Sunday, June 28, 2009

The New Tragedy

I'm taking a very short break from indexing Structuring Early Christian Memory to start reading Barry Schwartz's Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Era: History and Memory in Late Twentieth-Century America (Chicago University Press, 2008). This book continues his Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory (2000), which was the first book I read as I began my PhD research. Schwartz's analyses are piercing and nuanced, his writing clear and engaging, and his vision panoptic. Those of us interested in analyzing how the past is taken up into, represented within, and used for the present need to become familiar with Schwartz's work.

A few pages into the Introduction to his most recent book, Schwartz quotes from W. H. Auden's "For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio" (see here for an excerpt), and then writes:
Classic tragedy presents performers of great feats destroyed by their own flaws; in the New Tragedy, insignificant figures enlarge themselves by means of their own problems. Social and moral distinctions disappear; pity replaces justice. Present-day realities with which Auden's words have affinity are not difficult to identify: nonjudgmentalism, victim-centeredness, radical egalitarianism, multiculturalism. The moral and social leveling supporting the most congenial society in history, a society largely free of ethnic and racial hatred, inclusive of all peoples and solicitous of their rights, is precisely the kind of society in which great mean and women and their achievements count for less, while the victimized, wounded, handicapped, and oppressed count for more than ever before. (p. 8)

I find myself responding somewhat ambivalently to this description of "present-day realities." On the one hand, Schwartz can point to easily documentable realities (as well as to scholarly consensus) to support the notion of American "post-heroic" era. And yet, in light of the 2008 presidential election and its aftermath—and especially the imagery used to portray and depict first candidate and then President Obama—I can't commit myself whole-heartedly to the notion of our current society as "post-heroic." Every time we shop at Target I see a number of products, including children's books, posters and prints, toys, as well as merchandise intended for adult consumption (here, among many others). Obama is more than the American President; for at least the last twelve months—once Hillary Clinton publicly acknowledged what the rest of us had known for a while—Barack Obama has truly become an American hero. I think we have to admit this point before we can discuss and debate the positive and negative consequences of Obama's apotheosis (is that too strong a word?).

But I'm also struggling to think about the "radical egalitarianism" to which Schwartz refers. In American political discourse democracy, like liberty, freedom, and independence, has become an ultimate value. And we are struggling to understand how democracy relates to other ultimate values; for example, how should we relate to the legitimately elected Iranian president—if he is ever recognized as such—given his role in launching Iran's nuclear program? What are America's obligations and interests in Palestine when the people, in 2006, gave surprising support to Hamas over Fatah?

And these foreign policy examples raise hairy questions for American domestic policy, too. Are American democratic practices always beneficial for America? Did the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004 harm rather than help American society? What about Obama's election? I don't think we're very well tooled to ask—let alone address—such questions, which I think explains, at least in part, the amount of interest in voter fraud and election rigging since 2000. That is, if democracy is always a positive force in the evolution of social and political organisms, then negative outcomes of democratic contests (including the recent gains of the UK's BNP) must result from irregularities in the democratic system rather than from its inherent processes.

For my own part, I'm uncomfortable with my current ambivalence toward democracy, if only because I can't seem to shake it. What would I put in its place? Which curbs would help steer democratic dynamics in more productive directions, and who gets to decide which directions are "more productive"? I can't help but think that the rule of an uneducated populace is the rule of ignorance, and yet I'm also extremely uncomfortable with the elitist potential of such sentiments. I find myself ill-equipped to raise such issues, in part because I don't see other, more thoughtful and sensitive people raising them.

To return to the idea of America as a [post?] post-heroic society, I'm suspicious of current efforts to argue that certain people are "indispensable" to American government, or the urgency with which certain legislative measures are portrayed. I can't help but wonder if rhetoric such as these rely on the heroic reputations of certain political actors (especially President Obama). I suppose I can only hope that (a) the American public will pursue information and education regarding political questions (whether they pursue liberal or conservative agenda), and (b) that we will choose our courses of action thoughtfully and carefully rather than on the basis of anyone's charismatic and/or heroic persona.

