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News from New Hampshire, letters & etc.

We have to allow God to change us.

Tom Shaw ssje (2)kids 9 (2)The morning of Bp Shaw’s death, the short-passage-for-the-day from the Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE) was entitled “Eternal Life.”  It was this single sentence from a 2011 sermon by Br. Geoffrey Tristram, SSJE:

“In order to enter eternal life, in order to share in the feast, the banquet prepared for us by God, we have to be changed. We have to allow God to change us.”

The entire sermon is lovely and well worth reading. And re-reading. But I find that one sentence so meaningful. I think it goes directly and clearly to the essence of the challenge of Christian life and I believe it was implicit in Tom Shaw’s ministry. He helped us to be changed. It was a privilege to be a priest in his diocese. I give thanks for my good fortune in that regard, and extend my sincere condolences to the brothers of his SSJE family.

Tom Shaw (2)

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The Bible: A great PreHistory. Questions about its future.

archaeology-59150_1280The Bible’s PreHistory, Purpose and Political Future, Coursera/Emory. Prof. Jacob L. Wright.

Nearly two months after this MOOC I can at last say what I have learned. I had to do some digging, but happily I count two small finds and one big one.

The small finds:

(1) The Documentary Hypothesis is over. Per Jacob L. Wright, it has been surpassed by European scholars who use a slightly different method to uncover a passage’s historical strata.  They identify what was most likely the earliest verses and then identify later redactional layers. In the MOOC, Wright demonstrated the process whereby later, supplemental layers were identified using the text of Genesis 26. In his book, “David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory” (Cambridge University Press, 2014) he demonstrated the method using the stories of Saul and David. It is complicated, but watching Wright do it is impressive and convincing. What one finds in textual strata is at least, if not more illuminating than what archeologists find digging in the dirt.

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(2) So perhaps that is why the course took a Minimalist perspective, and this was my second “find:” There are two schools of thought on the significance of what archaeologists dig up if it does not support the biblical account. Maximalists rely on the biblical account as written unless and until archaeology clearly contradicts it. If the Bible says that David and Solomon ruled over a united kingdom, then there was a united kingdom, whether we can find archaeological evidence of it or not. (So far, we cannot find archaeological evidence of it.) The Minimalists are prepared to be less convinced of the historicity of the bibilical account. So, if there is no evidence of a united kingdom, maybe there wasn’t one. (I needed to look outside the course to learn this: a very clear description of the Maximalist/Minimalist can be found here.)

Wright takes a minimalist position and uses Israel Finkelstein’s The Forgotten Kingdom, (SBL, 2013) to lay some archaeological groundwork. [Finkelstein has his critics. I wish Wright had mentioned them. I still have no idea whether Finkelstein holds a majority position, a minority position or if he is a total outlier.]

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The course’s argument is that:

  • There was no united kingdom. As between Israel and Judah, Israel was the greater kingdom.
  • After Israel was conquered, its literary heritage was carried by Israelite refugees to Judah where it was appropriated by Judahite authors.
  • The penultimate and most significant redaction of the Bible occurred after Judah was defeated. This redaction served to give the Bible its distinctive purpose and mission: nurturing and sustaining a stateless (diasporic) community or nation.(“The Peoplehood Project.”)

The big find…  

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The Hebrew Bible has an overarching message and a unifying purpose of its own, acquired after and because of the defeat of Judah. That purpose is to sustain “peoplehood” – a community without a state  (i.e., no kings, no borders, no shared ethnic heritage.) The Biblical project, says Wright, is to “sustain subjugated, dispersed communities.”

The Hebrew Bible does not suggest a single correct way to sustain “peoplehood.” Being a people’s book,  it is multi-perspectival. What some see as internal differences or contradictions are in fact evidence of the Biblical authors’ commitment to the embrace of competing ideologies and perspectives. “The Bible,” Wright says, “does not speak with a single voice.” Instead, it sets forth a single text: a book of stories, memories, teaching aids and worship guides. It is not a “priest’s” book: it is the people’s book. It is the book that creates a people.

The Hebrew Bible posits an alternative to statehood sustained by alternative values. (Think 1 Sam. 8.) Towards that end, the Hebrew Bible redefines heroism and valor, it reconsiders gender roles and it expands and renegotiates the rights of persons and alien groups who wish to belong to this alternative nation.

For me, this is the “big find” because it means that when we are working with a liberative text in the Hebrew Bible – one that challenges patriarchy or privilege or power or violence – we no longer have to think of it as an exception or an aberration. It’s not. It is part of the warp and woof. It is part of the Bible’s purpose and raison d’etre.

That find is well worth all of the digging.

About the Bible’s Future…

Though not a scholar, I am reasonably well acquainted with the Bible and some, albeit outdated interpretive, theories. Nonetheless, I still had to work quite hard to follow this course. I am not sure I could replicate the method which Wright demonstrated with Genesis 26 or in his “David, King of Israel…” I find myself wondering whether my experience is generalizable, and if so, what that might mean for the future of the Bible as Wright understands it – as a people’s book. Can it still be a “people’s book” if you have to be a Ph.D. (“priest”) to understand it?

