Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Ludemann on "Being Christian"

Gerd Ludemann believes that people cannot be Christians if they don't believe Jesus was raised from the dead.
"If we take seriously the nature of historical knowledge and our own human dignity, we cannot be Christians any longer. Since Jesus did not rise from the dead, those who nonetheless continue to claim that title are deceiving themselves." (The Resurrection of Christ, p 205)
This conclusion trails Ludemann's attempt to demolish various "vain" attempts to remain confessional (the first four deny a literal resurrection, the last two accept it):
the "vain" kerygma approach of Bultmann, which maintains that the proper object of Christian faith is the proclamation of Christ, regardless of the historicity of that proclamation (pp 193-195)

the "vain" objective vision approach of Grass, which maintains the reality of visions whether or not they can fit into a scientific worldview (pp 195-197)

the "vain" metaphorical approach of Kessler, which insists the resurrection was real but non-literal and metaphorical (pp 197-198)

the "vain" replacement of the risen Christ with the historical Jesus, the approach of many liberal scholars today (pp 198-199)

the "vain" theological approach of Wright (pp 199-202)

the "vain" fundamentalist approach of Hartlich and Broer (pp 202-203)
I don't know that any of these approaches are inherently "vain", even if I personally eschew them as a Unitarian. Christianity is an evolving religion like any other, and I find it curious that a literal understanding of the resurrection would be viewed as a prerequisite for being Christian by an atheist historian.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Hard Candy: Little Red and the Pedophile

Hard Candy is about a 14-year old sociopath (Hayley) who baits and traps a 32-year old ephebophile & closet-pedophile (Jeff), and then plays vicious head games with him before "fixing" him once and for all. But how she ends up doing this isn't what the viewer is led to expect, and the big debate among reviewers is whether or not the film cops out. I think it does, but that it ends up working for the drama rather than against it.

The film is dialogue-driven, and builds to the crux of Hayley castrating Jeff in his own home. It's as perversely thrilling as the ear-slicing scene in Reservoir Dogs, the acupuncture torture in Audition, and the S&M in Blue Velvet. But in a way Hard Candy one-ups all of these on account of its non-graphic nature. It's not as pornographic as the others: we don't see any gory business going on down in Jeff's nether regions; what's left implied disturbs more than the sight of explicit surgery. Screening tests resulted in a lot of walk-outs, and it's indeed a long, brutal torture scene to sit through.

But: It turns out that Hayley faked the castration. After bravely taking us where cinema hasn't gone before, the film loses its nerve. And it weakens in another way, by becoming a chase-around-the-house thriller until it reaches its climax on the roof where Jeff hangs himself. Throughout its first three-quarters, the story stood on the strength of sharp dialogue and a cruel "operation". Now it forsakes indie-style drama for action-thriller sequences, and it even drops the ball with dialogue. Hayley's final line -- "I am every little girl you ever watched, touched, hurt, screwed, and killed" -- is cheap, and the sort of self-righteous vindication we expect from the Hollywood crowd.

Yet on subsequent viewings, I began to see a new film, in which those defects become assets. Hard Candy plays as an enacted domination fantasy, whereby a guilt-ridden man is tormented by a teen fantasy figure, taken to the brink of the worst punishment imaginable, culminating in his "noble" decision to kill himself. Yet in the background, you still feel the brutal horror of the first viewing experience, when you really thought Jeff was losing his member. The film works on these meshed levels of reality and fantasy simultaneously, or at least for me.

Like the Todd Solondz film Palindromes, Hard Candy is also a morality puzzle, refusing to anchor us on safe ground. We can no more decide between pedophilia and vengeful sadism than between pro-choice and pro-life; either side is hopeless. Solondz and Slade gives us a young teens driven to extremity -- as Aviva engineered the death of an abortion doctor, Hayley forces a pedophile to kill himself. We obviously condone neither action, yet are drawn into empathizing with demented thirteen- and fourteen-year olds who have warped ideas about justice.

Fascinating is how Hayley's vengeance rests on a hidden contradiction. At one point she lambastes Jeff: "Just because a girl knows how to imitate a woman does not mean she's ready to do what a woman does." She spends the rest of the film mocking herself, of course, for as Andrew Criddle points out: "If Hayley's youth and inexperience make it unacceptable in principle for her to be Jeff's lover, then her youth and inexperience surely make it unacceptable in principle for her to be Jeff's self-appointed judge."

Jeff makes the same mistake from the other direction. As Hayley starts digging into his scrotum, he protests: "A teenage girl doesn't do this." Her retort: "I've seen your idea of what a teenage girl should do with her day, so don't even start." They're both right, both wrong, and trapped in paradoxes that feed off each other.

Hard Candy is so many things: a brilliant dialogue drama, a brutal revenge thriller, a weirdly enacted domination fantasy, and a morality paradox. The performances of Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson are crucial to the film's success, and they are first rate.

Monday, August 28, 2006

The Empty Tomb: Arguments for Historicity

(Previous post here.)