Friday, June 26, 2009

adieu, Jacko

The tragedy of Michael Jackson's very early death is eclipsed only, perhaps, by the tragedy of his life. He was a man of extremes, and I wonder if anything about him was middle-of-the-road. In the fifteen seconds I spent thinking about the question, I couldn't think of anything "moderate" about MJ's life. He was the Superstar of superstars, to echo a biblical epithet, and yet would anyone want to be "like Mike" (except on Halloween, or perhaps American Idol)? Some have suggested Michael Jackson's life was so bizarre that he must be glad he's dead. I don't know about that, especially given the spiritual dimensions involved. But clearly Michael was uncomfortable in his own skin, literally as well as metaphorically, which makes me wonder if he was ever glad to be alive. I dunno.

But Jackson's Thriller, rightly hailed as one of history's greatest albums (having sold over three-quarters of a billion copies!), made a tremendous impact on me. Many of the mundane experiences of my early childhood (from cleaning the house with my mother on a Saturday to doing homework after school as a latch-key kid) were set to the music of Jackson's iconic, even climactic album. I use album here advisedly; my exposure to Thriller was mediated via a 12-inch, two-sided vinyl disc, the way music was meant to be heard! When I was ten years old I rediscovered Thriller, which was only four years old or so at the time. So when MJ released Bad later that same year, my parents surprised me for my eleventh birthday by getting me tickets to see him in Denver. It was my first experience with live music, and my only exposure to the "Michael Jackson live experience" (to call it "a concert" is to understate [and underestimate] its nature and volume). I can't say I care at all for any of his most recent records (Dangerous, HIStory, or Invincible), but Thriller, and to a lesser extent Bad, will always be more than music in my memory.

Given my interests in social memory and the reputation of historical figures, I'm especially fascinated by the eulogizing taking place as the news channels and morning breakfast shows took a break from real news to talk about Jackson's death. Now that he's gone, MJ can no longer get in the way of our enjoying his music and marveling at his talent. But how do we explain to ourselves the overwhelmingly positive historical reputation that this man—an accused pedophile and obviously maladjusted individual—enjoyed in life and especially now in death? It seems to me it has to be more than just the music and the dancing and the amazing live tours. I think we will remember MJ so positively not because of who he is but because of his associations with (nearly) universal and foundational experiences in our biographies. Thriller, as I've already said, will always be associated with larger myths from my childhood. It will always be much more than just an epochal record.

And so I suspect that my daughter will never understand my love of Michael Jackson's music, just as I still don't get my parents' love of the Beatles or Elvis. Neither of them were very important to me growing up, and I was only a few months old when Elvis was discovered at significantly cooler temperatures than 98.6°F. I just hope that, when my daughter is in her early thirties, the death of one of the Jonas Brothers isn't what sends her back down memory lane.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

a very small lacuna?

A colleague of mine, who is doing some extended self-tutorials to brush up on his NT Greek, recently spent half an hour looking for a definition of articular. He looked especially in Black's first-year grammar (Learn to Read New Testament Greek) and Wallace's "intermediate" grammar (Greek Grammar beyond the Basics), but was unable to find an explicit definition. When I tried to help him, I realized that articular is one of those words we use so often that it simply doesn't need definition, like biblical or something.

For example, the first listing for noun, articular in Wallace's index points to pp. 42–46 (How to Distinguish Subject from Predicate Nominative), where the second principle is "The subject will be articular" (p. 43), with a number of examples (e.g., John 4:24: πνεῦμα ὁ θεός/God is spirit). From the perspective of someone who knows what articular means, itseems reasonable to expect someone who doesn't know its meaning to infer it. (See also the use of anarthrous in Wallace's discussion of "Colwell's rule" [pp. 5–6], which uses the term articulated without reference to the Greek article.)

