Flash Review IV: James Simpson, Burning to Read: English Fundamentalism and Its Reformation Opponents

2093675Several months ago, while I was visiting family, someone mentioned that he had just returned from a sermon on Ezekiel 16. We asked, “what did the pastor say?” “Do what God wants or else.” If you don’t know Ezekiel 16, have a read: it tropes Israel as a foundling that God raises, pimps out, marries, and then casts out for sleeping around. It might not strike you that “do what God wants or else” is the best or even an adequate reading of the strange sexuality of this chapter, but, armed with Simpson’s Burning to Read, you can at least have a sense of the faithfulness of such an interpretation to early modern “Evangelical” (Simpson’s locution in preference to the anachronistic “Protestant”) hermeneutics and soteriology. Likewise you will understand why I recall that Romans 3:23 (“For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God”) was the favorite verse of my fundamentalist upbringing.

Simpson’s book, admittedly polemic, seeks to uproot claims that the liberal tradition begins with the ‘liberation’ of reading and interpretation in the early 16th century. His secondary purpose is to recuperate Thomas More and to reveal William Tyndale as champion of intolerance. David Daniell, Tyndale’s modern day promoter and (to put it kindly) anglophile, gets kicked down the stairs repeatedly: this is a highly satisfactory bonus. As Simpson points out, evangelicals refused to admit that they had arrived at their readings through a leap of faith: all that they admitted was the text, and the text alone, and the inscrutably inscribed grace, divinely written on the heart of the Elect, that allowed each one to read correctly. I hope this reminds you of the excerpts from his “Faith and Hermeneutics: Pragmatism versus Pragmatism” that Eileen quoted here:

If the reasoning upon which we base interpretation is circular, such reasoning is at some level a matter of faith. Words simply cannot serve as the guarantor for their meanings. We assume, as an act of faith, certain things about writers and about communicative exchange when we interpret. These assumptions are nonlinguistic. They can instead be fairly described as ethical assumptions, since they concern matters of communicative cooperation.

Evangelical readers are paradigmatic circular reasoners, refusing to admit the motor of faith that drives them. They simultaneously idolized the ‘mere’ text, jettisoned non-textual contexts (such as traditions, reading communities, historical situation, and different speech situations), atomized the reader, made adherence to scripture impossible, and set up this very impossibility as the foundation of spiritual life (since one’s own sense of failure was a sign, perhaps, that one belonged to the Elect). For them, all readings necessarily ended in the same place, with the faith that brought the reader to their goal obscured–rather than supported by–the putatively empirical words of Scripture. This is all too familiar to me, since I spent every evening between the ages of 8-10 praying not to be sent to Hell, knowing all the while that because only my fear of God, and not my love of Jesus, inspired my prayer, that I was damned. My faith, such as it was, grew in soil thick with the despair, paranoia, and recriminations sowed by Tyndale and Luther.

Burning to Read never quite clarifies what the despair sowed by the evangelicals choked out. This is odd, since Simpson is a medievalist. As a result, the medieval church implicitly comes off much better than it should (note that the same could be said for Simpson’s nearly exculpatory rationale for Thomas More’s persecution of Evangelicals). Given that the book is semi-popular rather than strictly scholarly, I can’t expect it to have the citational apparatus of, say, The King’s Two Bodies. Nonetheless, I wonder at the absence of any reference to Pelagianism. I also wonder at the absence of any reference to Reginald Pecock’s Repressor of Over Much Blaming of the Clergy (1450). In defending the mainstream Church from the Lollards’ refusal to hear any argument but those derived from scriptura sola, Pecock “asserts that whoever ‘expresseli’ bids any ‘gouernance’ to be carried out…’includingli’ bids all those further (unspecified) things to be done which logically flow out of the said ‘gouernaunce.’ Therefore one cannot rightly insist ‘that needis ech gouernaunce of Goddis … lawe and seruise muste be groundid expresseli in Holi Scripture'” (228 in this). Pecock’s argument helps encompass ecclesiastical traditions, the sacraments, &c, all this seemingly non-scriptural “dross” that the Evangelicals scorned, within scripture, while rescuing scripture from mere textuality, returning it to the vitalism of communities of faith as a lived experience. Surely this treatise, and the late 14th- and 15th-century English struggles to which it belongs, belongs in Simpson’s book? Without it, the debates of Tyndale, Luther, and More appear to be sui generis; with it, we would have been much better able to isolate the conditions that enabled Evangelical ascendence and all its nasty aftereffects.

