Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Mirage: The Deadly Sin of Hope

"Hope is the worst of evils, for it prolongs the torment of man." (Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human)
Nietzsche's wisdom squares with that of the ancient Greeks. Aeschylus said hope was the "food of exiles", Euripedes thought it was humanity's greatest curse, and in Pandora's box it was ranked alongside the sins of greed, vanity, slander, envy, and pining. Hope was just as foolish to the Norse and Anglo-Saxons: evil would out at Ragnarok, and the best a warrior could hope for was to go down laughing in defeat. Tolkien's Middle-Earth evokes the pagan mindset: even after destroying the Ring, Frodo reminds Sam that "hopes fail" despite appearances. Hobbits rely on cheer instead of hope, expecting disaster from then start and so remaining immune, even cheerful, when their expectations are confirmed. I'm inclined to view hope as more sinful than virtuous, despite what the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches us -- and even if that puts us in the unpleasant company of Nietzsche.

Svetozar Ristovski's excellent film Mirage opens with the Nietzsche quote, promising something less uplifting than what usually comes out of Hollywood. It's about a Macedonian boy Marko, whose life is punctuated by poverty, family dysfunction, and abuse at school. His father is an alcoholic who rails against the American occupation, his mother a mouse, his older sister a vicious tramp, and his classmates horribly violent bullies. He finds some hope in his Bosnian teacher who patronizes him for his academic talents, encouraged to write a poem for a school competition which would award him a trip to Paris. He also finds escape along the railroad tracks where a hobo befriends him. But hopes are ultimately dashed: his teacher turns out to be hollow and ineffectual, unable to control the classroom bullies; and his homeless friend abandons him. Marko finds the strength to stand on his own only by turning to crime and violence.

Mirage paints a country ruined by occupation, poverty, and corruption, and forces the theme of hopelessness in ways that will leave many viewers nonplussed. The ending is certainly grim. But it's a must-see, for its excellent acting performances and effective cinematography, and because it makes you think about despair for the right reasons. Jesus lived in a country much like Marko's Macedonia. He found hope in the apocalyptic kingdom of God, where the last would be first and the first last. "Jesus was wrong," intones Dale Allison, "reality has taken no notice of his imagination. And yet despite everything, he says the only things worth saying, for his dream is the only dream worth dreaming" (Millenarian Prophet, pp 218-219). Perhaps. Hope keeps many of us sane, and self-deception is largely necessary for healthy living anyway. But Nietzsche had a good point too: dreams like Jesus' and Marko's can set us up for even more misery and do more harm than good. There's something to be said for the ancient pagan wisdom that since things must turn out badly in the end, they can only be better in the meantime -- or that life is good no matter how bad, because that's all there is.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

How clean are we?

Put your blog through this website rater and see how appropriate it is for young readers. Most of the biblioblogs appear to be rated G, though mine is PG.

I went down my blogroll and put every URL through the rater. Here's a round-up:

Rated G

Mark Goodacre
Stephen Carlson
Jim Davila
Chris Heard
April DeConick
James Crossley
Phil Harland
Rick Brannan
Brandon Wason
Chris Weimer
Jim West

Rated PG

Loren Rosson
Tyler Williams
Michael Turton
Chris Petersen
Rick Sumner
Michael Bird

Rated NC-17

Michael Pahl

Take with a grain of salt. Chris Petersen should have easily passed a G-rating, but his discussions about "death" kick it down to PG. And look at Michael Pahl! Who would have thought our exemplary evangelical delved into necrophilia and other morbid issues... no, not really -- like Chris, he's just into eschatology. The rating device simply generates key-word counts devoid of context. It works in some cases (I think my PG-rating is appropriate), but not all.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Wizard's First Rule and Q

I have enjoyed Chris Petersen's synoptic pilgrimage, parts I and II, which in some ways mirrors my own abandonment of Q in favor of the Farrer-Goulder hypothesis.

