Vienna based musician SOHN has been on my playlist all day. Here is the acoustic version of his song “Tempest.”

 

537875Over on Books at a Glance I reviewed Crossway’s Acting the Miracle: God’s Work and Ours in the Mystery of Sanctification (John Piper & David Mathis, eds.).

Acting the Miracle had its start in the Desiring God 2012 National Conference. John Piper and company present five different chapters on the reformed view of sanctification. Mathis asserts the book is about what theologians call progressive sanctification rather than definitive sanctification. He warns against slogans or simplistic understandings of sanctification saying that the Scriptures present a more complex view of this doctrine.

Read the rest of the review here.

 

The best argument for Christianity is Christians: their joy, their certainty, their completeness. But the strongest argument against Christianity is also Christians–when they are sombre and joyless, when they are self-righteous and smug in complacent consecration, when they are narrow and repressive, then Christianity dies a thousand deaths. But, though it is just to condemn some Christians for these things, perhaps, after all, it is not just, though very easy, to condemn Christianity itself for them. Indeed, there are impressive indications that the positive quality of joy is in Christianity–and possibly nowhere else. If that were certain, it would be proof of a very high order.
Sheldon Vanauken

The Best Argument for Christianity

Jesus’ Wife Fragment

April 11, 2014 — 5 Comments

Bk34Oo7CcAA-a3z.jpg largeThe Jesus’ Wife fragments are attempting to make a comeback just in time for Easter.

In its latest issue, the Harvard Theological Review has published a revised version of an article entitled, “ ‘Jesus said to them, My wife…’: A New Coptic Papyrus Fragment”, by Dr Karen King of Harvard Divinity School, first published online in September 2012. The same issue contains multidisciplinary studies of the “Jesus’ Wife” fragment all of which are concerned with the question whether the fragment is ancient in origin or a modern forgery.

If one is looking for good resources then there have already been quite a few good articles from paprologists and NT scholars.

Larry Hurtado has two articles on the subject. In the first one he offers an initial response saying:

Certainly, as Prof. King has rather consistently emphasized all along, whatever the date and provenance of the item, it has absolutely no significance whatsoever for “historical Jesus” studies.  Contrary to some of the sensationalized news stories, that is, the fragment has no import for the question of whether Jesus was married.

Instead, she continues to propose that the fragment may reflect tensions and questions about marriage, celibacy, child-bearing, and gender that emerged in early Christianity in the early centuries (indeed, to judge from NT texts such as 1 Tim. 4:1-5; and even 1 Cor 7:1-7, questions of this nature emerged quite early). But, to repeat a point, the revised date for the papyrus (mid-8th century CE) introduces other factors to consider as well.

In the second post he says:

First, let me reiterate that all references to “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” are completely misleading tripe.  What we have is a purported small fragment with several incomplete lines on each side, in which one line contains the words “my wife” ascribed to Jesus there.  If the fragment is authentic (i.e., from some Christian hand ca. 7th-10th century CE, as per the Harvard radio-carbon test), only God knows what it was.  But it’s totally mischievous to claim that it comes from some “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”.  We have a “Jesus’ Wife fragment.” That’s it.

Finally, as Prof. King and others have consistently indicated, even if authentic, the fragment would have no bearing on (1) the marital status of Jesus of Nazareth, (2) the question of women’s role in churches, (3) the question of Catholic priestly celibacy, etc. None whatsoever. Nada.

Francis Watson also has a post on the fragment.

It has never been doubted that the Jesus’ Wife fragment may well have been written on a piece of genuinely ancient papyrus, using ink whose composition followed ancient practice. The analyses of the ink and the papyrus are of limited value here. These analyses do not demonstrate that the text is a fake, but nor do they “indicate” it “to be ancient” as the Divinity School’s press release claims. Even the headline to a press release ought to be capable of observing this distinction.

A press release that accurately represented the analyses published in the Harvard Theological Review might have been entitled: “Testing of Jesus’ Wife Fragment Yields Inconclusive Results”. That would not have attracted much attention, but it would at least be truthful.

