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Tuesday, October 26th, 2010
I've been reading Why Narrative? Readings in Narrative Theology edited by Hauerwas and Jones. The latest essay was by Hans Frei. Frei explains why narrative reading has not been developed very much in recent centuries. To make a long story short (and probably over-simplified), after the Reformation, the Protestant church split into more conservative evangelical and historical critical camps. The conservative evangelicals believed that the text had a meaning that was supernatural, and that the message of the text was one that had an application to our everyday lives. The historical critical camp thought the text had a religious meaning that was independent of the details of history. They saw the text teaching general truths of morality and monotheism that could be learned totally apart from revelation, but that revelation had done a good job of articulating. What neither side could admit, however, was the idea that perhaps the text had a narrative meaning that was inapplicable to the current day. This kept them from putting much effort into understanding narrative.
For the left, it is easy to see why they would have a hard time with narrative. Their focus was on the religious message. If there was an independent way of determining what was true, if we could just look in our own hearts, then there was good reason not to adopt ways of reading the Bible which might lead to discovering that its religious message was very different from what the churches taught.
What is a little more puzzling was something Frei suggested about the conservatives. He thought that they had something similar going on. Namely, that since they could not separate the processes of reading the Bible as narrative from evaluating its message as a truth claim. In his mind, deciding that the text teaches Jesus as Messiah is one decision; deciding that he himself believed it or that this is relevant today is another.
Why this is important to Frei may be a little elusive. It seems that he is saying that reading the story as narrative requires knowing how to read narrative, and when we do that, that understanding could conceivably take us places that would change the nature of the truth claim. Where for liberals the truth claim is something they would like to duck, for conservatives who have long accepted the truth of the claim, any reading that would call it into question must be rejected. Further, and perhaps more importantly, though, once we take this story as truth, we might forget how to read it as story altogether. The kinds of question we ask about a story (Why does the author emphasize this character? Is he in it for his own sake or to talk about the main character? Why wasn't this mentioned earlier? Is this more effective knowing such-and-such at this point rather than later?**) often seem incommensurable with doctrinal or apologetic questions. Frei seems less like he is suggesting that the text does, in fact, lack meaning for the modern day, and more like he is wanting to bring narrative questions to the text as genuine hermeneutical questions, whatever the consequence.
Frie also suggests, intriguingly, that Biblical hermeneutics tended to develop in Germany, whereas narrative understanding tended to develop in England, where the novel was flourishing. Perhaps it would require a land of authors to understand how an author thought. This sparked some interest in me in reading some early criticism. On a side note, I was also interested to read that Bishop Lowth, who did so much to describe how Biblical poetry works in his Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews also wrote on Isaiah. A couple other commentators, Warburton and Geddes, were also noteworthy for being able to read the Old Testament from a literary perspective.
**Note: These questions were not listed by Frei. This is my interpretation of what a focus on narrative might lead to. Frei's essay leaves that open for the reader to imagine. It took a little pondering for me to see how Frei's hermeneutical program would differ from that of the conservatives, as he seemed to suggest that it did without explicitly stating how.
4:49 am Pacific Standard Time
Saturday, October 16th, 2010
We have been using Rodney Decker's Koine Greek Reader as our textbook for my Greek class, and this week's translation was Romans 13. I have thought about this passage a lot. I tend to read from an anarchist perspective, though one which does not place great emphasis on resistance. (A Presbyterian will on the one hand place a stamp of approval on more governments than I do, but will on the other hand feel justified in taking arms against the state earlier than I will.) I feel a bit lost in a passage offering an apparently pragmatic argument for why to obey the state. I'd rather see it as a necessary evil or suffer it like the righteous in the Sermon on the Mount. Any number of things can be suffered if I am not asked to say they're good.
A few minutes ago, however, I saw a silver lining in this teaching I had not caught before. It was God's gracious will to protect our lives through the agency of even stupid people. I can't explain how I started to see it. But it was a bright side of even the most lackluster pedestrian reading of the text that I had never caught. (For example try Douglas Moo's commentary on Romans. Wonderful scholarship in the footnotes. Reference to the whole gamut of opinion. But BORING conclusions. A charge I think he would take as a badge of honor.) Ordinarily, this text looms as a dark cloud only.