In his second post, Chris cites the first axiom from Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth novels to help explain why so many people believe in Q. (I'm afraid I vehemently disagree with Chris about this series being one of the best fantasies ever written -- I loathed the first book -- but that's another matter.) He explains "Wizard's First Rule" as follows:
"With minimal persuasion people will generally believe things to be true for one of two reasons: either because they are scared that it may be true or because they strongly wish it to be true".
But Chris is much more tactful than the originator of that rule. In Goodkind's book it's put bluntly:
"People are stupid and will believe any lie, either because they want to believe it's true, or because they are afraid it's true." (Wizard's First Rule, chapter 36)
Of course, it wouldn't be accurate (or kind) to say that Q-adherents are stupid, but the question of Q being a lie is an interesting one. It could be one of the greatest scholarly self-deceptions.

I should point out that Wizard's First Rule ignores a third factor. People believe something (whether a lie or not) not only because they want it to be true, or are scared it may be true, but because they have been taught that it's true. That is, after all, why I believed in Q. I relinquished it when I finally realized it was unnecessary to solve the synoptic problem -- and when I saw that it has been so popular because (per the rule) people really do want it to be true. As I said in my list of dangerous ideas (#6), citing Mark Goodacre (as Chris does),
" 'Q has been all over the world, loved by everyone, feminists and liberation theologians, the sober and the sensational, the scholar and the layperson, a document with universal appeal. Indeed one of the keys to its success has been its ability to woo both conservatives and radicals alike.' (Mark Goodacre, Case Against Q, p 16). Traditionalists favor Q for providing (supposedly) early evidence of the Christian movement, and liberals adore it for its emphasis on parables and teachings (like gospel of Thomas), lacking orthodox material like the passion and resurrection."
It's just not easy to let go.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Seven Deadly Sins Combo Chart

Check out this funny Seven Deadly Sins Combo Chart (HT: Matt Bertrand). Since sloth and lust seem to be my greatest sins, I guess I'm supposed to be into quickies.

My favorite combo is "sloth + envy = welfare". But the whole thing is quite creative. Take the quizfarm test to find out your two strongest sins, then apply to the chart.

Monday, June 11, 2007

God's Elusive Judgment

Most people voted yes in yesterday's poll which asked:
Did Paul believe that God would judge the elect?

Yes. Paul believed that God would judge both the righteous and the wicked. Christians were guaranteed salvation, but they might still be punished for bad deeds.

No. Paul believed that God would judge only the wicked. Christians would appear before God at the judgment and give an account of themselves, but would be waved through after receiving their reward.
I kept the poll open for about 24 hours, and 25 readers voted.

17 (68%) voted yes.
8 (32%) voted no.

I'm in the minority with the nay-sayers but with a qualification.

Of the key texts in question, I Cor 3:10-15 makes the strongest case for "yes". As an anonymous commenter mentioned, Paul speaks of those being "saved, but only as through fire". However, as an offline correspondent pointed out, this passage is really about church founders, not believers in general. Paul was saying that churches founded by rival apostles leave much to be desired, and are subject to judgment. The "builders" of these churches may be saved in the end, but will suffer serious punishment ("through fire") for leading others astray. Paul apparently held pastors like himself to a higher standard than lay believers who would not be judged.

For, as I mentioned in the first post (following Philip Esler), Rom 8:33-34 implies that no charge will be brought against God's elect. Once we appreciate what Paul meant by "righteousness", this is easy to understand. Righteousness was a form of ascribed honor, or privileged/blessed identity. It had nothing to do with forensic/declaratory categories, nor behavioral/ethical ones. The righteous were acceptable to God, period. Their righteousness was gifted to them not because they'd done anything to deserve it, but because God had chosen them (Rom 4, 9). They would not be charged at the judgment: they would give an account of themselves, and then be waved on after receiving their reward. For better or worse, that seems to be what Paul believed.

It was competition and rivalry which brought out nuance in Paul's theology of the judgment -- much as we might expect of a Mediterranean macho man. His belief that God would (naturally) not judge the elect whom He had righteoused was tempered by growing convictions that the deity might very well make certain apostles "pay the price" for misleading people in ways that were not pleasing to Paul.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Poll: God's Judgment

In my last post, I asked whether or not Paul believed God would judge the elect. On the question of salvation/condemnation he is clear. But on the question of reward/punishment he is more ambiguous. Faith and works were both essential, but did a believer have to fear any divine punishment? Read that post and then vote in the following poll, if you wish.

