Thursday, August 11, 2005

Observations from Stephen Finlan

I've had some pleasant email correspondences with Stephen Finlan about my review of his book, parts of which I cite below with his permission.

"Loren, there is a theme in my book that you don't mention, namely that Paul 'is part of the problem and part of the solution here. By embodying problematic ideas about God in his metaphors, but offering the basis for a solution to such problems in his arguments, Paul is at the beginning and the end of all Christian conversation about God.' (p 223)

"The problem with sacrificial metaphors is not what it says about Jesus, but what it implies about God. I go much further in my next book, _Problems with Atonement_, which is due out by Oct. 1, from Liturgical Press."

I look forward to Stephen’s sequel, and I regret not touching on these issues at the end of my review, as they bear on academic agendas and modern needs. Finlan's conclusions remind us of the dark legacy behind Paul's metaphors, particularly atonement (Rom 3:25), in which Jews have been targetted "as agents carrying out a ritual murder on the body of God" (p 224). Stephen may have been nonplussed by the ambivalent way I related his findings to Mel Gibson's passion film -- a film I actually liked. The legacy of anti-semitism, and the question of a God who is appeased by torture and sacrifice, are of course ongoing concerns.

And Finlan has serious reservations about The Passion. He says to me:

“It was clearly a serious and honest effort, well acted and so on. But there is no need to dwell on the gore that way...It is sadistic... But then, it really highlights just how troubling it is to say that God would ever require that of anyone, for any reason. God does not require anybody to be tortured, and certainly not as a 'payment' for someone else's sins. Atonement ideas say some awful things about God.”

But for some reason, the idea of God reconciling himself to humanity through bloody sacrifice doesn’t trouble me so much -- or at least, no more than the idea of Greek deities who use the deaths of their own heroes for higher purposes. Homer portrayed the heroic ideal in terms of war, wrath, and just as much bloody savagery as seen in Gibson’s film. Yet The Iliad is ultimately about restoration through mercy (Achilles surrendering the corpse of his enemy to Priam). Achilles own death, "by the gods”, sustains life in binding immortals to the speech of men. Is The Passion really so different? Again we have savagery tied to an act of mercy, and a brutal and shameful death underscoring the dignity of life all the more. Something has always troubled me about those who expect their deities to behave like romantic, benign sweetie-pies. It rings false somehow.

Finlan and I are in complete agreement, however, on the question of agendas. There’s nothing worse than "distorting Paul in order to rescue him", as he puts it (p 224), of trying to explain away Paul's view of sacrifice -- as, for instance, MacLean and Stowers do -- in order to make him more palatable. However we adjudicate on the divine character, we need to do justice to those, like Paul, who pronounced on the matter.


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