Thursday, April 30, 2009

Thoroughgoing Eschatology and Thoroughgoing Humility

In The Historical Jesus: What If The Key Pieces are Missing?, Mark Goodacre reminds us:
"There is an assumption at work in a lot of historical Jesus research that all the relevant and necessary materials for a reasonably complete picture of Jesus are available. They are available somewhere and we can get at them somehow. We just have to work hard to get to them. We spend many painful hours sifting and honing criteria because we feel that the literary deposit is somewhere bound to contain all the material of real importance... The assumption develops out of an unrealistic perspective on the task... Discussion about the historical Jesus should constantly involve the reminder that massive amounts of key data must be missing."
In the same vein, John Meier began his project by insisting that "the vast majority of [Jesus'] deeds and words, the 'reasonably complete' record of the 'real' Jesus, is irrevocably lost to us today. This is no new insight of modern agnostic scholars... The point I am making is true of most figures of ancient history." (A Marginal Jew, Vol I, pp 22-23). And I believe the final sentence of the fourth gospel contains as much historical truth as confessional ecstasy: "There are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written." (Jn 21:25)

Meier and Goodacre each rightly emphasize the futility of salvaging a "reasonably complete" portrait of the historical Jesus, though I think we can get at a reasonable sketch of him, and that sketch sits across the synoptics, the letters of Paul, and the epistle of James. If these sources are largely unreliable, then we're out of luck and should concede victory to the mythicists. As I said in Millenialism or Myth?, mythicism is actually a more credible position than minimalism. (I would sooner ally myself with a Bill Arnal than a Dom Crossan.) The Jesus/Christian movement shows every sign of being a failed apocalyptic movement and having evolved in the manner typical of one. The Schweitzerian cliché, "thoroughgoing eschatology or thoroughgoing skepticism", imposes the same choice as ever. Though perhaps in view of Mark's reminder, we should choose "thoroughgoing eschatology and thoroughgoing humility".

Monday, April 27, 2009

Origen's Use of Thomas

Keep an eye on the GThomas mailing list, because next month Stephen Carlson will be posting excerpts from his SBL paper, "Origen's Use of the Gospel of Thomas". Stephen's abstract points to a conclusion that, "despite Origen’s recognition that the Gospel of Thomas did not rank with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and despite the presence of some content he must have found objectionable, Origen nonetheless thought that the Gospel of Thomas contained historically useful and homiletically edifying material." I'm looking forward to this list discussion, hosted of course by Mike Grondin.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Bruce Malina on Rape Culture

Since we're in the middle of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I thought it would be appropriate to revisit what Bruce Malina tells us about the rape culture of the honor-shame Mediterranean.
"Young men come to consider their own sex drive so strong that only the physical impossibility of sexual access to the women of his social circle (because of their segregation, supervision, etc.) prevents them from satisfying their urges. The image young men are provided of girls and women complements this self-image. Of course, this image of females has been developed and maintained by males. According to this picture, the female sexual drive is equally strong. So should he but manage to corner any female alone, she might put up a wild show of resistance at first, but once he has as much has kissed her, she would give in and readily become his. In fact, it is popularly assumed that a woman's lust is greater than that of a man, hence the even greater urgency to keep women duly circumscribed.

"Women, in turn, are enculturated to believe this feminine self-image. Girls are brought up to believe that once they might find themselves alone with a male, they would be unable to resist his advances. Therefore the proper female must never allow herself to be found in such a situation. Girls are taught to believe from childhood that the central human being is the male -- his honor replicated symbolically in his sexual drive. Thus from childhood, girls are led to believe that the mere sight of a woman is sufficient to arouse a man sexually, and only external, social circumstances can prevent him from having his way with her. These views and expectations are, of course, self-fulfilling." (The Social World of Jesus and the Gospels, p 49)
And because these expectations are self-fulfilling, rape is often legitimated in these cultures, even when nominally decried. But elements of this model apply to western cultures too. Susan Brownmiller, writing in the '70s, continues to speak for some feminists:
"The rape fantasy exists in women as a man-made iceberg. It can be destroyed – by feminism. But first we must seek to learn the extent of its measurements... Because men control the definitions of sex, women are allotted a poor assortment of options. Either we attempt to find enjoyment and sexual stimulation in the kind of passive/masochistic fantasies that men have prepared us to have, or we reject these packaged fantasies as unhealthy... Fantasies are important to the enjoyment of sex, I think, but it is a rare woman who can successfully fight the culture and come up with her own non-exploitive, non-sadomasochistic, non-powerdriven imaginative thrust... When women do fantasize about sex, the fantasies are usually the product of male conditioning and cannot be otherwise." (Against Our Will, pp 322-324)
I don't wish to address the accuracy of Brownmiller's assessment of women's rape fantasies (though I will in a future post, because I think she is largely wrong about this), only to note the underscored relationship between cultural conditioning and female passivity. At the very least, she's right that enough women have been conditioned to think and behave vulnerably which makes (real-life) rape harder to prevent -- and harder for certain men to acknowledge rape as such, especially the "acquaintance" variety. The conditioning may not be as strict and suffocating as in shame-based cultures (described by Malina), but it's the same idea.

