Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Mel Gibson and Evolution

Mel Gibson evidently believes in evolution as much as his father believed in the Holocaust. PZ Myers reports here, citing an interview with Playboy magazine (July 1995, p 51).

PLAYBOY: Do you believe in Darwin's theory of evolution or that God created man in his image?

GIBSON: The latter.

PLAYBOY: So you can't accept that we descended from monkeys and apes?

GIBSON: No, I think it's bullshit. If it isn't, why are they still around? How come apes aren't people yet?

Gibson is known for going by what "comes from the papal chair". What's curious is that Catholic acceptance of evolution well predates Vatican II. The arch-conservative Pius XII stated there was no opposition between evolution and Catholic faith, albeit grudgingly (Humani Generis, 1950). And John Paul II strongly reaffirmed this less than a decade ago, saying that evolution is factual ("Truth Cannot Contradict Truth", 1996). The late Stephen Jay Gould wrote a wonderful article about these papal decrees. Gould states:
"Pius XII had grudgingly admitted evolution as a legitimate hypothesis that he regarded as only tentatively supported and potentially (as I suspect he hoped) untrue. John Paul II, nearly fifty years later, reaffirms the legitimacy of evolution —no news here—but then adds that additional data and theory have placed the factuality of evolution beyond reasonable doubt. Sincere Christians must now accept evolution not merely as a plausible possibility but also as an effectively proven fact. In other words, official Catholic opinion on evolution has moved from 'say it ain't so, but we can deal with it if we have to' (Pius's grudging view of 1950) to John Paul's entirely welcoming 'it has been proven true; we always celebrate nature's factuality, and we look forward to interesting discussions of theological implications.'" (1996). (Natural History, March '97, pp 16-22)
Whatever secessionist breed of Catholicism Gibson adheres to, it's pretty extreme to call forth waffling over the Holocaust and denying evolution. But he seems to enjoy sleeping with the fundies. Funny though, as ignorant he is -- and a lame actor, too -- Gibson is a good filmmaker. I actually liked Passion of the Christ.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

'Tis the Season

I want to wish a happy holiday to my readers who are celebrating a holiday, and fond wishes to everyone else. Blogging will resume sometime next week.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Little Red Book Story

The Little Red Book story I mentioned two days ago could be a hoax -- or not. See here.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Angry Healer

Bible Review magazine bids us farewell with at least one good article by Bart Ehrman, "Did Jesus Get Angry or Agonize?" (Winter 2005, final issue, pp 17-26,49). The essay addresses textual critical issues covered at more length in Ehrman's recent book, Misquoting Jesus. He considers the following passage in Mark (1:39-43), where Jesus could be healing someone out of compassion or anger.

Jesus came preaching in their synagogues in all of Galilee and casting out the demons. And a leper came to him beseeching him and saying to him, "If you choose, you can cleanse me." And [feeling compassion or becoming angry], reaching out his hand, he touched him and said, "I do choose. Be cleansed!" And immediately the leprosy went out from him, and he was cleansed. And rebuking him severely, Jesus cast him out at once.

Most English bibles favor the "feeling compassion" (SPANGNISTHEIS) translation, even though, as Ehrman notes (p 18), one of the oldest Greek manuscripts (Codex Bezae) has "becoming angry" (ORGISTHEIS), which is in turn supported by three other Latin texts. The problem with the "compassion" option is that Matthew (Mt 8:2-3) and Luke (Lk 5:12-13) would have followed this in their own versions of the account (or at least one them surely would have), as they both favor the theme of compassion. But neither has Jesus healing the leper out of compassion. They don't portray him angry either, but that's expected: Matthew and Luke take pains to censor Mark's accounts of Jesus' anger elsewhere (as in Mk 3:5 -- Mt 12:13/Lk 6:10).

Most of us prefer to view Jesus as compassionate whenever possible, not only because it makes him more attractive, but because (in a case like this) it seems to make more sense in context. Ehrman says that this is actually a reason for viewing it as the wrong translation:

"One factor in favor of the 'angry' reading is that it sounds wrong. If Christian readers today were given the choice between these two readings, no doubt almost everyone would choose the one more commonly attested in our manuscripts: Jesus felt pity for the man, and so he healed him. The other reading is difficult to figure out. What would it mean to say that Jesus felt angry?" (p 19)

But I disagree. It's the compassionate option that sounds wrong by Mediterranean standards. The leper's appeal to help is a challenge that puts Jesus on the spot in front of the crowds. "If you choose, you can cleanse me", is a veiled way of questioning Jesus' ability to heal, and daring him to prove himself. That's why Jesus rebukes him and tells him to get lost.

Ehrman concludes:

"Jesus' anger erupts when someone doubts his willingness, ability, or divine authority to heal... Someone approaches Jesus gingerly to ask: 'If you are willing you are able to heal me.' Jesus becomes angry. Of course he's willing, just as he is able and authorized. He heals the man but, still somewhat miffed, rebukes him sharply and throws him out." (p 22)

I agree with this except for Ehrman's depicting the leper's appeal as "ginger". The man is on his knees, shamelessly and stridently begging for deliverance. This constitutes a challenge that Jesus must meet head-on or lose face.

