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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Ideology and the Struggle for Power

One of the great contributions of Enlightenment criticism was the analysis of society and its individuals, not that the social critique had been absent in the centuries before that (on which see below), but with the analysis of social forces at work, the understanding of society and the relationship between wealth and power attained a new level of sophistication. The pioneering work of Weber, Durkheim, and Marx on the ways in which texts and ideas relate to their social contexts only slowly infiltrated the world of biblical studies, dominated as it has been by the history of ideas and in particular the history of the development of the religious themes of particular communities (Giddens 1996). The different perspectives offered by the three great social scientists have begun to make their mark on the interpretation of the Bible. While there remains an exegesis which is primarily philological and theological, the social significance of theological ideas is now an accepted part of the study of biblical texts. There has been less immediate impact from the Marxist tradition, though, arguably, indirectly, in the study of ideology this has been equally pervasive though not always recognized (Kautsky 1925; Kyrtatas 1987; de Ste Croix 1982). The situation is very different with sociological and anthropological study, however. The sociology of religion, itself much influenced by the study of the way in which a charismatic Christian sect became an institution (Troeltsch 1931), more than any other discipline has transformed the way in which biblical texts are studied. The growing concentration on the importance of the role of the texts and their witness to the identity of communities and the way in which ritual, life, and ideas functioned one with another in enabling individuals and groups to discern their place in the world has led to a more holistic approach to biblical texts than has been the case hitherto when there was more concern with the way in which doctrines emerged and developed, largely independent of their socio-economic context.

The character of the study of ideology has tended to focus almost exclusively on the ancient texts themselves, and there has been surprisingly little hermeneutical reflection on the importance of the sociological critique on the interpreters themselves. There has been less evidence of scrutinizing the interests of the biblical interpreters and the understanding of the interaction between text and reader which has taken place at different periods of history. The work on Wirkungs- geschichte (the history of the effects of the biblical texts) has begun to help greatly, for studying the effects of a text will of necessity demand that one engages in a contextual approach as the particular moment of engagement with the text is explored.

Ideology is not something which belongs exclusively to those who use the Bible in their political struggles, for it is also at work in the products of those who claim to be engaging in ‘scientific’ methods of biblical study, not least among dominant élites which affirm that what they study is ‘normal’ and ‘objective’ (Eagleton 1991). A critical interpretation must manifest an awareness of its own approach to the text, but also the understandable constraints that this method imposes and the necessity of openness to other interpretative methods as both checks and a stimulus to change. ‘Ideology’ is a word which is widely used and whose meaning in its different contexts always needs to be monitored. It can be used in a general sense as a way of describing a system of ideas. It may also be used as a term of abuse in political discourse, when a position is dubbed ‘ideological’ because it is attached to narrow, doctrinaire positions. In the Marxist tradition, however, it has been linked with illusory belief or false consciousness, where people have the true state of social and economic affairs hidden from them by sets of ideas, which effectively prevent injustice from being made apparent. In this there is sometimes a contrast between the ideological and the scientific, the latter indicating the true state of affairs in human society. The Marxist tradition, which has offered the most purchase on the word, claims that the ideological concerns the ways in which language and meaning are used, whether deliberately or not, to legitimate the prevailing, usually unequal power relations in society (Hall 1985; McLellan 1987). Ideology thus functions in the interests of the wielders of power (often termed ‘hegemonic groups’), who have an interest in maintaining things as they are and the interpretation of the world as it is, thereby enabling the economic interests of those with most wealth and influence to continue to wield that influence. This means that particular social arrangements and their justification are presented as if they were governed by social laws as unchangeable as the laws of physics and so impossible to change. So the study of ideology is to see how ideas and systems of thinking and belief function in a society in such a manner that the way people think and the ruling groups appear to be ‘natural’ and ‘just’. Though these interests are not always compatible with the interests of the rest of the community, as the powerful groups are merely sectional in their interests, the way in which the language and systems of ideas function is to make it appear that they are in fact in the interests of all. Thereby the fact that society functions to benefit the interests of the powerful more than the weak is obscured. The critique of ideology involves the exposure not only of overt ways in which sectional interests are supported, but especially of the covert ways in which dominant interests are served. It involves laying bare the contradictions in society and the habit which the dominant groups have of neutralizing their potential for resistance and change, for example, by co-opting some of the ideas into the dominant ideology.

