Monthly Archives: April 2012

Good Shepherd Sunday

A wonderful, very full day! I started early, catching the first train to Clarkston, where I dropped in as substitute celebrant for a clergy colleague. The congregation and I know one another well by now, so we greeted one another warmly. The sermon went well — I brought one out from files, dusted it off and spruced it up, and rewrote it. I’ve put it in the ‘extended’ section below, so that people who only just visit my home page and who want to avoid reading anything homiletical can easily dodge the sermon text.
After that, I caught up with Nick, whom we have not sufficiently run ragged, and brought her to the magnificent Burrell Collection in Pollok Park. We visited the museum, then meandered down to the cattle pens so that Nick could admire Highland Cattle face to muzzle; we saw a few, including what must have been a very new Cattle-onian. Long walk back to the station, train to Central and to Partick, and back up the Lane of Doom to our flat. After a break to replenish our energy levels, Margaret and Nick traipsed to the city centre to see the full hour show at Sharmanka.
Everyone’s back in one of the two rooms of Château Partickhill. It’s getting late. Time to wind down.
Continue reading Good Shepherd Sunday

Stirling With Nick

One of our godchildren, Nick, has come north to visit us in the chosen land of Scotland, from his dreary grind of going on sight-seeing tours, seeing theatrical productions, and discussing Romantic poetry in London. No wonder he fled to Glasgow!

Since we felt obliged to show Nick some of the best Scotland has to offer, we all went up to Stirling Castle yesterday (in the typically gorgeous Scottish sunshine) to explore the stony keep that held England at bay time and again (except when it didn’t). (actually, Stirling was hardly ever overrun in battle; more often, its imposing position and impregnable walls simply made the castle a convenient target for a siege, and the castle was most often starved into submission.) The Castle has been very thoroughly restored over the past ten or fifteen years, and is now in grand condition — amply worth a visit when you’re in the area.

AKMA and Nick

I’ve been to many castles in my day (and several more in my night), intact and ruined, decrepit and renovated — and right now, Stirling tops my list. Edinburgh Castle wins for largeness, but the restoration at Stirling excels anything I’ve seen before. I’m very thankful that Rich urged us to go, and pleased that we decided to take him up on that suggestion. If I were King, I might think again about allowing Historic Scotland to administer Stirling; it would make a spectacular little getaway cabin. And well done, Your Royal Majesty, for supporting the restoration, and do come back for a visit sometime.

Ecology & Sensibility

All is well in Glasgow, apart from the marking Margaret has to do and an annoying cold (or allergy) that jumped on me last weekend and, not taking the hint, has lingered through the week. We’ve had a truly remarkable run of weather recently. Remarkable, that is, for its unvarying typicality. Starting I-don’t-remember-how-many-days-ago, the high temperature has been 10 or 11°, low 4 or 5°, with variable clear skies and clouds, and intermittent rain. Last I checked, this trend is set to continue indefinitely.
Now, this weather is not at all out of bounds for Glasgow this time of year; indeed, I would reckon it’s pretty much the default setting. But the consistency with which it has settled in is eerie. Ordinarily I’d expect more day-on-day variability; a drier, sunnier day here, a bleaker, blusterier day there. But hey, there’s no ice on the pavements, and rain is just par for the course here in Glasgow.
Speaking of what’s typical of Glasgow, I’ve introduced Margaret to Rab C. Nesbitt — a sort of Glaswegian amalgam of The Beverly Hillbillies, Steptoe & Son/Sanford & Son, All in the Family, except with a radically amped-up degree of over-the-top rudeness, all in uncompromising Glasgow patter. (I see a number of episodes on YouTube: you can watch the first episode here.) The lead character is a determinedly unemployed waster, resident in the Giro Valley of Govan, who can’t tell you the last time he got blootered because he doesn’t remember being sober. (He gives up drink later in the series. Don’t tell Margaret, she hasn’t gotten there yet.) Margaret more pure of heart than Rab’s gutter humour, but she can’t help herself from taking sidelong glances at the screen and snickering in pained dismay. Nesbitt is not crassly exploitative comedy, though — there’s a very sharp political edge to Nesbitt’s street-philosopher monologues, pointed take-downs of social-climbers and politicians (and especially social-climbing politicians), and an affectionately self-deprecating perspective on scroungers, drunks, and numpties. Still offensive, but not solely offensive.
But the precipitating point for this morning’s post arises from the laudable prevalence of compact fluorescent bulbs here. Three cheers for long-life, energy-efficient illumination! In the course of yesterday’s spring spruce-up for the two-room castle here, though, I came upon a burned-out CFL bulb that I’d saved to dispose of safely. I don’t want to contaminate a landfill with mercury, no indeed. So I started looking for Glasgow Council’s facilities for proper disposal of CFL bulbs. After a few minutes of intensive searching, it became clear that the reason it was so hard to find the Council’s policy is that the best alternative Council offers (again, so far as I can make out after diligent searching) is traveling to one of the four recycling centres at the margins of the city. Now, I appreciate the difficulty of disposing of these bulbs — one doesn’t want just to put a bin somewhere and say, ‘Toss your CFLs in here’. At the same time, does someone actually expect me to hop on a bus, ride for twenty minutes or so, alight, walk for ten minutes or more, hand over a single CFL, then return home, at a cost greater than the price of the bulb, having taken about an hour of my time? My ingenious neighbours must be able to devise some more practical alternative. Or, if there’s already such an alternative, spomeone will put it on the Council website.

