Thursday, July 23, 2009


My three year-old is currently watching The Incredibles on a fairly regularly basis, which, frankly, I prefer to Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. Who could prefer the princesses' passive model of femininity—one cleaning around the house and the other sleeping [!] until the man of her life comes to give her value and worth—to Helen Parr/Elastigirl's incredulous question: "Leave the saving of the world men? I don't think so!"

In my opinion, The Incredibles is one of the best family movies of the decade in part because of an unusual theme that runs almost directly against the grain of current cultural trends. In two prominent quotes, both of which, I believe, bring their scenes to a close, one of the movie's protagonists and its main antagonist express this theme:
[Helen Parr, while sighing] Everyone's special, Dash.
[Dash, under his breath] Which is another way of saying nobody is.

[Syndrome] I'll give them heroics. I'll give them the most spectacular heroics they've ever seen! And when I'm old and I've had my fun, I'll sell my inventions so everyone can be superheroes! Everyone can be super! And when everyone's super, [laughs maniacally] no one will be.

Besides Dash's and Syndrome's lines, however, the theme of being special/super precisely because a character puts effort into his or her areas of natural ability is a major sub-plot for both Dash and Syndrome, who both struggle to know how to be true to themselves and come to very different results, and even to daughter Violet, whose struggles are much more internal, personal, and emotional. In our culture, however, I was amazed (and, frankly, grateful) to see a major studio production recognize and announce to audiences everywhere that the sentimental declaration, "Everyone's special" actually de-specializes everyone.

In Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Era, American sociologist Barry Schwartz makes a similar observation regarding the diminishing of traditional (male, European) heroes and the elevation of figures from other national, ethnic, and gender groups regardless of their contributions to history and/or society.
The U.S. Mint's latest project, therefore, is to produce a series of one-dollar coins that will feature the likeness of every president, regardless of his accomplishment. "This could be a renaissance for some our lesser-known presidents," explained the mint's director, Edmund C. Moy, to a New York Times reporter. The reporter's failing to ask Mr. Moy why the mint would ever want to replace George Washington with a lesser president is symptomatic of the great drive toward equality. Neither questioner nor respondent seemed to know that to admire all ethnic, racial, and national heroes equally is to esteem none. (Schwartz 2008: 210; my emphasis)

I'm reminded of the seriousness with which then-candidate Barack Obama suggested that his experience spear-heading a campaign to install him as the forty-fourth POTUS counted as "executive experience" and qualified him, therefore, to serve as POTUS. Perhaps Obama, in the next 3.5 or 7.5 years, will accomplish many great things (other than his obviously significant status as the first non-European POTUS). But only in a cultural milieu in which "everyone's special" could such a thing ever be uttered seriously, let alone taken seriously.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

the changing social value of words

I still remember—vividly—the first time I actually heard someone refer to someone else as colored. I was nineteen, and I think I was actually naïve enough to believe that no one actually used language like that, unless they were trying to draw attention to their language. Certainly no one I knew would use that language. But this was someone in my family, and it took me a few hours to formulate any response at all.

Tonight I'm doing some reading on speed reading, both the techniques and the psychology of. I found an article, "An Approach to Speed Reading," by Joe W. Andrews (The English Journal 41/7 [1952]: 352–6), that evoked a similar reaction. Actually, my response, on a visceral level, to the words quoted below was much more acute because I hadn't noticed that the article was published in 1952. It wasn't until after I read the following paragraph that I had to find some sort of explanation for this language. At any rate, this is what made my jaw go slack:
That is the essence of the drills, and my experience indicates that the crudest execution can hardly fail to accomplish the results intended, ignoring the problem of the retarded and maladjusted, who require the individualized work with which this article is not concerned.

I should stress that Joe Andrews, according to the article, was in 1952 somehow affiliated with Kent State University (his title and qualifications are not listed), so his language must have been, it seems to me, within the bounds of appropriate professional usage at the time. And of course the tenor of this quote, on second glance, isn't the negative or condescending tone it would automatically be if such language were used today. Notice that, despite the conjunction of the terms problem, retarded, and maladjusted, Andrews is simply excluding a group or type of person from his focus and recommending them for "individualized work" rather than neglect, benign or otherwise.

