Friday, January 29, 2010

Jeremy Hultin on You Tube: Obscene Speech in Early Christianity

After reviewing his excellent book, I announced that Jeremy Hultin of Yale Divinity would be entertaining questions about it in a short video. Jeremy has uploaded the video to you tube for all to enjoy. I'll have to think more about the register of the phrase "brood of vipers", and dig up an old article by Dick Rohrbaugh who believes it was more crass than Jeremy claims. Thanks to Jeremy for a fun and helpful discussion!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Ten Special Music Moments from Film and TV

Bullz-eye lists what they consider to be the top 40 music moments in film history. My list of favorites is far less comprehensive and much more eclectic. Here are my favorite ten.

1. Into the West, by Annie Lennox. The Lord of the Rings. 2003. In the films the song plays over the end credits of the final installment, The Return of the King. I must be a sap after all; listening to this brings such tears to my eyes.

2. Llorando (Crying), by Rebekah Del Rio. Mulholland Drive. 2001. A close second on my list, and with as much emotional resonance. This scene -- straight from the film -- is the dividing point between Diane's Hollywood dream and the cruel reality she wakes up to. It's a very haunting scene and the Spanish singer's voice is perfect.

3. The Order of Death, by Public Image Limited. "Little Miss Dangerous", Miami Vice. 1986. The video clip covers the final 8 minutes of this classic episode, and the song starts at 3:49. But it's worth watching the entire thing. This was the TV episode, back in mid-80s, which taught me the harrowing power of minimalism. "This is what you want, this is what you get; this is what you want, this is what you get..."

4. Your Arms Around Me, by Jens Lekman. Whip It! 2009. This is fabulous: Ellen Page and a lanky-looking dude diving into a swimming pool and having fun with each other, all to the tune of a Swedish indie singer, as they hold their breath for amazingly long periods, somersault, kiss and grope each other... you get the idea.

5. Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon, by Urge Overkill. Pulp Fiction. 1994. Tarantino always has a good ear for music in film, but this one stands for me as quintessential Quentin. The video isn't from the film, but has shots from it, with Uma Thurman "getting down" to a groovy tune, while getting equally high on a supply of heroine which she thinks is cocaine. Oops.

6. Nobody Jesus, But You, by "The Sunshine Singers". Palindromes. 2005. I'm going to take flak for this one, and yes it's pretty sick, but I never fail to be perversely delighted by the sight of these mentally and physically challenged kids shucking and jiving to a ridiculous Jesus song. Raised in a fundamentalist home, these kiddies have the love of Jesus on their side 24/7, and this tune is so disturbingly catchy it makes part of me want to join in dancing. The video is straight from the film. Enjoy, or throw up -- whatever your pleasure.

7. Air on the G-String, by Johann Sebastian Bach. Seven. 1995. A list from me wouldn't be complete without a library scene, and this one is perfect: Air on the G-String playing over images of Morgan Freeman leafing through pages of Dante's Inferno. The list from Bullz-eye includes a different song from this film -- the Nine Inch Nails' Closer playing over the opening credits -- but I think my choice is more powerful. The video clip is straight from the film.

8. I'm Shipping Up to Boston, by Dropkick Murphys. The Departed. 2006. This clip doesn't show anything from Scorsese's film, so you just have to picture mean gangsters burning rubber on the highway, evading Massachusetts State Troopers, to the tune of a raw, awesome song.

9. Anyone Else But You, by Michael Cera and Ellen Page. Juno. 2007. From the tail end of my favorite feel-good comedy of all time, and possibly the only feel-good comedy I've ever really liked. It's a bit sappy out of context, but very touching.

10. Song for Ten, by Murray Gold. "The Christmas Invasion", Doctor Who. 2005. The version released on the official soundtrack is horrible, but I managed to locate a clip of the original performance, and the original singer, in David Tennant's first outing as the 10th incarnation of Doctor Who. Music wasn't often Murray Gold's strongpoint, but he did strike gold with this one.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Mike Koke on Paul's Calling/Conversion

Mike Koke asks whether or not Paul was called or converted, an issue I've addressed quite heavily in the past. Here's the comment I left for Mike, but with added links to older blogposts on the subject.
The biggest problem in the 'conversion/calling' debate is the question of perspective. Paul describes his calling in a prophetic way, but that's not the end of the story because his opponents could readily deny his claims and say he actually taught apostacy. And in view of texts like Philip 3, in which he cheerfully writes off his heritage as excrement in view of the Christ event, I think it's entirely reasonable to speak, objectively, of Paul's conversion.

Then there's the technicality of the structure of Hellenistic Judaism which further blurs distinctions between 'calling' and 'conversion'. Zeba Crook argued that by this time, it was possible to speak of someone being called and thus converted: Paul was invoking the call of the divine patron-benefactor (which involved conversion by definition) and the call of the prophets at the same time.

As for why Paul initially persecuted Christians, Fredriksen dismisses the issue of indiscriminate table-fellowship too lightly. In my view that stands as the best reason, and thus precisely why Paul did an about-face on this issue: like many converts, he was attracted to what repulsed him.

The other two reasons commonly advanced for Paul's persecuting the Christians — for belief in a crucified messiah, or for politically subversive reputation — aren't as impressive, especially the first which is too abstract and doesn't do justice the diversity of messianic beliefs at the time. The second (advance by Fredriksen) is admittedly more plausible, but one would think that whatever political misunderstandings were (understandably) fueled during Jesus' final week during passover would be increasingly corrected and put into perspective.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The E-Space Trilogy: A Full Review

I've been meaning to review the E-Space Trilogy since last spring, painfully aware how hard it is to do justice to a symphony that approaches perfection, especially when there's so much to say about it I hardly know where to begin. The stories come at the tail end of Tom Baker's incarnation as the Fourth Doctor, during John Nathan-Turner's first season as producer, and Christopher Bidmead's only season as script-editor. That last is too bad, because Bidmead's intellectual drive took the show to new heights throughout season 18, and the E-Space Trilogy, sitting in the middle of it, was the pinnacle of this success. Its only real weakness is Adric, the universally despised TARDIS companion who couldn't walk, let alone talk, without looking stilted and phony.