Gibs auf

It was very early in the morning, the streets were clean and empty, and I was going to the rail station. As I compared the clock on the tower with my watch, I saw that it was already much later than I had thought; I had to really hurry up — the shock of this discovery left me unsure of my way. I didn’t know my way around this city well yet; luckily, there was a constable nearby, and I ran to him and breathlessly asked the way. He laughed and said to me, ‘From me, you want to find the way?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘cause I can’t find it by myself.’ ‘Give up, give up,’ he said, and turned away with a dramatic gesture, as people do when they want to be alone with their laughter.
     Franz Kafka


Not, as far as I’m concerned, ‘give up trying to find your way to the station’ altogether (though that’s a plausible enough interpretation, and may even be the outcome of the ‘giving up’ I propose); but ‘give up the anxious frenzy that’s confusing you in the first place’. ‘Give up’ agitation over things that lie outwith your capacity to determine, and figure out what you’re going to do, running late, disoriented, with places to go. Maybe hunker down right here and give up the journey; maybe give up the idea that other people can solve your perplexities for you; maybe give up the fretfulness that doesn’t advance your well-being in any regard. Maybe, yes, just plain give up — but not only just give up.

What Makes It Good: The Beat

As Mattie Z. said in the comments to my previous post, ‘rock is all about the beat’. Can’t argue with that — both the authority of one of my oldest longest vintage music-arguing-friends and the compulsion of the beat brook no contradiction.
Instead of arguing aye or nay, let’s make some distinctions. First, there’s the beat that rock inherited from r&b and jump blues (among other sources) — the hip-pumping, lascivious beat that triggered hysteria when rock ventured to put its head above the parapet, the beat that Elvis siphoned from Wynonie Harris, Big Mama Thornton, Louis Jordan, Hank Ballard, and their colleagues into the pop mainstream. That’s the beat that made dancing fun; it separated whatever came next from whatever was played before.* The beat catapulted Elvis and Chuck Berry and Little Richard and Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis into currency, and made possible the ascendance of Buddy Holly and the wave of rock and roll whose crest was the Beatles. There’s a beat that sets rock and its [precedent and] antecedent musics apart. When I think of music that I count ‘good’, I’m with Matt.
That beat I love can get big and funky — for which thanks be to James Brown, the Meters, the Stax-Volt Big Six, Sly Stone, and George Clinton — in a distinctive way. A just right funky beat can justify a song almost all by itself, a phenomenon that generations of samplers have discovered and benefited from. A rich, prominent, resonant rhythm riff is an evocative, primal, irresistible thing.
The beat criterion also applies to higher-adrenaline urgency, and even rhythmic violence of some rock. Anyone can just play it faster, but some songs, some styles, some performers demand a greater intensity of themselves and their listeners, and repay that intensity with interest. The Stooges album Raw Power names much of what’s at stake: louder, faster, more insistent, and worth the extra sweat.
So I love rock and roll (‘I Love Rock and Roll’ — not coincidentally, a huge beat), I love funk, and I love the frenetic urgency of uptempo music. Yup, it’s the beat. But over and above the criterion that the best sets, I love music that plays with the beat — syncopated, or hesitating, or withholding the beat that the music seems to promise us. I’m a total sucker for that ploy. When a performer can make the compelling case that everything hinges on the upcoming beat, and then defer it (convincingly), that’s genius.
A few years back, when Pippa and Si and I were living together I think, the topic of ‘great rhythm sections’ came up. I know the names I’m supposed to know, and we agreed on a few, but it was surprising how few really stood out once we were listening for just that. The outstanding, amazing exception we heard was Keith Moon and John Entwistle, who could not only deliver a tremendous beat, but could play with it, nuance it, fill, run, and then wallop it back into shape. Matt won’t be surprised at that conclusion, since he and I and our friends had pretty much decided that years ago. But over the years, my jaw-dropping admiration for Moon and Entwistle hasn’t abated.
Matt says ‘uninspired drumming or overly simple rhythms usually prevents something from being categorized as good, or great’, and a lot hinges on ‘uninspired’ and ‘overly simple’ — but these are areas where professional beat-keeping rhythm sections can function mostly as a more decorative metronome, and with about as much appeal. A lot of very popular music treats the rhythm section as a functional necessity, but not as anything that should be allowed possibly to distract record-buyers from a star vocalist or lead guitarist, and the group’s tight trousers. Wrong move. In the immortal words of Lee Dorsey, ‘Everything I Do Gohn Be Funky (From Now On)’.


