Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Bird and Crossley on the Air (Part Two)

Don't miss the second half of Bird and Crossley's Unbelievable radio debate. In this session they discuss whether or not Paul thought Jesus was God and the historicity of the gospels. I was amused to learn that Michael likes to have fun with Jehovah's Witnesses who come knocking on his door, by asking them who Philippians 2 refers to ("Jesus"), and then Isaiah 45 ("Jehovah"). I used to have fun with the J-Wits in my college years, but I'm sure I was more mean-spirited (and less biblical about it) than Michael. My piles nearly burst when Michael, possessed by a certain bishop no doubt, claimed in passing that the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven (Mk 13) refers to Jesus' vindication at the destruction of Jerusalem. But all in all, a fine discussion, which expands on issues already debated in the authors' book.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Eden Lake

"The best British horror film in years: nasty, scary and tight as a drum. It is a violent ordeal nightmare that brutally withholds the longed-for redemptions and third-act revenges, offering only a nihilist scream and a vicious satirical twist in our perceived social wounds: knife-crime, gangs and the fear of a broken society." (The Guardian)

"Though nightmarish and visceral, it's the most intelligent horror film to have been made by a British director since Jack Clayton's The Innocents in 1960. And it fulfils the two purposes of horror: it involves you emotionally and it's frightening." (The Daily Mail)
Eden Lake is a serious achievement for new director James Watkins, and the high approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes is richly earned. Think Golding's Lord of the Flies crossed with Deliverance crossed with Them, and you begin to have a vague idea of what's in store for you. A couple go on a camping trip, and things are Edenic until they run afoul a pack of young bullies. Words are traded; one thing leads to another, and suddenly things spiral out of hand until torture and killing are on the menu, to the horror of even some of the kids who are in thrall to the lead bully. You would think a pair of adults could hold their own against a group of 12-year olds, but the chavs have enough numbers on their side, and their leader enough fury to match a demon out of Hades.

Some critics say the film was partly intended as a social commentary on chav culture in the U.K. (in the same way Deliverance held up a mirror to that of American hillbillies), but in an interview (youtube) Watkins says it was pure coincidence that the film was released just as the issue became so heated in Britain last summer. He wrote the film three years ago as a "paranoid fantasy" more than anything else. It's eerie, however, that the story speaks so directly to the current chav phenomenon: youth delinquency involving knife crime, habitual foul language, and alienation from society. The dysfunctional parenting behind it is brilliantly realized in the film's final unspeakable act, which is what I respect most about Eden Lake. As you might guess from the first citation at the top, neither Steve nor Jenny come out of this alive. Just as we think Jenny might pull through when she's rescued by the townspeople, they ultimately decide to "look after their own" and finish what the kids started. Appropriately, it's the abusive father of the chief bully who decides to kill her (after sending sweet sonny to bed with a smack across the jaw and vulgar tongue-lashing). The film refuses to supply us with the cheap satisfaction of righteous payback, and that's hard to find these days in a horror film.

The film is definitely not for everyone -- the torture scenes are graphic and nasty -- and not since United 93 has a film made my gut hurt so much from watching terror and death fall on innocents I really come to care about. At points I wanted to turn off my DVD player. But that's how a good horror film is supposed to effect us. Eden Lake commands respect for making us think seriously about the relationship between adults and children in a murderous survivalist setting, and for an unrelenting honesty in its storytelling.

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5.

The Utility of Models for the Ancient Mediterranean

Here's more from Esler's book on ancient Israel, a well-formulated statement about the use of social models:
"Models are essentially simplifications...of data used for comparative processes. Those who employ them in exegesis know they are merely tools available to enable comparison. It is senseless, therefore, to ask if models are 'true' or 'false', as one certainly could ask of some alleged social law. Rather, one must judge a model by whether or not it is helpful... Models of phenomena such as identity, ethnicity, religion, sect, kinship, time, honor and shame, patron and client, collective memory, and so on allow us to interrogate those issues in biblical texts in helpful and socially important ways... Models that are employed heuristically in this way cannot reasonably be tarred with the brush of social nomism or deductivism, as some have tried to do. Nevertheless, most users of models, including the members of the Context Group, of which I am a member, do accept the existence of certain regularities of social life, even though these regularities fall short of 'social laws'... These probabilities can be used predictively... Indeed, to deny the reality or importance of [these regularities] could, in some circumstances in the Middle East, be dangerously irresponsible." (Philip Esler, Ancient Israel: The Old Testament in its Social Context (edited by Esler), "Social Scientific Models in Biblical Interpretation", pp 3-4,9)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Distinguishing Covenantal Exchange from Patron-Client Relationships