Key texts to keep in mind are Rom 2, Rom 8:33-34, Rom 14:10-12, I Cor 3:10-15, I Cor 4:1-5, II Cor 5:10, and Philip 2:12b-13.

[Voting closed. Results posted here .]

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Does God Judge the Elect?

Mark Goodacre mentions a media panel-discussion in which Tom Wright, Dom Crossan, and Paula Fredriksen take turns refuting the Lutheran dichotomy between faith and works. Wright and Crossan reconcile the two in terms of their inseparability. For Wright, good works are a necessary outworking of faith: "we're not saved by good works, but for good works." Crossan also thinks good works are necessary, stressing that a believer does them out of fear -- not of God but the world: "there is 'fear and trembling' (Philip 2:12b-13) not because our God will punish us if we fail but because our world will punish us if we succeed." And Fredriksen thinks the answer depends on whether one has the long- or short-term in view: "being saved is forever, good works are only for the time being".

I'd like to focus on an aspect of Crossan's response. He asks "If, after all, it is 'God who moves within us' both 'to will and to work', that is, to start and to finish, why should there be any 'fear and trembling' present at all?" His answer, as stated above, is that believers should fear the world for doing well (as Paul knows from being in prison) instead of God for doing badly -- that God will apparently have no need to punish believers whose good works flow so naturally and inevitably. Is this correct?

Philip Esler thinks so. In Conflict and Identity in Romans (see pp 162, 265-266), he argues that Paul does not envision a judgment for the elect. A judgment requires that someone lay a charge, and Rom 8:33-34 implies that no such charge will be levelled against Christians; the righteous are simply waived through after giving an account of themselves and receiving their reward. The judgment of Rom 2 (and II Cor 5:10) would thus apply only to the wicked. "No one will bring a charge against God's elect, since God is righteousing them...Paul does not appear to envisage a judgment for the righteous, even though they will appear before God." (p 266)

Are Esler/Crossan interpreting Paul correctly?

UPDATE: More on this in God's Elusive Judgment.

Friday, June 08, 2007

In "Honor" of Jim West

On this blog I usually steer clear of personal feuds, but I'm going to make an exception for the spat between Chris Heard and Jim West. I should note that I've met neither of these guys in person, and have enjoyed my blog-interactions with them over the past two years.

It all started when a blogger named Michael Westmoreland-White took a swipe at Jim:
"When is the last time any of us have seen Jim actually make a careful exegetical argument? For a guy who rants about dillentantes constantly, he doesn't show any of the exegetical skills of the scholars he admires."
Jim retorted that Michael "hadn't bothered to read any of his exegetical work", which prompted Chris Heard to ask, "What exegetical work?" He challenged Jim thus:
"Jim, if you want us to balance your 'exegetical work' on the cessationist question against Michael's arguments, where would you like for us to look? As far as I can tell, the only thing you've 'published' that could even be remotely relevant is ... well ... nothing ... So here is my challenge: either show us where you have previously published your 'exegetical work' on the topic at hand (in this case, cessationism, but it could be anything), or stop ranting and start arguing."
Jim responded to Chris as he often does -- with a non-response -- and Chris rightly pointed out how he refused to answer the question. Jim then countered with another non-response, and Chris noted how he simply changed the subject. Readers of this blog know my abiding interest in the debate-strategies used in shame-based cultures, and under Chris' posts I commented that Jim's non-answers are offensively honorable (acceptable) in these societies. To those of us raised in the west, however, they point to a lack of integrity.

