“Literary Criticism: Aesthetics as Apologetics.” Chapter Five of Hector Avalos, The End of Biblical Studies (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2007) 219-247.
Avalos covers a lot of ground in this chapter. The texts he touches on include Isaiah 40, the Hebrew and Greek versions of the book of Jeremiah, Jonah, Psalm 68:21, Psalms 9-10; Psalm 35, and Psalm 137. The scholars whose work he passes in review include Robert Alter, Sakae Kubo and Walter Specht, Robert Lowth, David Noel Freedman and Frank Moore Cross, James Kugel, Jack Sasson, Stanley Gevirtz, Carroll Stuhlmueller, Hermann Gunkel, James Ackerman, Alan Cooper, Susan Niditch, Mitchell Dahood, and Phyllis Trible.
Avalos’s basic point seems to be that if a text like Isaiah 40 is a literary masterpiece, then so is the Great Hymn to Osiris, an Egyptian composition that also soars from a literary point of view. I agree: but what’s the scoop? I plan to keep reading one as a masterpiece of ancient Hebrew literature and the other as a masterpiece of ancient Egyptian literature.
Avalos also notes that ancient Hebrew literature is characterized by asymmetries as well as symmetries. I made the same point recently on this blog. Is Avalos channeling Roman Jakobson here, who famously noted in his analysis of Baudelaire’s Les Chats that the sonnet is based precisely upon a tension between symmetry and asymmetry? No, according to Avalos, the beauty of a text must be located in its symmetry or asymmetry, not both. On this score, Avalos’s approach to literature lacks sophistication.
Avalos tars the biblical texts he discusses with adjectives like “ugly,” “morally objectionable,” “vicious,” and “mangled.” His treatment of the book of Jonah may illustrate. He uses comments made by Jack Sasson as a foil. Sasson notes that the book of Jonah is remarkable for its “jaggedness, imbalance, asymmetry, and discord.” Sasson also urges that the book of Jonah is “haunting,” “comforting,” “serene,” and “purposeful.”
To which Avalos replies, “[W]hy not just say 'distorted,' 'aggravating,' 'annoying,' [or] 'ugly '. . .?”
That is Avalos’s take on the book of Jonah: “distorted,” “aggravating,” “annoying,” “ugly.” Ironic, I think. The book of Jonah is delightful precisely because it is permeated by a self-deprecating humor that is altogether lacking in Avalos.
If I look into the eyes of the woman I love, what do I see? I see a reflection of the gaze of love I direct towards her. Avalos looks into the eyes of the book of Jonah, and what does he see? A reflection of the spite he directs towards it. Avalos has eyes that kill.
With rare exceptions, Avalos dismisses other biblical scholars because they are, in his words, imbued with “apologetic intent.” They traffic in “meaningless or circular rationales.” Avalos is particularly incensed that Psalm 137, which he formats as prose and quotes in its entirety, has not led to an expression of revulsion among his colleagues. “None . . . use the psalm to repudiate it, eject it from the canon, or as an argument to reject the whole Bible for endorsing violence in any portion.”
Avalos takes himself very seriously. He is a man on a mission. Behind the carefully constructed scholarly apparatus, one can still discern the child evangelist he once was.1
Avalos does not think highly of his fellow biblical scholars. In his “Introduction,” he says that what they have to say is “either bland, ambiguous, or outright fatuous. Since 1982, I have encountered only about a dozen truly memorable papers.” I’m not making this up. That’s what he says.
Shiver me timbers. If Avalos's twelve paper remark is on target, I am a world class Pollyanna. I can think of hundreds of papers I have read since 1982 that I think advance our understanding of the Bible in significant ways.
There is an anti-intellectual foundation to the approach that Avalos takes which is simply arresting.
I will say this. Ps 137, the text Avalos chooses to engage at a high point in his sermon, is well-chosen. Ps 137 is one of my favorite passages in the whole Bible. My feeling is that if one can embrace this text rather than be repelled by it, then one has come close to understanding the human predicament.
According to Avalos, Psalm 137 is vicious. You don’t say. In my view, the fact that this prayer is found in the Bible is a remarkable testimony to that body of literature’s ability to hit the reader with truth as hard as Tarantino does in Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill.
The Bible has an uncensored quality about it that continues to offend the pious, including pious secular humanists. I will post on this in more detail at a later date.
In my view, the humorless, missionary style of The End of Biblical Studies dooms it to irrelevance except among those on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum who suffer from the same illusions of self-importance that afflict its author. I imagine there are days when I might fall very easily into that camp, so it does me good to read Avalos. I thank him for holding a mirror up to my face. I wish him well and will continue to follow his scholarly and existential path.
1“I grew up in a Pentecostal Protestant home,” he says, “and I became a child evangelist soon after immigrating to the United States” (p. 26). Avalos self-identifies now as a secular humanist.