Monthly Archives: September 2006

Down To The Wire

Since my lead in the fantasy baseball league has dwindled to a half-point, and two or three of my star players have succumbed to injuries, I’d like the electronic record to show that with two days left in the season, my team was in first place. If the apparently inevitable happens, well, I was hanging on by my fingernails to the end.


This fall, I was planning to hand out to my students in Early Church History photocopies of pages from some tawdry billion-selling hack novel, for them to compare with their readings in textbooks and primary sources. I have to put that off for the moment, but eventually I’ll be adding below here a series of page numbers and short quoted claims that a student in an int4ro class in church history could easily recognize for her- or himself as false or misleading.


From Margaret Mitchell’s response among other sources,

p. 231 — Jesus “inspired millions to better lives” [sc., while he was alive?]
p. 231 — “more than eighty gospels” “the Bible, as we know it today, was collected by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great”
p. 232 — “Rome’s official religion was sun worship”
p. 232 — Constantine invented the divinity of Jesus and excluded all gospels but the four canonical ones; Constantine made Christianity “the official religion” of the Roman Empire
p. 233 — “Until that moment in history, Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet”
p. 234 — Constantine coined the term “heretic”
p. 234, 245 — “the earliest Christian records” were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (including gospels) and Nag Hammadi texts
p. 234 — the Nag Hammadi texts “speak of Christ’s ministry in very human terms”
p. 234 — “Constantine commissioned and financed a new Bible, which omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ’s human traits and embellished those gospels that made Him godlike”
p. 244 — the marriage of Mary Magdalene and Jesus is “a matter of historical record”
p. 245 — the Nag Hammadi texts represent “the earliest Christian records”
p. 245 — “Jesus was a Jew, and the social decorum during that time virtually forbid a Jewish man to be unmarried.”
p. 248 — Apocryphal texts were “unaltered gospels”

Darn You, Doc!

This is just what I love about my friends online, and just what drives me crazy. At the threshold of a weekend of manic activity, Doc responds to my vote of confidence with an elegant clarification that provokes me to push back a little. As a wise man once proposed, “It’s more complicated than it appears.”

My demurrer involves the second part of Doc’s formulation: “Gestures are expressions of intent.” I’d like to factor the word “intent” out, for a variety of reasons. At first, I thought that “intent” might be implicit in “expression”from the start, but then I recognized that we could speak intelligibly of unconscious expressions; when my eyes widen in surprise, I express my startled response without intending it, and we could multiply examples indefinitely. My [initially] preferred alternative “Gestures are deliberate expressions,” which I hoped would capture the element of intent without using an overloaded word, seems to leave out some phenomena. But the possibility of unintentional expression, and of significant gestures that aren’t deliberate, leads me to wonder whether some gestures might be unintentional?

I see a possible usefulness in talking about “intent” in the marketing context: we want to offer advertisers something to work with, and if (on Doc’s account, still haven’t gotten to Steve’s) we can get advertisers thinking about their interlocutors as maybe “intending to buy something,” they’ll be more likely to pay attention. Of course, Doc can just stipulate that when he says “gesture,” this is what he means. But what about this: what if we opted for “Gestures are expressions of interest,” or “are interested expressions” (using “interest” in the sense of “interested parties,” “people whose interests are affected by X”)? Does that advance the cause of precision in our use of this term? (I have no particular interest in making it more salable to marketers, though if the discussion helps Doc gain traction for his arguments, then so much the better.)

Getting Out

Faithful Interpretation

Originally uploaded by dydimustk.

This just in: copy of Fortress Press book discovered in Minnesota!

Thomas (this is his copy, spotted in the Luther Seminary bookstore) wonders if there’ll be an opportunity for online interaction about the book. I’m hoping so; Geoff was talking to me this summer about possibly discussing it (and the Baker book, not out yet) in conjunction with the Church and Postmodern Culture blog.

I’m still itching to start a discussion on Beautiful Theology, too, so if the Church and Postmodern gig doesn’t pan out, we can kick the ideas around at a place I’ll build. But this Internet thrives on discussion, and I’m looking forward to taking part in that.

Doc’s Gestures

I don’t know precisely what Doc means when he talks about gestures (or Steve, when he does), and they talk about “gestures” in the context of marketing and economics (rather than the Queen of Sciences, Theology) — but in my wrestling with hermeneutics over the past few years, I’ve found the problem of communicative gestures to constitute one decisive fulcrum for my reasoning.

