Thursday, July 28, 2005

The Shameless Hussy of Mk 7:24-30/Mt 15:21-28

In one of the RBL reviews of David Rhoads' Reading Mark, Engaging the Gospel, Sean Kealy describes the story of the Syrophoenician woman who finds Jesus despite his efforts to hide, gets him to change his mind, and opens the way for the Gentile mission. In an earlier review (same page), Ira Brent Driggers describes Rhoads' account of Mk 7:24-30 as "one of the best" in "articulating how Mark advances the theme of Gentile inclusion" -- and doing so through a conflict that Jesus loses.

Mk 7:24-30(/Mt 15:21-28) is intriguing for being the single reported instance where Jesus loses in challenge-riposte. And of all things, he loses to a Canaanite woman, who has no business asking him for help, or publicly engaging him at all. John Pilch has discussed the Matthean version of the account here. Jesus rightfully ignores the woman, and when she persists he refers to her as a lowly dog. But instead of shamefully retreating, she shamelessly embraces the insult and one-ups the messiah in a clever rejoinder: "Lord, even the dogs get to eat scraps." To which Jesus concedes defeat: "For saying this you may go your way; your daughter is healed."(Mark) / "Great is your faith! Your daughter is healed."(Matthew) Translation: "Touché, woman; you dish out what you take, so God grants your favor."

Jesus was apparently amused by the fact that a heathen woman beat him this way. Never mind any supposed compassion and mercy. He had none here. If Mk 7:24-30/Mt 15:21-28 is at all historical, and has been co-opted by Mark as the pivotal account by which grace came to the pagan nations, then it's indeed amusing that it all happened (as Mark believes) on account of that shameless hussy who gave as good as she got, and gratified Jesus because of it. I'll have to add Rhoads' book to my reading list.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Blurb of Carlson's Gospel Hoax

Publisher's Weekly reviews the book we're all waiting for with bated breath: Stephen Carlson's The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith's Invention of Secret Mark. The reviewer concludes,

"Utilizing sound historical and linguistic methods, Carlson presents a convincing case for Smith's authorship of Secret Mark. While readers unfamiliar with the critical apparatus scholars use to evaluate ancient texts will find the book challenging, Carlson's presentation of the evidence strongly supports his views." (PW, July 25, p 70).

Not that PW is an authority on these things. This simply confirms what we knew all along but, unlike Stephen, couldn't prove.

Moral and Ethical Alignments

Here's another test from quizfarm, a spin-off of the alignments defined in some fantasy role-playing games. Once again my result was easily predictable, but I'm a bit disconcerted that I scored high marks in chaotic evil -- third ranking!

"You are Chaotic Good: someone who has little intrinsic respect for laws or authority, seeing them as insufficient to sustain what's right. These people work according to their own moral compass which, while good, is not necessarily always aligned with that of society. Despite their chaotic tendancies, these people are good at heart."

Chaotic Good -- 75%
True Neutral -- 75%
Chaotic Evil -- 65%
Neutral Good -- 65%
Lawful Good -- 60%
Chaotic Neutral -- 40%
Neutral Evil -- 40%
Lawful Neutral -- 20%
Lawful Evil -- 20%

The Good Alignments

"A Lawful Good person acts as a good person is expected or required to act. They are dedicated to upholding both what is right and set down in law."

"A Neutral Good person tries to do as much good as possible. These people are willing to work with the law to accomplish their goal, but if the law is corrupt, they are just as willing to tear it down. To these people, doing what's right is the most important thing, regardless of rules, customs, or laws."

"A Chaotic Good person is someone who has little intrinsic respect for laws or authority, seeing them as insufficient to sustain what's right. These people work according to their own moral compass which, while good, is not necessarily always aligned with that of society. Despite their chaotic tendancies, these people are good at heart."

The Neutral Alignments

"A Lawful Neutral person respects law and order above all. These people are often very organized, and frequently don't have time for moralistic debates. Though not evil, these people also value law and order above the common good."

"A True Neutral person has two faces -- either these people are apathetic, preferring to focus their minds on more important things, or they truly believe in a balance of all things. To these people, there can be no light without some darkness. These people also have no dedication to, or intrinsic distrust of, laws."

"A Chaotic Neutral person is someone who is self-motivated to the extreme. Thier actions may sometimes confuse others, due to their lack of moral affiliation. They have little respect for laws, and avoid both the temptation of evil and a feeling of duty to do good. These people can go along with either side of an argument -- as long as they benefit from the result."

The Evil Alignments

"A Lawful Evil person is someone who respects laws, customs, or traditions, but will try to bend them to suit their own needs. These people have little concern for others they hurt, being intrinsically self motivated. Despite this, they value order and obedience to authority."

"A Neutral Evil person is primarily self-centered. These people are interested in getting ahead, whether through legal, questionable, or illegal means. They have little to no concern for others they hurt in the process."

"A Chaotic Evil person is destructive to the extreme. These people put no value in life or beauty, taking pleasure in destroying both what is good and what is ordered. They have little to no respect for laws and the rights of others. Revenge is a powerful motivator for these people."

Seven Deadly Sins

I have an abiding interest in the seven deadly sins -- David Fincher's film Seven is a favorite of mine -- and so this test from quizfarm was fun. No surprise, I scored as Sloth.

Sloth 75%
Lust 62%
Gluttony 50%
Wrath 38%
Greed 6%
Pride 6%
Envy 0%

I hope I escape the notice of any serial killers like the one in Seven. The sloth victim had the worst punishment by far.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Criteria for Authenticity

Lately I've been pondering the classic criteria used to derive portraits of the historical Jesus. Some appear to remain more useful than others. Here I use a rating scheme of 0-4, where

4 = very useful; can hardly go wrong with it
3 = useful guide; helpful in getting at probabilities
2 = some limited use
1 = poor criterion; may need redefinition
0 = completely useless; wrong in principle

and come up with the following:

Embarrassment -- 3
Dissimilarity to the early church -- 3
Rejection/execution -- 2
Multiple attestation -- 1
Coherence -- 0
Dissimilarity to Judaism -- 0

I continue to find the criteria of embarrassment and dissimilarity (to the church, not Judaism) helpful, even if what sometimes appears embarrassing or dissimilar may not be. For the most part, when things cut against the grain of what later Christians believed about Jesus, the likelihood increases that we're onto something historical.

They're useful guides, not skeleton keys. A good illustration of their limits can be seen when they conflict with each another, as in the case of Mk 9:1/Mt 16:28/Lk 9:27: "I tell you, there are some standing here who won't taste death before they see the kingdom of God come in power." It's embarrassing as an unfulfilled prophecy, but could have served the needs of the early church by answering concerns about first-generation Christians dying before the apocalypse -- offering, in effect, the assurance that at least some first-generation Christians won't die before the kingdom comes. It puts one in mind of the kind of concerns behind I Thess 4 and I Cor 15. (See for instance Meier, Marginal Jew, Vol II, pp 342-344.) That embarrassing accounts can serve the church despite themselves advises caution.

