A History of the Institute for Signifying Scriptures 2004-2014

Claremont CA 2014

At the start of my doctoral course work at Claremont Graduate University in 2006, the first class I signed up for was Vincent Wimbush’s seminar on “Scriptures and Race.” I remember my initial confusion about the intellectual terrain we were going to cover for the next few months. The course description did not list any “scriptures” from the so-called world religions. Instead, the books listed included critical readings of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narratives. Looking back from 2014, I think my initial confusion, if not anxiety, had much to do with my intellectual and heuristic presuppositions. As an international student from India with prior training in a seminary and theological college, my default location for “scriptures” was the religious and confessional domain. What Vincent Wimbush extended through this class, in hindsight, was an invitation to recalibrate my lenses and to ask questions differently.

This anecdotal opening serves as a thumbnail representation of the Institute for Signifying Scriptures (ISS). ISS has many impressive landmarks over the last decade—research projects, publications, conferences, speaker events, and so on— which I will highlight below. However, the ISS represents more than the sum of these constituents. In the broadest sense, the ISS represents an invitation to collaborate, participate, shape, and provide definition for a transgressive intellectual project. I would be remiss not to underscore the role of Vincent Wimbush; any of the ISS’s milestones owes much to his pioneering and resolute leadership. But in a rhizomatic sense of forging new research fields1, the ISS represents the horizontal and complex interconnections between the multiple, and occasionally contested, responses to this invitation.

New York

One of the earlier iterations of this invitation can be traced back to the late 90s. The 1998 winter issue of the Union News announced the launch of an interdisciplinary research project at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. This announcement quoted Vincent Wimbush:

To some extent, I am committing a type of academic guild heresy. But, if there is a driving force, it is that some room ought to be made for persons like me. Maybe, it will be just one student long after I am gone. If she sees this as a model, a safe passage for going about it in a different way, it will be worth the heretical tag2.

According to the article, this upcoming research project would “not attempt to glean the true meaning or appropriate interpretation of the Bible” but “come to terms with how and why cultures have defined themselves in connection with the Bible.”3 The transgressive terrain covered intellectual investments informed by the often-limiting academic and disciplinary association, and personal commitments framed by confessional location. But what must not be missed is the invitation to a safe space from where to ask questions differently and from where to make this transgressive move. This research project was a conscious effort to forge a new way of looking.

In February of 1999, established scholars from across a variety of academic disciplines, members of the clergy, research students, friends, and supporters gathered at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City for the “African Americans and the Bible” conference.

Wimbush’s opening address laid out some of the parameters of this transgressive project.

I am by training a biblical scholar and historian of religion. It is important for you to listen for, and for me to attempt to address, the implications of my training for our conversation. In a riveting line from his 1940-something poem entitled “Pondy Woods” Robert Penn Warren—one of the southern agrarians turned new critics—has a buzzard opine to a black male [Big Jim Todd] running away from trouble in a small southern town. This is the riveting line: “Nigger! Your breed ain’t metaphysical.” In a signifying retort in a lecture given several decades later—this was at Yale—African American critic and poet Sterling Brown, whose career stretched back to the Harlem Renaissance reportedly said, in a line as riveting: “Cracker! Your breed ain’t exegetical.”I find Warren’s line and sentiments, and Brown’s reactions to these lines and other sentiments, Gates’s use of Brown’s reactions most provocative in several respects because they help to point to a range of issues and problematics that define the research project on African Americans and the Bible. It’s African Americans and the Bible. The conjunction here is most important and intentional. There is no preposition here. The conjunction signals a great range of to be discovered, to be addressed. In Warren Penn’s poem and in what it invokes and provokes are the naming and dramatizing of many of the issues of the research project and conference theme now point to: the power to speak and interpret; on one’s own terms, in one’s own voice; the silencing of interpretation from the periphery; the power dynamic involved in the invocation and use of mythic canonical stories; the over-determination of ethnic identity; the importance of a safe site of interpretation and enunciation; and the significance of darkness.
[. . .] learning the Greek and Latin, learning the buzzard’s language, would Big Jim Todd have been addressed differently had he understood and recited the Latin and Greek? Would this have facilitated Jim Todd’s finding his way to safety out of darkness? This is the reason we must begin our conversation here this weekend, a conversation, not an uncritical celebration or cheerleading but a serious multidisciplinary collective probing. We must begin this probing not in the past but in our present—the complex, diverse, and problematic present; the disturbing present that is mixed in its psychosocial effects; the present that is sometimes too silent and too loud, prophetic and tragic; the sometimes coarse and embarrassing present; the sometimes healing and transcendent present; but the always fascinating present.[. . .] it is not a reading of darkness, darkness is always in the present. Only such texts can be sacred. The failure to see this renders one a silent and pathetic construction, whether seminary-trained or fundamentalist, condemned only to listening to the ever-so-patient buzzard defining and reciting Latin and interpreting sacred and classic texts from a high perch. Any people can read darkness. Darkness is here not to be equated with the simple negative nor with any one people but take care because dark peoples make a compelling argument that to read darkness is to scripturalize, and to scripturalize is to read darkly. They ought to be heard on this matter of reading darkness.

