July 24, 2016

Unbelievable Odds

Miracles aren't "improbable"; they're either fraudulent or divine. Reports of miracles tend to be dubious, so doubting supernatural reports is entirely understandable. What I do not understand, however, is blaming that doubt on "probability". That's a category mistake, and an insult to mathematicians.

To call something improbable, one should refer to an unlikely but natural phenomenon.

To illustrate, here's a news story just released last week in Colorado. Back in January, when a deputy fired on an armed robbery suspect, the officer's bullet flew right up the other gun's barrel, unaccountably jamming it. The incredible odds of this happening - of one fired bullet entering into another gun's muzzle at precisely the right angle and then lodging itself safely at the far end of the barrel, effectively jamming the chamber - the odds of that were suggested to be one in a billion.


Photo Credit: Associated Press

That's not a professional statistician's estimate, but let's run with it anyway. Statistically, odds of 1-1,000,000,000 would mean if you tried this one billion times then it might happen once. But that same math tells us - no matter how many bullets have been flying around in America recently - that the odds of this bullet doing what it did were still a billion to one. Despite that, evidently, the absurdly improbable is exactly what happened, at least just this once.

In sharing this today, my purpose is NOT to defend the likelihood of the improbable. That would be silly. By definition, the improbable is improbable! Yes, you should naturally be skeptical about this story. Yes, you should want to follow that link above, or (after link rot sets in) Google the phrase "One of Marquez's bullets struck the suspect's pistol" in order to scan a few of the (currently) 821+ pages that have already quoted from the AP's news wire. This kind of story is extremely unlikely to be true, but this particular story is inexplicably true. The odds are literally unbelievable, except for the evidence. However, if we lacked access to that evidence, and on that basis concluded that this story was false, we would be sadly wrong.

And this brings me to my point.


In future years, if the evidence disappears, there will still remain one last clue to suggest the veracity of this amazing report, and that is the fact that somebody was willing to actually report it. Yes, there are plenty of liars in this world, but liars good enough to avoid getting caught do not often stake their claims to these kinds of plausibility stretching reports. However, the extremely improbable occurrence is extremely remarkable. We should try to keep that in mind when investigating written reports of incredible things that may or may not have occurred, especially when reading ancient historical texts. What is highly unlikely to happen is highly likely to generate memorable storytelling, assuming it somehow does happen.

Note 1: As for God causing miracles, that should and must be left up to faith. Either believe the claim or find some other way to explain it. What I most strongly recommend is that you do NOT simply dismiss it. As I said, miracles aren't "improbable"; they're either fraudulent or divine. It's ideally advisable that we should dismiss neither God nor fraud.

Note 2: A related but separate issue is how to assess historical reconstructions which may themselves seem unlikely. One key question is how strongly the reconstruction relates to some data requiring explanation, and whether the "improbable" explanation is demonstrably more or less improbable than any alternative explanations. But like I said, that's a different blog post.


Today's central point is that we should think twice before dismissing "improbable" reports. 

To be proper historians, we should normally say things like, "If Augustus did order a census in Herod's kingdom, then . . . or perhaps. . .  but if there was not such a census then we need some other way to explain why Luke says..." and so on. What we should not do is say, "Well that seems extremely unlikely, so let's dismiss it."

Doing history absolutely requires judgment and skepticism.

But it lives and dies with imagination...

July 15, 2016

Description vs Representation

I usually prefer to think of narrative as narration, which is to say, a representation of temporality, as a stream of consciousness ('focalization') fixed upon some perceived sequence of dynamic change(s). Defining "narrative" leads many scholars to emphasize other aspects of discourse, such as talking, telling, purporting, claiming, fabricating, and always (some suspect) out-and-out lying. Sadly, that kind of emphasis is all too well justified in our world. But whether any particular discourse might be true or false, the act of narration (i.e. storytelling) requires a dynamic focus (what a wonderful paradox!). A focalization on dynamics is the heart of both history and fiction, and the essence of (what we mean in narrative theory and in philosophy of history when we use the term) representation.