In view of the crucifixion, I'm attentive to anything which passes the criterion of rejection/execution. Three noteworthy candidates include Jesus hailed as a messianic liberator during passover, his threat against the temple, and his oblique opposition to Caesar/taxation. It's a useful criterion in getting at the end result, but that's about it. Jesus obviously did plenty of things which didn't call for blood.

Other criteria leave me cold. Coherence is too elastically defined, and on top of that wrong in principle. Early Christians obviously would have come up with ideas which echoed and cohered with their savior's. And Jesus could have been as inconsistent as the next person (like Paul). As far as I can tell, "coherence" as an index for authenticity is useless.

Multiple attestation seems terribly overrated, not only for depending on precarious reconstructions and datings of independent sources, but for pointing toward nothing more than what is multiply attested by the time of the sources. What are our earliest? The seven or eight letters of Paul; maybe James. If Q is a phantom (I've believed so since my second reading of Goodacre), that removes a cherished pre-70 source. Thomas may have predated one or more of the canonical gospels, but I doubt it (or a form of it) traces to the pre-70 period. Since there's not much early attested material, the question of multiple attestation seems almost moot.

Dissimilarity to Judaism is misguided and question-begging from so many angles. (1) Jesus was an (ethnic) Judean but a (geographic) Galilean. Does this mean he was "dissimilar" if he took a callous attitude to the purity codes which codified southern Judean practice (Mk 7:1-13) distinct from Galileans? (2) Or, if a tradition like Mk 7:1-13 isn't against purity per se, only a sectarian disagreement about how much of priestly purity should be brought into everyday life of non-priests, is this again "dissimilar"? To whom and what? (3) The premise that an historical figure is chiefly characterized by differences to his/her heritage makes no sense in any case.

Such is my take on the classic criteria at present. I've drawn up an appendix of how they've been used in recent years by scholars. It's interesting to compare the results.

Appendix: How scholars have used the criteria

Here I assign my 0-4 ratings, based not only on how the criteria are explicitly assessed, but how they actually play out in the scholar's methodology.

John Meier, A Marginal Jew, Vol I, esp. pp 167-184.

Embarrassment -- 3
Dissimilarity -- 3
Multiple attestation -- 3
Coherence -- 3
Rejection/execution -- 3
Traces of Aramaic -- 1
Palestinian environment -- 2
Vividness of narration -- 1
Tendencies of the developing synoptic tradition -- 0
Historical presumption -- 0

Meier thinks the first five criteria are useful to get "from the merely possible to the really probable" (p 167). They are helpful when used this way but have limitations: embarrassment is useful, but "what we might consider an embarrassment to the early church was not necessarily so in its own eyes" (p 170); dissimilarity (or discontinuity) is fine, but "a complete rupture with religious history just before or after him is apriori unlikely" (p 172); against multiple attestation, it's possible that invented sayings can meet the needs of the church so that they rapidly enter into a number of different strands of tradition" (p 175); etc.

The next three can only "act as secondary, supportive criteria, reinforcing the impressions gained from one or more of the primary criteria" (p 184), though Meier acknowledges that the criterion of Palestinian environment "is much more useful in its negative guise", meaning what applies outside the domain of a Palestinian environment may likely be a later church creation (p 180). And the last two are (rightly) dismissed as useless (p 184).

E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus.

Embarrassment -- 3
Multiple Attestation -- 3
Rejection/Execution -- 2
Dissimilarity -- 0

The criterion of embarrassment guides many of Sanders' findings -- the baptism of Jesus by John (p 94), unfulfilled prophecies (pp 180-182), the promise that Judas will participate in reigning over the twelve tribes (p 190). He also invokes multiple attestation, as in the "best-attested saying" against divorce (pp 198-200). Finally, his entire reconstruction of Jesus' last days in Jerusalem rests on an implied use of the criterion of rejection/execution (pp 258-275).

Dissimilarity goes out the window with Sanders. "Similarity" is his implied criterion, which is why, for instance, he rejects most of Jesus' Torah-breaking behavior as later invention.

John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant.

Multiple Attestation + Early Dating -- 4

Crossan's use of this dual criterion is heavy-handed. He refuses to consider anything singularly attested -- regardless how it might pass other criteria -- and entertains material only from sources which he dates earlier than 60 CE (pp xxxi-xxxiii).

Sometimes, however, he supports arguments derived from multiple attestation with the criterion of embarrassment ("theological damage control"), as in the case of Jesus' baptism by John (p 232). Other times he sidesteps his own dogmatic reliance on multiple attestation (when he wants to get authenticity out of something he really likes) by appealing to the criterion of intertextual linkage: for example, the "Q" saying about Jesus being called a glutton and drunkard (Lk 7:31-35/Mt 11:16-19), while singularly attested, contains an ascetic theme which squares with the doubly attested saying in Mk 2:18-20 and Thom 104 (pp 259-260).

N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God.

Double (Dis/)Similarity -- 4

Like Crossan, Wright relies on a pet criterion which he wields with abandon. He defines "double similarity and dissimilarity" as

"When something can be seen to be credible (though perhaps deeply subversive) within first-century Judaism and credible as the implied starting point (though not the exact blueprint) of something in later Christianity...Double similarity and double dissimilarity must characterize any analysis that claims history." (pp 132, 220)

The problem is that virtually everything in the synoptic tradition ends up (almost magically) fitting this elastically-defined criterion. Wright's Jesus is a "double-revolutionary", fulfilling Israel's promises while undermining them at the same time. Not only is the criterion too elastic to be of much use, it seems tailored to accommodate a (Christian) promise-fulfillment approach to the Old Testament.

Dale Allison, Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet, esp. pp 51-58.

Apocalyptic eschatology -- 3
Embarrassment -- 3
Dissimilarity (to early church) -- 3
Themes and motifs* -- 3
Intertextual linkage -- 3
Dissimilarity (to Judaism) -- 0

*parables, antithetical parallelism, rhetorical questions, prefatory "amen", divine passive, exaggeration/hyperbole, aphoristic formulations, unexpected or paradoxical

Allison believes that the Jesus tradition shows every sign of characterizing a failed apocalyptic movement, marked by embarrassing unfulfilled prophecies and later accommodating church revisions. He says the above indices (criteria) are fallible, "suggestive but not demonstrative" (p 51), and that "after we have passed portions of the Jesus tradition through the indices, we should feel no moral certainty about the outcome" (p 57). They raise the level of plausibility -- "but that is all historians will ever have, higher and lower levels of plausibility" (ibid).

Donald Akenson, Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus, esp. pp 186-197.

Dissimilarity -- 2
Embarrassment -- 2
Multiple Attestation -- 0

Akenson dismisses dissimilarity as worthless (p 188), but then allows some value to it when redefined -- "if applied," he says, "in cases where Jesus' words and deeds go against Judaic practices as understood in the New Testament" (p 189).

He makes slim allowances for embarrassment, saying that what appears to be embarrassing usually isn't. Of four classic examples -- the baptism of Jesus by John, the betrayal by Judas, Peter's denial, and the crucifixion of Jesus -- only John's baptism is truly embarrassing. The crucifixion was a badge rather than embarrassment to the Christians; and the denial of Peter and betrayal of Judas work well in the passion narratives (see pp 191-192).

