Samira K. Mehta
In Revival and Awakening, Becker explores the role of American Evangelical missionaries in the development of nationalism among modern Assyrians. He explores how their experience of modernity encouraged them to explore, define, and reclaim their ancient heritage, a task they undertook largely through scriptural and archeological skills learned in missionary run schools.
SKM: This book is a departure, in many ways, from your training and previous scholarship on the ancient world. What was the germinating question that brought it about?
AHB: My training was primarily in Latin and Greek language and literature as well as religion in the ancient world, but already in graduate school I had begun to focus on the Syriac (Christian Aramaic) tradition. Members of the Syriac churches historically lived in what is now Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. However, Syriac Christianity also spread widely in the Medieval period, for example, into India and deep into Central Asia. Much of my published work has been on the Church of the East, the so-called “Nestorians” (or East Syrians), who made up just one of these Syriac churches.
Within the Classical Syriac tradition we do not find strong evidence for an ongoing Assyrian identity and yet for the last century many Syriac Christians, particularly members of the Church of the East, have identified themselves - and their ancestors - as Assyrians. Most of us only know about the Assyrians as the bad guys in the Bible, the evil empire whom God uses to punish the Israelites or as the creators of a certain style of archeological remains (unfortunately familiar of late because ISIS has been bent on publicly destroying these remains). However, there is also the contemporary Assyrians, a vibrant ethno-religious community who identify with this ancient past.
I began this project with a straightforward question. I wanted to understand where this identification with the ancient Assyrians came from. Some scholars had already suggested in passing that it seemed to derive from contact with Western missionaries. I wanted to look more closely at this encounter and at the same time in 2007, because I am a language geek, I was curious about learning Neo-Aramaic, the written form of which Western missionaries promoted through printing (most writing done before the nineteenth century by members of the Church of the East was in Classical Syriac, which functioned as Latin did in the Catholic Church).
I read numerous Neo-Aramaic publications of the American mission, particularly the monthly periodical they published from 1849 onwards. I also began going through the ABCFM archive, as well as travelogues, journals, and material from other missions. I found that my initial question was not that interesting because it was easily answered: Yes, it looks like an important conduit for information about the ancient Assyrians came through missionaries’ mediation of ancient near eastern archeology and oriental studies. However, by this point my question had changed. I realized that the content of Assyrian national identity was not the issue. Various nationalisms, particularly those in the Middle East, rely heavily on a retrieved past. The important issue had become how at the American mission a certain configuration of modernity was construed such that nationalism could emerge.
SKM: You are really talking about how a group of people access and retrieve their past and the intersection of that act of retrieval with the development of nationalism. Is that an accurate characterization of this project?
AHB: Yes and no. The question of retrieval ends up being addressed in the last chapter (of eight) in the book. To my surprize, I found that many of the basic characteristics of Assyrian nationalism had developed within the community around the American mission long before the identification with Assyria was in vogue. Assyrian nationalism, if you will, preceded the taking on of the name and history of Assyria. In fact, many of the underlying ideas about national identity are apparent in the antebellum period (The mission changed hands in 1871 passing from the ABCFM to the Presbyterian Church). I realized that my big question was not about the retrieval of the past but about the kinds of cultural changes that created a context for such claims about the past to make sense. Why is it that when some within the community by the late 1890s began to identify with the ancient Assyrians others agreed? What had happened that such a retrieved past proved attractive and meaningful? I found a significant answer to this problem in the idea of reform and began to focus on Protestant moral and epistemological reform in particular. This reform entailed new media practices and ways of knowing (Chapters Two and Three), new collective social practices (Chapter Four), and a new relationship to death, one demanding the cultivation of an evangelical self (Chapter Five). We then find certain ideas of an interior self and a national collective in indigenous writing (Chapters Six and Seven) and eventually contested claims about Assyrian descent (Chapter Eight). My reading of Taylor’s A Secular Age stimulated this thinking about reform and a certain kind of secularity, whereas throughout the project, as in some of my work on antiquity, I have understood myself as engaged in a historiography that builds upon--for lack of a better term--an Asadian awareness of religion as a product of discursive process, that is, “religion” as something that has a history.
SKM: As Leigh Schmidt notes in his blurb, for an American religion audience, part of what is so deeply exciting about your book is that it gives those of us in American religion access to a world and a set of sources that we would not otherwise be able to explore because we do not have the requisite language skills or cultural background. How does your access to the original sources and the older tradition provide a certain nuanced understanding of the process whereby nationalist discourse emerges?