* That’s not a strictly chronological claim, of course. People still made un-rocking music after Elvis broke out, and as I just said, people had been rocking before Elvis. Once mass audiences, which is to say ‘white audiences with disposable income’, discovered the beat, Elvis’s predecessors seemed to belong with him and the future, while performers who neglected the beat belong to the insular past.

Seeing Byres Road Twice

A couple of months ago, Margaret and I went to the monthly antiques fair (as we always do). I think I may have just dropped off some pens for repair by Peter Crook, but I didn’t buy anything. Margaret scored [this part deleted, ’cos it would reveal something that will be a gift for someone] and a couple of reproductions of antique postcards of sights in our area. One of those shows Byres Road as it looked in the early twentieth century:

Looking north up Byres Road


So this morning, on our way to the Kelvingrove for the Glasgow International’s display of Richard Wright’s works on paper, I took a photo of Byres Road from what we estimated was the correct position on the street (it should actually have been nearer the pavement), and when I came home I pasted the old postcard onto the contemporary photo:

Old and New Byres Road


As I said, they don’t align perfectly, because I had the angle wrong; but considering the circumstances, I’m pretty pleased with the result. And when I was nudging the older image around over the newer, there were moments when some feature of the images — say, a particular chimney or a cornice — aligned perfectly, and I got a chill. Have I mentioned that I love living here?

What Is ‘Evidence’?

