Being a friend of Jesus involves far more than how you feel about him personally.
October 4, 2020
Being a friend of Jesus involves far more than how you feel about him personally.
September 13, 2020
Authentication as Literary Technique
Long time readers know I abhor defensive positions about the so-called "reliability" of the Gospels. Although my preference is always to believe in the holy scriptures of my christian tradition, my curiosity as a historian means that any affirmation of Jesus material should not be our academic conclusion but a place from which to begin doing history. To my faith, I try to add logic. I do not sully my faith by defending it with logic, as if logic were greater than faith. Just like every argument in Geometry begins with a "given," so Christians who generate scholarship should aspire to do likewise.
For these deeply personal reasons, I was delighted today to read Susanne Luther's brand new JSNT article, "The Authentication of the Past: Narrative Representations of History in the Gospel of John." Because I was initially misled by my own ingrained reactions to key words like authenticity and referentiality, I encourage you to stay sharp while perusing this abstract:
Narrative historiography in John’s gospel operates with a number of literary strategies, such as historical referentiality and eyewitness testimony, which serve to authenticate the narrative and to inscribe the (hi)story of Jesus into ancient history. At the same time, these authentication strategies are counteracted or ‘ruptured’ (for example, by strategies of ﬁctional literature), which situate John’s narrative of this-worldly history within a symbolic, metahistorical framework; yet these strategies are not to be perceived as detrimental to the reception of the text as a factual text. This article discusses two narrative strategies through which referentiality and authenticity are created as well as counteracted in the Johannine text; it also describes the forms and functions of these literary strategies that support the christological conception of history in John’s gospel.
The important nuance in this article is the idea that factual details and eyewitness testimony do indeed "serve to authenticate the narrative." That is, in the eyes of the Gospel writer and his original audience. Of course they do! The compelling effect of these elements is the entire reason they are there at all.
However, Luther's innovation is to study this effort not as historical evidence but as literary technique. Agreeing with Richard Bauckham and Samuel Byrskog about the core of their claims, Luther deftly absorbs their observations within the unique momentum of her own argument. Of course the inclusion of these historiographical markers indicates that the beloved disciple wanted readers to find the material credible. Obviously, this was the goal. Just as obviously, however, none of those markers necessarily indicate the material is credible.
In terms of genre, for Luther, the fourth Gospel indeed qualifies as historical representation, conforming to several conventions of ancient historiography while adapting the genre as needed to include disruptive christological material. (A key interest for Luther is noting how ancient narratives combine markers of fictionality and non-fictionality, an interesting framework which may or may not beg the question it seeks to bypass. I will let others decide.) However, after affirming that GJohn indeed claims to present factual truth in the stories it tells of the world in the past, Luther does not then proceed to suggest that we should therefore believe what it says. In addition to the fictive and constructed nature of historical representation, she points especially to "the Johannine understanding of... the truth which leads to faith." On some other occasion, I might lament that she leaves the historical question suspended indefinitely, but today I don't mind at all. This article as it stands is profoundly a gift.
If we recognize "authentication" as a literary strategy in this manner then everyone in the guild can begin coming to terms of agreement about the genre of the Gospel. It should clearly become the new consensus that GJohn qualifies as one writer's representation of the historical past, whether or not that history happens to be accurate. This agreement, in turn, should push the vital question of whether or not the material is actually true back to its own arena, where it belongs.
Hopefully, Susanne Luther has just sounded the death knell for genre questions as proxy warfare in Gospel studies.
We should all hereby thank her profusely.
June 7, 2020
May 22, 2020
Somehow, nevertheless, I am occasionally disappointed to realize yet again that picking and choosing in biblical interpretation is not the symptom of failures to contextualize narrative material. Rather, it is the will to abuse scripture's content which makes it necessary to ignore situational bearings. The willful ignorance of tribal commitments, the social need to support authoritarian pronouncements, all of this has been brought forth so intensively, so painfully, so embarrassingly, so distressingly, and to such a pathetic and regrettable crescendo. Aside from any illusions I ever held about the goodwill of conservative religious leaders, I have quite nearly lost all ability to suspend judgment, to give the benefit of the doubt. When I shamefully retreat to dismissing someone's intellect, that is because I can find no explanation that seems kinder or more generous.
