Series: Class 200: New Studies in Religion
- ISBN: 9780226815657
- Published By: University of Chicago Press
- Published: December 2021
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a theologian in possession of a political manifesto must be in want of a Bible verse. The Christian Bible has been used to justify any number of political and philosophical positions over the centuries, and perhaps no author leaves himself so open for a variety of interpretations as Paul. In Profaning Paul, Cavan Concannon is “searching for Paul in the bathroom” (6), sifting through the shit (Concannon’s preferred term) that Paul has left us and pointing to those who have been shit on throughout history, including slaves, Jews, women, denizens of dictatorships, and workers and consumers of global capitalism. He thus acts against attempts to redeem Paul as a champion of modern (e.g. liberal, anti-colonial) ideological positions. Paul seems to enjoy a particular status in the Western canon—whether religious, political, literary, or philosophical—and has been (mis)used to justify a variety of positions. But Concannon, quoting Acts 9:13 (“Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints.”), states openly: “Paul can’t be redeemed” (6).
Concannon begins with Paul’s references to shit (Phil 3:8) and trash (1 Cor 4:13) and discusses theories on sanitation: how waste is produced, removed, and potentially reused or recycled. He uses just about every conceivable idiom with “shit” in it (though I missed “No shit, Sherlock!”) and concludes by dedicating the book to his daughters and apologizing for the swearing (136; surely his is the first biblical studies book to include the phrase “OK boomer,” 106, and a nice touch is his inclusion of a comment from one of the anonymous reviewers regarding the term “poop”: “Poop is shit made adorable,” 161).
The book is a reflection on studies of Paul: “I will argue that biblical studies is itself a machine that has always been in the business of (re)producing and sanitizing new Pauls (and new Bibles), without attending to the waste left over in the process” (27). Paul remains a figure far removed from our modern concerns and worldview, envisaging “a god who sickens and kills people for not eating the right way” (34, in reference to 1 Cor 11:27–30). Just as “enlightened” colonialists and slave-owners mined Paul for their own purposes, so too the historicist approach to Paul makes “the unpalatable aspects” (37) of the Bible “historical” while the moral values remain supposedly eternal and universal. Thus, “biblical studies is a sanitation department that renders the Bible clean by processing its waste” (52). This calls to mind the claim of Valentinus that Jesus, although he ate and drank, did not excrete (58).
But exactly how useful is any reconstructed Paul? “Is Paul valuable . . . or is he . . . better left to the dustbin of history?” (53). Concannon examines the Pauls brought to us by Eric Smith, Jacques Ellul, Alain Badiou, Ward Blanton, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Brian Blount, and Giorgio Agamben. He explains in detail how each attempt to rescue Paul for today’s society is plagued with problems, and that the most fruitful approaches are those that are not afraid to “split” Paul, abandoning efforts to redeem him entirely. A nice example is Howard Thurman’s account of his grandmother Nancy Ambrose, an African American formerly enslaved woman who, though a Christian, refused to read Paul (104–105). Brief mention is given to attempts at “pinkwashing Paul” (42, a term from Joseph Marchal), though no example of this is studied in detail. Concannon concludes: “Liberative readings do not come from following Paul’s intentions, thought, or theology; rather, they come from imagining readers of his letters who would use their own creativity, ingenuity, and intelligence to address their context” (121).
In speaking of “Profaning Paul” Concannon is drawing on Agamben’s reading of the Roman jurist Trebatius Testa (1st century BCE) who understands “profaning” as turning something to everyday rather than “sacred” use (94–95): “Profanation offers a way of surviving Paul’s archive. If the sacred is that which cannot be touched, which is set apart, profanation brings that which was sacred back to the rest of us” (101). Concannon points out, however, that this is not a process of returning something to a supposedly “original” use, but rather doing something new with it (108).
Interspersed throughout the chapters are personal reflections on the author’s own relationship with Paul and how this has developed (esp. 87–88). Concannon reflects:
“The old way of reading was so much easier. I could marshal some Greek lexicons and some ancient literary parallels, consult a few commentaries by eminent European men, trudge through a few articles in German and French, maybe even do some quick searches on the library database. Then I’d make Paul say what I needed him to say, what made me feel good.” (134)
This way of reading Paul remains the mainstream, but—if I may create my own sanitation metaphor—perhaps it belongs in the gutter.
Concannon is erudite, highly intelligent, and well-read, and this book is the product of many years of reflection (digestion?). It must be said he provides a consciously(?) American perspective on many issues. One flaw in the book’s format is the lack of a bibliography, so finding a reference is difficult, especially with the use of endnotes. Given its detail, its meta-level reflection on the discipline of biblical studies, and the inter-disciplinary nature of his discussion of Badiou, Agamben, and Pasolini, it is not a book for “beginners.” It demands attention, time, and thought, and thus perhaps in a pre-digital age would have provided suitable reading material for sitting on the toilet.
J. Andrew Doole is assistant professor for New Testament at the Institute of Biblical Studies and Historical Theology, University of Innsbruck, Austria.J. Andrew DooleDate Of Review:April 21, 2023