Zeba Crook, on the difference between a covenantal exchange model and the patron-client model with which it is often conflated:
"Covenantal texts share common features: formality, explicit promises and threats, oaths, witnesses, written permanence, unequal status, and unbalanced exchange. This is all suggests that covenantal exchange is a form of asymmetrical exchange, but also that it is not exactly like patronage. That both covenantal and patronal exchange are forms of asymmetrical exchange explains why there are significant points of similarity between them. Primary among these shared features is that both types of exchange occur between parties of unequal social status. Second, both the exchanges rarely involve the exchange of goods or services of equal value, but are based on a reciprocity of gratitude, loyalty, and honor... If one's perspective were limited to these two elements alone, one might very well conclude that suzerains and vassals were no different from patrons and clients. There are, however, equally important distinctions between covenantal and patronal exchange. Most importantly, each involves different levels of formality. The interlocutors of covenantal exchanges were bound by oaths that were made (and remade) in public, and that involved witnesses and ceremonies in order to make the contracts legal and binding... Patronage and clientage was no less binding than covenantal exchange, but it was much less formalized." (Ancient Israel: The Old Testament in its Social Context (edited by Philip Esler), "Reciprocity", pp 86-87)
The covenantal model is of course more applicable to the ancient Near East and Israel, while patronage is more operative in a Greco-Roman setting.

Barack Obama and Psalm 58

Remember Pastor Steven Anderson from Faithful Word Baptist Church? In his latest diatribe he heaps curses down on our new president with some alarming rhetoric. Drawing on the imprecatory psalms, but especially Psalm 58, in his sermon "Barack Obama Melting as a Snail", he preaches as follows:
"Psalm 58:6. Boy, let's get into the prayer life of David. 'With David in the prayer closet.' [congregation laughing] We should put out a little brochure on this, you know? 'In the prayer closet with David': 'Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth.' Good night. 'Break out the great teeth of the of the young lions, O Lord. Let them melt away as waters which run continually: when he bendeth his bow to shoot his arrows, let them be as cut in pieces. As a snail which melteth' -- Barack Obama, since you want to use your salt solution to kill babies in this country, Barack Obama. You're going to REAP! what you SOW! Because one DAY, Barack Obama, you're going to be BURNING IN HELL! And you're going to FEEL the burning sensation all over your SKIN, which was the SAME SENSATION FELT by every BABY THAT WAS ABORTED IN ITS MOTHER'S WOMB!

"And David's praying, saying, 'AS A SNAIL WHICH MELTETH' -- see, that was very scriptural, what I brought up about snails being salted -- he said, 'AS A SNAIL WHICH MELTETH, LET EVERY ONE OF THEM PASS AWAY: LIKE THE UNTIMELY BIRTH [fist pounding] OF A WOMAN [fist pounding]'. He said, like an abortion, right? He said, like a miscarriage -- that's what an 'untimely birth' is. He said, 'LET BARACK OBAMA PERISH LIKE AN ABORTION! LET BARACK OBAMA PERISH LIKE A MISCARRIAGE! AS THE UNTIMELY BIRTH OF A WOMAN, THAT THEY MAY NOT SEE THE SUN.'

"Let me tell you something. Somebody needs to abort Barack Obama." ["Amen!"] "It's true. Now I'm not going to do it, I'm not saying vigilantism, I'm not saying somebody should go kill him. I'm saying there should be a government in this country, that under God's authority, takes Barack Obama and aborts him on television for everybody to see in the whole world. Did you hear me? Hey, I'm not saying I'm going to do it, I'm not a vigilante. But I'm going to tell you something: if there was any justice [fist pounding] in this country, if the judicial branch [fist pounding] in this country meant ANYTHING, they would TAKE Barack Obama and all of his colleagues, and they would take him and they would abort him." ["Amen!"] "They would melt him like a snail. They would break the teeth out of his head, my friend.

"Now you say, 'Oh, I can't believe you're threatening the president.' I'm not saying I'm going to do it, I just wish GOD would do it!" ["Amen!"] "And He will do it, my friend. And I wish we had a government that would act on God's behalf like the government is supposed to do. You know the government is supposed to carry out God's laws." ["That's right!"] "They're supposed to enforce God's laws against murderers, against stealing, against lying, against deceit, against adultery. That's the purpose of human government. And so I'd like to see Barack Obama melt like a snail. I'd like to see the teeth knocked out of his head. I'd like to see him perish, just like an abortion. That's what David preached! That's what he prayed to God!"
Anderson also invokes the curses found in Psalms 55, 69, 109, which alongside 58 and 137 are surely the nastiest of the imprecatory psalms. His omission of that last one is curious, but perhaps not terribly surprising in view of the partial birth abortion issue being decried. In Psalm 137, after all, God's people cry out against Babylon, "Happy shall they be who pay you back for what you've done to us! Happy shall they be who take your infants and dash them against rocks!"

Anyway, there you have it. Steve Anderson is preaching hard as ever. Still, I found this sermon to be exceptionally harsh even by his standards.

