September 23, 2016

The Real and Represented World(s)

I've not read much Mikhail Bakhtin but a serendipitous footnote elsewhere directed me to this "odd but good" gem from The Dialogic Imagination (Russian 1938, English 1981 ; Full PDF is here.)

Bakhtin's strange academic conceit of "chronotopes" basically refers to stereotypical frameworks of plot and setting (e.g., the chronotope of 'crisis', or the chronotopes of 'mystery', 'the road', 'threshold', 'encounter', 'carnival-time', ad infinitum. Despite his overly-categorical formalism, Bakhtin's fixation on schematized story worlds leads him to helpful insights about story worlds in general. Obviously, as indicated by "chrono-", and the chapter heading "Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel", his focus here is on temporality; or, more precisely, temporal representation. Thus, he summarizes:
What is the significance of all these chronotopes? What is most obvious is their meaning for narrative. They are the organizing centers for the fundamental narrative events of the novel. The chronotope is the place where the knots of narrative are tied and united. It can be said without qualification that to them belongs the meaning that shapes narrative./ We cannot help but be strongly impressed by the representational importance of the chronotope. Time becomes, in effect, palpable and visible; the chronotope makes narrative events concrete, makes them take on flesh, causes blood to flow in their veins. An event can be communicated, it becomes information, one can give precise data on the place and time of its occurrence. But the event does not become a figure [obraz]. It is precisely the chronotope that provides the ground essential for the showing-forth, the representatability of events. . . . Thus the chronotope, functioning as the primary means for materializing time in space, emerges as a center for concretizing representation, as a force giving body to the entire novel... permitting the imaging power of art to do its work. (p. 250-1)
While Bakhtin's larger project is to combine Setting with Plot (space with time) in the "chronotope", his argument here is that audiences can engage (immerse) most fully when storytelling is based in familiar narrative territory, so to speak. In turn, one supposes effective writers would be wise to build upon or play off from Story worlds which are already familiar to their audiences. But all this is background/subtext. The present argument is focused on narrative's central need to be set in a "concretized" story world:
Thus the chronotope, functioning as the primary means for materializing time in space, emerges as a center for concretizing representation, as a force giving body to the entire novel. All the novel's abstract elements - philosophical and social generalizations, ideas, analyses of cause and effect - gravitate toward the chronotope and through it take on flesh and blood, permitting the imaging power of art to do its work. Such is the representational significance of the chronotope.
And then he FINALLY generalizes further beyond his idiosyncratic conceit:
[A]ny and every literary image is chronotopic. Language, as a treasure-house of imagaes, is fundamentally chronotopic... It was Lessing in the Lacoon who first.. established the temporal character of the literary image. Those things that are static in space cannot be statically described, but must rather be incorporated into the temporal sequence of represented events and into the story's own representational field. Thus, in Lessing's familiar example, the beauty of Helen is not so much described by Homer as it is demonstrated in the reactions of the Trojan elders.. Beauty is drawn in to a chain of represented events and yet at the same time is not the subject of static description, but rather the subject of a dynamic story.
Lo and behold, we find another 20th century master of narrative distinguishing Description vs Representation! (For related thoughts in recent posts, see also here, here, and here.)

After some qualifications about Lessing, Bakhtin concludes his main point:
The distinctiveness of those generically typical plot-generating chronotopes discussed by us above becomes clear against the background of this general (formal and material) chronotopicity of the poetic images conceived as an image of temporal art, one that represents spatially perceptible phenomena in their movement and development. Such are the specific novel-epic chronotopes that serve for the assimilation of actual temporal (including historical) reality, that permit the essential aspects of this reality to be reflected and incorporated into the artistic space of the novel. (251-2)
Indeed. Read that last paragraph three times, please.

The novel incorporates reality.

Fiction incorporates history. 

The crown jewel of Russian Formalism was its distinction between Fabula and Sjuzhet - what we in the west now call Story and Discourse, and - it just now occurs to me - perhaps the eastern mind has some advantage in keeping these concepts separate. It's difficult for a western thinker to be told, "There is no story in the text." But there isn't. There's a story, a storyteller, and an audience. A text is a discourse (sjuzhet) but a story (fabula) is something the teller has in mind from the outset, and then becomes whatever an audience retains after the telling. In that sense, a story may not be something other than the contents of its discourse, but it normally is - and always ought to be - something more.

