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The “Violence” of the Canon: Revisiting Contemporary Notions of Canonical Forms

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  31 July 2013

Colby Dickinson*
Loyola University, Chicago


The historical conditions surrounding the processes of forming a canon are rarely examined directly, yet it is these processes that govern the realm of religious representations and identity constructions. In light of recent critical scholarship, it is imperative to address theologically the role that the canon plays within a religious tradition. This article demonstrates the cultural necessity of canonical forms despite their “monotheistic tendency” to subdivide the world into binary oppositions. By utilizing a scale of violence to determine the impact of the canonical form on culture, this article offers an account of canons and their role in forming religious identities over and beyond the violence they are said to provoke. Through this clarification, an alternative perspective on canons can emerge that reveals the violence at the core of cultural-canonical norms, thus identifying a valuable distinction between differing (violence-concealing or violence-revealing) canonical forms.

Copyright © College Theology Society 2013 

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1 This is, of course, the impetus for many popular stories today, including the book The Da Vinci Code by Brown, Dan (2003)Google Scholar and the film Stigmata (1999), and is perhaps the reason that certain scholarly works, such as those of Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman, have become best sellers. See Pagels, Elaine, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (New York: Vintage, 2004)Google Scholar; Ehrman, Bart D., Lost Scriptures: Books That Did Not Make It into the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).Google Scholar

2 Such desires can often be detected in the popularity of compilations of “other” ancient “lost” scriptures. See Barnstone, Willis, The Other Bible (New York: HarperOne, 2005).Google Scholar

3 For a theological account of this term, see Chauvet, Louis-Marie, Symbol and Sacrament: A Sacramental Reinterpretation of Christian Existence, trans. Madigan, Patrick and Beaumont, Madeleine (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1995)Google Scholar 200ff., as well as Brown, Raymond E. and Collins, Raymond F., “Canonicity,” in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Brown, Raymond E., Fitzmyer, Joseph A., and Murphy, Roland E. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990), 1034–54.Google Scholar

4 See, for example, McDonald, Lee Martin and Sanders, James A., eds., The Canon Debate (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002).Google Scholar

5 Schwartz, Regina M., The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 5.Google Scholar

6 Assmann, Jan, “Translating Gods: Religion as a Factor of Cultural (Un)Translatability,” in Religion: Beyond a Concept, ed. de Vries, Hent (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 139–49.Google Scholar

7 There is, no doubt, a certain affinity between these insights regarding a coming justice in relation to the canonical forms and the stated project of deconstruction as found in the writings of Jacques Derrida, for example. See Derrida's interview with Richard Rand, published as Canons and Metonymies,” in Logomachia: The Conflict of the Faculties Today, ed. Rand, Richard (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992).Google Scholar

8 The canonical, no matter whether of a secular or a sacred nature, can be seen as inherently connected to its origins in a “monotheizing” tendency to divide and organize culture accordingly. The “integrity of reality,” as James A. Sanders puts it, becomes defined by a book that could be described as “monotheizing” only by virtue of its canonical form. See Sanders, James A., Canon and Community: A Guide to Canonical Criticism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 51Google Scholar. At the same time, the literary and religious forms of the canonical begin to overlap even further and indicate a general pattern of the “monotheizing” tendencies of canons as a whole, imposing their binary divisions on the cultures they signify, and creating the “noncanonical” as their obverse partner.

9 See Avalos, Hector, Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence (New York: Prometheus, 2005)Google Scholar; Nelson-Pallmeyer, Jack, Is Religion Killing Us? Violence in the Bible and the Quran (London: Continuum, 2005)Google Scholar; Ellens, J. Harold, ed., The Destructive Power of Religion: Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, 4 vols. (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007)Google Scholar; Van Der Kooij, A. and Van Der Toorn, K., eds., Canonization and Decanonization (Leiden: Brill, 1998).Google Scholar

10 Schwartz, The Curse of Cain, 141.

11 Ibid., 116. See also the material on Assmann that follows.

12 Schwartz, The Curse of Cain, 145–46.

13 In essence, the canon's “untranslatability” arises because a canon itself, by definition, defies being incorporated into other cultures or religions. It stands alone in governing the culture/religion of a specific (and in this sense, limited) people.

14 Schwartz, The Curse of Cain, 174–76.

15 Smith, Mark S., The Memoirs of God: History, Memory, and the Experience of the Divine in Ancient Israel (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004)Google Scholar. For Smith, this context is centrally fixed on the similarities in the work of Jan Assmann and Ronald Hendel. For Assmann, see below; for Hendel, see his Remembering Abraham: Culture, Memory, and History in the Hebrew Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).Google Scholar

16 Smith, The Memoirs of God, 151–22.

17 Ibid., 123.

18 Ibid., 158.

19 Ibid., 169. Cf. similar arguments made in Bal, Mieke, “Religious Canon and Literary Identity,” in The Mieke Bal Reader (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 415–40Google Scholar; Jeffrey, David Lyle, People of the Book: Christian Identity and Literary Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996)Google Scholar; Dawson, John David, Christian Figural Reading and the Fashioning of Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).Google Scholar

20 Smith, Mark S., God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008), 163.Google Scholar

21 Ibid., 271.

22 Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 281.Google Scholar

23 In answer to the question of whether the marginalized can have a voice or be represented in any sense in the space of the canonical, the subaltern figure, as the pure “heterogeneity of decolonized space,” has commonly been portrayed as the figure who cannot speak because the space of imperialist strategy does not allow it (Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, 310). The consequences of this suppression of what we might call the “noncanonical (marginalized) voice” leads Spivak in fact to declare that “we are driven to impose a homology of this Freudian strategy [a predication of a history of repression] on the Marxist narrative to explain the ideological dissimulation of imperialist political economy and outline a history of repression” (285). Yet the insistence of the repressed, marginalized figure on achieving cultural and political representation is a necessary correlate to the ongoing historical acts of representation that otherwise progress without ceasing. Postcolonial critique, then, calls for functions like “the possibility of haunting,” a tactic of the “noncanonical” or repressed figure that proposes to be a constant disturbance to the canonical history, yet from within the canonical form: “It is also true that for us the only figure of the unconscious is that of a radical series of discontinuous interruptions. In a mere miming of that figure, one might say that the epistemic story of imperialism is the story of a series of interruptions, a repeated tearing of time that cannot be sutured” (208). Nonetheless, despite its inability to be a complete narrative, the canonical is what gives rise to the historical: it details its form as well as its content, sustains an ideological rigor, and gives a people its identity. This point is essentially realized in projects that underscore the importance of merging a canonical tradition with a postcolonial perspective. See, for example, Sugirtharajah, R. S., The Bible and the Third World: Precolonial, Colonial, and Postcolonial Encounters (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Thus we are concerned with the degree to which a particular canon “haunts” itself from within, offering a means to indicate (rather than conceal or distort) the violence it performs on its subjects.

24 Two studies that take some of these fundamental dynamics of cultural division into account from a deconstructive position are Anidjar, Gil, The Jew, the Arab: A History of the Enemy (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003)Google Scholar and de Vries, Hent, Religion and Violence: Philosophical Perspectives from Kant to Derrida (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002).Google Scholar

25 Freud, Sigmund, Moses and Monotheism, trans. Jones, Katherine (New York: Vintage, 1939).Google Scholar

26 Cf. Winter, Sarah, Freud and the Institution of Psychoanalytic Knowledge (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999)Google Scholar. General responses include but are not limited to the following: de Certeau, Michel, The Writing of History, trans. Conley, Tom (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988)Google Scholar; Yerushalmi, Yosef Hayim, Freud's Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991)Google Scholar; Derrida, Jacques, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Prenowitz, Eric (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996)Google Scholar; Bernstein, Richard J., Freud and the Legacy of Moses, Cambridge Studies in Religion and Critical Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; DiCensio, James J., The Other Freud: Religion, Culture, and Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1999)Google Scholar; Santner, Eric, “Freud's Moses and the Ethics of Nomotropic Desire,” in Sexuation, ed. Salecl, Renata, SIC 3 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000)Google Scholar; Taubes, Jacob, The Political Theology of Paul, trans. Hollander, Dana, Cultural Memory in the Present (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004)Google Scholar, as well as Jan Assmann's many interventions, as we will see in what follows.

