Monday, August 9, 2010

Reading Ephesians, Part 3

This is the final part of my review of Reading Ephesians by Minna Shkul, check here for part 1 and part 2. It is also published in the Journal of Beliefs and Values. See part 1 of this series for bibliographic information.

Chapter 6 provides the ideological paradigms necessary for the negotiation of social identity within the non-Israelite Christ-following community. The primary principle is that the community must replicate the holiness standards of Israel, which include distancing itself from the unclean identity and behaviours of the nations. This is achieved by social categorisation of both the ingroup (i.e. God's holy community), and the outgroup (i.e. those awaiting God's judgement); however, this occurs in an asymmetrical manner. The putative abolishing of the Law in Eph 2:15 indicates discontinuity with Jewish identity, while the call in Eph 4:17 to no longer live as gentiles problematises non-Israelite identity and leaves the community in a constant state of identity-liminality. The resolution, for Shkul, is in a third identity position: she concludes that 'Christianness is a primary identification that ought to characterise both values and behaviours of community members' (239). It is a social identification that is neither Jewish, nor non-Israelite, but one that is formed by the letter's social entrepreneurship, resulting in 'a cohesive community of God's people who manifest his holiness' (238). Chapter 7 provides a brief summary and conclusion to the work.

In a review this size, two brief evaluative comments are in order - one hermeneutical and the other social psychological. Shkul follows closely the work of Judith Lieu with regard to the reality- and identity-constructing power of texts and, likewise, Lieu's jaundiced eye towards the ability of scholars to reconstruct the historical context of/behind a text (2004, 9). While Shkul is right to note a lack of circumstantial content in the letter, it is not evident that the best hermeneutical choice is to resist any substantive reconstruction (181 n. 8). Ephesians undoubtedly constructs the cognitive framework of its auditors; however, it also reflects the social and political world of its author, and at least in a general fashion the world of its addressees. So, Shkul rightly focuses on the textual world, but there is some need for socio-historical reflection on the author and/or its auditors, otherwise it would be difficult if not impossible to assess whether or not Ephesians was successful in its social entrepreneurship (Tellbe 2009, 52).

The references to Jenkins' internal-external dialectic of identification (203) and to Pickering's 'sociology of the stranger' (234), with its concern for assimilation and difference, could have been strengthened by including Brewer's optimal distinctiveness theory (2003, 480-91). This would also allow for further refinement on the way identification with or rejection of key aspects of an ethical approach with its basis in Israel's scriptures interacted with the ongoing influence of non-Israelite social identifications (e.g. household and kinship structures). Shkul's Reading Ephesians provides a largely persuasive and theoretically complex social-scientific reading of Ephesians that draws extensively from social identity theory, social memory, cultural studies, and literary theory. It admirably achieves its goal of advancing 'Ephesians scholarship by a methodological evaluation of the construction of identity and community, long acknowledged to be formative to the thought of the letter' (240).

© 2010, J. Brian Tucker
Brewer, M. B. Leary, M. R. and Tangney, J. R. (eds) (2003) Optimal distinctiveness, social identity, and the self. Handbook of self and identity pp. 480-491. Guilford , New York.

Lieu, J. M. (2004) Christian identity in the Jewish and Graeco-Roman world Oxford University Press , Oxford.

Tellbe, M. (2009) Christ-believers in Ephesus: A textual analysis of early Christian identity formation in a local perspective Mohr Siebeck , Tübingen, Germany.

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