December 13, 2020

The Pragmatic Sense of Ancient Dominions

In my research today I happened back to this gem from Steve Mason's "What is History? Using Josephus for the Judean-Roman War" (page 210), which I offer here as a springboard for some thoughts about Jesus and "kingdom," which appear further below.

The structural relationship between Syria and Judaea [is] a complicated matter. Suffice it to say here that in the War where the story of Cestius' expedition reposes, Josephus usually writes as though Judaea were a distinct province from 6 C.E., with an independent equestrian governor based in Caesarea (2.118, 220). In the Antiquities, by contrast (17.355; 18.1-2), he claims that Judaea was annexed to Syria after Archelaus' incompetent rule. Tacitus is under the impression that Judaea became a province only under Claudius, after Agrippa I (Hist. 5.9). The language of "province" (provincia, ἐπαρχεία) allows a fair bit of slippage, and it is increasingly clear that Roman administrative arrangements were messier than textbooks would prefer.

Although Mason goes on to tentatively settle the matter for his interpretation of Cestius' expedition in Josephus's War, this beautifully offered nuance reminds me of several things. That last bit in particular, "that Roman administrative arrangements were messier than textbooks would prefer," could be applied helpfully in revising our mental conceptions about any number of ancient kingdoms or territories.

For starters, our concept of national boundaries doesn't always apply to ancient thinking about large territories; certainly not as it has since the invention of modern cartographic techniques. Although the city of Rome had its official pomerium, and most proper cities obviously had walls, kingoms (and other dominions such as independent tetrarchies) were not so well defined, geographically. The complexities of the Roman concept of the limes is instructive, an especially helpful illustration of how pragmatism ruled over any attempt at formality whenever one ancient group attempted to rule over others. 

Another helpful clue is the Roman pattern of building frontier highways. When the Republic first routed the via Egnatia--along a more or less straight-ish line from Dyrrachium to Philippi--that pathway signified not the absolute limit of Rome's legal reach but the practical facilitation of their physical enforcement activity. The hypothetical extent of Provincia Macedonia (as a formal claim, if not per se) would have been far further inland, but there was no court injunction that could keep the Dalmatians or Moesians from gardening a bit too far over the non-existent line. In a broader sense, the military history of that region--from before Alexander until long past Vespatian--was a perennial morass of ambiguous jurisdictions. Which, of course, is why Philip had planned in the 4th century BCE that he would eventually push Macedonia's domain all the way to the Danube.

Likewise, the via Sebaste encircled the wild Pisidian lands of the Homanadensian tribes precisely so that Sulpicius Quirinius could lead his legions efficiently towards full subjugation of those peoples. Let me repeat that; Quirinius did not subjugate those lands. He subjugated those peoples. Much like the current "red state, blue state" paradigm in America becomes a geographical illusion when you examine actual population density ("land doesn't vote, people do"), any rational accounting of dominion in ancient times must focus on the logistical mitigations of practical governance.

Similarly, you will find no informed mapmaker of ancient Palestine/Israel, today, who would ever draw a solid line in between Trachonitis and Nabatea. On the other hand, if you asked anyone in the New Testament era who lived anywhere from Damascus to Petra... in any given year... they could each tell you individually whether or not they answered to Herodian overlords. 

For a final brief set of illustrations, consider these excerpts from Appendix 1 of Swan's commentary on Dio 55, "How Dio Visualized Trans-Rhenane Germany under Augustus" (361-3), which excerpts follow Swan's detailing of extensive geographic vaguaries and ambiguities evident in Dio's writing:

What were the origins of Dio's mental map? Not autopsy, of which I detect no signs such as surface elsewhere in the History (e.g., 50,12.2-8n on the topography of Actium). Certainly reading. Caesar's Bellum Gallicum, which was one of his sources ([cit.]), offered a rich vein of geographic and ethnographic information.* [*Footnote: "Dio cannot be shown to have read Strabo's synopsis of German geography (7.290-295) or Tacitus' Germania."] Dio could of course take advantage of contemporary oral information that a senator was well placed to acquire. That he learned something from maps cannot be shown or ruled out.