Without question, academics should always emphasize the distinction between the real world and the represented world, but academics must also recognize the various functional aspects of delivering and receiving narration. In a really good story, your mind blends the narration together with its concepts from the real world. Whether fiction or non-fiction, this is always what happens - always! - to some degree or another.

So, to my dear friends in New Testament scholarship, I now offer two challenges:

1. We need to stop equating story with discourse.
2. We need to stop separating narrative from history.

The Gospels' first hearers could ONLY imagine the narrative story world AS the real world of their past.

We ought to try and read the Gospels like they did...

UPDATE (9-24-16): I forgot to include this quote from page 253-4, from which I took the title for this post:
[T]here is a sharp and categorical boundary line between the actual world as source of representation and the world represented in the work. We must never forget this, we must never confuse - as has been done up to now and as is still often done - the represented world with the world outside the text (naive realism)... But it is also impermissible to take this categorical boundary line as something absolute and impenetrable (which leads to an oversimplified, dogmatic splitting of hairs). However forcefully the real and the represented world resist fusion, however immutable the presence of that categorical boundary line between them, they are nevertheless indissolubly tied up with each other and find themselves in continual mutual interaction; uninterrupted exchange goes on between them, similar to the uninterrupted exchange of matter between living organisms and the environment that surrounds them. As long as the organism lives, it resists a fusion with the environment, but if it is torn out of its environment, it dies. The work and the world represented in it enter the real world and enrich it, and the real world enters the work and its world as part of the process of its creation, as well as part of its subsequent life, in a continual renewing of the work through the creative perception of listeners and readers.
One final comment: Narrative is representation, and if you deny that the Gospels "refer" to actual past events, you are no longer working with narrative proper. You've actually destroyed the environment of your story world, and you're probably mostly dissecting a discourse.

I cannot understand Narrative without Representation.

September 11, 2016

How Jesus Redefined "Kingdom"

The ancient kingdoms of Herods and Caesars were nothing at all like a mustard seed, or a pearl, or a slave who invested a few coins successfully. The kingdoms of the Selucids and the Ptolemys were nothing at all like a sower wildly scattering seeds, or a landowner who paid latecomers a day's wage, or a woman baking with yeast. Rather, the kingdoms of ancient overlords were like huge stretches of territory inhabited by supposedly free people who paid exorbitant taxes while living in annual fear from the very real threat of invasion by conquering armies. The kingdoms of earth were like an army on the march, like a mining colony of slaves, like a large scale construction project that required everyone in town to work two jobs for a number of years - and made them pay for the privlege!

The kings of the ancient world were overlords who seized things from people against whom they remained always aloof. They were domineering autocrats who could casually execute any one of their subjects, sometimes literally on a whim. The kings of the earth were nothing at all like a father embracing and forgiving his truly despicable offspring. They were nothing at all like a wealthy host who invited vagrants and beggars to an expensive party when his friends didn't show up. They were nothing at all like a small child who obediently came when called, and then sat there silently, serving as an ironic illustration of "greatness".

The word "kingdom" for Jesus was a set up, a word game, a mysterious twist. According to Jesus, God's kingdom was going to be full of children and people with one eye, full of poor people and only a very few rich guys, and possibly even scribes who were focused enough to suggest actually loving God and actually loving their neighbor. For Jesus, the kingdom was like a large banquet table that welcomed everyone but reversed all their ideas about who was important.

For Jesus, God's kingdom was not "coming soon". It was already "near". Yet, Jesus prayed that it might "come". It was not visibly in the midst of them. It was only "at hand". It was always being proclaimed, and yet only "some" would "see" it. Jesus told one man he was "not far" from the kingdom, and he told his disciples to announce it had "come near" to individual towns. He said his kingdom was not divided, and it was not of Satan, and it was not like those kingdoms Satan offered to give him. The kingdom was said to be like things that individuals could possess, move, and hide in secret places, and yet Jesus also said God would give it (collectively) to his "little flock". And having already prayed it would come near, and having said that it was near, and having said it was not far from some, and had come near to others, Jesus came to Jerusalem and predicted a volatile future and said "when you see these things happen, you will know the kingdom is near". It was near. It had come near. It was coming near. It would be near in the future.