For a long time, we continue to do what was comfortable once.
Likewise, also, I find myself to be so. Like Samuel Johnson confessing "but these were the dreams of a poet, doomed at last to wake a lexicographer," so I find myself increasingly distant from the grand sense of purpose which once spurred my efforts. The proper fix will not help things which are broken on purpose. Putting the horse back in front of the cart doesn't get anyone on board.
Still, there is always purpose in speaking the truth. Wycliffe stacked tinder and Huss built a bonfire. I feel far from the fire, at the moment, but I will keep felling trees for as long as I'm able.
Time passes. We do what we can.
May 7, 2020
April 11, 2020
Like most formal christian traditions, the practical dynamics behind pulpiteering are based in conditions from centuries ago. The stone cathedrals of Europe were cavernous megaphones, optimal tech in those days for mass communicating. The Greek amphitheater was the ancient equivalent of broadcast airwaves, now replaced again by the digital interwebs. If preaching in person is primarily meant to convey information, podcasts and YouTube work infinitely better than physical gatherings.
As an educator at heart, I fervently support the generation and dissemination of informative content, but the gathering of Christian believers provides us with a far more valuable opportunity. Scripture assures us that God can be found within God's word and within God's people. We need to learn better ways to bring these two things together. Sadly, just filling the time slot leads to "share your ignorance" sessions, and pentebabbleism that isn't pretentious veers toward superstition... but these are not our only options.
Christian education is essential for long-term community formation, but for regular spiritual encouragement we need participatory exercise. Fortunately, participation need not breed pointless nonsense. In both large and small groups, we do not simply need to have people fill the air with their own words and emotions. What we need is for THOSE WHO KNOW HOW TO SHARE OF THE LORD to learn how to TRAIN OTHERS TO DO SO. We need to edify one another by expanding our sense and awareness of God's being and presence.
If you and your fellowship don't know what I mean, or how to get there, or if you all simply lack prior expertise, then I can only recommend years of patient trial and error. By God's grace, time can be a blessing. There's a reason your Lord was called Jesus of Nazareth. That baby in the manger had not begun to experience God as a human, nor could he speak knowingly about spiritual wisdom. Jesus grew. Jesus learned. A non-famous day laborer spent thirty-ish years in one town, finding God, and figuring out how to share God with others.
If your congregation believes Jesus lives in you and among you, then I believe you can learn to do likewise, if you take enough years to keep trying. After that, once you know something, please teach us all.
March 26, 2020
These are the deep cognitive tools of mnemonic chronology, the informational leverage which enables our minds to compress data, elevating raw chronicles into focalized narratives. This is what I set out (tentatively) to define, years ago, in my blog series on Time in Memory.
There is a fourth memory tool which does the same job most powerfully. Conflict also lends coherence to story material (i.e., temporal representations), most famously as a grand framework surrounding the rest of the plot (or what passes for plot, a linear storyline of whatever middling coherence).
Consider the classic paradigm of great literature.
The introduced status quo represents a compression of long-term expectations based on standard human experience in a given locality. This is not a true "normal" but the perception of what is most common. The mnemonic indellibility comes from "redundancies" of lived experience, types and sets of encounters and observations that happen so frequently they define "standard" simply by cognitive default. The culturally shared worldview is derived from that which nobody could ever forget. The new, different, exceptional, and surprisingly interjected phenomena are actually the vast bulk of what truly occurs during daily existence... bits of noise cast aside as our brains craft a signal... because seeking informational coherence is a coping mechanism for psychological stability. In truth, the entire chaotic mass of this constantly churning reality--what we always are actually experiencing--is too vast a wall of data for human intellects to process, let alone grasp, let alone study, let alone understand. Our brightest minds spend decades actively chunking whole fields of study but the normal human experience is by far at the other extreme (and, honestly, most of us live somewhere near the middle).