If we examine components of Christian doctrine, we can see them functioning as means of legitimating the interests of the powerful. Simple requests to accept the example of Christ as a paradigm of patient suffering can have the effect of leaving the world very much as it is. A very different understanding of the example of Christ emerges in the way in which the cross is seen as either an act of rebellion or as the means whereby the interests of the powerful are challenged. According to the second approach, when Jesus told his followers to take up their cross, he was advocating the path of rebellion. The death of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, for example, is a sign of the revolutionary potential of martyrdom as the ideological system based on the temple is challenged as its veil is torn in two from top to bottom (Myers 1988; Belo 1981; Clevenot 1985; Horsley 2001).

All works may be viewed as ideological, and have a relationship to vested interest in relation to social formations (Jameson 1981; Williams 1977). Texts are going to relate to very particular social situations as well as wider social and economic movements whose history is far bigger than the immediate situation in which a text is written (Hall 1985). Thus, as well as representing the narrow confines of the struggles and language of a particular group, the text is an individual representative of the struggles between social classes and the contradictions of human existence. Doing justice to the way in which texts form part of the struggles for power and survival depends to a large extent on knowledge of the particular social situation and general social trends of which they are a part. The paucity of information about the peculiar circumstances which might have determined, wholly or partly, the symbolic constellation or narrative of an ancient text makes ideological criticism a difficult task, to ascertain what precisely were the factors which helped form the text as we now have it. Biblical scholars have resorted to a significant amount of imaginative reconstruction in order to offer answers to the question: in what kind of situation and as part of what sort of social struggle did people write this kind of text in this kind of way? There has been an ongoing attempt to assemble sufficient information to form some picture of the social formation.

Texts' relationships to the world are never straightforward, as they both reflect and refract social reality. The texts are complex artefacts whereby the tensions of society are expressed. They can be means of expressing hope in a situation where insurmountable constraints mean that the fulfilment of that hope is impossible immediately. They are, therefore, channels of escape in which resolution of the contradictions and frustrations of the world takes place in the aesthetic realm. In other words, texts and rituals can offer solutions which satisfy the imagination of readers and offer solace when the real world seems to offer no resolution whatsoever. The story which ends happily ever after, the glorious conclusion to a religious service, contrasts with a world in which conflict is the order of the day.

In a situation of conflict, those who exercise power will seek to do so not only in terms of control of wealth creation but also in terms of the ideas which can justify and support the way in which the world is run. The recognition of this process and the way in which those who refuse to accept the dominant understanding of the way the world is forms a central part of the investigation of ideology. A text must be interpreted as part of a struggle between different class interests, in which a ruling class ideology seeks to offer itself as ‘common sense’ or ‘normality’, and all else as deviant and irrational. A ruling class ideology will offer strategies of legitimation, while an oppositional culture or ideology will often in covert ways seek to contest and to undermine the dominant value system. In the latter there is a process of reappropriation and neutralization by the dominant ideology. Equally, there is always an attempt by the powerful to pick the best ideas of the opposition and use those, thereby minimizing their potency and the strength of the opposing groups who introduced them. Thus care is needed when we speak of the Christian tradition, as it is easy to identify it with those parts of it which have been accepted by those who have wielded power. A text will not usually produce a particular ideology in a ‘pure’ form, whether it be supportive of the status quo or not. Accordingly, however loud the note of protest in a text, it is going to be shot through with the ambiguities of being part and parcel of a world that is itself full of contradiction and pain. Any text's relation to that struggle will not necessarily stand firmly on one side or another. Sometimes it will manifest the voice of the oppressor and his ideology in the process of seeking to articulate that subversive memory. It is part of the task of interpretation to lay bare the ambiguities and contradictions that are inherent in all texts. A critical examination of the Bible suggests that texts which have in the subsequent history of religion had a radical impact, such as Second Isaiah, were in their original production means of reinforcing the ideas of the ruling élite who were transported into exile and then sought to establish their God-given right to lead on their return (Mosala 1989). In order to understand fully such a text, it is necessary to enquire into the nature of the mode of production, the constellation of groups, and their different ideas and interests. Biblical books are made up of contradictory themes, which reflect something of the competing ideas and interests in the society of the time when it was given its final form, rather than when the oracles were uttered originally. Only with difficulty is it possible to retrieve from the biblical text an alternative perspective to the dominant ideology which has so permeated the text.

This approach is part and parcel of the hermeneutics of suspicion which has been such a feature of modern biblical scholarship. The difference is that contradictions in the text are interpreted politically and economically rather than merely in terms of ideas. It is a way of reading which recognizes the diversity both religiously and politically within one text. Texts do include the dominant ideology either by way of reaction or specific espousal alongside its witness to other less conformist traditions. Even what may appear to us to be the most reactionary texts may surprise us by offering what Jameson (1981: 288) calls a ‘utopian impulse’. Criticism has a role in helping lay bare that impulse, but the task of retrieval is not its only, or even its main, function.

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