Thursday, April 30, 2009

private religion, communal religion

I've begun reviewing Warren Carter's John and Empire: Initial Explorations (T&T Clark, 2008; see also here). I'm only on p. 7, so my comments here aren't directed at the book so much as they are motived by them.

Carter begins by critiquing what he identifies as the two dominant approaches to reading John's gospel, (i) a privatized, spiritual reading, and (ii) a sectarian, communal reading. The first reading strategy is much more applicable to my own experience, especially in the churches of which I've been a part (and perhaps even of my current faith community). This isn't so much simply about how we read John but more about how we conceptualize what Christianity is—what it means to believe in Jesus, what eternal life refers to, what it was that Jesus rescued from God's wrath when he was crucified on a Roman cross and raised to life by the power of God.

In my fellowship of churches, these things are individual, private affairs, and very often only spiritual ones at that. I believe that Jesus is the Christ, meaning that my mind has given some cognitive assent to that as a proposition. And I have eternal life, meaning that some center of my consciousness—whatever or wherever that may be—will continue on forever "with God." Typically, that center of consciousness is expressly not a material entity; my soul or my spirit will go to be "with God" "in heaven."

Carter takes aim at this as a legitimate way of reading John. This way of thinking—this worldview, even—misses more of John than it gets, and so it hopelessly misunderstands the gospel. And my church, similarly, takes aim at this as a legitimate way of being a Christian. Multiple times our minister has explained it this way: There are [at least] three components of the gospel: (i) an aspect of incarnation, in which God, in Jesus, enters into and identifies with the human condition rather than peering at it from above, (ii) an aspect of atonement, in which Jesus address an ontological human problem and not simply a socio-cultural one, and (iii) an aspect of restoration, in which God's concern is for all of creation, material as well as spiritual, human as well as nonhuman. In what is inevitably a simplification of complex phenomena (but still, perhaps, helpful for understanding some things), more mainline expressions of Christianity have tended to emphasize (i) and (iii), focusing on the so-called social gospel, while more fundamentalist and/or evangelical expressions have emphasized (ii).

But as I was reading Carter from my socio-religious perspective (briefly outlined above), I began thinking about a problem many people like me experience, in which our children, as they enter the struggle to forge and fit into their own identity, find themselves unable to identify with our faith. How is it that so many genuine, passionate Christians cannot communicate their faith in compelling, convincing ways, even to their own children?!

Could this provide part of the answer? Carter says,
The Greco-Roman world's constituting of religion as an integral part of the political and societal landscape that among other things functioned to bind people together with each other and with their gods suggests that any attempt to understand John's "good news" cannot allow our contemporary restricted notions of privatized and spiritualized religion to limit and distort the inquiry. John's inclusion of signs of material transformation and of the narrative of Jesus' crucifixion by Pilate, the Roman governor, for example, attests the Gospel's participation in the material, the physical, the somatic, the societal, and the political: John does not regard these spheres as irrelevant. (Carter 2008: 7; my emphasis)

The phrase bind[s] people together is what caught my eye. Even in our highly individualized, postmodern world we long for and go to great lengths to find bonds with other people and social (and theological) structures that transcend ourselves. In John's world, Carter argues, religion played an important function here. But in our own world, we have denied religion any place at this particular table, trying instead to find professional, social, and now especially virtual connections with others in lieu of religious ones.

It strikes me, then, that as we become whoever we become—that is, as we fight to make our own connections with other people and institutions—religion seems wholly irrelevant. Two things result. First, religion appears to have nothing to offer us as we pursue our primary needs, now not only food, shelter, and the like but rather significance, meaning, and relationship. Second, religion appears dispensable to human relationships. I can reject my parents' spirituality, or yours, without rejecting them (or you). Many people explicitly make the effort to think like this, though I would think just as many people genuinely find themselves either hurt by their children's apostasy or surprised that their parents have overreacted so strongly.

I'm not sure where this leads me, except of course to emphasize that the individual, private, spiritualized view of religion, and especially Christianity, fails more than it succeeds and probably won't do my family the good that I want for us. Conservative Christians—fundamentalist, evangelical, or whatever—can rail against scholarship as impious or irreverent if it wants, but here (viz., Carter) I think critical scholarship has something important to offer those of us who take the Bible and its claims over our lives seriously. That is, if we continue to think of Christianity primarily in terms of me and God, if we continue to shut our eyes to those [central] aspects of the gospel that bind us with one another, with creation itself, and with the Creator God who cares for every aspect of this world—spiritual, material, social, etc.—our faith will only ever by myopic, anemic, and for those people we love, irrelevant.