Jesus is featured consistently angry in Mark, less so in Matthew, and almost completely devoid of anger in Luke. The earlier the gospel, not surprisingly, the more we see the historical Jesus: the apocalyptic prophet who was angry at the world, demanded a better one, and who acquired a following the way macho men did in his culture.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Big Bush is Watching You

A college student was visited by the Gestapo for putting Mao Tse-Tung's Little Red Book on interlibrary loan. The Standard Times reports here. President Bush had apparently authorized the National Security Agency to spy on as many as 500 people at any given time since 2002, and without warrants.

One of the student's professors, Bryan Williams, has reconsidered offering a course on terrorism next semester, for fear of putting his students at risk: "I shudder to think of all the students I've had monitoring al-Qaeda Web sites, what the government must think of that. Mao Tse-Tung is completely harmless."

The next time I check out an ILL book to someone at my library, I'll give the patron fair warning: Big Bush is watching you.

UPDATE (12/21): This story is rapidly unfolding, and as I mentioned in a new post, this may be a hoax.

UPDATE (12/27): This is indeed a hoax. The Standard Times reports the student confessing to making it all up. Read here.

Quote for the Day: Those Who Bear the Mark of Pain

"The fellowship of those who bear the mark of pain. Who are the members of this fellowship? Those who have learned by experience what physical pain and bodily anguish mean belong together all over the world; they are united by a secret bond. One and all they know the horrors of suffering to which man can be exposed, and one and all they know the longing to be free from pain. He who has been delivered from pain must not think he is now free again and at liberty to take life up just as it was before, entirely forgetful of the past. He is now a 'man whose eyes are open' with regard to pain and anguish, and he must help to overcome those two enemies and to bring others the deliverance which he himself has enjoyed." (Albert Schweitzer, On the Edge of the Primeval Forest, 1921)

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Something About the Gospel of Mark

Michael Turton posts a review of his Historical Commentary on the Gospel of Mark. This commentary is the outcome of Turton's "goal of producing a skeptical commentary on the Gospel of Mark", the first ever as he sees it.

It should be noted that the term "skeptical" is rather slippery. I'm a skeptic but see more history preserved in Mark than Turton does. And the idea that Mark is a "one of the greatest literary geniuses of history" -- he shows considerably less genius than the other gospel writers, as far as I'm concerned -- is at odds with an important approach emphasizing the nonliterary dimension to the texts of the New Testament. The gospels were read in oral settings and communicated ideas to specific communities. (Though if an evangelical like Richard Bauckham disputes this, Turton may share more in common with at least one of those "believing conservatives" he laments about after all.)

But we agree about one thing: Mark is the best gospel we have. If there's one gospel I could take to the moon with me, that would be the one. In the author's note Michael writes:

"There's something about the Gospel of Mark. Matthew instructs, Luke pleases, John drones, but Mark? Mark obsesses. People dive into Mark and emerge for air, months later, not certain what happened to them, and wondering who strangers living in their house are."

Yes. Mark is the most engaging and dramatic of the four gospels, and Turton's own commentary on Mark is pretty engaging and dramatic too. Even if you disagree with his approach to Mark (as I do), it's well worth reading, and you will learn from it.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Ludemann and Goodacre on the Christmas Stories

Jim West reproduces Gerd Ludemann's thoughts on the infancy narratives here. Ludemann thinks the accounts are "pious fairy tales" and lists "ten unquestionable facts argue against their historical credibility". Mark Goodacre comments on each of the ten points here. Regarding Mark's comment on (2):

"The New Testament authors derived most events of the Christmas story from prophecies of the Old Testament and misrepresented their original intent in order to make them seem to point to Jesus."

"Some of the Biblical verses alluded to by Matthew are such an odd fit with the events narrated that it is difficult to imagine that Matthew, or anyone else, 'derived' the narrative from the prophecies. On the contrary, the opposite process, of tradition scripturalized is far more plausible. e.g. Matt. 2.23 -- where does it say that the Messiah would live in Nazara? Matthew is weakly scripturalizing the tradition he knows."

I would enjoy seeing Mark write a sequel (or prequel) essay to the excellent one he did on the passion narratives, which mediated between the "history remembered" and "prophecy historicized" schools of thought. But I agree in essence with Ludemann. Unlike the passion narratives, the infancy narratives reflect a time when no one knew or cared about Jesus. History they aren't, though Ludemann's use of the term "fairy tales" is inappropriate. The infancy narratives are myths, not fairy tales, because they were (are) actually believed.

I also agree with Mark's point in (3), about Matthew trying to explain and defend a tradition of Jesus' illegitimate birth.

UPDATE: James Crossley exasperates over objections to Ludemann's tone, wondering "how much time is wasted...trying to prove/disprove stories of the variety that would so obviously be treated as fiction in other disciplines." A fair counter, given the tone of people like Wright.