Let's now consider Dale Allison's assessment of arguments for the empty tomb:

(1) The view combated in Mt 28:11-15 -- that the disciples robbed the tomb -- shows that everyone agreed the tomb was empty. (p 312)

(2) The early Christians gave no attention to the tomb of Jesus, which is strange in light of Jewish veneration for the burial places of prophets and martyrs. Only an empty tomb accounts for this lack of veneration. (pp 312-313)

(3) Paul's language in I Cor 15 assumes an empty tomb. (pp 314-316)

(4) The early Christians could not have gotten away with preaching the resurrection of an individual (a wacky idea) in Jerusalem unless, at the very least, the tomb of that individual was known to be open and empty. (pp 316-320)

(5) Apologetic interests, if present in the resurrection narratives, are undisclosed. (pp 320-321)

(6) Only the empty tomb (in conjunction with the post-mortem appearances) could have yielded the resurrection belief, because there was no reason for the disciples to invent a premature resurrection. People create fictions in order to cope with failures and broken dreams, but Jesus' death wasn't seen as a failure. The crucifixion would have demoralized the disciples but ultimately been taken as part of the apocalyptic drama: suffering/death had to precede the kingdom, just as Jesus taught them. They would have gone on hoping for the apocalypse, at which point they -- and he -- would have been resurrected. An empty tomb caused them to conclude that Jesus had been raised prematurely. (pp 321-326)

(7) In a culture where the testimony of women was viewed as unreliable, the early Christians would not have invented female witnesses to the empty tomb. (pp 326-331)

Allison offers counters to the first five arguments (not a difficult task) and declares the last two formidable. Weighing these against the other side of the debate, he decides:
Of our two options -- that a tomb was in fact unoccupied or that a belief in the resurrection imagined it unoccupied -- the former, as I read the evidence, is the slightly stronger possibility. The best two arguments against the tradition -- the ability of the early Christians to create fictions and the existence of numerous legends about missing bodies -- while certainly weighty, remain nonetheless hypothetical and suggestive, whereas the best two arguments for the tradition are concrete and evidential. (pp 331-332)
I agree, but have also indicated another reasonable argument from the "against" side, and that argument (2) is more concrete and evidential than (6) and (7): the parallels between Mk 15-16 and Dan 6. Granted it's not entirely persuasive. Stephen Carlson points out that Daniel was still found in the den in the morning (Dan 6:19, 23) unlike Jesus. But the parallels are still too numerous for me to ignore without feeling guilty. I wonder if it's time for someone to do a Goodacre-like analysis and strike a balance between history remembered and prophecy historicized? I'm confident that an (historical) empty tomb tradition interacted with Dan 6 and was colored by it; but it's difficult to say which came first in the case of each parallel.

James Crossley puts stock in argument (3) from the "against" side, that Mk 16:8 (the women saying nothing to anyone out of fear) is an attempt to explain why the tradition of the empty tomb was not well known. But as Allison points out, "they said nothing to anyone" trails not a command to proclaim the empty tomb but a command to tell the disciples about Jesus going before them to Galilee (p 303). The angel simply says that Jesus has been raised and his tomb is empty (Mk 16:6); it orders the women on another account entirely (Mk 16:7), and that's what their saying nothing (Mk 16:8) is linked to.

Noteworthy is that Paul has been pressed into service on both sides of the debate (arguments (5) and (3)). That's the trouble with arguments from silence (on the "against" side) and implied logic (on the "for" side). But Paul's silence tells us nothing, and if his argument assumes an empty tomb it still doesn't mean it's historical.

In the end, Allison is right. Arguments (6) and (7) from the "for" side carry considerable weight. Visions of Jesus, without an empty tomb, would have resulted only in a belief that he was vindicated and assumed into heaven, not resurrected. And accounts of female witnesses discovering the empty tomb certainly smell like nonfiction.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Empty Tomb: Arguments against Historicity

I'm glad to see RBL book reviews of Dale Allison's Resurrecting Jesus. Michael Licona summarizes Dale's assessment of the empty tomb:
Allison first takes a look at seven common arguments against its historicity and finds that only two carry weight. He then takes a look at seven common arguments for the historicity of the empty tomb. He concludes that there exists a "decent" case for the empty tomb and a "respectable" case against it (331). Notwithstanding, he judges the position that the tomb was empty to be "the slightly stronger possibility," since the best two con arguments are "hypothetical and suggestive," while the best two pro arguments are "concrete and evidential." Nevertheless, the empty tomb remains a "tentative" historical fact, and its cause is even more so (332).
In weighing the seven arguments for and against, Dale finds only two in each case that carry weight. Let's list them. We'll start with the arguments against:

(1) The account is only singularly attested; it comes from Markan creativity. (pp 300-302)

(2) The account is inspired by Dan 6. (pp 302-303)

(3) The words about the women fleeing the tomb, "they said nothing to anyone" (Mk 16:8), is a literary explanation for why no one had heard of the empty tomb before. (pp 303-304)

(4) The account involves the miraculous. (pp 304-305)