Monday, April 27, 2009

the legacy of form criticism (pt. deux)

I've just finished reading Jesus, the Voice, and the Text (see my previous post), which ended with a contextualization and autobiographical retrospective by Kelber himself on the significance of his work, its aims (intended consequences) and results (actual consequences), as well as a brief response to a few issues raised in earlier essays in the volume. I think this essay, entitled "The Oral-Scribal-Memorial Arts of Communication in Early Christianity," is without question the single best piece Kelber has written (and which I've read).

Kelber spends considerable space recapitulating and reinforcing his critique of form criticism, even to the point of providing an exceedingly handy eleven-point summary of the problems, as he sees them, with the form-critical project (see pp. 244–46). His eighth point rejects explicitly any "evolutionary gradualism" at work in early Christian traditioning processes, which makes my previous post all the more . . . ironic (in the sense in which Alanis Morissette refers to irony, not in any actually ironic sense). Having explicitly rejected the evolutionary development of early Christian Jesus tradition (and this was a springboard for Kelber's work at least as early as 1983), he can still be read—legitimately, I think—as assuming a developmental trajectory from oral to scribal. This assumption needs to be undone.

And yet the essay currently under discussion, though still evincing residual theoretical and exegetical problems, is a wonderful statement of the important gains and immediate challenges of a media-critical approach to Christian origins. I leave you with the following, from the section sub-headed "Epilogue," and encourage you to read the rest.
I now look upon [The Oral and the Written Gospel] as a product of that phase when I was operating, as neophytes in the field are likely to do, with a relatively simple concept of media, exhibiting a tendency to think in terms of pure forms. And yet, OWG succeeded beyond my expectations in reigniting the oral-scribal issue in biblical scholarship. Over the years, however, my media paradigm has undergone unmistakable complexification. Increasingly aware of the uneven, fluctuating and polymorphic nature of the ancient verbal arts, my conceptualizations have grown to encompass phenomena such as oral-scribal interfaces, multiple oral originals, recitation and repetition, the social, even political role of ancient scribes, textual performance and the formation of cultural identity, and now always memory. In short, I cam to understand that all media are, by definition, mediating forces that variously interface with a people's historical experiences. I therefore concede a measure of fictionality to the fourfold media typology of orality, chirography, typography and electronics, because in ordinary media life these modes of communication run together and manifest themselves in mutual re-absorptions. (pp. 260–61)

These are welcome words, indeed.

[PS You can click on Jesus, the Voice, and the Text in My Visual Bookshelf (above) to see a snippet of my review, which will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Stone-Campbell Journal.]

Saturday, April 25, 2009

the legacy of form criticism

Currently I'm reviewing Jesus, the Voice, and the Text (ed. Tom Thatcher, Baylor University Press), a reflection on the current state of media studies and Christian origins twenty-five years after the publication of Werner Kelber's seminal The Oral and the Written Gospel. I am simultaneously heavily indebted to and highly critical of Kelber's work, so reading this book has been a rather . . . ambiguous experience for me.

In the midst of the essay, "The Scar of the Cross" (Chris Keith and Tom Thatcher), I realized that one of the perennial problems with Kelber's analysis perhaps betrays the influence and legacy of form criticism, despite the awesome and devastating critique of form-critical perspectives that Kelber has levelled over the past three decades. Let me explain.

Keith and Thatcher explain Kelber's critique of the form-critical estimation that the Markan passion narrative (Mark 14–16) preserves an early and integrated account of Jesus' death, especially as that critique focuses on the paratactic, episodic structure of "oral thought" (I have a huge problem with this as an analytical category; see my forthcoming essay, "Reading and Hearing in Ancient Contexts" [JSNT]). Kelber, according to Keith and Thatcher, says that a structured, developed plotline such as we find the Markan passion narrative "are unlikely to have originated in an oral milieu" (271, n. 1). In other words, the oral gospel tradition was aggregating rather than synthesizing, episodic rather than tightly plotted, and Mark's passion narrative reflects a textual/scribal (= later) rather than oral (= earlier) context.

