May 31, 2013

Jesus in the desert, with or without pesky Devil talk

Those who handle the Gospels most intelligently are too eager to dismiss their basic historical aspects, and those who handle the Gospels most reverently are completely unwilling to reconstruct historically upon it's "reliable" evidence. As for me, I no longer desire to handle the material uncritically, but I still fail to understand why "critical analysis" seems to require the associative dismissal of so many incidental fact claims. For example, in my work on Matt.2 I've said dismissing the Egypt sojourn doesn't mean Joseph didn't flee from Archelaus. Or perhaps Joseph dreamed "Galilee" and then blamed God for that dream. At any rate, we deserve more nuanced acceptance from our skeptics. And that leads us to this...

The closest I've found to a middle ground is the new memory scholars - recent work by Dale Allison, Chris Keith and Anthony LeDonne. In particular, Allison's 2009 book charts a brilliant course to trusting the spirit of an episode above and beyond the letter of the text which is telling the tale. Allison himself cannot, for example, accept as factual the fantastical accounts of Jesus and Satan actually having conversation in the desert. And yet, quite admirably, the gentleman does not let that judgment erase all historical value from the Gospel story. In his own words:
this legend is steeped in memories of Jesus. Was Jesus not a miracle worker, as our story presupposes? Did he not refuse to give authenticating signs, just as he does here? Did he not think of himself as leading a victorious battle against the forces of darkness, for which Matthew 4 and Luke 4 stand as fitting illustration? Did he not have great faith in God, a fact that the dialogue between Jesus and the devil presupposes and expounds? The temptation narrative may not be history as it really was, yet it is full of memory. My judgment is that, taken as a whole, its artistic originator has managed to leave us with a pretty fair impression of Jesus, even if the episode does not contain one word that Jesus spoke or narrate one thing that he did."
To my knowledge this was groundbreaking work in 2009, and I like it even more today than I did then. Furthermore, I must admit I have swelling respect and increasing sympathy for the reasons Dale gives for seeing the story as "haggadic fiction", a la the tradition of similar rabbinical writings. For more on this view, see Chapter 1, p.25, of The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus. But, I do have a "but".

Personally, I remain skeptical about our human powers of skepticism. I mean that sincerely and straightforwardly. In the same way I enjoy Allison's effort to find truth in this "fiction", I would seek to find more. As much as I applaud Allison's finding memory consistent in these general impressions, I wonder why the story chose to be so specific in the details. In short: If I consider the temptation conversation as a metaphor, must I also dismiss the time, place and details of its setting?

Apart from their incredible mysticism, the temptation narratives purport that Jesus celebrated his baptism with a period of self-denial and solitude. Indeed the details are heavily typological (40 days, desert wandering, temptation by hunger/idolatry) but instead of "prophecy historicized" it strikes me more realistically as "history scripturalized" (borrowing Mark Goodacre's turn of phrase, contra Dominic Crossan).

In other words, the most likely way to explain this story - with or without accepting the fantastical elements - is to suppose that Jesus really went into the desert after his encounter with John, that he likely wandered and fasted, that he likely battled hunger while wrestling with deeply personal concerns. Would people accept his intended message, and/or his special position, if he offered no signs to prove his authority? Would he be offered a measure of political power as a salve, or would he feel bitter through subtle desire for that ultimate earthly power, for that which his dynamic spearheading of "God's Kingdom" naturally suggested he should have full right to claim?

From another perspective, I must add that if this story were pure haggadahic fiction then we might have expected much more from the writer! I mean, there are certainly parallels, but it's hardly a full parallel of Israel's desert wanderings: Jesus' 40 days was for testing, but Israel's 40 years were punishment. Moreover, where is Sinai? Where is God's further instruction? Where are the commandments? Where is the Tabernacle or the daily provision? Is it a parallel that Israel received bread daily, when Jesus fasted? And - perhaps not least - where is Satan in Exodus? But again, none of this is to say the writer did not attempt parallel. This is merely to say "prophecy historicized" could have done much more with the material... which is why "history scripturalized" seems more convincing to me.