The trilogy begins with the Doctor and Romana finding themselves trapped in the parallel world of E-Space ("Exo Space"), the universe of negative coordinates, and ends with them finding a way back home to N-Space ("Normal Space"). While in E-Space they visit two planets before getting trapped in a void that bridges the two universes. In each case they encounter groups who are enslaved in some way -- the enslavement gets exponentially worse in each story -- and a "lost" spaceship is somehow involved. The stories are so different in terms of setting and plot that the common theme of systematic oppression is almost invisible, but there's no denying a progression of stakes being raised, and it would seem almost deliberately inversely proportional to how long the ship in each case has been stranded.

The ship in Full Circle crashed about a million years ago, and its current caretakers are not the descendants of the original crew as they've been taught, but people who have evolved from the planet's marshmen. They carry out routine repairs on the ship, never making any progress, preparing for a day of departure which can never come. Their three leaders (the Deciders) aren't overtly oppressive, but keep them in ignorance to maintain the status quo. The ship in State of Decay has been mired for a thousand years, keeping generations of colonists trapped in a feudal state of serfdom, forbidden to read or learn, and treated as livestock by a trio of aristocratic vampires. These overlords reign from a tower that was the colonial spaceship, harvesting peasant blood for the return of a Great Vampire lying dormant beneath the earth. Once part of the original crew, they are now gifted with undead life to pave the way for the beast's dominion over the universe. The ship in Warriors' Gate, frozen in the void for less than a year, becomes the microcosm through which we see brutal power being wielded over another species, requiring the rescue operation of fate itself, manipulated in advance from an infinite set of possibilities.

The Doctor's role in each story, or the antidote to the enslavement, is completely different. In Full Circle he serves as a catalyst for change, mostly by yelling and heaping insults on the Deciders for keeping their subjects in ignorance. In State of Decay he's aggressively proactive, instigating a peasant revolution against the vampire overlords. And in Warriors' Gate he does literally nothing –- but "the right kind of nothing" -- at the behest of a Tharil who knows how things are destined to play out. It adds up to a structurally flawless symphony, but one which requires tremendous unpacking. Let's look at each story in detail.

Full Circle is known for its brilliant plot twists and surprising revelations. The script was penned by a gifted seventeen year old, Andrew Smith, chosen, like many writers of season 18, for showing remarkable initiative with fresh ideas. Most notably, and for the first time ever in Doctor Who, there are no villains in the story. The Deciders are middle-aged farts who want to maintain the status quo and keep their privileges, to be sure, but they also operate out of a genuine belief of what's best for the community, fearing truth will do more harm than good. In the end, they see the errors of their ways and assert a positive leadership. Full Circle is about the cyclic patterns of society and evolution, the ethics of questionable experiments, and willful ignorance. If that all sounds unusual for a Doctor Who story, be sure that it is, and in a good way.

Because there are no villains, tension is carried on hidden mysteries and heated arguments. The best scene comes in episode three as the Doctor stands in an arena before the Deciders, yelling at them contemptuously for needless prevarication, revealing (stunningly, to us as viewers) that the Starliner ship has been ready to take off for centuries, and that the daily maintenance people are forced to carry out is based on nothing more than the "fraud of perpetual movement, the endless tasks of going round and round, the same old components being removed and replaced, and the willful procrastination of endless routine". But just as we're cheering him on -- Tom Baker hasn't gotten in a thundering indictment like this for a few seasons now -- we get the rug jerked out from under us by the Deciders' counter revelation that while the ship is indeed ready for takeoff, they don't know how to fly it, which completely deflates the Doctor's contempt for these poor men. The double revelation is wonderfully executed and one of the finest segments of dialogue ever written for the show.

The full truth of events cascades in the last episode: the Starliner crashed not forty generations ago, as everyone believes, but forty thousand generations ago; its original human inhabitants died right away, and the people don't descend from them as the Deciders have taught. They come, as the Doctor declares stunningly, from the planet's marshmen through an accelerated course of evolution.

The marshmen are more -- or perhaps less -- than the typical monsters we're used to seeing in Doctor Who. They're dangerous and kill plenty of the Starliner's people, but as their ancestors pose interesting questions and force us to view them as adaptive animals more than actual monsters. Dexeter's lab work on the marshchild in episode three is particularly upsetting. After its early playful reaction to the Doctor and developing trust, the child is now cruelly subjected to experiments under supervision of the Deciders. Traumatized, it manages to lash out and kill Dexeter, and then tragically dies itself when reaching out to the one individual (the Doctor) who was nice to it.

Special mention must be made of Login, the Decider who behaves more decently than the others, going especially out of his way to protect his renegade daughter in spite of what The Procedure dictates. In effect he's the internal critic of the trio he's only recently become part of, learning quickly that "deciding" is exactly what this group does not do. At the very end, when the Doctor shows the Deciders how to fly the Starliner, it's no surprise that Login is the one to reach for the launch button, while Garif stalls him on grounds that such a decision "requires some thought". We don't get to see who ultimately makes the decision when the Starliner takes off on the TARDIS scanner, but it's safe to assume that it's Login, who will presumably take the strongest role in leading people to a new life.

The twin perils of purposelessness and ignorance can be said to form a base level of enslavement which keeps people "running in circles", as it were, with liberation effected by a final willingness to accept cold truths. It's funny that evolution wasn't a particularly hot issue in 1980; the Intelligent Design madness gained momentum in the 90s and exploded in alarming ways just this past decade. Full Circle has even more to say today than to its original viewers, not only about the bond we share with lower forms of life, but the politics of not wanting to evolve as a species or society. It retains freshness and proves that villains are superfluous when people do a fine enough job being their own worst enemy, and in more ways than one. As a self-contained story it stands on its own splendidly. As the first beat in a trilogy, it foreshadows deeper threats relating to enslavement. Rating: 5 jelly babies.

