Recently read: Smith-Christopher’s ‘A Biblical Theology of Exile’

Daniel L. Smith-Christopher, A Biblical Theology of Exile (OBT; Fortress Press, 2002).

‘Biblical Theology’ is a quirky discipline. I’ve seen it abused by E/evangelical theologians who try to bend parts of the Bible to fit nicely with others parts of the Bible when the fit is clearly forced. But when an author engages the Bible’s internal ‘conversation’ while doing ‘Biblical Theology’, that’s something I can support. In fact, I teach my classes ‘The Hebrew Scriptures’ and ‘The Christian Scriptures’ from this approach. And it’s something I’ve seen a related book, David M. Carr’s Holy Resilience, do quite nicely.

Let me begin with where the book was tricky for me. The advocacy of ‘diasporic theology’, or a ‘theology of exile’, is a worthy discipline. My problem is with the voices that have been front-and-center. And they’re voices I admire: Stanley Hauerwas and Walter Brueggemann are the two primary examples. These two stand out in the first chapter, ‘Biblical Theology: On Matters of Methodology’, and the last chapter, ‘Toward a Diaspora Christian Theology: The Theology of Tobit and Daniel Revisited’. I’m not saying that Smith-Christopher centers them. I’m just saying they stand out to me. And I acknowledge that this book is almost twenty years old so I’m saying this from the perspective of the reader. The greatest evidence of the role of time is the positive presentation of John Howard Yoder. Yoder’s legacy has been damaged over the past several years as we’ve learned more about his treatment of women. So, I say all that to say this: as I read this book it had me asking myself what theologians and scholars of color, theologians and scholars from womanist, and feminist, and LGBTQI perspectives, do I need to be reading, if I really want to ponder a diasporic theology, a ‘theology of exile’.

Smith-Christopher recognized this danger when he wrote the book. He quotes Caren Kaplan in warning of ‘a temporarily faddish “tourist” theology’ (p. 196). A theology where we try on diaspora and exile as a philosophical concept while ignoring the real, terrestrial diasporic and exilic experiences of people all over the world. In the age of increasing populations of people who are refugees, this seems to me to be very important.

Also, I wondered about the sort of post-politics approach advocated here. Even my local Mennonite friends seem to be more politically active, in the commonly held sense (voter registration; fighting for policy change) than this book supports. I need to see what the author says now that we are living through the ‘age of Tr*mp’.

But on to the positives, because this was a great book. Let me tell you where my thinking was challenged most rather than giving an overview of a book that’s been available for a while:

  1. How I depict the Persians: I’ve tended to play the Persians off against the Assyrians and Babylonians as the ‘more tolerant’ of the empires, and this is generally true, but chapter 2, ‘Violence and Exegesis: The History of Exile’, especially pp. 34-44 where the Persians are discussed in relation to Ezra and Nehemiah, made me realize that ‘more tolerant’ shouldn’t soften the criticism of the imperialist ideology of the Persians.
  2. How Ezekiel and Jeremiah experienced trauma: The above book by Carr opened my eyes to the role of traumatic experiences in shaping the Bible we have today. Smith-Christopher expanded my thinking on this matter as he discussed how the Books of Lamentations and Ezekiel display the trauma of exile. When we think of the Bible, we need to be careful not to read it through the lens of Christian triumphalism. What has dawned on me over the years is that ‘reading from belo w’ usually leads a person to reading the Bible more clearly.
  3. Jonah’s ‘universalizing’ message: Almost a decade ago, I wondered aloud on an old blog why the Apostle Paul’s letters never reference the Book of Jonah. I’m glad to see that my understanding of Jonah, which is what led me to ponder how perfectly it could fit with Paul’s Gospel, isn’t mine alone. Smith-Christopher sees the Book of Jonah as this author’s attempt at depicting ‘Isaiah’s “light to the nations”‘ in narrative form (see pp. 132-133).
  4. Ezra may not have been less a bigot and more an advocate for his minority culture within an empire: When I read the Book of Ezra, I’m bothered by his command for the Jewish men to divorce their non-Jewish women. It sounds bigoted and sectarian. But Smith-Christopher proposes we might want to at least consider Ezra from a different angle. He writes (p. 198), ‘If one speaks, for example, to Native Americans in the United States about adoption of Native children by non-Native families, one quickly finds oneself in the presence of Ezra-like concerns that allow us to appreciate what it means to worry about the very existence and viability of cultural survival.’

There’s so much more I could say but I think this suffices. If you’re interested in how the Babylonian Exile and Jewish Diaspora impacted the shape of the Bible and it’s message, this is an excellent book. Several weeks ago, Erica Mongé-Greer (see my interviews with her on ‘Creation Mythologies’ and ‘Flood Mythologies’) recommended this book to me. So, thank you, Erica! It was a great read.

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