Multiple attestation then goes out the window in a confusing caricature: "The New Testament is composed of many separate texts, but all of them have been filtered, homogenized, and censored in their construction and in the weeding-out process that finally permitted each of them to be included in the canon. Thus, as historical evidence, the New Testament must be treated as comprising multiple repetitions of material from a single source...A single source cannot produce multiple attestations of anything." (pp 195, 194). Uh, no.

William Herzog, Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, esp. pp 36-44.

Rejection/execution -- 2
Multiple attestation -- 1
Coherence -- 1
Dissimilarity -- 0

Herzog registers impatience with the criteria. Commenting on dissimilarity: "dissimilarity is dissimilar to something, and that something needs to be spelled out" better than it has been (p 41). He then dismisses it on grounds that a Jesus alien to Judaism and the early church is "nothing more than a historical version of the docetic Christ" (p 42).

Multiple attestation "may yield a likelihood that material traces back to an early stage in the tradition, but there is no certainty that it traces to Jesus" (ibid). And "of what good is the criterion of coherence when the materials in relation to which coherence is measured are themselves established on such weak ground?" (ibid)

Herzog has nothing to say about embarrassment, but he does rely on an implied use of rejection/execution in discussing Jesus' final days in Jerusalem (see pp 218-246).

In the end, he resists criteria in favor of simply "proposing a view of Jesus and testing it by analyzing the Jesus tradition in light of it" (p 43). But of course, almost any proposal can be vindicated when tested against what has proven to be a malleable tradition.

Monday, July 25, 2005

RBL reviews: Kloppenborg and Rhoads

Many reviews have just been added to the Review of Biblical Literature. The following are of particular interest.

Kloppenborg, John S. and John W. Marshall, eds.
Apocalypticism, Anti-Semitism and the Historical Jesus: Subtexts in

Reviewed by Thomas Kraus

Kloppenborg, John S. and John W. Marshall, eds.
Apocalypticism, Anti-Semitism and the Historical Jesus: Subtexts in

Reviewed by Daniel Smith

Rhoads, David
Reading Mark, Engaging the Gospel
Reviewed by Sean Kealy

Rhoads, David
Reading Mark, Engaging the Gospel
Reviewed by Joseph Verheyden

Witherington on The Fantastic Four

On XTalk Jim West mentioned Ben Witherington's blog, on which the author recently commented on The Fantastic Four:

"What sets the Fantastic Four apart from most comic books, except for Spiderman perhaps, is there are actually characters who generate some pathos... [they] remind us that even if we had super powers, this would definitely not solve all of our problems -- indeed they would create a whole new set of problems. Perhaps the lesson for us is that after all what is really needed is not juiced up humans, but an incarnational deity to handle the Evil problem."

Tolkien thought the same about his own "hopeless" heroes from Lord of the Rings (as I've argued here). For him, history -- including Middle-Earth's mythic pre-history -- was nothing more than a "long defeat", demanding the Judeo-Christian victory at its consummation.

Parallels with Tolkien continue in Witherington's observations:

"What is especially interesting is that it takes all of the Fantastic Four to handle one Von Doom. Each of the four has a specific power or ability, but it is the team work which insures that good triumphs over evil. In other words, evil is too powerful for even one robust super hero to handle."

In the antique pagan world of Middle-Earth this is even more true, where "Black is mightier than White" (says Gandalf), its heroes must rely on efforts in fellowship, and Sauron is only defeated by apparent accident (or fateful intervention) when Frodo ultimately fails and claims the Ring.

But the Middle-Earth and Marvel heroes needn't show a need for "something greater", as Tolkien/Witherington would have it. The tragic is uplifting in and of itself, for teaching us hard and real truths. One of my favorite quotes comes from Eugene O'Neil: "the tragic alone has that significant beauty which is truth"; indeed, the tragic is the meaning of life. Depressing as it sounds, it's true. So let's push on to greater failures. More than Witherington's incarnational deity, that's what it takes to understand and address the problem of evil.

Post-script: It was a lousy film anyway.

Millenialism or Myth?

Turton has written a formidable post, as expected. It will be interesting to see reactions to his work from other Markan experts if it gets published. I still say that whatever the chiastic features indicate, Mark is the most oral of the gospels. It has an abrupt beginning and ending, hurtling pace, and rather limited ease with syntax and grammar. Repeated uses of "and", "immediately" (43 times compared to 8 times in Mathew and 3 times in Luke), "again" (28 times compared to 17 times in Matthew and 3 times in Luke), and especially the historical present tense (150 times compared to about 20 times in Matthew and once in Luke), indicate we're not exactly dealing with high literature (on which see, for instance, John Painter's Mark's Gospel, p 8).

Given Turton's view of Mark's historical value as a window onto Jesus (zero), it would help to clarify certain assumptions. We're faced with two options. The first is the one I take, that early Christianity was a failed apocalyptic movement which evolved in a manner typical of millenials, in fact much like the way preserved in the New Testament. Critics like Dale Allison and Bart Ehrman are spot on here. If we can't trust these apocalyptic traditions, then we really can't trust anything in the sources, and Christ-mythers like Michael Turton and Bill Arnal (but not Jesus Seminarians like Funk and Crossan) are right: the historical Jesus is lost (and/or insignificant), if he ever existed; there's virtually nothing reliable we can say about him.

That's our choice: millenialism or myth. Or in Schweitzer's lingo, "thoroughgoing eschatology or thoroughgoing skepticism". If the dominant features of the New Testament tradition don't reflect significantly the sorts of things Jesus said and did, then the search for him is completely futile. The attempts of minimalists to salvage a non-apocalyptic Jesus are flawed for according weight to traditions less secure than those denied. Mythers play a safer and saner game.

But it's unreasonable for anyone, mythers included, to remain so skeptical here. Millenarian groups and cargo cults are real and common phenomena, and if their defining characteristics happen to fit the Christian tradition so neatly, why resist the natural conclusion? As Allison has illustrated (see Millenarian Prophet, pp 81-94), apocalyptic groups (like the Jesus/Christian movement of NT tradition) appeal to disaffected people; they're revivalistic; they think they will be saved, and others damned; they break taboos and defy sacred custom; they're nativistic; they thumb their noses at clan and family in favor of "fictive kin"; they demand rigorous and unconditional loyalty; they think the coming utopia can be experienced partly in the present; and they constantly cope with failed expectations, and revise accordingly.

It's better to be a mythicist than a minimalist, but wiser to be a millenialist than a mythicist. That's what the sources teach us when critically considered. In this light, it would be worth reassessing some of the classic criteria used for determining authenticity.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

A Feast for Crows

It looks like the U.K. will be releasing the fourth installment of George Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, A Feast for Crows, about three weeks before the U.S. Knowing impatient me, I'll probably order from abroad. It's been a long time coming for this installment (in what now promises to be a seven-volume series), and opposite to the trend in most fantasy, Martin only gets better with each book.