Christian Askeland has some reflections over on Evangelical Textual Criticism.

Karen King has produced no new evidence to authenticate this fragment. On the contrary, her prior contentions that the GJW fragment was (1) part of a literary codex and (2) was fourth century are now indefensible. Her method of argumentation was not self-critical or objective, but will doubtlessly be sufficient for those who already want to believe.

CT has an interview with Nick Perrin on the fragment.

Do you think this fragment is a legitimate ancient document?

The consensus is that it is authentic, in the sense of being somewhere between the fifth and the ninth century. That’s important and interesting. It likely reflects that an earlier text was copied down.

Can someone, on the basis of this fragment, say, “A-ha! So now we know Jesus was married”?

No, that’s an illegitimate move. [This document is] so far removed from the first century that this rather reflects the speculations a later sect had about the earthly Jesus.

I was also surprised to see the NYTimes actually be quite fair in this article concerning the fragment.

The test results do not prove that Jesus had a wife or disciples who were women, only that the fragment is more likely a snippet from an ancient manuscript than a fake, the scholars agree.

In summary, even if the fragment is shown to be ancient it does not “prove” that Jesus was married, rather it may provide some evidence concerning how early Christians thought about celibacy and marriage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is a song for the weekend from Future Islands: “Seasons (Waiting on You)”

I really like this guy for a number of reasons, just watch.

P.S. The song is really good if you can get past his crazy performance.

Excellent lecture here by Justin Barnard on C.S. Lewis’ epistemology. Barnard makes two “shocking” claims: (1) C.S. Lewis is probably not the greatest Christian apologist of the 20th century, and yet he probably is the greatest Christian epistemologist of the 20th century.

Barnard argues that Lewis rightly restores knowledge as situated in the context of wisdom and the fear of God, doing this in uniquely Christian though appropriately limited way. Lewis’s epistemology is distinctively eschatological in orientation, focusing on hope as surrendering to the long that the summons of Divine Love is real.

HT: Justin Taylor

Listening to the Bible

April 4, 2014 — 9 Comments

bryan-listening-to-the-bibleYou should read this book.

Isn’t that what you really want to know?

Christopher Bryan has produced an excellent book, published by Oxford University Press, called Listening to the Bible: The Art of Faithful Biblical Interpretation.

I have scanned numerous books on reading the Bible, but this one distills so much of what I have learned into easily chewable chapters.

The Division

Bryan begins with “the division.” The division, or the problem with biblical interpretation is the divorce between the academy and the church. The academy has adopted the historical critical model and if biblical scholarship has effected the preaching of the Word at all, “it seems chiefly to have been that is has engendered a reluctance to engage the great central tenets of the Christian faith.”

Although Bryan notes that are exceptions, the divorce between the academy and the church is clear, yet the the true setting in life of the Bible has and should always be the community of faith.

How Did We Get Here?

Bryan then moves to answering the question of how we got to this divorce. He begins with Schleiermacher who said that the primary task of the interpreter was to avoid misunderstanding and to discover the author’s intent. Benjamin Jowett then in 1860 said that the first principle of interpretation is

that Scripture has but one meaning –the meaning which it had to the mind of the Prophet of Evangelist who first uttered or wrote, to the hearers or readers who first received it. We need to abandon the attempt to adapt truths of Scripture to the doctrines of creeds and the adaptation to the precepts and maxims of Scripture to the language of our own age.

Pay attention to this paragraph, for in essence, the entire book is an overturning it.

This in turn led to readers not being so much concerned with what the texts had to say to us, but rather a tool for dissecting them for some hypothetical source or situation or information that might lie behind them. Historical criticism had high hopes. Precise questions were to be asked, and then followed through with scientific precision so as to deliver clear answers.

Why Jowett’s Project Was Impossible

However Jowett’s project was impossible, because he thought he was carving a way to objectively look at a text, “but in a century and a half after Jowett the situation had not changed, for historical critical method was no more able to protect its practitioners from writing under the influence of their own prejudices and interests than were the methods that preceded it.” As Marilynne Robinson puts it, “that mysterious presence, the Observer, can never wholly stand apart from the object of inquiry.”