AHB: When you know the tradition you can watch the mediation and innovation that occurs as a modern identity develops. Certain claims in my sources are based upon earlier tradition, but I was actually able to observe what was being done with this tradition, how it was being nudged in certain directions or reread. This allows a greater appreciation of the creative redaction that goes on in the reformulation of tradition. Furthermore, being able to read Neo-Aramaic meant I could witness the dissemination of material familiar to many of us in a very unfamiliar milieu. It is stunning to read Aramaic versions of the Emancipation Proclamation and the story of George Washington never telling a lie. The American mission translated numerous tracts, homilies, textbooks in natural science, mathematics, history, and geography, Christian novellas, and more. Some of these books were well known, for example, the works of Legh Richmond, Philip Doddridge, and Hannah More (English Christian authors popular among antebellum evangelicals). We can observe the reception of this material on the ground at the mission, where, for example, many local Christians began to name their daughters Elizabeth after Elizabeth Walbridge, the hero of Richmond’s The Dairyman’s Daughter.
SKM: In exploring the role of language in the mediation of tradition, I want to play out two separate directions. First, as in your naming examples, what happens when the indigenous understanding of language becomes an idiom for expressing nationalist ideas?
AHB: Debate about the reform of the spoken language was an important locus for the development of national ideas. National reform required orthographic consistency and a clearly established lexicon for Neo-Aramaic, a language that had been printed in various ways with numerous dialectical variations. Moreover, a focus on language has been an important component of many nationalisms but in this case very old Syriac ideas about the substantiveness of language, its non-conventional power, were used to talk about the nation. For example, in Assyrian nationalist debates about the name of the nation, “Assyria” is promulgated as the inherent name of the people, one that conveys their essence, the Classical Syriac ituta, a term most often used in the tradition in discussions of the divine essence.
SKM: In our previous conversation, you brought up an example in which the nation was substituted, more or less directly, into what had previously been theological expressions about God or Jesus. Could you tease out that dynamic for us here?
AHB: Articles in the first nationalist newspaper, which was published at the mission press, make heavy handed analogies as if the authors were reading Kantorowicz--just kidding. There are many examples but one that immediately comes to mind is a paraphrase of Mt 8:20 in a 1907 article about the need for a building specifically for national affairs: “Foxes have holes and birds of the heavens places to rest, but the people of the Syrians do not have a place to rest, in which their leaders may place their heads.” Passages like this come off as heretical in their radical displacement of Christ by the nation (and its leadership). We know that various nationalisms have deep Christian roots but the lack of subtlety here is astonishing. The nation is simply replacing God---forget Kantorowicz, it sounds like they were reading Durkheim. This is no coincidence: another argument of the book is that mission reform led to the reification and naming of the social and this allowed for a certain kind of secularity.
SKM: At the same time that indigenous use of language comes to express nationalism, there is also the question of how best to use indigenous terms in translation--how do you work with taking terms and concepts that exist in imperfect translation, potentially because they represent concepts that do not exist in both cultures. either the two cultures sharing the historical encounter or the two sharing the scholarly encounter (which is to say the culture of the source and of your English speaking reader)
AHB: To quote my friend and mentor, Angela Zito: “Pick your reification,” that is to say, we’re not going to get anywhere without some kind of stable ground and that stable ground is, if we look at it too closely, not very stable at all. It was difficult because I was looking at the emergence of “religion” and various other secular categories in this project and it is easy to succumb to names and forget about their histories, which is precisely what happens in the development of nationalism. A further complication was added in that the Syriac literary tradition is old and there are terms used in my modern sources that in fact go back to late antiquity. In this kind of longue duree history you are not just observing the emergence of new terms but also the slow shift of older words as they are mapped onto modern categories. This is what we can see happen with many of the words used around the world and in various languages for “religion.” It is not as if there were no categories before. They were just different but have slowly merged in the secular discourse of religion.
SKM: That leads into a larger, theoretical question: your book is looking at categories that are central to modernity--namely religion and nation--in a historical encounter between missionaries formed by modernity and an equally rich and nuanced pre-modern culture. That allows you to examine the definitions of those key categories in a moment when they are beginning to coalesce--what theoretical insights can you draw from that dynamic?
