Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Harmony not unison

Ned Stonehouse (1902 - 1962) was one of the foremost New Testament scholars of his day. Stonehouse was an associate of J. Gresham Machen and succeeded Machen as Professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary Philadelphia. Stonehouse's area of special interest was the Synoptic gospels, and among his books on the subject is Origins of the Synoptic Gospels published in 1963. I suppose some of this material has been overtaken by subsequent developments, but this is a solid treatment of questions that continue to come up in debates over the reliability of the gospels -- you know, the kind of thing you're likely to hear from NT debunkers like Bart Ehrman and Bill Maher.

Matthew, Mark and Luke present us with some challenging problems, not least in the area of harmonization. Details differ in the reporting of events in Jesus' life, and perhaps more challenging are the divergences in Jesus' words as reported by the evangelists. Stonehouse tackles this head on using the story of The Rich Young Ruler as an example (see Matthew 19:16-30, Mark 10:17-31 and Luke 18:18-30). The basic outline of the story and the fundamental thrust of Jesus' teaching are the same, but there are some key differences as well. Matthew (assuming Mark came first and that Matthew relied on the Marcan text) changes Jesus' reply to the young man from "Why do you call me good?" to "Why do you ask me about what is good?" Also, Matthew changes by addition and subtraction Mark's account of Jesus' response to Peter's statement ("See, we have left everything and followed you.") in such a way to put the stress on the eschatological rewards for those who leave all to follow him.

There are two ways scholars have approached the differences in the gospel accounts. Those who want to defend the canonical gospels often flatten out the differences by minimizing them or insisting the writers must be reporting different events or different sayings. In the opposite camp are those like Ehrman who see discrepancies everywhere and use them as evidence that the gospels can't be trusted. Here Stonehouse describes how Christians can defend the trustworthiness of the gospels without obliterating the human factor.

There is, in my judgment, a sounder attitude to most problems of harmonization than that which was characterized above as conservative and simple. It is marked by the exercise of greater care in determining what the Gospels as a whole and in detail actually say as well as greater restraint in arriving at conclusions where the available evidence does not justify ready answers. In particular, there is the possibility of genuine progress if one does not maintain that the trustworthiness of the Gospels allows the evangelists no liberty of composition whatsoever, and does not insist that in reporting the words of Jesus, for example, they must have been characterized by a kind of notarial exactitude or what Professor John Murray has called "pedantic precision." Inasmuch as this point seems constantly to be overlooked or disregarded in the modern situation it may be well to stress again that orthodox expositors and defenders of the infallibility of Scripture have consistently made the point that infallibility is not properly understood if it is supposed that it carries with it the implication that the words of Jesus as reported in the Gospels are necessarily the ipsissima verba ["the very words"]. What is involved rather is that the Holy Spirit guided the human authors in such a way as to insure that their records give an accurate and trustworthy impression of the Lord's teachings.

Quote from pp. 109-110 of Origins of the Synoptic Gospels [bold emphasis mine]

Friday, May 25, 2012

Kemp finds his voice

A voice made of ink and rage. . .

The Rum Diary (dir. Bruce Robinson, 2011)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Long Voyage Home (Brooks on Ford)

Lately I've been watching a lot of John Ford films. The other night I watched The Long Voyage Home from 1940. This is a majestic and melancholy tale of men at sea based on material by Eugene O'Neill. Like most if not all of Ford's work it's about a community -- in this case a group of sailors aboard a British merchant ship making a dangerous Atlantic crossing during the early days of World War Two.

By accident I stumbled across an old column by NYT columnist David Brooks where he borrows the title of this movie to contrast the celebration of community in John Ford's work with the modern-day Republican Party's fixation on individual freedom.

Republicans generally like Westerns. They generally admire John Wayne-style heroes who are rugged, individualistic and brave. They like leaders — from Goldwater to Reagan to Bush to Palin — who play up their Western heritage. Republicans like the way Westerns seem to celebrate their core themes — freedom, individualism, opportunity and moral clarity.

But the greatest of all Western directors, John Ford, actually used Westerns to tell a different story. Ford’s movies didn’t really celebrate the rugged individual. They celebrated civic order.

For example, in Ford’s 1946 movie, “My Darling Clementine,” Henry Fonda plays Wyatt Earp, the marshal who tamed Tombstone. But the movie isn’t really about the gunfight and the lone bravery of a heroic man. It’s about how decent people build a town. Much of the movie is about how the townsfolk put up a church, hire a teacher, enjoy Shakespeare, get a surgeon and work to improve their manners.