UPDATE (II): Read Ludemann's pugnacious response to Goodacre.

UPDATE (III): Now read Goodacre's comeback to Ludemann. This has been a lively discussion.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean

Phil Harland's Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean has a new web address, and a nice new look. I looked up some of the new URLs for old blogposts to which I linked in the past, and updated accordingly.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Interview with Bart Ehrman

Terri Gross interviews Bart Ehrman about his new book Misquoting Jesus here. Thanks to Jim West for mentioning.

Quote for the Day: Frodo’s Apostacy

I meant to use this as a quote last week, following Frodo's Failure and Frodo's Failure (II).

"The Quest to Mount Doom was bound to fail... Fail it would and did as far as Frodo considered alone was concerned. He apostatized -- and I have had one savage letter, crying out that he should have been executed as a traitor, not honored... [But] the salvation of the world and Frodo's own 'salvation' is achieved by his previous pity and forgiveness of injury. At any point any prudent person would have told Frodo that Gollum would certainly betray him, and could rob him in the end... By a situation created by his forgiveness, he was saved himself, and relieved of his burden. He was very justly accorded the highest honors." (J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters, #181, to Michael Straight)

The reader who thought Aragorn should have killed Frodo at least understood the story correctly (that Frodo apostatized and failed), but he didn't get the full picture. Pagan heroes are bound to fail, and Frodo's pity for Gollum redressed his failure in any case.

The Unhappy Ending to The Lord of the Rings

I'm going to wrap up this series on Tolkien by considering the bittersweet, or even unhappy, ending to the greatest story ever told. Someone once asked Tolkien to write a sequel to The Lord of the Rings. This is what he said in reply:
"I did begin a story placed about 100 years after the Downfall of Mordor, but it proved both sinister and depressing. Since we are dealing with men it is inevitable that we should be concerned with the most regrettable feature of their nature: their quick satiety with good. So that the people of Gondor in times of peace, justice, and prosperity, would be become discontented and restless -- while the dynasts descended from Aragorn would become just kings and governors -- like Denethor or worse... Not worth doing." (J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters, #256, to Colin Bailey)
We should keep these comments in mind the next time we get to the supposedly happy ending where Aragorn is crowned king. Aragorn knows that he's not ushering in an age of 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" (Greg Wright, Tolkien in Perspective, p 135).

For despite Sauron's defeat, the ending to The Lord of the Rings isn't happy at all. The elves lose the power of the Three Rings made possible by the existence of the One. That's why they were never wild about Frodo's quest to destroy it. As Galadriel says to him in Lothlorien:
"Do you not see now wherefore your coming to us is as the footstep of doom? For is you fail, then we are laid bare to the Enemy. Yet if you succeed, then our power is diminished, and Lothlorien will fade, and the tides of Time will sweep it away. We must depart into the West, or dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and to be forgotten." (The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Mirror of Galadriel")
The destruction of the One Ring -- the most evil artifact ever -- ends up being simply the lesser of two evils, as far as the elves are concerned. Galadriel even wishes that it had been lost and never found, rather than have it destroyed.

As for Frodo, his ending is one of the most tragic in literary history. He was relentlessly self-reproachful for having claimed the Ring on Mount Doom, "seeing himself and all that he had done as a broken failure" (Tolkien's letter to Eileen Elgar, #246). Karyn Milos writes:
"His self-reproach would have been compounded when Frodo realized he had been permanently scarred with a temptation to desire the Ring and regret its destruction. 'It is gone for ever,' said Frodo in his March thirteenth delirium, 'and now all is dark and empty.' Upon recovering from his illness Frodo was undoubtedly horrified with himself and, since this illness was pivotal to his ultimate decision to sail, considered himself condemned: He had claimed the Ring and so had forfeited all hope of ever being free of the desire of it and, like Gollum, of ever finding peace in life again."
And so Frodo departs Middle-Earth for a brief respite of healing before he dies.

Sauron may have been defeated, but the ending to The Lord of the Rings is about everyone's defeat -- the suffering and passing of Frodo, the fading of the elves, and the foreordained deterioration of men.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Social Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul

At long last, a book I've been waiting for is due out in January: Bruce Malina and John Pilch's Social Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul. It's the same format and structure as Malina & Rohrbaugh's commentaries on the synoptics and John. Augsburg Fortress lists the endorsements from Neyrey and Rohrbaugh.

"If you are tired of reading the same 'new' book on Paul over and over, this commentary on the letters of Paul is the place to go next. In addition to traditional material on rhetoric and background, this social-scientific commentary brings to the fore necessary, significant and enlightening ways of understanding the social role of Paul and his social dynamics with the churches he founded. In this it is unique; it is the only comprehensive social-science reading of Paul. The reading scenarios at the end are themselves worth the price of this book."
— Jerome Neyrey, University of Notre Dame

"Pauline theology will never look the same again."
— Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Lewis and Clark College

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Pagan but "Consonant with Christianity"

Two days ago I cited Tolkien's letter to Milton Waldman, in which he explains why the presence of Christian ideas in The Lord of the Rings would have been "fatal". He criticized the Arthurian legends for this, and blasted C.S. Lewis' Narnian stories even harder. But in other letters Tolkien wrote that he intended his fantasy "to be consonant with Christian thought and belief" (letter #269, to W.H. Auden), and that it is "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work" (letter #142, to Robert Murray).

