Day 3 at the AAR/SBL conference

Monday, November 19, 2007 - 9:27 pm

Day 3 at the AAR/SBL conference

It’s all a blur. I swear, if I hear the words “paradigm shift,” “hermeneutics,” or “exegetical” one more time…
Let’s see, what did I see today? A look at the function of hadith (sayings of Muhammad) in Islam, an eight-dollar chicken burger, a deliberation over which non-canonical sources were most pertinent to understanding the life of Jesus, theological and moral responses to social, economic, military and environmental issues, a look at Chinese religions, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
It’s all a blur.
I think the most relevant session I caught was the one exploring the theological and moral responses to massive sociopolitical problems. It seemed to me one of the only sessions I caught in the past three days that didn’t lose sight of the forest for the trees. Namely, in all this research of religion, what is the point? The point is to help us deepen human knowledge in the arena of religion—for the purpose of helping us respond to the central concerns voiced by religion: suffering, injustice, death, war.
I guess my interest in these themes, and the religious response to them, betrays my own leftist sentiments. I’m perhaps less interested in the supernatural wonderworking in stories of prophets than in the social import those events reflect.
In the Qur’an translation I’m currently most comfortable with, the translator (Muhammad Asad) reflects and comments on the life of Jesus in those verses that Jesus is mentioned in the Qur’an. In Sunday school, we often were recounted tales of prophetic wonderworking at face value. We’re told that Jesus made a bird out of clay, or resurrected a man, and that the performance of these miracles was a kind of proof to the people around him that he was connected to the Divine in some way.
What Asad’s translation brought into sharper focus was the metaphoric significance of making a bird fly, which made complete sense within the rest of Jesus’ character as someone who relied heavily on metaphor and parable to make his points. Every miracle served as a teaching lesson with significance best understood by Jewish people of the 1st Century CE. In the same way, Jesus could call himself “son of God” and be understood, in the Islamic view, to be using specific a Hebrew expression implying a closeness to God without being an aspect of God.
I guess what I kind of found lacking throughout the conference was the look beyond the particularities of religion to see the greater point of religion. In the field of religious studies, I think, the scholar has a duty to maintain the breath in the tradition they are studying. Maybe that’s why I responded to the Rural Studio show when I heard it in its completed form. It was real and it was alive, without even being religious.
I also enjoyed what I caught of the session exploring the phenomenon of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a satirical religion meant to parody creationism and intelligent design. I first heard about FSMism a few years ago. The entire idea of this satirical religion is absolutely wacky yet, like most good satire, it acts like a mirror reflecting the wacky excess of real-life religion.
As an ardent fan of The Simpsons during my late teens and twenties, I relate strongly to irony. Typical “post-modern generation” behavior, I suppose. But in any case, the idea of play is something central to certain post-modern movements, and an idea found in this FSM phenomenon. And, let’s be honest, metaphors and parables are another form of play—wordplay, specifically. And I’m just a big kid. I love to play.
Well, I’m flying out of San Diego at 6:20 a.m. tomorrow morning.

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