The Bible and Global-Systemic Criticism in the Age of “Fake News”
In early August of 2018, a series of news stories spread virally across different social media platforms, especially facebook and whatsapp. Using photos from a local punk rock concert that took place more than two years before, one of the posts claimed a migrant community was burning the nation’s flag; another story claimed that among these migrants were agents of a foreign military; yet another claimed that specifically transgender migrants were receiving special access to government services that citizens do not receive. On August 18, 2018, the outcome of this circulation of false reports was a right-wing protest in the Capitol, with hundreds marching to a park where migrants were known to gather in order to chant for their removal. Some migrants were beaten to the point of hospitalization.
You may not be sure which country I am talking about. This dynamic—the affective economy of right wing xenophobia and/or racism stoked further by the spread of clearly false and manufactured news across social media platforms—has become a common enough aspect of political life in several different countries. Discussions of fake news have focused on its power to shape elections and politics in large and globally powerful nations, such as Great Britain, France, Germany, Brazil, and of course the United States of America. Often, in the USA context, Russian agents are blamed for this fake news. But what I describe above, this set of false news reports that culminated in xenophobic violence in August took place in a small country of around five million people, with no military and no vested Russian interests in purportedly disrupting democracy. When I landed in Costa Rica, the country in which I was born, on August 21, 2018, observing the aftermath of this right-wing protest and violence, I was reminded that no society is immune to the affective power of fear and false stories that stoke xenophobia.
I start with my Tica experience of fake news because it allows us to think about how global a phenomenon “fake news” really is. Although I prefer to avoid the term “fake news” because President Donald J. Trump seems to apply it to almost any news he doesn’t like, “fake news” has become a term that can help us think about a global host of political narratives. What can a biblical scholar possibly have to say about this contemporary topic?
When I was initially asked to speak on this panel, I wasn’t sure what I could add to already existing discussions. Revisiting the work of Fernando F. Segovia allowed me to recontextualize fake news, albeit by broadening its definition. Here I am thinking of “news” in a much more general sense. I also think that Segovia’s critical model provides tools that could help people to both reframe and confront fake news on different terms. As I want to suggest, Segovia’s work gives us tools to confront fake news as a global crisis by contextualizing its far broader history, but more importantly, his approach to criticism pushes us—or at least pushes me—to ask different questions. He pushes us not to ask necessarily about the truth or falsity of news but about the power of interpretive place and perspective in producing and consuming news. He also pushes us to always have these conversations together, among diverse scholars from all over the world.
In his 2014 presidential address to the Society of Biblical Literature, Segovia called on biblical interpreters to take on a new, broad-angled and interdisciplinary scope of criticism, what he has dubbed the global-systemic. It is an ambitious project, calling on scholars from around the world to come together to think about the crises we confront. As he says,
The scope is expansive: the world of production (composition, dissemination, interchange) as well as the world of consumption (reception, circulation, discussion). It would thus encompass the following foci of attention: (1) the texts and contexts of antiquity; (2) the interpretation of these texts and contexts, and the contexts of such interpretations, in the various traditions of reading the Bible, with a focus on modernity and postmodernity; and (3) the interpreters behind such interpretations, and their corresponding contexts. The lens is wide-angled…The proposed undertaking demands a critical movement… [that is] as diverse as possible.
Most of these steps would be familiar to anyone who has read Segovia’s earlier work on biblical interpretation and postcolonial biblical studies. Segovia takes the object of study to be much more than the simple illumination of the meanings found in some passage in the Bible. He also refuses to treat the Bible as merely means to the ancient world or medium of communication, though it can be both at times. He admits that any one interpreter will provide too narrow a perspective. In refusing the possibility of interpretive objectivity, he demands a practice of collaborative plurality with people from all over the world and embodying different perspectives working together. But the real object of study is us, our present global crises, structures of power, and the place of textual production and consumption in this mess with which we all live.
As someone who has been inspired by the work of Segovia and others since I was a MA student, I generally do not start in the ancient world, but the modern one. I do not think one has to, or even should, follow Segovia’s steps in a chronological order. Indeed, it is wisest to begin with the present world so that we know the crises that motivate us and the ideological histories of the categories and practices of analysis we employ. However, if we start with the ancient world by looking at the circulations of narrative and power in that context, a critic can clarify that fake news is not in fact the product of some postmodern non-attachment to truth or the proliferation of multicultural, perspectival epistemologies. Depending on how we define news, the problem of fake news is rather old. Stories representing events that did not happen but were mobilized to stoke particular affective registers that perpetuate the domination of some groups over others can be found throughout history and across geographies. Moreover, struggles over the meaning we make of events, over the stories we tell, the events we remember, and how we remember them, also date back a long time.
As a student of Christian scriptures, I can point to early “Christian” literary texts, their production, and the fake news to which they respond. Richard A. Horsley and other members of the empire-critical school of the Christian bible have long emphasized the production of gospels as a response of colonized subjects to the lies of an occupational empire. The ancient Roman Empire liked to circulate a gospel, a εὐαγγέλιον, Rome’s “good news” about the peace of Caesar and the role of the Roman emperor and its imperial power structures in providing peace, security, and salvation. Rome also often misrepresented its subjects through visual media on city buildings and official temples, such as the Sebasteion in Aphrodisias.