On mental maps see R.K. Sherk... on how geographical discoveries were fed back to Rome through dispatches or memoirs of generals and works by authors in their entourage... R. Syme... (Roman historians generally took more literary than scientific interest in geography; generals may have relied less on maps than on experienced officers); A.C. Bertrand... (a network of lines, especially as formed by routes and rivers, characterized Caesar's mental map; "strategically valuable maps were unavailable to Roman commanders, who gathered information about geography and topography while on campaign"[120]).

Basically, if there wasn't a powerful river or a nearly impassable mountain range, there wasn't a firm boundary between territories. More pragmatically, we are generally closer to the mark when we think in terms of actual populations and enforceable allegiance. Dio's emphasis on military activity explains his lack of need for precision, which reflects the military's own geographic requirements.

For another example, the Persian satraps would visit each city in Asia Minor, annually, provided they could expect to collect the annual tribute in that particular year. By the same standard, Alexander's "conquest" of Turkey didn't so much change the color on the map as it merely served notice to those satraps, who suddenly recognized it would be most wise to refrain from return visits in the near future.

Got the gist yet? Okay. Now, getting around to the Gospels...


A similar nuance (or lack thereof) explains the confusion regarding βασιλεύει in Matthew 2:22, where the scholarly opinions deem that word to be "accurate" if and only if Archelaus could have been officially described as a king. In contrast, my argument (in progress) involves a conception of kingship that places more weight on governing de facto than holding position ex officio

Sorry, but that's only a tiny bit from my thesis, just by the by.

For the purposes of today's blog post, more directly, I have said all of the above merely to say this: We should hereby apply similar nuance in our thinking about any Gospel passage in which Jesus refers to the "kingdom" of God.

Although I am certain many people who listened to Jesus were taking "kingdom of God" as a euphamism for Jesus establishing an earthly seat of power at Jersualem, that is not the strict sense of the words which the Gospels ascribe to Jesus himself. Taken most literally, the "kingdom of God" is the dominion of God, the actual extent of God's active rule.

I pause here to note that it is one thing for interpreters of the Gospels to suppose (or perhaps even argue!) that the writers and early believers took this phrase euphamistically... and it is entirely another thing for us to consider and discuss as historians what sense or meanings Jesus had in his mind on whatever occasions he actually used the same phrase. Academically, it is possible to hold one opinion as an interpreter of meaning in literature that contravenes one's opinion as a historian about what Jesus actually meant. Alternatively, it may be a fact that the Gospel writers themselves were as swooft as I'd like to suppose, even though almost every reception since then has been less so. But that debate can happen anon. This post today is just to lay down the sense of what I am suggesting.

In my humble opinion, given the context of what makes a "kingdom" as I laid out above, here is what I think about Jesus and that phrase.

To me, it makes the most sense to believe that Jesus himself had in mind a "kingdom of God" that literally meant what the phrase itself says. That is, I believe young Jesus in Nazareth would most naturally have conceived of God's kingdom as literally God's kingship. I mean, I am fully supposing that Jesus in Nazareth was experiencing the kingdom of God as an individual, and I also suppose that to some extent he would often have perceived God to be actively ruling the hearts and minds of other Jewish believers at his local synagogue. As a christian, I suppose Jesus held himself to a higher standard as regarding actual obedience to divine will, while holding more modest expectations of others. Humility and mercy, after all, being key aspects of God's most devout subjects.

In principle, if there were moments when, say, a 29 year old Jesus may have felt that perhaps he alone and no one else currently was engaging in God's divine kingship, then I would suggest that in such times Jesus would still have recognized that God's kingdom was presently active in his life, in his town, on the earth.

All in all, I am only trying to say that thinking about "kingdom" in the Gospels should be just like thinking about any other ancient kingdom. The extent of any royal domain was properly recognized as the extent of the royal's effective dominion. If "kingdom of God" was a euphamism for rule by Jesus himself, then we'd have a different discussion, but if "kingdom of God" means literally what it says, then we should recognize that God already sits on his own seat of power. God does not need a person to sit on a physical throne in some city of earth... in order for God to exercise his power and reach and administrative ability.