Maybe it is the Ph.D./”priests” who re-discover it, and then the question is: How do we restore this book to the people it was meant to serve?

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Halfway through the MOOC

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Since my last post I have either been getting ready for, or trying to keep up with the MOOC, “The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose and Future” (Coursera & Emory University.)  It is excellent.Wright David

The MOOC is an opportunity to re-read the Instructor’s book, David, King of Israel and Caleb in Biblical Memory by Jacob L. Wright alongside other books and materials which provide needed context.  It’s a little humbling to read my first post on the subject of Wright’s book. Suffice it to say, the first time I read it, I did not get it. I get it much better now, and I think a third reading will be in order. It is very challenging, and very rewarding.  As I read I am reminded of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s In Memory of Her: maybe because neither is easy to read, maybe because both change the way I think about scripture.  There is a place for both the iTunes version and the paperback. I am glad I have both.

Here is an interview with Prof. Wright that I found on Alan Brill’s blog, The Book of Doctrines and Opinions: Notes on Jewish Theology and Spirituality (August 2013.) I found it helpful.

 

 

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What were they talking about?

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I keep thinking about Marcion after reading Markus Vinzent’s book (my post, “Resurrection, does it matter? ) because it seems that Christianity adopted a fair amount of Marcion’s teaching even though he wound up being labeled a heretic. For example, it was Marcion who suggested the unfortunate title of “Old Testament” for the Hebrew Bible, and who suggested we should read that scripture very selectively. After all, what could the stories about relentless violence and war have to do with a God who was all about love? We seem to have taken Marcion’s point: We still talk about an “Old Testament” and we still read Tanach very selectively.

I was reminded of that as I read Jacob L. Wright’s King David and His Reign Revisited (2013.) Early in Wright’s busy book (more on that below), he writes that the reason that war is pervasive in the ‘Old Testament’ is not because of a “bellicose culture” or “warmongering members [who were] keen to praise martial valor and espouse theologies of ‘holy war.’” KDHRR at 42. Rather, the ubiquity of war should be appreciated “in view of its authors’ political project.” KDHRR at 42.

Maybe. Maybe the war stories are literary devices. Even if the “war commemoration as literary device” notion works (and I think it does), the war stories can also be more than literary devices. They can be what they seem like: a reflection of the centrality of war and war-making in ancient Judah and ancient Israel. War and war-making continued to be important for Imperial Rome (in the “New Testament”) and it is an undeniable reality in our own world.

Maybe some aspect of that war and violence – how to endure or survive it, how to outsmart or un-mask it  – was what those travelers were talking about on the road to Emmaus.

 

War commemoration

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Wanting a sneak peek at my next MOOC (“The Bible’s Pre-History, Purpose and Political Future” – Emory University via Coursera) I read an “enhanced e-book” written by the professor, Jacob L. Wright: King David and His Reign Revisited, Jacob L. Wright (2013.)  Find it here on iTunes.

It is a busy book. The format is busy – full of illustrations and links to valuable, interesting material – and the content is “busy:” Lots of names, places, arguments and proofs.

One thesis...

is that The Succession Narrative (2 Sam 9-20 and 1 Kings 1-2) is not as old as “generations [of] scholars have insisted.” King David and His Reign Revisited at 263. Other traditions are older, notably:

(1) The History of David’s Reign written perhaps even earlier than 722 BCE, and an independent, perhaps older still History of Saul’s Reign.
(2) The synthesis the HDR and HSR traditions, sometime before 586 BCE intended to:

  • “come to terms with Judah’s relationship to the older and more powerful kingdom of Israel” (KDHRR at 176), and
  • portray David as the creator and promoter of a state (Judah and later “all Israel”) which was embodied most clearly in its military. “David represents the powerful state that employs strong-arm methods and elite corps of professional warriors to… vanquish its enemies… and (even) enforce its will upon the people within its borders.” (KDHRR at 182.)

(3) A post-exilic revision of the David story, (Chronicles?) intended “to set forth a new model of political community: a people (or nation) that can survive the loss of statehood and territorial sovereignty.” (KDHRR at 267.)

There is no one place to read each of these traditions. Each revision exists in verses scattered throughout our version of the Bible. Each revision is a redaction and revision of source texts the content of which we can only postulate. Think “Documentary Hypothesis,” the JEDP gang and all of the Isaiahs.

See what I mean by “busy?”

A second thesis…

is that the relentless stories about battles and wars, kings and generals, soldiers and warriors is actually the literary genre of “war commemoration” like the statue of a Civil War soldier in the Town Square, or as in Boston, the designation of many street corners as a memorial to a Bostonian who died in an American war.forest hills and brookley - ruso

Whether our “war commemorations” are statues or plaques or stories, they are the means whereby “[p]opulations on the margins of society confront “corporate amnesia” by calling attention to their own sacrifices on behalf of the larger community. (KDHRR at 38.) In other words, it is a way for ethnic groups perceived as outsiders to remind the community that they have earned the right to belong. Wright says that in scripture, it was a means of determining who belonged to “the community of Israel” and who did not. Which ethnic groups (often represented by heroic or dastardly individuals)  demonstrated their loyalty and willingness to make sacrifice for the community of Israel — whether as a state or as a people — and which ethnic groups did not. (KDHRR at 42.)

