economic collapse. Who is responsible for our economic woes? Can the NT inform our thinking about current political and economic policy? If so, how, and in what way?
Christianity and Imperialism: In 2004, a member of the Bush White House declared in an interview with New York Times writer Ron Suskind that the United States “is an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” What is the full import of this statement? I think reading the NT as a reaction to empire is an essential part of the interpretative experience. Could it be that America is the new Rome? How does NT Christianity posture itself in relation to imperial powers? What insight from the NT can we gather that applies to today’s political climate?
Jesus and Politics: It’s an election year, so the media has been dominated by talk of political candidates, how they’ve performed in debates, and how they plan to rescue our country. Meanwhile, Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw have written a book called Jesus for President. What is the intersection between Christianity and partisan politics? Was Jesus a political leader, or someone deeply opposed to earthly systems? What does the NT have to say about this issue?
Fiction and Jesus: Consider novels that attempt to portray the life of Jesus, like Christopher Moore’s Lamb and Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Will novels like these lead to an interesting point of entry into NT studies?
Art and New Testament: In a couple of weeks we will do a brief survey of art and the NT. This essay project could be a chance to expand on some of the ideas we’ll cover. How have artists developed themes or events in the NT? What is the role of “devotional” art in the context of NT interpretation?