There are other aspects, of course, to all that Jesus meant to imply when he spoke about God's kingdom.

But this anti-geographical aspect is the one I feel has been the most overlooked.

Anon, then...

November 29, 2020

Historical Research and Storytelling

Here's an old favorite I transcribed years ago. Enjoy this excerpt from William Cronon's 2013 Presidential Address to the American Historical Association, available on YouTube (picking up here at the 1:17:06 mark):


Original research is of course indispensable and lies at the cutting edge of disciplinary growth and transformation but no one else will know this if we fail to come back from the cutting edge to integrate what we've learned into the older, more familiar stories that non-historians already think they know and care about. That is where we join our other historical storytellers like journalists, novelists, dramatists, filmmakers, as well as our academic colleagues in all of the other disciplines that look at history, which is almost all of them, to ask over and over again what the past means and why ordinary people should care about it.

Carl Becker was right. Our ultimate responsibility is to living history, which withers into professional boredom if we only speak with each other and with our graduate students. The digital revolution has created endless opportunities via blogs, websites, youtube, social media, to connect our professional stories with the concerns of the wider world, making it possible for pithier, more visual, more topical narrative strategies to find audiences as never before. But they will only do so if we remember the lessons of our classrooms, where our specialized work reconnects with those who do not yet share our passion for the past.

That is why we keep revisiting the most basic and powerful stories even though their particular content is always changing, along with the moral lessons we draw from them. There is the story of where we came from and how the world got to be this way that is the great engine of public curiosity, especially for younger people who have little direct personal experience of the past. Much as our discipline may fear the teleological dangers of presentism, we cannot live without it since it points towards the backward path by which we guide students and readers and members of the public toward a past that initially seems completely irrelevant and disconnected from the concerns of the present.

Once we have reconnected the past with the present and established just how relevant it continues to be, then we can start telling that other great story - the one about the past as a foreign country whose inhabitants are as different from ourselves, so different that we can barely recognize them. And yet because their world ultimately became our world, and because their struggles with each other to decide what they did and did not want their future to become continue to shape our own lives today, these two sets of stories turn out to be far more intimately linked than we initially imagined. Together, they combine to create a third story about the world as given and the world as made, inviting us to reconsider a taken-for-granted present that can seem timeless and unchanging until we begin to view it historically.

Only then - only then - do we realize how much our present world reflects the choices of those who came before. Only then do we see how different it could have been had those choices been made differently. From these most basic of all stories about the past flow myriad others. They're part of a common heritage of humanity, which is why we share their telling with everyone else who narrates the past. That's what makes them so powerful and why it's so crucial for historians never to tire of telling them, no matter how familiar they may seem to us. Only by looking in the eyes of our youngest students and our own children do we remember how strange and fresh these stories were when we first encountered them ourselves.

Stories of people struggling for justice or democracy or freedom or progress. Stories of oppression, endurance, liberation. Stories of people seeking to understand the meaning of their relationship to God, or nature, or the state, or each other. Stories in which very small events or objects or ideas turn out to have much larger consequences than anyone would ever have thought possible. Stories that explore the intended and unintended consequences of the choices people make. Stories in which the things we thought we knew about the past turn out to be unexpectedly and importantly different from what we thought.

Stories about how we know what we know and how hard it is - how hard we have to work to earn that knowing. And stories of why different people understand the past so differently and why seemingly contradictory historical narratives can yield truths that are all the more profound when juxtaposed against each other.

More than anything else, though, we need to keep telling stories about why the past matters and why we should care about it. Nothing we do is more important, for only by telling such stories does the dead past spring back to life and become living history.



October 4, 2020

Phileo > Agapao

 Michael Barber posted (earlier this year) an argument that C.S. Lewis was wrong about the four loves, and that interpretations are wrong which say phileo and agapao (in John 21) aren't interchangeably identical in meaning. I love Michael to pieces, but I'm here to counter-argue. By my formulation above, he is only half-right.

 However, although I don't think the beloved disciple uses these two Greek words interchangeably, as Michael believes, I also don't think Lewis was right about agapao being superior to phileo. What is most unfortunate is that Lewis has so monopolized the conversation that no one has suggested this alternative: The truth is that phileo is the superior verb, in ancient Greek, by far. Furthermore, that superiority should absolutely inform our reading of John 21.

Briefly, here are my reasons:

 (1) Variations of the phil- root take up twelve full pages in LSJ, whereas variations on the agap- root take up less than one page. In Ancient Greek, Philia is the far higher form of love than Agape. If you only read the New Testament, you'll find a different proportion of usage, but if the audience of the beloved disciple were native speakers of Greek then the LSJ should best inform our estimate of their semantic understanding.

 (2) Moreover, the relationship between these terms in John 21 is prefigured explicitly in John 15:13-17, where Jesus juxtaposes the same root concepts in his after-dinner commission. He calls them friends. Then he charges them, as his friends, to love one another. The task of loving is given to Jesus’s own friends and each friend is responsible for upholding this commandment of love. 

 (3) Jesus's talk about friendship also evokes (for any Greek audience) a history of friendship. In the ancient Greek world,  the word “friends” (plural) most often connotes the King’s inner circle of right hand men. Regular people couldn’t afford friends; they had kinfolk and they had bosses. The idea of maintaining even one devoted friend was legendary. But Jesus declares to these men that they are now his friends. So, like Alexander the Great, and eastern royalty since, Jesus assembles a circle of right hand men to stand with him in the vanguard of his ongoing campaign. 

 They are now officially "friends." This is a formal commission. Their orders are to love one another. 

 Literally, the philoi are called to agapate, which requires (at the very least) sustaining their assembly.

 But then the story goes on. Jesus dies and returns and appears and reappears and then disappears once again. The disciples are sitting around in between physical visits from the resurrected Jesus. Apparently Peter grows tired or impatient or restless or frustrated, or something to that effect, because Peter decides to leave the group and go back to feeding his family. He makes an individual declaration. And there lies the problem. 

 In narratological terms, this moment disrupts an equilibrium, and observing this is key to understanding Jesus's upcoming intervention to restore status quo. Peter says *I* am going to go fishing. For the time being, if not longer, Peter declares he will be separating from the group. Fortunately, the others decide to make his expedition a group trip. They say *WE* will come with you. Thus, when Jesus fills their nets and piles up fish on the beach, and then asks Peter, "do you love me more than these?" I don't think he's posing a love competition between Peter and his fellow apostles. I sincerely believe that, being careful readers, we're supposed to understand that Jesus means the fish. Jesus was cooking fish and he asked: Do you love me more than these? 

 In the most literal way, this catch of fish had been Peter's goal all night long. His need to earn a daily living had once again stolen away his devotion. Understandably, Peter felt the need to feed his family. But in response, what does Jesus command? Feed my family, Peter. Feed my sheep.

 The mission is not over. The one-anothering is not over. The formal commission must be renewed.

 Thus, in the third question in John 21, when the Gospel writer shifts Jesus's verb from agapao to phileo, this is not a semantic downgrade. This is a semantic upgrade. Jesus is tightening the screws. 

 Because Peter has been more devoted to fishing than to Jesus’s mission, Peter has not lived up to the charge of being Jesus's friend. Yes, you love me for now but are you devoted to me? Yes, you're excited to see me today but will you keep doing what I asked after I leave? Sure, you're now swearing your love as an individual but I commanded you to one-another with these guys. Okay, you do genuinely have an abiding agape for me... But will you step back into the role for which I have called you to labor? Will you love me by taking care of my people, whom I charged you to love?

 Will you do this job for me? If you love me like a friend loves, then you will.