He's gone a long way toward restoring my faith in a genre plagued with pastiche and formula. Along with Stephen R. Donaldson and Guy Gavriel Kay, he's a rare talent (and overtaking Kay, in my opinion). Song if Ice and Fire reads like an historical-fantasy version of England's War of the Roses. There are no good and bad guys in this world; the character you like one moment you'll despise the next. Magic is rare and used sparingly -- never as a deus ex machina -- and protagonists (if they can be called that) mercifully stay dead when killed. You can never predict what's going to happen next; political intrigue gets increasingly convoluted; people suffer considerably.

It also looks like Martin has started a journal called "Not a Blog", so he now has a separate place to sound off on politics, as he has done in the past (much to the pain of some his more conservative readers). It's probably just as well he isn't succumbing to the blog mania and making a habit of this. He's three books away from finishing Song of Ice and Fire, and it took five terribly long years to get Feast for Crows finished. I don't want him to have to Fed Ex any of the next installments from beyond the grave.

More on the Jesus Seminar, and methodologies

Continuing the thread from yesterday (into which Mark Goodacre has injected observations), Michael Turton responds to Stephen Carlson's remarks, concluding:

"That's exactly what the Seminar is doing: finding a streetlight. And yes, the continuing failure to develop sound methodology for sussing out the historical Jesus is a strong indication that the search is futile. At least in the Gospels. The Gospel of Mark was created off of the Old Testament and the writings of Paul, and its author knows no traditions of Jesus. It is work of fiction."

Michael sounds like Donald Akenson. In Saint Saul Akenson too uses the infamous streetlight analogy:

"No wonder questors for the historical Yeshua dislike Saul. Yet, Saul actually tells us a lot about the historical Yeshua; however, he does so almost unintentionally and he does so by writing non-narrative history. That is hard history to read, but we have to be careful of privileging the Synoptic Gospels and thus becoming the investigative equivalent of the drunk-and-car-keys." (pp 173-174)

I appreciate warning lights like these, especially since I'm one of those errant anti-Q heretics who believes that a certain pre-70 sayings community is a mirage. In my view Paul and (perhaps) James are the pre-70 documents we have to work with, though I do see a significant amount of history preserved in the synoptic tradition despite its later dating, owing largely to oral tradition. But at the very least, Michael has underscored the need for better and less question-begging methodologies.

Some of the classic criteria are more useful than others in assessing authenticity of sayings and deeds. I still find "embarassment" to be one of the most helpful (though not without its own problems), while "discontinuity" one of the worst and most heavily abused -- and probably in need of redefinition given what we know about the diversity of early Judaisms (or Judeanisms). After reading Bill Arnal's Symbolic Jesus, one is left with the impression that the criterion of (dis/)continuity serves deeply covert agendas, whether used in the service of a "Jewish" or "non-Jewish" Jesus.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Crusades Intro

It's nice to see that Christopher Tyerman is coming out with an introduction to the Crusades this October. Along with the legendary Jonathan Riley-Smith, he's done a lot to dispel various myths surrounding the Crusading phenomenon.

Here are two reviews of his Fighting for Christendom, which came out half a year ago and I only read in May.


Military Ink

Bible Mad Libs

With thanks to Matt Bertrand, here are some fun bible mad libs. One can wax bawdily humorous with these in many questionable directions.

Monday, July 18, 2005

King Kong scuttlebutt

Here are some amusing reactions to the King Kong trailer. Purists notwithstanding, this is going to be a great film with plenty of emotional power, just like Lord of the Rings. Jackson is way ahead of Spielberg in this kind of genre. For that matter, I like everything Jackson does -- whether by splatter, puppet-porn, mockumentary, or love story.


New Testament Theology: Communion and Community

I was a bit tongue-tied after finishing Philip Esler's New Testament Theology: Communion and Community, a fresh attempt to bridge historical-criticism with theology and address what it means to interpret the New Testament as a committed Christian. Only Philip Esler could tackle these issues and end up with conclusions that are traditional, innovative, challenging, and unsettling all at once. I'm not a Christian myself, but if I were, the theological approach advocated in these pages is one I could easily endorse.

The book's basic idea is that the New Testament is primarily a nonliterary source, from an oral (and alien) culture, with which believing Christians should be in dialogue, honoring its authors' original intentions even when in disagreement. The anti-Christs of the monograph are literary critics and systematic theologians, and especially, people like Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur.

The first half of the book could have actually been titled, "Knocking Down the Straw Men". (Not because Esler makes them straw men, but because they truly are straw men, even when granted their best arguments.) It's amazing how much argument is needed to dispense with the likes of Gadamer and Ricoeur. Take Gadamer's claims, to wit, that people are (and should be) seeking only agreement when engaging with a text; or that a text with which we disagree cannot be speaking truth; that we cannot understand the past even partly on its own terms, and thus the past is (as it should be) overtaken by our own present horizon of understanding.

Esler knows that agreement is not a necessary condition for being raptly engaged by the biblical text, nor even for "living by it" as a committed believer. He says that Christians need to meet the biblical writers on their own terms, while being critical of them at the same time (p 42). The finest illustration of this principle comes in the book's last chapter, where Esler draws from his previous work on Galatians and Romans. Far from providing any basis for systematic theology, these letters, when appreciated on their own right, show how present-day believers can respond to outbursts of ethnic violence and genocide -- such as in Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, Israel and Palestine, and Northern Ireland in the last decade (p 273).

In these contexts, says Esler, Galatians is not an appropriate text for theological guidance. Rather than try to unite competing groups of Judeans and Gentiles, Paul made matters worse by writing off Judeans as beyond the pale -- lambasting them as illegitimate descendants of Abraham through Hagar (rather than Sarah), and casting the Torah as a yoke of slavery. This isn't to say that the letter isn't useful to Christians, nor even that it doesn't belong in the canon. On the contrary, says Esler, Galatians "offers insights into the motivations for and patterns of anti-ethnic sentiments" (p 275), especially since Paul's hard line against the Judeans backfired against him, as shown by the failure of the Galatians to contribute to his collection for the poor (p 280). Galatians, in other words, is an excellent example showing why the postmodern/literary assumption that we inevitably "agree" with our sacred texts is misleading and dangerous.

In Romans, on the other hand, where again Judeans and Gentiles are in conflict, though for different reasons, Paul seems to have learned from his past errors. He essentially adopted an approach advocated by modern social-theorists, who tell us that people should assert their ethnic differences (at least to a degree) in order to resolve inter-group conflict. The attempt to erase ethnic identity only fuels conflict, which is why, for instance, Paul avoids saying what he said in Galatians: "in Christ there is neither Judean nor Greek" (Gal 3:28).

Thus, while in Galatians Abraham was made out to be the heir of uncircumcised Gentiles (Gal 3:6-9), in Romans he is now the heir of the uncircumcised and circumcised in equal measure (Rom 4:1-17). In Galatians the Torah was an active agent in consigning Israel to sin (Gal 3:19-24), but in Romans the Torah is holy (Rom 7:12), and it is either passive in relation to sin (Rom 7:7-13) or has nothing to do with it at all (Rom 7:14-25). Most importantly, while in Galatians the promises to Israel were no longer in force, replaced with the promise of Christ (Gal 3:19-26; 4:1-2) -- indeed the Christ-movement itself had become Israel (Gal 6:16) -- in Romans the promises to Israel are still being fulfilled, but in an unexpected way (Rom 9:1-11:32), with the result that the pagan nations have now become a means to an end. Romans concludes by enjoining Judeans and Gentiles to "welcome the other" and respect one another's different practices (Rom 14:1-15:6). Romans, in short, provides an adequate basis for dealing with ethnic conflict in today's world.