27 Assmann, Jan, Religion and Cultural Memory: Ten Studies, trans. Livingstone, Rodney (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006), 5152.Google Scholar

28 Assmann, Jan, Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 14.Google Scholar

29 Ibid., 9–10, 16–17.

30 Assmann, Religion and Cultural Memory, 53.

31 Ibid.

32 This transitional phase toward an “extraterritorial nature” of the Law also underscores a qualitative difference between revelation and canonization, two events now essentially forever intertwined. As David Weiss Halivni articulates it, Moses received the Torah at Sinai; the people of Israel received a canon in Jerusalem” (Revelation Restored: Divine Writ and Critical Responses [London: SCM Press, 2001], 85)Google Scholar. This pivotal difference serves as well to highlight their intended relationship as an ideological interpretation of the Mosaic event, forever (re)construed for political purposes: “The covenant of Sinai was realized by means of Ezra's canonical Torah; thus Ezra's canon received retroactively a Sinaitic imprimatur” (ibid.). The legitimacy of the canon was fabricated on an original revelatory event mired in Mosaic tradition and now intricately interlaced with it. Even though this historical difference is sufficient to produce a gap of some considerable significance, it is the mutual intertwining of the two concepts and the fabricated proximity between them that was to dissolve any conceptual difference and instead establish a unified scripture.

33 Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, 170.

34 Ibid., 33. Cf. Jonker, Gerdien, The Topography of Remembrance: The Dead, Tradition, and Collective Memory in Mesopotamia (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 26.Google Scholar

35 Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, 14.

36 Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (London: Verso, 2006).Google Scholar

37 Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, 3, 147. See the comments on orality in Ong, Walter J., Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London: Routledge, 1982).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

38 Assmann, Religion and Cultural Memory, 54.

39 Ibid., 58–59. For Assmann, one of the greatest historical “truths” to emerge from this Freudian reading of religious origin is how the Jews themselves were, at the point just before the Exodus, a profound “return of the repressed,” a version of Amarna (King Akhenaten's) monotheism, which was censored and erased from Egyptian cultural memory by force shortly before Moses' era: “What could be more obvious than to declare Moses the disciple of Akhenaten? We might almost imagine that the two are identical” (59). Moses, in turn, came to represent a repressed memory of the Egyptians, one that met with their “violent defense mechanisms” captured in the biblical account (61).

40 Assmann, Religion and Cultural Memory, 62.

41 Bahr, Petra, “Canon/Canonization,” in The Brill Dictionary of Religion, ed. von Stuckrad, Kocku and trans. Barr, Robert R. (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 1:252.Google Scholar

42 Assmann, Jan, Of God and Gods: Egypt, Israel, and the Rise of Monotheism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008).Google Scholar

43 Ratzinger, Joseph (Pope Benedict XVI), Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions, trans. Taylor, Henry (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 210–30.Google Scholar

44 Assmann, Of God and Gods, 30ff. This reading, of course, stands in stark contrast to Ratzinger's attempt to diminish both the intra- and the extrasystemic violence said to stem from Christianity's core.