Sexual assault is obviously a problem everywhere (and let's be frank and acknowledge, against Brownmiller, that as a species humans are naturally inclined to rape). But it won't do to pretend that rape is institutionalized in integrity-guilt cultures as much as in honor-shame. Our western legislators certainly aren't passing bills which legalize rape in the name of "democracy", and it doesn't hurt that plenty of women can be found on our legislative bodies. We have something called Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which promotes a doctrine of intolerance for rape in all manifestations. Integrity-guilt societies have done a verifiably better job in showing a commitment against rape than the world out of which Jesus came. In Jesus in an Age of Terror, James Crossley worries about our intense focus on issues of sex and violence in assessing that world (which he sees as unfair stereotyping), but that focus is part of a larger (and very real) picture of what shame-based cultures are about. The issues are important -- not least for the light they shed, in varying degrees, on western subcultures, as much by comparison as contrast.

I should note that none of this is intended to downplay the phenomenon of men who get raped (especially by other men), nor those who get raped by women. But it's no mystery that rapists are usually men, and women more often their victims. The phenomenon of male rape culture, deeply embedded in honor-shame societies, but more generally to be found everywhere, shows about as much sign of fading from the human scene, unfortunately, as war.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A Remarkable Acting Scene

I already reviewed Doubt, but want to call attention to a youtube clip of the film's most powerful scene: the talk between Sister Aloysius and the mother of the boy involved with a priest. Viola Davis richly deserved her Oscar for this performance, and it's challenging to watch in so many ways. If I had to make a list of mandatory movie scenes to show to student actors, this would surely be in the top-10.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Secret Mark in New Orleans

There's going to be another SBL session devoted to Morton Smith's prank, this time focusing on Peter Jeffery's book, The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled. Jeffery will be one of the speakers.

(Via Stephen Carlson.)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Let the Right Film In

If you thought it would be an unbearably long time before another Pan's Labyrinth hit the screens, think again, and don't wait another day to rent Let the Right One In. I'd vaguely heard of this months ago, but had no idea it was supposed to be so good. It's a Swedish film about a vampire girl who bonds with a 12-year old boy bullied by his classmates, and in so doing these pariahs manage to heal each others' wounds. This reviewer puts it nicely:
"Think Twilight, but directed by Ingmar Bergman and starring twelve-year-olds instead of teens then you’ll have a good idea what to expect... Let the Right One In is the best vampire movie since, well, forever."
In other words, it's as good as Twilight is embarrassingly bad, and that's, well, really all that needs to be said by way of review.

It has an incredible 98% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes, topping even Labyrinth's 96%. Because this is a 2008 film, I guess I'm going to have to revise my recent pick list -- and entertain seriously the idea that it ousts The Dark Knight from the #1 slot!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Salvation by Self-Knowledge? Not.

David Livingstone Smith cites the following thinkers who understood how suffocating self-knowledge is. They should have been around in the second century to tell the gnostics a few things.
Immanuel Kant: The "hard descent into the hell of self-knowledge" results in the "gloomiest melancholia".

Wolfgang von Goethe: "Know thyself? If I knew myself I would run away."

Mark Twain: "Man, know thyself, and then thou wilt despise thyself, to a dead moral certainty.”
Read the full article, "In Praise of Self-Deception", which elaborates on a theme I've blogged about before.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Natural Born Warmongers?