Now for State of Decay. As a rule I go into vampire stories with low expectations. Vampires are my favorite of the undead, and so I'm all the more furious that they're rarely allowed to be frightening. The aristocratic version based on Dracula has been way overused, and the bubblegum pop-model (Blade, Underworld, Buffy, Twilight) is a joke. I prefer the barbarically savage breed that go for the jugular with little fanfare (Near Dark, From Dusk Till Dawn, 30 Days of Night). That being said, State of Decay uses the aristocratic model to astonishingly good effect, in a truly horrifying story that harks back to the terrors of seasons 12-14. It allows us to relive Hinchcliffe's Gothic Age in the middle of the otherwise science-based season 18 -- and let's face it, vampires were long overdue in Doctor Who by this point.

The atmosphere of State of Decay is appropriately grim and depressing, with peasant villagers randomly selected by The Three Who Rule for a hideous purpose. The lucky ones get to join the tower guard, while most either become dinner for the lords or get stored in special bays which drain their blood for the Great Vampire. The Great Vampire itself -- mercifully glimpsed for only moments at the end; unlike everything else in this story, it looks rather silly -- is an ancient evil threatening on the same level as Sutekh in Pyramids of Mars, inspiring legends on countless planets, and whose goal is nothing less than the conquest of the multiverse (N-Space as much as E-Space). The overlords of the tower have been preparing for his imminent Arising, and it's the dominating presence of these three fiends that makes the story a smashing success.

What makes the aristocratic vamps work so well are that (a) they actually look menacing (the costume designs and colors are perfect), (b) their performances never go over the top, and (c) their characters are fleshed out by tensions within the group (King Zargo and Queen Camilla resent the cleric Aukon who has more powers than they do, able to summon hordes of bats at will and commune directly with the Great Vampire). But it's the morbid way all of this is funneled into a Doctor Who story that makes State of Decay, in my opinion, one of the best vampire stories ever. As the Doctor and Romana discover the true nature of the tower, they see that some of its functionality as a spaceship has been put to disturbingly efficient use -- most notably the fuel tanks are full, but of blood, which is channeled beneath the earth to the Great Vampire. The scene where the Time Lords discover the bays with drained bodies and the blood tanks is unsettling in the extreme, and it paralyzes me when Aukon catches them snooping and assaults them with his hypnotic powers.

The peasant rebellion against The Three Who Rule, instigated by the Doctor, isn't like anything seen before on the show, except in The Sun Makers when the Doctor started a riot against a government for taxing people to death. That was an exceptional course of action for him; the Time Lord usually remains aloof from politics and certainly isn't in the habit of toppling ruling systems. The obvious rejoinder is that in State of Decay the fate of the multiverse is at stake (these are vampires with apocalyptic ambitions, not just local tyrants), and to an obvious extent that's true, but it's not quite the whole story. There's enough weight attached to how literacy and scientific knowledge have been criminalized by The Three Who Rule, that one senses politics being grounded here as much as in Full Circle.

If we look at this helpful graph which chronicles Doctor Who's revolutionary character, there's a curious spike at the tail end of 1980 and the year 1981 when the E-Space Trilogy aired. With the Winter of Discontent just over, the Thatcher government in place for over a year, and countries like Zimbabwe throwing off the yoke of British colonials, the scriptwriters may have felt the time was ripe for a more politically active Doctor. I confess that until recent years I've never thought of the E-Space Trilogy as political, and it's a sign of grade-A storytelling when political issues can be made to seem invisible by subordinating them to themes of biological evolution (Full Circle), gothic horror (State of Decay), or deterministic fate (Warriors' Gate) so things don't get preachy.

There's an anecdote to this story worth spotting. The off-and-on relationship (and impending marriage) between Tom Baker and Lalla Ward can be clocked to precision in this story, and has become something of an obsession among Who fans. Notice that the Doctor never looks Romana in the eye during the first two episodes (at which point the two actors were barely speaking to each other), but shares a tender moment with her in episode three (having patched up their quarrels in the real world). It's memorably beautiful: when she explains that his type 40 TARDIS contains the Record of Rassilon's special documentation of vampires, he slowly turns to her, smiles, and says softy, "You're wonderful." The marriage bells were ringing.

State of Decay has aged as well as The Three Who Rule. No dangers of this baby turning to dust for at least another millennium. Rating: 5 jelly babies.

Warriors' Gate is the most original story of the Tom Baker period, and possibly the most original story of the entire classic era running from Hartnell to McCoy. Like The Deadly Assassin it had a controversial reputation when it first aired for breaking too radically with formula, and also for not making sense, but has since undergone a serious reassessment to be considered a near flawless classic. For me it's one of the five crown jewels of Tom Baker's 42-story career (the others being The Talons of Weng Chiang, Pyramids of Mars, Genesis of the Daleks, and The Deadly Assassin), and a litmus test to gauge one's enthusiasm for what classic Doctor Who had to offer at its finest moments. Those who don't like this story are invariably the same ones who fawn over the lamest stories penned by Russell T. Davies in the new era.

For reasons that escape me, some continue to insist that Warriors' Gate makes no sense. So let's summarize the story clearly. A time-traveling mercenary ship has been stranded for months in the void between E- and N-Space by a Tharil (Biroc), who is determined to free his race from slavery (Tharils are a leonine species who serve humans by navigating ships through time, and their plight is absolutely horrible; I'd rather be turned into a vampire than strapped for life in a navigating chair). When the TARDIS happens by, Biroc summons it to the same point, able to sense the deterministic events that will follow from involving Time Lords. Biroc then escapes the ship toward a mysterious gateway which for his species of time-sensitives opens onto another universe (for other species it reflects the same banquet hall in different timelines). The Doctor follows Biroc, wanting to understand the plight of the Tharils more clearly. Meanwhile, the heavy dwarf star alloy used in the hull of the ship to hold the Tharils captive is causing the pocket universe of the void to collapse in on itself, intensifying the crew's efforts to escape the void and the Doctor's efforts to rescue the enslaved Tharils. But it is Biroc who single-handedly effects the rescue of his people from the ship; the Doctor is for once powerless to save the day, and does nothing, contrasted with the zealous ship captain Rorvik, who in the end screams, "I am finally getting something done!", as he uses the back blast of his ship to try escaping through the gateway -- annihilating his ship and crew instead. As the Doctor returns to N-Space, Romana bids him farewell, deciding to stay with the Tharils and (as a Time Lord) help liberate their species across the universe -- which was the ultimate point of Biroc's choosing her and the Doctor to begin with.

There is some question about Biroc's wisdom of "doing nothing". Appreciating the effectiveness of the wisdom depends on understanding the nature of the Tharils and the void. The void is a neutral ground where all future alternative possibilities are in a state of rest, and an interchange where time-sensitives (like the Tharils) can travel to -- or see into -- any place and time. Biroc brought the ship and the TARDIS to the void, able to sense events that would unfold from this combination. The Doctor and Romana needn't do anything (at least not directly) to help the Tharils because events are playing out according to Biroc's selected initial conditions. The shrinking of the void, moreover, reduces the permutations of outcomes, making the Tharils' liberation (and the mercenary crew's destruction) increasingly inevitable.

Amusingly, some fans have tried salvaging a proactive purpose for the Doctor in the famous banquet scene behind the mirrors, where he finds himself in a past timeline when the Tharils were kings and contemptuously enslaved humans. (The Tharils once ruled a vast empire until their slaves revolted by using the axe-wielding Gundan robots to hunt them down.) It does look like the Doctor is finally putting something to right as he yells at the Tharils for beating their servants: "This is no way to run an empire!" The problem is that Biroc isn't only his past self but his present self simultaneously (since he obviously knows the Doctor), and when he responds that "The weak enslave themselves, Doctor," he is speaking from the past (contemptuously against humankind) and also from the present (against his own race, whose weak character inevitably led to their current enslavement at the hands of the species they oppressed). Biroc is already repentant of the Tharils' crimes against humanity and remains undeterred from the point he first chose in bringing the ship and TARDIS to the void. He is educating the Doctor -- not vice versa -- which, of course, is why he brought the Doctor through the mirrors to begin with.

Speaking of the banquet, episode three's cliffhanger can't go unmentioned -- I practically have an orgasm whenever I watch it. It's best simply described: The Gundan robots burst into the hall with axes raised, and the Tharils scatter while the Doctor remains seated; an axe thuds into the table right in front of him; time shifts with an immense rushing sound, and he finds himself back in the present surrounded by Rorvick's hostile crew: "Well Doctor, this is a surprise!" Sting. This scene has taken on legendary status in the Who canon, and is definitely one of the top-10 cliffhangers of the classic era.

There's something else about Warriors' Gate that struck me in the middle of writing this review. Completely unintentionally no doubt, it's way ahead of its time in portraying an oppressed group of "savages" affecting their own liberation without the leadership of an outside hero. By today's standards, films like Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, and Avatar have come to acquire a racist air for implying ad nauseum that it takes a white hero to save primitive natives, and fueling western guilt fantasies about giving up one's whiteness without losing white privilege over "noble savages". When Frank Herbert did it with Dune it was fine, but it's high time to allow other races the wherewithal to save themselves. Warriors' Gate did exactly that, and in the year 1981. This is certainly not to imply that if the script had been written with Doctor Who saving the Tharils it would have made it in any way racist; Doctor Who is a Time Lord hero who is supposed to save the day, for anyone and everyone. It's simply a further testimony to unprecedented innovation on the part of scriptwriters during the amazing season 18.

Warriors' Gate is a priceless gem that gets even better with more viewings, and a perfect conclusion to a triumphant trilogy. Rating: 5+ jelly babies.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Sin: A History

Gary Anderson's book chronicles the evolution of sin in the Judeo-Christian tradition, showing how early metaphors of sin as a burden or stain became understood primarily as a debt. It's also a case for works-righteousness and even indulgences being based strongly on biblical tradition.

As we often forget, metaphors don't say the same thing just because they're eventually conflated:
"When one sins, something concrete happens: one's hands may become stained, one's back may become burdened, or one may fall into debt. And the verbal expressions that render the idea of forgiveness follow suit: stained hands are cleansed, burdens are lifted, and debts are either paid off or remitted. It is as though a stain, a weight, or bond of indebtedness is created ex nihilo when one offends against God." (p 4)
It's of course the last metaphor that came to dominate for Christians as much as Jews. "Although it is theoretically possible to imagine a virtuous person such as Mr. Clean, who could have scoured away the blot of sin upon Israel's body, or a St. Atlas, who was sufficiently strong to bear up under the weight of the nation's sin, no such images exist in scripture" (p 135). Jesus was primarily a redeemer, even if metaphors of expiation and heavy-lifting occasionally filtered though that of payment.

But in Israel's earliest period, sin was mostly understood as a weight. Anderson notes the frequency of metaphors in the Hebrew Bible (pp 16-17): "to bear away a sin (weight)" has 108 occurrences; "to forgive a sin (debt)" has 17 occurrences, and "to wipe away a sin (stain)" has only 6 occurrences.

The idea of sin as a weight is underappreciated due to poor translations of the Hebrew text. Consider the example of Cain, where "the weight of my sin is too great for me to bear" (Gen 4:13) is more accurate -- and makes more sense -- than, "my punishment is too great for me to bear" or "my sin is too great to be forgiven". According to Anderson, Cain doesn't mean that his sin is beyond forgiving nor that his punishment cannot be borne. He's simply owning up to the severity of his offense. When he first asks, "Am I my brother's keeper?", we see a man who has not yet felt the weight of his crime. When God imposes the severe penalty on him, he suddenly does feel its weight (p 24). An accurate translation portrays a man grappling with the terrible nature of his offense, instead of just whining about his punishment (p 26).

The idea of sin as a debt evolved when Aramaic became the primary tongue of the Persian Empire (in Aramaic the language for religious transgression comes from the world of commerce), and traces to Lev 26 and Second Isaiah. For the latter, Israel's sins at the close of the first temple period had drowned her in debt, and decades of penal service in Babylon would be required to satisfy its terms. This may make God sound legalistic, but human sins have consequences, and when people sin, "a tangible form of evil is created in the world that must be accounted for". This is even more true when an entire society goes astray (p 54). This would seem to cohere with recent attempts to relocate legalism, or at least a degree of it, into ancient Judaism. Commercial metaphors don't necessarily imply a crass soteriology.

For the author of Leviticus, Israel will remain in her current plight until the land has repaid the debt of its sabbath years and the Israelites have repaid the debt accrued through their iniquity. The only difference is that Isa 40:2 looks backward on a debt that has already been repaid, while Lev 26:43-45 anticipates what sort of repayment will be required should Israel not respond to God's warnings (p 65). By now -- the exilic/postexilic periods -- the metaphor of sin as a debt is firmly in place, with atonement the means of repaying on a debt.

Anderson stresses that the idea of sin-as-debt wasn't understood univocally, and notes II Maccabees' ingenious solution to the problem of theodicity. If God favors Israel, then why does she receive continual punishment while the pagan nations continue on in their evil ways? This is the answer:
"I beg the readers of my book not to be disheartened by the calamities but to bear in mind that chastisements come not in order to destroy our race but in order to teach it. If the ungodly among us are not left long to themselves but speedily incur punishment, it is a sign of God's great goodness to us. With the other nations the Lord waits patiently, staying their punishment until they reach the full measure of their sins. Quite otherwise is His decree for us, in order that He should not have to punish us after we have come to the complete measure of our sins. Consequently, God never lets His mercy depart from us. Rather, though He teaches us by calamity, He never deserts His people. Let this be enough as a reminder to my readers." (II Macc 6:12-17)
In other words, God never allows Israel's sins to reach a level that would require him to disown her. Instead he frequently intervenes and punishes his chosen people -- thereby extracting payment from them -- so that a tipping point will never be reached. Israel suffers more visibly because God wants to make sure that her register of debts never rises too high (pp 90-91).

There are other creative ways of handling the potential of impossibly high debts. Against Strack and Billerbeck, Anderson shows for the rabbinic tradition that while God keeps an account of merits and demerits, and demands payment for the latter, he doesn't administer his ledger in a one-for-one fashion. He found sufficient reason to suspend payment in the case of Cain for a full seven generations, and for Joseph he rescinded the bond altogether when the brothers made amends. God is often willing to overlook financial obligations to save his people -- and even cook the books in Israel's favor (p 106).

How did Christians work this out? If Jesus was the heavenly redeemer who paid the price as a once-and-for-all eternal sacrifice, did he completely do away with the human component to redemption?

Not according to Anderson. Christians still had to work at redeeming their sins on their own, primarily through almsgiving, the roots of which idea go back to Dan 4:24 (p 141). While Isaiah believed that debt caused by sin could be repaid only by suffering the consequences of the sin, Daniel offered almsgiving as a way out. Somehow the act of giving goods to the poor allowed one to raise a form of spiritual currency that could pay down the debt of sin accrued in heaven (p 144). (Prov 19:17 is much to the same point.) But Daniel never explained how it does that.

The book of Tobit explains it, through a creative interweaving of Prov 10:2 and 11:4, each of which speaks of improperly valued wealth. Having urged his son to give alms in proportion to his wealth, Tobit says that by doing so he will "be laying up good treasure for himself against the day of necessity; for almsgiving delivers from death and keeps one from entering the darkness". Tobit explains what Daniel assumes: that almsgiving directly funds a treasury in heaven. And this idea carries over into early Judaism and Christianity (Sir 29:9-13; Mt 6:19-21/Lk 12:33-34; Mk 10:17-31/Mt 19:16-30/Lk 18:18-30; Lk 12:13-21), not to mention the rabbinic and later Christian periods.

This leads to the real question: Does the wisdom of Proverbs, Daniel, Tobit, Sirach, and the synoptic gospels imply a salvation by works? Criticizing Roman Garrison's claim that Clement of Alexandria's endorsement of almsgiving as a means to purchase salvation is a departure from earliest Christianity, Anderson claims that almsgiving was taken soteriologically seriously from the get-go. He claims that Protestant fears over a text like Dan 4:24 can be laid to rest, as almsgiving needn't be construed as a purely human work. "God has gamed the system, so to speak, in a way that allows our small donations to count against the immeasurable debt of our sins" (p 160). When doing business with God, either via sacrifice or through the medium of the poor, it was never a matter of a one-for-one exchange. The tiny amount given to God is repaid a thousandfold. How else could Nebuchadnezzar have repaid the colossal debt he owed?

Fair enough, but what about the indulgences of medieval Catholicism? When the pope granted an indulgence, he was authorizing the use of a portion of the treasury of merits left to the church by Christ and the saints. As we've seen, this idea has roots in 2nd-Temple Judaism (esp. Proverbs and Tobit) and the rabbinic idea of the "merits of the patriarchs". When he nailed his theses to the wall in 1517, Luther himself still believed that works of mercy towards the poor were meritorious (what offended him at this stage was the act of granting indulgences for the restoration of St. Peter's in Rome). So the idea isn't as draconian as we might think.

The best aspect of this book is its timeliness. At a time when the New Perspective on Paul is being seriously called into question, it has been reasonably suggested that we reincorporate legalism into the framework of covenantal nomism. While Anderson is cautious not to fall back on caricatures, his emphasis on the metaphor of redemption puts New Perspective advocates on the spot -- though I seriously doubt he intended this! Put simply, redemption is all about legalism. It's a commercial metaphor. It says that one's debts to God will be paid down, either through the sacrificial system or almsgiving. The legalism isn't crass, to be sure, but it is what it is. One gets one's desert by paying down debt.

How much of this carried over into early Christianity, however, remains murky. I don't have the author's confidence that almsgiving retained a meritorious function so ubiquitously. For the synoptic writers definitely, but not the post-I Corinthians Paul -- not even when he advocated mercy to the poor. That Jesus became understood as an eternal sacrifice rendered at least one form of redemption superfluous. Surely some Christians drew the same corollary as Paul: redemption was effected by the savior alone.

Friday, January 08, 2010

He's Back!

It didn't take long for Jim West to do exactly as I foretold. After suddenly shutting down his fourth blog he has resurrected under a fifth, Zwinglius Redivivus, launched today, January 8, 2010. Please note this is distinct from his church blog, where Jim is no doubt unable to let out his bile, ire and constant diatribes for fear of alienating folk in the pews.

Just so that things are clear, let's revisit a few places in biblioblogdom where Jim recently said he had no intention of blogging again.

(1) On Scott Bailey's blog, Scotteriology, in response to the question, "Any chance we will see you back blogging in the future?", Jim replied: "Nope. It – again- has become uninteresting to me. Now – if someone objects or maintains that the church website is a blog they simply show their ignorance. Its character is completely different because its purpose is completely different. So, again, no, I am not now nor will I in the future be ‘blogging’."

Well, Jim lied.

(2) On Roland Boer's blog, Stalin's Moustache, Jim said in comments, "you can pass along word to loren- he’s completely wrong in his notion that i’ll blog again. as i’ve told you [Roland] privately, it’s just become boring. so no, dont imagine loren or anyone else to be correct in this matter."

It turns out I was completely right. And it took only six days to be proven so.

(3) On Joel Watts' blog, The Church of Jesus Christ, Jim said, "so, joel, all the guesses and loren’s silly supposition that i’ll be back to blogging are absurdities."

It wasn't a guess on my part, but a promise. Not a supposition, but a prophecy. Think about who looks silly and absurd.

(4) On James Crossley's blog, Earliest Christian History, in response to inquiries about a possible resurrection, Jim said, "i'm afraid i'll stay quite dead. as dead as the guy in the meaning of life who exploded after eating just one thin mint."

Of course not. Jim is alive as he's ever been, and in fact has already published seven blogposts today. He can't stay away from that keyboard. We'll see how long his fifth blog lasts.

Roland Boer's Marginalization of Authorial Intent

(Previous post here.)

Roland Boer continues our discussion about Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, arguing that we need carefully to distinguish an author's beliefs from the author's literature, for "the two are not coterminous." I should be clear that I never claimed they were, and am fully aware that an end result doesn't always square with what an author intended. Everyone is prone to self-deception. But Tolkien's case is one in which his intent largely matched what flowed from the pen.

Roland also claims that "to focus on an author’s intention is terribly reductionist... and deeply theological". While I agree that authorial intention isn't the end of the story (the proof of the pudding is in the eating, or the reading as the case may be), to marginalize authorial intention is the far worse crime. The claim that studying authorial intent is "theological" is not one that I take remotely seriously, and for more on this, see my review of Jacques Berlinerblau's The Secular Bible. (Berlinerblau claims that trying to uncover an originally intended message of a biblical author is inherently theological, which is baloney. If that's what Roland is suggesting here, then he's equally off-base.)

I believe the charge that Tolkien's work is fascist is essentially without foundation, but let's assume for sake of argument that Roland is right. That still doesn't detract in any way from the excellence of the work as a piece of literature. To appreciate the point let's get Tolkien on a charge that really sticks. What about sexism? I would describe The Lord of the Rings as fairly sexist (though not misogynistic: no misogynist could conceive a hero like Eowyn). The societies of the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth are based on structural sexism. But this needn't imply an endorsement of sexism, and certainly we as readers are not obligated to accept the sexist world-view to whatever degree it is endorsed by the author. The question of literary value goes way beyond stuff like this, and I'd advise Roland to read Glenn Arberry's Why Literature Matters before he's a month older.

"Reader-response" should really be about respecting authorial intent even when in disagreement. I happen to disagree significantly with some of what Tolkien urges in his wonderful tale, not least about the idea that a cyclically hopeless struggle against evil demonstrates the need for Christianity. But I can at least appreciate why he viewed things this way. I don't need to distort his message by pretending it's not there, nor, alternatively, will I jettison a great story simply because the author's view of certain things doesn't sync with my own.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Roland Boer and The Lord of the Rings

Roland Boer objects to using The Lord of the Rings as the basis for a political model, and who can possibly disagree with him? But he "sums up" Tolkien's classic for those unfamiliar with it, and mostly inaccurately. He writes:
"For those not familiar with this boring fable, it is an elaborate and multilayered allegory of the Second World War (during which much of it was written), of the evils of capitalism and industrialisation, of Roman Catholic enchantment versus Protestant worldliness, of the passing world of the Middle Ages etc. And it’s whole framework is deeply conservative,which I'll define here as the desire to return to a mythical golden age that never existed."
Let's take these points in turn.

(1) The greatest story ever told is hardly boring, but, well, there's no accounting for taste.

(2) The Lord of the Rings is emphatically not an allegory of WWII. That's a dated argument not accepted by any recent Tolkien scholar I've read. Not only did Tolkien express his fervent dislike for allegory in the preface, he began writing the story long before 1939. WWII allegory just doesn't play out in the text on any substantive level. (If the Ring = nuclear weapons, for instance, then the Ring would have been seized and used against the forces of evil instead of destroyed; if Sauron's forces = the Axis, they would have been occupied rather than annihilated; etc.) That's not to say Tolkien didn't incorporate some of his own experiences of war (he served as a soldier in the first world war) -- as seen, for instance, in "The Scouring of the Shire" chapter -- but definitely no allegory.

(3) Regarding the evils of capitalism and industrialization, Roland is basically right. Tolkien lamented these "evils" to the point that some even accused him of being a closet fascist. Actually he was anarchist -- anarchy in the sense of unconstitutional monarchy, or monarchy at a distance.

(4) Of Roman Catholic enchantment vs. Protestant worldliness, Roland is right, but this needs careful qualification. The Lord of the Rings is neither an allegory nor metaphor for any kind of Christianity. It anticipates Christianity without encompassing it, on which see (6) below. Middle-Earth is pagan, though pre-Christian pagan, and of course the "right" form of Christianity it anticipates is Catholicism.

(5) The Lord of the Rings isn't about "the passing of the middle ages", as Roland claims. It's about the passing of a fictional Third Age, and the dawning of the age of men (humanity), which sets the stage for our own history. Tolkien wrote his story as a mythic pre-history, meaning that Middle-Earth represents Europe in a long distant past. There's no more geographic allegory than political. Middle-Earth was Europe, and long before the middle ages.

(6) The framework of the story is definitely conservative, as Roland claims, but it doesn't express a desire to return to a mythic golden age. Just the opposite. In Tolkien's Catholic view, pagan Middle-Earth shows the need to look forward -- to Christianity -- without which, our own history would simply be a "long defeat" repeating Middle-Earth's hopeless struggle against evil (despite occasional victories against such, or "euchatastrophes" as Tolkien called them). Tolkien intended his story to be "consonant with Christian thought and belief" (letter #269), but he made clear that the actual appearance or presence of the Christian myth in his work would be "fatal" (letter #131). There's almost no allusion to Christianity anywhere in The Lord of the Rings, and when Christian themes occasionally resonate, they do so, again, on an anticipatory level.

The implications of (6) are the least appreciated among Tolkien scholars. The renewed monarchy ushered in by Aragorn doesn't represent a golden age, but the opposite, pointing to the foreordained and imminent deterioration of men (as Tolkien confided in letter #256). Aragorn couldn't save Middle-Earth as a king anymore than Frodo could resist the Ring. Neither were salvific figures. They were hopeless, pagan heroes demonstrating the need for something better -- or at least, that's how Tolkien conceived them.

[Also see: The Unhappy Ending to The Lord of the Rings.]

UPDATE: Follow up to this discussion here.

The New Perspective and Rom 4:1-8

I was reading an RBL review of Romans 4 and the New Perspective on Paul: Faith Embraces the Promise, by Gerhard Visscher, who argues that the New Perspective is discredited by Rom 4. The reviewer, Don Garlington, isn't terribly impressed.

From my point of view, Rom 3:21-31 and 4:9-17 readily play into the hands of the New Perspective, though Rom 4:1-8 (the part in between) is a true obstacle to it. Visscher emphasizes the commercial metaphors of Rom 4:4-5 in defending the old perspective, and Garlington objects as follows:
"It is to be acknowledged that 'working' (τῷ δὲ ἐργαζομένῳ) and 'not working' (τῷ δὲ μὴ ἐργαζομένῳ) in 4:4–5 represent an application, to both Jew and Gentile, of the principle that Abraham was not justified ἐξ ἔργων. However, the terms do not of themselves bespeak 'legalism' or 'earning salvation.' A case in point is the parable of Matt 20:1–16, which depicts 'workers' who receive a 'wage' in the end, the eschatological kingdom. As applied to Israel, in Paul's own words, 'working' is Israel's 'willing' and 'running' to fulfill the covenant (Rom 9:16), which can easily be understood as 'covenantal nomism' rather than 'legalism.' In a nutshell, 'working' versus 'not working' hardly proves that the Judaism of Paul's generation was 'legalistic.'"
But this begs the question by assuming that covenantal nomism itself doesn't have legalistic components, and Douglas Campbell has made plain that a serious reassessment of Sanders' model is in order. Legalism refers simply to an ethical system based on desert -- meaning one gets what one deserves by working for it -- and I don't see Mt 20:1-16 as refuting this. Nor the idea of "running" to fulfill the covenant, which is a euphemism. Legalism was tied to grace within the scheme of the Jewish covenant.

The problem with legalism is not what it really is, but the things usually associated with it -- hypocrisy, selfishness, calculating favor, and perfectionism. As long as we keep this sort of baggage away from the term, we're doing justice to ancient Judaism. Which means that Paul wasn't doing it an injustice by using the commercial metaphors in Rom 4:4-5. He was being fair (if theologically objectionable) and deliberately excluding legalism in his soteriology -- not crass legalism to be sure, but legalism nonetheless. There is no need to develop strained commentary to make Rom 4:1-8 match the New Perspective emphasis of Rom 3:21-31 and 4:9-17. Paul's idea of grace was radical enough that it trumped not only ethnic privilege, but the idea that ethical behavior in general could contribute to one's salvation.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Avatar: Orgasmic Dazzle, Trashy Cinema, or Racist Propaganda?

Or all of the above.

Before reading any further you should check out Eric Repphun's review of James Cameron's Avatar, which has been astonishingly well received by critics and the unlettered, boasting an 83% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Eric has no more to do with this chorus of praise than I do, however. He's offended by the film's sloppy politics and egregious racism. I was nonplussed by the orgy of special effects and dazzle unaccompanied by an iota of substance in the storyline. Critics often skewer films like this for either set of reasons, so I'm not sure what's going on.

Before I'm dismissed as an arthouse snob, I should emphasize that I'm not entirely hostile to action blockbusters, and with Eric acknowledge that "there is still a decent worldwide market for quality, historically aware blockbuster cinema, as the success of District 9 and The Dark Knight have shown us." To these two must be added The Lord of the Rings films, which I in fact rated the best of the decade. I can certainly be impressed by films like this, but good ones are hard to come by -- and Avatar isn't one of them by a long shot. Here we have a futuristic epic set on a moon being mined for a priceless mineral (yawn), while the indigenous humanoids resist the colonial expansion threatening their ecosystem (descent of the eyelids), and one of the colonials goes native and bad-ass on his compatriots (actual slumber). Okay, so I was kept awake by the amazing CGI show, but even that stuff gets old -- and fast -- in a story completely bereft of narrative innovation.

But let's consider Eric's objections. He claims that, like Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, and countless other films, Cameron's tale suggests that the best native is a white guy gone native, superseding the actual natives who are portrayed as "noble savages":
"Avatar is the most astonishingly racist film since Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, perhaps worse even than 300. The film’s noble savages, the Na’vi – many of whom, though they are computer generated motion captures of real actors, are played by non-white actors – are an amalgam of all the noble savage clichés dating back centuries. They are in touch with nature. They believe, in fact, that their planet, Pandora, is the one living organism (Pandora’s bookshops must sell a lot of James Lovelock). They are violent but admirable. They like to hold hands and dance. They are sexually ambiguous, but still sexually appealing. They are superstitious and reliant on magic and all sorts of often brutal rites of passage. These may be noble savages in the film, but they are still savages and the film treats them as savages, as lesser people."
If you didn't know The Dunedin School better, you might think Eric was writing a spoof as I once did, following the audio commentary begun by "Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky" for Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings. In these commentaries, Zinn/Chomsky and I exposed the racist underpinnings of LOTR, the cruel nature of the hobbits, the fascism of wizards like Gandalf, the warmongering of the Wise, and the savage stereotyping of Sauron's minions. Jackson's Haradrim may not be "noble savages" like Cameron's Na'vi, but they're typically exotic: they paint themselves, ride Oliphants, chant wildly, and have yellow, brown, or red complexions -- and they're inferior, is what matters. And don't forget the Black Riders, of course, an offending use of color symbolism for the strongest representatives of evil. The Free Peoples of Middle-Earth, by contrast, are all white, and Gandalf even evolves from "Grey" to "White" with a capital "W". But back to Eric's grievances:
"Avatar is the ultimate in Orientalist fantasy. When Jake opens his eyes at the end of the film, having defeated the Europeans and sent them packing and having fully, literally become one of the Na'vi, he is living out the dreams of every white neo-pagan, Druid, or Wiccan out there who wants to truly recover a past that is, for the most part, a Romantic fantasy that has no roots in history. Unlike Wikus in District 9, who also becomes an oppressed alien but takes up arms against the oppressors because he is a selfish git largely concerned with saving his own ass (a fact that the film is smart enough to admit), Jake is a classic Hollywood hero who is able to be both coloniser and colonised at once. He is a coloniser without the need for guilt or any serious reflection on what he has done (he is instrumental in destroying the Na'vi's village) but he is also colonised in that he can take part in a fantasy culture where everything is sunshine, simplicity, and sacredness. Jake is liberal guilt made flesh."
Again, this almost sounds like a lampoon, except we know Eric is dead serious, and admittedly not without cause: Cameron goes out of his way to invite the Said-speak at every turn. While I have little patience with those who see racism under every rock, in this case it's hard to miss. The film implies -- like zillions of films these days -- that it takes a white hero to save primitive natives. It's a guilt fantasy about giving up one's whiteness, but without losing white privilege. Cameron's analog for the Native American Indian is bogus to boot, a Native American Hollywood-projection, with results as ludicrous as the patronization of Islam (and demonization of the Christian crusaders) in Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven. I don't expect films to be realistic on a documentary level, but they have to do a lot better than this.

Avatar gets a rock-bottom (1-star) rating from me, because it's thoroughly predictable, cliche-ridden, and hollow -- even boring, despite the onslaught of CGI dazzle -- and yes, Eric, the fantasy colonial formula is part of that hollowness.

UPDATE: Yahoo comments on the movie's alleged racism. This part struck me: "Annalee Newitz, editor-in-chief of the sci-fi Web site, likened Avatar to the recent film District 9, in which a white man accidentally becomes an alien and then helps save them, and 1984's Dune, in which a white man becomes an alien Messiah." District 9 is a bad comparison, however, because the white "hero" is driven by self-serving motives to the end (as Eric pointed out). Dune is a better analogy, though the book (written between 1957-1963, recall) remains a landmark classic and great story -- as much as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as far as I'm concerned. Accusing Herbert or Twain of racism is like accusing Tolkien of sexism. This is the year 2010: Cameron can be held to better standards in a film that is trying to promote a positive message. It's time for stories about natives who can save themselves for a change, without the patronizing leadership of the white man.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Jim Will Be Back!

There's a big stir about Jim West's "retirement" from blogging, which he has apparently announced on Facebook. But don't believe it. Jim will surely be back. He's done this sort of thing to grab attention many times before. Here's the history:
1/20/06: Jim deletes his first blog (The "Biblical Theology" Blog).

10/?/06: Jim deletes his second blog ("First Baptist Church of Petros").

2/20/08: Jim deletes his third blog (The first "Dr. Jim West" blog). This time he claimed it was hacked, which many found hard to believe. I didn't buy it either.

12/31/09: Jim deletes his fourth blog (The second "Dr. Jim West" blog).
I suspect that the skewering Jim recently received at the hands of Hector Avalos has something to do with his sudden flight. Chris Heard once similarly called Jim's credentials into question, and Hector is highlighting the same kind of hypocrisy. There is, of course, nothing wrong with lacking credentials in itself, and as we all know, many biblilobloggers (like myself) are independent amateurs. What's problematic -- if utterly hilarious -- is to see an individual like Jim (whose credentials are far from mighty) habitually lash out at dilettantes, homeschoolers, and others for (supposedly) not measuring up to credentialed standards.

On Roland's blog, a commenter named Adam suggests that Jim "suddenly realized that his blog was no good and was embarrassed", and Stephanie Fisher hopes that if he returns, "he leaves out the cruel humour against suicide victims, homosexuals, atheists and fat people" -- which, of course, was a large part of what was "no good" and "embarrassing". But I tend to think that's the sort of thing that kept Jim blogging more than anything else.

Well, I'm sure we'll find out soon enough. Jim will be back, despite his insistence otherwise. Mark my words!

UPDATE: It looks like Jim has a church blog, though it should be noted that this is not the same "Petros Baptist Church" blog that succeeded Jim's "Biblical Theology Blog", and which Jim deleted in October 2006 (see above timeline). (Hat-tip: Roland (via Steph).) A church blog won't be enough for him. Jim craves a more academic spotlight, and as Rick Sumner says in comments, "he won't be able to help himself". I repeat: Jim will be back. It may take a week, a month, a few months at most, but he will return.

UPDATE (II): Chris Heard worries that his position may be misunderstood, and since I'm the one responsible for dragging up his three-year old post, I'll do the courtesy of citing his emphasis: "My comments about Jim's educational background and teaching practices were not an attack on the quality of the credentials themselves (as I think Hector intends his own comments), but part of a critique of the inconsistency between Jim's own educational practices and his intense rhetoric against home schooling." And of course, that was exactly my own point in this post.

UPDATE (III): Mark Goodacre also thinks Jim will be back. And he will!

NEWSFLASH: Jim is back. It took only six days.