In contrast, today, I give you description. Whether simple or complex, spartan or flowery, inspired or insipid, the use of description in any verbal discourse tends to freeze time, pausing the flow of story-time though not halting the narrator's stream of consciousness telling. Note that this "telling" is not to be termed "storytelling", because we have paused in the story. Also, this "description" is obviously one way to "represent" people and objects in the world (in the story-world), but we do not refer to this as "representation". This is a good and a necessary jargon. Like "sign" vs "symbol" or "culture" vs "civilization", there developed a differentiated usage of two terms that had once been more similar. So, for narrative theorists, description is one thing and representation another, and that's the way it should be. If you "represent" aspects of a story-world without temporality, that's description; it's not actually representation.

As you might suppose, I do have a point to make here about New Testament studies.

Before I do that, however, don't take my word for my premise above. Here's a brilliant excerpt from Mieke Bal's classic Narratology (3rd edition) that treats the issue more fully:
Although descriptive passages would appear to be of marginal importance in narrative texts, they are, in fact, both practically and logically necessary. Practically, they help the imagined world of the fabula become visible and concrete. Logically, fabula elements need to be described so that their functions make sense. Narratology, therefore, must take these segments of the text into account.
[Example A] "Bob Assingham was distinguished altogether by a leanness of person, a leanness quite distinct from physical laxity, which might have been determined, on the part of superior powers, by views of transport and accommodation, and which in fact verged on the abnormal." - Henry James, The Golden Bowl 
This excerpt is clearly a description. Mostly, things are less straightforward. Just try to define what a description is. Is the following fragment, which not only describes objects and people but also accounts for the passage of a certain stretch of time, descriptive? 
[Example B] "Presently he told her the motion of the boat upon the stream was lulling him to rest. How green the banks were now, how bright the flowers growing on them, and how tall the rushes! Now the boat was out at sea, but gliding smoothly on. And now there was a shore before him." - Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son 
This passage is a description, for it ascribes features to objects: the the banks are green, the flowers are bright, the bushes tall. I will, therefore, define a description as a textual fragment in which features are attributed to objects. This aspect of attribution is the descriptive function. We consider a fragment as descriptive when this function is dominant. Thus, example [A] is predominantly descriptive, while [B] is a mixture of description and narration. 
Within the realistic tradition, description has always been considered problematic. In the Republic, Plato tried to rewrite fragments of Homer so that they would be 'truly' narrative. The first elements to be discarded were the descriptions. Even Homer himself attempted to avoid, or at least to disguise, descriptions by making them narrative. Achilles' shield is described as it is in the process of being made, Agamemnon's armour as he puts it on. In the nineteenth-century realistic novel, descriptions were at least narratively motivated if they were not made narrative. And despite its efforts to avoid representation, the nouveau roman [a type of French novel] has continued to follow this tradition. [kindle loc. 916ff.]

Notice how Bal properly denotes narrative as the representation of temporality, and that her illustrations are perfect. Dickens' word choice is exquisite: 'motion', 'stream', 'lulling', 'to rest' (implying a projected future status), 'now', 'growing', 'Now', 'gliding on', 'now', 'before'. It's vividly picturesque, but it's also fluidly dynamic. In contrast, James' words have a more concrete permanence, a fixed (not to say static) quality. 'Bob Assingham' is a particular name, a unique and unchanging descriptor, as are 'leanness' and 'physical laxity'; similarly, 'distinguished', 'distinct', 'determined', 'superior', 'abnormal', are each timeless abstractions. We may find Henry James here too oblique and archaic, but we can tell he's describing something about what this person is like qualitatively, in general and always.

In short: Description is static. Representation is dynamic. And so now onward, finally, to the point.

In studies of the "Historical Jesus", traditionally, the focus has been on description. You know, how they all say that Jesus was this or that kind of a person: a teacher, a healer, a carpenter, a miracle worker, a peasant, a sage, a rabbi, a Jew, or a prophet. In fairness, I must say Albert Schweitzer put forward a somewhat dynamic description (perhaps half-way toward representation of a dynamic being) when he emphasized Jesus' apocalyptic outlook, but my point here has less to do with Schweitzer's view of the outlook and more to do with the fact that it was an outlook. He said Jesus projected a view of his own future. That's not in itself action or development, but it absolutely reflects an important aspect of human temporality.