AHB: One of the most exciting things for me in this project is that when you work on antiquity and you have a good sense of the kind of cultural theoretical thinking we do, for example, in religious studies, you find yourself often simply pointing out how different the past was. So much of our theoretical apparatus has developed explicitly and implicitly answering the question about modernity, what it is, how it happened, did it happen, is it pluriform, etc. In this project I was able to follow that story---of course, a particular rendering of it with certain nuances--through my own sources and observe the Syriac tradition as it was transformed within the missionary encounter. There are certain interventions I wanted to make in that theoretical conversation. One is the relationship between religion and nationalism, which I think remains stuck in a certain secularization narrative, one we see built into Anderson’s work and repeated by many. Another is the fundamentally social basis of even the most interiorized forms of piety.
SKM: My impression is that you are writing largely for a non-specialist audience, either writing about an encounter with American missionaries for your colleagues in religious history or writing for the American religion audience that is reading this interview. What we have in common is, of course, that we are religious studies scholars. What are the primary theoretical insights that you are hoping people will take from the book?
AHB: Hopefully without losing too much depth I see myself as a historian of the Christian tradition. In this case we have two different instantiations of that tradition developing a common language (both figuratively and literally). One side of that encounter is commonly associated with secular modernity and imperialism. In this case, although the Americans certainly had material resources the East Syrians did not, we have an example of a non-imperial mission having tremendous effects on those missionized, even if the actual numbers of self-identified evangelicals remained relatively low among the East Syrians. I think this project clarifies how modernity could be configured at missions. It also hopefully makes a clear point about the sociality of modernity: I tried to make clear that even the privatization and interiorization of religious modernity are fundamentally social phenomena requiring collective practices and training.
SKM: Are there more content based insights that you hope will resonate with your readers?
AHB: With regard to the discipline of American religious history, access to the Neo-Aramaic means I have numerous sources composed or sometimes just translated by American missionaries and their “native assistants.” Americanists are unable to read these sources, which provide a new perspective on a group of Americans who lived over several generations in Iran, serving as cultural intermediaries and contributing to the local culture but also playing an important role in the mediation of the “East” to the US. Justin Perkins, the founder of the mission, was a tutor to Henry Ward Beecher at Amherst before founding the mission in the 1830s. In fact, Perkins received a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin immediately upon its publication and we can see its influence upon the mission literature. Fidelia Fiske, a leading figure at the American mission, ran the female seminary, which was eventually renamed after her. She was one of the first students of Mary Lyons at Mt. Holyoke. The mission introduced evangelical practices, such as monthly concerts of prayer, which proved to be effective tools for cultivating a certain theology of nations and a sense of global time. By the early twentieth century Assyrians educated at the American mission had begun to contribute to cultural life in the US, such as Abraham Yohannan, who was the first “Oriental” to teach Oriental languages at Columbia University. Another, Samuel Jacobs, became a printer in New York where he also penned nationalist poetry in Neo-Aramaic. He had links to Kahlil Gibran and New York’s Pen League, a formative circle for Arab modernist literature and nationalism. He eventually became the personal typesetter for ee cummings. I’m starting to list here. The point should be clear: This is American history.
SKM: Is it fair to say that you were writing largely for an American religion audience? What was like to have to fill in all of the background, essentially create a world for your reader, as well as build an argument?
AHB: Working on Syriac Christianity I am accustomed to devoting much time simply to providing the basic background when I am speaking outside of our small field. At the rare Syriac-related academic events it is a great pleasure because I can refer to something and not have to explain precisely what it is. However, this process of having to justify what I am working on I have found to be productive. I have always felt that if I worked on for example, the Gospel of John, I could just say, “I work on the Gospel of John.” It does not need much explanation. Having to explain what my sources are ultimately means I can’t take for granted what is important about them and this has benefited me as an intellectual. Furthermore, I see my work as a historian as a form of fiction with certain rules. I am making up a world from my sources and I enjoy the challenge of introducing people to this world, which most of the time exists only as a solitary space in my own head.
SKM: What was it like to engage an entire area largely outside of your own area of research?
