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

The Alternative, Radical Tradition in Christianity as a Challenge to the Dominant Ideology

Deviant faith and practice have by the consent of the powerful been excluded and branded as unfit for proper ecclesiastical consumption. In some cases we can see why such decisions may have been necessary. But this does not by any means always apply. There awaits a task of rediscovering bits of the tradition which have become submerged by dominant ideologies. The canon in one sense is a domestication of awkward ideas, but in another sense, in the very process of domestication, it contains within it the minority opposition ideas. The formation of a dominant ideology involves the incorporation of the opposition ideas—which means that they are not completely lost and are available. So their very presence continued to provide a basis for the rediscovery of social and ecclesiastical alternatives. The importance of the retrieval of an ‘alternative story’ has been a significant component of feminist biblical interpretation as well as projects influenced by the theology of liberation (Rowland 1999; Bradstock and Rowland 2002). The liberation theology perspective on the story of the Church likewise seeks to activate that present concern with the story of the people's struggle by attempting to recover that story down the centuries. This will mean giving less time to the writings of the great men and more attention to popular religion as carriers of that subversive memory. It is these different, and frequently forgotten, traditions that kept alive the alternative horizon which protested at the language of the victors.

There is indeed a remarkable ‘hinterland’ of radical themes in the Christian tradition (Bradstock and Rowland 2002). As a convenient way of describing the writings in the collection put together by Andrew Bradstock and myself, one may use the word ‘radical’ as a collective description. Of course, ‘radical’ is one of those words which has become extremely flexible in its usage. Yet there is often an appeal to the roots: to Jesus and the early church as paradigms of what Christian polity and action should be about. Occasionally there is a more violent dimension: being so convinced of the godlessness of contemporary culture and institutions, radical theologians consider it necessary to uproot them by force, though there are many who protest against violence in the way exemplified by Jesus himself, resistance even unto death (Cohn 1957).

One theme pervades many of these radical sources: a strong sense of vocation, such that writers believe that they are called to an activity which is explicitly contrary to received wisdom and practice, as they see their own activity in the light of the struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. Alongside this, there is often an intense awareness of God's presence and a conviction that God or Christ indwells and empowers. The divine indwells the human as well as the process of history, and there is often an intimacy of interaction between the human and the divine in enabling the understanding of God's purposes to be known. This is often linked with the doctrine of the Spirit and the conviction that the believer is closely identified with Christ.

Throughout many of the radical texts there is a heartfelt hope for a new world, echoing prophetic texts and the hope for the New Jerusalem in the Apocalypse. Nevertheless this hope differs quite markedly from the character of hope within other areas of Christian tradition. In many of the radical texts we are concerned with a hope for this world rather than some transcendent realm. The coming reign of God is not merely an article of faith for the future, but is in some sense already present, either in the life of the prophetic group, called to implement or proclaim, or as a phenomenon within the historical process which demands a response and interpretation—what is known as ‘reading the signs of the times’. So the present is the decisive moment in the divine purposes, exhibiting what Karl Mannheim termed the ‘chiliastic mentality’, where the present moment is one of utmost significance within the whole gamut of history (Mannheim 1931: 193–213).

A frequent theme is that theology is a matter not just of abstract reflection, but of exposition of understandings which are based on an active engagement to see another kind of order at work in the world, the realization of God's kingdom on earth. There is an approach to the Bible in which interpreters refuse to be content with the letter, but pierce to the real meaning of the text. This attitude may manifest itself as a rejection of the priority of Scripture and a subordination of it to the inner understanding which comes through the Spirit. The meaning of Scripture and tradition is subordinated to experience as a prior datum which must be the necessary condition of the way in which Scripture is read. There is an emphasis on the ability of all those open to the Spirit of God to understand the meaning of Scripture, and so a hermeneutical egalitarianism. This can come without access to the wisdom of the experts.

We see an oblique relationship with the Scriptures in which the words become the catalyst for discernment of the divine way in the present. What counts is not so much what the text meant to Isaiah, Jesus, or Paul, but what import these words may have in the circumstances of the present. The claim to be able to understand the Scriptures without recourse to learned divines is a repeated theme. Patterns of biblical exegesis which have emerged in parts of Latin America over the last twenty years offer a more recent example of the way in which the practical faith of the non-professional reader can be resourced by a mode of reading of the Scriptures which does not need (even if it was often supported by) sympathetic intellectuals (West 1998).

The messianic and millenarian proclivities of early Christianity and parts of ancient Judaism indicate that there were strands of thought which reflected difference and hoped for something better. Of course, such ideas can easily lapse into other-worldly fantasy, but the potential of future hopes for illuminating the disjunction between the group and wider society should not be underestimated. This is brilliantly captured by Walter Benjamin in his last work. He emphasized that the cultural monuments celebrated by official history could not be understood outside the context of their origins, a context of oppression and exploitation (Benjamin 1978: 258). Incorporated into the tradition of conventional history, they were no more than booty carried in the triumphal procession of the victors. Just as the cultural object itself will never be free from barbarity, ‘so neither is the process of handing down by which it is passed from one to the next’. He spoke of the need to capture a memory ‘as it flashed past in a moment of danger’ (Benjamin 1978: 257). It was the ‘involuntary memory of a redeemed humanity’ which contrasted with convention and false tradition. It was necessary to ‘brush history against the grain’ (Benjamin 1978: 259). According to Benjamin, the task of each generation was to rescue tradition from the conformity which the powerful seek to impose upon the subversive—thereby neutralizing it and making it part of the dominant ideology.

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