Tuesday, February 25, 2014

On reading Philo, Legatio ad Gaium

This week I read Kenneth Schenck's magnificent little primer to Philo, A Brief Guide to Philo (Westminster John Knox, 2005), which has motivated me to face my Philophobia and wade into Philo's writings. I enjoyed reading In Flaccum and am now reading Legatio ad Gaium. I am surprised by some of the things Philo says, and I'm hoping that some of you Philo experts might be able to provide some guidance.

Okay, here's my question (in bold), with some brief introduction: I think Schenck (and others) is right to approach Philo as first an interpreter/exegete of Israel's biblical traditions and also a philosopher, mystic (in a limited sense), apologist, etc. In other words, Philo remains a staunchly observant Jew committed to keeping Torah despite the thoroughly Hellenistic, even middle-Platonic expression of his Judaism. So how should we describe the tension between the following two observations from Legatio ad Gaium? One the one hand, Philo gives surprisingly straightforward and even glowing encomia of the demigods Dionysius, Heracles, and the Dioscuri (Legat. 77–92) and of the gods Hermes, Apollo, and Ares (Legat. 93–113) as part of his condemnation of Gaius Caligula. On the other hand, Philo acknowledges and even participates in the Jewish insistence "to acknowledge one God who is the Father and Maker of the world" [ἕνα νομίζειν τὸν πατέρα καὶ ποιητὴν τοῦ κόσμου θεόν; Legat. 114–18 (115 quoted)]. Notice that these are adjacent sections of Legatio ad Gaium; Philo goes immediately from lauding Greco-Roman demigods and deities (in contrast to Caligula) to expressing the fierce monotheism we often think more typical of second-temple Judaism. How do those more expert in Philo's thought and writings manage and/or resolve this tension, or am I seeing non-existent ghosts?

Monday, January 27, 2014

Greg Monette on the criterion of embarrassment

Greg Monette has raised some helpful questions about the criterion of embarrassment and especially my essay in Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne, eds., Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (T&T Clark International, 2012). You can see Greg's post here. I thought I would put my response here (since I'm not doing anything else with this blog ;-) ).


This is very interesting. Thank you for this discussion. I'm going to focus my response on three issues: (I) the promise of the criterion of embarrassment, (ii) the problem with the criterion of embarrassment, and (iii) the use of embarrassment to study other historical figures/events. (In other words, I'm going to leave the Mormon issue aside, though I appreciate how you're using it as a heuristic entrance into the question.)

First, the criterion of embarrassment is built upon a very useful and insightful observation (which I make forcefully in my STRUCTURING EARLY CHRISTIAN MEMORY; see pp. 59–61) that the past imposes itself in various ways onto the present. That is, we simply cannot ignore aspects of the past that we might wish to ignore, whether those aspects are traumatic, widely known, embarrassing, or whatever. The criterion of embarrassment rightly capitalizes on this point, noting that Jesus' tradents can hardly be imagined "fabricating a story where the Son of God was thought of getting his power from the devil" (as you say). If Jesus' opponents widely accused him of being aligned with the devil, then it is all the more likely that his followers would have to address that reputation and not be able to ignore it. This is the power of the criterion, and I hope it's clear that I am in no way refuting this point.

Second, however, the criterion of embarrassment is entirely impossible to apply. The fact is, we simply do not know what the Christians found "embarrassing" and what they did not. To stick with the example you offered (and which I quoted), the Beelzebul controversy does indeed accuse Jesus of demonic allegiance, but it also nicely tees up Jesus' opponents for a rhetorical butt-kicking that conclusively demonstrates the "arrival" of the kingdom of God (Matt 12.28||Luke 11:20) and Jesus' superiority over his opponents. If the charge of demonic possession and/or alliance was rhetorically useful for the evangelists, then how can we really say they demonstrate any particular "embarrassment" at the charge? The crucifixion provides an even better example: On the one hand, nothing is as embarrassing as a crucified messiah, but on the other hand nothing was as kerygmatically useful—even central—to Jesus' followers than his crucifixion (and even the biblical mandate for his crucifixion; e.g. Luke 24). This is the point of my essay: These data only become embarrassing when we plot them into a certain historical narrative (e.g. "Jesus' followers felt embarrassed by his baptism by and submission to John and so would never had created that tradition") rather than a different narrative (e.g. "Jesus' followers saw a chance to augment his reputation by linking him with the more popular prophet, John; only later, once Jesus' fame had eclipsed John, did his alleged baptism create problems"). But this is a critical problem: The criterion of embarrassment was supposed to identify facts that we could plot into an historical reconstruction, and now we see that the criterion itself already depends on a pre-established reconstruction in order to verify (or falsify) any particular datum.