As a side note, the discussion of Josiah (who provides a model for the bloody effects of the ‘rediscovery’ of scripture) could have been made even more useful had Simpson observed that the struggles described are, so far as I know, actually within “Judaism” between the centralizing Temple Cult and the dispersed Shrine Cultists, rather than–as it’s portrayed in Scripture–between Hebrews and purportedly “foreign” deities.

I must emphasize, however, that the above two paragraphs are grousing, ungenerous given how much I enjoyed the book, its argument, and its limpid prose. I simply wish, then, that Simpson, or his publisher, had provided a final page labeled “for more on these issues see” followed by a list of relevant books on the relevant late medieval controversies, a syllabus rather than just a bibliographic apparatus.

Thanks Holly Crocker for recommending I read this! And let us remember, as we enter the great season of conferences [to quote Simpson] “to beware of hermeneutic aggression that suppresses the alterity of its subjects..[and to adopt instead]…a more friendly hermeneutics, based on faith in persons as ethical agents.”

[Jeffrey, hope you don’t mind my taking your “flash review” title. Incidentally, the first ITM “flash review” was ALSO on a James Simpson book, albeit not one by the same James Simpson]

Erotic Animals II: Adam in Paradise

One of our very first posts, and (unsurprisingly?) an all-time (and I trust disappointing) hit among the pages that draw people (?) into ITM, was Jeffrey’s “Erotic Animals” entry for the Encycopedia of Sex and Gender. Consider this post its descendant (and not, exactly, a descendant of my several posts on necrobestiality).

I stress a pedigree with the staid genre of the Encyclopedia to underscore a claim not to be (self-consciously) outré in my critical interests. I deny this for a lot of obvious reasons. It’s usual to “push the boundaries” by studying “outsiders” (e.g.), but of course this critical practice:

1) cements the various outsiders–Jews, Lepers, Sodomites, Freemasons, Nazis, Furries, Sciopods, &c.–into a structural position as outsider and thus marks the critical interest as a subset of tourism of the bizarre (the analog might be the white American salaryman who cuts loose on a Caribbean vacation, before returning home into a sublated version of his salaried existence);

2) upholds the “cultural center” as a site without systemic antagonism, as a place that cannot be dissolved without an infestation from the outside.

It’s been said many times before, but, well, to quote from a comment I wrote on a student’s paper:

My own tendency in doing queer theory has been to argue for the queerness at the heart of what has otherwise been thought normal, to refuse to exclude the purportedly ‘straight’ from the queer, to disengage queer theory from its exclusive focus on samesex desires/acts, and ALSO to argue, as my friend Eileen Joy does, that all sex is hetero, in the sense that there is never an erotics of the same, of the homo (maybe), because we are never same to ourselves or to the social roles into which we’ve been thrust by our gender &c. This is not to say, however, that there’s nothing politically efficacious in a focus on gays but I think there’s also much work that can done in overturning straight confidence in its own straightness.

With that hypertrophied introduction, or apologia, I want to share with you a nugget from a great article I discovered yesterday, Eric Lawee’s “The Reception of Rashi’s Commentary on the Torah In Spain: The Case of Adam’s Mating with the Animals,” Jewish Quarterly Review 97.1 (2007): 33-66.

Genesis 2:19-23 runs:

19 And the Lord God having formed out of the ground all the beasts of the earth, and all the fowls of the air, brought them to Adam to see what he would call them: for whatsoever Adam called any living creature the same is its name. 20 And Adam called all the beasts by their names, and all the fowls of the air, and all the cattle of the field: but for Adam there was not found a helper like himself.

21 Then the Lord God cast a deep sleep upon Adam: and when he was fast asleep, he took one of his ribs, and filled up flesh for it. 22 And the Lord God built the rib which he took from Adam into a woman: and brought her to Adam. 23 And Adam said: This now is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man.