Sermon and Events On The Horizon

I’ll be preaching at Frank’s ordination on Sunday — we’ reading 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14 and John 6:51-58. It’s pretty clear — at least in prospect — that I’ll preach about Solomon’s prayer for wisdom, but I’m not sure exactly where I’ll go with it (and administrative obligations and course preps and social network turbulence are beclouding my perception on this).

But I received a surprise tonight when I opened an email from my hosts at McCormick Theological Seminary, where I’ll be making a guest appearance in a class they teach: They’d like to set up a book-signing reception for me. I don’t know if it’ll work out, but the fact that they’d think of that out of a clear blue sky means a ton to me.
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Linguae Francae, Dialects, Pidgins, and Gibberish

I frequently hear Anglicans apologize for their liturgical language and customs (even on the minimal end of the scale). They have accepted the premise that “a language understanded of the people” (Article XXIV of the Articles of Religion) should be interpreted as something like “in colloquial use.” Since few of those who walk past my perch at the coffee-shop window use formal diction, much less poetic diction, the church ought not speak formally in worship.

You may be able to guess how this sets my teeth on edge. I fully accept the principle involved; a congregation ought to be conversant with the claims and invocations made on their behalf in the liturgy. Still, Article XXIV legislates against using Latin in liturgy, and we ought to be able to agree that the difference between reading ecclesiastical Latin and formal English is a lot greater than that between reading formal English and colloquial English.

We shouldn’t turn this into a William Bennett castor-oil defense of good ol’ fashion liturgical language. If someone doesn’t catch the reasons for precise verbal formulations in worship, that doesn’t make them base, or dumb, or inferior, or any other opprobrious term. Neither does it set the baseline for theological communication at the threshold of the least acute apprehension in the congregation.

The church struggled, and struggles, to articulate its claims to transcendent truth in terms that command assent as widely as possible, as precisely as possible. That enmeshes us in efforts toward attaining a kind of theological-liturgical lingua franca. When I wrote sadly about the Episcopal Church promoting an array of nine or so authorized eucharistic prayers, my concern pivoted at this point — I’m not [solely] a nostalgic old grouse, but am concerned that we’re modulating from being a loosely-joined communion with a liturgical lingua franca to being an umbrella group for allied enclaves that all speak idiosyncratic versions of a pidgin derived from the Prayerbook tradition, mingled with the vogue terminology of the moment.

That worries me for a variety of reasons. If there’s no clear theologico-liturgical grammar against which we can assess our provisional formulations, we approach a condition of mutual unintelligibility and doctrinal indifference. If every enclave frames its liturgy according to dictates indigenous to that community, wherein lies the catholicity of our communion? And if there are, in fact, some theological sticking points on which these enclaves all must agree, what are they, and (more important, in a certain way) how would we know?

It’s vitally important that the church speak in a comprehensible language, but part of its job involves teaching people that language. We don’t need to stick with an amber-encased archaic language, but neither need we dis-integrate our liturgical expressions to a point where an observer might wonder whether any distinct premises ground all of the assortment, or where a casual observer might easily conclude that any sentiment, any expression acceptably characterizes God, so long as it’s authentic. The more we proliferate “authorized” expressions of the church’s faith, the more carefully we need to coordinate them toward the sound communication of the gospel with which we’ve been entrusted.
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Bultmann and Barth

Margaret had never read much of Rudolf Bultmann’s work before this year of her doctoral program, so she messaged me to ask some questions. We were intrigued to chat about some of the patterns of similarity and difference between Bultmann and Karl Barth, and what Margaret might make of Bultmann for her own work.

One of the peculiarities of our discussion was our very firm demurrer from Bultmann’s own Heideggerian theology — but our common resistance wasn’t based on the (frequent) argument that Bultmann “imports alien concerns into the text,” or that his existential interpretation was anachronistic, or that “demythologizing” misses the point of the writings he claimed to be interpreting. On our hermeneutical perspective, there’s no “importing” or “exporting” in interpretation, so we can’t indict him on the first charge. We all contextualize what we read in terms that aren’t already implied by the text before us, so Bultmann’s not formally different from any other reader on that score. We rejoice in anachronism, so long as it’s practiced with due caution; Bultmann was more reckless than we’d approve, but we’d have to acquit on the charge of anachronism too, on the basis of selective enforcement if no other. And complaints about “demythologizing” beg the question by presupposing that some other context is intrinsically more fitting for reading Paul and John than is Heideggerian existentialism — and we don’t buy that, either.