Back to the straw men, Esler deals Paul Ricoeur some heavy bruisings. It's impossible to take Ricoeur's "death of the author" agenda seriously, whereby all texts supposedly become detached from authorial intent by time and distance, and the reader inevitably supplants the author's voice with his/her own. Esler's own impatience with Ricoeur seems tempered only by the fact that he must of necessity address him on account of the wide impact of his work. One such citation will suffice:
"Ricoeur is clearly delighted with the alleged phenomenon of inscription producing the semantic autonomy of the text -- describing it as a liberation from 'the narrowness of the face-to-face situation'. But what is wrong with writing which fulfills an important function in the maintenance of actual interpersonal relationships, especially in the inscription of a process where 'one heart speaks to another'? For many people this would redound to the honor of writing, but for Ricoeur it represents its bondage! For him writing facilitates a desirable flight from personal engagement... [whereby] a text creates its own audience." (p 113)
While acknowledging that texts are often at the mercy of readers, Esler knows that "this phenomenon is not some inescapable rule of the game of interpretation", but rather something which "must be resisted at every turn" (p 147).

Indeed, says Esler, it's only the 16th-century printing press which made possible Ricoeur's prioritization of the authority of a text (p 115). But the biblical ancestors were steeped in an oral culture where most people were illiterate and texts were read to them in communal settings. The New Testament documents are, fundamentally, nonliterary texts urgently communicating specific ideas to specific communities. The Christian is thus committed to be attentive to authorial intent behind the text, and to be willing to replace modern cultural readings with those appropriate to the world of the ancient Mediterranean (p 186). Esler notes that today's Islamic societies have an edge here. Muslim people are accustomed to engaging the Qur'an orally (in mosques, classrooms, on the radio, etc.), unlike many western Christians who remain out of touch with this functional and dynamic aspect of scripture (p 187).

To whatever extent I am myself at home in a western-derived "solitary reader" paradigm, I can only applaud Esler's demolition of it as it bears on the interpretation of biblical texts. Nowhere is the interpersonal nature of the spoken word for communal benefit made more clear than in I Cor 12-14, where Paul addresses a divided church on account of the question of ministries. Esler turns to the Corinthian text in the middle of the book, noting how Paul ranks the ministries in a particular order of importance (I Cor 12:28): apostolacy, prophecy, teaching, miracles, healing, acts of assistance, acts of guidance, speaking in tongues. What's the significance?

The significance is that the first three ministries build up community more than others, since they are most strongly characterized by speech, and tailored for the benefit of all. As one goes down the list, the possibility of becoming locked in purely dyadic relationships ("one-to-one transactions") increases, at the expense of the community as a whole (p 155). Finally, the last ministry, speaking in tongues, involves unintelligible speech and has the greatest potential for corruption, since it promotes individual status at the expense of others (p 156). Paul encourages the Corinthians to pursue the "greater" gifts which are steeped in the spoken word, especially prophecy (14:1), precisely because they help strengthen community (14:3); speaking in tongues (14:2), while exciting, runs the danger of strengthening individuals alone (14:4). If Paul felt this ambivalently about speaking in tongues, one can imagine more zealous condemnations he would heap on those who today valorize the written word in "silent" solitary-reader paradigms, where holy writ becomes infinitely malleable for the self-indulgent reader!

The last part of the book is devoted to explaining how Christians engage in interpersonal communication with the biblical writers, which prompts (as Esler sees it) the question of how relationship subsists between the living and the dead. He points out that human beings are genetically disposed to respect their ancestors (I love the anecdote about the Irishwoman who had the same DNA sequence as a 5000-year old "Iceman" found in the Italian Alps, and then subsequently began to worry about the way scientists were treating his corpse (p 215)), and that cultures invariably maintain practices which honor ancestors long dead.

Furthermore -- and in true Context-Group spirit -- Esler insists that the cultural divide separating modern believers from their biblical ancestors should in no way hinder communion with them. Just the opposite. First he cites J.N. Cox and L.J. Reynolds (p 214):
"The notion of Otherness is essential...for the historical imagination exists only when one can conceive of a time, a place, a people, a culture different from ours, only when the past becomes something other than a mirror image of our concerns and interests." (New Historical Literary Study, p 15)
-- and then ties this to the wisdom of G.K. Chesterson (ibid):
"Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all our classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about." (Orthodoxy, p 83)
Thus, Esler urges, Christians have a moral duty to honor their biblical ancestors, even if at times in disagreement. The Christian tradition maintains that the dead are in some sense still present with believers -- whether in memory, in a state of "sleep" until the resurrection, or in heaven as a living soul awaiting the resurrection.

And at this point Esler gets sidetracked into a lengthy and fascinating debate with Tom Wright over the question of the intermediate state of dead Christians who await a bodily resurrection. The excursion takes a whole chapter (which Esler encourages the reader to skip if one finds the notion of "communion with the dead" unpalatable) in which he fleshes out biblical precedents for the communion of saints owing to Catholic, Orthodox, and some Anglican traditions. Against Wright, he finds enough biblical ground for belief in a postmortem existence of the soul before resurrection.

Wright's 800+ page treatise, The Resurrection of the Son of God, argues for a non-dualistic view of the body: Christians who have died remain in a state of "sleep" until resurrection; the New Testament nowhere hints that a believer's soul enjoys company with God in heaven before being reunited with the body at resurrection.

Or does it? Esler thinks that texts like Heb 10-12, Lk 23:43, II Cor 5:8, and Philip 1:23 do, especially that of Hebrews, which endorses "integrative dualism" (not radical or Platonic dualism), or the idea that human beings comprise a material body and an immaterial soul; while the latter is separable from the former, neither on its own constitutes an entire human being (p 249). Heb 12:1 "envisages a scene in which the faithful from the past support and applaud the faithful in the present...there is a form of communion between them" (pp 199-200). And Heb 11:4 says that while Abel died, "he still speaks", implying "a precise example of 'the preservation of the soul' that results from faith, as announced in Heb 10:39" (p 206). Hebrews speaks interchangeably of preserving one's soul (10:39) and having one's spirit made complete in heavenly Jerusalem (12:23) (p 200). Esler makes a good case for dualism here against Wright.

It's impossible not to be engaged by a Philip Esler book. He certainly has one of the sharpest minds today in the biblical field. And it's encouraging to see such a passionate Christian capable of assimilating cultural-critical work and emerging with a theology more robust and authentic than the bland studies which owe to systematic theology and literary approaches. This is a book geared for committed Christians, but I was no less engaged by it as an infidel. Esler asks believers to listen -- and listen critically -- to their ancestors in the faith. I can only hope that more Christians will be inspired by his approach to theology.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Tolkien vs. Jackson: One Man's Hopelessness, Another's Hope

I've written at length elsewhere about "hopeless courage" and why the theme of pagan doom makes Lord of the Rings so powerful. But there remains a common perception that Middle-Earth is a hopeful place and its heroes an optimistic lot. Peter Jackson and his scriptwriters have this perception, and their film adaptations present a different world-view than the one in Tolkien's classic.