(5) Paul knows nothing of an empty tomb, so the account must have originated after him. (pp 305-307)

(6) If people had visions of Jesus and had come to believe in his resurrection, it's easy to see how an empty tomb legend would have arisen; human beings create religious fictions to justify beliefs all the time. (pp 307-308)

(7) There is remarkable precedent for -- indeed, an overwhelming abundancy of -- legendary stories about empty tombs and disappearing bodies. (pp 308-311)

After considering each argument individually, Allison concludes:
Of the seven arguments just introduced, the first five are, like Jesus’ tomb in the Gospels, empty. But the sixth cannot be dismissed without a guilty conscience: early Christians did have the imaginative ability to fabricate a fiction on the basis of theological convictions. Similarly, the final argument is formidable and should give its proponents some assurance: people have indeed constructed legends about missing bodies. (p 311)
I agree with most of Allison has to say about the individual arguments, but (2) needs more serious consideration. It's not nearly as weak as (1), (3), (4), and (5). I'm not saying I think Mk 15-16 necessarily derives from Dan 6, but a good case has been made for it. As noted by Allison, Randel Helms listed the following parallels:

* The law demands the death of God's chosen. (Dan 6:6-10; Mk 15:1-5)

* The ruler is reluctant to enforce the law but does so. (Dan 6:14-16; Mk 15:6-15)

* Late in the day a sympathetic leader puts the chosen one in a pit or cave and covers it with a stone. (Dan 6:17-18; Mk 15:42-46)

* Early in the morning those who care for God's chosen one approach the pit or cave. (Dan 6:19; Mk 16:2)

* There is angelic intervention. (Dan 6:22; Mk 16:5-7)

* The hero is not dead but lives. (Dan 6:19-23; Mk 16:1-8)

Allison is unimpressed with these parallels (p 302) and says they are best viewed as "the upshot of happenstance" (p 303). On the other hand, he allows that Dan 6 may have influenced Matthew's embellishments to the Markan story (see footnote 408 on p 303). I'm unclear as to why Matthew's embellishments can be safely viewed as haggadic fiction, but Mark's cannot. The above parallels, after all, are numerous, and hardly forced or contrived.

So despite my leanings to the empty tomb as history, I think argument (2) is much stronger than Allison allows and would accord it as one of three (along with (6) and (7)) which carry weight on the "against" side of the debate. In the next post we'll look at the "for" side.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Blogging Hiatus

I'm taking a break from blogging for the next week or two, my first vacation since starting The Busybody over a year ago. I'll be back during the week of August 28.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

New Guest-Blogger: Andrew Criddle

Forgers look out. Stephen Carlson and Andrew Criddle are bonding over on Hypotyposeis. Check out Andrew's debut post for the dating of a particular gem mentioned in Raymond Brown's Death of the Messiah. The gem isn't quite parallel to the Orpheus Amulet, which Andrew believes to be a forgery. ("The Orpheus amulet taken at face value dates from 400 CE or earlier, but iconographically makes little sense in the pre-Islamic world.") Andrew suggests a dating of about 500 CE for the gem, and that it's probably "the earliest depiction of a suffering crucified Christ".

For some time I'd wanted to see Andrew start his own blog, but teaming up with Stephen is just as good, if not better. I now look doubly forward to reading Hypotyposeis.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Reconceptualizing Conversion: "What's in it for me?"

In light of recent discussions, I'm pasting below my amazon review of Zeba Crook's Reconceptualizing Conversion, from which we learn that people like Paul converted for rather selfish reasons.

Zeba Crook's premise is that the key to understanding ancient conversion is "benefaction", or what is gained, as opposed to introspective soul-searching. With trademark Context-Group gusto, he undercuts cross-cultural psychology which wrongly assumes that all people share the same psychological structure underneath a veneer of cultural difference. The cultural divide between Mediterranean and Western people results in fundamental psychological differences, which have serious bearing on the question of religious conversion.

While the academic field has generally heeded Krister Stendahl's pointer that Paul didn't have a bad experience with Judaism and the Torah, it has not heeded his more general claim -- that Paul was not introspective at all. People in antiquity converted or chose gods for the same reason they chose patrons -- based on the benefits they stood to gain. The "balance sheet" was what mattered in ancient conversion: "what's in it for me".

Crook discusses various rhetorical conventions that occur in the context of this "balance-sheet" psychology, including: (a) the unanticipated call of the patron, who gives the client a benefaction; (b) the honoring discourse of prayer, praise, and proselytism -- the last of which was expected of clients so as to publicize the generosity of the patron, in an attempt to increase the honor and reputation of the patron and attract new clients (the more clients the patron has, the more honor); (c) patronal synkrisis, by which the client feels compelled to compare his inferior past to the superior present, to the credit of the patron; and (d) the grace received by the client (though "benefaction" is a better translation than "grace", since the latter is loaded with post-Reformation overtones; rather than abstract ideas of love and mercy, grace referred more often to a concrete item of benefaction or patronage).