AHB: In working on this I hit upon a fundamental problem modern historians are regularly compelled to address: too many sources. I was accustomed to antiquity where you could, at least in some given area, read all the sources. I read a lot of sources to write this book but I did not read them all and some I read more quickly than others. I had to learn to give myself a break and sometimes just say, “OK, this is an article in Aramaic on the Spanish American War. That is far out, but I don’t need to read the whole thing so closely. I know what it is about. Next.” I had to be selective with the secondary literature obviously. In the past I was not in the habit of asking people for advice. I thank a lot of people in this book in part because a number of them gave me advice on bibliography. If I were thorough I would never have been able to finish this book. I’m still self-conscious about it because I’m sure some things sound bizarre, some things come off as really interesting, and other things will seem obvious. This is the problem of writing in a field that is not my own.
SKM: You write about the responsibility of a scholar to the people he or she studies and note that this book grows out of that sense of responsibility. As someone who primarily works with the ancient world, what does that mean to you?
AHB: I benefit intellectually and materially from the large archive of sources preserved by the Syriac communities. This is the case whether I am working on the fifth century or the early twentieth century. I feel a moral responsibility to the members of this tradition and yet I certainly do not want to get involved in intra-communal issues. For example, I was recently approached by a law firm to serve as an expert witness concerning a dispute between one of the churches and a local parish in California. The law firm asked me to explain how the church canons going back to antiquity have always demanded submission to the church authorities. Obviously, the law firm was representing the church hierarchy on this issue. I am wary of getting involved in such matters - I am not a member of these churches nor even a Christian - but I also find it disingenuous to devote my intellectual life to a certain tradition and then act like it has nothing to do with me. I hope that my historical work tells a compelling story about this tradition, one that conveys its complexity and beauty, while attesting to the at times immense suffering of the Assyrians over the past 150 years. I hope to do this without compromising my engagement with the questions. Understandably some Assyrians do not like what I have to say. Who wants to be told about the constructedness of their own identities?
SKM: You mention in the introduction that this project is tied to your own working out of Zionism, and you make more than one comparison between Assyrian and Jewish identity and nationalism. Riff for us a bit on those similarities and differences, historically and then, if you would not mind, would you close by telling us how your own thinking, as a Jew and a scholar, on Zionism may have shaped this project and how this project has shaped your own relationship to Zionism?
AHB: I have long thought that I used Judaism to think about Syriac Christianity. With the development of nationalism within the Syriac communities, and even before, some of the same contradictions around ethno-religiosity that we find in Judaism appeared. Many secular Assyrians, those who identify strongly as the descendents of an ancient race, would be disturbed by an Assyrian converting to Islam because this would eradicate his or her Assyrianness. One recent dispute in the community concerns a bishop who has argued that all members of the Church of the East should become Catholic in order to be in one church with other Assyrians (the Catholic uniate Chaldeans). His argument is essentially an ethnic one. His position has been condemned by the Church on the grounds that it threatens to destroy Assyrianness. In both sides of this religious dispute ethnic argumentation is being used. These are the same kinds of twisting categorical paradoxes we find in arguments about Judaism.
I myself strongly identify as a Jew and perhaps because of a confused mixed background - one of my grandfathers, a Catholic, was in the Luftwaffe in WWII - I have long been interested in Jewish-Christian relations. I’ve written a lot on anti-Jewish polemic in Syriac sources and on how we can use Syriac sources for studying Judaism in antiquity. I realized at some point that the vociferous Assyrian nationalist demands that had developed by the early twentieth century were similar to those of Zionism. I am ambivalent about, even antipathetic to, Zionism, and yet I also think that Israel is something we can’t avoid in Jewish life, as if we could embrace diasporic identity and then just move on. Assyrian nationalism has been successful as a cultural nationalism, for example, leading to great creativity in the arts (e.g., theatre and poetry) in Iran in the 1950s and 60s, but with regard to a state it has failed. Despite the numerous differences, this community who never had a king, as Medieval sources would put it, that is, never enjoyed a Constantinian empowerment, provides an alternative history for me to think about Judaism and vice versa. In fact, for some - not myself - the current crisis with ISIS would suggest the ongoing need for an Assyrian state, precisely what some would argue the Holocaust demonstrated for the Jews.
SKM: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me about your work and for introducing me to a world and a history about which I knew so very little.
Adam H. Becker is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Classics and the director of the Religious Studies Program at New York University. His research interests include Christian martyrdom in the Sasanian Empire, Jewish-Christian relations in Late Antiquity, the social and intellectual history of the Syriac (Christian Aramaic) tradition, the missionary encounter in the nineteenth century, and the theoretical problems relating to the study of religion in pre-modernity. For more of his thoughts on Revival and Awakening, see the following links: