A Theological-Political Genealogy

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Adam Y. Stern
  • Philadelphia: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , March
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In his introductory remarks in Survival: A Theological-Political Genealogy, Adam Y. Stern considers the Hebrew and Christian scriptural origins (or their lack and reclamation) of survival language alongside the received Jewish tradition. Stern’s thesis explicates an implicit Christian-European zeitgeist that plays a role in structuring, sourcing, influencing, and constraining how many Jewish and secular thinkers conceive of survivorship (10–13). Stern argues that what might be understood as Jewish survival is often linked—and cannot be fully intellectually divorced from—Christian theological conceptions, not for lack of trying but simply because of historical development.

Survival’s chapters are more anthology-like with an overarching argument peeking through and beginning to crescendo as he notes more connections between Western Christianity, Judaism, and survival across categories. Sometimes this parallel structure works smoothly. At other times, some readers may find themselves disoriented by the moving pieces to learn that will not be carried into the next chapter. I will address this more later, but I must commend Stern as his methodology gives a more tangibly felt dimension of his argument that flawed views of survivorship touch way too many aspects to be ignored.

Stern has three main ends in Survival. His chapters loosely follow a parallel template that reflects these ends. The chapters that fall into two categories: either Stern discusses seminal work on postwar Jewish survivorship (focusing specifically on Jewish people and their faith), or he discusses works of Jewish origin that inform survivorship universally. The principal quartet that Stern explores through the lens of either one or both of these categories includes Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Franz Rosenzweig, and Sigmund Freud.

Second, Stern plays the central author’s work against a concept from either Christian theology or Western Christian political history: Christian views of Judaism, John 1:1 and the logos (Greek term for truth, reason, word, etc. but in John 1 is identified with Jesus Christ), the incarnation of Christ, the Eucharist, and the empty tomb. Stern develops these theological concepts through secondary interlocutors such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, William Shakespeare, Rudolf Bultmann, Augustine, and Joseph Conrad. Stern draws from postcolonial, biopolitical, critical theory, or mystical-theological lenses, including sources that might otherwise be perceived as background or unconventional.

Third, Stern challenges, explicates, and criticizes the chapter’s central thinker by showing how the chapter’s Christian theological concept is implicit in the quartet’s work. In chapter 4, Stern considers Benjamin’s theory of technological reproducibility through a unified middle term derived from the two “real presences” of the eucharistic debates and Danish sovereignty in Hamlet (1603). In chapter 1, Stern criticizes Arendt’s descriptions of Jews and Christians in The Origins of Totalitarianism (Schochen Books, 1951) after considering historical interpretations of Jewish survival alongside colonialism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899).

Stern’s sentences are packed with rich interplays of ideas and connections, and individual paragraphs are often gripping and robustly stand well on their own. He cites thinker after thinker in a fast-paced and mystical treatment, while keeping true to his postcolonial, critical, and biopolitical emphases. His bibliography is well-sourced for further research, with endnotes collated with unquoted, supporting literature. Stern should also be commended for endeavoring to let the authors speak for themselves in constructing his argument, with his contributions principally in the structure of the debates. Scholars with an advanced familiarity across the traditions I have mentioned will find this work enjoyable and catalyzing.

This fresh and unconventional reading may present challenges to some readers. Survival may appear inaccessible to interested readers who lack a strong working background in relevant subjects, even beyond the four thinkers listed in the blurb. I found myself engaged by Stern’s sections on literature, theologians, and philosophers I have strong research ties to, even when unfamiliar interlocutors were introduced.

However, in sections covering thinkers with whom I was less familiar, even if I possessed basic working knowledge, I was grasping to find an orientation point. This difficulty is likely explained as the tradeoff to having a treatment that (1) centers on arguments developed through direct quotations with the original language, (2) regularly cycles through new, dense sources with little context from the author, and (3) has endnotes rather than footnotes. This challenge was less noticeable in the introduction and epilogue, likely because of the first-person perspective guiding me through unfamiliarity.

As mentioned above, Stern’s writing is often mystically, theologically, and colonially/postcolonially concerned. Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism falls squarely within the purview of the latter two categories. Yet, reading Origins with a mystical emphasis leads to some against-the-grain readings of how Arendt understood religious dimensions in her otherwise political and historical work. The Human Condition (University of Chicago Press, 1958), Between Past and Future (Viking Press, 1968), or Love and Saint Augustine (University of Chicago, 1996) might be more amicable to such a reading while retaining themes of survivorship, albeit with a lesser emphasis on Judaism. As Stern views these readings as stepping stones in this larger project, all due charity should be extended to his interpretation. Though readers may benefit from orienting their expectations regarding Stern’s theological-philosophical usage of the four thinkers, as it diverges from a historical approach to Jewish thinkers’ takes on survival in wake of the Holocaust.

Survival spans entire millennia (early Judaism to European colonialism to postwar Europe) and the Christian theological narrative to advance the thesis that even survivorship, a concept often connoted with a Judaic perspective, is informed by a globalist and Christian framework. Sometimes Stern more heavily suggests that secular or Jewish thinkers are dependent on these constructs. The reader may find survival too heavily bound to these presuppositions to be useful in “non-Christian” systems (16). Even for those sympathetic to claiming the entirety of this Christian-influenced tradition of survivorship, these readers will extrapolate the tools to examine similar concepts in disparate contexts as explored in Stern’s epilogue on the Palestinian question. Ultimately, the reader is challenged to consider that survival may be more of an aporia (an irresolvable internal contradiction) than its etymology and historical usage may suggest.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Tofte is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
November 28, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Adam Y. Stern is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


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