Reflections on the ISS- Scriptures at Their Root

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The Institute for Signifying Scriptures is an independent research organization focused on investigating the dynamics associated with “scriptures.” The conversation takes serious the category’s development and deployment in Western cultural politics, working to surface the very assumptions that it belays. Founded by Vincent L. Wimbush, the collaborative enterprise  has as its mission the “excavation of discourse and power.”

During my doctoral study, ISS was the intellectual space where I experimented with what I had to say about the phenomena of scriptures. ISS had that potent mix of chaos and creativity to really bring out the best in my own thinking. Colleagues were working on data ancient and contemporary, eastern and western, sacred and secular. Counter to many curricula, my doctoral program was the kind of place where you couldn’t get away with disengaging from a conversation simply because it wasn’t your area. You were just expected to actively listen and learn something. You could position yourself as a specialist in say, New Testament, but your book bag might contain works on the history of Sanskrit, Maori art, and Black Atlantic slave narratives.

I was among the first (if not, the first) student to enroll in a program that–at that time–had no name. But it’s a gamble that I’m grateful to have made. The Critical Comparative Scriptures program shaped my development as a scholar not because it gave me answers, but because it pushed me to ask more questions.

The conclusion of my doctoral work coincided with the Tenth Anniversary of the Institute for Signifying Scriptures. I had the pleasure of reflecting on the question of comparison and how the institute might precede in the years to come.  You can read that essay and those of of my colleagues in “Reflections on the ISS.”

For more info on the ISS, you can visit their website, follow them on Twitter, like them on Facebook. And be sure to check out their documentary film, Finding God in the City of Angels (dir. Jennifer Jessum, 2010).

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Richard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at  Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures.

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