My conviction is that the "long defeat" (mentioned by Tolkien in letter 195) is the key to understanding the theme of hopelessness which truly pervades Lord of the Rings. What follows is an analysis of the theme of hope in the books and films. The films serve as a control, highlighting by way of contrast what was originally intended by Tolkien, thus enabling us to see how Tolkien's hopelessness has been translated into Jackson's hope.

Tolkien: The Books

A. Introduction

As a Roman Catholic, Tolkien viewed the history of Middle-Earth, like our own, as a "long defeat", containing "samples and glimpses of final victory" but never more (letter 195). Heroes like Frodo Baggins are foreordained failures, because "the power of evil in the world is not finally resistable by incarnate creatures, however good" (letter 191). Frodo could not destroy the One Ring, and the quest to Mount Doom was hopeless from the start. The cause, not the hero, was triumphant only because of the euchatastrophe, the sudden and unexpected intervention of fate made possible by the mercy shown Gollum (letter 192). The long defeat is the key to understanding this theme of hopelessness in Lord of the Rings.

B. Hopeless Heroes

The most important statement about hope comes after the Ring's destruction: "It's like things are in the world: hopes fail." (The Field of Cormallen) Frodo recites this as a general proverb, because it's what the people of Middle-Earth know to be true. Hopes are doomed to fail, even after euchatastrophes. Evil can be resisted but not overcome, and it should be resisted for no other reason than because it is the right thing to do. Courage, without the illusion of hope, is what kept Frodo and Sam going as they struggled towards Mount Doom.

Hobbits are quintessentially hopeless heroes. Sam "never had any hope in the quest from the beginning, but being a cheerful hobbit he had not needed hope; he had stuck to his master all the way, and he would continue to stick to him" (The Black Gate is Closed). There is something ironically liberating about the idea that since things must turn out badly in the end, they can only be better in the meantime. Later, at the very same place, Pippin laughs as he "dies" from the troll attack, saying to himself, "It ends as I guessed it would" (The Black Gate Opens). As Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey puts it:: "Those who need hope to keep going will fall prey to despair when their hope is ultimately withdrawn. But those like Sam and Pippin who feel from the start that the whole thing is going to be a disaster remain immune, even cheerful, when their expectations are confirmed." (JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century, p 153). This is why courage and cheer supplant hope as proper pagan virtues.

Examples of heroic hopelessness abound throughout Tolkien's classic. Aragorn picks up the fallen banner after Gandalf's fall in Moria without any hope for the quest's success, rather for the chance of doing at least some good and avenging the wizard (Lothlorien). Treebeard expects that his race will be wiped out in the war against Saruman, a doom which is inevitable anyway (Treebeard). Frodo answers his own rhetorical question in the Dead Marshes by implying that hope for his quest is indeed foolish (The Passage of the Marshes). Faramir undercuts any hope for Gondor's salvation by opining that the return of Isildur's heir will only postpone Sauron's inevitable victory (The Window on the West). He is certain that he will never see Frodo again, since the hobbit's quest is a "hopeless errand"; yet he sends him off with a blessing anyway (The Forbidden Pool). Gandalf tells Pippin that there never was much hope for Frodo, "just a fool's hope" (The Siege of Gondor). As Eowyn confronts the Witch-King, Merry realizes that she has come without hope to die on the Pelennor Fields; and her brother Eomer evokes apocalyptic doom when he cries for the world's end and the death of everyone before charging back into battle (The Battle of the Pelennor Fields). When Frodo and Sam encounter enemy camps in the Morgai Vale, their expectations are simply confirmed: "It's no worse than I expected," says Frodo. "I never hoped to get across. I can't see any hope of it now. But I've still got to do the best I can." (The Land of Shadow).

C. Immortals, Elves, Wizards

Hope is shunned as a rule in pagan Middle-Earth, but it's occasionally invoked by the immortals as a caution against seeing the end beyond all doubt. Elrond says that an attempt to destroy the Ring is the only hopeful option available, even knowing this really isn't hopeful ("if hope it be") (The Council of Elrond). Galadriel tells the fellowship that hope remains while the company is true, but Boromir fails the criterion. To say that the quest "stands upon the edge of a knife" indicates the precarious nature of this hope (The Mirror of Galadriel). Gandalf speaks of hope for the Ringbearer's quest while undercutting it with doubts about victory, emphasizing in the end that "Black is mightier than White" (as in ancient pagan traditions, evil is more powerful than good and should be ultimately victorious) (The White Rider). His later warning to Theoden ("doom hangs on a thread") is as ominous as Galadriel's, though he too allows a measure of hope in the Ringbearer's quest while qualifying it at every turn: hope lies east, but so does fear; hope remains, but only if the free peoples stay unconquered (The King of the Golden Hall). Arwen invokes Aragorn's elvish name (Estel: Hope) ironically, goading him to take the Paths of the Dead, saying, in effect, that he has nothing to lose by attempting the impossible (The Passing of the Grey Company). In these cases hope is not entirely foolish -- as long as one doesn't hope "too much", and only under the right conditions -- but neither is it a virtue, and it is reserved for those who have enough wisdom to pronounce on the matter.

D. Exceptions Proving the Rule

Only on one occasion does hope appear reliably positive in Lord of the Rings, at the moment when Sam fixates on a star in the Morgai Vale. Here he succumbs to a moment of "pure" hope. In seeming contradiction to everything discussed above, evil is but a "passing thing", and good can be counted on to prevail in the end (The Land of Shadow). Perhaps being overcome by a single sign of beauty in the worst place on earth calls forth desperate optimism against the conventions of ordinary wisdom; it's almost as though Sam has had an epiphany. Tolkien may have intended this as a pious anticipation of the distant future (Christ's victory) through which death and evil would finally be defeated. Sam's hope is not so much for Frodo's quest in particular, but for a radical change which will someday break the cycle of the world's endless suffering. It anticipates the end of the long defeat, or the final Judeo-Christian victory. Sam's star of hope is thus the exception which proves the rule: that hope is indeed foolish in pre-Christian Middle-Earth.

Aragorn's moniker (his elvish name), Estel (Hope), is a different kind of exception, proving the rule through irony and paradox. Aragorn is "sad and stern because of the doom laid on him, and yet hope dwelt in the depths of his heart" (Appendix A) -- the inverse of hobbits like Sam, who "because of cheer need no hope". Aragorn is the fool's hope who must embrace that which is taboo and make it work. Such is his doom, to be hopeful, yet in the darkest hour he will need to transcend hope by relinquishing it. This is what happens at The Last Debate, where Gandalf declares (in agreement with Denethor) that a military expedition against Sauron is completely hopeless. All it can do is buy Frodo time and give the hobbit a "frail chance" of getting to Mount Doom. Aragorn agrees that things have become so bad that "hope and despair are akin": they can no longer be distinguished from each other. The army of the west must give up hope or despair. Aragorn, Estel, has no hope for a military victory, yet he must lead his army straight into Mordor's jaws. The people of Gondor must accept him as their hope only to relinquish it.