One of the great problems in learning exegesis is that ‘evidence’ is not what you think it might be.† Or — to be more precise — most students don’t apply themselves to learning how to formulate a convincing exegetical argument; while student papers show many sorts of weakness,* I find the leading exegetical problem to involve how my students handle evidence in exegetical argument.
There’s a strong cultural reflex to treat the notion of ‘evidence’ as (pardon me) self-evident. When a much-publicised trial hinges on whether this or that item is admissible as evidence, many civilians feel outrage (or relief) based on our prior determination of whether the accused should be found guilty; if we know she did it, we wnt the knife to be counted as evidence (indeed, we usually simply assert that it is evidence), or if we know she’s been wrongfully accused, we feel certain that the knife doesn’t count as evidence (or that its implications as evidence is uncertain). All the more so do students typically approach the question of evidence in exegesis as a matter of justifying their prior intuitions (or convictions).
There’s surely no way to extirpate our intuitions and convictions from the way we weigh evidence, but if we don’t begin with a shared understanding what counts as evidence in biblical-interpretation discourses, and how that evidence functions, then we’re practically guaranteed to speak at cross-purposes. Imagine a courtroom in which prosecution and defence operated without any shared definition of ‘admissible evidence’; the judge would have some intractable challenges in evaluating their respective cases (and would quite likely fall back on exactly the unevidenced intuitions and convictions we’re trying to escape). If exegesis amounts to nothing more, it must amount to broadly agreed-upon conventions concerning ‘evidence’.
So, among the rules of evidence for biblical scholarship, one might enumerate the following:
Nothing can simply be taken at face value. Whether it be an evangelist’s report of what Jesus did or said, Pauline authorship of a letter, the function of the aorist participle, or the superscriptions of the gospels, or any other thing, one may not simply take it as a settled question. Quickly following this point: if you have [exegetical] reasons for taking your point for granted (that’s what footnotes are for), or if you’re addressing an audience that recognises a given point as sufficiently agreed-upon that it doesn’t require further justification (at the Evangelical Theological Society, one does not have to justify the assumption that Paul wrote Ephesians; at the Society of Biblical Literature, you need at least to note that you’re aware that most of your interlocutors don’t think Paul wrote Ephesians), then go ahead. One doesn’t have to footnote every observation. But once you’re aware that you can’t simply take it for granted that Paul wrote Ephesians, once you’re ready to do the work to back up that assumption with arguments, then you’re already working along exegetical lines.
But too many students substitute special pleading (or ignorance) for argument. ‘But Matthew was there!’ they cry — not because they’ve read Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, but because they simply haven’t caught the point that maybe Matthew’s Gospel is an anonymous text to which an apostle’s name was affixed retrospectively. To hark back to the judicial comparison, ‘Matthew saw it’ is hearsay; ‘The early church ascribed this claim to an eyewitness, so an eyewitness saw it’ won’t convince a judge any more than ‘My neighbour said that someone witnessed AKMA dumping a half-ton of garbage off a fifteen foot cliff at the bottom of which there was another pile of garbage, so AKMA must have done it’ will convict me of littering and creating a nuisance. But under ordinary circumstances, 27 eight-by-ten colour glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one will convince the same (clear-sighted) judge. We don’t have any direct evidence (comparable to photographs, which themselves might be staged anyway) from the first century — but we have numerous almost-universally-agreed premises,** the knowledge of which marks one essential step toward participating in exegetical discourse.
If there are some claims that function within exegetical discourses as taken-for-granted, there are also what we might call “second-degree premises’ — claims that are not held by a majority of scholars, but which are well-accepted enough to be recognised without causing a fuss. If important exegetical leverage depends on such a second-degree premise, though, one should be prepared for those who do not share it to count that reliance as a weakness to the claim.
This is getting too long, but I should not break off before I mention the topic of how exegetes work with evidence. I’m unsure about what to say in this regard; a great deal seems to be implied by the pattern of first-degree premises that a particular collective abides by. All such patterns have internal inconsistencies of oe sort or another, that will seem inexplicable to a novice and irritating to an outsider, especially an outsider student. The outsider and the novice will have internal inconsistencies, too, though, and the odds heavily favour the likelihood that the academic inconsistencies are better worked out than the intuitive inconsistencies of the unschooled outsider. In any case, students need to learn not just “what counts as evidence’, but also what are the licit uses to which evidence can be put. Hard as it is for me to describe this in a general way, it’s all the more difficult for someone who hasn’t spent the last dozen or so years thinking about the nature of evidence in biblical argument‡ — so most of the time, the student will have to learn by following an instructor’s example and internalising those patterns, or by reading a great deal of scholarly literature and absorbing from those writings the sorts of moves one can make. If I can come up with a better way of learning the appropriate uses of evidence, I promise I’ll write about it.
Now, though, it’s getting late, and I want to watch a TV show.


† One of my favourite books, one that I would lvoe to teach in a postgraduate seminar someday, is Questions of Evidence in the Critical Inquiry special symposium series (I mentioned it in my ‘Syllabus of my Imagination’ post). Questions takes the kind of discussion I open up here and shoots it into the intellectual stratosphere.
* To wit: bad spelling; weak sentence structure; incorrect use of words; lazy, inconsistent, bibliographic style; incoherent paragraphing; stream of semiconsciousness composition; utter absence of elucidating structure (related to preceding weakness). Note that none of these is an exegetical problem! If you want to write a better exegesis paper, begin by making sure you’re writing to the best of your abilities.
** Of course, the specific range of ‘almost-universally-agreed premises’ varies somewhat from pool of exegetes to pool of exegetes; the agreed premises at Birmingham aren’t the same as the agreed premises at Aberdeen, and the agreed premises will vary somewhat even at the same school, depending on who staffs a particular department. Likewise, the agreed premises of a given school of exegetes will be subject to change over time as some arguments lose the strength of their predominance, or as they gain adherents (taking changes in the status of Q as an example). Students whose intuitions and convictions do not match those of their instructors may need to stretch their analytical capacities to granting their instructors’ premises on a provisional basis, if only better to understand the ways that they handle evidence and arguments. Provisional insight into others’ arguments need not amount to a case of ‘welcoming one who does not walk in the truth’, but more precisely to ‘becoming all things to all people, that you may win the more’. Or just the basic rhetorical common sense that if you want to persuade someone of something, it usually works better if you argue on their terms.
‡ Either it will be difficult, or it will be described easily on the basis that ‘what we do is correct, and this is how to do it’, without the crucially important consideration that other top-rank scholars do things differently elsewhere.

What Makes It Good

About a year ago, maybe more, our friend Rich pressed me to articulate the grounds for my music snobbery. ‘If,’ he reasoned, ‘you are going to sneer at my taste, you at least owe me an account of why your taste is better.’ [Editorial note for the sake of Truth: Rich did not say that, nor did I actually sneer at his taste. I just don’t share his fondness for most of ELO’s or the Eagles’ oeuvre, and I did perhaps eyeroll or arch a brow at his playlist. OK, that’s the rough equivalent of a sneer. I’m sorry.]
Rich suggested that I might like or dislike music in an inverse proportion to its popularity, but that’s not it. I like plenty of popular artists, and haven’t acquired a taste for lots of acquired tastes.
At the time, I felt sure that I must be able to sketch some criteria for my taste, but every time a candidate occurred to me, I thought it sounded hollow, and I tallied a number of counterexamples from among my favourites. I decided to let the matter rest for a while, and as time passed and I compiled a list of grounds for admiring a particular selection, the composite list looked more reputable. It is not rigidly consistent; some songs hit one particular characteristic brilliantly, but only that one characteristic; others combine several characteristics, though none extraordinarily. And none really hit all the different points I’ve thought up, in part because some of my desiderata are contradictory.
But it’s time for me to begin speaking out in public about what makes music good (as far as I’m concerned, and that’s not just a pro forma qualification — though I think I have good taste, mostly, I really firmly believe that other people, you for instance, may have strong grounds for reaching different conclusions than I). So with that, I’ll being by stating the obvious: Good music can be identified, most of the time, by good musicianship. Skill, technique, precision, virtuosity, all contribute to a performance I might admire.
OK, counterexamples first: Much punk rock, and a lot of old-timey music (to name just two genres) place little emphasis on technical musicianship. ‘Anarchy in the UK’ as performed by John McLaughlin and Buddy Rich would… lack something. They might bring something else to it, but I’m not saving my farthings for their cover version.
But at the same time, the cult of the great guitarist (or the ‘general admiration for other musicians’) symptomatises something pertinent to my theme. When Eric Clapton and Duane Allman dial in to the same musical wavelength on Layla, something happens that you just don’t mess with. Intuitive musical gifts are not antithetical to technical musicianship; some extremely gifted musicians intensify the quality of their work with trained musicianship (though others rely principally on their casual understanding of music, to very great effect, and some attain greatness from sheer diligent determination). OK, now I’m just sounding pedantic and dull — but you take my point.
So, some moments where stunning musicianship carries the day? I suspect that most of what sustained the brief incandescence of jazz-rock fusion was musicianship*; certainly the roster of noteworthy performers associated with fusion included some breath-taking musicians. The Jeff Beck albums Blow By Blow and Wired have a lot going for them, but musicianship might be the albums’ leading quality. Whatever else one might say about Frank Zappa, he upheld the very highest standards of musicianship for his bands. Mark Knopfler’s work in Dire Straits really stood out for its distinctive, right, guitar lines (even when the other bits didn’t interest me so much). Carlos Santana’s work, especially his early work, demonstrates stunning musicianship, sometimes overshadowed by the distinctiveness of his Latin-rock synthesis. I’m a big admirer of Phil Manzanera’s solo albums, again exemplifying fine technical performance. Josiah reminds me to include the Roots, to which point I assent though without feeling that I really have lived into their recordings enough to say so on the strength of my own observations (though when we saw them in New York a few years ago, the musicianship in their performance was staggering). Andrew Bird, maybe?
One of the besetting problems of musicianship in popular music is the sense of formality, sterility, that sometimes attend it. One of the afflictions of popular music in the 70’s came from the sense that rock musicians were trying so hard to prove their worthiness that many of them adopted painfully over-serious, over-technical styles that just didn’t rock (and often didn’t satisfy the serious audiences they were trying to impress). Musicianship blends over to ‘professionalism’ (in the pejorative sense) and commercialism, too. When Rich caught me out for disliking music for being ‘popular’, much of what he was right about involved my lack of interest in bands that struck me as so professional that I didn’t feel especially drawn to them. ‘Commercial’ generally tastes bad to me.
That’s plenty as a starting point; I’ll put up another criterion sometime, and eventually develop it out into a whole series. There are lots of characteristics of the music I love, so it’ll take time to get more than a narrow slice of them written out. But now I’m at least beginning to pay the world hat I owe for my snobbery, and now to listen to the feedback from friends who know their stuff better than I do, or who remember artists and compositions I’ve neglected.