Third, these problems are mitigated when we're studying other historical figures, not because they are qualitatively different from Jesus but because—often—we simply have much more historical data to work with. Let's imagine that someone wanted to apply something like the criterion of embarrassment to study the build-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Obviously, the widespread agreement that Saddam Hussein had WMD, when contrasted with their post-invasion absence (I'm trying to keep my language neutral), could be perceived and discussed (and even verified) using the logic of embarrassment. But we have LOADS of evidence—from recordings and transcripts of Bush addressing the public, Colin Powell before the UN, reports from other nations (especially the UK), and even statements from Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton—all of which confirming that in March 2003 America was adamant in its claim that Iraq had WMD and that this justified military action. With the gospels, by way of contrast, we don't have anything like this: no contemporary documents from Jesus' opponents expressing suspicion that Jesus was in league with Beelzebul, no reports from Jews scattered throughout the Roman Empire or Parthia claiming that a popular new prophet was widely considered demonic, not even parallel accounts of other Jewish figures having been popularly acclaimed exorcists but suspected of working with the prince of demons. So while these data might have been preserved in our gospels despite the embarrassment they caused Jesus' followers, we simply do not know. When studying other historical events/figures, especially in the modern era, we have more data available to verify this hypothesis.

Does that help?

Sunday, October 06, 2013

disgusting thoughts

I mentioned earlier that I've started reading Richard Beck's, book, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality (Wipf & Stock, 2011). Chapter 2 focuses on purity and continues Beck's fascinating discussion of the psychology of disgust. I heartily recommend the book, if only because it puts a new perspective on so many things that many of us (myself included) regularly say about Jesus and the gospels. However, I have to admit I really struggled with this chapter. Let me explain.

Beck draws—or rather, Beck uncovers the fact that we draw—a connection between the way we think of physical revulsion (a drop of urine in a bottle of wine, food coming into contact with fecal matter, etc.) and the way we think of social and/or moral revulsion. He mentions four principles of disgust at work in all three dimensions (pp. 26–27; all italics in the original):

  1. A Boundary Psychology: Disgust is a system that monitors boundaries. Disgust regulates the act of incorporation and inclusion.
  2. Expulsive: Disgust is a violently expulsive mechanism. In mild forms disgust simply prompts withdrawal and avoidance. In stronger forms disgust involves violent rejection, expulsion, or elimination.
  3. Promiscuous: Due to disgust's developmental peculiarities (i.e., its sensitive period [Beck is referring to the way disgust reactions are learned rather than innate; babies will put anything into their mouths and only later learn that some things should never come into contact with the mouth or tongue; -RR]), culture can link disgust to a variety of stimuli, many unrelated to food. Consequently, disgust is often found regulating moral, social, and religious experiences.
  4. Magical Thinking: The contamination appraisals involved in disgust are characterized by magical thinking, which over-rides reason and logic. Consequently, when disgust regulates moral, social, or religious experience magical thinking is unwittingly imported into the life of the church.
These are all helpful principles to identify and think about. Beck accepts certain triggers of a disgust reaction as appropriate or useful for maintaining good health and/or survival: "Many of these stimuli are legitimate vectors for disease (e.g., feces) while others are the product of our learning histories (e.g., food aversions due to food poisoning)" (22). But when disgust reactions are transferred from the physical realm to the social or moral realm, Beck leaves little if any room for ever accepting this transferral: "However, many sources of contamination are driven by culture and have little or nothing to do with food. . . . although contamination monitoring is at root healthy and adaptive, we should worry when judgments of contamination are extended into the religious, moral, and social domains" (22; my emphasis).

Here's my question: Is it n/ever appropriate to protect the boundaries and/or the internal well-being of the religious, moral, or social organism? I don't have an answer, although I admit that I'm uncomfortable saying that disgust reactions are always inappropriate in the moral and social domains. Rather, given how powerful these reactions are—how viscerally we feel them, down deep in our bowels—Christians have to take special care to be self-critical and self-reflective to ensure that we deploy the evaluative and expulsive functions of disgust in ways that work with rather than against the redemptive and transformative core of the gospel. Paul did, at least once, enjoin a church to expel an immoral member, and Jesus himself excoriated those whom he judged harmful for the people and kingdom of God.