The research agenda gestured toward the Bible but the gesture was not restricted by its traditional and default location in the field of biblical studies and history of religions. Not to be conflated with minority interpretations of lexical minutiae, the project was located in a particular community but only as a window on to the cultural and political dynamics of cultural formations. A record of the conversations at this conference were compiled and edited for publication; Continuum published African Americans and the Bible in 2001.

As one perceptive reviewer of the book framed the invitation put out in this collection of conference essays: “The focus was a shift from the past to the present, from interpreting texts to interpreting life.”4

New York to Claremont

Not too long after the publication of African Americans and the Bible, the transgressive project initiated in New York moved to Claremont. The 2003 winter edition of Flame announced that:

[t]he School of Religion [at Claremont Graduate University] brought distinguished scholar Vincent Wimbush to its faculty. He is an expert on African-Americans and the Bible and formerly taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Wimbush is currently developing the new Institute for Signifying Scriptures, which will be launched by an international conference titled ‘Theorizing Scriptures’ on February 26 and 27.5

The announcement also indicated an upcoming conference that would launch the next iteration of the invitation.

“Theorizing Scriptures,” an international conference convened in February of 2004, launched the Institute for Signifying Scriptures.

Scholars from across the globe and from a wide range of academic disciplines gathered to explore the contours and textures of this transgressive intellectual project. A few reflections on the conference are indicative of the nature of work that the ISS would take up. Professor of English and comparative literature Marc Redfield directed focus on the field of translation. Distinguished historian of religion Charles Long offered a bridge between the African Americans and the Bible project and the Institute for Signifying Scriptures. Professor of religion Elizabeth Castelli highlighted some pitfalls but also indicated civic texts and their potential as a dynamic field of research.

Marc Redfield:

If then one is to take seriously Vincent Wimbush’s imperative of problematizing scriptures as text, “explode the concept of text itself”, one might be setting one’s course against the fundamentals of institutionalized religion, in which case, one is probably going to cause trouble. I say that as a compliment. Where might our conversation go from here? One brief thought cast two or three ways.We could say more about translation and the politics of translation. By translation, I do not mean just the translation of ancient scriptures in to the vernaculars but to gesture toward the vast question of media. Unfolded, the question of translation reveals many numbers of pressing matters for thought. For instance, among many: the hegemony of English as a global commune; the Latin-layering of our globalized terms for religion, scripture, or even for that matter, signification; the translation of scripture in to televisual and internet phenomena; the political effects of these acts of translation, which places the question of scripture within the ghastly landscape of our current world order.

Charles H. Long:
Now I say that this conference grows out of and piggybacks on the African Americans and the Bible [Project] in terms of signifying scriptures. The problem here is that when we think of African Americans and the Bible, it’s a funny kind of thing; we don’t know what that means. Now in the conference there were two discussions that had to do with the notion of the book. One was the Arab notion of kitab, and the other was the Chinese notion of ching. In other words, we found out that the book was not exactly what we thought it was in the West—that the notion of kitab or ching is a little different; it’s an ongoing kind of thing. How did African Americans get this thing called Bible? Well obviously they did not bring it with them from Africa in the hopes of staying here. Nor did they get the Bible from going to bible-study groups. As […] Jones, a historian, put it, he said “they overheard the Bible.” They got the Bible through rumor, through overhearing, through figuring it out. In fact rumor was mixed up with all kinds of other things. It was mixed up with their own situation of being in involuntary labor and the rules of that labor. It was mixed up with rumors about freedom in the political sense of this place called the United States. It was mixed up in all kinds of ways. And they had to figure out Bible within that structure. It wasn’t in that sense of a book with covers, etc. They had to figure out Bible. And what Vincent was trying to do was to get back at some of that—what is Bible in that mix of things; not this authoritative text that is there, leather-bound, and so on. You hear it in the songs, the spirituals, “Hush, hush! Somebody’s calling my name.” That is in the midst of all this mess, you had to hear an authoritative meaning of your name in a place where you had lost your name. And therefore, you try to figure out where is Bible: Bible is when/where you hear your name called in a strange and horrible land. Bible is in these kinds of admixtures and unknown places.
Elizabeth Castelli:
On the question of scriptures, I want to ask a few questions. In thinking about what we call scriptures, what about texts that emerge in non-religious contexts but retain the aura of the scriptural? I am thinking here, for example, of the U.S. Constitution, a text that has endured a peculiarly painful set of signifying schemes recently in the hands of George W. Bush and John Ashcroft. I am also thinking of texts like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a quintessentially modern and post-enlightenment scripture of globalizing import? What too about the politics and the limits of the comparative impulse that resides behind this institute’s formulation and formation? How does analogical thinking work in these discussions? When and how do comparative categories become potentially constraining and even colonizing? I think this issue of comparison will be one that inhabits and haunts the Institute for some time to come.6

Conversations such as these noted above engendered a research agenda that had “to do primarily not with the pursuit of the content-meaning of texts, but with the description and critical analysis of the complex sights, sounds, movements, and arrangements of social-cultural textures, as they are woven around texts.”7 ISS’s programming and research projects emerge from the pursuit of this agenda.

ISS Initiatives

The signature programming launched in 2004 was the Brown Bag lunch discussion series.

This bi-weekly discussion series has featured scholars from multiple disciplines based in the Greater Los Angeles area and advanced doctoral students holding forth on their research projects. With the invitation to present going out to a diverse field of interests and disciplines, the Brown Bag series has both broadened and rendered more complex the research agenda of the Institute.

Launched in the summer of 2006, the “Ethnologies of Scriptural Readings in the U.S.” was designed to be a 3-year collaborative research project. Project consultants and directors put together research teams. Each team then focused on a community of color in the U.S. and their scriptural engagements.

The inaugural Distinguished Speaker Series event in the Spring of 2007 featured Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka. This annual speaker series has, since its inauguration, featured distinguished scholars whose work is in conversation with and also expands the institute’s research agenda. They include scholar of religion Burton Mack, scholar of Australian and Aotearoan cultures Jo Diamond, distinguished historian of religion Charles Long, literary and cultural critic Gauri Viswanathan, and poet, novelist, and cultural critic Ishmael Reed.

Papers presented at the ISS inaugural conference were published by the Rutgers University Press. Theorizing Scriptures: New Critical Orientations to a Cultural Phenomenon (2008) put on record the cross-cultural, multimedia, and multi-disciplinary nature of the intellectual project of the ISS.

Meanwhile, developments in the 3-year Ethnologies project provided more layers to the research agenda. Research teams presented their preliminary findings at the “Reading Scriptures, Reading America” conference convened in the fall of 2009.

