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Brian Britt: Biblical curses and the displacement of tradition

    Biblical curses and the displacement of tradition

This idea for this book occurred to me when I was reading "Revelation," a 1964 story by Flannery O'Connor in which the main character interprets a nasty insult as a supernatural curse and consequently has a religious experience. I noticed the story had a strong parallel to an episode in the Bible that O'Connor probably knew quite well (the story of Sheimei cursing David in 2 Samuel 16).  At the time I was finishing a book about how stories of Moses from the Bible to modern literature tell us a lot about ideas of scripture.

Curses are a kind of powerful language, and in the Bible they are most often paired with blessings, especially to formalize divine-human covenants. But I noticed that in modern secular societies blessings are as common as a sneeze, while curses are either a kind of rude statement or a form of superstition. Why was this?

Soon I was reading everything I could find about biblical curses and their afterlives. It turns out that biblical curses have a long and interesting history, a topic much too big for me to take on. My interest was really in ideas of powerful words, especially these words that people believe can do harm. What did people think of when they heard a curse? What did it mean at different times?

The answer was complicated: curses were all over the place in the Bible and at other points in biblical tradition. In fact, people from the biblical period onward were asking: Can words hurt you? Are curses consistent with biblical religion? When is a curse a form of supernatural power and when is it just an insult?

Biblical writers debated curses, and so did others in the centuries that followed. What was handed down were not only the biblical stories but also the debates themselves. The traces of biblical tradition could even be found in modern, secular debates about powerful words like hate speech. A crucial moment in this process was the European seventeenth century, during which so many political, cultural, and religious changes took place. It was then that I believe modern ideas of cursing, as something either rude or irreligious, took shape.

After reading more about this problem, I found many sources that suggested that changing ideas of cursing was a way to limit the outbreak of linguistic chaos and power struggles. With so many competing religious and political authorities new on the scene, seventeenth-century thinkers and writers like Daniel Defoe pushed cursing to the margins of language use. Other forms of powerful language, like oaths, which would be needed to ensure loyalty to secular states, were preserved, though even oaths raised controversy.

Now my book had three focus areas: biblical curses, their transformations in the seventeenth century, and their afterlives in contemporary secular culture. Although it does not even approach a complete history, the book tries to show how biblical curses and debates about them were handed down and changed over time. How they were handed down became as important to my work as what was handed down, and so the book tries to sketch a model of tradition that avoids the simple story lines of progress, decline, and eternal recurrence.  The idea of displacement, which I borrow from Sigmund Freud and modified with the help of other mo dern thinkers, became my buzzword for talking about the way biblical curses and tradition in general work. The major transformations of the seventeenth century, I argue, are better seen as a part of biblical tradition than as some kind of secularization. Even today's debates about "sticks and stones," literature, and hate speech somehow belong to a tradition that wondered from the beginning whether and how words can wound.  By examining particular debates and cases of cursing, the book thus sheds some light on what people think and do with powerful words and on the general problem of how tradition works.

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    Brian Britt

Brian Britt is a Professor in the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech. His teaching areas include Religion and Literature; Hebrew Bible/Old Testament; and Judaism, Christianity, Islam. His research relates ideas of authority and writing from the Hebrew Bible to contemporary culture. He is currently writing a book about current debates in religion and culture with the working title "Walter Benjamin Today: Tradition and Agency." Professor Britt is an active member of the Society of Biblical Literature, the American Academy of Religion, and the International Walter Benjamin Association.

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