Which is it? Is Lord of the Rings Christian or not? Was Tolkien like the apostle Paul, who changed his mind from letter to letter?

Joseph Pearce, Bradley Birzer, and Ralph Wood say that Tolkien's work is essentially Christian. Pearce argues this in the context of mythic parallels, noting, for instance, that "the journey of Frodo and Sam into the very heart of Mordor in order to destroy the Ring is emblematic of the Christian's imitation of Christ in carrying the cross of sin". Birzer, the most aggressive of the three, thinks Middle-Earth is Catholic in almost every way -- setting, characterization, and plot. Wood says that while Middle-Earth may be pagan in chronology, it is Christian in content, and indeed, "deeply Christian for not being overtly Christian".

In contrast to these approaches, Tom Shippey and Greg Wright argue that Tolkien's epic is pagan to the core -- but pre-Christian pagan, anticipating Christianity without encompassing it. Shippey's book is the most popular and useful introduction to Tolkien, while Wright's is somewhat underrated, perhaps because he tackles the issue from a strong evangelical angle.

I believe that Shippey and Wright are correct. (I've done my own take here.) Middle-Earth is truly devoid of Christian virtue -- a hopeless place, with no redemption in view. Eru is the Judeo-Christian God, to be sure, but he is unrevealed and unworshipped, and will remain so until the time of Abraham.

In an online interview, Shippey says:
"There is almost no allusion to Christianity anywhere in The Lord of the Rings... [But] Tolkien covered himself by feeling that Middle-earth demonstrates the need for Christianity. Without it the whole of history will only be 'the long defeat,' as Elrond calls it."
The long defeat is the key to understanding how Tolkien intended his fantasy to be "consonant" with Christian belief -- by obliquely pointing towards the Christian victory in a far future. Catholicism takes a dark view of history, as a never-ending series of uphill political and moral battles in a sea of heathenism. As Tolkien says in his letter to Amy Ronald:
"I am a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect 'history' to be anything but a 'long defeat' -- though it contains some examples or glimpses of final victory." (#195)
Unlike C.S. Lewis' Aslan, Tolkien's heroes aren't Christ-figures. Gandalf may return from the dead more powerful than before, but he's not a salvific figure. Aragorn is the long-awaited king returned to Minas Tirth, but he certainly doesn't defeat evil like the Jewish peasant-king who would later ride into Jerusalem on an ass; just the opposite -- his heirs make a mess of things, and the race of men in the Fourth Age become worse than before (see Tolkien's letter to Colin Bailey, #256). Frodo's arduous journey across the plains of Gorgoroth can be seen as evoking Christ's Via Dolorosa, but Frodo doesn't save Middle-Earth; he gives into evil in the end by claiming the Ring. (Fate, through Gollum, "saves" Middle-Earth, and only for the time being.) The elves lose their magic and depart overseas, the Fourth Age becomes darker than before, and men become increasingly vile -- beings like Sauron are no longer necessary to bring out the worst in them.

It's in this way that Tolkien intended his pagan work to be "consonant with Christianity": to anticipate the Judeo-Christian victory by showing the need for it. It was Catholic, moreover, in that the mythic past, like history itself, remained subject to the long defeat -- despite the best efforts of noble heroes and courageous hobbits.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Paul Mirecki

Many have been blogging about Mirecki, but Jim Davila's post says it all. I agree with every sentence, phrase, and comma.

Friday, December 09, 2005

The Heart and Soul of Lewis and Tolkien

Narnia and Middle-Earth are different in every way. One is for children, the other for adults. Narnia parallels our world; Middle-Earth is our world, from a distant past. Narnia replicates Christianity; pagan Middle-Earth anticipates Christianity (or shows the need for it) by revealing how tragic its heroes are. Narnia offers unimaginative allegory, Middle-Earth the rich mythic tapestry of a pre-historical era.

The friendship between Lewis and Tolkien was peculiar. Without Lewis' praise and encouragement, Tolkien said he would never have finished writing The Lord of the Rings. But Tolkien could never reciprocate; his feelings for The Chronicles of Narnia were less kind. As a pre-Vatican II Catholic he didn’t approve an Anglican like Lewis communicating the faith on a popular level. And he found the allegorical signposts in Narnia to be artistically offensive, cheap, and completely demeaning to literature.

Part of it was just that Tolkien had impossibly high standards: as far as he was concerned, literature stopped in the year 1100 ("after that it was only books," he said). But more relevant is the fact that he wasn't a convert like Lewis -- he was born into Catholicism and simply took its dogmas for granted -- and had nothing to prove about Christianity. He thought evangelism was odious in the extreme. And because he was secure with his beliefs, he could respect the Norse and Anglo-Saxons on their own right. He actually loved and emulated pagan themes: courage against all odds, pagan doom, the hopeless struggle against evil -- carried out simply because it's the right thing to do. Middle-Earth is so rich in culture, believable in its history, and refreshingly authentic for the suffering and loss its people go through knowing they will lose in the end.