When I recovered from my initial shock, though, I began to wonder: What language do we use today, as part of our professional practice, will seem backward and ill-informed fifty years from now? Will students in 2059 see Geza Vermes's book, Jesus the Jew, on the library shelf and snicker that the verboten word "Jew" was so boldly and unashamedly printed right on the spine? Will the now-standard formulations African-American, Asian-American, Native-American, or any of the other -Americans seem passé to our grandchildren? Neither of these seem likely to me, but it does seem likely that some of the language we currently find perfectly appropriate will pass out of favor.

So what? Well, I can't help but wonder how pointless much of our debates about terminology ultimately will be. Should we translate Ἰουδαῖος Jew or Judean? Did Mark write for Christians or Jesus followers? And so on. Don't get me wrong; we trade in language, and nothing subverts that trade like imprecision and the shoddy use of language. But formulations such as "non-Judean participants in the cult of Jesus," which may be more precise than the potentially misleading gentile Christian, are so unwieldy they distract from the discussion rather than contribute to it. I seem to remember, somewhere in the nether regions of my brain, that James Crossley had to defend his use of the label Christian, even though he is explicitly aware of and involved in examining the problems of projecting modern categories on ancient phenomena. I can't help but think that, perhaps, when we don't understand a person's argument it's easier for us to attack their language.

Monday, July 20, 2009

the art of finding the right words

I'm working through Everett Ferguson's Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987 [third edition, 2003]) with my students as part of my graduate course, "The World of the New Testament." And every now and then I find myself feeling a personal—even a spiritual—bond with one of the ancients on account of Ferguson's knack for word choice. For example, I have a new-found appreciation for Herodotus for one simple reason:
Herodotus in the fifth century [BCE] already assumed everyone could understand Greek, if it was spoken loudly enough and sternly enough.

Visions of Americans looking for bathrooms in Mexico (or France or China or . . .) are dancing in my head

Friday, July 17, 2009

on panning a book

Over at Review of Biblical Literature Anthony Thiselton has written a rather ambivalent review of Richard Horsley's recent book, Wisdom and Spiritual Transcendence at Corinth: Studies in First Corinthians. Both of these are very careful and admirable scholars, but the tone and tenor of Thiselton's review caught my interest. I may be reading too much between the lines and seeing things that aren't there, but I got the distinct impression that Thiselton had even more to say in critique of the book. But he contented himself to commend the book "as a classic of earlier exegesis" whose "greatest disappointment lies in the bibliography and the failure to acknowledge the progress of recent scholars." I suspect the back of Thiselton's hand still stings from complementing Horsley.

I point out this rather interesting example of the genre critical book review in order to provide some guidance, to be heeded appropriately rather than head-long, to my students who are trying to learn how to critically and appreciatively review a book they did not enjoy reading.

[update: I am reminded of a similarly negative review, this one not nearly so ambivalent, which provides a helpful model for reviewing a disappointing book. See John Kloppenborg's review of Beth McCabe's, An Examination of the Isis Cult with Preliminary Exploration into New Testament Studies (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2008). If a book needs to be panned it needs to be panned; but exposing and commenting upon the weaknesses of an argument takes significantly more effort than hurling epithets at its author.]

a slight variation on a common theme

I'm currently developing a lecture entitled, "Jesus and Torah," for my first-year Gospel Narratives course. Few things, for me, are as difficult to introduce in a two-hour discussion with beginning students. I'm beginning my discussion, after a brief definition of Torah, by looking at Matt 5.17–48. I understand vv 17–20 as introducing the six Antitheses of vv 21–48, and I retain the label Antitheses because I think it aptly describes the rhetorical structure of these sayings (but not Jesus' relation to/view of Torah!). Finally, I should say that I understand the entire Sermon on the Mount in strongly covenantal terms (rather than, say, ethical terms). Matthew, I think, is clearly presenting Jesus in ways that evoke the Sinai narrative, though (I think) in some surprising ways.

But in my lesson preparation I'm reading Luz's massively detailed Hermeneia commentary, and I can't help but notice that some anachronistic concepts seem to sustain his (and many others') interpretation. What's worse, the assumption I have in mind is never explicitly discussed, which makes it all the more problematic! A commentary might not be the place to engage such things, but given their effect on our exegetical work I think they deserve some attention.