UPDATE: It looks like there's a youtube video of the sermon. The part cited above is found at 21:23-24:09.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Bird and Crossley on the Air (Part One)

Unbelievable: Michael Bird and James Crossley have been interviewed about their book, How Did Christianity Begin?, which I earlier reviewed here. In this session they debate the question of Jesus' divinity in the gospels, and whether or not the resurrection best accounts for the birth of the Christian movement. Michael and James were equally eloquent and collegial (is this what's most "Unbelievable"?). Next week's second half will focus on Paul and more issues from the gospels.

Friday, January 16, 2009

RBL Blog

As others have noted, the Review of Biblical Literature now has a blog.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Have No Doubt: Doubt Delivers

Let me get my single qualm with this film out of the way, for it's otherwise beyond reproach. Meryl Streep's character, Sister Aloysius, is somewhat a caricature. Some reviewers think not, like John Beifuss:
"As a person who had the glasses literally slapped from his face by a Roman Catholic sister in elementary school, I can testify that it's hard to exaggerate when portraying a nun."
My experience, however, squares more with that of Roger Ebert:
"In my eight years of Catholic school, not a one of the Dominican nuns was anything but kind and dedicated, and I was never touched, except by Sister Ambrosetta's thunking forefinger to the skull in first grade."
Like Ebert, I had eight years of Catholic education, and most of my nun teachers were very kind. (Though my best friend got stuck with a terror in the fifth grade, one Sister Louise who openly prayed down destruction on students who annoyed her -- one time she even told a kid, "I hope to God your house burns down." But she was a striking exception.) I was never Catholic but have generally positive memories of my Catholic schooling. Yes, I grew up in the '80s -- well after the film's 1964 setting -- but Ebert would have grown up in the '50s, before even Vatican II.

Streep, of course, does an excellent job playing the part she was given (when does she not?), but her character could have been fleshed out with at least some positive traits. Sister Aloysius is as grim and icy as a witch out of a fairy-tale: patrolling the church-aisles like a fascist, whacking the heads of dozing kids; shooting withering gazes at other sisters who refuse to eat every morsel on their plates; waxing wroth at the sight of ballpoint pens. It's enough that she's old school, pre-Vatican II in mentality, and engaged in a power-play with a liberal priest. She doesn't have to be Queen Bitcheousness for overkill.

That business aside, I really liked Shanley's film. It tells its parable of doubt with craft and intelligence: A young and naive nun (Sister James, played by Amy Adams) suspects that the parish priest (Father Flynn, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) has an erotic interest in one of his altar boys. She races to tell Sister Aloysius, but has doubts about the priest's guilt. The Dragon-Nun, no friend of Father Liberal to begin with, becomes instantly certain of it. We're not sure what to believe or how to feel, because the evidence is murky and the priest is a sympathetic character.

The drama escalates in four pivotal scenes, each perfectly directed and played by the actors: (1) the initial confrontation in Sister Aloysius' office, where she and Sister James accuse Father Flynn; (2) the sit-down on a park bench between Father Flynn and Sister James, who becomes convinced he's not doing anything wrong; (3) the outside conversation between Sister Aloysius and the boy's mother (an exceptionally agonizing scene, and definitely the film's best); and (4) the inevitable showdown between Father Flynn and Aloysius. It's intense viewing, and some of the best screen-dialogue I've witnessed in a long time.

In the end, every character (even Aloysius) is left with doubts, and nothing is clearly spelled out. Father Flynn and the boy are both apparently gay, and whatever exactly happened between them in the rectory, it may not have owed to predation on the priest's part, though this isn't certain. The boy's mother isn't wild about their relationship, but thinks it's a refuge from life at home under a violently abusive father (who hates and beats the boy for "his nature") -- though that's a hard idea in a world which pathologizes eroticism between adults and youths. Only one thing is certain: the film delivers and satisfies in all its refreshing ambiguity.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

FAQ's about The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled

Check out Peter Jeffery's excellent answers to the following FAQ's about his book:
Morton Smith was an eminent scholar in his day, how can you feel justified in presenting such a negative picture of him in The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled?

Your book is full of innuendos and suggestions that Morton Smith was mentally ill. Aren't you simply resorting to ad hominem attacks that are inappropriate in a scholarly publication?

I knew Morton Smith very well, and the man I knew was not at all like the one you portray in your book. How can you write that way about someone you never even met?

Isn't it unfair to accuse Morton Smith of forgery when he's not around to defend himself?

Isn't it true that, because you are a practicing Catholic, you cannot abide the possibility that an ancient document might contradict your church's doctrinal stance? Isn't that your real reason for going after Smith's discovery?

But your book consistently denigrates Smith for not believing as you do, beginning from the acknowledgements: "I pray for the late Morton Smith--may God rest his anguished soul." You seem to write throughout from a position of contemptuous superiority.

Why not just have the manuscript scientifically tested? The jury will be out until that happens.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The 11th Doctor

It looks like Matt Smith will be the next Doctor Who. Season Five will begin in the spring of 2010.