A kind word here goes here to Anthony Le Donne, whose Historiographical Jesus may have, at least hypothetically, planned a big Palm Sunday entrance before proceeding to act out that plan. Likewise, when Chris Keith investigates the conflict between Jesus and the Scribal Elite, he examines the development of that conflict from its inception, rather than (as so many others had done) simply to label that conflict monolithically as a (or 'the') cause of Jesus' death. For another example, one of my personal favorites is Crossan's insight that Jesus learned something after John the Baptist's demise. That's ongoing change, growth, development.

There are probably many other small bits like that last one - I have a tall stack to read through and too little time. You are warmly invited to educate me in the comments below. But the white whale of our hunt would be a whole book that treats Jesus dynamically (without lurching into invention). I'll give you all of my gobstoppers for such a citation...

Incidentally, I find it curious that Mieke Bal is so obviously at pains to defend the importance of description, in the context of fiction's (okay, narrative theory's) traditional emphasis on narration. That seems like the opposite tendency compared with scholarship on the Historical Jesus. But instead of my usual question (why isn't there more awareness of temporality here), I'm going to come at this from the opposite angle.

What is it about static descriptions of Jesus that has made biblical scholars consider them fair game as historical data for reconstruction? And - different question - why is it that scholars' "representations" of Jesus have typically been so fixated on aspects of description?

Please let me know, or prove me wrong if you can.

I will be eagerly watching this space...

UPDATE (7-16-16):  It's timely that I was reading some Ankersmit today (chp 4 of Meaning, Truth, and Reference in Historical Representation) who observes that description offers propositional truth whereas representation offers a different kind of truth, but obviously one that does not lend itself toward the forming of propositional statements. So perhaps, I suppose, that might explain a great deal...

July 3, 2016

Bauckham's Elephant

If you have access, or the next time SagePub gives you a free month, you should look up a 2013 article by Richard Bauckham in Theology 116(6), 427-434: "Are we still missing the elephant? C. S. Lewis's 'Fernseed and Elephants' half a century on". The title refers to a 1959 critique of New Testament scholarship in which Dr. Lewis complained of his Biblical Studies colleagues, "These men ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves. They claim to see fern-seed and can't see an elephant ten yards way in broad daylight."

As Bauckham notes several times, some of Lewis' critiques have held up better than others, but I love that the Literature prof did self-identify as an "educated outsider" on these matters, and I appreciate Bauckham's observation that it has become much harder to be as well informed these days. Indeed, it's virtually impossible to keep up, even for the professionals. For these and other reasons, it's interesting to read Lewis' piece and compare Bauckham's meta-critique. As I said, catch it when you can. It's tremendous and a quick read to boot.

My purpose today is primarily to quote the following gems from Bauckham's closing paragraphs in this "Elephant" article. Enjoy.

Historical speculation is not necessarily a bad thing. It can stimulate enquiry. The reason it has so often led Gospels scholars astray is that they are not in the habit of distinguishing their more probable conclusions from their more speculative flights of fancy. 
Amen and amen. Christendom, also, is in dire need to learn about disciplining our imaginations. Incidentally, this reminds me of Jonathan Bernier's blog post on Einstein & Lonergan the other day. The upshot there: Proper historical thinking is a learned skill one must develop.

Before we quit, here is one more gem from Bauckham:
Gospels scholars need to learn historical method, not within the claustrophobic confines of the dominant tradition of Gospels scholarship but amid the broad horizons of ordinary historical scholarship.

Please note that Bauckham said "need to" on that last point. I have not gone so far. But I will certainly agree that IFF any Jesus scholar would attempt to become a historian, it does indeed seem necessary they should seek to learn about "doing history" primarily by reading the works of historians who have nothing to do with Jesus scholarship. Indeed, those who have already done so, have done so. To believe otherwise, at this point, does seem like a fairly large elephant to continue overlooking.

Anon...
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