Specifically, I have in mind the assumption that Christianity and Judaism were, already in the first century CE, separate and distinguishable entities. The very opening of Luz's interpretative comments on Matt 5.17–20 he employs this assumption and allows it to drive his reading of this very important passage:
By placing these verses at the beginning of the main part of the Sermon on the Mount before the antitheses, Matthew makes clear that they are fundamentally important for him. At issue here is his relationship to the Mosaic Law and thus to Judaism. (Luz, Matthew 1-7, 213; my emphasis)

I'm not at all convinced that the issue here is "his relationship to the Mosaic Law"; rather, I think the point is rather clearly the interpretation of Torah and, as emphasized in v 20, the proper observance of Torah. Of course, if Jesus ever did say anything like 5.17–20, we would struggle to explain why Jesus would have to explain to his fellow Jews that he recognized the authority of the Mosaic covenant. Certainly at the front-end of Jesus' ministry, as Matthew has placed the Sermon, we have yet to see anything that would make us think Jesus set out to live free of Torah's strictures and ordinances (Moses might have preferred "blessings and curses"). So why should Jesus have to explain his "relationship to Judaism"?

But Luz doubts the authenticity of this passage; at the very least he reads 5.17–20 as speaking "directly to the church" (213). And if Jesus, in Matthew's gospel, has yet to fall foul of Torah, the church, by the time Matthew was written, certainly had. And given the debates attested earlier in Paul's letters and later in Luke-Acts, Matthew writes to a church whose relationship to Judaism was open to question and required some explanation.

The problem with all of this, I think, is that we cannot invoke the neat distinctions between Judaism and Christianity to structure our interpretation of the NT texts. Daniel Boyarin (Dying for God [1999], Border Lines [2004]), among others, has demonstrated the messy interactions between the expressions of Judaism that became Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. We cannot helpfully think of these as two distinct phenomena at any point in the first century CE; even thinking in terms of two phenomena sends us off on the wrong path.

I haven't yet read Luz's interpretation of Matt 5.17–20; I stopped to get these ideas out of my head. But I'm suspicious that he began with what I think is a very problematic assumption: that Matthew had to clarify "his relationship to the Mosaic Law and thus to Judaism." The text offers significantly more potential, I think, if we begin instead by understanding Matthew competing with other Jews (who may or may not have identified Jesus of Nazareth as a prophet or even Israel's messiah) over how to properly understand and practice Torah.

Monday, July 13, 2009

the Jewish gospels?

Time to get back on a favorite hobby horse. In sundry ways I've been asking since 2005 what difference it makes to read the gospels as Christian literature rather than as Jewish texts (for a very blunt tool looking for such questions, see here). But I have reason to raise the question again, and I don't want to miss the opportunity.

In Craig Evans's essay, "The Jewish Christian Gospel Tradition" (in Jewish Believers in Jesus: The Early Centuries [O. Skarsaune and R. Hvalvik, eds.; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007], 241–77), Evans makes the following observation:
The Jewish Gospel known to Origen may be the earliest of the Jewish Gospels (or Gospel recensions), dating perhaps to the end of the first century or, more probably, to the beginning of the second. (Evans 2007: 248)

Now for some context. First, Evans is pursuing a very difficult task, viz. "to examine the theological and practical emphases, as they may be detected, in the extant fragments of materials widely recognized as Jewish Gospels, and in closely related materials" (242). And he does so carefully and with nuance. Second, Evans spends just over three pages (242–45) discussing "Matthew: A New Testament Jewish Gospel," which he acknowledges "has been traditionally viewed as the most Jewish of the four New Testament Gospels" (242). Just over a year ago I questioned the value of the label "most Jewish", and though Evans isn't asking the same types of question I am, he is sensitive to the "profound and systemic," and even "utter," Jewishness of at least the First Gospel.

But it intrigues me that, even after the decision to apply the label "Jewish" to Matthew's gospel, Evans can still describe this fragment, which he prefers to date in the early second century, as "the earliest of the Jewish Gospels" (see above). Admittedly, Evans is referring to a very specific group of texts when he refers to "Jewish Gospels," and Matthew, I suspect by virtue of being canonical, does not fit within this group. And Evans's use of "Jewish Gospels" to refer to these specific texts—traditionally the Gospel of the Nazoraeans, the Gospel of the Ebionites, and the Gospel of the Hebrews—is entirely within the mainstream of academic parlance. Keeping in mind that I'm questioning standard practices and not Evans's specific instances of those practices, How useful is our category Jewish Gospel, and what does it reveal about us that we find this label meaningful even while recognizing the "Jewishness" of (at least) Matthew?