* And jazz, and ‘classical’ music, of course. They’re not the focus of my inquiry, perhaps as much for reasons of my taste and the limitations of my understanding as for any other reason, but I’m just not going to think first of Mingus Ah Um when I write on this topic even though I love that album.

On Death, Part 3

To summarise the New Testament understanding of death, then: Death constitutes both an inevitable element of temporal life (life according to the flesh), and a representative figure for all the characteristics of temporal, physical life. Thus Death bears a defining connections to sin, not necessarily because sin causes death, but because both sin and death are universally manifest in temporal life. Everybody dies, and nobody’s perfect.*
(The topic of ‘justification by faith’ matters so much for the Apostle Paul because it touches on the magnitude of God’s merciful grace; that for which an even-steven exchange is made, that which we can claim as our due, has nothing to do with grace. And by this logic, any effort we make to shore up our standing before God amounts to a repudiation of God’s forgiveness, God’s grace, and even Christ’s self-giving on the cross. Thus, necessarily, self-justification collaborates with Death. All share in lives coloured by sin; none of us can lay claim to attainments that would suffice to exculpate ourselves, and the persistent temptation to immunise ourselves to any possible criticism enmeshes us, once again, in the snares of Death.)

As such, Death is both integral to the fullness of (temporal) humanity, and is an adversary, since it represents an unnecessary Iimitation. Death ‘wants’ to finalise our separation from God; it has never been able to do so, and in laying claim to the life of Jesus, Death over-reached and its power was broken by the inextinguishable life of Jesus; though its power has not vanished, from the Mount of the Resurrection we can see Death’s brittleness. Strengthened by Christ’s encouragement and sustained by the Holy Spirit, we can outwait death.

Excursus on Suicide: The Bible expresses no explicit deprecation of suicide at any point. When the Bible narrates the deaths of Abimelech (an ‘assisted death’, since the wounded leader demanded that his armour-bearer kill him), Saul, Saul’s armour-bearer, Ahitophel, Zimri, and (arguably) Samson die, the narrator betrays no sign that their self-determined deaths warrant criticism. Judas’s suicide (in Matthew’s version of the story — Luke simply has him stumble and explode) likewise receives no criticism. All these, it should be noted, kill themselves under circumstances when they can not take life after death (and judgment) as given aspects of their faith in the God of Israel; they are hastening their departure to Sheol, but they do not seem to be transgressing the Torah.** When Paul ponders his ‘desire to depart and be with Christ’, he stops not because suicide would be a sin, but because he may still do some good for the Philippians. Paul’s case stands out because of his invocation of the topics of resurrection and judgment; were he to have known that suicide would bar him from entering the kingdom of heaven, it would seem exceptionally peculiar that he not acknowledge it. To this extent, then, the evidence of the Bible suggests no opprobrium to suicide or to assisted suicide.
To what does all this add up, with regard to a biblical practice of the ars moriendi?
First, that although the Christian hope affirms that Death has been broken, yet Death persists as an element in every human life. Death is not a failure of discipleship, nor an unjust imposition. We rightly grieve at death, for we who remain are the poorer without our brothers’ and sisters’ presence among us. This grief, however, takes its place within a broader frame in which death does not bring our relationships to a terminus, but interrupts what will be rewoven. Indeed, unwelcome as a person’s death itself may be, it marks the hinge which opens onto the fulness of life in God’s presence, which we confidently hope to share. We live in Death’s shadow with mindfulness, but without fretfulness; with earnestness, but not without joy.
The inevitability of death does not justify carelessness in how one lives. We will be held accountable for the use to which we put our days and nights, as for our wealth, strength, intelligence, and other resources. A biblical ars moriendi rejoices in the on-going opportunity to shape lives that bespeak Christ’s grace, and accepts the limitation on this opportunity.
While the Bible offers various characterisations of what will ensue after death, we have good reason not to take any of them as precise specifications of Heaven, or Hell, or any other state. The sheer diversity of those accounts militates against supposing any one of them is more concretely applicable than others. We are promised that resurrection life is in some sense bodily, but ‘bodily’ in a sense we cannot yet ascertain. We have been taught those who have understood and sought God’s approval will flourish, and those who defy the ways of life, of truth, of grace and hope will subsist in their alienation from divine blessings. Whatever pictures one associates with those assurances, they suffice to underscore the worth of directing our lives toward a death congruent with our affirmations and our hope.
We may sum up a biblical ars moriendi as the enacted acceptance of unearned justification. We practise hopeful generosity, and renounce the fearfulness that withholds trust from God; we practise humility, and renounce the presumption that we have escaped the effects of mortal limitations on our understanding; we practise solidarity with the breadth of our sisters and brothers, and renounce the enmity that strives to separates us from one another. In harmonious unity, disinterested respect for others, and confident grace we adorn lives given for God’s glory, and accept death as a completion of that offering.