I have so much more to say about the book thus far, but this post is long enough. If you're curious, I recommend you get the book!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Disgusting Communion

At the recommendation of a colleague, I've started reading Richard Beck's book, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality (Cascade Books, 2011). Beck, an experimental psychologist (= social scientist, not a theologian or biblical scholar), brings the psychology of disgust to bear on questions of purity (food, sex), hospitality (social acceptability), and mortality (death).

My interest in the topic is primarily sexual. A few years ago I read Donna Freitas's book, Sex and the Soul (Oxford University Press, 2008), which aroused in me a deep concern that we are raising a/nother generation without providing any guidance or wisdom regarding the connection between one of our most basic physical urges (sex) and one of our most basic spiritual urges (communion with God/the divine). In a profession such as mine (equipping, training, educating people for ministry), that lack of guidance and wisdom is scandalous, or it would be if we weren't so used to it.

Chapter 1 presents some basic thoughts on the psychology of disgust. Beck reproduces a three-fold typology of disgust (p. 19):

  1. core disgust: revulsion centered on eating and oral incorporation;
  2. sociomoral disgust: revulsion centered on moral and social judgments;
  3. animal-reminder disgust: revulsion centered on stimuli that function as death/mortality reminders.
Beck also suggestively maps this typology onto the Eucharist, an intriguing move that he will return to in his final chapter.

I'm enjoying the book already, but I'm not quite sure what to think. On the one hand, I want to defend "disgust" as a physical and even social concept. The expulsive impulse triggered by disgust is healthy, even life-preserving, as when we eat rancid meat or encounter a pedophile on a school yard. On the other hand, there are things that are not, intrinsically, disgusting that still curl my stomach. I eat the flesh of dead cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, etc., but never no never of dogs, pigs, cats, rats, or horses. I accept that every person in church on Sunday is a sinner, but if I find out about their sin (especially if it's sexual in nature) I am driven to passages such as 1 Corinthians 5 ("Remove the evil person from among you").

If I accept that disgust, as an emotion, is culturally determined in a way not true of other emotions (Beck, pp. 16–18), how do we distinguish between healthy and proper manifestations of disgust and those that block and run counter to the redemptive work of Christ? I do not have an answer. But I do have a suspicion. Some things, people, and ideas genuinely and urgently need expulsion from the body physical, political, ecclesial. Those things represent real and present dangers to life and health. But this is the scandal of the gospel, of a Jesus who not only heals the leper but touches him, of a God who not only redeems humanity but becomes her. That which is disgusting, which needs expulsion, is not expelled but redeemed. This is the shocking story of Ezekiel 16 (warning: this chapter is NOT.FOR.CHILDREN, but you absolutely must read all the way to the end of this long chapter). This is the good news (= gospel) of God: I was disgusting and revolting, but God called me to his table, offered me his own flesh ("Disgusting!"), and invited me, saying, "Take, eat. This is my body, broken for you."

Disgust is real. Revulsion is appropriate. If we truly believe in the gospel, disgust leads not to ejection (vomiting, shunning, excommunication) but to gratitude and humility. I once was filthy but now am cleansed. Who am I, then, to push you away in your noxious, grungy, stained rags. I know the One who clothes others like kings and queens, and he has asked me to bring you to him. He offers you the Cup that sates, but be careful. This is His Blood, poured out for you, too. Please don't be disgusted.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

teaching and research: resisting the tyranny of either/or

Over at PEJE IESOUS, Christopher Skinner has linked to a very good reflection piece from Inside Higher Ed on the challenges (and methods) of balancing the aspirations of an active research agenda with the demands of a heavy teaching load. Dr. Hollis Phelps offers some very helpful thoughts (and tips!) for those of us who are carrying a significant teaching load and trying to keep up with and contribute to the larger academic discipline to which we belong.

Speaking for myself, I am currently preparing to shop a book proposal for what I hope will be a fairly significant work on Romans. I only ventured into Pauline and Romans studies because my university assigned me to develop a course on Romans for our graduate students. Among the potential synthetic consequences of the tug-o-war between teaching and research, I would identify the following:

  • my research deepens the content of my in-class lecture and discussion materials;
  • my research strengthens my identification with and passion for my field, which communicates directly to my students as they wrestle to decide whether my field matters to them;
  • my teaching broadens the scope of my reading and knowledge, which directly affects the quality of my research and writing;
  • my teaching forces me to improve my writing and thinking (especially since I encounter so much bad writing and thinking in [Father, forgive me] student papers).
While not all researchers would be good teachers, and not all good teachers would be good researchers, in the Venn diagram of higher education, there is more overlap between the two than not.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

in this river, swimming, nearly drowning

These are hard days. They're good days; don't get me wrong. But I find myself in a season of my faith where I am especially aware of being unworthy of the God I worship. Today—right now—as I sit in church surrounded by people who don't appear on the surface to struggle as I do, I am tempted to look down on these, my brothers and sisters, for seeming to feel so confident of their relationship with the Almighty Creator of the world. If I come off as condescending or elitist, please see through it. Please see through to the small little man who is terrified of his faith.