"War is both intensely horrible and exquisitely pleasurable. It is horrible because of the danger and suffering that soldiers and civilians endure, and the unavoidable guilt that comes with killing. It is pleasurable because –- like all pleasures –- it is something that benefitted our ancient ancestors who were victors in the bloody struggle for resources. The joy of war is the joy of the hunt, of bringing down game, of ridding the world of a man-eating monster or obliterating a plague... We will never stop men from enjoying war, and trying to do so is a fool's errand. The most that we can hope for, in the end, is for men to detest it more than they enjoy it, and the only way to shift that balance is to expose the self-deception that makes killing bearable." (David Livingstone Smith, The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War, p 215)
David Livingstone Smith's new book is best described as an account of war from a neurobiological, psychological, anthropological, and evolutionary perspective, and a disturbing one that won't leave you feeling optimistic about improving ourselves. As he sees it, there are three components to the question "Why do we war?". They are: (1) "What triggers war to begin with?" (2) "How does war benefit a species in the long run?" (3) "What is psychologically appealing about war?" The first two are easy to answer, while the third is rather complicated, and the point of the book. Let's take them in turn.

(1) What triggers war? No mystery here: the need for resources. Just as chimpanzees attack one another in order to secure and protect resources for themselves and their kin, so do we. By intimidating or killing rivals, we gain territory, fossil fuels, or whatever we're after. The difference between us and chimps, of course, is that as a conceptual species we fight for ideas of resources as often as material ones, even abstract ideas like national honor or spiritual righteousness.

(2) How does war contribute to a species' reproductive success? The answer again is obvious: because the most efficiently brutal men survive. Our weaker and more pacifistic ancestors got killed and withered on the evolutionary vine. Genetic history is always written by the victors, and because warrior heroes usually make attractive mates, they also have more reproductive success than other men. So for better or worse (the latter, as far as I'm concerned), our homicidal impulses have been handed down to us through natural selection.

We have very strong homicidal impulses, and it's dangerous to deny this fact just because it may be uncomfortable. As Smith notes, studies show that 91% of men and 84% of women admit to daydreaming about killing people they dislike. Film and literature testify to our collective homicidal fantasies where violence is pervasive, in even the best classics like The Iliad and the Bible.

At the same time, less than .005% of American people who daydream about murder go on to commit it. (Even in a place like Jamaica, which has the highest murder rate in the world, less than .06% of people are killers.) So despite our homicidal impulses, we also have a strong aversion to killing, and it's not just fear of criminal punishment. If it were, then soldiers would readily succumb to homicidal mania when given a license to kill. But that doesn't happen. Soldiers are routinely traumatized and guilt-ridden from taking lives. They vomit from stress, have tremors, convulsions, and are often scarred for life. How did this evolution occur?

Smith explains that our ability to attribute essences to things (by virtue of our capacity for concepts) keeps our homicidal impulses in check, and even goes against them. Our ancestors played by chimpanzee rules -- ruthlessly killing outsiders without qualm -- until they mastered thought, and it gradually began to dawn on them that all human beings are members of a single kind. Yes, we continue to think ethnocentrically, xenophobically, and nepotistically, but now in tension with the idea that human beings are biologically the same. Natural selection has bred ferocity into us, but our aggressive urges are opposed by an equally profound aversion to killing members of our own species. We are neither natural born killers nor peace-lovers, but something more complex.

(3) So –- to address the third question now -- what is it about the human psyche that allows us to overcome our aversion to killing and give free rein to our homicidal urges in war? Just because the function of war is to win resources, that's not what soldiers typically have in mind when they march off to battle. And although war enhanced our ancestors' reproductive success, that doesn't mean we go to war because we want to spread our genes. We keep going to war because, deep down inside, we love killing, once we cope with our aversion to it. But how do we do that?