 According to John 20, Peter had already spent time with Jesus on multiple occasions since the resurrection. Therefore, John 21 cannot be a passage of personal reconciliation. Beyond that contextual evidence, the popular reading is an individualistic interpretation that befits modern readers, and should henceforth be recognized as such. 

 This passage is about Peter renewing his dedication to leadership in Christian community. It’s a renewal of Jesus's marching orders from after the last supper. It's not about feelings. It's about mission.

 Being a friend of Jesus involves far more than how you feel about him personally.

 If you really love me, do me this favor. 

 Sustain my body on earth.


September 13, 2020

Susanne Luther, Ending the Genre Proxy War in Gospel Studies

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

on Written Communication

A friend complimented my writing. She said I “say things that just make sense.” Clearly, this entitles me to offer you all five quick pieces of writing advice.

(1) Making sense in writing is about helping people make sense in their own minds. A lot of writers narrate their own experience of sense-making. I find that less effective than conveying each puzzle piece in a helpful sequence that facilitates your reading brain. In other words, I trust my readers to think and then I try to help.

(2) Whatever the topic, I try to keep my thoughts grounded within concrete dynamics that actually matter in real life. I don’t seek out ideas that seem interesting or relevant but I do try to focus on aspects of real world experiences that affect people profoundly.

(3) Every audience has subgroups within it, and my word choice and phrasing will affect each subgroup differently. Rather than taking two sides in one piece, I try to find the underlying angle that affects everyone, directly or indirectly. I’m not writing to express sympathy; I’m writing to make a point. (Admittedly, the category of prophetic rebuke has a remarkably unifying power all its own. At least, it should.)

(4) The purpose of *public* writing should always be to help people. When you see me criticize someone, it’s probably because I believe that person is hurting others. Ideally, shaming bad behavior is a last resort. Experienced lifeguards don’t yell, “don’t run!“ Experienced lifeguards yell, “walk!“ We highlight the positive alternative as often as possible, but in any case we always aim to make a positive impact.

(5) Teachers say good writing considers topic, audience, and purpose but that only helps students organize their own thinking. Constructing coherence is both elementary and subjective. The Next Level (TM) is transmitting a message successfully from point A to point B. It’s easy to share my own mind. It’s better when I can facilitate your active mental engagement.

I also really enjoy doing this. I hope you enjoyed it and I hope you feel encouraged to write down good thoughts more betterly.

Take care...

PS: This is not necessarily advice about *academic* writing. Without question, I am still struggling in that arena.

PPS: Edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, and edit.

May 22, 2020

Pressing on...

When you lack money and power, it's much easier to be high-minded about truth and love. So they say. For certain, however, prioritizing money and power makes truth inconvenient and love counterproductive. The history of the world follows dynamics that are not new. Nor should they be surprising.

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

The Synoptic Climax

Have in mind the things of God...

When Matthew 1:1 declares its subject is Jesus, it does not introduce him. The audience is expected to know something about him beforehand. How much did they know? I would estimate the minimum-- the least amount of information sufficient to identify Jesus and distinguish him from other famous figures--is that he was (1) a popular Galilean teacher (2) crucified in Jerusalem. If we assume that the audience is expected to know these two things already, during a "first read" (first hearing) of the material, certain things change.

For one example. anything formerly called a "foreshadowing" of Jesus's death, should now be recognized as "dramatic irony." Cueing your audience to "remember" the famous future (which their historical figure has not yet experienced as a literary protagonist) is almost unavoidable when constructing historical narrative. I have blogged here previously about dramatic irony in the Gospels and this topic is central to my Masters thesis, so I will leave that point there for the moment.

For another example, these two points of information define the basic temporal framework of Jesus's personal storyline. No audience member who can successfully identify Jesus as a distinct historical figure would ever fail to remember this necessarily teleological sequence. Obviously, the popular Galilean teacher is going to experience a phase of popularity in Galilee BEFORE he gets killed in Jersualem. Furthermore, the pivot point of the basic narrative structure (in all three synoptic Gospels) is the point of transition between Galilee and Jersualem.

This leads us to a third example, which is what I call The Synoptic Climax

The climax of the synoptic timeline--the moment at which the developing actions stop building up from their beginning and begin sliding down towards their end--is when Jesus announces that he is planning to go to Jerusalem and be killed. To be clear, the climactic point is NOT being told that Jesus is going to be killed. That is not our dramatic turning point because nobody in the original audience could have been expected to feel surprised by this revelation. The audience already knew: Jesus dies at the end. Rather, the dramatic surprise is that Jesus knew going in, announced it, and embraced it as God's plan for his life. When the Gospel writers sat down to communicate, THIS was one of the key talking points they were hoping to establish. THIS was part of their purpose in writing. THIS was their point. THIS was their spin.

I should quickly add, discerning that this was an authorial agenda does not necessarily imply that such spin was in any way contrived or non-factual. To the contrary, often times people spinning the hardest are doing so precisely because they believe passionately that their perspective--their own personal view of the facts--is helpful, insightful, and the proper bias that everyone ought to uphold. On the other hand, just as obviously, the earnestness or enthusiasm of political spin does not and cannot tell us that a version of past events *IS* necessarily accurate, either. We cannot separate "facts" from "interpretation" because, as my advisor Chris Keith and others have shown decisively, "There are no uninterpreted facts." Therefore, as a point of historical inquiry, we will never know for certain whether Jesus actually predicted his death beforehand and embraced it OR NOT... but our ignorance is not alleviated merely by observing this act of emplotment.

What we CAN do, instead, is enjoy and appreciate the drama. At least for starters, we can recognize that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are depicting a world in which Jesus made this dramatic revelation. Just as "Did Jesus expect his own death?" is an important historical question precisely because it notes the Gospel writers' agenda(s), so also "Jesus expected his own death" is an important aspect of the story to recognize, for the same reason: precisely because it strikes at the heart of an idea which the authors were aiming to convey.

The Gospels are ancient biographies that have been somewhat emplotted. Their purpose was not just to inform people about Jesus but to cast a particular light onto well known events of his famous existence. For the Gospel writers, it was high on their list of priorities to convey that crucifixion was not a mistake. They were passionate about communicating that Jesus's death was one event God intended to happen. The story of the Gospels is that Jesus, who had always embraced sacrificial living for the glory of his beloved father in heaven, at some point realized and embraced God's plan for the ultimate sacrifice. 

Personally, none of this is anything I prefer to argue about or try and prove.

This is the story of Jesus. This is the word of the Lord.

Believe it or not...

April 11, 2020

When Christians Gather

I can partly understand expository preaching from an educational standpoint, but the Sunday morning congregation as a one room schoolhouse has no individualized lesson planning, no exercises or seatwork, and no assessment or feedback... which makes it terribly ineffective education. A large lecture auditorium still has its uses--e.g., college and high school, even corporate development--but the audience for each lecture should be particular, not universal. Sunday mornings now require retooling.

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

Time in Memory, Series IV (in nuce)

Causality is not some special rule of narration. Causality is merely a popular convenience. A story is best defined as a coherence of dynamics, and no storytelling device settles that paradox so efficiently as a unifying chain of purpose, drive, and seemingly inevitable consequence. However, biography offers a strong degree of coherence despite encompassing radically arbitrary dynamics, and a travelogue allows geographic contingency to unify random episodic occurrences. Examining all this, we discover that narrative coherence is rooted in plot, character, setting, or some combination of all three.

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, Text, and Prepositions

For a long time, although things have begun changing recently, the field of NT scholarship demonstrated an inability to differentiate between the narrative text and the historical past. I'm currently writing a thesis chapter about this (narrativity vs historicity and narratology vs historiography) so tonight's blog post is just a quick note.

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

Compromised Consciences

Imagine hell exists but has no fire or punishment. The torture then would be living with those who treat others most wickedly. By your own measure, it shall be measured to you also. If your strategies for living revolve around self-exaltation and punishing your enemies, the natural result is that you might wind up surrounded by those who would treat you the same way in a heartbeat.

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...

Recent Posts
Recent Posts Widget