Some of you who read this blog don't share my faith. I understand that. Honestly, I often envy you. If I felt the choice were truly open to me, I might also choose a different belief.
But faith, as I experience it, is like swimming in a swiftly raging river. I choose how to swim or where (whether with the current or against). Perhaps I even chose to jump into this torrent, once upon a time. But now it has me, and I go where it directs, no matter my choices. I feel the apostles words down deep in my bowels, somewhere deeper than my heart and lungs: "I am not my own; I have been bought at a price."

Sometimes, I hate this river. I long for the peace and calm of the shore, or I envy those who seem to ride these waves so leisurely. But I am drowning. My head sometimes rises above the waters, but usually it thrashes just below the surface, sometimes banging against the rocks and threatening me with unconsciousness.

Other times, however, I realize that this river is taking me somewhere I cannot reach on my own, somewhere I could not get to from the safety of river's edge. If I fought long enough, hard enough, I could remove myself from this flow. But the only thing that scares me more than this river is the loss of the feel of its current driving me forward, closer to the One who directs its course. So I continue to struggle, not to remove myself from this river, but to keep myself from drowning in its furious foam.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Shack, pt. I

This is not an academic post. If you read Verily Verily for the scholarly things I write—if you're one of the three people who fit that description—you can stop here.

This afternoon I started reading William Paul Young's book, The Shack. After reading the Foreword and the first four chapters, and I'm not sure how to react to this book. The one thing I cannot bring myself to say is that I like it. I don't like it. In fact, I hate it. Maybe I could like it if its story couldn't be true. If evil and death and sadness and brokenness and emptiness and guilt and loneliness were alien guests in the minds of storytellers. If parents didn't lose children and no one had to deal with losing a sibling. If this book were no nearer reality than Gene Roddenberry's tribbles or J. J. Abrams's . . . well, than J. J. Abrams's anything.

Two days ago I had a very difficult day, and I spent half of it crying in my office. Sometimes I can keep the full weight of the reality of my sister's loss out of mind. But not two days ago. Sometimes I can wrap myself in the warmth of my faith and trust that God has a plan, even if I cannot see it. But not two days ago. Sometimes I can strengthen my knees and my back to support the people around me, especially those who experience this loss as their own. But not two days ago. Two days ago I had a very difficult day.

And then my Dad called. It was good to hear his voice. It's good to talk to someone who feels the same pain I feel (though it hurts to know that he feels more of it). And it is good to have someone know the soothing comfort of that pain. Life shouldn't be normal. Not yet. So this pain makes me feel . . . I dunno, human, I guess. Talking with Dad feels the way I imagine war veterans feel when they talk with one another. Other people sympathize. Hell, everyone sympathizes. No one understands. But Dad does. And that makes it easier for me to let him shoulder my burden, and to try to help him lift his. So it was good to hear his voice.

He told me that someone at work gave him The Shack and that he started reading it. He hadn't got very far, and he didn't really know what it was about. But this someone-at-work had been through something himself, and The Shack had apparently been helpful for him. So Dad was reading The Shack. I had heard of it. I think Andrea had even read it, back when the book was everywhere, like frogs in Egypt. But I didn't know anything about it. Dad didn't ask me to read it. But the idea of reading it with him—really, of reading any book with him—struck me as appropriate therapeutic. So yesterday I dropped two quarters on a used copy at McKay's. And now I'm reading The Shack, too.

And I don't think I can put it down. I don't want to describe the plot, especially if the two people who read Verily Verily happen to also be the two people who haven't read The Shack yet. But let me say, I'm reading this book not primarily as someone who has lost his sister. I'm reading it mostly as someone in love with a man who has lost his daughter, and as someone who has two daughters of his own. I'm reading it as a man who wants desperately to believe that he can keep all of this . . . this mess, this hurt, this filth, this pain, this . . . this sin away from his little girls. I'm scared that this book will make me face the fact of my powerlessness, of my impotence (and that's a rare word for a man to use of himself!).

So, no. I don't like this book. But I can't put it down. Because I don't want to avoid thinking about the things this book wants to make me think about. And because I don't want my Dad to read this book alone. And because I find myself thinking about my sister when I read it.

And because I want to believe that God still writes notes.

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