The journalist Steven Hart once wrote that

"Tolkien's soul was in God's keeping, but his heart quickened to a pagan drumbeat."

It's one of my favorite quotes ever. And I would say, by way of contrast, that

"Lewis' soul had found God, and his heart ached to share that a bit too much."

Quote for the Day: The Fatality of Christian Fantasy

"The Arthurian world, powerful as it is, is imperfectly naturalized... For one thing its 'faerie' is too lavish, and fantastical, incoherent and repetitive. For another and more important thing: it is involved in, and explicitly contains the Christian religion... That seems to me fatal. Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit..." (J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters, #131, to Milton Waldman)

No wonder Tolkien hated Narnia.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

What Did Aslan's Death Accomplish?

In preparation for the film tomorrow, Narnia fans may wish to ponder the following. Today, while sick in bed, I finished reading Stephen Finlan's Problems with Atonement and will review the book in detail later (when my head is less fogged and bowels more calm). For now here's an outline of the various meanings of Christ's death found in the New Testament and later church thinkers. What exactly does it mean to say that "Christ died for us"? As a Unitarian I don't profess this but find the question engaging.

In the New Testament

There are four (or six) understandings of Christ's death in the New Testament: martyrdom, sacrifice (three kinds), scapegoat, and ransom redemption.

1. Martyrdom. Christ died as an example to be followed (Gal 2:19; Rom 6:6-7,11; I Pet 2:21-24,4:1-2).

2. Sacrifice. Christ died --

(a) -- as the new paschal lamb, in order to protect believers from God's wrath in judgment (I Cor 5:7,11:23-26; I Pet 1:19; Mk 14:22-25/Mt 26:26-29/Lk 22:14-20).

(b) -- as the new covenant treatise, in order to make peace between people and renew commitment to God (Gal 3:14; I Cor 11:25; Mk 14:24/Mt 26:28/Lk 22:20; Heb 7:22,8:6,9:15-21).

(c) -- as the new place of atonement, or an atoning sacrifice, in order to reconcile humanity to God through forgiveness (Rom 3:25; Mt 26:28; Eph 1:7; I Jn 2:2,4:10; Heb 2:17,9:11-14,22,26,10:10,19).

3. Scapegoat. Christ died as a scapegoat, taking on curses and bearing away peoples’ sins (Gal 3:13; II Cor 5:21; Rom 6:6,7:4,8:3; Heb 9:28).

4. Ransom Redemption. Christ died in order to pay the price for humanity's freedom from captivity under evil (Gal 3:13; Rom 3:24; I Cor 6:20,7:23; Eph 1:7; I Pet 1:18; Mk 10:45/Mt 20:28; I Tim 2:6; Tit 2:14; Heb 2:14-15,9:12,15).

After the New Testament

Stephen Finlan writes as follows:

"A study of the key patristic developers of the Christian doctrine of atonement finds that they do something that Paul does (find saving significance in the death of Jesus) but also do something that Paul never does: locate the full significance of salvation in one particular metaphor for the death as an atoning act. Paul switches metaphors with a rapidity that suggests any one metaphor, by itself, would be misleading." (Problems with Atonement, p 66)

Paul, more than any NT writer, used all of the above -- martyrdom, sacrifice, scapegoat, and ransom redemption -- depending on a particular point he needed to get across. While later church thinkers were also capable of fusing ideas, the categories would always be subordinate to one of the following three.

1. Ransom Redemption. Based on the biblical understanding (#4 above), but introducing deceit into the picture. God tricked the devil by offering Jesus as a ransom payment to free humanity from his influence, and Satan was foiled by the resurrection. (Origen, Augustine, Gregory the Great; dominant theory in the 2nd-10th centuries)

2. Satisfaction. An honor-shame understanding of the atoning value of Jesus' death, reflecting the feudal structure of medieval times. Sin dishonors God, thus requiring satisfaction. Christ died in the place of humanity, in order to satisfy the demands of honor. (Anselm; dominant theory in the 11th-15th centuries)

3. Penal Substitution. A legal understanding of the atoning value of Jesus' death, which remains most popular today. Sin incurs a debt to God because it breaks his law, thus requiring justice. Christ died in the place of humanity, in order to satisfy the demands of justice. (Luther, Calvin; dominant from the 16th century to modern times)

Of the above three, ransom redemption is obviously the most biblically based. Satisfaction and penal substitution are similar to one another, both rather distant from biblical understandings -- though the satisfaction model at least shares the honor-shame outlook of the ancient Mediterranean.