Is this actually a problem for biblical (and especially New Testament) research? Or am I chasing vapors?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

gospels scholarship at odds with source and redaction criticism?

Okay, so this post's title is a bit of a non sequitur. Source and redaction criticism ARE gospels scholarship, so they can't be at odds, I guess. Even so, I'm very interested in the ways that our über-textual approaches to source criticism fail us when we set about reading the gospels. But first, the usual disclaimer. I am not denying that one or more of the gospel writers may have known one or more of the other gospels. Neither am I denying that earlier gospels were/may have been influential in the development and composition of later gospels. But I am questioning the assumption that the similarities between the gospels are evidence for copying, and that differences between them evidence for redacting. Source critics quite rightly insist that modern objections to copying (or, worse, plagiarism) shouldn't affect our judgments of what the gospels are or how the evangelists produced them. But my point is that the gospels themselves show that copying and editing aren't very helpful ways for thinking about their patterns of similarities and differences.

I'm currently writing a lesson on the twelve disciples that focuses on the significance of Jesus calling twelve disciples and the evidence preserved in the gospels (and Acts, Paul, and even Revelation). Of course, quite a bit of time deals with the different lists of disciples preserved in Matt 10.2–4||Mark 3.16–19||Luke 6.14–16||Acts 1.13. E. P. Sanders (Jesus and Judaism, 98ff.), of course, emphasizes the differences between the lists, while Bauckham (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 96ff.) minimizes these. Both accept that Jesus was remembered as surrounding himself with disciples, to whom he referred as the Twelve, but Bauckham's thesis requires that the Twelve refers to twelve specific, named individuals who could take (or be assigned) responsibility for the Jesus tradition.

The problem, unless I've missed something, is that the lists aren't identical. This is especially a problem for Bauckham. The differences aren't simply a matter of order; Matthew and Mark both name someone called Thaddaeus, while in both of his lists Luke mentions another Judas, this one the son of James. Critics have gone back and forth asking whether Thaddaeus was also known as Judas; I'm happy to notice that none of our texts suggest this. But there doesn't seem to be any redaction-critical motivations for changing (on the assumption of Markan [or Matthean] priority) Thaddaeus to Judas. In fact, I would be more willing to accept the opposite: That sometime after the first Easter, any remaining disciples of Jesus named Judas would have looked around for another moniker. For that matter, there doesn't seem to be any redaction-critical motivations that could explain the variations in order evident among the four lists.

For that reason, I think, both Sanders and Bauckham invoke oral tradition (or memory) to explain the variations for which we need to account. Sanders says, "In the earliest period (evidenced by 1 Cor. 15.5) noses were not counted. That it was some time before they started being counted is clear from the lists of names" (Jesus and Judaism, 101). Of course, there really is only one name from the Twelve about which there are any questions, so the extent to which the delay between an awareness of the Twelve and a list of who those twelve were is actually not very "clear" at all. Bauckham provides a more helpful theory:
It is quite intelligible that a list of this kind should be remembered as consisting of three groups, with the first name in each group a fixed point in the memory, but with the order of the other three names in each group variable. (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 98)

Admittedly, I'm not sure which source-critical assumptions, if any, Bauckham brings to his analyses. Sanders, if I'm not mistaken, is probably a neo-Griesbachian, but again I could be wrong. Regardless of which solution to the synoptic problem (a peculiarly literary problem, after all) we prefer, Matthew, Mark, and Luke (in some combination or another) should be copying from another, and the list of disciples would be a place that we would expect the most careful copying (if the names of the disciples weren't already indelibly stamped on the tradition). In other words, on the basis of some strikingly similar passages (e.g., Mark 2.1–12 parr.), we postulate that some evangelists copy from other gospels. But if, for example, Luke had Mark's list of disciples available and in front of him, why should he vary either the order of the disciples or, most significantly, substitute Judas the son of James for Thaddaeus?