So it seems to me that, perhaps, the lack of a definition of articular in at least some Greek grammars is a lacuna (small though it may be) in the field. For other beginning Greek students, an articular substantive is a noun, adjective, participle, etc. that is modified by an article, which will be in the same case, number, and gender. A substantive that lacks the article is called anarthrous.

But I would invite comments along one of two lines. First, if you know of an explicit (and perhaps more precise) definition of articular and/or anarthrous in a contemporary grammar (preferrably a beginning or intermediate grammar), please let me know. [disclaimer: I haven't done any research on this.] Second, if you're aware of any other lacunae within the literature, please give them here. Technical terms perform valuable functions in academic discourse, but when those of us who practice a certain discipline don't define those terms to help novices recognize and participate in our discourse, we become jargonistic and, even, provincial.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

National Socialism and Higher Education

Today's ran an interesting piece reviewing The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower: Complicity and Conflict on American Campuses, a new book by Stephen H. Norwood (Cambridge University Press, 2009). Norwood has generated some controversy, as any discussion (rather than mere condemnation) of Nazi Germany will do. While I was writing my PhD thesis, my research in social memory theory raised questions about how Hitler and the Third Reich are remembered in American and European memorial frameworks. Specifically, I'm fascinated that Hitler and symbols evoked with him (the swastika, but also the terms Nazi, National Socialism, fascism, and so on) are associated in Western memory with evil, even pure evil.

I certainly wouldn't want to suggest that this association isn't appropriate; Hitler—and to a greater extent the general populace who followed him—make vivid the potentials of human depravity and wickedness (though Hitler isn't as historically unique as we too easily think). But this association (again, appropriate as it certainly is) between Hitler and evil is socially constructed, and this social construction is what fascinates me. In other words, there was a time when neither National Socialism, Adolf Hitler, fascism, the swastika, or anything else associated with the Third Reich automatically conjured images and feelings of evil, either in Europe or in the United States. Undoubtedly some voices within European and American political discourse in the 1930s always saw the National Socialist movement as dangerous; but the dangers posed by the German state were topics of debate rather than the foregone conclusions that they are today, conclusions that motivate visceral, almost primitive emotions of anger and outrage.

So what changes, whether historical, social, cultural, or whatever, explain this change in the place and function of fascism in Western social memories? Is it simply the historical development that the Allied nations didn't know the extent of the Third Reich's pugnaciousness, and in the course of liberating Western Europe we learned the extent of the awful truth? If so, we might believe that everyone in 1930 America would have agreed with us today about the evils of fascist Germany, if only they knew about Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, and other details of the Final Solution. But is that really all that's wrong with fascism? Was Hitler evil only because he killed a lot of people, or is fascism reprehensible on a more fundamental level? (hint: Yes.) And if so, how do we evaluate American and European institutions that admired, valued, and advocated National Socialist structures and/or policies other than the murderous ones?

This last seems to be the question driving Norwood's book. I think I'll have to order a copy, as soon as I'm given permission to spend more of the family's resources on books.

Monday, June 15, 2009

request for input

I've never read through an issue of Christianity Today, though it seems like I'm constantly seeing people refer to either the magazine or the website. My question: Do any of you subscribe to CT, and do you think it justifies the subscription price ($19.95 for 12 issues)?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

review of Why Did They Write This Way?

In the most recent issue of RBL Werner Kelber offers a typically poetic review of Katherine M. Stott's book, Why Did They Write this Way: Reflections on References to Written Documents in the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Literature (LHBOT 492; London and New York: T&T Clark, 2008). I look forward to reading Stott's book primarily because in my own work (Structuring Early Christian Memory, as well as "Reading and Hearing in Ancient Contexts," forthcoming in JSNT) I suggest that biblical scholars would do well to shift their focus away from strictly compositional interests and ask questions regarding reception.

Too often we have focused on the text in front of us and neglected the way that text would have "worked" in its ancient context. In addition, when we suspect the use of written traditions in the composition of other texts, we have neglected the ways that composition represents an instance of reception (viz., of the source text).