The movie, in other words, is really about religion, education, science, culture, etiquette and rule of law — the pillars of community. In Ford’s movie, as in real life, the story of Western settlement is the story of community-building. Instead of celebrating untrammeled freedom and the lone pioneer, Ford’s movies dwell affectionately on the social customs that Americans cherish — the gatherings at the local barbershop and the church social, the gossip with the cop and the bartender and the hotel clerk.

Today, if Republicans had learned the right lessons from the Westerns, or at least John Ford Westerns, they would not be the party of untrammeled freedom and maximum individual choice. They would once again be the party of community and civic order.

They would begin every day by reminding themselves of the concrete ways people build orderly neighborhoods, and how those neighborhoods bind a nation. They would ask: What threatens Americans’ efforts to build orderly places to raise their kids? The answers would produce an agenda: the disruption caused by a boom and bust economy; the fragility of the American family; the explosion of public and private debt; the wild swings in energy costs; the fraying of the health care system; the segmentation of society and the way the ladders of social mobility seem to be dissolving.

Click here to read the rest of Brooks' analysis. Of course the Democratic Party also turns individual choice and freedom into an absolute good, but they tend to do it in the social sphere. It's time to rediscover those forgotten civic values that used to be celebrated before the bonds that used to bind us together are broken forever.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A communitarian definition of marriage (Berry)

We thus can see that there are two kinds of human economy. There is the kind of economy that exists to protect the "right" of profit, as does our present public economy; this sort of economy will inevitably gravitate toward protection of the "rights" of those who profit most. Our present public economy is really a political system that safeguards the private exploitation of the public health and wealth. The other kind of economy exists for the protection of gifts, beginning with the "giving in marriage," and this is the economy of community, which now has been nearly destroyed by the public economy.
There are two kinds of sexuality that correspond to the two kinds of economy. The sexuality of community life, whatever its inevitable vagaries, is centered on marriage, which joins two living souls as closely as, in this world, they can be joined. This joining of two who know, love, and trust one another brings them in the same breath into the freedom of sexual consent and into the fullest earthly realization of the image of God. From their joining, other living souls come into being, and with them great responsibilities that are unending, fearful, and joyful. The marriage of two lovers joins them to one another, to forebears, to descendants, to the community, to Heaven and earth. It is the fundamental connection without which nothing holds, and trust is its necessity.
Our present sexual conduct, on the other hand, having "liberated" itself from the several trusts of community life, is public, like our present economy. It has forsaken trust, for it rests on the easy giving and breaking of promises. And having forsaken trust, it has predictably become political. . . .

This quote from Wendell Berry points up the incongruity that many of those who defend the traditional definition of marriage are unabashed cheerleaders for a liberated "public economy" (as described by Berry) that by its logic inexorably undermines traditional marriage. Once we adopt the language of "rights" and "self-fulfillment" to talk about marriage the battle is already lost. And I fear it was lost long ago.

Quote from pp. 138-9 of Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community (Pantheon Books, 1993)

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Alone with The Misfit

I've written before about my belated appreciation of Flannery O'Connor. Recently I've been reading my way through this handsome collection of all her short stories. I appreciate the fact that they're arranged in chronological order which allows the reader to experience the development of O'Connor as a writer. In a nice bit of symmetry the last story "Judgment Day", which was part of a collection published after her death at age 39,  is a reworking of the first "The Geranium". The fact that these sometimes violent and surreal tales emerged from the imagination of this rather odd and unassuming young Southern woman makes them all the more fascinating. Does Flannery O'Connor deserve to be mentioned in the same breath with literary giants like Faulkner, Hemingway and Fitzgerald? It's arguable, but I think she does.

The eleventh story in the collection is "A Good Man is Hard to Find". O'Connor had hit her stride by the time this was published. The story begins as a bickering family sets out on a road trip to Florida and ends with them shot execution style by a trio of escaped convicts. What comes between is as random and shocking as it sounds. "A Good Man is Hard to Find" features two typical contrasting O'Connor characters: a smug cantankerous grandmother and a psychopathic criminal dubbed "The Misfit". Their confrontation is the centerpiece of the story's final act, and each provokes a moment of crisis in the other.