Chaos is solid, but consciousness is linear.
Disruptions are the true normal but so is forgetting.
As memory theorists and cognitive scientists teach us, remembering is unusual. Forgetting is by far the default. Last year you interacted thousands of times with people who wore different clothes, used different words, engaged in different activities, moving in different places, and seeing you at different times and occasions. Of all this, you most often remember those peoples names and faces, the consistent aspects of those collected encounters. You might have one or two favorite people whose changing details you might collect in your mind but that is only because you focus intently on those special persons. Aside from them, you've forgotten most things you observed about everyone else. This is what I mean by the "true normal" of constant disruptions. These countless changes are each small and insignificant. Collectively, by far, they account for the vast bulk of what you actually perceive in the world, in a moment by moment accounting.
Our local world as we know it, as we remember it (which is to say, our perceived "normal") is based on a much smaller set of data, our few and precious familiar consistencies, from which we form this illusion of "status quo" (so to speak).
The bulk of phenomena are random bits of chaos (what cannot be compressed by our minds into the sense of a signal amidst all the noise) and those bits of chaos are, technically, disruptions. They are usually minor disruptions, immediately forgotten. Again, they are usually minor and they are usually forgotten.
That is, unless they are impactful.
Sometimes the coherent remembering of related dynamics is rooted in our brains by an impactful disruption. The great dramatic disruption or "conflict" which so often introduces the famous plots of classic literature is a stereotyped (schematized) construction, crafted from centuries of natural experience of hearing and telling stories of personal experience which happened to prove memorable and satisfying. The great paradox in the nature of what story is--a set of changes we somehow remember as one unit--can be most efficiently enabled by the grand framework of conflict.
The impactful disruption of expectations creates a NEW normal, establishing new patterns of familiarity which are tinged with the old world, as it was previously perceived and/or conceived. This new set of repeated experiences reminds you of the old world, but precisely because it is no longer that world.
That new chain restaurant you drive past every day keeps reminding you of the old neighborhood diner (which it replaced). Your new boss at work does a few things so differently than your old boss that his new differentness keeps reminding you of the gone away sameness. Being stuck in your home during a pandemic makes you think vividly about how much you miss all the daily routines you so recently took quite for granted. We could go on and on: a disappointing stepparent, the destruction after an earthquake, the changes to air travel which always make me remember a number of ways in which airports were different before September of 2001.
We could also ask these questions: Does washing your car make it rain, or does rain after a car wash become more memorable, almost painfully memorable, somehow? Does staking a prediction guarantee that you'll be proven wrong, or does a pattern of being proved wrong make you wary of staking predictions? Does hoping for something mean it's not going to happen, or does hoping for something remind you of times when your expectations were dashed by the negating eventuality?
As it happens, these examples illustrate more than my point. They illustrate two major principles of truth. First, they illustrate the dictum (in memory theory) that present needs and present experiences are what most often drive acts of repeated remembering. Second, they illustrate Aristotle's prescription that tragedy should revolve around a dramatic reversal. What I intend to argue (in future work, someday) is that this is no mere coincidence. Aristotle's insight was not merely based on observation of professional writers in ancient Greece, and it was not merely based on what works well for audience memory. The concept of the dramatic reversal was also based on an optimized experience of the way our human remembering sometimes achieves peak performance... particularly in regards to its capacity for remembering a large set of dynamic changes with impressive degrees of coherence.
When what is present reminds you of what is absent... When what you have reminds you of what has been lost... When your new status quo reminds you in this intensively negative way about your old status quo... When the whole world as it is reminds you of how everything changed...
When some newly introduced conflict--the original disruption, the underlying causality that eventually unmade all your previously normalized expectations--when that seems like the natural inflection point for talking about how you remember the world being unmade...
All of this... can be profoundly described in terms of both irony and trauma.