So what to conclude? Is there incidental history in the Jesus-wilderness narrative? We must grant that some things simply must remain indeterminable. At the end of the day, we are all free to believe or to disbelieve whether or not Jesus fought off temptations of Satan "in person", if at all. However, although that question may not require black or white answers - as I discussed imaginatively years ago - it is indeed the side question for me. At least, such considerations are far beside today's point.

Satan or no Satan, whether in person or as metaphor, whether present or merely imagined-in later... regardless... there is much about the story in Matt.4 & Luke 4 that bespeaks to a particular time in Jesus' personal development.

In addition to Dale Allison's wonderful observations - how significantly it reinforces our general knowledge about Jesus' received public identity - my own modest suggestion is that remembrance can be chronologically specific. In terms of memory, we might say the "legend" of Jesus' temptations grew up in the way that it did for reasons we cannot fully surmise, but that legend attracted to itself some specific details that happen to fit best into one particular time of Jesus' life. That's worth further consideration.

My overall point, as usual, is NOT the evangelically-popular "therefore we really can trust the Gospels"! No. Bleeecch. *shudder* Of course we can trust the Gospels. I mean... Or not.

The way I feel about evangelical positivism is the same way Dale Allison felt about the Jesus' Seminar voting black on Jesus' temptation narratives. This is not where we quit. This is where we begin.

My larger hope, as always, is that scholarship will someday include more four-dimensionally reconstructive work that is more particularly based on the Gospel material we do have... and perhaps that doing such work might soon be possible without quite so much apologizing to our various constituencies, with their shades of belief and/or skepticism.

Anon, then...

May 14, 2013

God vs Irony

If context is king, then irony is queen. Sometimes you can't tell which one wields more authority. Sometimes she likes it that way. Then again, the linguistic nature of irony's supremacy proves that "man" being the measure of all things is ultimately an illusion. Every author eventually loses authority. Every ironist is immediately subject to irony. But if there is a God then our ignorance is trumped by God's knowledge. Or would be... if we could know what God knows.

The authoritative grand narratives of past ages have given way because we are too knowing, and too meta-knowing. Yet, I believe we are also too self-confident in our ability to see through human deception. Consider the paradox of models - that a simplified explanation becomes more inaccurate as it becomes more comprehensible. This hints at an ultimate paradox for all language and explanation, including all literature, science and history. We do not really know quite as much as our explanations imply and we cannot really say quite as much as we [think that we] know.

If we cannot explain it, then how do we know (that we know) it?

We do not. We cannot. That is why all our talk is dependent on recognizing authority and that is why authorities are evidently made manifest by the recognized power of their words. We are gods to ourselves, or we'd like to be. Or, at least, we'd like to convince others to think so, for a while.

But what of God? What of God's authority? What of God's words?

If human words cannot fully express human knowledge, how can God's words - in human language - ever hope to express God's knowledge? How could God ever have put his hope into words?

Consider the irony of the 2nd (3rd) commandment: no graven images. Technically, the alphabetic Hebrew characters carved in stone were icons, which are images. Visibly, words are images. Obviously, this technicality does not mitigate the force and intention of the commandment. Images lead to idolatry. Words, also, can lead to idolatry. The Bible has become idolatrous to some. So also, in some places, depictions of the Ten Commandments have been set up as shrines, as graven images, as idols.

Nevertheless, we believe, God handed down this commandment.

The fact that God's own words are so hopelessly susceptible to ironic redefinition (to say nothing of simple misunderstanding) suggests that (1) God's words must not be held too literalistically, lest the partial implication obscure the whole understanding, and (2) a God who is greater than our human language must of necessity fail to communicate with humans. And yet, we believe, God attempts to communicate anyway.

It is up to us to make sense of God's words, and yet it cannot not be up to us. But a God who is greater than language must know this. If he communicates to us via human words, he must do so secure in the knowledge that he *will* express himself incompletely, and that humans *will* understand him imperfectly.

The church as incarnation is ironic because we cannot really know which humans might be speaking for God. The scripture is ironic because it's treated as the last word but we cannot avoid further interpreting it's words. The christian life is ironic because we speak about following God, and yet which of us actually hears him?

Is, perhaps, God himself being ironic? What he says, we must presume, he means straightforwardly. That is, if he still speaks. But does he? Does God present his thoughts to us - in words so much infinitely less than all that God's thoughts might possibly mean - straightforwardly? Does God speak words that he intends us to accept plainly, that he expects us to understand perfectly?