Some early Christian literature may have specifically challenged Roman good news as fake news. As a student of the Book of Revelation in particular, I can point to the work of scholars such as Harry O. Maier who suggest that the apocalypse reveals the structures “of empire and one’s place within it.” Thus the violent imagery of the Book of Revelation, particularly its portrayals of Babylon and her destruction (Rev 17-18) on one level, uncover the lies of Roman pax et securitas by exposing the violent foundations and perpetual insecurity of Roman subjects. Revelation does not refuse the Roman εὐαγγέλιον by simply offering “alternative facts” about Caesar. Instead the Apocalypse proffers its own form of good news about the bigger Caesar—a God who commands the universe as opposed to the Roman emperor who is the agent of Satan. Besides disputing the fake news of Roman peace, Revelation offers an alternative narrative structure for interpreting the world, a structure Adela Yarbro Collins described as a method of crisis and catharsis. Thus, Revelation works on the affective economy of those who heard it; moreover, much early Christian literature, like today’s fake news, relied on a revolution in communication—the codex as well as the social networks of the ancient Roman world to circulate it.
The approach I just summarized might fulfill one of Segovia’s steps in that it attends to power dynamics, particularly the dynamics of a repressive global imperial state power and the responses of colonized subjects. This approach weighs the production and consumption of ancient texts. But there are two limits here that Segovia might catch. First, the summary I have provided is far from the only way to read the conjunction of fake news and early Christian literature. Segovia would demand a conversation among competing, diverse interpretations here. Second, for Segovia, part of that interpretive problem must be addressed by not leaving our analyses strictly resident in our constructed ancient world. Segovia has always drawn our attention to how and why we as interpreters construct narratives of the past. We thus have to engage in a deeper reading of history, one that attends to the power games that have shaped the interpretation and spread of the Bible in modernity.
We cannot simply categorize the Christian Bible as resistance literature, though it has served that purpose in many circumstances in both the ancient and modern world. We also have to reckon with the ways that the “good news” of the Christian bible was implicated in the fake news that European modernity circulated about the others under imperial control. I imagine I don’t need to rehearse this history for this room and this panel, but I bring it up to remind us that the Christian bible was implicated in imperial modernity’s fake news—fake news Europeans told themselves about the conquest and fake news that denied the histories and humanity of African and Native American peoples.
Of course, we still live out the violence of that brand of imperial fake news. Particularly since I spent part of my childhood just east of Denver (where this paper was delivered) in Arapahoe county, I have to recognize that we met in a place we call Denver, land that was stolen from the Hinono’eiteen, otherwise known as the Arapahoe nation. We met in land that was also once dominated by Spain and Mexico, and fifty years ago, in March of 1969, perhaps as many as 1500 people, mostly of Mexican descent, gathered in Denver in order to craft a narrative and a practice that refused dominant USA historical amnesia about the colonization and conquest of the West. Although I would argue that those activists riffed on the Bible at that conference, they notably crafted their own text, El Plan de Aztlán, and they circulated it through their own media and activist networks, reading it aloud at different gatherings.
Our contemporary moment might learn something valuable from this strategy—those activists knew they could not simply dispute the false claims of dominant USA society by offering up the truth. That is not to dispute that there are facts, some things that did happen and some things that didn’t. But we as humans never really encounter “just the facts.” Indeed, in February 2018, the American Sociological Review carried an essay examining how supporters of a leader can know their leader is lying, and those supporters find those lies emotively convincing because they think the leader is lying in the face of an already failed and false system. The issue is less about what facts are true or false, but more the bigger picture story we are telling and how the smaller stories we hear fit into those larger narratives. One strategy is to tell a more powerful story. Chicano/a/x activists in Denver in 1969 challenged false dominant narratives by crafting their own counter-narratives.
Yet, I know the limits—especially the limits of racialized nationalism and heteropatriarchy found in El Plan de Aztlán—so is it enough to simply craft our own alternative narratives? Here I find crucial the third aspect of Segovia’s form of criticism. Since the early 1990s, Segovia’s work has particularly called critics to attend to their own place, to provide a critical reading of who they are, from where they are reading, with whom they are reading, and to what ends they are reading. Living as a diasporic subject between two cultures taught him that all worlds are constructed, and all constructions have their own limits. We must always confront the place from which we read with a measure of epistemic humility about the limits of our own line of sight. As he notes in the conclusion of his 2014 presidential address, we must bring many different critics from vastly different backgrounds together, in part, because any one perspective is limited and must be challenged by conflicting points of view.
Perhaps our current crisis around fake news comes because too few humans have learned the best lessons from standpoint epistemologies—those lessons are not necessarily that there are no truths, but that we must be careful in how we evaluate our own feelings about truth claims. Here, I think minoritized biblical criticism has developed a set of methods and questions to offer interpreters well beyond biblical studies. Besides resisting historical amnesia by providing a critical reading of the past, and of how others narrate the world, we must also take careful stock of our own place, our own position, and why some narratives may appeal to us when others don’t. Studies suggest that we often make shortcuts in evaluating narratives by trusting experts, our own social networks, and racial biases. What if instead we always asked, who does this narrative serve? What power is left unchecked in this narrative? Who is pushed to the margins and the edges of this news story? News that suits our desires could still be true enough, even though many such news stories will have their narratives transformed if we truly work collaboratively. Russian agents may still be behind much fake news in the U.S.A. even if that narrative also serves a dominant national narrative of self-interest. Yet we should train ourselves and our students to always ask self-critical questions about the narratives they encounter in order to test the reliability of those narratives. We should train ourselves and our students to read broadly and diversely, and to be open to learning from critical questions that others ask about our perspectives. Such a process takes time and requires conversation with others.
Segovia’s multifaceted critical process requires that scholars, particularly scholars who read from a privileged position, engage in a critique not just directed at the ancient world and not just directed at the modern world but also a critique that calls readers to account for themselves. More than that, he emphasizes that we must surround ourselves with other diverse and self-reflective critics whose interpretations diverge from our own. In a world where diversity is increasingly feared, Segovia’s model might seem utopian, but it still is the best set of tools I can imagine turning to in confronting a global crisis. So, thank you Fernando Segovia for sharing them with us.