That is one very strange kingdom.

In the fourth Gospel, Jesus stands before Pilate of Rome and makes all of this blatant. "My kingdom is not of this world." That line is not in the synoptic literature, but it still seems like the only conclusion that a reader should draw. Whatever Jesus meant by the term "kingdom", it was nothing like earthly kingdoms. Whatever Mark, Matthew, and Luke intended their audiences to understand by this term, there is no cause for scholars to excerpt *some* of those writers' dozens of uses while ignoring all of the others, as if being selective about usage in context can support the idea that Jesus intended to build a political kingdom.

When Paul wrote all about "agape" to Corinth, he was redefining the term. No Greek person had ever used such language to denote what 1.Cor.13 is suggesting. The highest form of "love" in pre-Christian Greek was the term "philia". ((Check the listings in Liddell-Scott some time. The instances and variants of that root vastly dominate those of "agape". It's not even close.)) So, in the same way, in the Gospels, Jesus is making an effort to systematically redefine how this word could be used.

In the Gospels, then, what demonstrative clues offer a hermeneutical recourse for understanding Jesus' use of the term "kingdom"?

Let's go back to Jesus' Moral Biography.

In Jesus' private life long before public ministry, his motivation (according to Matthew, implicitly) was to please God. He wanted to obey God, not just by obeying the Hebrew commandments, but by keeping a high standard in his conscience. Everything Jesus talked about paints the picture of someone who cared deeply and personally about pleasing God, doing what God liked, living the kind of life that would make God "well pleased". According to Matthew 5-7 (implicitly), Jesus wanted to possess God's kingdom, and he expected to receive it. He longed to see others live righteously before God. He lived his life focused on God at the expense of public approval and earthly rewards. Jesus gave up his own property and forgave those who wronged him. He loved his enemies because he cared most about "filling up" God's commandments. He went above and beyond in these efforts. He contented himself with little physical comfort and he despised money. He honored God devoutly, but privately. He gave money in secret. He prayed secretly. He snuck away to pray like he was every day re-burying his own pearl of great price. But most of all - Matthew says "first" of all - Jesus sought after God's kingdom and God's righteousness.

Jesus sought first God's kingdom. He obeyed God as his personal King. He desired most of all that God's name would be hallowed, and that God's kingdom would "come" (advance? grow? assert itself more often?).

Jesus said no one would enter the kingdom without having an excessive level of righteousness. He said those who enter the kingdom are those who do the will of his Father in heaven.

This is how the synoptic writers (most obviously Matthew) portrayed Jesus' idea of the kingdom. Whatever may or may not transfer - according to your own judgment - from that literary portrayal to the actual Jesus of History, or however much that portrayal may or may not be accurate, I cannot see any way to avoid one very simple conclusion at a primary level of interpretation. There is only one option I see for understanding Jesus' ideas about "kingdom" in the Gospels. There is only one way to explain it. There is only one way to define it. There is only one way to re-read it. There is only one way. There is only one...

Question: What would I myself personally be putting at risk if I actually pray what he said?

Thy kingdom come...

September 10, 2016

Truth and Change

Propositions are static. Propositional thinkers incline towards positivism because equating history with a series of statements gives the past sharp definition. What the text says is what happened. The truth is right there on the page, with no need for hypothesis or imagination.

Stories are dynamic. Words cannot delimit complex processes because developing situations and their various contingencies are difficult to describe. A set of changes is not one single entity. That's why the French Revolution is referred to as an event, instead of a fact. 

The proposition "A is Φ" can be falsified by demonstrating that Φ is not a property of A. Water is always wet. Fire is never cold. These propositions are unchanging because they do not attempt to represent complex dynamic processes (or systems) as a single conceptual whole. 