Jim's online debate tactics are indeed very similar to those of Jesus. In my art of flaming post (found on the sidebar) I explained:
"Jesus was skilled in the art of challenge-riposte, the game of verbal one-upsmanship played by men in many Mediterranean cultures... Such men don't respond directly to public taunts and challenges. They escalate the conflict by firing back counter-questions, counter-accusations, scriptural one-upsmanship, and insults. The more you can dodge flame and stay on top of your opponent with counter-flame, the more honorable you are."
There are other examples of honorable flaming besides Mediterranean challenge-riposte, such as Norse/Anglo-Saxon flyting and Black American sounding. The fascinating thing is that internet culture mirrors these oral cultures in so many ways, the art of flaming being just one of them.

So in his favor, Jim West appears to have more honor than the rest of us combined! I suppose he could be considered a good Christian in this sense. (Whenever I hear the tiresome interrogative, "WWJD?" -- usually posed by those assuming Jesus was a sweetie-pie -- I give an honest answer: "Probably call you an asshole.") But Jim needs to work on integrity. It's been saddening to watch his online behavior over the past two years: the habitual diatribes, rhetorical evasions, and removing people from his blogroll on a whim. His behavior may also bespeak a level of insecurity.

The problem is that honor and integrity frequently oppose each other. Jim's online persona is very honor-based: he easily takes affront, readily goes on the offensive, and evades challenges in turn. I don't know what he's like in person, but I would guess that he's more western in the flesh. Remember: the internet lends itself to behavior patterns found in oral cultures, even for those raised otherwise. Once offline, people often revert to their western being.

I hope I have played fair ball here. In my sidebar-post I stressed the positive role to flaming: insults and invective can be fun (and safe) alternatives to physical confrontation; and when used judiciously, there's a certain art to diatribe -- not least of which is seen today in Black American sounding ("playing the dozens"). We can learn from Jim West, just as we can learn from Obadiah, Nahum, II Peter, and Jude. The problem is knowing the time and place for it. Academic venues like biblioblogs are probably not the place for too much flame. Rants and evasions simply won't impress for long in this context. That, I think, was the source of Chris Heard's frustration.

UPDATE: On Chris' blog Joe Cathey says in comments:
"What do we know of Jim West?

(1) We know that Jim gets in a snit anytime he is challenged.
(2) We know that he wants more than anything to be academic but does not have the degree to do so.
(3) We know that he is a master of changing the topic in mid-debate."
Again, these are characteristics of someone operating out of an honor-shame code:
(1) The honorable person is particularly concerned about saving face, so any challenge is an affront and will not be appreciated.
(2) When challenged especially about a suspect degree, the honorable person sidesteps the challenge and claims the higher ground by railroading everyone else as amateurs/dilettantes.
(3) In general, the honorable person never allows himself to be put on the defensive; he goes on the offensive, and changing the topic is the best way to do this -- by firing back counter-challenges, counter-questions, counter-accusations, insults, or some kind of clever one-upsmanship.
But this is how someone would operate out of an integrity-guilt code:
(1) The person of integrity is concerned about authenticity and doing the right thing regardless of public perception, and so will generally welcome challenges.
(2) Such a person will be upfront about the nature of his credentials, and likewise will consider it beneath himself to bash amateurs so habitually.
(3) The person of integrity responds directly to questions, on the premise that evasions and counter-questions are the tactics of juveniles.
That's really a good illustration of the difference between the two codes.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Going Back in Time

April DeConick asks, "If you could travel back in time, where would you go, and who would you most want to meet?"

My first choice is a no-brainer -- early first-century Palestine, so I could meet the historical Jesus and solve the elusive holy grail of biblical studies once and for all. I'm not a betting person (I never gamble), but I'd make an exception in this case before going back. I'd bet half my bank account against the Christ-mythers that Jesus actually existed; a fifth against anti-eschatologists that he was some kind of apocalyptic prophet; and, just for the fun of it, $100 that his tomb was empty (but why? grave robbing?).

My second choice would be 12th-century Palestine, during the time of the Crusader Kings of Jerusalem, probably during the reign of Amalric (1162-1174) who witnessed Saladin's ascendency and the end of the Fatimid (Shi'ite) dynasty in Egypt. Amalric was an interesting character, an unbeliever for one, scoffing at the doctrine of the resurrection.