My first response was that Kelber has helpfully challenged us to reimagine the situation in which stories about Jesus were orally performed, but he has unhelpfully continued to assume that Mark's gospel arose in a media situation more like our own than the "oral environment" of the first-century Mediterranean world. But as I thought about this, I realized more is going on here. At the heart of form-critical analyses is the assumption that the Jesus tradition developed along certain trajectories, typically from pristine to corrupted forms but, for Taylor at least, in the other direction. E. P. Sanders, however, demonstrated as early as the late 1960s the problem of assuming uni-directional development; trajectories in early Christian traditioning (and this is the point) simply didn't exist.

Kelber recognizes this; his point (sometimes too vaguely applied) about "equiprimordiality" attacks exactly this assumption. But Kelber has simultaneously preserved this assumption, only this time in the trajectory from "orality" (or oral patterns of thinking) to "textuality/scribality" (or textual/scribal patterns of thinking). But, as I said above and argue elsewhere, trajectories never were operative in early Christian traditioning, and that includes any supposed movement from orality to textuality. This holdover from the form-critical era has also plagued other scholars' work (esp. Joanna Dewey), and media studies would do well to expose and abandon it to the dustbin of academic history.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

This Day in History (well, two days ago in history)

So 7 April was my birthday. While I'm not at liberty to disclose my age, let it suffice to say that I've never been as old as I am now! This year wasn't a special birthday, really; I didn't turn some factor of 10 and I didn't have any new legal status bestowed upon me (like the ability to drive or buy alcohol), but my wife did sufficiently direct attention toward me to remind me that Tuesday was, in some way, my day. Thanks, babe.

So what did we do? Well, first we had dinner at McDonald's. I know, I know . . . a meal at Mickey-D's is barely a meal, let alone a special meal. Even so, I always appreciate eating in a place where I can enjoy my family and not worry that my daughter's unmuffled exuberance is bothering other patrons. If you expected a quiet meal at McDonald's, then you're the idiot and I'm not going to worry about offending you. As we were ordering I noticed that our local McD's was training two new cashiers, and apparently the complexity of the electronic till was a bit overwhelming. So both fast and food were a tad euphemistic for our experience. But as I say, I enjoyed being with my family. Even Krystal's could be an enjoyable meal with my wife and daughter, though I hope never to have to eat those words!

Afterward we dropped my daughter off with some friends; my wife arranged for someone else to take her to dance and for another friend to pick her up and spend the night. So we had the house to ourselves that night. As a surprise, my wife took me to a Chris Tomlin concert; I think he was performing in Knoxville especially in celebration of my birthday. Israel Houghton and New Breed opened; they did an amazing job presenting their music as well as Israel's testimony. Musically, Houghton and New Breed create an interesting mix of Gospel, Urban, Jazz, and Pop influences; they were a lot of fun to watch and amazing to listen to.

Tomlin also provided an entertaining performance, though his was more showy and less musically impressive. I'm not the biggest Chris Tomlin fan, by any means, but I really did enjoy the show. I couldn't help, however, but notice the facial similarities between Tomlin and a certain actor who famously drove 88 mph in a suburban mall parking lot; I provide this picture and ask you to decide for yourself. We had to leave the concert early; I spent the whole day getting progressively sicker, and by the time we left I was shivering uncontrollably and could barely talk. I felt bad for ruining my wife's birthday gift to me, but she was a great sport. She took wonderful care of me, bringing me the appropriate medicines, some chicken noodle soup, and a package of crackers.

So it was a good birthday, though so far I haven't enjoyed being #@&!$/-#?^ years old. Oh . . . one last thing. In my opinion Tomlin did a little too much talking (perhaps we wouldn't have had to leave early if he had been a little more forthcoming with the music). But much of his talk concerned a new project he's involved with called One Million Can. Among other goals, One Million Can is hoping to raise $150K to build five homes for children in Uganda (that's $30K for a home that can house eight children!). If God has provided for you during these difficult economic times such that you can be a part of his providing for others, I encourage you to see if One Million Can is worthy of your giving. If you are among those who are particularly struggling this year, please remember the young girls and boys whose lives have been devastated by war and poverty as you turn to your God and mine in prayer.

So . . . happy birthday to me. I'm still sick two days later, but I can't complain. I'm reasonably confident that I'll see my next birthday, and that I won't miss a single meal between now and then, except perhaps voluntarily. I am, among God's children, most richly blessed.

My Visual Bookshelf