A portrait of Napoleon or a history of the Revolution can only be challenged by other portraits and histories of their subjects. Propositional thinking wants factual accuracy to stand or fall by proving isolated statements, but representations are verified by other means. You trust a local map because it compares helpfully to the physical landscape, and you trust a foreign map because it has been vouched for by others, who undertook to experience their surroundings.

Propositional truth cannot define human experiences like fixing an automobile, touring a professional kitchen, or fighting a war. Representational truth depicts these things through mimesis, at whatever reduction of scale. 

Historical thinkers cannot just affirm a discourse. They must imagine actual experiences.

Truth does not change, but reality does. 

We cannot deal with change by ignoring it.

September 9, 2016

Jesus' Moral Biography

The "sermon on the mount" isn't your to do list. It's Jesus' resume. If we mirror-read Jesus' public advice, it reflects (Matthew's claims of) Jesus' private experience. This is one place the Gospels may be read to provide biographical details about Jesus' so-called "silent years" in Nazareth. It even says so in the text. When Matthew 7.29 says Jesus "spoke with authority", that's in contrast with the hypocrites (5.20, 6.2,5,16, 7.5,29), which means the narrator's opinion (or, if you prefer, Matthew's Testimony) is that Jesus knew what he was talking about. He had already spent many years living his life in this way, before offering this advice.

Furthermore, this implicit claim is a follow up on a similar one in Matthew 3.17, which informs the reader (quite dramatically!) that God was pleased with Jesus. Ancient readers would not have accounted God's pleasure to fatherhood, in the way that modern parents sometimes say, "Of course I'm proud of you. You're my son!" No, for ancient parenthood, to express public approval was a sign that your child was doing everything in just the ways that you desired. Thus, 3.17 implies that Jesus had been living a God pleasing life, in those years prior to John's baptism. And shortly thereafter - one chapter later, when Matthew first represents Jesus' public teaching - we get a detailed illustration of exactly what pleases God.

Thus, Matthew 5-8 is the writer's implicit description of specific God-pleasing behaviors and personal attitudes which had characterized Jesus' personal life, before his public debut. These are Matthew's ideas about Jesus' background and identity, which may (or may not) also represent the historical Jesus. On one level, or both, the silent years are hereby echoed for three chapters.

What follows here is my attempt to invert some of Matthew's discourse, but hopefully moreso with logic than with pure creativity or devotional wishfulness. The idea here is to approximate some of what Matthew implied (believed? assumed? supposed?) that Jesus' own private devotional life must have been like. Eschewing literalism, and without pretending to much rigor, here is a first draft - a rough attempt - to infer some aspects of Jesus' not so "hidden" past.

You can be the judge, but remember this plays on two levels. First, you tell me how many of these things the Gospel implies are/were true of Jesus himself in the narrative story world. Second, you decide for yourself how many of these things might have been true about the historical Jesus in his life in Nazareth, before his public ministry.

Some of these lines have always been difficult to swallow. But now, instead of asking yourself "Are we really supposed to do all of these things?", try asking yourself "Did Matthew believe Jesus did all these things?" And then ask, "Do I believe Jesus really did all these things?"


Jesus' Personal Attitudes

5.3) Jesus was blessed. Jesus was poor in spirit. Jesus desired the kingdom of heaven, and expected to obtain it.
5.4) Jesus had mourned and found comfort. Specifically, Jesus had personally felt comforted as if by God.
5.5) Jesus was meek. Jesus desired and expected to someday inherit the earth.
5.6) Jesus yearned to see and feel righteousness among others. He felt unsatisfied in situations when righteousness was lacking.
5.7) Jesus was merciful. He had experienced mercy. He desired and expected to receive mercy again.
5.8) Jesus was pure in heart. Jesus had seen God, or felt he had seen God, metaphorically and/or actually; cf. 3.16.
5.9) Jesus was a peacemaker. Jesus considered himself a child of God.
5.10) Jesus had been persecuted for righteousness' sake. He had acted righteously at some personal cost. Through those experiences, he had felt/claimed a citizenship in the kingdom of heaven.
5.11) Jesus had been hated and mistreated and spoken evil of falsely. He considered it a blessing.
5.12) Jesus rejoiced in those things because he believed that he would be rewarded in heaven, and because the experience helped him to identify with Jewish prophets of old.

