June 18, 2012

Exercising Historical Imagination

Richard Bauckham's book, Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospelshas a 94 page long fifth chapter called "Joanna the Apostle". That chapter begins to crescendo on its 86th page with a section called, "The Historical Joanna - A Sketch". Justifying the sketch, here is that chapter's first paragraph (which I have cut into three parts, for better digestion):
"No historical reconstruction is possible without the exercise of historical imagination. What follows is my attempt to draw historical findings together into a sketch of the life of Joanna, using historically informed imagination to draw possible inferences from the evidence but stopping short of the kind of imaginative speculation that goes far beyond the evidence.
Note the contrast. Properly understood, "historical imagination" is very different from "imaginative speculation". Bauckham continues:
"Inevitably, gaps have to be filled and other reconstructions are possible (and this statement exempts me from tedious repetition of "probably" and "perhaps" in the sketch: readers may judge the degrees of probability for themselves); but, so long as we are aware of the limitations of the evidence, historical reconstruction of this kind is a valuable aid to historical understanding.
Terms like "probably" are a scholar's tool for claiming modest victories. Note that Bauckham prefers the term "possible" to describe his reconstruction, and further states that reconstruction is not the whole game, but an "aid" to our comprehension of history.

And now comes the best part:
"We enter another time and place by understanding both the facts, more or less probably established, and the possibilities they suggest. Even the unrealized possibilities are part of history. It is the possibilities of history, realized and unrealized, that make it relevant to the present."
And with that, plus a footnote, he begins, "Joanna was born into one of the prominent and wealthy Jewish families of Galilee and grew up in one of the small castles that dotted the Galilean hills..." Now, that's not going too far out on a limb, really, if one has done one's homework and calculated safe odds. And Bauckham has. (Go check out the preceeding 85 pages if you don't want to just trust me.)

In my humble opinion, bravely focusing on historical possibilities is infinitely more profitable than defiantly embracing historical ignorance. As I quoted last week from Vanhoozer's study of Ricoeur: "it is by reading stories and histories that we learn what is humanly possible."

So, what does all this mean to me, personally?

The study of History shows us that possibilities are endless and that people both act and are acted upon in the face of great change. If that is what History actually is, there can be little wonder why Institutional Christendom has always tended to resist embracing what History actually does.

Exercise, saints. Imagine. Conceive. Humbly measure your limitations and avoid wild speculation. But exercise.

Exercise your historical imagination, by examining the past... and then exercise your historical imagination by creating the future.

June 16, 2012

For Jesus, Friendship > Love

David Stark has a good list of reasons why friendship is greater than love, according to Jesus, in the Gospel of John, up to and including that love/friend conversation on the lakeshore in John 21.

I love this! Please do go give it a read!

June 14, 2012

Narrative is Possibility (a theory)

Here is Vanhoozer's chapter in On Paul Ricoeur, a gem I stumbled across at the TCU library tonight. By the way, Kevin Vanhoozer is so smooth with his words, that even though I still can't begin to explain what Paul Ricoeur's work is about, I feel like I understand it much better. At least, I feel like I understand what Vanhoozer is saying. The main thing seems to be that Ricoeur wasn't necessarily interested so much in better methods for interpreting texts as he was reaching towards a larger philosophical theory of human being and human doing... and that Ricoeur only just so happened to find these two coalescing within the phenomenon of human telling.

Vanhoozer begins by explaining how Ricoeur's theory of narrative brings Immanuel Kant's problems with imagination (and time) into a more substantial and intelligible form by showing human awareness and reconfiguration of temporal existence "at work, as it were, in narrative." ... The plot, the central component of narrative, is nothing less than a creative synthesis of time, which makes a temporal whole out of an otherwise chaotic manifold of experience." At the risk of drastically oversimplifying, K.V. is basically saying that Kant struggled to explain how we represent our basic and complex conceptuatlizaions, and Ricoeur (in effect) provided the answer: mostly we do this by telling stories and histories.

Next, Vanhoozer flashes back in the story of Philosophy to Martin Heidegger's attempt to improve on Kant's work; then V. flashes forward to show how Ricoeur made further progress more effectively along the very same themes. Where Heidegger "extracts from Kant the lesson that time is the condition for our cognition of objects as well as the condition of the being of the objects we cognize", Ricoeur trumps (in Vanhoozer's words), "Of course other things exist in time, but only humans possess the capacity to perceive the connectedness of life and to seek its coherence. Moreover, only humans reckon with their past and future as well as their present."

Where Heidegger discusses selfhood and self-care, and concern for the future in terms of [mere] possibilities for continued existence, and that "possibility is prior to actuality", Ricoeur trumps (again, in Vanhoozer's words) that "human being is not open to such direct inspection" and further declares that it should be more helpful "to reach an ontology of human being by way of a 'detour' through language."

With that pivot point, evidently, Ricoeur launched himself into narrative theory, maintaining focus on what Vanhoozer introduced at the start of his review, by listing as the three cardinal aspects of narrative itself: (1) imagination, (2) time and (3) possibility.

The methodological implications of Ricoeur's narrative theory - for exegesis, for understanding historicality, for more helpfully critiquing heritage and social traditions - these now seem entirely like accidental byproducts. If Paul Ricoeur winds up teaching us how to analyze texts more carefully, or how to think about narrative history more carefully, or how to write (!?) better narratives, even... well, it appears that increasing our aptitudes in such areas was never really his goal. According to Kevin Vanhoozer, the project of Paul Ricoeur  was to understand human existence, and no less.