I'll have more to say about this stuff later. In the meantime, Narnia fans should ponder these ideas in relation to what C.S. Lewis thought Aslan’s death on the stone table accomplished. And who knows, I may actually drag myself to see this movie after all...but when I'm feeling better.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Quote for the Day: Frodo's Failure (II)

Over the next couple of weeks, as a mild protest against the Narnia film (with an emphasis on "mild", so Chris Heard doesn't shoot me), I'll be devoting some blogspace to Lord of the Rings themes, in ways that contrast the approaches of Tolkien and Lewis.

But for now, a simple quote for the day, and a sequel to the one I cited days ago here.

"Frodo's a very important point... Frodo after all that had happened would be incapable of voluntarily destroying the Ring. Reflecting on the solution after it was arrived at (as a mere event) I feel that it is central to the whole 'theory' of true nobility and heroism that is presented. Frodo indeed failed as a hero... [But] I do not think that Frodo's was a moral failure... [He] had done what he could and spent himself completely and had produced a situation in which the object of his quest could be achieved. His humility and his sufferings were justly rewarded by the highest honor; and his exercise of patience and mercy towards Gollum gained him Mercy: his failure was redressed." (J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters, #246, to Eileen Elgar)

More About Narnia, Problems with Atonement

A rather angry Chris Heard replies to some of Toynbee's claims in the Guardian article I mentioned yesterday. Chris discusses both the marketing of the film and Toynbee's anti-Christian rhetoric, and I'm sympathetic to some of his objections. Go ahead and read it. I only want to comment on a remark Chris makes in passing about the doctrine of atonement. He writes:

"Toynbee tips her anti-Christian hand when she writes:

'Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to?'

So voluntary self-sacrifice is somehow repugnant precisely because of its voluntarism? This I simply do not get. If Toynbee were objecting to the image of God that this kind of crass view of substitutionary atonement implies (and, by the way, I don't think this is an adequate view of what's going on, on the cross), a God who demands blood to atone for sin, then I would feel more sympathetic and would think there was at least something there to talk about."

I'm curious to know what Chris thinks is "the adequate view of what's going on, on the cross". One of the next books on my reading list is Stephen Finlan's sequel to The Background and Content of Paul's Cultic Atonement Metaphors, called Problems with Atonement: The Origins of, and Controversy About, the Atonement Doctrine. The first book, like no other, brings home how very different understandings of Christ's death had become mixed and fused by the time of the New Testament writings. Certainly the idea of "substitutionary atonement" goes back to the New Testament -- and the Hebrew Bible, for that matter. But it's monetary substitution in the propitiary sense, by which tribute is offered to God in order to appease his wrath. The idea of penal substitution, where a sacrifice "stands in" for the offender, is the later idea.

Toynbee would obviously have problems with either one, but it's hard to tell which idea Chris perceives her problem with, or to which he is acknolwedging the valid issue. In any case, according to the way Finlan describes his sequel here, and the preface which I've already read, he urges Christians to abandon all ideas of atonement. The doctrine of the Incarnation is the non-negotiable -- give up that, Finlan says, and you're no longer Christian -- while atonement ideas are dispensible. That's an interesting take, and I'll have more to say in a couple of weeks when I finish the book.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Narnia: Allegory and Allergy

Chris Heard cites a report which gives the impression that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe's religious aspects are being downplayed in the media. I've been getting the opposite impression, especially from yesterday's Guardian article, which reports as follows:

"Disney is deliberately promoting this film to the religious - it has appointed Outreach, an evangelical publisher, to promote the Christian message behind the movie in British churches. The Christian radio station Premier is urging churches to hold services on the theme of The Gospel According to Narnia. Even the Methodists have written a special Narnia-themed service. And a Kent parish is giving away £10,000 worth of film tickets to single-parent families.

"US born-agains are using the movie. The Mission America Coalition is 'inviting church leaders around the country to consider the fantastic ministry opportunity presented by the release of this film'. The president's brother, Jeb Bush, the governor of Florida, is organising a scheme for every child in his state to read the book. Walden Media, co-producer of the movie, offers a '17-week Narnia Bible study for children'. The owner of Walden Media is both a big Republican donor and a donor to the Florida governor's book promotion - a neat synergy of politics, religion and product placement. It has aroused protests from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which complains that 'a governmental endorsement of the book's religious message is in violation of the First Amendment to the US Constitution'."

This is all rather sad, but hardly surprising. But the part of the article that caught my eye in particular was the following contrast between Tolkien and (Philip) Pullman:

"Tolkien hated Narnia: the two dons may have shared the same love of unquestioning feudal power, with worlds of obedient plebs and inferior folk eager to bend at the knee to any passing superior white persons - even children; both their fantasy worlds and their Christianity assumes that rigid hierarchy of power - lord of lords, king of kings, prince of peace to be worshipped and adored. But Tolkien disliked Lewis's bully-pulpit.

"Over the years, others have had uneasy doubts about the Narnian brand of Christianity. Christ should surely be no lion (let alone with the orotund voice of Liam Neeson). He was the lamb, representing the meek of the earth, weak, poor and refusing to fight. Philip Pullman - he of the marvellously secular trilogy His Dark Materials - has called Narnia 'one of the most ugly, poisonous things I have ever read'."

