A review of Leif Vaage's, "Subversive Scriptures: Revolutionary Readings of the Christian Bible in Latin America," by Dr. M. Daniel Carroll R.
Vaage, Leif E., ed. and transl. Subversive Scriptures: Revolutionary Readings of the Christian Bible in Latin America. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity International Press, 1997. $19.00 . ix +208 pp. ISBN 1- 56338-200-8.
This book is a collection of several articles that initially appeared in the Liberation Theology journal Revista de Interpretación Bíblica Latinoamericana. Vaage, who teaches at Emmanuel College, Victoria University, and in the Toronto School of Theology, translated and edited this selection, and he provides as well as an introductory essay explaining the significance of the approaches taken by the biblical work reflected in the volume (pp. 1-23).
Two extensive quotes clearly encapsulate Vaage’s purpose in gathering these essays:
“The Christian Bible has thus always been, in Latin America, a site of partisan debate about the legitimacy of prevailing cultural practices and, most importantly, a locus of enduring utopian demand for the proper — better — construction of a new world order.” (P. 5)
In other words, throughout the now five centuries of Christian presence in Latin America the Bible has been utilized to justify oppressive regimes and structures. At the same time, however, there have always been voices that run counter to the hegemonic views and cry out for freedom (and here Vaage goes back to Bartolomé de las Casas and the sixteenth century). Today, in his opinion, the biblical work by liberationist theologians continues that struggle to give a voice to the marginalized. His choice of authors, therefore, reflects a specific “revolutionary” agenda, and the readings cover both Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha.
“I use the word `revolutionary,’ if only because the authors of these writings have chosen to perform their traditionally elite form of scribal service explicitly and concretely in alliance with specific projects of popular community-based social construction.” (p. 7)
These scholars function as Antonio Gramsci’s “organic intellectuals”, as those committed to academic excellence (several utilize critical methodologies), but this self-consciously in service to the poor and in solidarity with their efforts to effect social change. The ten essays can be subdivided into three groups. Each deal with textual material and seek analogies to present conditions in the Two-Thirds World. The first deals with issues revolving around debt (personal and international) and money (chs. 1-4). The second set handles aspects of sacrificial theology, which are deemed to be unacceptable because of the connection to a mentality (in biblical times and now) of sacrificing individuals and classes of people to maintain a certain social order (chs. 5-6). The last group tries to develop a spirituality of resistance to political and social oppression and suffering from the Bible (chs. 7-10).
An example of this committed exegesis can help demonstrate the tenor of this volume. José Severino Croatto, who teaches at IDSEDET (Instituto de Estudios Superiores Teológicos in Buenos Aires, Argentina), offers a detailed reading of Nehemiah, ch. 5 (“The Debt of Nehemiah’s Social Reform: A Study of Nehemiah 5:1-19”, ch. 2, pp. 25-38). Croatto not only presents a detailed analysis of the passage, he also compares some of the textual data with Ancient Near eastern materials. The biblical material is viewed from the political, economic, social, and ideological perspectives. In the conclusion he points out the helplessness of the poor who work the ground, the positive impact of a constructive politics, and the paralyzing effects of debt in Latin America.
Vaage should be congratulate for making available an English translation of creative exegetical work from another part of the globe. Each of the articles reflects the particular concern of the author, and each also will utilize different degrees of exegetical skill and acumen. Some of the links to the present state of affairs may appear strained to some, and the readings of the texts themselves might sometimes seem far-fetched. Perhaps one day other voices from Latin America, such as that of the exploding evangelical movement, can also find their way into the biblical discussions of First World/North Atlantic biblical scholars.
This collection should serve as a challenge to all who do biblical studies. One must ask how and in what ways do they really matter. Perhaps the answer to this deep concern will not be the same as these writers, but at least the reader of this book can reaffirm, or take an important step toward, a commitment to the significance of the study of the Bible for today’s world.
M. Daniel Carroll R.
Professor of Old Testament