So the list of disciples in the gospels, and their counterpart in Acts 1.13, suggest that the historical processes source critics have envisaged as descriptive for our gospels' composition are unlikely at least and anachronistic at worst. Even if Luke could read/had read Mark's gospel, and even if the latter was very influential over the former's composition, how do we explain the differences between their lists of apostles? Sanders can't be convincing here, because even if the precise names comprising the Twelve wasn't fixed in early Christian tradition, Luke (who replaces Thaddaeus with Judas son of James) should have known Mark's list!

So on standard source-critical readings, Luke knew his lists differed from Mark's and either didn't care or thought he was correcting Mark. And if he thought "Judas son of James" was another name for Thaddaeus, we would have expected him to tell us that this was his other name (see, for example, Acts 1.23; 13.9). We can't plausibly explain Lukan redaction of Mark here. And we can't assume (as do Sanders and Bauckham) that Luke wasn't familiar with Mark (unless we're willing to jettison source-critical assumptions completely, a move which I increasingly favor). The lists of disciples demonstrate rather trenchantly, I think, that our conception of the Jesus tradition as a textual phenomenon has misled us. Instead, we should appreciate that the Jesus tradition was a narrative world (or, in more sociological terms, a symbolic universe) enveloping, contextualizing, and giving meaning to the written texts. In this perspective, even if Luke had read Mark, Luke was more richly and dynamically rooted in the tradition itself rather than the textual expression of the tradition found in Mark's gospel.

[Update: I should have read further. Bauckham (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 98) does try to explain the variation in order, at least for the first four names, in redaction-critical terms. Notice how utterly lacking in explanatory power is Bauckham's argument. Why should Matthew and Luke, who keep both sets of brothers together, be more original? Why should Mark have any interest in binding together the three nicknamed disciples? And, most problematically, why should Luke rearrange the first four names in Acts 1.13 simply because Peter and John are prominent characters (3.1–4.31; 8.14-25) and James's death is narrated (12.2)? All of this suggests that we have misconceived what the Jesus tradition is and so missed the dynamics by which it was entextualized in the written gospels.]

Friday, July 10, 2009

what do the disciples do on their twelve thrones?

I'm writing a lesson on Jesus' selection of and relationship to the Twelve (disciples, that is), and I'm having to make a decision about the phrase, καθήσεσθε καὶ ὑμεῖς ἐπὶ δώδεκα θρόνους κρίνοντες τὰς δώδεκα φυλὰς τοῦ Ἰσραήλ (Matt 19.28; see Luke 22.30). If your Greek isn't where you'd like it to be, the traditional understanding of this phrase is "You, also, will sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (my italics). The question concerns the italicized participle, judging, which translates the participial κρίνοντες [krinontes].

The BDAG lexicon offers a lengthy discussion of κρίνω, with usages ranging from "to make a selection" (with glosses select, prefer) and on to "to pass judgment upon," whether in cognitive senses (with glosses such as decide, think, consider, etc.) or in judicial senses (with glosses such as judge, decide, condemn, etc.). The very last usage, "to ensure justice for someone" (gloss see to it that justice is done), lists only 1 Clem 8.4 and Isa 1.17 [LXX] as examples. Louw and Nida don't offer an equivalent for this last usage; they give the glosses decide, prefer, evaluate, hold a view, make legal decision, condemn, and rule. But they list Luke 22.30 under this last domain, rendering the passage, "and you will be seated upon thrones, ruling over the twelve tribes of Israel" (§37.49, my emphasis). In their view, then, κρίνω here involves far more than simply "judging." BDAG discusses this verse under the usage "to engage in a judicial process" (with the glosses judge, decide, hale before a court, condemn, and hand over for judicial punishment [see §5.b.β]), saying "occupied by those who have been divinely commissioned to judge: the 12 apostles judge the 12 tribes." They do add the caveat, "But here κ[ρίνω] could have the broader sense rule" (s.v.), but their preference is clear.