45 Assmann, Of God and Gods, 59 and 62ff.

46 Ibid., 75 and 22.

47 Ibid., 111.

48 Ibid., 145. On Benjamin's working of the relationship between messianism and violence, see his “Critique of Violence,” read against the backdrop of his On the Concept of History,” in Selected Writings, ed. Eiland, Howard et al. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2004–6)Google Scholar. Assmann himself (in Of God and Gods, 142ff.) alludes to Benjamin, though only in the brief context of his remarks concerning the different forms of violence experienced in our world. On Benjamin's famous “weak messianic force” being co-opted theologically, see Caputo, John D., The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006).Google Scholar

49 See Girard, René, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, trans. Bann, Stephen and Metteer, Michael (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987), bk. 3.Google Scholar

50 See Girard, René, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004) 1931, 71–81.Google Scholar

51 The social implications of such a perspective are worked out quite emphatically in Bailie, Gil, Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads (New York: Crossroad, 1995)Google Scholar and in Alison, James, Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination (New York: Herder & Herder, 1996).Google Scholar

52 See Girard, René, The Scapegoat, trans. Freccero, Yvonne (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), 8894.Google Scholar

53 Girard, René, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Gregory, Patrick (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977)Google Scholar, 143ff.

54 This still leaves open the question of whether or not this tendency in Girard's depiction of the uniqueness of the Judeo-Christian canon is peculiar to that tradition alone. Girard has attempted recently to deal with other non-Western religious narratives, evaluating them along such lines as suggested here; see his Sacrifice, trans. Pattillo, Matthew and Dawson, David (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2011)Google Scholar. See also the expansion of Girard's theory specifically in relation to the history of sacrifice within Christianity in Heim, Mark S., Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006).Google Scholar

55 This theme in Girard's work is explicitly linked to the concept of canonicity in Brenneman, James E., Canons in Conflict: Negotiating Texts in True and False Prophecy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997)Google Scholar, where the canon's applicability to life becomes intertwined with the processes of canonicity itself. Brenneman broadly defines the range of such a process: “Canonical process thus began before the formal closure of the canon and continues right up to the present hour” (23). Following Girard's thesis, though often appropriating it as an indirect subcurrent throughout his study, Brenneman portrays the canon as a “limiting hermeneutic paradigm” conceived in order to attempt to contain the chaos that ensues from the manifestation of a multiplicity of intertextual readings (27). Unlike the ritualistic scapegoat mechanism that attempts to contain chaos by recreating a sacrificial victim and thus generating its own canonical text, the biblical canon contains the chaos by siding with the victim, who is otherwise erased by the founding violence of myth. Positing this distinction places us in a position to state another crucial feature of the “truthful” canonical work: it is always the work of the “truthful” canonical text to deconstruct its own meaning, as Brenneman points out by highlighting the significance of contradictory prophetic passages (13ff). Here we see that the biblical canon is a performative work, “a book of conflicting words” that “models for us first principles in communal negotiations,” an ethical first principle (79). Canonical criticism, from this viewpoint, could be read as a reminder of the vulnerability encountered during the times of social and political crises that give rise to the canonical in the first place, and that remind us of the priority of the marginalized in determining the location of an ethical paradigm. This process demonstrates a “democracy of words” in the face of ethical violence and performs a nonviolent act on behalf of the victim (139–40). In regard to Girard's critics, such as John Milbank, see the analysis offered in Depoortere, Frederiek, Christ in Postmodern Philosophy: Gianni Vattimo, René Girard, and Slavoj Žižek (London: T&T Clark, 2008), 84ff.Google Scholar

56 Cf. Brown, Delwin, Boundaries of Our Habitations: Tradition and Theological Construction (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 150.Google Scholar

57 A significant amount of work has already been done on the ethical realms of memory, but this needs to be analyzed with regard to the implications of the canonical. See, e.g., Wyschogrod, Edith, An Ethics of Remembering: History, Heterology, and the Nameless Others (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998)Google Scholar. From a theological perspective, see Keshgegian, Flora A., Redeeming Memories: A Theology of Healing and Transformation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2000).Google Scholar

58 Santner, Eric L., “Miracles Happen: Benjamin, Rosenzweig, Freud, and the Matter of the Neighbor,” in The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology, ed. Žižek, Slavoj, Santner, Eric, and Reinhard, Kenneth (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 108–9.Google Scholar

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