Kelber's review leads me to suspect that Stott's work advances our interest in compositional dynamics precisely by broadening her focus to include dynamics of reception. If any of you have read this book, I welcome your comments here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

English hits 1,000,000 words

Congratulations to the English language, which got its one-millionth word today at 9.22 GMT, according to the Global Language Monitor (report here). The millionth word is, apparently, Web 2.0; though how this only became a word this morning escapes me. This, of course, is nonsense, but it is amusing to me the way "linguists" and "language experts" cited in the article have apparently taken this way too seriously. Still, it's nice to see linguistic issues reported to a broader public.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Sitz im Leben: an exposé

Brandon Wason has as good an introductory discussion on Sitz im Leben as one could ask for here, including a reference to a recent article by Samuel Byrskog. I'm intrigued by the short quote Wason provides from Byrskog's article. If I read him rightly (which is hard to tell in any case, but especially without the context of the rest of his article), Byrskog advocates a fairly significant shift in the concept Sitz im Leben from its original form-critical function. That is, for the form critics a pericope's Sitz was conceptualized as a generative context which added not just shape but also substance to the Jesus tradition. But I think Byrskog is proposing a less dramatic conceptualization of a pericope's Sitz as a formative context in which social context influences the tradition's expression. Again, if I read Byrskog rightly, this would be a more responsible use of Sitz im Leben in gospels research, though we would still need to remember that factors other than social context—including the tradition's performative history—were also formatively influential in the expression of traditions from and about Jesus.

[In differentiating the formative and generative dynamics of early Christian traditioning processes, I gratefully acknowledge the influence of the discussion in Alan Kirk and Tom Thatcher, "Jesus Tradition as Social Memory," in Memory, Tradition, and Text: Uses of the Past in Early Christianity (Semeia Studies 52; ed. A. Kirk and T. Thatcher; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005), 25–42.]

new blog and a[nother] response to DeConick

Few places in this world—either real or virtual—are as irrelevant as my blogroll. So it may come as no surprise that Doug Chaplin has no idea he's been added to it. But I recommend his [newest] blog, including his introductory response to April DeConick's "Creating Jesus" series. Astute Verily Verily readers (both of you) will recognize some of his comments as resonating with my own. Welcome [back], Doug.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

criteria for historicity and the historiography of Jesus

The newest issue of The Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus is now available [JSHJ 7/2]; you can access its table of contents by clicking on the previous link. This issue includes my article, "Authenticating Criteria: The Use and Misuse of a Critical Method" (pp. 152–167). Here's the abstract for the article:
In this essay I analyse the usual (mis)use(s) of the criteria of historical authenticity in historical Jesus research. Whereas the general appeal to the criteria has pursued at least a semblance of objectivity in historical-critical research, in practice the criteria have provided useful and clearly identifiable windows into how scholars have conceived the task(s) of historical reconstruction (i.e., their particular subjectivity). After surveying the relevant literature, I question the analytical concepts authentic and inauthentic as schemata orientating historical reconstruction. We should recognize and employ the criteria as tools that facilitate and affect the interpretation of historical traditions rather than (merely) their authenticity.

Monday, June 01, 2009

from Jesus' death to remembering Jesus

April DeConick's tenth post in "Creating Jesus" examines the process by which Jesus came to be regarded as a divine figure. Or, for those of us with more traditional perspectives, we could ask how Jesus' followers became aware of and developed their thinking and talking about Jesus' relationship with Israel's God. Though I would demur at language of Jesus "being made into" God/a god, the early Christian sources themselves are explicit that Jesus' status as God's agent was not obvious to onlookers, or even to his followers (e.g., John 2.17, 22; Acts 10.34; 11.18, among others). It was obvious to many, however, that there was something special about Jesus. Not that people thought he was unique, necessarily, though a few NT passages may be interpreted in this direction (Matt 7.28–29; Mark 1.21–22). But whether unique or not, the gospels portray the crowds and even some of the retainer class coming out to Jesus, either to question him, to hear him, to be healed by him, or whatever.