A second problem was that the hermeneutical process as Schleiermacher and others had conceived it was vastly oversimplified and underestimated what is actually involved in any act of communication between past and present.

The whole thing is too big, too complex, and too swiftly changing for any group of precise questions to be devised that could look for precise answers. This is not to despair of interpreting ancient texts: it is simply to concede that every language act has a temporal determinant, that that the range of possibilities that might actually be explored –semantic, cultural, historical, personal–in order to assure full comprehension of almost any statement by anyone at all approaches infinity. Biblical interpretation like all other interpretation, will be aided by research–by asking many precise questions as possible: but it must in the end be a matter of art and imagination, not science (19).

This hermeneutical viewpoint led to the hermeneutic of suspicion, where everything was looked at and deconstructed.

So What Do We Do?

Bryan begins answering the question of ‘what do we do’ in chapters five through nine.He suggests we start with the fact that the Bible is a thing written. It is literature.

What then are we supposed to do with literature? This is where Schleiermacher and Jowett were right. Any critique or discussion of a written text that is not concerned with listening to the text for what it is trying to say is beside the point. Therefore we need to listen to the authors individually.

But second we need to listen to the “Bible” and its voices considered together.

There is surely a third thing we need to do. If there is in this body of material a “matter,” a shared concern, what does that “matter” have to do with us? We need to ask what the individual voices, and the whole of Scripture relates to the continuing life and witness of the Church up to and including our own day.

In short, Jowett and Schleiermacher got off on the right foot, but did not go far enough.

Listening to the Individual Voices

Jowett’s first principle was that Scripture has but one meaning-the meaning which it has to the mind of the Prophet or Evangelist. There are elements of this assertion which prove valid, and elements which are mistaken. What is valid about this statement is that it acknowledges that ancients are not simply the same was we are, and that we will understand them better if we try to hear them in the context of their own times and assumptions.

But where Jowett is mistaken is that Jowett and the rest of us cannot possibly know that the “meanings” intended by the prophets and evangelists and the “meanings” understood by those who heard them were always the same. From the way in which Paul himself argues with his converts it is perfectly clear that sometimes they were not. Words in fact do not have a single meaning, and still less their meaning is not limited to authorial intent.

This does not mean texts can mean anything, for whatever meaning we attribute to the text we must be able to point to a rationale for it within the text itself. Authorial intent is not the only element in what a text means, but it certainly is an element.

Relating the Parts to the Whole

The second task of a biblical scholar is to consider the individual voices in relation to the whole of Scripture. The task of biblical scholarship according to Jowett was to interpret the biblical text without reference to creeds and controversies that were “of other times.”

However this is where Jowett is again mistaken. For the gospel, the narrative, and the creeds have always stood together. They evolved together. Historical questions are important, but the eye of faith is always more than just the “facts.”

The fundamentalist reader of the Bible is scandalized by this, and insists that faith’s reality must have been clear and identical with what could be seen and measured. The well-informed skeptic smiles in superiority of a fuller knowledge and since what could be seen and measured was evidently so much more ordinary than what is claimed by faith, dismisses faith’s claims as fantasy. Fundamentalist and skeptic alike are making the same mistake. The creature is not merely what it is made of. The creature is indeed dust, but beloved dust.

And history–what “really” happened–is always more than what scientific discipline would regard as “facts.” Of course Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” That is a fact. But the meaning of the fact will only be apparent to prophetic and apostolic imagination and the eye of faith (75-76).

So What Now?

“How does the Bible relate to the life of the church up to and including today?” (88). Bryan asserts that looking back on Jowett’s project reveals that Jowett was right in what he affirmed and wrong in what he denied.

Jowett was right to suggest that we need to approach the Bible as any other book, and he was also right about the perils of looking for answers to our own questions that were written without any conception of such questions.

But Jowett was wrong because the meaning a text has for us is always effected by what we bring to it, by our personal inner “texts,” conscious or unconscious.

Since every person who comes to these texts is unique and has a particular history, there is always the possibility for new meaning. This is true of all great texts, and is therefore true of biblical texts. Some Christians seem to find this threatening, but it seems to me entirely appropriate that God’s revelation much always be capable of unfolding for us new meaning. For the fact that our knowledge of God is as yet incomplete does not mean that we have not knowledge, or that there is no God to be known, or that the effort to know more is not proper (89).

My “text” as an individual and our “texts” as a community do engage with the biblical writers’ “texts” at numerous points, both personally and theologically. As I have said, their “today” is by its very nature bound up with my own “today.” Our “texts” interweave (95).

Conclusion

Evangelicals may complain that the division between the academy and the church does not apply to us in the same force as it does to broader biblical scholarship. I would generally agree. We have been more apt to keep the wall from being built.

But maybe the division for us is something different, the division between principle and practice, the fragmentation of disciplines. Largely we teach the historical-critical method, but then stand up on Sunday morning and do something different. We explain this by saying something like “seminary teaches the ground work, then you need to just apply it to your people.

So we still, more or less, have co-opted Jowett’s thesis in our teaching, but not in our practice (while staying away from historical critical conclusions, and adding the cherry of application on top).

I still regularly hear people say, “all you need to do is read the text and wrestle with it yourself,” or “interpretation is all about figuring out what the author is saying to his hearers” or “to be a biblical scholar all you need to have is a lexicon in your right hand and the Bible in your left” or “I just teach the Bible.

But isn’t this just Jowett’s proposal? And do we find the early church arguing anything like this?

What I loved about Bryan’s book is that his proposal was eminently simple.

  1. Read the Bible, listening to the voice of individuals.
  2. Read the Bible, listening to the voices as a whole.
  3. Read the Bible, listening for a word for us today.

And although most would read those three points and agree with them, Bryan’s book provides a nuanced discussion of each point which shows that interpretation is more than Jowett imagined.

 

 

Table of Contents
I. The Division
II How Did We Get Here?
III. Why Jowett’s Project was Impossible
IV. The Hermeneutic of Suspicion
V. So What Do We Do?
VI. The First Task: Listening to the Individual Voices
VII. A Digression: “Great Literature?”
VI. The Second Task: Relating the Parts to the Whole
1. The Rule of Faith and the Question of History.
2. The Different Voices and Their Different Accounts of the History
VII. The Third Task: So What Now?
1. Why We Must Ask the Question
2. The Scriptures as Interpretative Narrative
3. The Exercise of Christian Imagination
VIII. The Drama of the Word
Epilogue
Appendix (by David Landon): Speaking the Word: A Guide to Liturgical Reading
Selected Bibliography
Notes
Index

 

MV5BMjAzMzg0MDA3OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTMzOTYwMTE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_David Instone-Brewer reviews ‘Noah’ below.

 

For once it is no hype to say this film has a canvas of Biblical proportions.

Though in today’s language you might compare it more accurately with Lord of the Rings. Look out for images akin to Isengard, fighting as impressive as Aragorn’s and creatures suspiciously similar to the Ents.

If you are wondering where all this fits into Genesis, be prepared to let your imagination soar. Storylines from the Book of Enoch, other Jewish myths and the director’s imagination supplement the Bible text. Together they create a compelling story and a surprise ending.

Charlton Heston famously defined an epic as a film that he starred in. He was wonderful at portraying strength with a smouldering anger. Russell Crowe is starting to fill his shoes, and is very suitable as Noah, because he can show the same strength though with an underlying sadness. In this film he also adds a convincing hint of madness, but I mustn’t give too much away.

It is unfair to ask “Is it accurate?” If it were, there would be only ten minutes of story plus lots more special effects. Actually, “special effects” is an understatement. Throughout the film everything is so real that I was glad it wasn’t in 3D.

The really 3D aspect of this film is in the characterisation. Noah and his sons are totally believable and the tensions with Ham flesh out the Biblical narrative convincingly. But the female roles carry the dramatic turning points, conveyed with Oscar-quality acting. They also get the best lines and appear to speak the director’s message.