Jesus was Salt and Light

5.13) Jesus was the salt of the earth. He made the earth palatable to God. This quality in him was long lasting; Jesus did not lose his saltiness. God kept him and valued him for it.
5.14) Jesus was the light of the world. He was God's light in the darkness. He needed to be displayed.
5.15) Jesus did not hide his light; he had not hidden his light; his light was not hidden; it had been visible to everyone who had watched him.
5.16) Jesus had allowed his light to shine before others. People had seen his good works. Jesus believed this was evidence of God's greatness. Jesus felt his own good works were a way to glorify God in heaven. Jesus thought of God as his Father.

Jesus Upheld the Law (and then some!)

5.17) Jesus paid close attention to the Law and the Prophets. He believed he had the best interpretations about the Hebrew scriptures. He felt his own life was somehow the fulfillment of them.
5.18) Jesus was honest. Jesus revered the Law. He believed the Torah was for all time.
5.19) Jesus did not look for loopholes in scripture's commandments. Jesus followed them and taught them. Jesus believed he was a pretty awesome guy in the kingdom of heaven.
5.20) Jesus' righteousness was far above that of the scribes and Pharisees.
5.21) Jesus had never murdered anyone. (!)
5.22) Jesus kept a strict conscience about his emotions toward other people.
5.23) Jesus had cared more about interpersonal interactions than about gifts and sacrifices to God.
5.24) Jesus valued relational reconciliation, and affirmed giving gifts at the altar.
5.25) Jesus was a shrewd negotiator, and preferred to reconcile in person rather than by formal judgment.
5.26) Jesus recognized the consequences of debt and judgment.
5.27) Jesus had never committed adultery. (!)
5.28) Jesus kept a strict conscience about his behavior and intentions around women.
5.29-30) Jesus believed in strict discipline to the point of sacrifice.
5.31) Jesus acknowledged the legality of divorce.
5.32) Either Jesus had not been divorced, or he'd been married and she had been unfaithful.
5.33) Jesus had not sworn false oaths. If he had sworn anything to the Lord, he fulfilled it.
5.34-6) Jesus had not taken oaths, neither by heaven, nor earth, nor Jerusalem. Jesus believed Jerusalem was God's special city.
5.37) Jesus had answered people with a simple 'Yes' or 'No'.
5.38) Jesus recognized the legality of fair punishment.
5.39) Jesus had offered no resistance on occasions when someone had wronged him.
5.40) Jesus had given his personal property to those who demanded it (his kinfolk, perhaps?), and he gave them even more than they wanted.
5.41) Jesus had been commanded to walk a mile by someone powerful, and he walked two miles.
5.42) Jesus gave to beggars. Jesus loaned out money and items, when he was asked.