The author shows that Paul's own rhetoric of conversion (in I Cor 9:1; 9:16-17; 15:8-10; Gal 1:11-17; Philip 3:4b-11) owes precisely to these conventions of patronage and benefaction, so it's all the more surprising that introspection and other western psychological models continue to play a role in interpreting Paul's conversion.

Of particular interest is the way missionary activity is understood in this context. Paul's evangelism was nothing more than client-reciprocity, reflecting his obligation to publicize Christ in return for the benefaction Christ gave him. All clients were duty-bound to publicize on behalf of a benefactor, in order to increase the benefactor's honor -- as Paul puts it, "Woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!" (I Cor 9:16) Paul wasn't so much trying to save souls as he was trying to gain converts in order to increase his Lord's honor.

The phenomenon of synkrisis helps us understand how Paul's new religious convictions related to his native ones. Crook shows that in order to credit benefactors, clients almost always described their past as grim and bleak in comparison to the present -- except in cases (like Paul) where the patron doesn't change, in which case they "raise the stakes" by improving upon an already excellent past (Philip 3:4b-6) which in comparison to the present is actually worse than worthless (Philip 3:7-11). Paul's Jewish heritage had been a source of pride for him, but in comparison with new revelations based on what Christ offered him, that heritage seemed like excrement.

This is not only a profound basis for understanding the relationship between Paul's twin sets of convictions, but it provides a springboard for making sense of Paul's contradictions elsewhere. Crook argues that Paul, as a result of converting while still following the same deity, maintained a tenacious loyalty to the traditions of his forefathers, subject to a strict loyalty to the Christ movement:

"[In Romans] Paul seems to be constantly making a point, then back-tracking, working himself into a corner, then fighting to get out. In each case, this has to do with the value of the law...Paul is struggling to express loyalty to God in a new way (law-free salvation) without expressing disloyalty to God for the previous gift of the law...How can Paul argue that the law was a benefaction from God but that the supersession of it was also a benefaction from the same God? These are the issues of loyalty, which are the result of a conversion that involved the same divine patron, that Paul is struggling to work out." (p 246)

Some prefer that Paul was "called" rather than "converted". But Crook points out the false dichotomy: by the time of Hellenistic Judaism it was possible to be called and thus converted. Paul indeed expresses his conversion in terms of a call or commission, but that's exactly the language of patronage/benefaction. He was invoking the Greco-Roman example of the call of the divine patron-benefactor ("conversion") and the call of the Hebrew prophets at the same time.

This book shows plainly that Paul's conversion was anything but unique. He followed the general pattern of conversion found everywhere in the Mediterranean. Once again, the balance sheet was the important factor -- "what's in it for me", certainly not vocation or inner fulfillment. My only quibble is that Crook refuses to speculate on what Paul actually gained from Christ. What was in it for Paul? What was the benefaction he received? Was it simply the revelation (vision) itself? The promise of favored status which would somehow play out in the end (as the twelve disciples are reported as being promised in places like Mt 19:28/Lk 22:30)? Perhaps Crook wanted to leave this a mystery for others to solve, but given that he devotes so much space to Paul as his chief example, I felt a bit cheated here. But quibbling aside, this is a terrific book, another accomplishment of the Context Group whose members continue to help us understand the ancients on their own terms.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Quote for the Day: Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven

"Not withstanding The Da Vinci Code and other sensationalistic books written for the gullible, Jesus was certainly celibate. When one adds that Jesus' opponents slandered him; that 'eunuch' was sometimes a word of abuse hurled at unmarried men; and that Jesus, like Paul after him, regularly picked up opponents' rebukes, imaginatively remade them, and then handed them back, we may think this: Jesus, upon being jeered as a castrate, responded by inventing a new class of eunuchs, one established by and for heaven." (Dale Allison, The Luminous Dusk, p 69)

Thursday, August 10, 2006

World Trade Center

World Trade Center may be a fresh tomato, but it did absolutely nothing for me. True, it's refreshingly non-partisan for an Oliver Stone film, and devoid of 9/11 conspiracy theories, telling a straightforward story of the two officers who were eventually rescued from the rubble. But it tells the story with an overkill of sentimentality, spotlighting anxious family members in between doses of sappy dialogue between the officers as they lay pinned in darkness comforting each other. If Stone has given up on conspiracies, he's now into punishing us with melodrama.

This reviewer is right:
"World Trade Center is, literally, everything United 93 wasn't...a grueling, paceless, maudlin train-wreck that every single mainstream film critic in the country will praise out of fear their negative reactions will be seen as a betrayal of both their patriotism and the real-life stories of the movie’s two main characters."
So is Owen Glieberman of Entertainment Weekly:
"United 93's brilliance was the way it undermined your defenses by restaging 9/11 with the electric realism of live media. To know what occurred, or might have occurred, on that plane, and to see it as if it was happening before your eyes, fed a need that was at once journalistic, patriotic, and wildly cinematic. It was exactly the sort of film you might have expected Oliver Stone to make, but World Trade Center isn't a great Stone film; it's more like a decent Ron Howard film...

