Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Prodigal Son Revisited

The Busybody welcomes back Leonard Ridge, who earlier railroaded me for endorsing the aims of the Context Group. Today Leonard will address Richard Rohrbaugh's analysis of The Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32) which I used a month ago to kick off my series on the parables. Be sure to read that post, if you haven't already, before going any further.
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The Prodigal Son Revisited
by Leonard Ridge

Loren Rosson says that "if there is an award to be given for the best critical work on a parable, Richard Rohrbaugh earns it for the Prodigal Son". When I read this statement, I immediately went to amazon and ordered V. George Shillington's Jesus and His Parables, the book containing Rohrbaugh's essay. It turns out to be an interesting analysis, explaining the story just as Loren says, in terms of "a beleaguered father with two equally lousy sons", family members who must reconcile themselves to each other and -- even more importantly -- to the entire village they have offended in the meantime.

In other words, we are to understand the story as advocating the reintegration of a dysfunctional family with its neighbors more than the repentance of an individual. I complained before about an implicit fascism emerging from the work of the Context Group, and how the patronization of primitive communal values finds alarmingly wide favor among conservatives. Note how evangelical Craig Blomberg describes Rohrbaugh's essay as "perhaps the most helpful piece" in a book otherwise top-heavy with liberalism. He approves Rohrbaugh's emphasis on "the dynamic of the father having to overcome the displeasure of the villagers at his own overly gracious reaction to his son(s)". The stifling of individual identity and expression in favor of group solidarity is a hallmark of fascism, and the fact that this is "agrarian peasant fascism" makes it no more benign than its totalitarian cousin.

But that's not all. There's an aspect of Rohrbaugh's essay that goes unmentioned by Loren, one that underscores its fascist credentials more darkly. Rohrbaugh derives a menacing corollary -- one that we must cite at length:
If one takes a step back from the details of the story and thinks about what is going on as the plot unfolds, it is obvious that one of the key things being celebrated here is the return of a villager who had gone to the city, with tragic consequences. Since the non-elite populations of the cities came primarily from those separated from village families by debt, non-inheritance or family dispute, the experience of the prodigal would have been all too familiar to peasant hearers of Jesus. The story would celebrate the return of one of their own who had experienced the devastating impact of the city upon displaced peasants... [and] call into question the fatal attraction peasants felt toward the city. (Jesus and His Parables, pp 163-164)
Now the alarm bells are blaring. Contempt for cities is a primal ingredient of fascism, for which Alfred Rosenberg may serve as a spokesperson:
"We stand today before a definitive decision. Either through a new experience and cultivation of the old blood, coupled with an enhanced fighting will, we will rise to a purificatory action, or the last Germanic-western values of morality and state-culture shall sink away in the filthy human masses of the big cities, become stunted on the sterile burning asphalt of a bestialized inhumanity, or trickle away as a morbific agent in the form of emigrants, bastardizing themselves in South America, China, Dutch East India, Africa..." (The Myth of the Twentieth Century)
Nick Woomer comments on this passage, noting that "the fascist has contempt for capitalism because the inevitable urbanization it generates undermines and 'bastardizes' older, purer, agrarian modes of life". But Rohrbaugh sees Jesus vindicating exactly this -- "older, purer, agrarian modes of life", group solidarity, conservative village values, all at a safe distance away from the abominable influence of the cities. This is sobering. His Jesus is no progressive cosmopolitan (unlike Burton Mack's Jesus). His Jesus is a figure I would shun like the plague.

To be fair, Rohrbaugh emphasizes a countercultural dimension alongside the traditional. Loren does too: this is his own spin on the parable, interpreted apocalyptically:
"The story affirms responsibility to both kin and village, even in the face of outrageous disloyalty. But it does so in a bizarre way: the father counters shamelessness (disloyalty) with shamelessness (foolishness) of his own. He could have gone the route of beating the prodigal to set an example, and railroading the elder for his insults. But he makes an ass and fool of himself on both accounts... In view of the imminent apocalypse, Jesus thought people were called to change their behavior radically -- like this father, to become asses and fools for the sake of the kingdom."
So what's the scoop? Is the story about dishonor -- "making an ass and fool of oneself for the sake of the kingdom" -- or about unbending loyalty to kin and community? Apparently both. But as I read Rohrbaugh, the latter wins out by a long shot. Tradition supersedes counterculture, completely opposite the Jesus Seminar's Jesus. Yes, the father's behavior is unorthodox. But the endgoal (which is what really matters) has nothing but bigotry in view: village loyalty, insular solidarity, away from the cesspits of urbanism. A peasant fascism, if you will.

