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Locating The Past/Discovering the Present – Review

This book originated in a conference held in the University of Alberta in May 2006, under the title of Meaningful Marginalities: Religious Influences and Cultural Constructions. The book’s papers focus on religious ideas, images, practices and articulations which have not been an essential part of the theological discipline and studies of religious life. Writing a book which strives to distance itself away from the centre should be commended for its goal in itself. At the same time as critically discussing the concepts of margins and centre, as the editors put it, ‘the book seeks to unravel the context through which social actions take significance and through which they can be understood’ (p. xi). Thus, it essentially problematises the centre whilst looking at the context of the margins. The book is divided into two sections: Locating the past and Discovering the present. In addition, another subdivision may be noted, one which is more methodological than conceptual; a division between theoretical–conceptual arguments concerning marginality and case studies illuminating aspects of religion and culture which have thus far been kept away from the theoretical limelight.

The book’s underlying theoretical focus is excellently laid in the introduction, which binds the different chapters together while providing a conceptual discussion of the term, marginality. The first paper in the first part, ‘Locating the past’, The Jewish Connection: Chaucer and the Paris Jews, 1934, is a discussion of Chaucer and the Jewish context of his time, in which Sheila Delany argues that current historical events which affected the lives of Jews in France and England must have been part of the context of Chaucer’s life, thus influencing his writing, specifically in his Prioress’s Tale. Susan (Shya) M. Young, in Christian Interpretations of Kabbalah: A Case Study in Marginality, outlines the way through which contemporary Kabbalistic trends, and especially Reuchlin’s interpretive attitudes, influenced Christian interpretations of the Kabbalah. In this paper, Young raises one of the core arguments in this book—the contingency of marginality and the methodological significance of this perspective.

Paul Dyck, in Reading from the Margins at Little Gidding, c.1625-1640, looks at the way Little Gidding, and the Little Academy, created a context for the Ferrars’ writing, namely by an emphasis on lived knowledge. This brought about the emergence and development of concordances, which created a dialogical supplement to biblical texts, creating dynamic margins conversing with the core text. Eva Marie Rapple, in The Seductive Serpent, traces the way transformation in imagery depicting the Fall conveys changes in the way knowledge is communicated and sheds light on interpretations of the body. The concept of evil becomes more material once body ceases to occupy a central causal location in this relationship. This paper is the first in the book which deals with non-verbal representations, (joined by Kostash and Menzies in the second part of the book). The contestation of the relationship between verbal and non-verbal texts is important in a book which essentially deals with the concepts of margins and centre. It brings about the question of marginality of non-verbal texts in various disciplines and the possibility of negotiating the centre-margins relationship by moving away from verbal texts.

Myrna Kostash, in her Memoirs of Byzantium, provides the opening paper of the second part, ‘Locating the present’. This paper looks at the part the Thessaloniki community played in the construction of her own identity, on the one hand, and in Bizantian history on the other. Writing in narrative form rather than using academic discourse is a highly effective, and important, diversion from the rest of the essays, illuminating the concept of situatedness (discussed further later in the collection): knowledge—and writing—are personal, and any attempt to create non-situated knowledge should be treated with suspicion. In The Writing on the Wall: Rembrandt, Milton and Menasseh ben Israel in Ken McMullen’s R, David Gay examines a text which appears in Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s feast, and its connection to themes of blindness and knowledge in Milton. The interplay between blindness and sight and image and text create an interesting dialectic in this chapter. Chris K. Huebner, in Marginality, Martyrdom and the Messianic Remnant: Reflections on the Political Witness of Saint Paul, discusses martyrdom as a way to overcome and transcend binaries (while drawing on Zˇizˇek and Deleuze) and uses this concept in Sebald’s Austerlitz. This paper makes explicit an argument which appears in many of the papers as an implicit critique; it seeks to emancipate the reader from divisions between centre and margins rather than just reversing them. By using the category of martyrdom, which, it is argued, transcends the hero/victim division, Huebner offers one of the tightest critical discussions in the book. In Shared Marginalization and Negotiated Identities: Religion and Feminism in Philosophy, Janet Catherina Wesselius provides an interpretation of femininity and Christianity as marginal identities in philosophy, while invoking the concept of situatedness and criticising the ‘centre’ for its lack of sincerity regarding its own situatedness. This paper provides an important and useful contribution to many of the other papers in the book which refer to (or invoke) situatedness without discussing it explicitly. Thus, it is a valuable addition to the many discussions of ‘marginal’ case studies. In the concluding paper of the book, Celluloid Temple: Viewing the Televised Ramayan as a Hindu Ritual Act, Robert Menzies looks at the televised version of the Ramayan and its influences on the nature of viewing (its participatory nature and framing the action of viewing as a ritualistic experience).

Gay and Reimer should be commended for editing a diverse and eye-opening collection, providing critical discussions and probing into connections and influences which had remained largely marginal thus far. Like any other collection, it has stronger and weaker papers, but on the whole it is very well written and its strength lies in its diversity. The book’s opening point is not an easy one. Writing a book on marginality can originate in various motivations: seeking to illuminate the centre (as may be read in the concept of situatedness), trying to add to the discourse of the centre, or perhaps, to transcend the divisions that create the centre–margins distinction. The stronger papers are the ones which place themselves frankly with regard to these aims. However, each of these goals is a valued and important goal in itself and none of these aims should be privileged over another. This book is an important intervention in many discourses as well as an original and interesting read.

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