"There's a fundamental lack of dramatic urgency to World Trade Center. The harrowing, at times unbearable grip of United 93 was part of its human tumult. Stone, who at his greatest is the most harrowing of filmmakers, now recedes into the coventionality of uplift."
I also agree with Pete Vonder Haar:
"This isn’t the Stone of JFK or Salvador, who was quick to look at the machinations behind events and cast his barbs accordingly. Here he does nothing of the sort, making it hard to identify World Trade Center straight out of the gate as an 'Oliver Stone film.' Unfortunately, many might peg it as a 'Ron Howard film' instead. True story or not, World Trade Center is almost unforgivably sentimental... There's such a thing as too much. Every heroic action has to be shot in slow motion, and every poignant moment must be punctuated by Craig Armstrong's swelling orchestral score...World Trade Center eventually stops feeling like a remarkable story of survival and more like a Hallmark Network presentation."
In sum, while United 93 is a serious cinematic achievement, visceral and non-exploitive, World Trade Center is a schmaltzy dud, something one might expect from a first-time film director. Oliver Stone needs to retire.

(My review of United 93 here.)

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Agrarian vs. Industrial Societies

Tyler Williams lists important differences between the industrial and agrarian worlds in The Strange New World of the Bible. The citation is from Malina and Rohrbaugh's landmark Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (pp 6-8), powerfully illustrating the great divide between us and the people of the bible.

• In agrarian societies more than 90 percent of the population was rural. In industrial societies more than 90 percent is urban.

• In agrarian societies 90-95 percent of the population was engaged in what sociologists call the "primary" industries (farming and extracting raw materials). In the United States today it is 4.9 percent.

• In agrarian societies 2-4 percent of the population was literate. In industrial societies 2-4 percent are not.

• The birthrate in most agrarian societies was about forty per thousand per year. In the Unites States, as in most industrial societies, it is less than half that. Yet death rates have dropped even more dramatically than birthrates. We thus have the curious phenomenon of far fewer births and rapidly rising population.

• Life expectancy in the city of Rome in the first century BCE was about twenty years at birth. If the perilous years of infancy were survived, it rose to about forty, one-half our present expectations.

• In contrast to the huge cities we know today, the largest city in Europe in the fourteenth century, Venice, had a population of 78,000. London had 35,000. Vienna had 3,800. Though population figures for antiquity are notoriously difficult to come by, recent estimates for Jerusalem are about 35,000. For Capernaum, 1,500. For Nazareth about 200.

• The Department of Labor currently lists in excess of 20,000 occupations in the United States and hundreds more are added to the list annually. By contrast, the tax rolls for Paris (pop. 59,000) in the year 1313 list only 157.

• Unlike the modern world, in agrarian societies 1-3 percent of the population usually owns one- to two-thirds of the arable land. Since 90 percent or more were peasants, the vast majority owned subsistence plots at best.

• The size of the federal bureaucracy in the Unites States in 1816 was 5,000 employees. In 1971 it was 2,852,000 and growing rapidly. While there was a political, administrative, and military apparatus in antiquity, nothing remotely comparable to the modern governmental bureaucracy ever existed. Instead, goods and services were mediated by patrons who operated largely outside governmental control.

• More than one-half of all families in agrarian societies were broken during the childbearing and child-rearing years by the death of one or both parents. In India at the turn of the twentieth century the figure was 71 percent. Thus widows and orphans were everywhere.

• In agrarian societies the family was the unit of both production and consumption. Since the industrial revolution, family production or enterprise has nearly disappeared and the unit of production has become the individual worker. Nowadays the family is only a unit of consumption.

• The largest "factories" in Roman antiquity did not exceed fifty workers. In the records of the medieval craft guilds from London, the largest employed eighteen. The industrial corporation, a modern invention, did not exist.

• In 1850, the "prime movers" in the United States (i.e., steam engines in factories, sailing vessels, work animals, etc.) had a combined capacity of 8.5 million horsepower. By 1970 this had risen to 20 billion.

• The cost of moving one ton of goods one mile (measured in U.S.:dollars in China at the beginning of the industrial revolution) was: Steamboat 2.4; Wheelbarrow 20.0; Rail 2.7; Pack donkey 24.0; Junk 12.0; Packhorse 30.0; Animal-drawn cart 13.0; Carrying by pole 48.0; Pack mule 17.0. It is little wonder that overland trade at any distance was insubstantial in antiquity.

• Productive capacity in industrial societies exceeds that in the most advanced agrarian societies known by more than one hundredfold.