Although the film takes liberties with the story of Noah, the essential message of Genesis is conveyed clearly and accurately. The story of Eden, the snake, temptation, the murder of Abel and subsequent decline of humanity is referred to frequently. The bigger picture of God’s plan to undo this damage is hinted at, but it would not be true to Genesis to state this clearly.

“How do we know God’s will?” is the unspoken question addressed by various characters throughout the film. How can Noah know what to do, and does he really understand God’s plan accurately? His dream informs him but also misleads him. His wife (who, as in the Bible, is nameless), says the goodness in our character comes from God so we should listen to it. Tubal-Cain, the violent self-appointed king, says God has left us to do whatever we want.

This film shouldn’t be seen as an accurate portrayal of the Bible, but can be treated as a thought-provoking way to explore the message of Genesis.

Sense-and-Stigma-in-the-Gospels-Depictions-of-Sensory-disabled-Characters-Paperback-P9780199590094How are we to perceive the ‘disabled’ in the Gospel narratives? Are they flat characters? Are they simply beneficiaries of divine healing?

Louise Lawrence in her OUP book Sense and Stigma in the Gospels: Depictions of Sensory-Disabled Characters seeks to reconceive the ‘sensory-disabled’ characters and avoid the binary and strict divisions of ‘ability’ and ‘disability’ in the contemporary world.

In short, she aims to get rid of the stigma and allow these characters to take center stage rather than being a ‘condition’ that needs to be healed. As she aptly states in the introduction:

In the pages of the gospels, characters with sensory ‘disabilities’ are curiously ‘everywhere’ and ‘nowhere.’ ‘Everywhere’ in the sense that those who are deaf, blind, and untouchable…form numerous stock props in tales of messianic healings; but ‘nowhere’ in that no meaningful identity, agency, or complexity is attributed to them beyond formulaic and flat character traits. (1)

Biblical commentators have utilized either a Western medical model or they have objectified the beneficiaries of divine healing. In both cases, the characters are not important in themselves, but only in the the larger theological schema.

Lawrence employs embodiment and performance, disability studies, and sensory anthropology in order to refigure these various characters.

Summary

She examines a number of Gospel narratives including the following: blindness, deaf-mute, the stigma of untouchability, and the epileptic boy.

In chapter 2 she looks at ‘blindness’ as a metaphor both in the biblical text and outside the biblical text arguing it is a tool of social rejection, inner darkness, and transgression. But interpreters themselves have ‘blind spots’ where sight-centric norms have lead to damaging misunderstandings and prejudices concerning sightlessness. She argues that when the biblical texts define individuals solely by a dominant trait such as blindness, it is like defining individuals exclusively on the basis of skin colour, sexuality, or gender.

But using ‘transgressive re-appropriation’ attends to the subversive potential or hyperbolic meanings invested in disabled figures. In this sense disability is conceived as a confrontational challenge to ‘ableist’ ideologies. The biblical text also uses ‘touch’ as a central to a number of the ‘blindness’ stories in the gospels, possibly trying to break out ‘ableist’ blind spots.

In chapter 3 she examines Mark 7:31-37 and the deaf-mute. In this narrative audio-centric channels of communication were reordered and vision, touch, space, vibration, and inaudibility of speech is adopted by Jesus. The performance underscored the point that ‘sense’ does not equate exclusively with hearing and spoken words.

In chapter 4 she takes the leper, legion, and the leaky woman as her subjects. All of these had been marked as untouchable. While most commentators focus on what Jesus did to them, Lawrence looks at what they characters do. “The leper jarringly reversed ‘untouchability’ to reveal how much it made the religious elite, imaged here in Jesus, themselves untouchable. Jesus when prompted however opts to share the polluted space of the leper.” Jesus’ exorcism of Legion normalizes this character and renders him politically ineffective because before he was protesting against the imperial powers. The leaky woman herself approached Jesus, which leads to Jesus’ involuntary bodily seepage displaying the false binary between ‘disability’ and ‘ability.’