DeConick continues with the "prophet-like-Moses" typology she identified in the ninth post in the series. Here, I think, is the point that needs to distinguish historical Jesus research in the future—historical Jesus research that must take account of social memory research—from all the "quests" that have gone before: We only have access to the historical Jesus as he was perceived and remembered by his followers. Inasmuch as they remembered Jesus wrongly, Jesus is lost to history. Inasmuch as there were aspects of Jesus life his earliest followers did not care to remember, whether because they created problems for their devotion to him or because they were unimportant, those things are lost to us. DeConick, I think, gets this point clearly. For example, she writes,
Whether the manner in which they framed his ministry as the Prophet-like-Moses was actually how his ministry played out is doubtful, but there were likely bits and pieces of Jesus' life that they saw corresponded enough with the expectations of the Prophet-like-Moses mentioned in Deuteronomy 18:15-16 that this framing made sense to them. In other words, if Jesus himself didn't present himself as some kind of prophet, his very earliest followers did because it is multiply-attested in all the layers of the tradition. Clearly his followers didn't identify him with any ol' prophet. They hooked him into the traditions of the Prophet-like-Moses, who was a messianic figure within Judaism and especially Samaritanism.

The "prophet-like-Moses" motif clearly belongs among the patterns according to which Jesus' followers recalled him. This motif is clearly evident among the gospels and in the Acts. I'm not sure I would say it was "doubtful" that this motif was evident in Jesus' presentation of himself, but I think it is very likely that Jesus' followers did expand upon and develop this motif in their expressions of their memories of him.

Here's why I differ ever so slightly from DeConick in this regard: She rightly notes that "there were likely bits and pieces of Jesus' life that they saw corresponded enough with the[ir] expectations." In other words, there was something about Jesus' followers' perceptions of him that "fit" the pattern of the "prophet-like-Moses." But if Jesus' followers' noticed this fit, I'm not sure how we could argue that Jesus himself would have been oblivious to these connections.

Now I certainly wouldn't want to argue that Jesus went around proclaiming himself to be the Mosaic Prophet of Deuteronomy 18 (which his followers did do; Acts 3.22), which clearly suggests that the motif was developed, expanded, and put to varied use in the time after Jesus. But I find it unlikely that this motif was only a product of the disciples' faith after Easter, even if that motif came to fuller flower in the light of the Easter event. But this is the value of DeConick's careful discussion: Even though she minimizes, I think, the connection with the historical Jesus, she recognizes that had Jesus' life not exhibited "bits and pieces" that could be framed in terms of Deut. 18, then the "prophet-like-Moses" motif would likely never have been applied to Jesus.

This, I think, illustrates the problem with earlier histories of Jesus, especially the so-called New Quest but also the Third Quest. The fascination with authenticating bits and pieces of the tradition, discarding the "inauthentic" and attempting to allow a totalizing picture of Jesus arise out of the remaining data (as if that totalizing picture weren't already part of the processes by which the data was sorted into authentic and inauthentic bins in the first place!) condemned the entire project to chases down blind alleys. The Jesus tradition—both as we have it in our written texts but also as it would have found expression in oral, artistic, liturgical, and other media—is not made up of "true" and "false" memories but rather is the mediation of Jesus' past and his followers' present. The gospels may not simply record things "as they really happened," but that's not what they set out to do. Rather, they express with conviction and even with bias why "what really happened" is vitally urgent for "what is really happening now."

synoptic problem miscellania

Last month Mark Goodacre posted a very brief response to recent discussions amongst bloggers on the synoptic problem. I link to it here only because the erosion in the confidence with which NT critics hold to the Q theory is fascinating. Not simply that many scholars no longer "believe in" Q (the theological-esque language is interesting here), but that even many of those who do support the Q hypothesis do so more tepidly.

Goodacre's post is well worth reading, and the links worth following. Note also the article by E. P. Sanders referenced in the comments section.

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