• Given the shock and consternation caused by the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the forced resignation of Richard M. Nixon, we sometimes forget that this sort of internal political upheaval is nothing like it was in the agrarian world. Of the 79 Roman emperors, 31 were murdered, 6 driven to suicide, and 4 were deposed by force. Moreover, such upheavals in antiquity were frequently accompanied by civil war and the enslavement of thousands.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Sin of Sodom

With his usual critical acumen, Chris Heard explains the sin of Sodom, which according to Gen 19 isn't about homosexuality but sexual cruelty.
"The 'sin of Sodom' per Genesis 19 has to do with using sexual cruelty and violence to oppress and demean outsiders. It has nothing to do with homosexuality in the modern sense of sexual desire oriented toward members of one’s own biological sex, and certainly has nothing to say about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of loving, committed, sexual relationships between members of the same biological sex. This does not, of course, mean that the Bible as a whole is necessarily silent on that topic. Both Jim [West] and Joe [Cathey] pointed to relevant texts in Leviticus 18 and Romans 1, and those deserve discussion in any comprehensive attempt to form a 'biblical perspective on homosexuality.' Genesis 19, though, depicts and condemns something rather different."
It should go without saying that attempts to whitewash homophobia out of the bible are misguided (Rom 1:18-32 will be in the canon forever, unfortunately), but at the same time there are texts, like Gen 19, which don't target sexuality in the way most people think.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Reconceptualizing Paul's Conversion

Matthew Hopper, in discussing how the term "conversion" is appropriate for Paul, notes that
"The decision Paul sought was a decision to swear fealty to King Jesus and become a citizen of his people by means of baptism. It was not a matter of 'beginning an intimate relationship with Jesus'... as the result of dramatic, impulsive emotions."
Yes: this should be taken as a given: Paul wasn't a soul-searching western. But just because he didn't convert for introspective reasons doesn't mean that he didn't convert at all. Matthew understands this, unlike (say) Krister Stendahl.

There are three sides to the question of Paul's conversion: (1) an objectively-analytical point of view, (2) mainstream Judaism's point of view, and (3) Paul's own point of view. According to the first two, I would say yes: Paul should be understood as a convert to something radically new. But if we listen to Paul himself, I think the answer becomes more murky; both yes and no. Let's take them in turn.

(1) Required reading is Zeba Crook's Reconceptualising Conversion, in which the author demonstrates that by the time of Hellenistic Judaism, it was possible to be called and thus converted: Paul was invoking the call of the divine patron-benefactor (which involved conversion by definition) and the call of the Hebrew prophets at the same time. In other words, Stendahl's distinction between being "called" and "converted" (recently followed by Malina and Pilch) is a false dichotomy. Objectively speaking -- and by non-introspective standards -- we can and should speak of Paul's conversion.

(2) Even assuming a valid distinction between being "called" and "converted" (just for the sake of argument) doesn't settle the issue, because while Paul naturally aligns himself with prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, his rivals easily denied him his claims. Most of his contemporaries thought he was a radical apostate (on which see Philip Esler's Galatians).

(3) Paul's own view of the matter is tricky. On the one hand, he knows he has found something new, but on the other, his patron-deity hasn't changed. Zeba Crook discusses the phenomenon of synkrisis. In order to credit benefactors, clients always described their past as grim and bleak in comparison to the new and improved present -- except in cases where the patron doesn't change, in which case they "raise the stakes" by improving upon an already excellent past which in comparison to the present is actually worse than worthless. Says Crook:
If patronal synkrisis was meant to honor the patron by attributing to him or her a tremendous improvement in life by comparing the good one has received to the ill one knew previously, then Paul's synkrisis in Philippians does this all the more so... All that he has lost from his past he now regards as "shit"...Paul's past was excellent; it was a source of pride for him. Yet in comparison with Paul's awesome present status, even something as excellent as that appears so profoundly diminished as to call it "shit". (pp 181-182)
That's the irony we're stuck with. When a patron-deity stays the same after conversion, the past must remain positive and yet become worse-than-worthless at the same time. So Paul's Jewish heritage is good in and of itself (Philip 3:4b-6), but nothing more than "shit" when compared to the new revelations of Christ (Philip 3:7-11).

Paul knew that he was advocating something radically new with his version of the Christ-gospel, but he was caught between loyalty to past and present convictions -- again, he was still serving YHWH. I appreciate the way James Dunn characterizes the so-called "continuity" presented in Rom 9:6-10:21: "continuity by transformation, as when a caterpillar becomes a butterly, and the empty shell of the caterpillar is all that's left of the old stage of existence". It may be an ingenious argument by sectarian standards, but any mainstream outsider would have laughed themselves sick and treated it with the derision it deserved. So Paul capped it off with Rom 11:1-32, making clear that "continuity by extension" is what he really had in mind -- an olive tree rather than a butterfly. There will never be an easy way to resolve this tension. Who said being a convert was easy?

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Who Were the Johannine Christians?

The new book by Philip Esler and Ronald Piper prompted me to revisit Malina & Rohrbaugh's commentary, which argues that the Johannine community was an "anti-society", an alternative society consisting of exiles, rebels, or ostracized deviants. (Examples of such societies include reform-school students in Poland, members of the underworld in India, and vagabonds in Elizabethan England.) Like all anti-societies, the Johannine community had developed an "anti-language", a resistance language used to maintain sharp sectarianism.