Jesus Practiced Righteousness

5.43) When Jesus had neighbors, he loved them. When Jesus had enemies, he hated them.
5.44) Jesus (also) loved his enemies. When people persecuted Jesus, he prayed for them.
5.45) Jesus felt this was a way to make God proud, for which he did not expect any special reward.
5.46) Jesus loved everyone, not just those who loved him. Jesus did not love like a tax collector.
5.47) Jesus was kind to everyone, not just his own kinfolk. Jesus did not live like the gentiles.
5.48) The only ones who had (so far) lived up to this standard were Jesus and God.
6.1) Jesus acted rightly whether or not people were watching. He was only motivated to please God.
6.2) Jesus gave to people in need, and he often did so very quietly. He believed his reward was in heaven.
6.3-4) Jesus was sneaky about giving, and preferred to give secretly. He always felt like God was watching.
6.5) Jesus prayed. He asked God for things. He did not call attention to those requests.
6.6) Jesus would often go into a room, shut the door, and pray to God in secret. And his prayers were answered.
6.7) Jesus did not use lots of words when he prayed. When he asked God for things, he got to the point.
6.8) Jesus believed God was paying attention to his daily needs.
6.9) Jesus had prayed prayers "like this" often. Jesus revered God. Jesus wanted God's name to be sacred.
6.10) Jesus wanted God's kingdom on earth. Jesus wanted God to rule on earth.
6.11) Jesus was hungry every day, and satisfied with daily bread. Jesus asked God for basic provisions.
6.12) Jesus felt a great debt to God. He felt he could not pay God as much as God deserved to receive. Also, Jesus had loaned money or items to people and had them fail to repay him, and Jesus forgave them.
6.13) Jesus felt temptation. He knew God would sometimes test him (Mt. 4:1). Jesus asked for less testing. Jesus desired to be spared from encountering evil.
6.14-15) Jesus had forgiven people when they'd wronged him. Jesus felt that God was forgiving toward him.
6.16-18) Jesus would sometimes go without eating, but he didn't tell anybody. To hide his own hunger and fatigue, Jesus would put oil on his head and wash his face, so that people would not notice. Jesus did these things to please his father, who was always watching from heaven.
6.19-20) Jesus was poor. Jesus did not store up treasure. Jesus focused on storing up treasure in heaven.
6.21) Jesus fixed his heart on pleasing God.
6.22-23) Jesus had a healthy way of looking at things, and he felt filled up by God's perspective.
6.24) Jesus served God and he despised money. He loved God and he hated money.
6.25) Jesus was not anxious about earning his living, or about physical needs. He ate and drank, he clothed himself and maintained his basic health, but he felt that his physical life in the body was worth only so much.
6.26-32) Jesus believed his daily food was provided by God. Jesus thought worrying about needs was like trying to grow taller. Jesus didn't try to impress people with his appearance. He trusted God to provide.
6.33) Jesus' first priority was always to treat God as king, and to please God by behaving correctly. He knew God would take care of the rest.
6.34) Jesus dealt with various problems on a daily basis. Jesus took life one day at a time.
7.1) Jesus did not judge others. Jesus did not want others to judge him.
7.2) Jesus was kind to people. Jesus believed God had been (and would continue to be) kind to him.
7.3-4) Jesus took pains to consider his own conscience before criticizing someone else.
7.5) Jesus had scrutinized his own behavior and attitudes so stringently that it made him able to see clearly when examining others.
7.6) Jesus often refrained from advising others on holiness, because he didn't want them to scorn truth.
7.7-11) Jesus prayed successfully for what he wanted. He sought after the kingdom of God and he found it. Jesus asked God for opportunities and they arose. Jesus asked God for good things, like fish and bread.
7.12) Jesus himself had treated other people the way he wished others would treat him. Jesus had spent a lifetime reflecting on the Law and the Prophets.

Jesus Lived the Right Way

7.13) Jesus had lived his whole life on a narrow path, watching many other people live destructively.
7.14) Jesus had difficulty on his path, and he found few others along that path (if any), but he felt it was the only way to live.
7.15) Jesus was a true prophet. His insides matched his appearance.
7.16-20) Jesus was known to be healthy and fruitful. People recognized that about his life.
7.21) Jesus didn't just talk about serving God. Jesus truly lived to do the will of God on earth.
7.22-3) Jesus saw himself as Lord of God's people. Jesus was wary of great speeches and exorcisms and other mighty works. Jesus despised phony righteousness. He wanted to know and to see people truly give their lives to doing God's Law.
7.24,26) Jesus heard God's words and did them. Jesus was wise. This was his foundation in life.
7.25,27) Jesus had suffered through troubles and hardships but his lifestyle stayed steadily in place.
7.28-29) When Jesus spoke, people trusted him. Jesus spoke from experience, and people could somehow tell that he knew what he was talking about. Jesus stood out as being different from the scribes.


It's hard to avoid closing with "Go and do likewise" but we've heard that often enough.

I think Matthew had a very high opinion of Jesus' personal lifestyle, and I think Matthew implicitly testifies here that Jesus had been living by these standards for a very long time. If I'm right about that - and if Matthew was even half right about Jesus - then the "silent years" are hereby echoed in Mt.5-7. The "hidden years" are evidently made known by their fruit.

Jesus' past life in Nazareth is reflected in the content of his Galilean teaching.

That is, assuming you can believe it...
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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