“If I am right,” Wright writes, “we can better explain the pervasiveness of war in the ‘Old Testament.’… The ubiquity of war [is a] political project [the purpose of which] was to fashion a collective identity that could withstand the onslaught of foreign imperial powers and ultimately the loss of political sovereignty. (KDHRR at 42.) The biblical states/kingdoms of Israel and Judah might be destroyed, but that does not mean the end of Israel, which is more than a state and more than a kingdom.

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Resurrection: does it matter? (Yes)

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I heard a great Easter Sunday sermon this morning given by The Rev. Mark Jenkins. Hopefully, it will be posted here at some point, on the Sermons at St. James (Keene, NH) Facebook page.

 

Last week I finished reading Markus Vinzent’s “Christ’s Resurrection in Early Christianity” (Ashgate 2013) so I have been thinking alot about resurrection. According to Vinzent, early Christianity (to 140 CE) didn’t much care about Christ’s resurrection. Vinzent says that it only became an important part of the Jesus story around 140 CE,  after Marcion “re-discovered” the letters of Paul.  The Resurrection was very important to Paul: his claim to apostolic authority hinged on his having been commissioned by the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus. No resurrection? For Paul, no commission and no authority vis a vis Peter et al.  Once Paul and the Resurrection are revitalized by Marcion around 140 CE, everyone (the early church fathers) start arguing about it. Pre-canonical “gospels” were written or revised to include resurrection accounts that attempt to “correct” Marcion’s version of the resurrection, and “epistles” are written (some of which become canonical) which modify or otherwise moderate Paul.

I have no academically worthy opinion on Vinzent’s thesis, but I found it plausible enough to wonder: If the resurrection did not matter for the earliest Christians, should it matter for us and if so, how?

First, I needed to be clear about what I thought resurrection was. For me, it is not the reanimation of Jesus’ several-days-dead body. It is not much about Jesus at all. It is about the disciples, (and later, about Paul) and the God-revealing and reanimating experiences that they had. And that hopefully we have from time to time.

Second, I have no idea what resurrection opinions are held by those persons, past and present, whose life and witness inspires me to continue to try to live a Christian life. I’ll bet they all have different opinions. I surmise that no single opinion or understanding seems any more or less likely to produce a faithful or inspiring Christian.

Third, I suspect that the idea of resurrection makes NO difference and the idea of resurrection does NOT matter. What matters is the testimony of those who know the experience first-hand, who have had an Emmaus moment — the feeling that God has been in their presence in a recognizable and transformative way.  That matters, and that makes a difference. That is worth spending the season of Lent preparing for. It is worth celebrating with trumpet and flowers on Easter Sunday morning, and it is wondrous thing to dwell in for the next 50 days.

Here is a link to a 2013 essay by The Rev. David R. Henson who writes much more eloquently than I.

Happy Easter.

Christ is risen, indeed.

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Noah — It’s biblical

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I listen to Glenn Beck once in a while to find out what the “Christian right” is upset about these days. I did not hear this particular comment, but according the New York Times, GB recently said that the movie “Noah” is not biblical.

I haven’t seen the movie, but I can guess at what’s bothering him…  For better or worse, the Paramount Pictures version fills in the blanks of the bare-bones biblical account in ways that GB finds objectionable.

That creative process of “filling in the blanks” is the kind of engagement with Bible stories that Christians have not always done very well, sadly. I think it is the way we are meant to engage with the stories: creatively, imaginatively, exploring the pros and cons of the possibilities which we offer out of our own experiences of catastrophe and survival, promise and betrayal, anger and forgiveness and trust. Maybe even the experience of making a mistake. God knows, we can’t be creative if we are not willing to make mistakes.

Wikipedia has a page, “Noah in Rabbinic Literature”  that captures some of the ways the rabbis wondered about the story and filled in the blanks in order to hear what the story had to say to God’s people.

I think the Bible stories are intended to be enlarged by our experiences of life, faith and God. Once I see the movie, I may find that I don’t agree with Paramount Picture’s take, but that doesn’t mean that the story they tell isn’t biblical.

 

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Free Online Course: The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future, with Jacob L. Wright

Here’s the new MOOC.

Biblical Studies Online

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Professor Jacob Wright of Emory University is to present a 7-week Coursera MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) on the development of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: “The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future”.

The course will commence May 26, 2014, and enrolments are now open.

About the Course

The objectives of the course are to show:
—how the Bible emerged from large-scale corporate crisis and rupture;
—that in our present state of uncertainty and instability we have much to learn from the various strategies the biblical authors adopted to create an enduring “people of the book”;
—that one doesn’t have to believe in God or accept the historicity of the Bible in order to appreciate its profound political messages;
—that the Bible offers modern societies a model for creating communities around a shared collection of texts, songs, and laws;
—and that the Bible itself has a major role to play…

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