Stephen D. Moore, Empire an Apocalypse: Postcolonialism and the New Testament (2006)
This book is a brief guide to, and example of, postcolonial biblical interpretation. In five chapters, Moore offers an overview of postcolonial theory as it intersects with biblical studies, as well as examining three NT books—Mark, John, and Revelation—to see if they support the weight that postcolonial interpreters have laid upon them. In the end, he concludes that Mark, John, and Revelation are ultimately ambivalent to the question of imperialism/colonialism, critiquing imperialism in some places while adopting it as a conceptual model in others.
In the first chapter of his book, Moore traces the intellectual genealogy of postcolonial biblical studies. He begins with three seminal works in postcolonial studies—Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1985), and Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture (1994)—showing how they have structuralism/poststructuralism as their conceptual cores. Next, he traces the influence that postcolonial theory has had on biblical interpretation. Moore organizes works of postcolonial biblical criticism into three subgroups:
- Those that are influenced by liberation theology. These works typically engage only lightly extra-biblical postcolonial studies.
- Those that “focus on the theme of empire as an exegetical lens through which to reframe and reread selected New Testament texts” (18). These works usually do not engage with extra-biblical postcolonial studies at all.
- Those that are deeply engaged with extra-biblical postcolonial studies.
Finally, Moore forecasts the future of postcolonial biblical studies, the fortunes of which he sees lying with his third, theory-savvy subgroup.
In chapter 2, Moore examines the Gospel of Mark through a postcolonial lens. He begins with a short, verse-by-verse exegesis of Mark 5:1-9 (the healing of the Gerasene demoniac), interpreting it as a critique of Roman imperial power. However, he rejects that such a view is programmatic for Mark, noting that “Mark altogether lacks the snarling, fang-bearing hostility toward the Roman state” (32) that characterizes Revelation. Instead, Mark is both attracted to and repulsed by Roman imperialism—for instance, he rejects Roman leadership as oppressive, but still adopts the concept of empire, redeploying it in favor of Jesus, whom he sees as the authority figure in the divine empire. Likewise, Mark has Jesus praising two poor women who nonetheless give extravagant gifts without expectation of reciprocity (a critique of imperialist economics), while simultaneously upholding the notion of empire through his announcement of the parousia. Therefore, Moore concludes that Mark is not a thoroughgoing anti-imperialist text, but simultaneously critiques and upholds the notion of empire.
Chapter 3 treats the Gospel of John’s views of empire. Moore finds John to be “at once the most—and the least—political of the canonical gospels” (50). That is, John lauds Jesus as a political figure—he has the people try forcefully to make Jesus king, for instance—while also depoliticizing Jesus in the face of the Roman Empire. The Romans are the unquestioned political authority in John. Pilate—the face of the Roman Empire in John’s Gospel—exercises Roman political might when he has Jesus scourged in the middle of the passion narrative, an event that John portrays negatively. However, John has Caiaphas prophecy Jesus’ death, which serves not only to propitiate God, but also to propitiate Caesar. In addition, John implicitly predicts the eventual identification of Christianity with Rome. Therefore, though John critiques Roman authority, he by no means rejects it in toto.
Chapter 4 is an interlude from the exegetical chapters of the book. In this chapter, Moore situates postcolonialism within postmodernity, which Moore identifies as neocolonialism, as it continues the oppressive economic practices of the capitalist age. He notes the irony that the most successful postcolonial thinkers are rewarded with prestigious positions in Western universities, thus participating in the very system they critique so harshly. Moore latches onto Homi Bhabha, whose work he has seen empower students who come from colonialist situations. Therefore, he offers an extended overview of Bhabha’s views of colonialist evangelism in the 19th century, from which Bhabha devised several theories. Moore highlights several of Bhabha’s ideas:
- ambivalence—the idea that the colonized vacillates between outright mimicry of the colonizer, on the one hand, and hybridizing of the colonizing and colonized cultures, on the other
- deconstruction—the cultural tools of the colonizer, rather than changing the culture of the colonized to match that of the colonizer, instead mold themselves to, and are shaped by, the culture of the colonized.
- agency—the colonized are actively engaged in subverting the colonizer’s cultural discourse.
Bhabha’s ideas are important to Moore’s exegeses, so it is curious that Moore placed this chapter here, in the middle of his exegeses, rather than placing it alongside the first chapter. At any rate, it provides a nice glimpse into the theory that lies at the heart of Moore’s book.
Chapter 5 examines the book of Revelation. Moore first gives a topical introduction to Roman imperial ideology, interspersed with modern theoretical readings of the same concepts. Next, Moore reads Revelation through a Bhabhan lens, showing how Revelation is ambivalent, in a Bhabhan sense, to Rome; Revelation both espouses (mimics) Roman imperial ideology in its theology, while also harshly rejecting those Christians who collaborated with (hybridized with) Rome. Therefore, Revelation is far from being an outright rejection of empire; instead, like Mark and John, it both critiques and accepts imperialism.