E. Conclusion

In Christian usage, hope is a confident though uncertain trust that good will triumph over evil. It is clear from the above analysis that such hope is foreign to the people of Middle-Earth. The way of things in this world is that hopes fail (says Frodo), while courage and cheer suffice in putting off the evil day. Aside from two exceptions which prove the rule (Sam's star, Aragorn's moniker), the protagonists of Lord of the Rings remain devoid of what Tolkien knew to be a theological virtue. Like lambs led to slaughter, they are pagan souls who sacrifice everything for the sake of friendship and goodness, without hope of victory, yet convinced that evil must be resisted. Hopeless quests suggest heroes who are able to attain a nobility of character unparalleled in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Tolkien admired such heroes, even if he was irrevocably Catholic and continued hoping for the triumph of good at the end of human history.

Peter Jackson: The Films

A. Introduction

Irony confronts us when we turn to Peter Jackson's films. Tolkien was a Christian who cherished hope as a virtue, but Middle-Earth is an essentially hopeless place. Peter Jackson and his scriptwriters (Boyens and Walsh) seem to share more in common with pagan souls, yet they went out of their way to "optimize" Middle-Earth. The films are much more hopeful than the books, perhaps catering to the postmodern needs of today's audiences.

B. Where Credit is Due

Credit must be given for adaptations which remain true to Tolkien's vision, even if they don't derive from the text. Galadriel's "edge of a knife warning" is pure Tolkien. Boromir's line to Aragorn -- "it is long since we had any hope" -- comes from Tolkien's Faramir, who spells out his thoughts more clearly to Frodo: "It is long since we had any hope. The sword of Elendil, if it returns indeed, may rekindle it, but I do not think that it will do more than put off the evil day." It would have been nice to hear all of this from Boromir to get the full idea that Gondor is ultimately doomed, whether now or later. Galadriel's telepathic communication to Elrond evokes Tolkienesque doom: "In his heart Frodo begins to understand the quest will claim his life. You know this; you have foreseen it." Gandalf tells Pippin that there is only "a fool's hope" for Frodo, just as Tolkien wrote him. The exchange between Elrond and Aragorn is reworked from Gilraen's linnod: the immortal elf "gives hope to men", while the mortal king "keeps none for himself". This license is at least somewhat, though not precisely, consistent with Tolkien's standards, since immortals occasionally counsel hope while mortals eschew such foolishness. (The problem is that in Aragorn's case, he is not supposed to eschew his own doom.) At Dunharrow Gamling says, "We cannot defeat the armies of Mordor", to which Theoden suitably agrees, "No we cannot. But we will meet them in battle nonetheless". His "ride for ruin!" cry is well adapted from Eomer. At the Last Debate, the roles of Gandalf and Aragorn reverse from the book, but the essentials remain the same: one character allows an ambiguous measure of hope for Frodo at the expense of the army of the west, for which there is none. Gimli's attitude says it all: "Certainty of death, small chance of success...what are we waiting for?" Finally, Sam's star of hope is well used on the plains of Gorgoroth. The problem is that this epiphany is supposed to be an exception to a hopeless rule. We are about to see that hope has become the rule in Jackson's Middle-Earth.

C. Cutting Against the Grain: Facile Optimism

Most of Jackson's (Boyen's/Walsh's) adaptations cut against the grain of Tolkien's vision, offering facile optimism. Boromir tells Frodo in Lothlorien that "Gandalf's death was not in vain, nor would he have you give up hope". Tolkien's Aragorn said it better outside Moria: "Farewell Gandalf! What hope have we without you? We must do without hope. At least we may yet be avenged." Jackson's Aragorn has a howler at Helm's Deep, where he tells the young Haleth that "there is always hope". Always hope? The idea that hope springs eternal is an alien intrusion in Tolkien's world. It's true that Aragorn has a moniker to live up to (his doom), but he's never so facile in the books to believe that there is "always" hope in general.

Gandalf too has become a facile optimist. Aside from the "fool's hope" remark to Pippin (acknowledged above), his wisdom generally conflicts with that of Tolkien's wizard. One scene from each film will illustrate the point.

(1) Fellowship of the Ring Gandalf advises Elrond that "it is men that we must place our hope", to which Elrond rightly retorts that "men are weak". Tolkien would have said the same. The Fourth Age became so hopeless and depressing that Tolkien gave up writing a story about it. The people of Gondor became "like Denethor or worse" (letter 256), and beings like Sauron were no longer necessary to bring out the worst in them. As Tolkien critic Greg Wright observes, the Age of Men "is not the age of men's glory; that was in the past, the glory of the Numenoreans; some of that glory still exists in the person of Aragorn, but he is an exception, a mere reminder of the glory of the past, not a promise of the glory of the future" (Tolkien in Perspective, p 135). Jackson's Elrond is quite correct in lamenting, "The blood of Numenor is spent, its pride and dignity forgotten", even if Aragorn has a role to fulfil despite this.

(2) Two Towers After the battle of Helm's Deep, Gandalf states without ambiguity, "All our hopes now lie with two little hobbits somewhere in the wilderness." In the book his ominous remarks in Fangorn and at Edoras are not so optimistically one-sided; Tolkien's Gandalf is always careful to court doom and ambiguity in equal measure: hope lies in the east, but so does fear; Black is mightier than White; etc. The same is true at the Last Debate, where he allows only a "frail" hope for the Ringbearer in relation to the complete absence of hope for the army of the west. But in the film, his unqualified remark at Helm's Deep translates shady hope (or ambiguous hope) into the robust hope of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

(3) Return of the King The most aggressive example of Gandalf's facile optimism is seen in the "death and distant shores" scene (cribbed from Tolkien's Grey Havens), where the wizard feeds Pippin delusions: "Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, all turns to silver glass, and then you see it: white shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise." The problem is that many people in Middle-Earth do not die (the elves), and it is precisely these immortals who go to Valinor. Mortals like Pippin will never see the white shores of Aman. This scene is an extreme violation of Tolkien's mythology -- all the more disappointing for being elegantly acted by Ian McKellan and Billy Boyd -- promising mortals something they will not obtain.

Sam is another facile optimist, given disappointing revisions at Osgiliath and the Cross-roads:

(1) The Tales That Really Matter The Osgiliath monologue goes contrary to what Tolkien presented on the stair of Cirith Ungol:

Book: "The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo...the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them. I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn't. We hear about those as just went on -- and not all to a good end, mind you."

Film: "It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered... the ones that stayed with you... Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't. They kept going, because they were holding onto something...that there's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it's worth fighting for."

Cliches about the "good in this world worth fighting for" are out of place in Middle-Earth. Whatever happened to the heroes who "just went on, and not all to a good end, mind you?"