* Whatever one may think of the Augustinian tradition of binding ‘original sin’ to biology, to Adam’s primal transgression, and so on, he must be correct to insist that it’s futile and a distraction to look for some point in time at which an infant first becomes subject to sin. Sure, cute li’l babies don’t belong to the same category as remorseless self-serving financiers in a certain sense — but all babies are mortal, all babies will sin sooner or later, hence we may say with justification that all humans are subject to sin. Slice the problem some other way if you want to avoid the bugaboo of original sin, but I’m not sure there’s an intelligible way to parse temporal human-ness apart from mortality and sin.
** On the other hand, it should be noted that despite the abundance of crimes and misdemeanours set forth in the Old Testament, only rarely does anyone invoke the Torah explicitly as a criterion for distinguishing good from bad, mitzvah from averah; an argument from silence relative to the Torah’s apparent toleration of suicide requires support from positive evidence.

Short Status

It’s not that I have nothing to say, but that — between writing-for-publication, doing things, and resting, I haven’t squeezed any blogging in. The Doctrine Committee meets tomorrow afternoon, though, so after I have a talk with a radio person about technology and religion, I should really finish up the ‘On Death’ series. But really, I’m still here, haven’t forgotten you.

When Criticism Isn’t Critical

I don’t remember where I left off in the “How To Do Exegesis” series, but this afternoon I’m provoked to write about a phenomenon that puzzles me as a scholar, frustrates me as a colleague, and depresses me as a teacher. This is the phenomenon of which I’m thinking: Sometimes a reputable scholar responds to reasoned challenges by noting some of the sources on which the challenge draws, and calling into question other points that these scholars make. That’s too abstract. What I mean is that sometimes Lester (let’s say) will cite points that Kirk, Hays, and Bulkeley, make relative to a critique of Adam. Lester may say, ‘Kirk has shown an alternative interpretation of Rom 3:1-8, which makes the grounds for Adam’s assertion that “Paul understands the Old Testament as a collection of oracles such as a chresmologos would consult” conflicts with Hays’s and Bulkeley’s treatments of prophetic oracles’. OK so far? Lester thinks I’m wrong, and he draws on Kirk, Hays, and Bulkeley to make his point.
This is where the irritating part comes in. In this hypothetical case, Adam sometimes responds, ‘Of course, Kirk reads Romans as apologetic literature, a long-discredited analysis. As such, he would be attracted to such counterintuitive proposals as Hays’s misreading of Isaiah, and Bulkeley’s postmodern skewering of Amos. Lester here is simply barking up the wrong tree’.
Do you see what I just did? Nothing in the whole response addresses the substance of Kirk’s claim, or Hays’s, or Bulkeley’s. When Lester identifies Kirk’s treatment of Rom 3:1-8, he calls me to respond to that issue, not whether I think Kirk is right about Romans as apologetic. Kirk may be 100% correct about Rom 3:1-8 even if Romans is better read as epideictic, or ambassadorial, or a thank-you note to his auntie. Neither does my riposte above rebut Kirk’s reference to Hays or Bulkeley; characterising these scholars doesn’t amount to demonstrating that their arguments don’t hold water.
When we aspire to critical interpretation, we volunteer to meet the standard of the best plausible explanation. The best plausible explanation may not be the one we like the most, or the one that our denominational authorities insist is correct, or that comforts us on our sickbed, or that supports arguments that we espouse for other reasons. There’s noting intrinsically wrong with preference, denominational loyalty, consolation, or our other convictions. They just don’t warrant our critical exegetical arguments.