Alone with The Misfit, the grandmother found that she had lost her voice. There was not a cloud in the sky nor any sun. There was nothing around her but woods. She wanted to tell him that he must pray. She opened and closed her mouth several times before anything came out. Finally she found herself saying, "Jesus. Jesus," meaning, Jesus will help you, but the way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing.
 "Yes'm," The Misfit said as if he agreed. "Jesus thown everything off balance. It was the same case with Him as with me except He hadn't committed any crime and they could prove I had committed one because they had the papers on me. Of course," he said, "they never shown me my papers. That's why I sign myself now. I said long ago, you get you a signature and sign everything you do and keep a copy of it. Then you'll know what you done and you can hold up the crime to the punishment and see do they match and in the end you'll have something to prove you ain't been treated right. I call myself The Misfit," he said, "because I can't make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment." 
There was a piercing scream from the woods, followed closely by a pistol report. "Does it seem right to you, lady, that one is punished a heap and another ain't punished at all?" 
"Jesus!" the old lady cried. "You've got good blood! I know you wouldn't shoot a lady! I know you come from nice people! Pray! Jesus, you ought not to shoot a lady. I'll give you all the money I've got!" 
"Lady," The Misfit said, looking beyond her far into the woods, "there never was a body that give the undertaker a tip."*

I'm probably not giving too much away by telling you this scene ends badly for the grandmother. And in the end The Misfit has one of the all time best punchlines -- a line both mordantly funny and profound.

"She was a talker, wasn't she?" Bobby Lee said, sliding down the ditch with a yodel.
"She would of been a good woman," The Misfit said, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."*

Critics more astute than me have tried to explain the meaning of O'Connor's fiction. I think it's pretty clear she meant to pierce through the complacency that keeps us from recognizing our need for divine grace -- the kind that's "thown everything off balance." Her stories are parables aimed at those who trust in themselves that they are righteous, and treat others with contempt. Or, I don't know, maybe they're just massively entertaining, brilliant and funny. Whatever the case I'm always eager to step into Flannery O'Connor's world.

*Excerpts from "A Good Man is Hard to Find" (1953)

Friday, May 4, 2012

Horton on "masculine Christianity"

Michael Horton pushes back against the current craze for masculine Christianity:

In the drive to make churches more guy-friendly, we risk confusing cultural (especially American) customs with biblical discipleship. One noted pastor has said that God gave Christianity a "masculine feel." Another contrasted "latte-sipping Cabriolet drivers" with "real men." Jesus and his buddies were "dudes: heterosexual, win-a-fight, punch-you-in-the-nose dudes." Real Christian men like Jesus and Paul "are aggressive, assertive, and nonverbal." Seriously?
The back story on all of this is the rise of the "masculine Christianity movement" in Victorian England, especially with Charles Kingsley's fictional stories in Two Years Ago (1857). D. L. Moody popularized the movement in the United States and baseball-player-turned-evangelist Billy Sunday preached it as he pretended to hit a home run against the devil. For those of us raised on testimonies from recently converted football players in youth group, Tim Tebow is hardly a new phenomenon. Reacting against the safe deity, John Eldredge's Wild at Heart (2001) offered a God who is wild and unpredictable. Neither image is grounded adequately in Scripture. With good intentions, the Promise Keepers movement apparently did not have a significant lasting impact. Nor, I predict, will the call of New Calvinists to a Jesus with "callused hands and big biceps," "the Ultimate Fighting Jesus."
Are these really the images we have of men in the Scriptures? Furthermore, are these the characteristics that the New Testament highlights as "the fruit of the Spirit"—which, apparently, is not gender-specific? "Gentleness, meekness, self-control," "growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ," "submitting to your leaders," and the like? Officers are to be "apt to teach," "preaching the truth in love," not quenching a bruised reed or putting out a smoldering candle, and the like. There is nothing about beating people up or belonging to a biker club.
And what about the fact that women as well as men are identified as "disciples" in the New Testament—something that was quite unusual for Second Temple Jews? Or Paul's expressions of gratitude and greeting to the women who assisted him in his work? Not to mention that "there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). It was Dorothy Sayers who castigated the pale curates of England for serving up a thin soup of moralism instead of the serious, dramatic, and counterintuitive message of the gospel: "the greatest story ever told." She wasn't trying to "masculinize" or "feminize" the gospel, but to join the throng of Zion's worshippers in all times and places. "In Christ," not "in manhood" or "in womanhood," is our ultimate location. One Lord, one faith, one baptism.
Mark Driscoll are you listening?

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The chastening of science (Grenz)

Renewing the Center by the late Baptist theologian Stanley Grenz is a worthy attempt to engage positively from a Christian perspective with the grab bag of ideas called postmodernism. I found it an interesting read, and recommend it to anyone with an interest in theology and philosophy. Grenz's love of Jesus and his church is evident, and keeps the book from being merely an exercise in academic speculation. What if, instead of seeing postmodernism as a threat to Christianity, specifically evangelical Christianity, we saw it as an opportunity? Grenz sees opportunities where others see only danger. We need more optimistic books like this.

One of the places where the author sees renewed opportunity to transcend entrenched paradigms is in the perennial conflict between faith and science. For several centuries the primacy of science and the privileging of the scientific method was unchallenged. Then along came thinkers like Werner Heisenberg and Thomas Kuhn whose work led to a growing realization that empirical science ala John Locke isn't necessarily the most reliable method of inquiry, and furthermore that the scientific enterprise itself requires personal faith commitments on the part of its practitioners. In Grenz's words the rise of a "post-empirical philosophy of science" has led to a surprising realization that "scientists resemble theologians."

Some quotes from  Chapter 7 "Theology and Science after the Demise of Realism".

Armed with the scientific method, modern scientists busied themselves with the task of unlocking the mysteries of the universe and, in the process, celebrated discovery after discovery. Yet even as science was enjoying its greatest triumphs, certain aspects of the modern scientific worldview were shaken from within. The most far-reaching internal challenge came from physics, the discipline that had hitherto provided the firmest foundation for the modern scientific edifice. Developments in the early twentieth century—such as quantum theory, relativity theory, and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle—undermined not only the mechanistic model of the world but also earlier assumptions about scientific objectivity and certitude, together with the ability of science to delve into the "deepest secrets" of creation or to gain unambiguous knowledge of the universe. (p. 244)

The work of Kuhn [Thomas Kuhn author of the 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions] and others has resulted in an increased recognition that the foundations of scientific discourse, and hence scientific "truth," are in some sense communally determined. Science is not merely the neutral observation of data. (p. 245)

Yet in the emerging post-empirical understanding, science no longer looms as a haven of objectivity in a sea of cultural relativity. . . . In short, post-empirical philosophy of science has led to a "chastened" view of science. (p. 247)

In my view this is a positive development in and of itself. The godlike status accorded to science led to a wholesale attempt to privatize faith and push the search for theological knowledge to the margins, or into a different category of "truth" -- as if the claims of the gospel aren't either true or false in the same way that 2+2=4 is true or false. Also, the attempt to make the scientific method applicable to all disciplines had led many theologians to imagine that it could be appropriated to systematically discover theological truth from the pages of Scripture much like a scientist in a laboratory. Disciplines such as systematic theology and Systematic Theologies have their place (I consult Berkhof's regularly!), but Grenz and the post-empirical thinkers remind us that truth is best pursued in community, and the result is often not as neat and predictable as we expect.

In a way the postmodern thinkers are asking the same question Pontius Pilate posed to Jesus: "What is truth?" Contra those who would throw the baby of truth out with the bathwater of modernism, Christians must continue to insist that objective truth and reality exist, and are fully knowable in Christ: "in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." (Col. 2:3)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Me, Myself and My Smartphone

John Pattison:

In a 2007 interview with Arthur Boers, the philosopher Albert Borgmann makes the case that television is of moral importance. Borgmann says: “When I teach my ethics course I tell these relatively young people that the most important decision that they’ll make about their household is first whether they’re going to get a television and then second where they’re going to put it.”
I think for my generation and for the generation coming after mine, the questions could probably be amended to (a) “Are you going to get a smartphone?” and (b) “If so, what limits are you going to place on its use?”
These are questions I’m asking myself right now too. I have an iPhone. Am I going to keep it? If so, how should I limit its use? To use a science fiction metaphor, the iPhone is a kind of portal, one that can cause me to be mentally, emotionally, and spiritually distant, even when I’m physically present. How often do I want to have that portal open?

Good questions from that writer. I don't own a smartphone, but I still fall prey to the temptation to use technology as a tool to isolate myself from those around me, to be present without really being present. I work in a high-rise office building and it's amazing to me the number of people I encounter in the elevator, or other public spaces, with their eyes glued to a screen. I've had to take evasive action to keep from being run into by someone walking and texting. This characteristic pose of our age -- head down, eyes averted from one's surroundings -- is making meaningful interaction, even common courtesy, a relic of the past. The portal is always open as we shuffle anonymously past one another.