This is a type of reading I learned in reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck. At a Liberty Fund conference I attended, one reader pointed out a bunch of suspect theories that Steinbeck apparently held based on specific passages in the book. In each case, the reader had solid evidence for the charges. But I wondered whether Steinbeck held the THEORY OF THE BLONDE BEAST, or whether perhaps he just enjoyed employing the image of the blonde beast. Was it a mistake to see some of these as full scale theories when they might work as images? While I think Romans 13 does teach some theory, perhaps the images can be useful to us even before we come to closure on how they function as a political theory, in Paul's day and in ours, and whatever the exceptions. We can still picture God using the sword on our behalf, through the agency of people who fall short of being good philosopher kings.
In the meantime I still have a lot of open questions.
2:30 pm Pacific Standard Time
Wednesday, October 13th, 2010
I'm working my way through James Alison's The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin through Easter Eyes. This is one of those books that slows down at points. There are many Bible passages to look up, and they have to be pondered. I just ran into another section like this this morning. Alison says: "In Romans 1:32 Paul shows that he considers that all humans know of the primal prohibition that is found in Genesis 2:15-17." The Romans 1:32 passage says that "...although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them." So Alison sees an allusion to Genesis in this ordinance of God calling for death. This he finds in the passage that reads, "Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. The LORD God commanded the man, saying, 'From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die'" (Genesis 2:15-17 NASB). My first surprise is that he includes verse 15. There is probably a reason for that, but I cannot immediately see it. Perhaps this has long been taken as a single unit. I can, however see how he sees this passage as a possible source for St. Paul. There is the reference to death. This is something that God ordained. But the specifics of what is prohibited are missing.
I checked my new Romans commentary by Douglas Moo (Wonderful footnotes. Lackluster interpretations, though I think he would take pride in that label.). Moo sees the Romans passage as being more general. For Moo, this would seem to be something that does not require Special Revelation. The advantage to this is that it is not clear that all Gentiles have heard of Adam and Eve. Also, it offers a way to see how more specific prohibitions of various sorts might be in view. But as strong as these arguments are, I am now wondering. To know an ordinance seems to go beyond this. Even when conscience tells us that something is wrong, it may not tell us the exact gravity of the offense. Does not Alison's Genesis passage do that better? It mentions death. This is an advantage over the Decalogue as well. The Decalogue is, with few exceptions, given without explicit sanctions.
What is clear is that we are at one of those places where a lot of interpretive decisions have to be made. And it is best to try to do this under the guidance of the text itself. So far, both Alison's and Moo's suggestions have some strong weight behind them, but also some open problems. I'll be interested in seeing whether or not Alison can close some of these. [Looking a few lines ahead, Alison DOES get to making this case.]
4:19 am Pacific Standard Time
Friday, October 8th, 2010
I've started translating some Greek this morning. I'm working my way through Romans 13:1-14, a passage where I've done some work in the past. Some of this is looking very new in light of my recent reading in James Alison's The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin through Easter Eyes (Thanks, John H.). I'm especially interested in Alison's account of how the idea of "wrath" works in Romans. The term seems to undergo a change of meaning as Paul's argument progresses. In any case, this idea offers some food for thought regarding what is supposed to be happening between Christians and those in authority.
The other question that has arisen again for me, however, is the idea of dead metaphors. This comes up in Romans 13 with the many uses of words meaning things like "over" and "under." The Christian is to "submit" or be arranged under the "over" authorities, who are "under" God. The question arises of how much of this "over" and "under" language should be transparent in the translation. How many of the original readers would have noticed it? When we use the English term "understand," for instance, do we think "under"? Do we notice that "under" in a passage with lots of other "unders"?
Some will try to solve this culturally. What would most people have thought at the time? When people take this route, they're often convinced that most metaphors are dead. (Not all the terms I'm speaking of would be considered metaphors. But there is a parallel process that occurs in metaphors and other terms whereby they lose their original more literal meaning and take on a more abstract meaning.) Yet I have found that different people are sensitive to such meanings to a vastly different degree. This seems to be true partly by wiring, and partly by what they've been exposed to. It's both nature and nurture.