We’ve several problems here, perhaps chiefly the opening clause of 2:23, zot ha-pa’am, “this now”: does this mean that God had provided a previous unsatisfactory Eve? That Adam was disatisfied in some way with what had happened before and thus that there was dissension in Eden from the very beginning?

Following earlier commentators, and to solve these problems, Rashi wrote “this time’—it teaches that Adam mated with (she-ba’ adam) every [species of] domesticated animal (behemah) and wild animal (ḥayah) but his appetite was not assuaged (lo’ nitkarerah da’ato) by them” (qtd Lawee 50). Unsurprisingly (?), this was a controversial interpretation. Lawee tracks several Iberian commentaries on Rashi’s Commentary on the Torah that mysticize, deny, or strenuously ignore Rashi’s reading; 13th- and 14th-century Jewish converts like Nicholas Donin used this interpretation against their former coreligionists. So it is recorded that in the Talmud disputation of 1240 in Paris, one of the Jews “concessit quod adam coiit cum omnibus bestiis et hoc in paradiso” (confessed that Adam had sex with all the beasts in paradise), and no doubt this confession helped justify St. Louis’s Talmud-burning.

The question at this stage is: what can I do with this? Note that the interpretation disgusted both Christian and Jewish exegetes. One semi-sympathetic response suggested that bestiality was an important step in Adam’s emotional and mental paideia. While this is at once sympathetic AND patronizing to Adam, it’s hardly sympathetic to the animals. From Lawee, n.84:

Commenting on Gn 8.19, an anonymous Rabbanite Byzantine writer who may predate Rashi prolonged the period of human-animal sexual interaction until after the flood: “they [the animals] left the ark ‘in their families’—indicating that until then humans mated with beasts.” See Nicholas de Lange, Greek Jewish Texts from the Cairo Genizah (Tübingen, 1996), 86. This same writer also posited an element of coercion in the primordial human-animal relationship (“humans mated with beasts and made the beasts mate with them”), thereby raising moral issues (like lack of consent on the part of the animals) that figure in modern discussions of bestiality’s moral status.

We have disgust, a dissatisfied Adam, and yet another abjection of animals on the path to adulthood. This doesn’t give us much to work with. But it still might be possible to play with this strange sex, to discover in it, prior to the interruption by the arrival of Eve, an almost effaced site of lost possibilities (cf. what I do with Gowther). This obviously connects with Jeffrey’s “Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages,” where he suggests that the yena might be understood as “an invitation to explore a spacious corporeality beyond the specious boundaries of the human, to invent through alliances with possible bodies a monstrous kind of becoming that carries history within but which is not reducible to historical allegory” (55). We might even see in Adam’s bestiality a possibility for an anti-narcissistic relation to the other, a desire that does not seek satisfaction in “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”

Likely having exhausted your patience, I can only ask what might you do with Genesis 2:19-23? What (else) can we do with it that desubliminates the ‘normal’ or puts it in motion? What else can we do that is not drawn to Adam’s bestiality only because of its sauciness?

UPDATE Thanks very much for the link from Michael Pitkowsky’s blog for directing me to Gil Student’s excellent summary of the various exegetical responses to Rashi’s bestiality comment.


I’m still interested in the dynamic of sameness and difference: while we can understand the eros here as negotiating between exogamy and endogamy (marriage with the radically other or the radically same), there’s a sense in which Adam’s frustration stems from the workings of desire itself. I wonder, then, if the unsatisfying sex with animals is a mask for the fact that Eve, to the extent that she is her own person, is not quite flesh of his flesh, that Adam’s eros always requires him to give himself to an unknown?

By the way, Prince, let him be blessed for his (early) funk forever, is a raging weird homophobe, but a homophobe in a way relevant to this discussion:

When asked about his perspective on social issues—gay marriage, abortion—Prince tapped his Bible and said, “God came to earth and saw people sticking it wherever and doing it with whatever, and he just cleared it all out. He was, like, ‘Enough.’ ”

“Cleared it all out”: that would seem to be the only way to get Adam’s eros under control.