I find myself siding, with some fear and trepidation, against BDAG and with Louw and Nida. I am largely convinced by Richard Horsley's argument, in Jesus and the Spiral of Violence (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1987, 199–207), that this passage should be translated, "You yourselves will also sit on twelve thrones saving (or effecting justice for) the twelve tries of Israel." Horsley doesn't discussion Matt 12.18, 20 in this regard, but he could have. In that passage the evangelist cites a lengthy passage from Isaiah 42 (in a text-form closer to our MT readings than to the LXX), which twice uses the cognate noun κρίσις [krisis] clearly in the sense of "justice":
καὶ κρίσιν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν ἀπαγγελεῖ. . . . ἕως ἂν ἐκβάλῃ εἰς νῖκος τὴν κρίσιν.
kai krisin tois ethnesin apangelei. . . . heōs an ekbalē eis nikos tēn krisin.
And he will proclaim justice to the nations. . . . until he shall bring justice into victory. (Matt 12.18, 20)

I don't think Matthew 12 makes the case for Matt 19.28 (and certainly it doesn't for Luke 22.28–30), but I think it at least gives us a solid basis for understanding the κριν- root in terms of justice or restoration.

Of course, the difference between judging and effecting justice for is fairly dramatic. And of course we want to translate the passage in a way that communicates accurately the text's meaning. But here we can't deny that the act of translating the Greek is part of determining this verse's meaning (rather than simply communicating its meaning). This, of course, is always the case, but in this instance at least the stakes seem to be that much higher.

So what do you think? How should we render κρίνω [krinō] in Matt 19.28||Luke 22.28–30? What does Jesus tell his disciples they will do sitting upon the twelve thrones of Israel?

[Update: In my lecture notes I've rendered Matt 19.28, "Then Jesus said to them, 'Truly I tell you that, in the age of renewal, when the Son of Man sits upon his throne of glory, you who have followed me will also sit upon twelve thrones and mete out justice for the twelve tribes of Israel.'"]

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Washington, Lincoln, slaves, war

With the July 4th celebrations last weekend and my time reading Barry Schwartz's Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Age, I've been spending a lot of time thinking about American history. And, of course, most of this thinking has been filtered through my interests in the processes and dynamics of how we remember historical figures.

So the memories of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington—both heroic figures in American memory and history, if for differing reasons and to varied degrees—is especially interesting, and particularly as these two figures relate to a vibrant issue in contemporary American political discourse: race relations. Schwartz, in his analysis of the presentation of the Emancipation Proclamation in American history textbooks between 1920–44 and 1945–present, notices a shift in this presentation. Since WWII Emancipation has become an issue of humanitarian ("civil rights") more than philosophical ("liberty") dimensions, and in history textbooks the motivations for pressing the Civil War have shifted to emphasize the moral urgency of abolishing slavery. This was not always the case.
Between 1915 and 1944 . . . textbook writers described slavery as a moral wrong, but defined emancipation as an instrument of Union victory, not an end in itself. The rationale for emancipation was to weaken the South's labor force, augment the Union's manpower, and prevent European governments from recognizing the Confederacy. (Schwartz 2008: 132)

The presentation of the Civil War in these textbooks emphasized the State ("preservation of the Union"), military battles and heroes, and so on. After WWII, the presentation of the Civil War would shift to focus on "history from below": images of slave experience and the accoutrements thereof, the emphasizing of "black contributions to the war effort" (Schwartz 2008: 133), and so on. In other words, late-twentieth-century American memory has seized on an historical event (the Emancipation Proclamation) but has reconfigured its significance from freedom to equality. The fact (indisputable, I would have thought, though such things rarely are) that nineteenth-century Americans could emancipate millions of slaves without also making the necessary provisions to ensure equality, coupled with the inconceivability of emancipation without equality in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, strongly suggest that emancipation, though we keep on using that word, did not mean [in the late 1800s and early 1900s] what we think it means.

If Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a political maneuver to pursue war goals (rather than as a moral maneuver to restore human dignity), George Washington did neither. At least, not according to a series of docudramas that ran on the History Channel on the 4th of July. Washington, in the process of configuring his army, rather confidently asserted that they (a group of men with guns rather than a trained army) would be able to fight the British (then the premier military machine in the Western world) without the aid of "negro soldiers." (Though see the section, "The Congress refuses Black enlistees" here for a different perspective.) I haven't done any research here, but according to the History Channel (I know, I know) the British, capitalizing on Washington's decision, opened up their ranks to blacks who would run away from their slave owners and enlist in His Majesty's army.