But Tolkien and Pullman had/have different reasons for hating Narnia. Pullman is rather hostile to Christian doctrine. Tolkien was orthodox to the core -- so Catholic he believed Lewis to be too liberal, if anything -- and certainly professed the beliefs and doctrines allegorized in Narnia. What Tolkien despised about his friend's work was the allegory itself, for its unoriginality and the way it rendered myth so one-dimensional. In a word that Tolkien would have despised as much as Narnia, it was "cheesy".

Like PZ Myers, I was left cold by the Narnian Chronicles as a kid (some of Myers' antipathy towards Christianity leaves me equally cold), for reasons which I later understood to square with Tolkien's. One person's allegory is another's allergy. There's nothing wrong with the Christian ideas as such. I often surprise people for liking The Passion of the Christ. Gibson's film was powerful, even to me as a non-Christian. You don't have to be a believer to be moved by the power of myth, especially in a story well told. But in my view, the Narnian chronicles preach more than engage mythological drama in any meaningful way.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Intellectual Fraud

More comments have been made about Stephen Carlson's book here, in particular from a lawyer, Kevin Snapp. Snapp opines that Carlson's distinction between forgeries and hoaxes may be unwarranted in the case of Secret Mark. "Smith defrauded every purchaser [of his two books on Secret Mark] of whatever he or she paid," he says, "regardless of whether Smith received any of it."

Snapp's parting remark (in his second comment) targets my own lingering doubts about hoaxes being somehow less reprehensible than forgeries:

"There's a Jewish saying that intellectual fraud is worse than monetary fraud, and tampering with sacred writings seems particularly despicable -- although that's where much of the Bible comes from, doesn't it?"

From one philosophical angle I can agree with this. Monetary fraud may be more criminal from a legal point of view, but intellectual fraud -- however prankish -- can be arguably as bad from a moral one. There seems to be a serious level of contempt involved in bamboozling people for no other reason than to show them what fools they are. I have to be careful in my judgmentalism, however, because I do think Smith's hoax is hilarious.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Quote for the Day: Frodo’s Failure

"Not only was it quite impossible for Frodo to surrender the Ring, in act or will, especially at the point of its maximum power, but this failure was adumbrated from far back. He was honored because he had accepted the burden voluntarily, and had then done all that was within his utmost physical and mental strength to do... [But] Frodo failed. One must face the fact: the power of evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however good." (J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters, #191, to J. Burn)

Kingdom vs. Covenant

Sean du Toit expresses reservations about Scot McKnight's reconstruction of the eucharist account. In Jesus and His Death, McKnight argues that covenant ideas don't trace back to the historical Jesus, having entered the eucharist tradition after Pentecost. Sean doubts this, in no small part because

"Given the criteria of multiple attestation and coherence [Meier, Marginal Jew II, 302], I'm struggling to see how McKnight defends this odd position. I say odd because I can't source any other scholars who hold to the historicity of the last supper, yet deny this pivotal phrase."

But just because McKnight's position is new doesn't make it odd. It's actually long overdue in my opinion, for carefully distinguishing different forms of sacrifice and the (very) different understandings of Jesus’ death which had become fused in the NT writings. Covenant ceremony and passover are indeed "countries and ideas apart", as McKnight says. The fact that covenant is only once attributed to Jesus points to the unreliability of the criterion of multiple attestation, which simply tells us what's multiply attested by the time of the sources -- the earliest of which (Paul) dates to around 20 years after Jesus. That offers a long window for covenant ideas to creep in. I think McKnight's arguments (pp 308-311) add up to a very strong case.

What's interesting is that Paul seems to have had as much use for covenant ideas as Jesus -- that is, none -- for he speaks of a new covenant (and even this only rarely) which supersedes the old. It's especially because of Tom Wright that we're accustomed to reading Paul (and the historical Jesus) through covenantal lenses, when we should be doing anything but. Far from a "climax of the covenant", Christ's death ended a dark age in which no one (save Abraham) ever attained faith-righteousness. Paul stigmatizes the covenant as a curse from which Christ liberated Israel, inaugurating a new one altogether (II Cor 3:6-14; Gal 4:22-26; I Cor 11:23-26). Philip Esler has shown serious weaknesses in Wright's covenant readings, arguing that it's even inappropriate to speak of salvation-history in Paul's thought.

So when Sean asks, "Isn't the emergence of the kingdom of God part of YHWH maintaining, fulfilling, his covenantal relationship with Israel?", I would say no, at least as far as the historical Jesus and Paul were concerned. Jesus seems to have avoided covenant ideas, and his being a millenarian may help account for this. Dale Allison notes that apocalyptic sectarians are strongly anti-traditional, emphasizing only selected portions of their religious heritage, (see Millenarian Prophet, p 87). For Jesus, "covenant" and "kingdom" were probably at odds with one another, for more than a few reasons. But it was Paul who explicitly drove a nail in the covenant.

