April 22, 2019

Progress & Frustration

Hello, faithful readers. This month's post is just a quick story and an old joke, with brief reflections on both.

My Athenian tour guide, Costas Tsevas, told me (in 2001) that he'd come across a greek word somewhere in Aristotle which meant "I organize a vote by the raising of hands." Furthermore, Costas claimed, this was the same word used in Acts when Paul and Barnabas appoint elders in Galatia. As a house church advocate, and vigorously so at that time, I became very excited upon hearing this story but I didn't quite know what to do next. Did Costas try to verify his own reading? Did he investigate further? Was he planning to write or publish somehow? His friendly and amused reply was no, no, and no. Still delighted but slightly exasperated, I exclaimed, "If you're right, then this is a big deal. Why didn't you tell somebody?" Costas answered, laughing, "Nobody asked!"

This memory comes to mind at times whenever I feel down about the colossal indifference I have often received from various New Testament scholars. In particular, the struggle to work on my Master's thesis brings this story to mind. Why am I torturing myself to climb up to this level? Why couldn't I have been humble, content, and bemused like Costas? I've had some inquiries and some encouragement in recent years, but way back when I started engaging with bibliobloggers (in 2008), it was utterly true that nobody had asked. Still, I persist. But there are times I doubt that I should.

The second story is an old joke I enjoy. Three people were staying at a hotel one night--a sales executive, an engineer, and a mathematician--when each one woke up to discover their garbage can was on fire. In their own rooms, they each had a different experience: (1) The sales exec woke up, saw the fire, panicked, threw the empty ice bucket at the fire, filled it and threw it again a few times, eventually put out the fire by making a large sloppy mess, decided that's what housekeeping is for, and then went back to sleep. (2) The engineer woke up, saw the fire, jumped up smartly, sat down with a pencil and paper, calculated the exact amount of water needed to put out the fire, took the ice bucket to the sink, carefully measured the exact level of water, calmly poured the water, put out the fire, made no mess, and then went back to sleep. (3) The mathematician woke up, saw the fire, jumped up smartly, sat down with a pencil and paper, calculated the exact amount of water needed to put out the fire, and THEN, having determined that a solution DID exist, the mathematician promptly went back to sleep.

This joke comes to mind because I can be like the mathematician. There have been many points on this journey where I realized how much of my quest was being driven by my own curiosity. I have cut long passages from my drafts which illustrate little more than my own need to work through those ideas, remembering the scholar who said chunks of our work can be nothing but personal therapy. Vonnegut's "Tiger got to hunt" comes to mind also. I always knew this long-term quest of mine was at least partly driven by personal need, but I am surprised at how much I am struggling to follow through with all this formal writing now that I, myself, am pretty well satisfied that I understand what is actually going on. Having determined that a solution DOES exist, a part of me would like to get back to what I had been doing previously.

Here's a third story. This one is most personal.

A third reason I may be struggling is American politics. I remain shell-shocked by the 81% of 11/9/16. Although I was only evangelical for half of my college years, the house church movement I joined was largely in reaction to evangelical church problems, and it was our shared desire to influence those devout bible readers (to introduce them to vigorous levels of historical context in reading the New Testament) which sparked and fueled my chronological projects in the first place. I have always admired people who are willing to believe whatever christian scripture says, and it's fair to say my chief critique was (and still is) that believers should read scripture more intelligently. BUT I MUST SAY the scandalous support for our current POTUS has brought home to me just how deeply and profoundly the authoritarian movement is anti-intellectual by design. By design. By design.

There seems to be little point in presenting contextual arguments about how to read scripture with any groups of people whose leaders are SO HEAVILY predetermined to enforce dogma with whatever justifications are convenient. Okay, it's not like that whole concept was a revelation. Obviously, I'd seen that lots of times before 2016. What has shaken me so deeply is the extremity of justification, the intensity of blindness, the sheer willfulness of the ignorance. Most shocking perhaps was the number of my fellow former Edwardians who have fallen for POTUS45's authoritarian baloney. One of many things that drew me to Gene Edwards was the intelligence of his analysis. I am deeply disappointed to realize how many of our brethren were (evidently) drawn to his style of confident declaration (which I saw as an allowable defect, until my history project grew serious enough to make dogma unnecessary). My only other sad complaint about the old gang is our high divorce rate; the all-in ecclesial experiment was rough on family life, but I never dreamed so many couples would go bust. I still love the old man and I'll still defend him on many points to this day because most of those who complain about Gene have profoundly misunderstood him. Still, the crowd one draws is revealing. Apparently, our movement was more authoritarian than I ever supposed. Oh well, nobody's perfect.

Enough digression. Here is the one point of all these three stories.

These days, I struggle to continue believing that contextual reading of scripture will ever make much of an impact on the way Christians approach God and do church. Maybe it will for a few. Maybe it was never going to for most. The most I can muster, some days, is a stubborn hope that persisting in my past belief is a worthy endeavor. Maybe I'm just in a down swing. Maybe the long term results will prove that my earliest hopes were well founded. Maybe so. I hope so. I just don't feel it that much anymore.

Deep down, I still care just as much. I'm just not sure whether I'm doing anyone any good.

In this regard, it may be fortunate that I shifted gears, around 2009, in deciding my primary mission field would be communicating with NT scholars, rather than devout bible readers. None of them asked, but I do know that I have seen a problem and I do know that I have found a solution. Therefore, I believe I will most likely persist in trying to upgrade and publish my work, out of sheer stubbornness if not passion or duty. 

Hopefully, a future time is coming when more people will care.

If I can get through this bear of a thesis, I may return to caring more myself.

Good Lord, Academia is difficult.

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