In the summer of 2009, the ISS collaborated with a filmmaking team to work on a documentary film project. With the Greater Los Angeles as backdrop, the project set out to capture how communities invoked scriptures in order to navigate and make sense of complex urban spaces. A pilot version of film premiered at the 2009 annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in New Orleans. The final product, “Finding God in the City of Angels” premiered in the spring of 2010 at the Garrison Theater on the Scripps campus.

The intellectual and programmatic possibilities emerging from the institute’s work led to the launch, in the fall semester of 2010, of the Critical Comparative Scriptures program at Claremont Graduate University. This new innovative transdisciplinary program in the Department of Religion provides a full-fledged MA and PhD program with fresh and dynamic perspectives on comparative religious studies for the twenty-first century.

Meanwhile, as follow up to the 2009 “Reading Scriptures, Reading America” conference, the edited conference papers were published in the summer of 2013. MisReading America: Scriptures and Difference (2013) was an adroit analysis of America as text and how communities of color read this text through the lens of identity, religion, and power differentials.

Additionally, the ISS has consistently made accessible innovative and groundbreaking scholarship through its publication initiatives. The annual ISS newsletter, Inscriptions, keeps associates, friends, and supporters updated with the latest programming and project-related developments. The “Signifying (on) Scriptures” Book Series in collaboration with the Penn State University Press puts out scholarship that widens both the circle of conversation partners and the research agenda of the ISS.

Any stock-taking would be incomplete without mention of the ensemble of graduate students associated with the ISS. From the African Americans and the Bible project in New York through the transition and current iteration here in Claremont, graduate students have provided logistical and intellectual support. Taking seriously the invitation to a transgressive and critical-historical research agenda, these graduate students have successfully defended and continue to pursue some very innovative dissertation projects.

Velma Love’s project “Yoruba Scriptures in African American Constructions of Self and World” expands the meaning of “scriptures” to include the signs, symbols, images, stories, and myths as well as the dance, music, and memories that serve as “sacred texts” in the African American appropriations of the Orisha tradition.

In “California Dreaming” Jacqueline Hidalgo juxtaposes the writing of Aztlán, the mythical Aztec homeland, the New Jerusalem from Revelation 21-22; and the Alta California mission projects from around 1769-1800 to analyze spatio-temporal significations in the constructions of identity and community.

Alonzo Huntsman’s dissertation on the topic of “Authoring Authority” analyzes the religion-making efforts of the first-century Christian Apostle Paul and the nineteenth-century Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith to excavate the ways texts function to generate social cohesion while at the same time advancing the power interests of their authors.


Celebrating ten years of the ISS is both misleading and helpful. It is misleading because the timeframe imposes a chronological development from a point of origination. Rather, one must come to terms with the varied and entangled iterations of the invitation that galvanize in the ISS’s research agenda; for instance, the work of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Grey Gundaker, Wesley Kort, Zora Neale Hurston, Michael Taussig, W. E. B. Dubois and others. However, commemorating ten years is also helpful because it underscores any association with the ISS as a response and development of the invitation to a safe place from where to ask questions differently if not ask different questions. In this sense, the ongoing contribution and legacy of the ISS will be determined by the responses to the current iteration of the invitation as crystallized in the ISS tagline, “Excavating Discourse and Power.”

1 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987); see also Jeremy Gilbert, Anticapitalism and Culture: Radical Theory and Popular Politics (Oxford: Berg, 2008), 144.

2 “Professor Vincent Wimbush Leads Interdisciplinary Research Project on the interaction Between African Americans and the Bible,” Union News (Winter, 1998): 15.

3 Ibid., 14.

4James Chukwuma Okoye, “Review of African Americans and the Bible: Sacred Texts and Social Gestures, by Vincent L. Wimbush (ed.),” Theological Studies 62, no. 2 (2002): 388–390.

5 “Milestones,” Flame (Winter, 2003), 21.

6 Video transcription

7“About ISS,”