(2) There and Back Again Related to the Osgiliath blunder is Sam's "there and back again" remark at the Cross-roads. The quest to Mount Doom is certainly not an expedition like Bilbo's, and in the book Sam distinguishes between swashbuckling adventures and the hopeless missions of Beren and Frodo. "There and back again" undermines Tolkien's theme of hopeless courage, which is supposed to be about carrying on simply because it's the right thing to do, without the illusion of hope for a successful outcome, let alone a return journey. As if this error wasn't bad enough, the roles reverse on the plains of Gorgoroth, where Frodo laments no water for a return journey, and Sam -- who for whatever reason has come to his senses -- believes that there will now be no return journey. In the books neither Frodo nor Sam entertains hope for a return journey after Frodo puts the idea to rest in the Dead Marshes.

The ironic result of the above two scenes is that Sam's "star of hope" in Mordor (itself well used, acknowledged above) becomes somewhat trivial. Tolkien's star is powerful precisely on account of it being exceptional: everything is otherwise hopeless. But with Osgiliath enthusiasm and "there and back again" optimism in place, the star becomes redundant.

D. Conclusion

I'm a fan of Peter Jackson's films, but I do object to certain liberties he took with Tolkien's text, not least in the way he treated the theme of hope. While rightly emphasizing the weakness of men, he undercut this (compensated for it?) with a level of optimism that damages Tolkien's meaning. To be fair, he remained true to the euchatastrophe -- where Frodo is most likely trying to get the Ring back, not save Middle-Earth by pushing Gollum over the edge -- thereby preserving the role of fate (Eru) as the victor. But on the whole his interpretation of Lord of the Rings offers too much light at the end of the tunnel, light which can be reached by the power of courageous effort. In Tolkien's story the light is so remote it cannot be seen, only glimpsed fleetingly when a higher power intervenes. In Tolkien's story courage is noble but hopeless, and hope itself is foolish.

Some Last Thoughts...

Tolkien intended his classic story to be "consonant with Christian thought and belief" (letter 269), but he made clear that the actual appearance or presence of the Christian myth in his work would be "fatal" (letter 131). The story is pagan, but pre-Christian pagan, anticipating Christianity without encompassing it. In an online interview with Claire White, Tom Shippey states:
"There is almost no allusion to Christianity anywhere in Lord of the Rings ... Middle-Earth demonstrates the need for Christianity, without which the whole of history will only be the long defeat."
This would indeed appear to square with Tolkien's intent in creating a mythic pre-history to our own. The many Tolkien scholars who analyze Lord of the Rings in terms of Christian belief puzzle me; and even among those who argue for a predominantly pagan Middle-Earth, only Greg Wright (to my knowledge) gives proper heavy weight to the long defeat theme.

Post-script: For the last couple of years I've been inclined to see a parallel between the way Tolkien uses the character of Sam and the way the apostle Paul uses the figure of Abraham. One is an exception to a hopeless rule in a pagan era, the other an exception to a faithless rule in a Judaic one. Philip Esler's Conflict and Identity in Romans, in its treatment of Rom 4 and 9-11 in terms of "salvation history", has convinced me of this nearly beyond doubt. But that will be the subject of a post to come at a later date.

Prophet and Teacher

William Herzog, one of my favorite scholars, has a new intro to the historical Jesus.


I haven't read it yet, but I'm sure it's up to Bill's usual standards. In his previous works (Parables as Subversive Speech; Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God), he presented Jesus as the product of an honor-shame culture in the Jewish prophetic tradition, a blend of three prophetic types all in one: a popular prophet who acquired honor by outwitting his adversaries in the daily game of challenge-riposte (and through exorcist-healing); an oracular prophet who leveled social critiques through the parables; and a Deuteronomic prophet who both critiqued and defended the Torah. In particular, Jesus used parables much in the same way Paulo Freire used codifications to teach peasants in Brazil how to understand the world on their own terms for a change. It will be interesting to see how Herzog does an introduction to the whole HJ field. We can probably count on healthy doses of the honor-shame model.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005


One reason why so many western readers have a hard time appreciating the bible has to do with the honor-shame culture from which it derives. A group of scholars known as the Context Group have been using anthropological and social-science tools to examine the bible since the '80s, and their work goes a long way in helping us understand what often appears to be an alien and brutally bizarre world. Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh's social science commentaries on the Synoptic Gospels and John are good places to start. John Pilch's The Cultural Dictionary of the Bible is a handy ready-reference tool, explaining such things as why lying is honorable, wealth is thievery, and questions are hostile. Zeba Crook's recently published Reconceptualising Conversion discusses the nature of religious conversion in these cultures, where people convert not for introspective or soul-searching reasons, but for those we perceive as more selfish: the "balance sheet" -- "what's in it for me?" -- leads one to answer a divine call and honor the deity through prayer, praise, and aggressive proselytism. Works like these have done much to help us understand the players of the bible on their own terms.

It's true that we value some honor and shame in the west, but for the most part our heritage owes to the code of integrity and guilt. Taken in strong doses the honor-shame code seems suffocatingly oppressive. One need only read the recent New York Times article by Salaman Rushdie, whose sentiments speak for most of us in condemning the honor-culture of rape and suicide in India and Pakistan:
"The use of rape in tribal disputes has become, one might say, normal. And the belief that a raped woman's best recourse is to kill herself remains widespread and deeply ingrained."
How can stuff like this be condoned, especially when the woman is not at fault? The objection, however, appeals to innocence, and the honor-shame code often has little to do with innocence or "who is at fault". Women in this context are irrevocably shamed, regardless of their innocence, because of the nature of female honor. Unlike male honor, which is macho and won in public combative contests, whether verbal or physical -- and which is flexible and can be restored after loss in a later conflict -- female honor is sexual and absolute; once lost, forever gone. Any sexual offense on a woman's part, however slight, however intended or unintended, shames her and every male in her paternal kin group forever. Thus the woman mentioned in the above article, raped by her father-in-law, was pronounced unclean by the Deobandi priest (laying down the uncompromising edict, "it does not matter if it was consensual or forced").

The point is not to excuse what's going on in India and Pakistan, rather to understand the rape-phenomenon and the values from which it derives. Jesus of Nazareth was born into a world of honor-shame, and he was actually more at home in this world than most of us are comfortable acknowledging. Like all macho men, when confronted in public by adversaries, he never responded to questions (answering questions is a sign of shame or defeat in these cultures), preferring to "burn" his opponents with counter-questions, counter-accusations, scriptural one-upsmanship, and nasty insults. On the other hand, he went out of his way to side with and defend the victims of systematic ("honorable") oppression: women, the poor, the ostracized. He eschewed violence in most (though not all) contexts. All things considered, the pop-culture question "WWJD?" becomes more pressing when we look beyond the borders of the west and over into the heart of honor-shame cultures like those of India and Pakistan.

Monday, July 11, 2005


I'm calling my blog The Busybody by way of irony. Bloggers are "busybodies" of sorts, after all, meddling into affairs and commenting on anything they please, so it strikes me as cynically appropriate. It's also a way of laughing at myself, since busybodies actually irritate me to no end.

This is my first shot at blogging, so we'll see how it goes. I'll be reviewing subjects as diverse as early Christian history, the Crusades, fantasy literature, film, contemporary events -- and, of course, any "dirty gossip" for the obsession of other busybodies out there in the blogosphere.