My third choice would be 20th-century England, a few years before J.R.R. Tolkien died in 1973. I could discuss his philosophy of pre-Christian paganism for hours on end. If I could take back a DVD player, I'd watch Peter Jackson's films with him and see if he loved or hated them. And finally, we'd have to have a long chat about his son Christopher...

So my choices span the beginning, middle, and end of the past two millenia.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Synoptic Problems and The Sermon on the Mount

Mark Goodacre has things to say about Brandon Wason's synoptic problem poll, and so does April DeConick, suggesting that Mark and others "get real" about what the poll results tell us. I once did a poll about the shifts in thought between Galatians and Romans, and found the results to be congruent with where I sensed the academy was leaning. So I agree with Mark that these biblioblog polls, while unscientific, can give a certain "feel" to movements in the academy -- provided most of the blog-readers (voters) are academically-oriented. One sometimes wonders. With April I'm surprised at the high number of votes that came in for the Augustinian hypothesis.

On a more specific track, I'd like to comment about those like Steve Walton who remain "completely unconvinced that Luke used Matthew" on account of huge differences between the Sermon on the Mount and Sermon on the Plain.
"The comment 'unscrambling the egg with a vengeance' applies so powerfully to Luke’s treatment of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, scattering it in bits all over Luke’s Gospel - I can’t imagine why someone would do that." (Walton)
Mark dealt with this objection in his treatise against Q, and one of his especially persuasive (though unorthodox) arguments -- to me as both a film buff and novelist -- was in the chapter on "The Celluloid Christ". Matthew's version of the sermon actually begs for unscrambling, and I think everyone knows it, whether or not they know they know it. In his survey of Jesus-films, Goodacre shows how filmmakers have gone out of their way to chop, dice, and reorganize Matthew's sermon. They don't care for his early placement of it; they shorten it -- even Pasolini, whose film slavishly follows Matthew, shortens it by more than half -- they restructure it; and enhance it with other elements (see The Case Against Q, pp 124-129). Just like Luke did. However consciously they're aware of it, they know Mt 5-7 is a cumbersome wreck crying out for decimation.

The Sermon on the Mount isn't the literary gem Q-adherents often imply that it is, just because of its "artistic" placement within the 5-block "Torah" units. Matthew's artistry actually leaves a lot to be desired. I suppose reading Mt 5-7 is a lot like reading parts of the Torah: ethically sharp, literarily onerous. If I had nothing but the gospel of Matthew in front of me, and had to write a new and improved gospel, my sermon would end up looking very different. But then, like Luke, I was always a bit too ambitious and sure of myself.

A Frightening Forecast

It looks like Eli Roth's Hostel II is going to be a hell of a ride -- one of those rare slasher-sequels that surpasses the original. There aren't many slasher films I approve to begin with, but as a horror-buff I do enjoy the few which succeed in disturbing me profoundly, in original ways, and demand at least some intelligence. The first Hostel was pretty good. It told a story of three backpackers (two Americans, one Icelander) who stay at a hostel in Slovakia only to be abducted and sent off to a factory where they're cruelly tortured and killed. It turns out the hostel-factory arrangement is a lucrative business catering to rich people who travel from across the globe to live out their sadistic fantasies. The really scary thing is that something like this may go on in Thailand -- underground operations where one can pay large sums of money to kill people -- even allowing for an urban-legend factor. Roth says this was the source of inspiration for his movies.

Here are some praises for Hostel II.