Don't tell me the Context Group is trying to explain Jesus neutrally without any sights on contemporary relevance. Rohrbaugh's essay comes in a book whose stated goal is not only to better understand the historical Jesus, but "to function as a guide for instructors and leaders in religion more generally" (Jesus and His Parables, p 3). His take on the Prodigal Son may be accurate, historically, but I wouldn't want it to fall into the hands of Christian pastors. Preach instead Burton Mack's ludicrous fantasy of a cosmopolitan Jesus. Even if bogus, that's what we need for today's world.

9 Comments:

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Leonard,

You're pushing the envelope, though I admit the anti-city theme is interesting. But the citation of Woomer, not to mention Rosenberg, is misguided. The parable's anti-urbanism targets neither capitalism nor bigotry, but elitist patronage.

7/13/2006  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Regarding Leonard's conclusion -- that pastors should go ahead and "preach Burton Mack's ludicrous fantasy of a cosmopolitan Jesus" because that Jesus, however fictitious, will be better for us in the long run, Rick Sumner opines that "this sounds a lot like something Loren might say, were he more prone to invective" -- and thus that Leonard and I aren't complete opposites after all.

Well, not really. If I believed Rohrbaugh's Jesus to be historical but at the same time irrelevant, misguided, or dangerous, then I would advocate simply ignoring Jesus rather than revising him to suit our needs.

7/13/2006  
Blogger Rick Sumner said...

Hi Loren,

Apologies, I don't think I quite made myself clear. It wasn't that one should "preach Mack" that sounded like you, rather it was that Mack had a "ludicrous fantasy of a cosmopolitan Jesus."

7/13/2006  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

It wasn't that one should "preach Mack" that sounded like you, rather it was that Mack had a "ludicrous fantasy of a cosmopolitan Jesus."

Okay; I see what you're saying. I guess Leonard and I aren't so much opposites in terms of how we reconstruct Jesus (about which I have definite ideas and he really couldn't care less). We're opposites in how we perceive the motives of scholars who approach the question from a cultural angle.

7/13/2006  
Blogger George F. Somsel said...

It seems that the anti-urbanism interpretation is an imposition of an agenda upon the text. Where do we find an anti-urban them in the pericope? Nowhere. Perhaps you might refer to the music and dancing, but do not villagers make music and dance as well as urbanites? Or perhaps you are referring to the younger son as having "devoured your living with harlots" but again, villages are known to have harlots as well.

It would seem that the whole point of the parable has been lost sight of -- a man had two sons the younger of whom left home to sqander his inheritance but returned. The elder son was angry at the father for having reintegrated him into the family with great joy. It isn't stated in the parable (but does it need to be?) that the younger son represents the gentiles while the elder son represents the Jews who "are always with me."

7/13/2006  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

It seems that the anti-urbanism interpretation is an imposition of an agenda upon the text. Where do we find an anti-urban them in the pericope?

The text says that the younger son hired himself to a local citizen, and citizenship was normally in a city.

It isn't stated in the parable (but does it need to be?) that the younger son represents the gentiles while the elder son represents the Jews who "are always with me."

Do you really think that's what the original story was getting at?

7/13/2006  
Blogger George F. Somsel said...

The text says that the younger son hired himself to a local citizen, and citizenship was normally in a city.

It could as well refer to a citizen of a country. This does not require an urban setting. Moreover, swine are not normally raised within the confines of a city (did you ever experience the stench surrounding them?).

It isn't stated in the parable (but does it need to be?) that the younger son represents the gentiles while the elder son represents the Jews who "are always with me."

Do you really think that's what the original story was getting at?

Yes. The parable concerns the love of the father for his erring younger son (the gentiles) and their reintegration into the family.

7/13/2006  
Anonymous Leonard Ridge said...

Wow. George Somsel biffed the nail on the head. The story, indeed, says nothing about a city. I suppose if I were as biblically literate as Loren pretends to be, I would have known this -- at the very least, I should have had my bible out when reading Rohrbaugh's commentary.

Just proves my point even more, about the Context Group's "preservationist" agenda.

7/13/2006  
Anonymous Gene Curry said...

You're all in foul-ball territory. The Pharisees grumbled that "this man welcomes sinners and eats with them." In context, to a Pharisee a sinner is one who does not observe the detailed commands of Torah. Jesus repeatedly challenged the Pharisees (and the Torah itself) for the impossible demands of legalism,and consequent condemnation of all but a few. His main point is not some urban-rural political agenda, but God. Try to remember that word: God.

3/16/2007  

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