Indiana University Research & Creative Activity April 1998 Volume XXI Number 1


Religion as a Window on Culture

Through R101, Religion as a Window on Culture, students at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis "see" into a past. It is a past that connects to the present and projects into the future with visions of broad cultural landscapes rich with the stories of scripture, ritual, and tradition. Faculty in the Department of Religious Studies designed the course to introduce students to the academic study of religion using a variety of cultural forms with religious implications. All of the tools of the course--a reader, discussion questions, and essays- are written by faculty. The "window" at IUPUI looks out on a panorama of history, ethnic identities, concepts of sacred time and space, and views of heaven, hell, myth, and metaphor, both ancient and modern. They are literary, sociological, and psychological views.

"The idea behind the course is that by focusing on religious beliefs, practices, and rituals, students can learn something not simply about religion, but about the larger cultural patterns of people as well," explains E. Theodore Mullen Jr., a professor of religious studies and chairperson of the department. Mullen, a graduate of Davidson College whose Ph.D. is from Harvard University, characterizes himself as "an old-timey book scholar." His specialty is the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. He's also somewhat of a maverick. He is, in his own characterization, "working on the edges" of modern biblical scholarship. His newest book, Ethnic Myths and Pentateuchal Foundations: A New Approach to the Formation of the Pentateuch (Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1997), is part of a series dedicated to new, experimental approaches to biblical scholarship. It is an extension and reapplication of an argument begun in his 1993 book, Narrative History and Ethnic Boundaries: The Deuteronomistic Historian and the Creation of Israelite National Identity (Scholars Press). He looks to author and audience and to social and religious functions of community to tease apart the identity of an ancient culture with the fine-tooth comb of the anthropologist and the sociologist. He perceives the concept of Torah as something that evolved over time.

Sacrifices of Elijah and the Prophets of Bal after Mathurin, Nicholas LeSuere (1691-1764), n.d., Paris, France, Chiaroscuro Woodcut --credit

"My book argues that modern Hebrew biblical scholarship has developed some severe misconceptions by its standard way of approaching the material," Mullen says. "One of those misconceptions is the word Torah, or law, as it occurs in the Hebrew Bible. It always refers to the Books of Moses, or the Pentateuch, as the first five books of the Hebrew Bible when it seems to have many possible references at any point in time. It is probably far more accurate to approach the concept of Torah as something that was evolving over time as a process." Before the invention of the printing press, access to scripture was limited, Mullen points out. Only a small number of people had the ability to possess and to read scripture. Scripture became scripture when the community came to regard a certain text as having special authority. While groups require solid boundaries of law and tradition, humans also need "loopholes and opportunities for flexibility," Mullen says.

Texts that covered a diverse range had a better chance of becoming scriptural than texts with a monolithic perspective. "The concept of a story being told--especially when the hearers are being told that this is their story, their ancestors, the explanation of who they are and why they are like they are--is one of the most powerful tools that any culture possesses," Mullen notes.

One of his favorite books of the Old Testament is Leviticus, an affection that makes "many of my students roll their eyes," Mullen says. "But I love portions of Leviticus, especially the portions on sacrifice. Sacrifice is often seen as this very strange, barbaric practice, somehow related to feeding the gods. What fascinates me about sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible is its social purpose. These elaborate sacrificial laws seem to have as their basic function the ability to reintegrate a person who, for some reason, has become 'unclean' and apart from the community. The appropriate sacrifice and the appropriate ritual provide a way of reintegrating that person fully back into the community. I find it fascinating that a people would develop this elaborate ritual that serves such an incredibly significant function. Literary critics often look at scripture as whole literary units, assessing the structures and nuances of the work fully wrought," Mullen says. In so doing, however, they tend to ignore the essential nature of the scripture, which is something to be used in small bits and pieces, and to be heard. It is very possible that much of the marvelous literary structure of the Bible is both "accidental and incidental."

"But I would be remiss as a student of religion if I were not to recognize that for some people, scripture is a mode by which the divine communicates with the human realm. That is an important social and cultural comment."--
Jayne Spencer


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