Anti-language, as Malina and Rohrbaugh explain, involves overlexicalized language, or redundant metaphors. "Believing into Jesus", "abiding in him", "loving him", "keeping his word", "receiving him", "having him", and "seeing him" all mean the same thing; just as "bread", "light", "door", "life", "way", and "vine" are redundant metaphors for Jesus himself. The authors comment:
"The metaphor that constitutes anti-language is present in all language to some extent. Much of everyday language is in fact metaphorical; for example, horsepower in an automobile, a cell in biology, the conception of ideas, and the like. Yet the metaphorical quality of everyday language is frequently lost. People forget that a cell originally referred to the monastery room of a monk. By contrast, what distinguishes an antilanguage is that when it is compared with the existing language system of the culture in which it emerges (and the society against which it stands), it is clearly seen to be a metaphorical entity." (Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, p 14)
John's use of language is as radical as his co-optation of heroes and prototypes. If I could go back to the first century and spend time in only three Christian communities, the Johannine community would surely be one of them. What exactly did these people go through to cause them to withdraw from the world -- "this world" -- and hate it so much?

Friday, August 04, 2006

Newsweek's Cover Story: World Trade Center

Read Newsweek’s cover story of Oliver Stone's World Trade Center (in theaters next Wednesday). It looks like it's going to be as good as United 93.

"This is not the 9/11 story most people would expect from Oliver Stone. There are no conspiracies lurking in the background. No axes to grind... These days, if Stone has a theory about September 11, he's keeping it to himself...

"Piercingly moving and utterly unpolitical, World Trade Center holds us in a fierce grip... What it does share with United 93 is the desire to look at the event with eyes uncontaminated by politics. World Trade Center should be embraced as readily by conservatives as by liberals. For two hours and nine minutes, at least, it makes the distinction irrelevant...

"World Trade Center is several things: an act of commemoration, an edge-of-your-seat rescue movie, a moving tribute to all who risked and gave their lives at Ground Zero, and a family drama that examines the marriages that, in Stone's view, gave John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno reasons to live."

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Lazarus, Mary, and Martha

Philip Esler and Ronald Piper's new book raises intriguing questions about the role of gospel heroes and their relevance in the modern age. The heroes in question are Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, whom we are to understand as prototypes for Christian believers in John's gospel. Against scholars who insist that the raising of Lazarus primarily prefigures Jesus' own resurrection, the authors favor soteriology over Christology. It's not always easy to separate the two, but the former wins out by a long shot in the case of Jn 11:1-12:11. As the authors put it:
"In the context of the Lazarus narrative the phrasing 'I am the resurrection and the life' is not just saying something about Jesus. Its main point is to say something remarkably specific relating to the fears about believers who have died." (p 125)
Confirmation of this comes from Roman catacomb frescoes and sarcophagi dating to the third century. These artistic representations of Jesus are valuable, say the authors, because they represent a common point of view more than that of elites and theologians. By this time the Christian tradition had become suffused with pagan elements, the most notable one being Jesus depicted as using a wand to raise Lazarus. Whether Jesus had become assimilated into a magician or god, the salient point is that he was understood primarily as one who raised other people (with a wand) -- something that has nothing to do with his own resurrection through the agency of God (see pp 131-145).

The book's major contribution lies in its use of social identity theory to understand prototypes (Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, in this case) and the manipulation of collective memory. Too often in honor-shame cultures the past becomes a battleground as religious sects compete and claim ownership of heroes (whether real or fictional) for support of their vision. Just as Paul used Abraham to redefine what it meant to be an heir to salvation, so John uses three characters -- Lazarus, Mary, and Martha -- to redefine what it means to be true followers of Christ, over against other (synoptic) understandings.

In the authors' view, "it is difficult to understate the significance of John taking the tradition of a woman, whose very name was unknown, who anointed Jesus shortly before his death (Mk 14:3-9/Mt 26:6-13; cf. Lk 7:36-50), and identifying this woman with Mary" (p 56). Indeed, Jn 11:2 represents "an audacious attempt by the evangelist to rework the collective memory of the Christ-movement" (ibid). John evidently saw the unnamed woman's anointing of Jesus as a powerful tool that he could re-use for his purposes stressing devotion and care in grim domestic settings. Mary becomes as much a prototype (representing care and devotion) as Lazarus (representing the fate of believers).(1)

