Hearing Voices in Haunted Scriptures

Categories Bible, Comparative0 Comments

Progressive Christians are familiar with the biblical reading strategy: identify a prophetic moment—best if you can quote Jesus—and extend the pure meaning of the passage in support of the world’s marginalized over against their oppressors. While I am sympathetic to this sort of engagement with the Bible, I wonder how useful this tactic is in the United States of Trump.

Indeed, if Trump won the presidency because he mobilized disenfranchised rural, white voters with appeals to xenophobia and misogyny, is a reading strategy that pits one marginalized group (poor white people) against others (queer people, people of color, migrants) that effective? To what extent does this strategy simply return us to the problem identified by Audre Lorde, in which the patriarchy empowers only an “either/or” strategy for political engagement?1Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1984), 111. It seems to me imperative that political engagement focus as much on building alliances and fighting the patriarchy.

And scriptures, I think, can be a resource here. But this requires a shift in thinking: from the idea that scriptures are, in Martin Luther’s words, a “cradle” for Christ, to a reimagining of the practitioner’s relationship to religious texts. Moreover, it demands a new concept of scriptures as a thing.

Scholars following Vincent Wimbush have already begun this process, conceiving of scriptures as diverse confederations of texts, broadly conceived, that are textured by their users.2Vincent Wimbush, “Introduction: TEXTureS, Gestures, Power: Orientation to Radical Excavation,” in Theorizing Scriptures: New Critical Orientations to a Cultural Phenomenon, ed. idem. (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 1-21. Inspired by this shift, I want to probe the edges of the what we can know and see. What else lurks in and around religious texts? What else lurks around their readers? Who—or what—do we encounter when we engage with a text?

To think of a scripture as haunted offers another relation to that sacred body of texts; it demands the practitioner hear voices.

In the spirit of hearing voices in and around scriptures I want to bring together two apparently unrelated texts haunting the American religious imagination: the Gospel of Mark’s story of the woman with the flow of blood (Mark 5:21-43) and Susan Jeffers’ illustrated children’s book of Longfellow’s poem, “Hiawatha”. In hearing these voices, across times and spaces, I think we begin to imagine a scriptural politics akin to what Lorde calls “interdependence.”3Lorde, “Master’s Tools,” 110-113.

The Woman with the Flow of Blood

“If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well” (4:28), the woman “suffering from a flow of blood for twelve years,” says to herself. The evocative account narrates one of Jesus’ most recognizable healings, but the setting within the story has eluded most readers. The woman’s plea comes as an interruption of Jesus’ travels to heal a girl “at the point of death” (4:23). That is, we meet the woman in a space surrounded by death. And yet, Jesus, the one who can allegedly remove this death is now interrupted by this woman and her desire to be healed.

In short, we are presented with a problem by Mark, much as we are with our contemporary conventional wisdom about U.S. election demographics: two ailing parties, a dying girl and a dying woman, are pitted against one another. Still, while the woman with the flow of blood appears as an inconvenience, her desire to be healed drives the story, and drives Jesus’ action.

Is this not how hauntings occur? The dead party insists on its own needs, persisting in those demands until they are resolved, until justice is served. In the case of the Gospel of Mark, a scriptural text, these concerns are baked into the pie; the cries from within the narrative draw our attention to them.

Hiawatha, Illustrated

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s classic American poem, “Hiawatha,” [full text here] is a mournful ballad in observance of the slow demise of the first nations. And while the poem clearly demonstrates a care for the people represented within, the abstraction of Native American life in the poem offers a glimpse into our own American imagination of those people who lived across this continent before white settlement. Setting the narrative, for instance, of an eastern Great Lakes Iroquois chief Hiawatha on the “shores of Gitche Gumee,” or Minnesota’s Lake Superior shore.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Hiawatha, illus. Susan Jeffers (New York: Puffin Pied Piper, 1983).

Heightening this ambiguity, and moving it further into a mournful space, Susan Jeffers’ illustrated children’s book of this poem illumines a sense of loss with misty, utopian visions of the past. The young Hiawatha, in one instance, is shown to live among animals in an Eden-like scene [see image], or canoeing with this grandmother, Nokomis, under the watchful, spectral eyes of their ancestors hovering above the lake. The audience receives familiar, if stereotypical, images of people who lived on and took better care of the land they now occupy: North America before its fall.

Haunted Interdependence

Both disparate examples above reveal a complex relationship formed when scriptures are engaged. In the first instance, scriptures themselves both carry with them ghostly beings that make demands, like the woman with the flow of blood. Her demands carry and trouble, forcing questions of whose life matters more, or what should our priorities be when life is on the line, or beyond that, what is so systemically damaged in our world that we even make those comparisons?

But those ghosts also attune our senses to the dead. Wadsworth poem and Jeffers’ illustrations create a nostalgic remembrance of familiar spaces—the wild North American spaces—and those who lived there, which implicitly condemn European and American settlement. More, they speak to an imagination of the past that those of us who now live here try to forget. That is, the ghosts of the world abstracted in “Hiawatha” are those that necessarily haunt us on a daily basis.

And thus, they come with us when we engage scripture like the Gospel of Mark; and here the ghosts haunting the readers commune and collude with the ghosts lurking in scriptures. If scriptures are haunted, they are haunted by voices out of our control. Those voices force us to attune ourselves to demands from elsewhere, from places out of our control. They force us to realign, to form new alliances with the lurking dead who have resided within our sacred texts all along, and perhaps to work for justice that is not just our own but another’s.

To return to Lorde: “I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.”4Lorde, “Master’s Tools,” 113.In the United States of Trump, the fear and loathing of the other is in vogue. But the haunted engagement with scriptures, the demand to hear voices, aids us in a different practice: to see that the Other—the dying woman, the Standing Rock protestor, the Syrian migrant, the trans woman of color—is always already part of our sacred story.

References   [ + ]

1. Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1984), 111.
2. Vincent Wimbush, “Introduction: TEXTureS, Gestures, Power: Orientation to Radical Excavation,” in Theorizing Scriptures: New Critical Orientations to a Cultural Phenomenon, ed. idem. (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 1-21.
3. Lorde, “Master’s Tools,” 110-113.
4. Lorde, “Master’s Tools,” 113.
Peter McLellan is a teacher, writer, and thinker seeking justice yesterday. He is a PhD candidate at Drew University, teaches at Seton Hall University, and has published articles in the journal Biblical Interpretation.

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