The dramatic reversal is not merely a literary device. It happens to describe a deeply human and widely common experience. The impactful disruption of expectations is a natural cognitive anchor for linking narrative content together, mnemonically. It just so happens that talented writers spent centuries observing, imitating, and modifying this experience until they had fashioned an artistic device. However, in both cases, in both art and life, this ironic-traumatic dynamic creates a powerful efficiency for remembering a large set of dynamics coherently.
Conflict (the disruption of expectations) is the fourth* element of Mnemonic Temporality, the fourth* root of what makes Narrative work, perhaps even the cognitive basis of narrativity itself.
There is far more to unpack about all this. I hope I get around to it someday.
*I have previously written about three similar mnemonic advantages for remembering stories: Causality (Plot), Biography (Character), and Transitions (Setting). Okay, I haven't written much (yet) about Transitions, but I hope to. At any rate, the index page for all such posts on these topics is here.
March 23, 2020
History is neither behind the text, through the text, within the text, or on its surface. History is above the text. You can work your way through all the rabbit-log proximal relations and the proper phrase to use is neither on, in, through, behind, or within. History takes place "above" or "on top of" the text.
If we splice and decimate the text, transforming bits here and there, that critical judgment has been undertaken on top of the text. If we declare the text to be history, adding nothing and subtracting nothing, that non-alteration amounts to our critical judgment and it has been undertaken on top of the text. If we make the text our workshop or plaything, whatever we produce is on the basis of, literally working on top of, what it has already presented.
History is not what we read. History is what we write. That is, if we are scholars, then history is what we construct, not merely what we can see or discover. What we take from the text is a reading. What we put onto the text might be writing or reading. But if we are doing history, we are working above the text. If we are doing history, we must construct more than merely the text. We must produce our own hypothetical vision of sequential events to represent a phase or episodes of human activity.
History is not a judgment on the text. History is a vision of the past. Examining the text can inform your view of the past. Examining the text cannot alone define the past. Equating the text with the past was traditionally called positivism, the chief sin of which is not blind trust. The chief sin of positivism is a lack of imaginative, investigative, and/or extrapolating wherewithal. For example, even if you do trust the text, you should still realize that a representation of reality does not describe fully all that its presentation implies. (Cf. John 21:25)
Judging the text to be or not be the past is a far poorer and a far flatter endeavor than using the text while conducting an inquiry, and then constructing your own model.
History is not found anywhere. It is constructed. On top of the text.
February 1, 2020
A preacher once said sin is like a baby tiger. If you take that tiger home and keep on feeding it, that tiger keeps on growing, getting less small and less cute, until one day it suddenly eats you.
Condoning crime encourages criminals to keep breaking the law. Allowing abuse to continue unchecked is an invitation for evil ones to multiply their abuse. Abetting liars and cheaters invites more and more lying and more cheating. Darkness cannot cast out darkness. Only light can do that.
Do you think that it's okay for your team to break rules as long as you win? You will wind up with a team full of rule breakers. What happens the day they start breaking rules that you didn't want broken? If you cheered when they "took back" what belonged to your enemies, how will you protest on the day they decide to "take back" what you thought was your own? How can you protect yourself from a grown tiger when you're the one who took it in and taught it to eat?
Short-sighted ambition was the chief mistake of every fool who ever made deals with the devil. In literally all of those stories, the fruit spoils too quickly. The deal doesn't last long. The promised rewards wind up ruining the fool's expectation of happiness on earth, to say nothing of that disappointment being trumped by eternal damnation.
There was at least one person the devil could not tempt. After 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus was offered power over all the world's kingdoms. For that temptation to be viable, Satan must have thought Jesus would believe that such an offer was legitimate. Apparently, Jesus believed that his adversary was indeed able to offer him power over all the world's kingdoms. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against powers, against principalities, against the world rulers of this present darkness.
Not only did Jesus not take that sweet offer... He changed the subject completely.
It is written: You shall worship the Lord your God. Serve Him only.
God's people do not protect God's kingdom by submitting to earthly kingship.
God's people do not seek God's desires by condoning and participating in corruption.
Repent. The kingdom of heaven is always at hand...