So we may opt to stick with our favourite reading of Romans 3:1-8, even though we know that Stack-Nelson has made a convincing argument that leads to a different conclusion. That’s OK, it’s a preference, not a reasoned, critical conclusion. We may be loyal, obedient representatives of our Calvo-pisco-ptist Evangelische Humanist Association (or whatever), so long as we don’t try to represent our fidelity to CEHA doctrine as critical interpretation of Romans 3:1-8. We may pray ‘Let God be true, though everyone else a liar’ while tossing and turning in bed with a feverish flu (why one would do so is a separate question). We may think of circumcision as a form of child abuse, even if we agree that Romans 3:1f insists that circumcision is very beneficial in every way. All OK, so long as one distinguishes what one thinks on other grounds from what one affirms as a critical reader.
But if, in the give-and-take of critical discussion, Lester cites Stack-Nelson’s interpretation of Rom 3:1-8 as evidence against my argument, it’s my obligation to address that claim one of several ways. I may show the reasons that I find Stack-Nelson’s claim unconvincing. Or I may allow that she has propounded a convincing interpretation, but that it doesn’t necessarily undermine my own. Or I may give a reason that her argument doesn’t count as evidence (perhaps she made it in the context of a discussion of the relative merits of punk rock bands, rather than Greek-language analysis of Pauline epistles).
If instead of addressing Stack-Nelson’s claim against me, I slough it off by disputing a different aspect of her argument, or by questioning her judgment in general, or by suggesting interpretive guilt by negative association (‘she’s a heretic’, ‘she’s a fundamentalist’), by throwing out a red herring (‘She obviously hasn’t read Carey’s recent monograph’ without explaining how Carey’s monograph affects Stack-Nelson’s proposal), by appealing to my reputation (‘How many keynotes has she given? How many books has she written?’), or by ignoring her, I’m no longer speaking with the authority of critical scholarship. Anyone can dodge a question; meeting a challenge, allowing its full force, and explaining your position relative to that challenge, that’s what a critical scholar is called to do.
So, sometimes ‘criticism’ isn’t critical, in the sense that we don’t really need critical exegesis for the need at hand (when I’m lying a bed with the flu, I want someone to make me feel better, not to parse Greek participles) (though now that I mention it, participles are a lot of fun, and might make a diverting relief from neuralgia and overheating). And sometimes criticism isn’t ‘critical’ in the sense that the arguments from ostensibly responsible scholars neglect actually to address the issue in question honestly and analytically.
Our jobs in conducting exegetical research require us to put forward what seems the best explanation of the evidence before us, to give reasons that this proposal better fits the evidence than does our neighbour’s, to join up as strong as case as we can think up, and to be aware that sensible interlocutors will still have good reasons to reach other conclusions. We may not enjoy admitting that Judy Stack-Nelson has a very strong case for her opposing theory, or that Tim Bulkeley’s recondite postmodernism actually does laudable work with the Hebrew text, or that we just never remember which Iron Age level Chris Hays’s reconstruction of Isaiah belongs to (or even whether it was Bronze Age or Some Other Metal Age), or that Brooke Lester remembered aspects of ancient oracle-mongering that we hadn’t taken into account, or that Daniel Kirk’s broader exposition of Romans makes his particular reading of 3:1-8 more likely than ours (which doesn’t fit tidily into any overall reading of the epistle).
(This goes with my series on ‘How To Do Exegesis’, which may turn into a book someday, but which aims to spell out some of the aspects of interpretive labour that my colleagues sometimes think of as self-evident. The first post is here, second here, third here, fourth here, fifth here, sixth here, a relevant but non-serial post here, and some miscellaneous notes and quotations elsewhere in the ‘How To’ category. If you want to use some of these for your teaching, by all means help yourself, unless you charge for them or take credit for having prepared them. I did not consult the actual scholarly positions of any of the friends I invoke here; they’re all smart, wise, critical, profound, and correct, except when they depart from what I think.)