Three pages before his conclusion, Vanhoozer sums up Ricoeur's project in the following paragraph:
Existence must be mediated by semantics. It is Ricoeur's thesis that we only come to understand human being and human possibilities through an analysis of symbols and texts which attest to that existence. What aspect of human existence is mediated by narratives in particular? Ricoeur believes that narratives are unique in displaying existential possibilities, possibilities for human action and ways of being in or orienting oneself to time. Ricoeur sides with Heidegger in assigning priority to the possible. But contrary to Heidegger, Ricoeur claims that these possibilities are projected only by narratives. Only through stories and histories do we gain a catalogue of the humanly possible. The human condition, determined by and preoccupied with time, is made more intelligible by narrative. What is time? What is human time? Augustine's query receives no adequate theoretical answer. However, narrative offers a 'poetic' solution: intelligibility. Narrative theory thus stands at the crossroads of philosophical anthropology, which deals with the meaning of human being, and hermenutics, which deals with the meaning of texts. Ricoeur answers Kant's query: What is Man? by reading stories and histories which display the whole gamut of human possibilities.
Soak up all the philosophical brilliance, and then soak up what practical brilliance there is, in that paragraph. Read it again, if you wish, and then I will tell you my chief personal takeaway from reading this, Vanhoozer's contribution in the 1991 book, On Paul Ricoeur.

Rougly put, it is this:

No wonder Ricoeur's work has always seemed so enticing and yet so frustrating at the same time! Ricoeur's entire project is primarily deep-minded philosophy that frequently detours into practical methodology. Yes, let me repeat that. No matter how much practical benefit there may be in attending to Paul Ricoeur's narrative theory (and yes I will continue to pursue it, hopefully with greater effectiveness after this point) it is still largely just one man's attempt to play king of the mountain with the titans of history's philosophical playground. ("Not that there's anything wrong with that!")

As strong as his points may be, as helpful as all of it may yet prove to be, what helps me the very most, right now, is understanding that Ricoeur's chief aparatus and strategy was simply in being a Philosopher, above all else. (At least, that's my reconfigured presentation of his ontological temporality. Hope that's not just my own productive imagination. ;-)  )

In all seriousness, this is sooooo comforting. I cannot even tell you. With all due respect, we all know that one *can* in fact "step into the same river twice", and along those same lines there are other times when the most stringent philosophical claims are best met with a shrug if not a loud "bah". Appropriately then, from here forth, I will (sincerely!) both appreciate Ricoeur's brilliance more greatly and also take it with a very large pinch of salt.

I shall also have more fun with it, and be less concerned to "figure it out". After all, Vanhoozer just got it all figured out for me. A last reminder, from his very conclusion: 
That human possibilities are displayed in stories and histories means that Ricoeur's narrative theory stands at the crossroads of his philosophical anthropology and his textual hermenutics. Ricoeur is a philosopher of human possibility, and in this philosophical project literature holds pride of place, for it is by reading stories and histories that we learn what is humanly possible.
Brilliance upon brilliance. 

(Thanks, Kevin!!!)

June 11, 2012

The one sure date in Jesus' life:

If Joseph left Egypt when Herod died, then Jesus first entered Nazareth in 4 BC.

You can doubt it because it's too romantically Moses-themed to take seriously...
Or you can doubt it because you don't believe God sends dream-angels...
Or you can doubt it because you want to sit at the cool kids' lunch table...
Or you can simply accept it, and then start doing History based on the Gospel.

Like this:
When Herod died, Joseph rose, and started back with Mary & Jesus towards Judea. But before Joseph could reach Jerusalem for Passover, the holy family got word - most likely from pilgrims fleeing the scene - about the massacre caused by Archelaus, who was acting as King (Matthew 2:22, Ἀρχέλαος βασιλεύει), ruling just like his father Herod had ruled (Josephus' Antiquities 17.189, 194-5, 200-201, 205, 208, 215, 217, 218, 219, 230-233).
If that story is reliably true, then 4 BC is the one certain date in Jesus' entire chronology. It could also mean that Matthew 2:22 is a reliable starting point for more such work on Jesus' personal history.

Stay tuned.

June 2, 2012


The book I'm 2nd most grateful ever to have read... has been revised. (H/T BMCR)
*Hornblower, Simon, Antony Spawforth and Esther Eidinow (edd.). The Oxford classical dictionary. Fourth edition. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. lv, 1592 p. $175.00. ISBN 9780199545568.
Someone asked me recently where to get started learning the basic facts of first century history. Actually, my strongest recommendation is to start with this book...  or a used copy of its earlier edition (1996)... 


Once you have them, simply begin doing what all erstwhile scholars eventually must.

Follow the footnotes!

Other items of interest in this month's Bryn Mawr listing include:
Liebs, Detlef. Summoned to the Roman courts: famous trials from antiquity (translated by Rebecca L. R. Garber and Carole Gustely Cürten). Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 2012. viii, 274 p. $60.00. ISBN 9780520259621. 
Minchin, Elizabeth (ed.). Orality, literacy and performance in the ancient world. Orality and literacy in the ancient world, vol. 9; Mnemosyne supplements. Monographs on Greek and Latin language and literature, 335. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2012. xviii, 268 p. $148.00. ISBN 9789004217744. 
Richardson, J. S. Augustan Rome 44 BC to AD 14: the restoration of the Republic and the establishment of the Empire. The Edinburgh history of Ancient Rome. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012. xviii, 266 p. $40.00 (pb). ISBN 9780748619559.

Sigh. If I had unlimited money and time, I'd buy and read new books just like these every day. For tonight, though, it'll just be more of the same - books purchased long ago that I've not yet finished reading!

Happy reading to all...

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"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton