Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Epilogue: Perelandra and Pleasantville

(Prologue to this series here. Part I here. Part II here. Part III here. Part IV here.)

Lewis tackles Eden in a way few Christian thinkers would dare, and succeeds in making us want paradise to last forever despite ourselves. Gary Ross takes the opposite approach in Pleasantville, a film about two well-meaning siblings sent to make a perfect town fall and wake it out of unfulfilled innocence. The following review, Pleasantville: The Garden of Eden Revisited describes the place:

"Pleasantville is a stagnant ideal of perfection —- the weather forecast is always 'high 72, low 72, another beautiful sunny day.' The high school basketball team never loses -— in fact, the players never miss a shot. They actually can't miss, even if they try! Firefighters have nothing to do but save cats, and mothers nothing but to cook, play bridge, and adore their families. But as Rabbi David Cooper writes, 'without the potential for perfecting, perfection itself would be imperfect.' Pleasantvillers have no sin, no strife, no worries. There are no achievements because there are no challenges. There is no passion, and no love has ever been tried and proven. There is no 'knowledge of good and evil' -— all books are blank, all conversations vapid, and all roads lead nowhere."

Pleasantville is just crying for fall. The brother and sister from our world have inverse roles: Jennifer is a serpent figure introducing the town to sex, knowledge, and the world of risk. She makes Pleasantville fall, clearly for its own good, and we cheer her every step of the way. David becomes a Christ figure "fighting the bigotry and violence rising in Pleasantville, and urging the citizens to use their free will for beauty and good." Jennifer and David aren't opposites, however, but complimentary, yin and yang, since one is fruitless without the other. They each have their own "fall" to experience: David, when he confronts a bully for the first time ever, and Jennifer, when she begins to read books and realize there is more to life than partying and popularity.

This all amounts to a modernizing, or Easternizing, of the felix culpa (happy blame), teaching us to be grateful for sin so there can be growth, fulfillment, pain, loss, and ultimately redemption. But we saw in the last post that Lewis was uncomfortable with the felix culpa, and no surprise. It becomes very easy to think of sin itself (and not the redemptive remedy) as the greater good. But the fact is that guilt and sin are essential. Innocence and righteousness may be good, but on their own they're impotent. That's the problem with paradise.

Yet Perelandra draws us into innocence anyway: we don't want to see Venus fall. I attribute this to the creative way Lewis handles the Green Lady. Unlike the citizens of Pleasantville, she isn't a scripted automaton. Unlike them, she has imagination. The townspeople can't conceive of anything beyond their borders; they can't even fathom different things happening or different routines. But the Lady, as we saw, is able to "step out of life into the Alongside" and look at things differently. She appreciates novelties -- "whatever waves roll towards her" -- and enjoys having her expectations overturned. Indeed, she realizes that to reject something new for the sake of something old can only be "evil"! That discovery gets used against her, but the point is that she's able to appreciate now what the citizens of Pleasantville appreciate only after they fall. Paradise isn't inherently monotonous. It doesn't need to be stagnant. It's possible to do more than act out predetermined scripts, and thus be surprised, rewarded, and fulfilled.

As a result, we buy Perelandra in all its multidimensional purity. We accept the Lady and want her to prevail against the devil. In Pleasantville we want people to fall, grow up, make real decisions, and live life. On Venus we want people to do better than grow up, and taste possibilities as yet undreamed.

UPDATE: Doug Chaplin takes Ross over Lewis: "Leaving aside the fact that Pleasantville is an enjoyable, thoughtful and undemanding film, and that Perelandra, like all Lewis' adult science fiction doesn't really work, my biggest issue is the turn against the felix culpa of both Rosson and Lewis." Clarification: as I wrote on Doug's blog, my sympathies are entirely with the "need for fall", though I identify with this in more secular terms. That's why I actually like Pleasantville so much. But I also warm to Perelandra despite myself. Here's part of what I said to Doug:

"I think both Pleasantville and Perelandra work, though differently... Pleasantville clearly needed to fall, and we cheer Jennifer every step of the way. The Fall is what allowed the town's citizens to grow up and experience real joy and loss -- and redemption -- so essential to the human experience... But I also believe that Perelandra works -- and works well -- despite our better philosophical leanings. This time the 'alien other' is developed in a way that we can buy into the Green Lady's character, and on her own terms, and even want her to prevail by remaining in that state of 'otherness' if we can't quite go there ourselves."

Monday, January 30, 2006

10,000 Visits

As of today, 1/30/06, The Busybody has received 10,000 visitors since 9/25/05. (I started the blog in July but didn't add Sitemeter until later.) I want to thank my readers for your ongoing interest and comments. I aim to please and provoke, and look forward to the blog-space of 10,000 more visits.

Perelandra (IV): Ascension vs. Incarnation

(Prologue to this series here. Part I here. Part II here. Part III here.)

Thanks largely to Ransom, the Lady of Venus resists temptation. She and the King -- their names are Tinidril and Tor, we finally learn -- ascend to angelic perfection as God intended. The angel from Mars explains:

"'The world is born today... Today for the first time two creatures of the low worlds, two images of [God] that breathe and breed like beasts, step up that step at which your parents fell, and sit on the throne of what they were meant to be. It was never seen before. Because it did not happen in your world a greater thing happened, but not this. Because the greater thing happened [on Earth], this and not the greater thing happens here.'" (169)

But does Lewis truly believe the Incarnation was greater than if Adam and Eve hadn't sinned? We saw his unease with this idea in the last post, and the rhapsodic non-Christian conclusion to this story undermines it completely. Tor explains to Ransom that Christ's second coming on Earth and the apocalypse will be "the wiping out of a false start in order that the world may then begin" (182). The other planets have seen beginnings, but Earth nothing more than "a failure to begin" (ibid). In the grand scheme of things, the so-called greater good on Earth amounts to a mere corrective, or erasing a blot.

The ascension of Tor and Tinidril is clearly portrayed as a greater good than what happened on Earth, and Ransom probably speaks for Lewis when he asks Tor:

"In our world those who know God at all believe that His coming down to us and being a man is the central happening of all that happens. If you take that from me, Father, whither will you lead me?" (183)

Whither indeed. Tor leaves it to the angels to explain, which they do in a bombardment of praises and hallelujahs (183-187) that are frankly too abstruse to make much sense of, which is probably much the point.

The closing chapters of Perelandra stand as Lewis' ambitious attempt to deal with the dilemma of the felix culpa ("happy blame") by envisioning what was originally meant to be. That he overreaches himself is not a fault, for that's what writers who tackle big questions are supposed to do. It's what Stephen Donaldson did in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and what Dan Simmons did in Hyperion-Endymion. I believe Lewis is suggesting that Christ's Incarnation is perceived as greater than Adam's Ascension on account of a caged perspective, and that the greatest good is in fact the "Great Dance" of the universe -- which has already begun, and doesn't need to wait on a fallen world like Earth (183).

In the next and final post, we will wrap up in epilogue and look more generally at the question of Edenic innocence and loss thereof.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

"You Say So" (II): The Question of Messiahs

Mark Goodacre proposes a distinction between Jesus' clear response to the high priest in Mk 14:61-62 and his ambiguous response to Pilate in Mk 15:2. In the former he affirms he is the "messiah", in the latter he refuses to confirm whether or not he is "king of the Judeans". Yesterday I suggested that Jesus' ambiguous response signals a "yes" historically, if not in the Markan narrative.

But maybe not. The historical Jesus was hostile to the idea of popular kingship, and the term "king" may have possibly been too restrictive for his messianic role. William Herzog has suggested that the parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Mt 18:23-35) was originally an anti-kingship story -- a story that would have come naturally after Jn 6:1-15 rather than Mt 18:21-22. Herzog reads the parable as a "rejection of the messianic ideal, because any messiah who did ascend the throne would be caught in the systematic realities of kingship in agrarian societies and aristocratic empires. Every king is captive of kingship, including the messiah!" (Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, p 239). No sooner would a messiah ascend the throne than he would begin to take on the role of a tyrant himself. That's the lesson Israel/Judah/Judea learned over and over again. Look at Solomon, Omri, and the Hasmoneans. Look at the king in this parable. (See Herzog's Parables as Subversive Speech, pp 131-149, "What if the Messiah Came and Nothing Changed?", for full details.)

I like Herzog's reading of the Unmerciful Servant, but he uses "messiah" and "king" synonymously, thus concluding that Jesus never thought of himself as the messiah in any way. His reading would certainly indicate that Jesus had no use for popular kingship, or for any who wanted to make him an armed insurrectionist (see Jn 6:15). But messiahs came in all colors. John Collins, in The Scepter and the Star, identifies four kinds of messiahs in first-century thought: kings (the most common), prophets, priests, and heavenly archangels. Jesus was historically a prophet, and in Mark's understanding he is both a prophetic and heavenly messiah -- not the kingly messiah suggested by Pilate's question. On the point of the latter, Mark Goodacre believes that gospel writer John "is a fine exegete of Mark and he teases out the meaning of the terse, ambiguous 'You are saying so' in this way:"

Pilate...asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?" "Is that your own idea," Jesus asked, "or did others talk to you about me?" "Am I a Jew?" Pilate replied. "It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?" Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place." (John 18.33-36)

Jesus was historically a prophetic messiah, gospelly a prophetic/heavenly messiah. In either case, then, perhaps his retort to Pilate's question about kingship -- "You say so" -- was a "no" after all, though no less offensive for it, since it was a disdainful evasion and implied that the prefect was making him a king anyway.

UPDATE: Phil Harland (and in comments below) thinks I was more on the right track with the "yes" interpretation. With regards to the historical Jesus, I think the question hinges on how accommodating an apocalyptic prophet could have been with the word "king" vis-à-vis messiahship. A text like Mt 19:28/Lk 22:29-30 does suggest kingship, though even E.P. Sanders prefers that Jesus envisioned himself more as a "viceroy" than a king. What would "king of the Judeans", as put by Pilate, have suggested in the minds of most? Probably popular kingship, which Jesus rejected.

If Pilate had used the term "messiah" (as the priesthood is reported doing), Jesus' "you say so" would easily be interpreted as "yes", as I suggested in my first post. But I'm on the fence with what Jesus' retort means in answer to the specific charge of kingship. I can go either way, depending on the phase of the moon.

UPDATE (II): Stephen Carlson discusses Morton Smith's take on the matter, that in Mk 15:2 translators should "preserve in English the ambiguity of the Greek".

UPDATE (III): Mark Goodacre elaborates on Mark's distinction between messiahs and kings.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

"You Say So"

Prompted by Phil Harland's post, Mark Goodacre offers an explanation as to why the Markan Jesus acknowledges his messianic status to the high priest but not to Pilate. To the former Jesus says, "Yes, I am the messiah," while to latter he only retorts, "You say so."

Then, on the Better Bibles blog, Wayne Leman identifies what I believe to be the crucial problem. He writes:

I have never understood the communicative meaning of Jesus' answer just from the literal translation, 'You say (so).' That is, what was Jesus communicating to Pilate by his answer? Was he saying, 'You're the one who has said that, not me.' Or was he indirectly affirming that the answer to Pilate's question, 'Are you the king of the Jews?' was 'Yes.' Or maybe he meant something else.

Much of the time we don't mean what we actually say, in English or any other language, and this is quite possibly one of those utterances recorded in Greek. So how should we translate something that doesn't mean what it says? This is a difficult problem for translators, one which gets at the heart of how humans communicate with each other.

Indeed: "much of the time we don't mean what we actually say", and this is even more true in honor-shame societies, where a person's publicly defined self ("what one says") is expected to coincide with the in-group defined self ("what one is expected to say") rather than the privately defined self ("what one really thinks"). On top of this, one's identity is provided by family and peers, not oneself. In this light, the movement from Mk 8:27-30, to Mk 14:61-62, to Mk 15:2, becomes intriguing.

In the first passage Jesus asks Peter what people are saying about him, and then, in effect, what his disciples are saying about him. Peter tells Jesus he is the messiah. Bruce Malina and Richard Rorhbaugh comment on this heavily misunderstood passage:

"Viewed through Western eyes, this critical Markan passage is usually assumed to signal the point at which the messiahship of Jesus is first recognized by Peter. The assumption is that Jesus knows who he is and that he is testing the disciples to see whether or not they know as well.

"If the passage is viewed from the vantage point of the Mediterranean understanding of personality, however, it is Jesus who does not know who he is, and it is the disciples from whom he must get this information... Jesus wants to find out what his status is... It cannot be stressed too strongly that discovering identity is not self-discovery in Mediterranean societies. Identity is clarified and confirmed only by significant others." (Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p 180)

Peter tells Jesus that he is the messiah, God's anointed one, and Jesus "sternly orders Peter not to tell anyone this". As we know, this plays into Mark's theme of the messianic secret. Historically -- if the event is historical -- Jesus would have been telling Peter and the disciples to keep their yaps shut because he was appalled at the role they were thrusting on him.

But in collectivist cultures, you eventually accept what your friends/family tell you about yourself (or you won't have any family and friends), and the disciples, of course, were both Jesus' friends and (new) family. This brings us back to Jerusalem. In the Markan narrative, Jesus has by this time accepted the messianic role assigned to him by the disciples. In answer to the high priest's question, "Are you the messiah, the son of the Blessed One?", Jesus answers, "I am" (Mk 14:61-62). But when Pilate asks him, "Are you the king of the Judeans," he says, "You say so" (Mk 15:2). Compare the answers given across the synoptic gospels:

Priesthood: "Are you the messiah?"

Mark -- "I am."
Matthew -- "You have said so."
Luke -- "You say that I am."

Pilate: "Are you the king of the Judeans?"

Mark -- "You say so."
Matthew -- "You say so."
Luke -- "You say so."

Goodacre notes that "Pilate's question is different...Nowhere does Jesus own the title 'king' in the Gospel, though it is the one that everyone imposes on Jesus throughout the Passion Narrative, king of the Jews, crown of thorns and so on." True: gospel writer Mark was comfortable having Jesus -- on this one occasion -- acknowledge the more general title (messiah) while shunning the specific (king). In this particular narrative, Jesus proclaims himself openly for the first and only time. But Matthew and Luke show Jesus to be as reticent with the first question as with the second. Mark's "unprecedented yes" (as Harland puts it) sticks out like a sore thumb.

If the so-called "trials" before the priesthood and Pilate are historical, it seems safe to bracket off the "I am" response as purely Markan, and conclude that Jesus refused to answer either question. But this doesn't necessarily mean Jesus is denying the accusation. Far from it. In honor-shame cultures, men do not answer questions when confronted by hostile challengers. To respond to either of the above questions -- whether by "yes" or "no" -- would have been weak and shameful on Jesus' part. Mark, by having Jesus actually answer the high priest's question, makes him lose the challenge-riposte. I believe this can be attributed (in part) to the way Mark wants to show Jesus "losing" and suffering as much as possible.

If collectively speaking, the gospel reports are at all trustworthy, we may say as follows: Jesus was acclaimed the messiah by his followers, and he was initially appalled. But he eventually accepted the title thrust on him, even if the title had to accommodate his particular prophetic role. By the time of Jerusalem, he was confident about his messianic identity, but he refused to explain anything to hostile authorities. When challenged, he threw the question right back in their faces -- "You say so" -- refusing to give ground.

So in answer to Wayne Leman's question:

"What was Jesus communicating to Pilate by his answer? Was he saying, 'You're the one who has said that, not me.' Or was he indirectly affirming that the answer to Pilate's question, 'Are you the king of the Jews?' was 'Yes.'?"

The latter. I think Jesus was affirming he was the messiah in the most insulting and aggressive way possible -- by refusing to answer the question, and by implying, moreover, that Pilate was the one who "said so", that is, in effect, who acknowledged it.

UPDATE: See my follow up post, where I now express reservations about Jesus implying he was "king of the Judeans", depending on how loosely the term "king" could have been used vis-a-vis messiahship. Jesus had come to accept his role as a prophetic messiah, to be sure, but perhaps not a kingly one.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Perelandra (III): Ransom and the Devil

(Prologue to this series here. Part I here. Part II here.)

What distinguishes the Venus scenario from the previous fall is that an outside agent has been sent to help the woman. Just as the devil comes armed with more sophisticated arguments, a Christian from Earth has been sent to counter them. We saw in the last post how the devil was able to make the Lady entertain the unthinkable -- living on the Fixed Land -- first by capitalizing on her own logic, then by suggesting a murky intent behind the giving of the commandment. The first argument is that

1. To reject any new idea for the sake of a familiar idea is not good (=evil).

Ransom has no hope in arguing against this, since it was he himself who helped the Lady understand it! The problem is that it presumes a closed system of paradise. All people, all things, and all ideas coming from within paradise are good, since evil doesn't exist there. The devil and Ransom are outsiders, but what can the Lady, in her innocence, conclude about outsiders? Why would she have any reason to reject the devil or his ideas? Why should she reject the fruit he is offering for the sake of fruit she is used to? It's a Catch-22, and one that Ransom cannot refute. So he zeroes in on the second part of the devil's argument, that

2. God's will is not always what it seems to be. The commandment about the Fixed Land was given to be broken, so as to empower the Lady to think for herself and stand on her own.

To this Ransom replies --

* It's true that the commandment against living on the Fixed Land is different from other commandments, but this isn't because God secretly wants it to be broken. It's because there must be one commandment obeyed for the sake of obedience alone, in order to taste the joy of obeying. Obedience must amount to more than doing what seems good anyway. (101)

The "joy of obedience" has a tradition in Judaism and Christianity, involving the pleasure which comes from serving God in any way that pleases him. Is this what Rick Brannan has in mind when he states, citing Rom 6, that "one is either a slave to sin or a slave to righteousness...we obey because we are His, not because we happen to agree with His commands at a particular point"?

There is, after all, another way of looking at the matter. In Paradise Lost Adam and Eve's fall doesn't center around the question of joy, but simply "the way things work". From Milton's structural point of view, the proper running of the universe requires unconditional obedience of inferiors to superiors, whether they take joy in it or not. Rom 6 can be pressed into this service too.

Lewis favors the personal over the structural. In Perelandra the issue turns on joy, and Ransom hastens to point out that when Eve broke the ban -- just as the Lady is contemplating doing now -- "no joy came of it" (103). Humanity fell, and "all love was troubled and made cold". But the devil has an immediate response, pointing out that it was precisely because of Adam and Eve's disobedience that God came to Earth in human form, which, to Christians like Ransom, is the greatest event ever. Ransom, chaffing at the "unfairness" of the argument, retorts:

* It's true that no matter what people do, God will make good out of it. But the good he initially prepared for Adam and Eve was forever lost, and what they lost has never been seen. And because of their disobedience, there are people to whom good will never come. (104)

This is an intriguing response, and not entirely consistent with the doctrine of felix culpa, or "happy blame", which teaches that Adam and Eve are to be thanked for their sin which brought Christ to the world. Contrast again with Milton: in Paradise Lost Adam is so overjoyed to learn from the archangel Michael what his disobedience will lead to, that he regards the future Christ event as a "greater good" than having remained sinless in Eden. Lewis appears to be at least somewhat uncomfortable with this business. Ransom acknowledges the doctrine with unease, emphasizing -- contra Milton's angel -- that since people have never seen the good originally intended by God, there is really nothing to compare the Christ event to. (Not to mention all the people who end up being denied salvation because of it.) This implicitly calls into question the idea of the Incarnation being the "greater good".

The Lady has been given much to think about. The problem is that she's innocent and has no knowledge of evil -- and thus, paradoxically, no real knowledge of good. In a perfect world she has little context in which to place the devil's argument and Ransom's counter. Is this perhaps why a fall would result in a "greater good", as the devil suggests? So that human beings will truly awaken and start to live life, now able to make conscious decisions about good and evil, and risk all the heartbreaks, horrors, and hard lessons necessary to grow up and appreciate what is good?

In the next post, we will see what happens in the end.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Perelandra (II): The Devil's Argument

(Prologue to this series here. Part I here.)

Having arrived on Venus shortly after Ransom, the devil (inside a man named Weston) tries persuading the Green Lady to sleep on the Fixed Land, just as he once seduced Eve into eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. The earlier event is recounted in the space of five short verses in Genesis (3:1-5):

Serpent: "Did God say, 'You shall not eat from any tree in the garden'?"

Eve: "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden. But God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'"

Serpent: "You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil."

The devil's strategy on Earth was simply to call God a liar [which he was, and I suppose it's no surprise that Lewis took a different approach in this story] and entice Eve with the promise of godly knowledge. On Venus his strategy becomes more complex. For whatever reason, it gets increasingly difficult for the devil to seduce the unfallen. The Green Lady is more resilient than Eve: she argues and resists to the end, is quite shrewd despite her purity of innocence, and calls forth every bit of the devil's resources. So he attacks with penetrating arguments, in a relentless verbal onslaught that leaves us reeling as much as Ransom.

The devil begins with the "innocent" suggestion that

• The Lady should consider what it would be like to dwell on the Fixed land. "This forbidding is such a strange one," he says. And God has not forbidden her to think about dwelling on the Fixed Land. (89)

But why, asks the Lady, bewildered, should one think about something which cannot happen? (89) Stepping outside of God's will is, to her, an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.

• Thinking about things which do not happen, but could conceivably happen, is like making stories or poetry, and to shrink back from such artistry is like drawing back from new fruit being offered. (89, 97)

The devil thus begins to use her own logic against her. As we saw in the last post, if one had to define "evil" from an unfallen perspective, it would be "to refuse something offered for the sake of something expected".

• Indeed, shrinking back from this idea is what makes Ransom such a Bad man, because he is causing her to reject fruit she is now being offered for the sake of the fruit she is used to. (98)

The word "bad" (= evil) is used for the first time in Perelandra, by the devil himself.

• She should contemplate more daring ideas than before, because God wants her to start growing up and walking by herself, without him holding her by the hand. (99)

The seed is planted: an idea that God wants her to mature on her own, and to try things out on her own.

• Indeed, to wait for God's voice when he wants her to walk on her own is a kind of disobedience. "The wrong kind of obeying can be a disobeying," like when someone loses on purpose playing a game. (99)

The devil now uses doublespeak, by claiming that in some cases obedience can actually be disobedience.

• Furthermore, walking on her own could never be perfect unless she, at least once, seemed to disobey God by doing what he only seemed to forbid. God secretly longs for one act of disobedience, so that his creatures may grow up and stand on their own. He has thus given one commandment "for the mere sake of forbidding," precisely so that it may be broken. (100)

There must, according to the devil, be a specific reason why God gave a commandment so different from his other commandments. In all other matters, obedience to God amounts to doing what seems good in one's own eyes (such as loving and not killing). But one cannot see the goodness in a prohibition against dwelling on the Fixed Land. The reason, he suggests, is that it is a commandment given for no other reason than to be broken -- to empower God's creatures to think and act for themselves.

Stepping back for a moment: It's striking not how wrong the devil is, but how right. From our perspective, how can we possibly object to what he's saying? Lewis' devil would make a fine exit counseler. The Lady behaves as one brainwashed, he as one deprogramming her to health and reality. God's inexplicable command to avoid the Fixed Land demands what we call blind obedience. Yet we identify with the Lady anyway and want her to resist. Lewis accomplishes what novelists do rarely: making the reader identify with something alien -- making the repulsive seem appealing -- and demonizing the norm. Clavell did this splendidly in Shogun, where we come to think of remorseless samurai and suiciding fanatics as our own family. Donaldson did it in the Thomas Covenant chronicles, by making us cheer for an unpleasant rapist. In Perelandra we come, despite ourselves, to identify with naivete, innocence, and obedience in their purest forms.

In short, the devil is able to make the Lady entertain the impossible -- stepping outside God's will -- by employing her own logic against her and by arguing that God's will is not, in fact, what it seems to be. Stay tuned for the next post: Ransom's counter.

Politics and Reason

Matt Bertrand mentions an interesting study which "points to a total lack of reason in political decision-making". Not surprising indeed.

The 50 Most Loathesome People in America

The 50 Most Loathesome People in America

This list isn't for the easily offended, but for those who appreciate simple truth. I don't know why I'm laughing, however, since "I" place at #4.

The commentary for George Bush (#3) is precise.

"Simply put, the stupidest man ever to lead this country... Often responds to questions by attempting to define the word he finds the most challenging in them. Thinks press reports of his various crimes are responsible for his waning popularity, rather than the deeds themselves. Interprets the constitution like a Unitarian interprets the bible; for maximum convenience and with no regard to the actual text. Foreign policy vision is less serious and more simplistic than an issue of Captain America."

True: most Unitarians do share interpretive techniques of our fearless leader.

Others who find a home on this list are Bruce Chapman (#46), George Lucas (#44), Hilary Clinton (#30), spammers (#26), Karl Rove (#15), me (#4), Dick Cheney (#2), and Pat Robertson (#1). Putting God at #13 was lame (person in America?), if amusing to the irreverent.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Perelandra (I): Ransom and the Lady

(Prologue to this series here.)

When Ransom meets the Green Lady (the Eve analogue) on Venus, they hardly understand each other. There are things which an unfallen mind, in its Edenic innocence, either cannot conceive or would not conceive on its own. Ransom is able to show her, or teach her, the following:

• It is possible to "step out of life into the Alongside and look at oneself living as if one were not alive." (52)

In other words, the Lady realizes that she can think about herself in different ways and from different perspectives. This happens when she tells Ransom she is "old" today, compared to yesterday, and Ransom points out that tomorrow she will think differently about herself today -- that she was "young" today and "old" tomorrow. She realizes, furthermore, that she can speculate about different possibilities in general. "What would have happened if X?" "What could happen if Y?" Up to this point she has lived by thinking and acting spontaneously, purely in the here-and-now.

• Not all events are pleasing or welcome. (58)

Ransom is talking about certain things on Earth (like death). The Lady cannot grasp this idea at all, for in paradise she has never experienced anything unpleasant or unwelcome. There's no death in Perelandra, no getting hurt at all (she can't even scrape herself climbing rocks). Indeed, she asks, how can anything not be pleasant or welcome? "How can one wish any of God's waves rolling towards us not to reach us?" (58)

But Ransom points out that even she is guilty of this to a very small extent: When she first encountered him, she had been expecting to find her husband and -- for just a moment -- wished he had been her husband. She thus begins to realize that

• It is possible to refuse something offered for the sake of something expected. (59)

This is the crucial lesson of the novel, around which everything that follows revolves. We must cite the Lady's discovery at some length:

"'What you have made me see,' answered the Lady, 'is as plain as the sky, but I never saw it before. Yet it has happened every day. One goes into the forest to pick food and already the thought of one fruit rather than another has grown up in one's mind. Then, it may be, one finds a different fruit and not the fruit one thought of. One joy was expected and another is given. But this I had never noticed before -- that the very moment of the finding there is in the mind a kind of thrusting back, or setting aside. The picture of the fruit you have not found is still, for a moment, before you. And if you wished -- if it were possible to wish -- you could keep it there. You could send your soul after the good you had expected, instead of turning it to the good you had got. You could refuse the real good; you could make the real fruit taste insipid by thinking of the other." (59)

Again, the Lady experiences such desires only fleetingly, by virtue of expectations themselves. But she now realizes it would be possible to cling to such expectations, to refuse new things or new ideas -- though she cannot fathom why anyone would want to do such a thing. It would be unnatural in the extreme. Indeed, this would be the definition of "evil" (if the word existed) from an unfallen perspective:

• "You have made me see that it is I, I myself, who turn from the good expected to the given good. Out of my own heart I do it. One can conceive a heart which did not: which clung to the good it had first thought of and turned the good which was given it into no good." (60)

The idea of clinging to something old in the face of something new is almost inconceivable ("evil") in an unfallen world, where every thing and every idea is good and pleasing no matter what you expect. But this is a paradox, because it will become the very logic exploited by the devil as he tries persuading her to dwell on the Fixed Land.

In the next post we will see how he does it.

RBL: Crossley's Early Dating of Mark

Two RBL reviews worth noting for biblioblogger James Crossley.

Crossley, James G.
The Date of Mark's Gospel: Insight from the Law in Earliest

Reviews by David du Toit and John Painter

See James' reaction here. Like the reviewers, I doubt I'll be persuaded by an early dating of Mark, but I do want to read this book for certain assumptions it evidently calls into question.

UPDATE: See Stephen Carlson's review. Stephen thinks the book's strongest contribution is its background treatment of the sabbath, handwashing, and divorce controversies.

UPDATE (II): Mark Goodacre thinks we should reconsider traditional readings of Mk 7:18-19.

Interview with Jim Davila

Check out the interview with Jim Davila at Biblioblogs.com. Who would have guessed the first biblioblogger used to be a professional actor?

Monday, January 23, 2006


Readers of this blog know that I don't care much for C.S. Lewis, that his fiction and nonfiction leave me cold. But there's an exception, and it's so grand I can almost forgive the man his crimes against literature: Perelandra, the second novel of his space trilogy. I will be analyzing this story in a series of posts over the next two weeks.

Perelandra serves an evangelical purpose like anything else Lewis wrote, but I think it can work for the secular reader as much the Christian, reading like mythology or science-fiction. It's a fascinating and intense examination of how a person from an unfallen world processes thought, and what she is capable of doing as she struggles to think for herself. Try and imagine a world where everything is good -- there aren't even words for "bad" or "evil" -- its (two) people so in touch with their deity that stepping outside his will is impossible to conceive, at least on their own.

The paradise is planet Venus, a world populated by floating islands surrounding a Fixed Land from which the man and woman are banned: they may visit the Fixed Land, but not sleep on it, nor dwell there for too long. The devil arrives on Venus in human form, his task to achieve exactly what he did millennia ago on Earth as a snake: persuade the woman to break the ban, and make the human race fall a second time.

But there's a difference between what's happening now on Perelandra (Venus) and what happened before on Eden (Earth). A human agent from Earth in the 1940s, Elwin Ransom, has been sent by an angel to combat the devil and prevent him from succeeding a second time. The stakes are even higher than before, for apparently the devil has a more difficult time wrecking God's creation with each successive attempt. Correspondingly, if he does succeed, God's redemptive measures become increasingly drastic and brutal. Late in the story, Ransom reflects:
"If he now failed, this world [like Earth] would hereafter be redeemed... [But] not a second crucifixion: perhaps -- who knows -- not even a second Incarnation... some act of even more appalling love, some glory of yet deeper humility. For he had seen already how the pattern grows and how from each world it sprouts into the next through some other dimension. The small external evil which Satan had done [on Mars] was only a line: the deeper evil he had done on Earth a square: if Venus fell, her evil would be a cube -- her Redemption beyond conceiving." (126)
The story of Mars is related in the trilogy's first book, Out of the Silent Planet, an adventure story that in some ways inverts the premise of H.G. Wells' classic. Satan's damage on Mars was minimal (there wasn't a fall requiring redemption), and for all practical purposes the planet never had much to worry about, unlike Earth and Venus. But if Venus' redemptive measures would require a "cube" over Earth's "square"... that's like asking us to contemplate the horror of Passion of the Christ times ten, or worse.

In the next post we will begin going through the story of Perelandra and see what happens when Ransom first encounters the Lady on Venus, before the devil arrives. It's a clash of psyches, handled brilliantly by Lewis, between the fallen and unfallen as they try to understand each other.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Vatican and I.D.

Ben Myers mentions the Vatican's re-endorsement of evolution. Piux XII had tipped his hat to evolution in 1950, and John Paul II embraced it with open arms in 1996. Now Benedict XVI's regime gives another thumbs up in panning Intelligent Design. John Thavis reports here.

"The problem with intelligent design is that it turns to a 'superior cause' -- understood though not necessarily named as God -- to explain supposed shortcomings of evolutionary science. But that's not how science should work, the [Vatican newspaper] article said...

" 'Intelligent design does not belong to science and there is no justification for the pretext that it be taught as a scientific theory alongside the Darwinian explanation,' it said.

"From the church's point of view, Catholic teaching says God created all things from nothing, but doesn't say how, the article said. That leaves open the possibilities of evolutionary mechanisms like random mutation and natural selection.

" 'God's project of creation can be carried out through secondary causes in the natural course of events, without having to think of miraculous interventions that point in this or that direction,' it said."

For whatever reason, Catholics have remained consistently sane on the subject of evolution. I went to Catholic high schools, junior and senior, in the 80s (though I was never Catholic), and was taught evolution as biologically factual. Aside from one silly nun, I never had any teachers who expressed hostility or reservations about the theory. And this was before John Paul II's definitive pronouncement in the 90s.

Catholics aren't bad when they're on top of things.

Biblical Studies Carnival II

See Tyler Williams' call for submissions for Biblical Studies Carnival II. Starting February, the carnival will be showcasing acclaimed and favorite weblog posts, every month on a different blog. Tyler will be the first host in February.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Quote for the Day: The Tongue

"The tongue is a fire. It is placed among our members as a world of iniquity. It stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the tongue -- a restless evil, full of deadly poison." (Jas 3:6-8)

Thursday, January 19, 2006

How Women and Men Use the Internet

We've discussed, ad nauseum, possible reasons for the low involvement of women in biblioblogging. (My theory involves types of blogs which serve as a form of self-aggrandizement feeding the male ego.) The following report by Pew Internet and American Life Project, How Women and Men Use the Internet, offers an answer in a single sentence: "Men like the internet for the experiences it offers, while women like it for the human connections it promotes." It's fair to say that biblioblogging, or indeed a lot of academic blogging, isn't exactly driven by the need to connect with as many people as possible.

Here's part of the summary of the report's findings. (View the full pdf here.)

• The percentage of women using the internet still lags slightly behind the percentage of men. Women under 30 and black women outpace their male peers. However, older women trail dramatically behind older men.

• Men are slightly more intense internet users than women. Men log on more often, spend more time online, and are more likely to be broadband users.

• In most categories of internet activity, more men than women are participants, but women are catching up.

• More than men, women are enthusiastic online communicators, and they use email in a more robust way. Women are more likely than men to use email to write to friends and family about a variety of topics: sharing news and worries, planning events, forwarding jokes and funny stories. Women are more likely to feel satisfied with the role email plays in their lives, especially when it comes to nurturing their relationships. And women include a wider range of topics and activities in their personal emails. Men use email more than women to communicate with various kinds of organizations.

• More online men than women perform online transactions. Men and women are equally likely to use the internet to buy products and take part in online banking, but men are more likely to use the internet to pay bills, participate in auctions, trade stocks and bonds, and pay for digital content.

• Men are more avid consumers than women of online information. Men look for information on a wider variety of topics and issues than women do.

• Men are more likely than women to use the internet as a destination for recreation. Men are more likely to: gather material for their hobbies, read online for pleasure, take informal classes, participate in sports fantasy leagues, download music and videos, remix files, and listen to radio.

• Men are more interested than women in technology, and they are also more tech savvy.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

A Dozen Dangerous Ideas

I want to thank everyone for submitting their dangerous ideas at my request. Here are the winners, rated in descending order. It was hard picking and choosing; they're all so good. As with the original list by the scientists, by "dangerous" I have in view ideas which may well be true (or have arguably valid reasons for being true) but many people would prefer they not be true. Some of them I agree with completely (#3 most obviously); most I agree with significantly; two or three I have reservations about.

1. Exegetes are forever forgetting the past, reinventing the wheel, making little to no progress. (Dale Allison)

Nothing is more threatening to specialists than the idea that they haven't improved upon their predecessors in large measure. Allison believes we don't pay enough attention to the past, precisely because we are under this "illusion that exegesis progresses like the hard sciences" ("Forgetting the Past", The Downside Review, Vol 120, No 421, p 255). In many ways the field has been regressing, as seen in the secularization of Jesus. "Exegetical amnesia" compounds the problem, as when scholars believe they are proposing something new but are rehashing old stuff under different trappings. The true danger lies in realizing that someday our successors will pay us back with the same short shrift.

2. A Jewish Jesus is just as agenda-driven as a Hellenized Jesus, and the historical Jesus is irrelevant in any case. (William Arnal)

If a Greco-Roman sage can be pressed into secular service, or used to validate liberal Christianity, a Jewish prophet serves more oblique agendas: insulating Christianity against anti-Semitism while, paradoxically, able to reinforce Christian supersessionism at the same time. In either case, says Arnal in The Symbolic Jesus, the figure of Jesus becomes a screen on which to project contemporary debates rather than a subject of genuine historical inquiry. The invective from both sides of the debate proves it. The Hellenized Jesus has even been denounced as an implicit (if unintentional) resurrection of the Aryan Jesus of Nazi Germany, while the Jewish Jesus gets panned, in turn, as a patronizing stereotype of modern Jews. Arnal's dangerous idea is that none of this matters. Even if Jesus turned out to be a Nazi's fantasy, a "pure Aryan", it would be irrelevant, because we don't need Jesus to serve as a precedent for us in today's world.

3. The biblical heroes, genuinely understood, are alien to us. We can identify with them only to a limited extent. (Loren Rosson)

The people of the bible lived in a world where questions were hostile, lying honorable, and wealth thievery. Honor and shame could easily be matters of life and death. Jesus was a man of his times, a macho type who faced opposition in ways we consider juvenile: evading questions with counterquestions, rhetoric, and insults. People from this world weren't introspective: they took their identities from family and peers rather than themselves. Generalizations like these smack of racist stereotyping, but that's the point: in honor-shame cultures stereotyping is not only possible but institutionalized. The early Christians had different psychological makeups than we do. Whether we're orthodox or liberal, evangelical or secular, bridging the chasm that divides "us" from "them" is difficult -- and dangerous, sometimes, indeed.

4. New Testament studies should become a secular discipline. (James Crossley)

I don't quite agree with this anymore than Crossley himself does, though part of me wants to see it happen. As one of my blog readers (Steph) pointed out, "If it did become a genuinely secular discipline, more potentially valuable secular scholars would be attracted to it so that any 'important' work produced by believing Christians would become more dispensable. At the moment many aspects of the discipline are unusual." Ultimately I can't go with it, for the same reason I could never accept a discipline dominated by believers. Excluding people like this leads to insular thinking and tunnel vision. Many of the faithful, including evangelicals, have proven more than equipped to engage the historical task. An evangelical like Scot McKnight is light-years ahead of the secular Burton Mack. Speaking of McKnight...

5. The historical Jesus attached sacrificial meaning to his death, believing his blood would appease God's wrath. (Scot McKnight)

Blood sacrifice is appalling to people, and Christians have become increasingly uneasy with atonement doctrine. Stephen Finlan speaks for many: "If God wants to save, why is intercession necessary? Why should Jesus' pleading for humanity only be effective after he had been murdered? Why could not this intercession be effective without Jesus being tortured and killed? It does us no good to perceive Jesus as heroic if we are forced to view God as sadistic." (Problems with Atonement, p 97)

6. Q is a scholarly mirage. (Michael Pahl; cf. Farrer, Goulder, Goodacre)

Anti-Q theories have been around for plenty of time, but Mark Goodacre's Case Against Q has made things more difficult than ever for this sacred cow. He notes the irony: "Q has been all over the world, loved by everyone, feminists and liberation theologians, the sober and the sensational, the scholar and the layperson, a document with universal appeal. Indeed one of the keys to its success has been its ability to woo both conservatives and radicals alike." (p 16). Traditionalists favor Q for providing (supposedly) early evidence of the Christian movement, and liberals just adore it for its emphasis on parables and teachings (like gospel of Thomas), lacking orthodox material like Jesus' passion and resurrection.

7. Critical study of the New Testament and early Christianity provides only limited genuine support for modern feminist concerns and agendas. (Andrew Criddle; cf. John Elliott)

I agree with this entirely. Jesus and Paul have more to offer women than many of the orthodox are comfortable with, but the idea has been way overblown. We know Jesus was publicly involved with women; that Paul got women active in the church (Phoebe was a deacon; Prisca helped with his Gentile mission). But none of this has anything to do with egalitarianism on Jesus' part. Ideas about social equality originated with the Enlightenment and were first put into practice with the American and French revolutions. Jesus maintained a hierarchy in which he stood at the top, twelve special men stood below him, and others below them in turn, some of whom, yes, included women. Oppressed women would have naturally found his apocalyptic message attractive, where there would soon be a reversal of fortunes. Jesus and Paul made more room for women than many in their age. But that's not saying too much by our standards.

8. The canons of textual criticism are no substitute for thoroughly understanding the author's personality. (Stephen Carlson; cf. D.C. Greetham)

According to Greetham: "Being a critic means being sensitive to another person's quirks and peculiarities; it means that the critic must by an almost phenomenological leap, 'become' that other person while preparing the text for publication." (Textual Scholarship, p 296). As a novelist accustomed to "becoming other people", however fictionalized, I can readily endorse this claim. Carlson goes further with Greetham, who was speaking about textual criticism, saying "the dangerous idea is that it's also true for the scholarly criticism of any human endeavor."

9. Many texts used for understanding first-century Judaism are either Christian compositions or written long after the first century, or both. (Jim Davila)

Our views of early Christianity have depended significantly on comparisons and contrasts with first-century Judaism, though there was no such monolithic entity. Much of this "Judaism" has been reconstructed uncritically from the Old Testament pseudepigrapha, on grounds that "if it doesn’t look especially Christian it must be Jewish." ("Jewish Pseudepigrapha and Christian Apocrypha: (How) Can We Tell Them Apart?") Davila reverses the burden of proof, demonstrating that many of these texts may be nothing more than "Judaism according to Christianity", even a text like the Wisdom of Solomon. "We know these documents had a Christian context and that Christians liked them and must have made some sort of sense of them." This dangerous idea makes first-century Judaism(s) even murkier than before, and denies us our convenient comparative models.

10. Acts is not an historical source accurately dating the Christian movement. (Chris Weimer; cf. Knox, Hurd, Ludemann)

This may not sound so dangerous today, but many exegetes remain unable to go where Knox did half a decade ago. As Donald Akenson puts it: "[Knox's] trenchantly accurate observations were exactly the kind of behavior that frequently ends a career... [by] introducing a question that is so fundamental that it needs to framed rudely: as a source for the life of Paul, should the Acts of the Apostles be largely torched? That question has hung over studies of Paul and his writing like a grey ash cloud from a distant volcano." (Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus, p 135). If Knox and Hurd are right (I'm not saying they are), then we can say good-bye to a lot of work done on dating Paul's letters and missionary work.

11. Paul was not a prototype of Martin Luther. (The New Perspective)

Since the landmark study of Paul and Palestinian Judaism by Ed Sanders, many theologians have bitten the bullet and accepted Paul for who he was -- an apostle with a robust conscience trying to convert Gentiles, instead of a guilt ridden soul-searcher worrying about his inability to please God. Paul was no more a Lutheran than Judaism was legalistic, and this really should be accorded the status of "simple fact" rather than "dangerous idea". But because diehards continue combating the New Perspective, I include it here under two (very different) approaches within the perspective itself: the Jewish-friendly Paul and the sectarian Paul.

(a) The Jewish-friendly Paul Paul observed the Torah, taught Jewish Christians to do the same, and his churches were sub-communities within ethnic Israel. He never preached a law-free (or "faith-only") gospel, only a proselyte-free gospel for Gentiles, who remained obligated to respect the primacy of Israel and even to adopt certain Jewish practices themselves. (Mark Nanos)

If Nanos' view of Paul is correct, then Christianity gets turned upside down. What would today's churches make of a Paul who exhorted submission to synagogue authorities and adherence to at least some of the Jewish dietary regulations? I'm sure that Nanos is perceived as no less dangerous by many of his fellow Jewish scholars, who have gone to great lengths proving that Paul was an anti-Semitic villain.

(b) The Sectarian Paul Paul resembled Luther in one way only: the offensiveness of his abuse toward the law and Jewish people. But he eventually recanted in his letter to the Romans, owing to bad reputation and/or church crises, and tried playing fair ball with Israel. (Ed Sanders, Thomas Tobin, Philip Esler, Mark Given)

Scholars have tried in various ways to account for Romans' more positive estimation of the law and Jewish people. Paul may have changed his mind over time after struggling through theological dilemmas (Sanders). He may have revised his arguments out of concern for a nasty reputation (Tobin). If he was trying to resolve ethnic conflict in the Roman church, the success of his strategy would have depended on acknowledging the value of each group's ethnicity; i.e. there had to be something good about being Jewish (Esler). On the other hand, perhaps he only modified his scandalous rhetoric, while his real offensive views remained the same as ever before (Given). Regardless which is true, the idea that Paul did away with the law for expedient reasons (to evangelize Gentiles), then had difficulty coping with the mess he created, is anathema to Reformationist champions who see Paul as the "pure" theologian of grace vs. merit.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Craig and Ehrman on the Resurrection

Michael Bird and Jim West mention the upcoming public debate between William Lane Craig and Bart Ehrman on the resurrection.

"Dr. Craig, Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California, and Dr. Ehrman, James A. Gray Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, will discuss the status of the Christian claim to Jesus' resurrection from the perspective of historical data."

March 28, 2006 7:30PM, Hogan Ballroom
Free and open to the public. Sponsored by the Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture and the Campus Christian Fellowship.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Jesus and Divorce

Chris Heard discusses Oklahoma Christian University's proposed policy for monitoring the marital status of its faculty. According to Inside Higher Ed:
"Faculty members at the university were recently notified that the university planned to formally state a policy with regard to marriage. A draft of the policy states that divorce or separation without plans for reconciliation would be 'grounds for a review of and possible termination of employment.' People who were already divorced when hired are exempt provided that they disclosed the divorce.

"When a marriage ends, the decision on continuing employment would be based on whether there were 'scriptural grounds' for the divorce. If the administration decides to fire someone for a divorce, the employee would be allowed to appeal to the university’s Board of Trustees, which would designate three trustees to hear the appeal and issue a final decision."
Chris, to an extent, defends the university's policy:
"From OC's institutional perspective, divorcing your spouse is, in fact, related to job performance. For an OC faculty or staff member, 'job performance' is broader than simply teaching, research, committee assignments, administrative duties, and so on. In many faith-based colleges, one's personal conduct is not really private, but is part of a community ethos, and part of one's job at such a place is to contribute in positive ways to that ethos."
My purpose in what follows is not so much to argue against the university's view on the matter, though I certainly think it's odious. I'm interested, rather, in pursuing the relationship between the "community ethos" of Oklahoma Christian University and that of Jesus. Why did the historical Jesus prohibit divorce (Mk 10:2-12/Mt 19:3-9)?

In an apocalyptic context, Jesus' ban involved replacing a Mosaic imperative with an Edenic one. "Insofar as the law contains concessions to the fall, it requires repair. So Jesus forbids divorce." (Dale Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, p 186) But that's the theological justification more than the reason. Why did Jesus have a problem with divorce to begin with? What was divorce doing to people? Most people today think Jesus was teaching about sexual ethics.

Context Group scholars inform us that Jesus wasn't targetting sexual ethics, but rather property rights and the vulnerable. "Jesus' words have a practical meaning in a world where all goods, including women, are limited, and there is an intense competition for them... Women are contested resources, much like sheep, pastures and water, so much so that kidnappings, abductions, elopements...[were] frequent occurrences" (William Herzog, Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, p 215). Let's now sketch a brief commentary on the divorce saying of Mk 10:2-12/Mt 19:3-9 in the context of Palestinian village settings. What follows is indebted to the work of Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, as well as other Context Group members.

Mk 10:2/Mt 19:3: Some Pharisees came to Jesus, and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?"

Malina and Rohrbaugh make the preliminary point that in ancient Palestine individuals didn't get married or divorced; families did. The wedding between a man and woman "stood for the merger of the larger extended families and symbolized a fusion of honor of both families involved" (Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p 188). Divorce, likewise, entailed a dissolution of these family ties, creating bad blood and resulting in endless feuding over contested property rights (since marriage initially involved the transfer of property through a bride's dowry). Generally speaking, only men (men's families) could initiate divorce proceedings, though there were exceptions.

Mk 10:3: Jesus asked them, "What did Moses command you?"

When challenged, the honorable man doesn’t answer questions directly, far less protest about the acrimony and feuding which results over contested property rights. He sidesteps the question and claims the higher ground by setting up the Pharisees with his own line of questioning.

(As Malina and Rohrbaugh demonstrate throughout their commentary, Jesus never answers questions posed by rivals. He's a typical macho man, firing back counterquestions, rhetorical evasions, scriptural one-upsmanship, or just plain insults. Honorable men, if they're clever enough, don't allow themselves to be put on the defensive. They go on the offensive by staying on top of their challenger in some way.)

Mk 10:4/Mt 19:7: They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and divorce her."

The Pharisees appeal to the Torah (Deut 24:1-4), which states that a man may divorce his wife for any reason. Divorce, of course, often left a woman and her family vulnerable.

Mk 10:5-9/Mt 19:4-6,8: But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation it was not so: 'God made people male and female,' and 'for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother to be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."

Once again, the honorable man doesn't protest about the injustices done to a woman and her family. That's weak, and would have earned him nothing but scorn and derision. So Jesus spars, citing the creation story (Gen 2:24) in opposition to the tradition of Moses. This is a classic example of clever one-upsmanship in challenge-riposte contests. By saying that a man and woman become "one flesh", Jesus implies that marriage is an unseparable "blood" relationship rather than a legal one, and therefore cannot be legally dissolved (see Malina and Rohrbaugh, p 188). He has cleverly shown up the Pharisees and opposed divorce in the interest in community welfare.

Mk 10:10-12/Mt 19:9: Jesus concluded, "I say to you, a man who divorces his wife -- except on grounds of unchastity [Matthew only] -- and marries another woman commits adultery against her, and a woman who divorces her husband and marries another man commits adultery against him [Mark only]."

Divorce was bad enough in village settings, but divorce and remarriage was even worse. Remarriage made reconciliation impossible and feuding everlasting. Jesus thus condemns remarriage as an act of adultery against one's former spouse, whether man or woman. Matthew's exception for the case of a woman's unchastity ("screwing around") may well be historical; in honor-shame cultures a woman's flagrant or repeated sexual misconduct created lethal animosity in village settings, and it would have been foolish, by any standard, to continue recognizing such a marriage (so Herzog, p 215). Mark's particular addition may reflect a more Greco-Roman setting where women initiated divorce proceedings more commonly than in Palestine. In any case, the general conclusion is that Jesus condemns remarriage for the sake of village harmony.

Jesus' prohibition against divorce thus owed to the dual concern over contested property rights and protecting the weak and vulnerable -- as "in normal divorce cases the woman was at risk" (Herzog, p 216). An immediate clarification, however, is in order. That Jesus was trying to protect women (or women's families) doesn't mean that he was espousing egalitarianism, or social equality, as scholars like Dominic Crossan and Elizabeth Fiorenza have claimed. That's a revisionist fantasy -- one which Jack Elliott has demolished in a wonderfully incisive Biblical Theology Bulletin article. Elliott writes as follows:
"In Jesus' saying about divorce, Crossan finds an implication that women were made equal to men. 'What Jesus asserts,' he claims, 'is that women have exactly the same rights as men have in marriage. Adultery can be committed against the wife's rights just as well as against a husband's.' However... Jesus is not asserting equal rights to divorce but prohibiting an action that blocks reconciliation. Divorcing and then marrying another... makes any reconciliation impossible and inevitably would lead to family feuding between the spouses' families... Even in the Greco-Roman world, the legal right of wives as well as husbands to divorce was never taken as indicating a general equality of husbands and wives. Here, as in Palestinian Israel, husbands were superordinate and wives subordinate... Finally, prohibiting divorce protected not only the wives from social shame and exposure to hardship; it also protected the two originating families of the spouses from interfamily conflict and social shame, thus maintaining interfamily integrity, domestic harmony, and the honor of both families."
As Elliott has observed here and elsewhere, the idea of social equality between human beings originated with the 18th-century Enlightenment and was first put into practice (and only imperfectly) with the American and French revolutions. Jesus certainly wasn't born out of time and place. He was a messianic boss who chose twelve male disciples as his closest confidants. What he did do, however, was provide for the weak and vulnerable -- women not least -- and that was one of his genuine aims in banning divorce.

A final note. The tension between the apocalypse and Jesus' concern for problems in the present age is fascinating. If God was about to wipe out the problems related to divorce, why did Jesus worry about the issue? Dale Allison says that apocalyptic thinkers are bundles of contradiction, and he's not joking. In The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate, he shows how today's apocalyptics are a lot like Jesus, focusing one minute on eschatological visions and the next on social realities. Christian bookstores, for instance, feature material proclaiming the imminent kingdom and in the same pages deal with long-term issues, such as what the future holds for our children. Or take Rebbe Schneerson: he believed the messiah was soon about to come and solve everything, yet he denounced Palestinian autonomy out of genuine fear that it would lead to a Palestinian state. Perhaps, after all, apocalyptics are not so out of touch with reality.

Returning in epilogue to the situation discussed in Chris' post: I'm not sure what the Jesus who prohibited divorce in order to protect people in agrarian village settings has to do with the community ethos of Oklahoma Christian University. While I can applaud a religious university for holding its faculty members to exemplary communal standards, I don't think an employee's marital status is anyone else's business. If Jesus was motivated to safeguard honor out of sensitivity to the vulnerable, it's ironic that a Christian institution may choose to apply his ban in more insensitive and distasteful ways.

UPDATE: Chris responds: "I'm...not entirely convinced that Jesus' concerns can be limited to the socio-economic realm. There is at least a certain 'metaphysical ring' to 'Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate' that I suspect spills over beyond socio-economics." As I mentioned on Chris' blog, I'm not trying to reduce things to socio-economics, as if that could ever be divorced [pun] from theology in Jesus' world to begin with. I was getting at the roots of Jesus' theology, a theology which was apocalyptic in its appeal to the Edenic ideal (Gen 2:24). Reflecting on what divorce did to people in his world, Jesus surely did come to believe -- theologically, metaphysically -- that "what God has joined together no one should separate". But I seriously doubt he would have ever come to this theology, or objected to divorce at all, had it not been such a problem.


Allison, Dale. Resurrecting Jesus, T&T Clark. 2005.

Elliott, John. "Jesus Was Not an Egalitarian", Biblical Theology Bulletin. 2002.

Herzog, William. Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, Westminster John Knox. 2000.

Malina, Bruce & Richard Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Second Edition), Augsburg Fortress. 2003.

Miller, Robert (editor). The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate, Polebridge. 2001.

Friday, January 13, 2006

More on Dawkins: "Angry Atheists"

Chris Mooney makes wonderfully astute observations about the atheist community in general, and Richard Dawkins in particular. He's right about everything -- what people like Dawkins are good for, what they're bad for, and the underlying problem with "angry atheists" who are mad at the world. (I think of a few who post over at Internet Infidels.)

"Dawkins is a divisive figure -- which means that he's very good for some things and very bad for others.

Here's what Dawkins is good for: Making people think critically about their most cherished assumptions. In this area, Dawkins completely rocks. I'm a firm believer that we desperately need public intellectuals who are willing to slaughter sacred cows, and there's no cow killer who quite compares to Dawkins...

Nevertheless, it is not wise to go slaughtering sacred cows amidst one's defense of evolution in America. Ask any pollster, any communications strategist -- the tactic will backfire. And this is where the Dawkins approach isn't so effective...

There's a larger point here. My experience with the nation's atheist community generally -- and I speak from considerable experience -- is that few of its members think very strategically about how to achieve their goals. They're too angry, too ready to pop off about religion, too quick to file lawsuits, too eager to offend people."

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Dawkins and Religion

James Crossley has a nice review of the U.K. Channel 4 program by Richard Dawkins, the leading scientist who loves telling us things we don't want to hear and need to hear. His recent dangerous idea for The Edge was beautiful, and unsettling to people. I agree with James, however, that he tends to go off the deep end with his anti-religious rhetoric.

James acknowledges "perfectly sensible points" made by Dawkins in his attack on religion, while noting that religion can hardly absorb all the blame Dawkins wants to dump on it. He writes:

"I don't think by itself [religion] is inherently good or evil (in some ways like science you could say). As I've said before, in most cases it requires some kind of specific socio-economic context to trigger off deadly responses."

Not only this, but we should be under no delusion that the evils of the world would have been diminished had religion never appeared on the scene. Stalin and Pol Pot weren't motivated by religion. The simple fact is that homo sapiens are, biologically, a violent, discriminatory, and unhappy lot, and we're always going to try to justify our hurting others and discriminating against them, whether by religion or not. A scientist like Dawkins should realize this. It should also be noted that religion has been part of the critique against injustice and ignorance, just as it has been a perpetuator of them.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Dangerous Ideas in Biblical Studies

I'm issuing a call to all bibliobloggers for their one "dangerous idea" pertaining to the field of biblical studies. As I noted this morning, The Edge asked leading specialists (mostly scientists) the following question:

"The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?"

So this is my question for bibliobloggers:

"The history of biblical studies is replete with scholars who were considered dangerous in their time; Reimarus, Strauss, and Schweitzer, etc. What is your dangerous idea? Any idea you think is dangerous, not because you think it's false, but because many others want it to be false and you think it's true?"

Here are five ideas I came up with for examples. I should note that I do not necessarily agree with them to the extent their originators do, though I agree significantly or in part, which is why I chose them. Naturally, not everyone is threatened by the same thing; what is dangerous to one scholar will be rather mundane to another. But I would say that you could find plenty in the guild who find one or more of the following ideas threatening.

1. Biblical exegetes are forever reinventing the wheel, making little to no progress. (Dale Allison: "Forgetting the Past", The Downside Review, Vol 120, No 421; Resurrecting Jesus, Chapter 1)

2. The biblical texts we have today cannot be trusted. (Bart Ehrman: Misquoting Jesus)

3. The historical Jesus attached sacrificial meaning to his death, believing that his blood would appease God's wrath. (Scot McKnight: Jesus and His Death)

4. Scholars cannot be trusted to interpret biblical texts if they cannot be trusted to recognize a transparent hoax like Secret Mark. (Donald Akenson: Saint Saul: Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus, Chapter 4)

5. A Jewish Jesus is just as agenda-driven as a Hellenized Jesus, and the historical Jesus is irrelevant in any case. (William Arnal: The Symbolic Jesus)

So, bibliobloggers: what is your dangerous idea?

UPDATE: Over the course of today, under the comments section and over at Internet Infidels, I've received the following submissions for dangerous ideas. Nice work, folks; keep them coming.

Q is a mirage. (Michael Pahl, citing Farrer/Goulder/Goodacre’s dangerous idea)

The resurrection really happened. (Michael Pahl) In the comments section I explain why I don’t think this really qualifies as a dangerous idea. So does James Crossley.

New Testament studies should become a genuinely secular discipline (James Crossley)

Critical study of the New Testament and early Christianity provides only limited genuine support for modern feminist concerns and agendas. (Andrew Criddle)

Matthew is a thoroughly Christian document, written by Christians for Christians and not for Jews. (Chris Weimer)

Acts is not a historical source accurately dating the Christian movement. (Chris Weimer)

Q is not dead yet. (Chris Weimer)

Much real progress on the gospels have yet to be recovered because of the mentality to not accept change. (Chris Weimer)

Biblical scholarship should start with the assumption that the impossible is impossible. (Joe Wallack)

"We can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary; and other sources about Jesus do not exist." (Rick Sumner, citing Bultmann’s Jesus and the Word)

UPDATE (II): Here are a couple more.

The New Testament isn't big enough and the corpus isn't secure enough to support style theories for authorship determination when the theory is based on counting criteria like hapax legomenon, common words or conjunction use. (Rick Brannan; see his blogpost)

God is supernatural. To approach Biblical Studies from a viewpoint that does not allow the supernatural to be possible is an invalid approach. (Rick Brannan; see again his blogpost)

I'm beginning to think I may have dismissed Michael Pahl's dangerous idea (Jesus' resurrection) a bit hastily after thinking about Rick's second suggestion. Evidently in this field, one person's minefield is another's comfort zone. Ken Ristau also disagrees with me (and Crossley) in the comments section. In response to my statement, "Most people in the guild of NT studies -- let alone the masses -- want the resurrection to be true", Ken said: "This I disagree [with] big time. Perhaps people might wish that their own resurrection were possible but I think the vast majority of us don't want to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, the Jesus of the Gospels. That brings with it far too many additional complications that many people spend their lives throwing off." I've certainly never met a Christian who has stated a longing for their own resurrection while denying Jesus', but perhaps what Ken is trying to say is that while individuals naturally want to resist their own demise (or "escape death" in some way), the resurrection idea in general poses uncomfortable ontological implications in the modern age. I maintain that many more people find ideas about resurrection, reincarnation, etc. more attractive (and less dangerous) than not (that's why they've been around and still persist), though I suppose I can meet people like Ken and Rick halfway: skeptics can indeed be threatened by ideas relating to the supernatural.

I'll take more dangerous ideas up until the end of the week, at which point I'll probably choose ten winners and devote a separate blogpost for them.

UPDATE (III): I've been anticipating a dangerous idea relating to the sources commonly used as a basis for understanding first-century Judaism. Here it is.

Many of the ancient texts used by New Testament scholars as sources for first-century Judaism as background material for the New Testament are actually either Christian compositions or were written long after the first century, or both, and insofar as reconstructions of early Judaism are based on them, those reconstructions are of dubious value. (Jim Davila; see his blogpost)

UPDATE (IV): The esteemed Mark Nanos emailed me his dangerous ideas about Paul. Mark believes Paul was more Jewish-friendly than usually assumed, and has argued this at length in Mystery of Romans and Irony of Galatians. I print below with his permission.

My dangerous idea is that Paul observed Torah, ritual as well as moral, eating kosher, observing Sabbath, having his sons circumcized (if he had any), offering sacrifices at the Temple if in Jerusalem, and so on. Moreover, concomitant with this dangerous notion, he taught believers in Christ who were Jewish to do the same, and non-Jewish believers in Christ to both respect those practices for Jews and to adopt many of them also themselves, as was customary for so-called "God-fearing" non-Jewish associates of Jewish communities (Noahide Commandments, Apostolic Decree of Acts 15).

The communities he formed...practiced Jewish dietary customs and calendars of the area Jewish communities. There was no "Law-free Gospel" or "faith only" in the sense it came to have in Christian tradition, but a Gospel message for non-Jews that they joined the family of Abraham without becoming proselytes, a "Proselyte-free Gospel," because of the faithfulness of Christ to restore not only Israel, but all of the nations to the Creator God.

This also brings up another dangerous idea, Christ-believing non-Jews do not become members of Israel...The "church" is not a new, third group of people (a "third race")... but a subgroup of the Jewish community (Israel)... The ethnic and thus some behavioral differences remain, but the discrimination associated with those differences in the present age is to be eliminated among themselves; they are to live as if the age to come had begun among themselves instead, which is to what Jesus Christ's resurrection bears witness (so Paul claims).

One more dangerous idea about Paul. He was unfair to judge any Jew who did not have the same revelatory experience he claimed for not agreeing with him, for on the basis of Scripture and empirical data he did not himself come to these conclusions; why should he proceed as if it should be so for anyone else? In other words, Paul's own experience, like his teaching at some points, should lead to respectful disagreement, not judgment of motives or ends; that is, to leave judging to God, and to pursue instead mutual respect and service to everyone by those who seek to uphold the faith he proclaimed.

Top Five Dangerous Ideas

With thanks to Matt Bertrand for mentioning, the online magazine, The Edge, asked specialists to state their "most dangerous idea", an idea "that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true". Go through all of these, they're great. So far there have been 119 respondents. The following five are my favorites.

1. There is no such thing as blame or responsibility. (Richard Dawkins)

This dangerous idea wins hands down, and I agree with it -- just as I include myself, as Dawkins does, in the category of those who will probably remain unable to attain this level of enlightenment. Dawkins writes:

"Ask people why they support the death penalty or prolonged incarceration for serious crimes, and the reasons they give will usually involve retribution. There may be passing mention of deterrence or rehabilitation, but the surrounding rhetoric gives the game away. People want to kill a criminal as payback for the horrible things he did. Or they want to give 'satisfaction' to the victims of the crime or their relatives.

"Doesn't a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system make nonsense of the very idea of responsibility, whether diminished or not? Any crime, however heinous, is in principle to be blamed on antecedent conditions acting through the accused's physiology, heredity and environment. Don't judicial hearings to decide questions of blame or diminished responsibility make as little sense for a faulty man as for a Fawlty car?

"Why is it that we humans find it almost impossible to accept such conclusions? Why do we vent such visceral hatred on child murderers, or on thuggish vandals, when we should simply regard them as faulty units that need fixing or replacing? Presumably because mental constructs like blame and responsibility, indeed evil and good, are built into our brains by millennia of Darwinian evolution. Assigning blame and responsibility is an aspect of the useful fiction of intentional agents that we construct in our brains as a means of short-cutting a truer analysis of what is going on in the world in which we have to live. My dangerous idea is that we shall eventually grow out of all this and even learn to laugh at it, just as we laugh at Basil Fawlty when he beats his car. But I fear it is unlikely that I shall ever reach that level of enlightenment."

2. Free will is going away. Time to redesign society to take that into account. (Clay Shirky)

"In the coming decades, our concept of free will, based as it is on ignorance of its actual mechanisms, will be destroyed by what we learn about the actual workings of the brain. We can wait for that collision, and decide what to do then, or we can begin thinking through what sort of legal, political, and economic systems we need in a world where our old conception of free will is rendered inoperable."

3. Zero parental influence. (Judith Rich Harris)

"Is it dangerous to claim that parents have no power at all (other than genetic) to shape their child's personality, intelligence, or the way he or she behaves outside the family home? More to the point, is this claim false? Was I wrong when I proposed that parents' power to do these things by environmental means is zero, nada, zilch?... The establishment's failure to shoot me down has been nothing short of astonishing. One developmental psychologist even admitted, one year ago on this very website, that researchers hadn't yet found proof that 'parents do shape their children,' but she was still convinced that they will eventually find it, if they just keep searching long enough."

4. Groups of people may differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments. (Steven Pinker)

This is a prolifically dangerous idea which calls forth charges of racism. "Whether or not these hypotheses hold up (the evidence for gender differences is reasonably good, for ethnic and racial differences much less so), they are widely perceived to be dangerous. [Advocates have been] subjected to months of vilification, and proponents of ethnic and racial differences in the past have been targets of censorship, violence, and comparisons to Nazis. Large swaths of the intellectual landscape have been reengineered to try to rule these hypotheses out a priori (race does not exist, intelligence does not exist, the mind is a blank slate inscribed by parents)."

5. Science encourages religion in the long run (and vice versa). (Scott Atran)

"Science treats humans and intentions only as incidental elements in the universe, whereas for religion they are central. Science is not particularly well-suited to deal with people's existential anxieties, including death, deception, sudden catastrophe, loneliness or longing for love or justice. It cannot tell us what we ought to do, only what we can do. Religion thrives because it addresses people's deepest emotional yearnings and society's foundational moral needs, perhaps even more so in complex and mobile societies that are increasingly divorced from nurturing family settings and long familiar environments... Religion is the hope that science is missing."

In an upcoming post, I will spin off this list with my own Dangerous Ideas in Biblical Studies.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

The recent issue of Kirkus reviews Daniel Dennett's new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as Natural Phenomenon, "an exploration of modern scientific theories of religion, framed by an argument that society must overcome its 'spell' against studying religion as a natural, evolutionary occurrence" (1/1/06, p 25).

Dennett is the author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea, a book delightful for its attack on those uncomfortable with the implications of evolution, while also somewhat disappointing at times for its more philosophical (rather than scientific) knock-downs of straw men. But for all his shortcomings, Dennett is always worth reading. Here's how the reviewer describes his new book due out February 6.

"Dennett...presents material from various researchers regarding how religion has evolved in human cultures. By drawing attention to theories that shaman 'healing' practices, group cohesion and loyalty to ideas beyond the self have been a part of human evolution related to proto-religions, the author demonstrates why the existence of religious practice may have developed so uniformly in all human cultures. When broaching more developed and institutionalized forms of religion, however, he steps onto thinner ice. In concluding that many people believe more in their traditions than in the dogma and doctrine of their faith, and in pointing out inconsistencies between scriptural authorities and modern theologies, Dennett observes religion from an outsider's vantage point...[which] leads to a tendency to dismiss the role of faith, often by setting up straw men to knock down for the sake of his thesis. For instance, he states that, to many, faith is much like being in love, then concludes that love can delude individuals and even be bad for them. This analogy may not prove very convincing to the faithful." (ibid)

I'll have to read the book before judging this, but on the face of it, the last analogy is hard to disagree with on a general level. Faith is much like being in love, and often delusory. Perhaps that's not always a bad thing. David Livingstone Smith tells us that unconscious self-deception is a survival trait, necessary for our mental well-being.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

"The Better Angels of Our Nature": Evolution and Morality

I just received this from David Livingstone Smith, author of Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind. Looks like a promising lecture.

"The Better Angels of Our Nature": Evolution and Morality

St. Francis Room of the Ketchum Library
University of New England 11 Hills Beach Road
Biddeford, Maine
Feb. 21, 2006 at 6 p.m.

Evolutionary biologist David Lahti, Ph.D., will deliver a lecture on "'The Better Angels of Our Nature': Evolution and Morality" on Feb. 21, 2006 at 6 p.m. in the Lahti is an NIH Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The lecture, sponsored by New England Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Psychology and Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, is free and open to the public.

Are we humans essentially altruistic beings whose natural state is to care for others? Or are we ogres at heart, our moral codes the only thing holding us back from utter selfishness? Lahti argues that an evolutionary consideration of morality suggests a third alternative, that we are by nature moral strugglers and deliberators - that the relevant adaptive trait is neither altruism nor selfishness, but rather a refined ability to assess our social environments and make informed decisions about how altruistic or selfish to be. We tend, he believes, to make these decisions on the basis of two main variables: the anticipated effects of our behavior on our reputation and the perceived stability of the social groups on which we depend. Furthermore, what we often call morality is actually a conglomerate of tendencies and capacities, some of which are millions of years old and others just thousands. Many of its more recent features, including moral rules that are difficult for us to follow, are cultural surrogates for adaptation in an age when our social environments are changing too fast for us to adapt genetically to them.

Lahti received a Ph.D. in philosophy at the Whitefield Institute at Oxford in 1998, for work on the relationship between science and the foundations of morality; more recently his research in this area has focused on the evolution of morality. In 2003 he received a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Michigan, where he documented rapid evolution in the African village weaverbird. From 2003 to 2005 he held the Darwin Fellowship at the Program in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at University of Massachusetts Amherst, and has been studying the evolution and development of bird song.

Monday, January 02, 2006

The Wisdom of Ecclesiastes

"What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done. There is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, 'See, this is new?' It has already been, in the ages before us... I saw everything done under the sun; all is vanity and chasing after wind... I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil done under the sun... The same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil. As are the good, so are the sinners. There is an evil in everything under the sun, that the same fate comes to everyone." (Eccles. 1:9-10,14; 4:2-3; 9:2-3a)

Tyler Williams offers some New Year’s wisdom from the best book of the bible, Ecclesiastes. He writes:

"Those familiar with the book of Ecclesiastes may be asking yourself what does a book that renders everything as hebel or absurd have to say about personal goals and resolutions for the new year? Well, that's a good question! Especially considering Ecclesiastes 1:9 which says 'History merely repeats itself. It has all be done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new.' This verse probably rings true to all of us who have ever made a new year's resolution year after year only to break it by the time February comes around! If everything is hebel or absurd and if we're caught in this endless cycle, what's the point of trying to do things different this coming year?"

He notes that hebel connotes absurdity in the sense of "chasing after the wind", which no one can catch. It means vanity, meaningless, or -- yes -- even flatulence. The good book tells us that everything in life is just one big fart.

Tyler finds resolution to this pessimism much as the writer of Ecclesiastes did (though he puts it in a Christian context). Not everything is absurd, truly, only everything sought apart from God. "If we try to find meaning in wisdom, wealth, or work 'under the sun', that is, apart from God," says Tyler, "then our search will be futile."

Many people, however, do find meaning apart from God, so I will attempt to put the wisdom of Ecclesiastes in terms to which non-deists can relate. Life is indeed hopeless and absurd, and we chase after wind all the time. We certainly don't progress as much as we think we do, something Stephen Jay Gould often emphasized. History is a long defeat, and humanity will eventually lose altogether -- probably to bacteria. But in the meantime we do the best we can, and we try to do good for goodness sake alone, perhaps on grounds that life under the sun can be good no matter how bad because that's all there is.

Happy New Year to all.

UPDATE: See Chris Heard's post. He takes issue with Tyler restricting "under the sun" to refer to "apart from God", as if Ecclesiastes is implying that life is meaningless only apart from God. The righteous and the wicked are certainly envisioned as being treated indiscriminately by God "under the sun" (Chris cites the passage I did above: 9:2-3a). Chris suggests that "under the sun" instead refers to "a designation of normal human life, as distinct from the realm of death...life 'under the sun' for Qoheleth is not some special quality of life; it is simply the normal human condition."