Thanks to Sean for the post. It's nice to see the value of his blog increasing along with those of other bibliobloggers. Pretty soon I'm going to be the lone zero. (What this says about my ideas I hardly care to explore.)

UPDATE:In the comments section of Sean's post Scot McKnight replies (to Sean) as follows:

"It is not that 'covenant' is not a fair way of saying what Jesus said, which he said through the term 'kingdom,' but it is a question of whether or not Jesus said it. Of course, I'd agree with you to speak of 'covenant faithfulness' -- but show me where Jesus is using your term 'covenant.' It can't be found.

"The issue is one of both 'history' (what did Jesus really say?) and 'significance' (can Jesus be explained through covenant language? Of course.). My argument moves into the history of that term, and then I clearly say that it is fine and good to express Jesus' theology and the last supper in that term, but it is unlikely that Jesus used that term."

So McKnight has no problems with explicating the historical Jesus in covenantal categories, as long as we recognize that Jesus never used the term. I've made a much stronger suggestion (above).

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Best and Worst from the Sermon on the Mount

Recently I've been thinking about the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7 and pars in Lk 6:12,20-49; 11:1-4,9-13,33-36; 12:22-34,57-59; 13:23-24), reflecting on the wisdom of these received teachings. Some offer more than others. Anyway, here are my favorite five from this block of material, followed by my least favorite.

Best teachings from the sermon

1. The Lord's Prayer (Mt 6:9-13/Lk 11:2-4). My favorite part of the sermon. You don't have to be a Christian (anymore than Jesus was), or even an apocalyptic, to be inspired by the vision of abundance for all, erasure of debt, and a utopian "heaven on earth".

2. Hypocrisy (Mt 7:1-5/Lk 6:37-38,41-42). Though I wince at the anachronism, Jesus understood the phenomenon of projection all too well -- that people attribute their own bad qualities to others. People do it without realizing it.

3. Retaliation (Mt 5:38-39/Lk 6:29). Originally intended as a survival strategy for itinerants -- Jesus literally meant to turn the other cheek and relinquish clothing to assailants -- the spirit of this dictum as we’ve come to know it remains timelessly valuable, especially in a world where people seem to live by, "An eye for an eye, with a rock through the head as well."

4. Treasures in Heaven (Mt 6:19-21). I guess I have to like this one, since I'm a relatively poor public servant, with a worthless blog to boot. (See Jim West's recent update of the monetary values of the biblioblogs.)

5. Love Enemies (Mt 5:43-44/Lk 6:27-28). It sounds trite and Sunday-schoolish, but it's a wise thing to strive for -- and probably the hardest of the sermon's commandments to follow.

Worst teaching from the sermon

* The Golden Rule (Mt 7:12/Lk 6:31). One of the worst sayings from the New Testament, let alone the sermon. Intuitively it makes sense, saying in effect, "put yourself in someone else's shoes -- how would you feel?" But the fact is that other people do not necessarily want to be treated as "you" do. It's a rather obvious point and a bit embarrassing to have to point out.

Instead of "do unto others as you would want done to you", let’s try instead, "do unto others as they would want done to them." Communication and personality specialists, more than anyone, have suggested this alternative to the Golden Rule, calling it The Platinum Rule. The rule demands more of us, of course, because we're not at liberty to project ourselves and simply assume that others think and feel as "I" do.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Liberal and Conservative Blog Readers

There's an interesting observation being made that liberal blogs tend to attract a large percentage of international visitors, while right-wing blogs are visited almost exclusively by Americans. See Pharyngula and Aetiology for examples and comments.

40% of my visitors are from outside the U.S, so I guess that keeps my moderately liberal image intact. (The above liberals, PZ Myers and Tara Smith, get 43% and 30%, respectively.) Assuming there's any truth to this idea about liberal/conservative reading habits.

Thanks to Matt Bertrand for pointing out Tara Smith's weblog. I may add to my sub-blogroll dealing with evolution topics.

An Apocalyptic Gospel of Thomas?

Jim Davila mentions coverage on Axcess News of April DeConick's new book, Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas.

This caught my eye, regarding oral tradition:

"'I think previous problems with examining the Gospel of Thomas are based on misunderstanding the oral tradition,' said DeConick. 'Oral studies show that a singer, or somebody who is transmitting the tradition, does not remember things verbatim but will remember the key point and a few phrases or words. Then, they will use their own words, change the subject, even alter the meaning to meet the needs of the audience.'"

And then, of all things, this:

"In fact, the 'Kernel' sayings all have a clear apocalyptic message. These earliest preachers believed that the end was very near, and all of the sayings in the 'Kernel' underscore that belief, according to DeConick.

"'They were very certain that they were living in the very end times,' DeConick said. 'The ethic of how they were living was end-time living: don't worry about raising a family, don't worry about food and clothes, just get out and convert as many people as possible so that when God's judgment comes as many will be saved as can be. I think that was the mentality that is shown in these original sayings.'"

If her apocalyptic reading of Thomas ends up "supporting our traditional picture of Christianity," as suggested in the article, then this is going to be one interesting book. I've placed my order.