Smith lights on various ways. There's drugs and alcohol. But although frequently used, that's not the main way soldiers cope with war. There's dissociation: becoming distant and numb so that we lose our sensitivity to pain. But again, that only takes soldiers so far. Killing from a distance certainly helps: it's much easier to kill people when we don't have to look into their eyes, or get close to them, when doing it. That's why aerial bombardment, artillery, and chemical weapons are a godsend. But most importantly, most necessarily, we rely on self-deception: we dehumanize and demonize our enemies. Thinking of them as a virus or a bunch of dogs enables us to take their lives as casually as we would swat insects, and unleash our natural aggressions with a clean conscience -- even up close. This is a widely recognized but understated phenomenon. As Smith says, "It has become a cliché. Like all clichés, we seldom if ever pause to consider it seriously." (p 184) Dehumanizing the enemy goes way beyond rhetoric. It's the way we subconsciously tell ourselves that genocide is okay, and indeed something that can be enjoyed.

For at this stage many of us discover that we are in fact natural born killers. Winston Churchill said he loved war: "I know it's smashing and shattering lives of thousands every moment, and yet I enjoy every second of it." Many soldiers grow to like killing so much that they feel intoxicated by the sight of bloodshed and sound of hideous screaming. Others describe the experience of slaughter in erotic terms, such as Vietnam veteran Philip Caputo: it "was like getting screwed for the first time", an "ache as profound as the ache of an orgasm". Citations like these are sobering. I consider myself close to being a pacifist, but what would happen if I were thrown into the nightmare of prolonged combat? How much would it take to unleash my killer instincts? Would sadistic aggressions flood to the surface and make a mockery of my pacifist values? How traumatically would that effect me long-term?

There's no room for false hope here, and Smith concludes realistically: "Taking my cues from the past, I am far from optimistic about the future." (p 212) He allows some cautious optimism though. As indicated in the top citation, it's futile to try stopping us from enjoying war, but perhaps we can at least learn to hate it more than we enjoy it. Coming to terms with our self-deception, and becoming intolerant of the way we dehumanize our enemies, would be a promising step in this direction.

The only serious omission in the book is an acknowledgment of soldierly altruism. This blogger, for instance, rightly emphasizes that we use a naturally selected altruism to compel each other to go to war, and that soldiers initially volunteer for nation and ideals, then fight for each other more than that. Altruism is of course compatible with a love for killing enemies, but the former needs emphasis. That's my single gripe. Smith is otherwise right on track about why we war, and I recommend his book highly.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Marital Rape in Afghanistan

April has been Sexual Assault Awareness Month in the U.S. for nine years now, established by The National Sexual Violence Resource Center. It doesn't hurt to look beyond national borders too, however, as Jim West does, noting the new Afghan law that legalizes marital rape:
"A new Afghan law makes it legal for men to rape their wives, human rights groups and some Afghan lawmakers said Thursday, accusing President Hamid Karzai of signing the legislation to bolster his re-election prospects. Critics worry the legislation undermines hard-won rights for women enacted after the fall of the Taliban's strict Islamist regime. The law — which some lawmakers say was never debated in parliament — is intended to regulate family life inside Afghanistan's Shiite community, which makes up about 20 percent of this country of 30 million people. The law does not affect Afghan Sunnis. One of the most controversial articles stipulates the wife 'is bound to preen for her husband as and when he desires.'. . . 'As long as the husband is not traveling, he has the right to have sexual intercourse with his wife every fourth night,' Article 132 of the law says. 'Unless the wife is ill or has any kind of illness that intercourse could aggravate, the wife is bound to give a positive response to the sexual desires of her husband.'"
But I found this part curious:
"One provision also appears to protect the woman's right to sex inside marriage saying the 'man should not avoid having sexual relations with his wife longer than once every four months.'"
So husbands can demand sex of their wives every fourth night, and women can demand sex of their husbands once every four months. Hmm. Something wrong with that picture, from many angles, though that's more a two-way street that I would have imagined.

UPDATE: From CBC News. If it weren't so outrageous the rationale of the Muslim cleric who defends the law would be hilarious:
"It is not possible for all women to pay the same amount of money as men are paying. For all these expenses, can't we at least give the right to a husband to demand sex from his wife after four nights?... If she is not sick, and if she does not have another problem, it is the right of a man to ask for sex and she should make herself ready for it. This is the right of a man... The Westerners claim that they have brought democracy to Afghanistan. What does democracy mean? It means government by the people for the people. They should let the people use these democratic rights."
He means, of course, that we should let the men use these 'democratic' rights.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Biblical Studies Carnival XL

The fortieth Biblical Studies Carnival is up on James Gregory's Blog.