In chapter 5 she re-conceives the story of the boy with seizures. Both the western medical and spirit possession models elude the story of the person as the centre of them. This ‘chaos narrative’ is turned into a ‘quest narrative’ by Jesus. Quest narratives do not evoke a cure but rather propose alternative meanings for conditions. Lawrence argues that seizure signifiers were leaked onto other characters (Jesus and the crowd) to challenge the notion that only ‘disabled’ epileptics are exclusive receptacles of such phenomena.

What We Can Learn

Lawrence helpfully pushed me through a few categories that plague modern readers concerning healing stories.

First, she is right to note that many times these characters are objectified and they need refiguration. These characters are not just ‘disabilities’ or ‘conditions’ in need of healing, but themselves characters in the story. Jesus is not the only character in these passages, and interpreters would do well to consider the role these characters have in the narrative.

Second, she had some perceptive comments on the biblical text concerning Jesus’ method of healing. I especially enjoyed chapter 3 where she notes the non audio-centric healing of the deaf and mute person. I think she may be onto something here with the mode of healing by Jesus in this passage. She also had some interesting insights concerning seizure signifiers being leaked onto other characters.

Third, she is right to break us out of the ‘tyranny of normality’ which prejudices ‘able-bodied’ in cultural discourses. Isn’t this just a way to love our neighbor as ourselves and treat the ‘disabled’ as we would want to be treated?

Lingering Questions

There are a number of things about Lawrence’s book that made me uncomfortable as well. (I have done very little work with disability studies, and therefore these thoughts may be fine tuned as I discuss these issues with those who have thought longer and harder about this issue.)

First, she so raised the level of importance and meaning of the sensory disabled characters in the book that many times they overtook the clear main character in the stories, Jesus himself. I am all for examining these characters, but if you focus on them and make Jesus a pawn in the scheme of the story then the story becomes inverted. These are healing stories! For example in chapter 4 on the untouchables, she says:

I will argue that Jesus’ actions are not an abrogation of purity laws, for even when touch ‘utouchables’, his purity status could be reinstated through appropriate means. Rather it is the untouchables themselves who constructively manipulate conventions surrounding their ‘polluted’ conditions and make political points through their bodily performances. It is worth noting that Jesus does not directly approach the leper, Legion, or the leaky woman, but rather the initiative for each contact is audaciously taken by the characters themselves…All three characters are ironically empowered by their ‘pollution.’ (78 and 97)

Although there are some perceptive comments in the paragraph above, Lawrence has the general tendency in her book to downplay Jesus’ healing in these episodes. This is probably because of goal of the book. However her argument would have been more convincing if she had not over-stated her case.

Second, she tried so hard to emphasize the ‘normalcy’ of these disabilities and not assign anything negative to them that at times she insinuated that the characters were not healed at all, or that they should not have been healed. In the story of Legion, she thinks Jesus takes away the power of this character who was protesting the imperial power by his embodied performance (93). But these type of readings turn the Scripture on its head. Shouldn’t we carefully emphasize that these healings are transformances where the persons identity is constituted anew. It is not that they had no identity before, but that Jesus comes and brings them back into social life in a new way. Of course, Lawrence would argue this is not what they need, but I find it hard to escape the desire to be ‘healed’ by these subjects, no matter how politically incorrect that sounds.

Third, and related to the last point, she pushes too hard against any sort of labels. One is left with very few terms to describe what a person is going through. Every term is suddenly loaded with politically incorrect meanings and language is emptied of its power. Many times in her narrative, Lawrence either implicitly or explicitly critiqued the biblical narrative or Jesus for their categorization of these characters. But Matthew and Jesus are simply utilizing the categories that are employed in their culture. If we follow the narrative, Jesus is full of compassion, no matter what labels he uses, so we should not expect them to use language that modern ears will necessarily be tickled by.

Conclusion

Overall, despite its weaknesses, this book provides a new angle into some of the gospel narratives which helps readers not view the ‘disabled’ as simply conditions to be healed. Although Lawrence over-argued her case, and sometimes turned the narrative on its head, I was appreciative of the insights she brought to the text. I will now be asking new questions of the text in my personal reading for which I am thankful.