Hats off to Philo

cvp-00446-001rThis week’s Nation includes Stefan Collini’s review of John Haffenden’s nearly 1500-page two-volume biography of William Empson. First, I want to thank Collini for reminding me of a book whose call I answered when I was an undergraduate, startlingly relevant now because I have just finished teaching (and grading a set of papers on) Paradise Lost. This book is Milton’s God (1961), in which Empson “took every opportunity to denounce the savagery and sheer horribleness of ostensibly familiar biblical teachings such as [and here Collini quotes] ‘the doctrine that God is a sadist who could be bought off torturing all mankind by having his son tortured to death.'” Strong words, and all the stronger for me as a Freshman, when I had deracinated myself scant years before from Christian Fundamentalism.

Collini quotes–to his credit, disapprovingly–Haffenden’s claim that Empson “‘invented modern literary criticism in English.'” Let’s put aside the questions of the boundaries of modernity (although I’m inclined to think that Haffenden means ‘what literary critics do now,’ in which case what I have to say would be just even without bracketing off modernity), and let’s put aside the distracting specificity of “in English,” and let’s, as medievalists, give Haffenden the trapdoor. For those of you not in on medievalist slang, “trapdooring” is what happens when someone claims some technology, or mode of thought, or system of life (even including subjectivity itself) as an “invention” of Modernity. Along comes a medievalist (beginning I suppose with Haskins’ Renaissance of the Twelfth Century) and points out, no, the “origin” of such things predates Modernity (whatever that is), sometimes by thousands of years, or, better yet, declares that origins (or beginnings or breaks) themselves are far from the most interesting topic of investigation. Hence trapdooring, as the claimant for Modernity’s specialness gets dropped into the fifteenth, or twelfth, or ninth centuries, or gets dropped into an abyss where beginnings no longer matter.

Let it be so for Haffenden and his claim, because if I wanted to discover the origins of “modern literary criticism,” by which I mean painfully close reading, sometimes tortured interpretation, in an effort to make the text speak its truth, I would locate it not in the twentieth century, not even in the twelfth, but in the first (BCE), with the allegoresis of Philo Judeaus. Here he is on a bit of Genesis’s Creation story:

“And all the grass of the field,” he proceeds, “before it sprang up.” That is to say, before the particular things perceptible by the external senses sprang up, there existed the generic something perceptible by the external senses through the fore-knowledge of the Creator, which he again called “the universe.” And very naturally he likened the things perceptible by the external senses to grass. For as grass is the food of irrational animals, so also that which is perceptible by the external senses is assigned to the irrational portion of the soul. For why, when he has previously mentioned “the green herb of the field,” does he add also “and all the grass,” as if grass were not green at all? But the truth is, that by the green herb of the field, he means that which is perceptible by the intellect only, the budding forth of the mind. But grass means that which is perceptible by the external senses, that being likewise the produce of the irrational part of the soul.

In its general forms and desires–painstakingly reading to justify a claim that the text is speaking itself when in fact you’re making the text speak for you–I don’t see a fundamental difference between this mode of criticism and what we “modern” literary critics do nowadays. The truth towards which we orient the text is (perhaps) different: class consciousness, for example, rather than God, but in each case, tellingly, there’s often a more or less acknowledged desire to make the text speak morally. In this, and in other ways, neither exegesis nor literary criticism are ever only about the text. (He ponderously intones truths everyone already knows)

I like finding the origins of still vibrant Western modes of thought or activity in Judaism (see JJC’s comment on the “Jewish sciences” here; and, by the way, what I’m saying isn’t anything new, really. For a different, although allied, investigation, see here). But it’s only in part because of his Jewishness that I claim Philo for the origin. I claim Philo also because of his hybridity: because he lived in Alexandria, a polyethnic metropolis; because he wrote in Greek, the cosmopolitan language (the “English” of his day, like English, a language with multiple centers); and because he drew on Jewish and Greek philosophy to build up the structures of his thought.

I claim Philo because I want that point of origin for “modern” criticism to be something uncontainable within monadic categories of Christian, Jewish, or “Pagan,” Greek or Hebrew. I want the pure beginning always to be irreducibly multiple, irreducibly impure. For exemplifying this, hats off to you, Philo.

(image from here: I’d like to think it’s evocative that it’s a Pseudo-Philo.)