Stefan Halley:
"Eli Roth manages to deliver a sequel that is more than just a rehash of the first film with women in the leads instead of men. It is a better film overall with a more interesting plot, better writing, better acting... Go see Hostel II in support of a young hardworking filmmaker that fights for the integrity of his product, see it so more horror films of this caliber can be made, and mostly see it because it's a standout film amid lackluster peers."
Spence D.:
"Roth has actually improved upon the first Hostel film, delivering more gore, but more importantly delivering a more streamlined, and dare I say, mature spin on the slasher genre. He joins the ranks of George Miller and Sam Raimi as a wild genre director who takes his initial concept and builds upon it, giving us more refined bits of the first film, but put through a meat grinder and made a bit more palpable. Hostel was ground chuck, Hostel: Part II is top sirloin."
D.K. Holm:
"Hostel Part II is not only a great horror film it is a great sequel to a horror film... Roth's characters are rarely just stick figures. They are fully realized characters, and as he must realize, that makes the horror even more exhausting... Once you get past the finger gnawing suspense, you have to sit back and be impressed with Roth's sheer cleverness. Again and again he writes himself out of a corner. He has created this little world, sets himself problems in it, and like a screenwriting Buster Keaton, manages to work out a fully satisfying and clever escape."
Andrew Urban describes particularly chilling scenes:
"The escalation of the horrors comes in a handful of strong scenes, including one in which a female client takes a blood bath. The blood isn't hers; it is supplied via a sadistic routine involving one of the victims, who hangs naked, upside down, above the special bath. But at least the room is candle lit -- and that's because the client is getting her rocks off on this ritual. This is inventive, but will be sure to fire indignation for its sheer thrill seeker stunt status in the film. Other special moments include an accident with a mini chain saw, a cannibalistic scene with a live 'meal' and another involves dogs making a meal out of a customer. But the location is all very picturesque: Cesky Krumlov is a fabulously quaint World Heritage village outside Prague."
How nice. Maybe I'll review the film after I see it this Friday. But I'll probably leave details like this to your imagination.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Jesus: Pro-Family, Anti-Family, or Both?

(Via Mark Goodacre) Religious Intelligence calls attention to Deirdre Good's new book about Jesus' supposed hostility to traditional family values.
"Explaining her controversial argument, Dr Good observed that 'the word family doesn’t occur in the New Testament'. She added: 'There’s nothing about family life. Nothing about the qualities of family life. It is amazing how we’ve read qualities in to the Bible.' Dr Good posits that our Victorian understanding of family values has skewed our reading of the Bible, and that closer reading of scripture reveals 'shocking' truths. The front cover of her book bares Matthew 10: 'Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death.'"...
Good's argument is only half the picture. It's true that Jesus' closest followers had to hate their families and abandon them for him. This is a staple feature of millenarian movements, where in breaking away from tradition and custom, they replace biological kin with fictive kin in order to unite people on an exclusive basis to the sect.

But this doesn't mean Jesus was hostile in every way to the family values of his own culture. The passages in which he confronts adversaries over handwashing (Mk.7:1-13/Mt. 15:1-9) and divorce (Mk. 10:2-12/Mt. 19:3-9) are two examples indicating otherwise. In the former, Jesus attacks Corban -- the vow by which a person pledged personal wealth to God upon death, while retaining some use of it during life -- a practice which often interfered with a son's providing for his parents. In citing the fifth commandment (Exod 20:12; Deut 5:16) which held children honor-bound to assist their parents, Jesus showed himself to be very concerned with traditional family values.

In the other case, Jesus attacks divorce in order yet again to safeguard family values. As I explained at some length, the idea that Jesus condemned divorce out of feminist or egalitarian concerns is a fantasy (it would be nice if that were true, but it isn't). Jesus did what he could to protect families and family honor, even while accepting the inevitability of certain families being torn assunder in the tribulation period and for the sake of his movement.

As always, the Jesus-tradition is complex and cannot be pressed easily into the service of modern agendas. Good's agenda is perhaps rather transparent:
"[Dr. Good] called for Christians to challenge the traditional idea of the nuclear family and move towards a broader more inclusive understanding... Her argument came on the day when the University and College Union of lecturers claimed the teaching of marriage in schools as anti-gay. The British-born professor was reluctant to call for changes to the Church’s policy on controversial family issues, but concluded: 'I would like the Church to be prophetic regarding the future, not lagging behind social and legal progress.'"
I can be as anti-nuclear family as much as Good. But frankly, I don't think Jesus would have much use for my liberal social ideas.

Biblical Studies Carnival XVIII

The eighteenth Biblical Studies Carnival is up on Deinde.