As near as I can tell, this is exactly the opposite move Lincoln would take nearly eighty-eight years ago. But the motivations of both men seem to me to flow in the same direction. Washington, trying to galvanize an army from thirteen disparate colonies with wildly divergent views of slaves and blacks, avoided putting off pro-slavery interests in order to achieve his war goal of fielding a unified fighting force against the Crown. Lincoln, trying to counter a number of military defeats in the early years of the War, sought to undermine the South's ability to meet his forces by robbing them of their labor force. Interestingly, the colonies faced a similar problem during the Revolutionary War when many men of fighting age—whom Washington refused to recruit—stopped participating in the colonial economic machine as slaves and fought with the Red Coats.

But—and here's the point—neither man seems to have been motivated to engage in race relations by the concepts of equality, civil rights, justice, or whatever. For both these seem to have been very practical decisions, so much so that we could be cynical regarding these American heroes' legacies for race relations. (We should acknowledge, however, that the relationship between Washington and his personal man-slave [!!!], William Lee, is rather ambiguous, being neither the abusive owner-slave relation of much popular depiction nor the rather egalitarian situation we who admire Washington might like it to have been.)

So my questions are as follows:
  • First, How do we assess our American heritage in light of these ambiguities? I don't think we can valorize our past, which was clearly marred by realities we should not wish to recreate. But neither can we demonize our past, cut ourselves loose from it, in order to avoid those realities.
  • Second, Why do we insist that people today make the right decisions for the right reasons (= for my reasons)? For example, I'm certainly no environmentalist, and I'm alarmed at the massive effort at wealth-redistribution masquerading as "cap and trade." If we want to engage in redistributing resources, that's one thing. But let's not do it while telling ourselves we're doing something else (viz., saving the planet). But as a capitalist, I'm all for conserving energy, becoming more efficient, and minimizing our impact on the world around us. Making an impact costs money, and if we can do as little of that as possible to pursue our goals, I'm all for it. But the current discussion doesn't allow people like me. There are two sides in this debate, and neither one of them seem to tolerate positions like mine, who aren't motivated by apocalyptic fears of rising oceans but who like the idea of using less gas/petrol, electricity, water, etc.
  • Third (and just to end on a controversial note), Has the focus on "civil rights" over the last fifty years neglected the dynamic of "liberty"? Do we need to stamp out racism, bigotry, and hatred, and make everyone love everyone else? If so, are we supposed to hate and discriminate against bigots? If not, can we let bigots and racists and others be who they want to be and live the consequences of their decisions and at the same time provide a social context in which the traditional objects of hatred, bigotry, and discrimination are empowered to live fulfilling lives, pursue their goals, and enjoy liberty?
I have answers I prefer to the first two questions, but this third one genuinely stumps me. Perhaps I've asked the question in an unhelpful way. Or perhaps the question itself is unhelpful. I don't think civil rights and liberty are the same thing, but I don't want to suggest that they are opposites, either. I guess I'm asking, Do we think we've been pursuing both up till now, and if not, How do we do so?

BibleWorks 8

I have access, via my institution's software license and Parallels, to BibleWorks 7. Next week I will be upgraded to BW8, and I'm getting excited about messing around with its features. If you're a JBC student, be sure to check out BW8 on any campus computer when you arrive in the fall (we'll have fifteen licenses available for concurrent student use). Also, notice that Brandon Wason and Polycarp both give some explanation of their experiences with BW8. If you're looking for tips on how others use the software, these are as useful places to begin as any.

On Plagiarism (or, An Essay I Just Now Wrote)

Last Thursday's had a great piece on plagiarism by G. Thomas Couser. And, after looking at it again just now, the comments are also worth a quick glance.

I once caught a student plagiarizing when I noticed that her writing had suddenly become, well, coherent and just plain grammatical. When I called her into my office and confronted her, she cried and insisted that she didn't mean to cheat (It must have been an accident!) and that she didn't knowingly copy whole strings of phrases from her book. I did show a bit of mercy and didn't levy the maximum penalty, and in a final bit of justice she ended up failing the course anyway.

But the best part of the story comes after I confronted her. About fifteen minutes after she left my office, I got an e-mail from the Dean of Students informing me that she was complaining because I implicitly questioned her integrity! I couldn't believe it! I thought I had questioned her integrity in no uncertain terms.