The book concludes by asking how the three heroes may continue to function as prototypes for modern believers -- and by putting into practice the insightful theological strategy developed in Esler's New Testament Theology regarding intercultural communion. Say the authors:
"We have departed from the long dominant model of New Testament theology that involves using historical analysis of the biblical texts to unearth 'timeless' truths that can then be fed into a treatise in systematic theology. Rather we are applying the different approach that sees the theological significance of historical investigation to lie precisely in bringing the specific meaning it carried in its original setting into creative and critical confrontation with our modern experience in an overarching framework of intercultural communication and communion." (p 147)
So, for instance, Esler has argued that the original message behind Paul's letter to the Romans is best applied to situations today involving inter-ethnic conflict and genocide. (Galatians, by contrast, is dangerous to use for such purposes -- which underscores the need to be critical of original meaning even while doing justice to it.) The Lazarus account in John turns on the harsh reality of death which faces people today as much as ever before (p 147). The Johannine view insists that looking beyond death cannot be separated from the horror of death itself:
"The prospect of death, and the experience of beloved Christians dying, present a continuing point of natural anxiety... The reassurance lies not simply in the promise of future bliss. The story of Lazarus also addresses the reality of death. Could not God have prevented bad things (such as premature death) happening to those who he loves? One gets no general explanation for such tragedies, but one is faced with the fact that a divine deliberation is involved. The mystery is not lessened, but a kind of reaffirmation is offered." (p 156)
Esler and Piper see the raising of Lazarus more a sign of divine love than victory over death (p 153), offering the reassurance of care and support in present-day Christian households. John had little use for the new heaven-and-earth anticipated by Paul and the synoptic writers, thinking more in terms of a new "house" (Jn 14:2-3) -- and that's exactly what is prefigured in the account of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha (Jn 11:1-12:11) (p 154). "The imagined future stresses care and support (and in a domestic context) more than victory" (p 155). The authors even suggest that a revival of house churches may be in order (p 155), especially in a world where we have lost direct experience of death:
"The bodies of our relatives are taken straight off to mortuaries and later to the church or cemetery or crematorium. The older custom of keeping the body of the deceased family member at home for a few days prior to burial and thereby observing the gradual change in the appearance of the deceased as the process of decomposition begin has by now largely disappeared. But those who are familiar with this practice will be well aware of the awesome sense of the reality of death that it produces." (pp 148-149)
(That's an acute observation, especially when taken in conjunction with the irony that, on the other hand, we are continually bombarded with images of death on TV/video-screen -- and death, in effect, becomes trivialized. (p 149) So western people have become both alienated from death and saturated with it, in completely different ways.)

I agree that something important is lost when the corpses of our friends/relatives are whisked away, right away. We become screened from the natural process of death. A "mystery" is dampened, just as it's muted when we lose touch with silence and natural light (on which see Dale Allison's The Luminous Dusk). But at the same time I should be honest: I'm rather comfortable being shielded this way in my modern lifestyle. Maybe that's part of the problem.

Simply put: this is the best book to date dealing with Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. There's something about a Philip Esler book that makes it impossible to put down. I don't know what his trick is, but he's got some failsafe -- you just have to keep turning the pages. Piper looks promising too.(2) For whatever my opinion is worth as an infidel, the way these authors bridge historical criticism and modern theology represents the best approach I'm aware of.


(1) And while for Mark and Matthew, the woman's anointing prefigures the gospel being preached throughout the world (Mk 14:9/Mt 26:13), in John the "spread" of this event is only to the Lazarus-Mary-Martha household (p 67), serving the evangelist's highly sectarian view of salvation. The authors rightly emphasize this, noting further that Christians are not encouraged to love outsiders/enemies as they are in the synoptics. "The 'love' commandment appears to be directed to insiders: love one another even as I have loved you (Jn 13:34)." (p 96)

(2) At one point the authors reference Piper's upcoming publication, The Dark Side of John: "However much the Gospel of John may be Christologically oriented, and however much the symbols associated with Jesus focus on images such as 'light', 'darkness' or evil constitutes a reality that is essential to the understanding of the Gospel." (p 94)

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The New Higgaion

Chris Heard's Higgaion is now at Wordpress. The migration apparently hasn't gone smoothly, but I love the new look in any case. Chris says it will become "more personal and less strictly academic", since he's discontinuing his other blogs devoted specially to pop culture matters. I look forward to the new Higgaion, which has always been one of my favorite blogs.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Quote for the Day: The Academic Priesthood

As I juggle Esler & Piper's book in my other hand, I'm also reading Dale Allison's The Luminous Dusk. I'll have a full review of this later, but I can't resist making the following citation a quote for the day in light of our past discussions of experts and amateurs. In commenting on the fate of the bible, Dale notes three problematic trends in today's world: (1) the bible is an anachronism; (2) it is a field of specialization ruled by experts; (3) it demands attentive reading, "the sort of expanded attention that puts things in the long-term memory" (see pp 97-108). Regarding the second, he says, pricelessly:

[The bible] is a field of specialization ruled by experts. Now those would-be experts become such by learning a lot of languages, a lot of history, and then a lot of what are called "criticisms" -- textual criticism, source criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, reader-response criticism, and all the other esoteric "isms" that have been concocted of late. That is the long, hard road to status and reward in the field, to the teaching job, to getting published, maybe even to getting fifteen minutes of fame. The consequences are serious. When there are experts, everyone else becomes an amateur. Maybe we are undoing Luther -- that is, taking the book out of the hands of the many and placing it into the hands of the few, the academic priesthood. (pp 99-100)

Biblical Studies Carnival VIII

Biblical Studies Carnival VIII is up at Kevin Edgecomb's Biblicalia.