2015.03.07 | Colleen Shantz and Rodney A. Werline, eds. Experientia, Volume 2: Linking Text and Experience. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012.
Reviewed by Rebecca Dean, Pembroke College, Oxford.
Many thanks to SBL Press for providing a review copy.
This book forms the second volume of collected essays on the subject of religious experience within early Judaism and early Christianity to emerge from the work of the Society of Biblical Literature group of the same name. The earlier volume, subtitled ‘Inquiry Into Religious Experience in Early Judaism and Christianity’, represents the first collective attempt to explore religious experience within the field of biblical studies, and as such much of its focus is upon establishing the parameters of the category, and exploring potential avenues for accessing and analysing relevant material in ancient texts. The second volume, subtitled ‘Linking Text and Experience’, is intended to build upon these foundations, with particular attention being paid to new possibilities for research within the field.
In the first chapter Colleen Shantz provides a commentary on what has all too often been absent in biblical scholarship throughout the last century. She offers an explanation for the lack of engagement with the subject of religious experience and ascribes this absence to factors such as embarrassment over the ecstatic excesses of early Christianity and Judaism, discomfort at the historical misappropriation of the term, the increasing dominance of cultural explanations and the associated tendency to reduce claims to religious experience to ‘nothing more’ than culturally constructed language, and finally, the simple difficulty one finds in defining both ‘religious’ and ‘experience’. Shantz situates the contributions of the subsequent chapters plainly within this context, thus enabling those who are new to the field to quickly grasp its contours and idiosyncrasies.
Rodney A. Werline’s contribution focuses on theodicy within the Psalms of Solomon. He argues that the issue of suffering can neither be expressed nor resolved through the medium of theological argument alone, and emphasises instead the place of embodied experience within the outworking of this theme. This is expressed through two key trajectories within the chapter. The first is the re-framing of human suffering as the remembered discipline of teacher-student relationships within scribal education, with God as teacher and the scribes in the already familiar role of students. The second takes into account the performative nature of the Psalms, interpreting their physical enactment as a means of creating a feeling of oneness with self, community and cosmos that may offer some antidote to the problem of suffering.
In the third chapter Frances Flannery delineates the dual function of 4 Ezra as both an exoteric story of the consolation of desolation and an esoteric account of mystical experience. She uses theories of social memory and cognitive dissonance to explore the characterisation and transformation of Ezra, demonstrating convincingly the vital role of each of the seven episodes as instances of increasing revelation. Flannery elucidates not only the importance of the experiential dimension in the formulation of a full understanding of the book, but also its potential function as an esoteric, encoded account of mystical experience.
In the fourth chapter István Czachesz re-examines Paul’s treatment of religious experience in Corinth using insights from contemporary neuro-imaging research. He connects findings from these studies to the social dynamics of the religious community at Corinth. Of particular significance to his research is the recognition of two forms of religious experience: volitional, characterised in practice by intellectual reflection and focused attention, and resonant, which tends to prioritise activities such as music and movement. Czachesz suggests that Paul’s aim is to encourage a shift away from resonant to volitional experience. He argues that it is this difference in religiosity that is key to the understanding of the Corinthian correspondence, as opposed to the more typical emphasis upon socio-economic division.
John R. Levison offers a detailed analysis of the Testament of Eve within the Greek Life of Adam and Eve. This Testament subtly subverts the prevalent ideology of Eve by her representation as a figure who, in contrast to Adam and the servant, was not easily deceived, and was not entirely to blame for the Fall. In this chapter Levison makes a compelling case that as well as offering an insight into the experiences of women within antiquity, the Testament of Eve can be interpreted as a lesson in flawed religious experience.
In chapter six Leif E. Vaage treats the theme of violence as religious experience within the Gospel of Mark. While he admits his reticence about the use of religious experience as a term due to the inherent difficulties of defining it adequately, he uses it as a vague category in order to analyse enacted violence within the Gospel, particularly that embodied within the Markan figure of Jesus. Vaage interprets the Gospel as a text of trauma in which the violent but ultimately defeated Jesus represents the unresolved ambivalence of a community that has survived the Jewish War (though not unscathed) to face a radically altered future.
Robin Griffith-Jones’ contribution to the volume concerns a re-examination of the text of Romans as a therapeutic text, offering its divided readership the means of re-definition of both self and church. It is suggested that Paul’s letter portrays both of the imagined factions of libertines and legalists, representing aspects of both within the characterisation of the ‘I’ figure within the Epistle, a literary strategy that underscores the interdependence of both factions. For Griffith-Jones, the act of engagement with this letter itself offers the means for healing: introspection and imagination are key features of this envisioned transformation.
In chapter eight Rollin A. Ramsaran turns his attention to religious experience within the epistle to the Galatians. He examines the participatory language within the epistle, suggesting that the ‘in Christ’ language points to social religious experience, while the ‘Christ in’ language may refer to experiences of divine interiority. In both cases, Ramsaran emphasises Paul’s expectation that these experiences would be shared by the Galatian Christians.
In chapter nine Bert Jan Lietaert Peerbolte addresses the experiential setting of the writings of Paul using insights from the field of ritual studies. He offers an assessment of Paul’s likely background in Jewish apocalyptic belief, and examines the textual evidence for Christian initiation rites, with a particular focus on the text of 1 Cor. 2:1-8 and the nature of the relationship between Paul’s writings and the mystery cults. Peerbolte aims to demonstrate the significance of Christian baptismal practices, and the shared experience that reference to them invoked among the communities to whom Paul was writing.
In chapter ten, Carol A. Newsom focuses attention on religious experience in the Dead Sea Scrolls, offering two detailed case studies from the Hodayot and the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, texts that are likely to in some way have served a performative function within their community context. Newsom outlines the function of these texts as attempts to induce religious experience and to guide self-understanding.
In the final chapter, Angela Kim Harkins examines religious experience in two texts, Nehemiah 9 and Ephrem’s Hymns on Paradise, in the light of critical spatial theory. Harkins focuses on the idea of lived experience, exploring the function of these texts not simply in describing the experiences of others, but also in eliciting such experiences among those readers who seek to re-enact the text.
Inevitably, when assessing a work of this size, one ends up being more descriptive than analytical. However, this description in itself serves to demonstrate the breadth in both subject matter and approach that are to be found within the book. There is no doubt that these chapters succeed in their stated aim of building upon previous contributions to the field, and there is a welcome move forwards from the necessary work of the first volume in considering how religious experience ought to be defined and approached.
This book highlights a multitude of potentially fruitful avenues for further study, with the contributions of Levison and Griffith-Jones offering particularly promising models of inquiry. However, given the diversity that is contained within the present volume, it would have benefited from a conclusion as well as an introduction, with sufficient attention being paid to the articulation of a future vision for research within this field. Careful work has been undertaken in both volumes to gather together the disparate strands of inquiry into religious experience over the past century, but there is a risk that a continuing lack of cohesiveness could unravel some of this work. In the absence of a considered rationale for future inquiry it will be difficult to hold together the strands of such a complex category, thus perpetuating the fragmented approach that has characterised much of the work to date.
Pembroke College, Oxford
rebecca.dean [ at ] theology.ox.ac.uk