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The Theological And The Political: On The Weight Of The World

Author: Mark Lewis Taylor
Published By: Fortress (Minneapolis)
Pages: 236
Price: 19.99
ISBN: 978 0 8006 9789 1

Reviewed by Philip Joy.

This North American discourse belongs broadly to the tradition of radical theology, in which salvation is interpreted as liberation of the politically and socially oppressed. It is a book born out of the post-9/11 paradox of a Guantanamo Bay in a ‘free’ society. Its central dialectic is the rejection of traditional theology’s twin poles of transcendence/ immanence in favour of post-theological “transimmanence.” Taylor has another new category, which he calls “the theological” which replaces seminary and academic theology and which is a subversive, religio-political discipline. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s striking image of a ‘parapenal’ society which, even as it proclaims freedom, is in fact little more than a prison cell on the wall of which is written “God sees you,” Taylor emphasizes the suffering of the oppressed, which he calls “the weight of the world.” This suffering may be racial, political, colonial, North/South, gender, sexual-orientation, etc., or it may be the suffering of the whole parapenal society (along with its theoscopy, the god-villain, whose notional all-sight binds the sick society together). either way, it is ‘the theological’ which offers a path out.

Taylor proceeds by placing his discussion in its postmodern context. The prefix ‘post’ indicates a society undergoing crisis or transition, and theology undergoing a revision in favour of the ethical and the political spheres. The contributions of Foucault and Jean-Luc de Nancy are considered in detail, and traditional theology is discarded as an inflexible, outmoded “Guild-Discipline.” Traditional hermeneutics and the procedures of academic theology are challenged by the disturbing hydra of ‘the theological’ whose multiple heads multiply every time an attempt is made to cut one off. Other thinkers informing the Foucaultian polemic include Theodore Schatzki and Pierre Bourdieu, from whom Taylor proposes the concept of the “Agonistic Political,” that is, the suffering of a whole society, both as individuals and as a unit, enmeshed in the agony of the torture cell.

Yet it is from the Agonistic Political that ‘the theological’ arises. Drawing on de Nancy, the poet Richard Wright and poets from Guantanamo Bay, Taylor defines Transimminence as images of sacred power borne out of the liminal [communicating] space of suffering and torture. Such images are subversive because they speak out against the status quo of global power structures. The images are Transimmanent – that is to say they rise above the transcendent/immanent polarity: Artistic in nature and socio-political in intent, they do not try to prop up the failing transcendent god of Conservative Evangelicalism, nor the powerless immanent god of Liberal Theology. They furthermore offer what is effectively a new Canon of relevant, contemporary intercultural poetry, narrative, visual-art, dance and music which comes from the margins, addresses the pain of ordinary people, and thereby communicates powerful alternative socio-political possibilities. Such marginal artists – “spectral humans” as Judith Butler calls them – offer us a means of challenging the powers of the torture state. Drawing on Sister Dianna Ortiz’s account of torture survival, Taylor concludes with an examination of the practical ways in which such artistic works effect real change in the wounded body politic, which is, among others, the American Nation.

This is a passionate book, and it is certainly a terrifying thought that we in the West might unwittingly be caught up into a society which is summed up by the torture chamber. One only has to think of British soldiers’ excesses in Abu Ghraib… As with many tracts that present new ways of thinking one must first learn the vocabulary, or else be overwhelmed by page after page of grammatically coherent but semantically baffling text! It took me, for example, until my final edit of this review to really grasp what Taylor means by “transimmanent!” Predictably, I don’t accept the new Canon as replacing the old, nor do I accept the failure of my God, but this book is full of powerful thinking and is a timely reminder that we must not allow our faith to be hijacked into supporting a torture state or ‘the extension of state power by other means,’ viz war. Theologians all, beware!

Philip Joy

Specialist in Old Testament narrative and typology

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You are reading Issue 55 of Ministry Today, published in July 2012.

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