MARK G. BRETT, Decolonizing God: The Bible in the Tides of Empire
Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2008
ISBN 978-1-906055-37-0 (hardback). Pp. 237. RRP £39.50; Scholars price £19.50
Decolonizing God will be published in a paperback edition by Australasian Theological Forum RRP $AUD 33.95.

Mark Brett introduces Decolonizing God as follows: “The argument of this book oscillates between ancient and modern contexts without suggesting, in line with current solipsistic fashions, that readers can only ever recreate the past in their own image” (p. 1). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dispossession and displacement due to European colonization of Australia (by “colonial agents of the British Crown”) forms the specific, but not exclusive, modern context of engagement for Brett. Biblical texts situated in their own social, cultural and political circumstances supply the ancient contexts of Brett’s work. Using empire, in its ancient and modern manifestations, as one focus of his analysis, Brett interrogates the biblical text with a view to critical recovery of the Bible for a post-colonial ethics. His own ethical stance is clear from the outset; in relation to “the unfinished business of reconciliation with Indigenous people… [t]he recognition of past wrongs and the restoration of mutually respectful relationships are projects that have barely begun. A critical theology requires the praxis of repentance and genuine dialogue with Indigenous people. Moreover, the construction of Australian national identity needs to free itself from legal and economic dependence on historic injustices” (pp.1-2). With this ethics of reconciliation and restitution in view, Brett brings to his analysis of biblical texts—especially those which have been used by imperial interests to support colonisation— categories which have come to his attention in his dialogue with Indigenous people and which may form the basis for ongoing dialogue, in particular the concept of “traditional owners”. He holds that a genuine and open conversation with the biblical texts is possible. Where he finds them useful, Brett draws on a variety of critical and post-colonial theorists to inform this conversation.

The first chapter uses narrative to illustrate the uses of the Bible in colonisation, colonialism and resistances to such. Much of the Australian story will be familiar to Australian readers even if the specific examples are not. The narrative is filled out with parallels and contrasts with the Americas and Africa. Key points that Brett considers are the role of natural law, English critiques of colonial excesses, links between colonisation and English class ideology and the colonisation of minds and cultures accompanying the colonisation of communities and lands. The Bible figures both as an agent of colonial power, exploited by the colonisers, and as a source for critique of, and resistance to, colonial oppression. Recognising that the production of most biblical texts occurred under the influence of, and in response to, “the shifting tides of ancient empires”, Brett is prompted by the ambiguous status of the Bible in relation to the colonisation of Australia to re-read key biblical texts with a view to opening an interpretive space for a “decolonization of God” (p. 31).

Chapter 2 rereads the command to subdue the earth in Genesis 1:28 in the context of the narrative portions of Genesis 1-11, as an anti-monarchic democratisation of human rule over earth. Brett reads that such rule need be oriented toward care for, rather than dominance of, the earth. In relation to the depiction of humankind in these narratives, he offers alternative readings of narratives encoding human-human domination. He shows that a democratic thread, for example, an egalitarian approach to cultural diversity can be found in Genesis 1-11 beside texts that reinscribe unjust social relations, such as slavery. The notion of “mimetic circulation” provides a postcolonial lens through which to view the couching of resistance to monarchic and imperial domination in terms derived from those very structures of power.