And just for some perspective, I would like to say that I have been pleasantly surprised by my students over the last three years. While maybe one in thirty of my students gets caught cheating (I'm sure more do it, but that's still a very low figure), the majority of men and women who come through my classes have responded very well to the challenges I try to build into my syllabi.

Monday, July 06, 2009

moral mediocrity and the influence of media dynamics

In Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Era (which I originally mentioned here), American sociologist Barry Schwartz discusses "Moral Mediocrity" (113–4) as a factor in the ebb of Abraham Lincoln's aura in the second half of the twentieth century. Moral mediocrity doesn't refer to the decline of America's social fabric (as it might in some conservative circles) but rather to the shift from more to less socially conscious cultural patterns, from less to more individually centered ways of being.

In Schwartz's words,
Every society moves alternately from one phase to another, from moral passion to moral mediocrity, from eras of "collective effervescence" wherein the nation's sacredness is felt and its myths and symbols reaffirmed, to eras in which the presence of sacred myths and symbols recedes. During the 1950s, the United States found itself somewhere between these two states: morally passionate, but less so than it had been; morally mediocre, but less so than it would become. (Schwartz 2008: 113)

At any rate, it wasn't Schwartz's comments on moral mediocrity that sent me back to my blog. Rather, it was an observation about heroes and celebrities.
That television has brought into prominence entertainers and athletes whose celebrity has overwhelmed the public's interest in the great figures of history is certain. These celebrities, in many ways inferior to their audience, do the opposite of what great men did. "The celebrity cult," Orrin Klapp observed in 1962, "celebrates the triumph of ordinariness—charm without character, showmanship without ability, bodies without minds, information without wisdom. Hero-worship looks horizontally, even downward, to a 'man like myself.'" Heroes, as Klapp defines them, are no longer great men [sic]. (Schwartz 2008: 114)

Klapp's description of celebrity cult as "showmanship without ability, bodies without minds," and so on is at least as relevant in 2009 as it would have been in 1962. I'm not interested in arguing that society is going downhill, to hell in a handbasket, or anything like that. American culture has always had its strengths; it has also always had its weaknesses, and we have been swapping these for those since the eighteenth century. But our gains in historical knowledge and awareness (with respect to our heroes and their life-sized [rather than larger-than-life] personae) come at the expense of some losses with respect to our moral and societal ideals. Epic heroes may not be historically authentic or socially sophisticated, but they inspire and challenge in ways that real-life people never can. We gain one; we lose the other.

But one of the things I appreciate about Schwartz's analyses (see the bibliography in Structuring Early Christian Memory for more of Schwartz's works) is his ability to move beyond simplistic conclusions to appreciate and comment upon the complex dynamics behind social commemorative patterns. Besides memory, I am also very interested in media criticism (start here for a helpful précis). But one of the perennial problems among media critics is an overly deterministic view of media. Too often scholars assume that changes in media (from oral to written, from written to print, from print to electronic, etc.) result in specific, even inevitable changes in social as well as psychological patterns. So Walter J. Ong speaks of "oral noetics," and Werner H. Kelber of an "oral synthesis." And these scholars stand squarely in a venerable academic tradition (see the works of McLuhan, Havelock, Goody, and many others), but they have overestimated the consequences of shifts in media.

With respect to the passage cited above, Schwartz does not assume that the rise of television caused or resulted in the moral mediocrity mentioned earlier. Television may have enabled Americans to more readily replace traditional heroes with popular celebrities, and it may even have enabled them to do so in larger numbers. But television did not cause people to ditch their heroes in favor of Brangelina. Media dynamics are vehicles as much as they are causes of social changes.

Turning to media criticism and New Testament studies, scholars have been prolific over the last two plus decades identifying and explaining the results of the shift from oral traditions to written gospels. In Kelber's case, the shift from (a written!) Q to Mark is presumed to disrupt the pre-Markan Jesus tradition (Traditionsbruch) and create something entirely new. Arguments such as these strike me as overstated. Yes, media dynamics are important. But perhaps we need to think about how media dynamics facilitated social and cultural transformations that were already underway among Jesus' first-century followers (and their social and cultural milieux) rather than taking deterministic views of oral and scribal media.

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