Perhaps he does. Perhaps God has said it all perfectly and now therefore maybe God feels that it has all been said. On the other hand, what if God himself is not yet sure what else God wants to say? Interpreters of scripture disagree about whether God knows (or doesn't know) everything about what's going to happen next. Maybe God is or is not maintaining complete operative control over everything going on around here.

The grand narrative of Calvinism has absolutely served calvinist authoritarians very well, but it may or may not have served God's own agenda. What does God think of Calvin's grand narrative? Oh, how grateful God must have been when one among us was finally bright enough to have re-explained God. And how upset God must therefore equally be when all the rest of us fail to re-explain him with as much accuracy. On the other hand, if our redefinitions of God are so weak, then perhaps even our best explanation is not much more greatly pleasing to God than our worst explanation. Do our explanations, then, work to please only ourselves? (This one may. Yours, I decline to judge. Maybe.)

We continue to re-explain God. Has God ever explained God's own self?

If God's greatest self-explanation is not with words, then perhaps that is why God does not seem to have any active provision at work for counteracting our recontextualizations and redefinitions and our re-explanations. We go on, battling among ourselves. As we say more and more, God seems to say less and less.

But despite all that, I must suppose he does intend to outlast us. If so, that means the ultimate irony is not yet, but will come. The ultimate redefinition of meaning awaits time's own end. The ultimate subjective opinion, will be God's own viewpoint. The ultimate interpretation will be reality's own denoument.

The authoritative, limitless, uniform and final account of reality - words and deeds - can only be accounted for by whatever story God tells Godself.

The Bible may be God's words, or human words, or both. In any case, our perceptions of God's meaning is limited. Our narrative accounts of God's own story are necessarily limited. If the Bible itself presents a tragic-ironic view of our own limited self-awareness, and limited God-awareness, the Bible therefore succeeds most of all at expressing God's greatness, in contrast to all of our lack.

I suspect the truth is that God does not write human words any more than he paints human pictures or plays human music. I suspect the truth is as simple as what I will now try, but surely somehow fail, to illustrate:

God expresses himself in Christ.
God portrays himself by making images of Christ.
God communicates his thought by the Word, Christ.
God is moved to move within our world by incarnating himself, again and again.
God expresses himself as Christ, in the Body of Christ.
(And, occasionally, we attempt to write words about it.)

The mystery, of course, is whether or not this great limtlessness of God can ever be known or expressed through such very limited human forms. My guess is, yes. I suppose that it can. I suppose - and I can only believe - that Divine fundamentals remain active despite the human condition, despite our deeply ironic "fall".

The hope of God is nothing other than Christ being expressed in a gaggle of christians.

This cannot be, and yet somehow it is. This cannot work, and yet sometimes it does. All is not right, and yet it's somehow alright. The church is dead or dying in each place that we look. And yet we hear stories of God's love and life blooming again and again.

What is more ironic than life out of death? What more can God express but that God is not human?

Apparently, God's chief strategy is simply biding his time. God expresses Godself when God desires to do so. The ironic fall in literature is ultimately that whatever we say or do is so much infinitely less than whatever we are and might do. What I'm proposing is that, if this is true about persons, so all the more is this true about God.

God does not merely get the last word. God gets the last everything.

Of the making of many books there is no end. There will always be more to say. Commentary begets commentary. But God begat Christ.

What we say and what we believe and what we author... in words... cannot be Christ. Because words are not Christ. Words can never amount to the sharing of Christ. Only Jesus is Christ. Jesus' Body is Christ. God IN us, that may be Christ.

And where is Christ? Who is Christ? What is Christ saying? We may all try to say, but God will not speak to settle our arguments. We may all claim that we know, but only God silently knows. We may all try to judge, but only God is the judge. If God has given us that which might settle these issues, God does not seem to have done so using words.

So, then. After all that, what else can *I* say? What on Earth can *I* write? What words that are mere words can be helpful for building up anyone as part of what God is doing now, on Earth, in Christ?

I am not sure. But for now, I suppose, that's okay...

Maybe God knows. Maybe we'll find out someday.

Anon then...
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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