Our objections to Bultmann fall into two main categories. First, he seems at various pivotal points not to be offering a convincing account of the text he’s ostensibly interpreting, but rather is explaining what would have to be true in order for his interpretation to be correct. But since we don’t already buy his interpretation, the gesture heightens our sense of critical sleight-of-hand. We can see Bultmann deal from the bottom of the deck, and though he shows us a handsome poker hand, we still question the fairness of his dealing. Second, and more interesting to us, is the point that although we don’t dispute his critical prerogative to interpret the New Testament in terms of a particular strain of twentieth-century German existential thought, we can’t understand how one warrants that as a work of Christian theology. Isn’t it more like the current vogue of dressing Paul up in a black turtleneck and saying that he’s the progenitor of a postmodern ethics of difference? (I’m looking at you, Badiou and Zizek, among others.)

But if you’re going to take up the vocation of being a Christian theological interpreter of the New Testament, why not lend a little more attention to the deep, subtle interpretive tradition that provides for your guidance such brilliant readers as Origen, the Cappadocians, Augustine, Thomas, and all that bunch? Of course, part of the answer is that he’s a Protestant, and part of the answer that he’s a modern Christian who can’t submit his intellectual liberty to the judgments of the ancients — but as a result of his inability to give a rich account of the church’s theological deliberations over the centuries, his theology suffers from a foreshortened perspective on the truth-claims he makes. While he may produce an exquisitely wrought theological text in the end, it holds little interest whatsoever to Christians who regard the New Testament as more canonically pertinent than, for instance, Being and Time. That’s a good book, and Bultmann’s Theology of the New Testament is an excellent, fine, careful exercise in interpretation; but as Christian theology, it leaves nigh onto twenty centuries out of the picture. Anachronism we can live with, and contextualization we can live with, and “eisegesis” we can live with, but we can’t say much on behalf of a theological proposal that ignores the creeds and the great articulators of theological soundness.
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Happy OneWebDay!

I doubt anyone can approximate the wonders that the marvelous series of tubes we call the Internet and its subset the Web have brought us. On One Web Day, we can sit back for a moment and think about the amazing changes the Web has wrought in our conventional communication (remember when you had to telephone somebody, or write them a postal message, if you wanted to communicate with them? Today we can use instant messages, email, VOIP, audio and video conferencing. Remember needing an item that your local retailer didn’t stock, and not having the appropriate mail order catalogue on hand? Remember when “columnists” were only those writers whom the local newspaper had favored with a few inches a week, and when news was meted out solely by the bureaus at a few media centers?

It’s all changing — not by any means in unqualifiedly idyllic ways, not everywhere at once, not all in cheery, comfortable ways; but it’s changing willy-nilly. And the idyllic, good, cheery, comforting bits, where we find them? They’re really terrific. And the problems? We’re still working on them — together, I hope.

New Glasses

New Glasses

Pippa had been waiting patiently for a chance to consult an optometrist; this morning she got her snappy new pair of glasses. All the way home, she was reading far-away signs, rejoicing at the vivid acuity of the world, and suggesting that I had been “hogging all the vision.”
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In Time For October Birthdays

Much to my surprise, yesterday brought a package from Fortress Press containing my author’s copies of Faithful Interpretation, the collection of essays from my first published work through a paper I gave just last winter, sort of a follow-up to the Winslow Lecture. I wasn’t expecting the book till October, so this was a marvelous bolt from the blue.

As I say, it’s a collection of essays from spanning an eighteen-year interval, so it’s not as tightly-integrated as I might like it to be. Still, there’s a thematic consistency to the whole, and the miscellaneity serves to show that the fundamental insights I’m articulating have more than just narrow implications. I have a job ahead writing up a careful treatise spelling it all out, but that lies a few books ahead of now. For the time being, this and the forthcoming Baker book do a great job of sketching out my arguments about hermeneutics. I’m delighted it’s, out there, very thankful to Neil Elliott for soliciting the manuscript for Fortress and then overseeing the production process, and to all my friends —online, offline, students, colleagues — for prodding me into refining the rough intuitions that I’m hammering into shape here.
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