Aside from Greek class, I have seen such discussions arise in writing classes. Students are often corrected for using mixed metaphors in cases where one of the metaphors was dead to the student. That is, one metaphor might have been clear in the writer's mind, while the other just bore an abstract and unpictured meaning. The teacher, however, pictured the second metaphor, with comic results. Such teaching taught me that people are not evenly sensitive to this. The same subject was illustrated in the recent Temple Grandin movie, where Temple always pictured what was said to her. When her aunt said they would be up with the roosters, Temple pictured her aunt and uncle crowing on the side of the building as the sun came up. The image was funny, but I wondered just how funny or unusual this was. My mind does not produce a steady stream of such images when people speak. But on occasion such a picture will come to view. I think the mind that takes every metaphor as dead is abnormally normal. It is set in a direction most minds run, but to an unusual degree. Most of us are somewhere else on the bell curve. And we cannot imagine that the entire culture takes a metaphor as being dead or alive at the same time. Our knowledge of people in our own time suggests that this cannot be so.
I also have the conviction that Jesus' use of parables, and his general use of language, has the intention of making people more sensitive to this rather than less. When he speaks of himself as bread and his disciples think he is angry that they didn't bring bread, the sense comes across that the disciples are being knuckleheads again. (I sort of hope you just pictured knuckles.) When we are too literal, we are reminded to think more figuratively. But we can only understand the figurative if we can picture. We have to slow down and question.
[Note: Since first posting this a while ago, I noticed another way some of the images may work together. I was familiar with the terms "vessels of wrath" from Romans 9:22 and "bowls of wrath" in Revelation 15-16, but had never thought of them together. I had taken "vessels of wrath" to mean merely that these vessels were worthless and awaiting the wrath of God, where the angry potter would come and break them. But what if these are similar to the bowls in Revelation? Perhaps the wrath is what happens when God gives them over to doing what they do. Their actions are the wrath of God poured out on the world. The "destruction" may be their own, but it may also be the destruction they cause when their own wrath is poured out. This is not to argue away the idea that God is angry with sin or punishes it, but an attempt to capture how this punishment often takes place passively.]
[Okay, a little further. Romans 13:9. In the NASB it reads "For this, 'YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, YOU SHALL NOT MURDER, YOU SHALL NOT STEAL, YOU SHALL NOT COVET,' and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.'" I was translating through from the Greek, and when I got to "You shall not covet", the word for "covet" in the Greek was EPITHUMHSEIS. In my vocabulary at the front of the chapter it said "desire." "Don't desire"? Yikes. That cuts deep. But this was really a shortening of the commandment from the Decalogue. The Greek of the Septuagint says not to EPITHUMHSEIS your neighbor's wife. Hmmmm. I looked, and the Sermon on the Mount reads the same. Whoever looks upon a woman with EPITHUMHSAI has committed adultery in his heart. So this seems to be talking about looking covetously on a neighbor's wife. (Perhaps the word "covet" is like the word "murder." The bare words "kill" and "desire" are not evil. But in the forbidden context they are. And so we need special words to denote the evil form of the action. Yet it is the more general words that we find in the commandments.) David and Bathsheba would be a paradigm case. Coveting leads to the other sins. I think too often this gets made biological. We're too animalistic. If what this means is that we don't control ourselves enough, it may be true enough. But I think what's in view here is something a little different. When I was in confirmation class, I remember wondering how coveting was bad since it didn't hurt the neighbor. Thankfully the man I asked had done some thinking about this. He directed it Godward. The one who covets doesn't trust that God will take care of him. The trouble is not that God doesn't want the man to have a woman or a house or what have you. The trouble is he thinks that he can only be happy to have his neighbor's woman or house or what have you. And if you wonder whether we could really be as distorted as to need to be warned against this, think of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The Rich man doesn't just want to have his thirst quenched. No. He wants Lazarus to be involved in quenching it (see Luke 16:24). This goes beyond "I didn't even notice he was there." No. The rich man knew of Lazarus. And wherever he was, he wanted Lazarus to be worse off. When we covet we are caught in a trap where all of our other sins toward our neighbor come crouching at our door. "Desire" is a good word. But we need to be careful. Don't desire, dot dot dot. The dot dot dot leads to sin and death.]
5:19 am Pacific Standard Time