Some Anti-Imperial Thoughts

The trend of identifying anti-imperial themes, rhetoric and messages in the New Testament is pretty hot right now – post-colonial readings of Scripture as well. I recently got ‘Jesus is Lord, Caeser is Not’, and spent a minute studying up on anti-imperial/post-colonial ideas regarding the New Testament, and here’s a few unsystematic thoughts. I should probably edit this down but I’m too tired.

– The basic thrust of the book? ‘Slow down there, sonny. There’s more to it than that.’ Empire critical/postcolonial studies have done a great deal of good in highlighting the dynamics of society, power, etc in the New Testament. Painting anti-imperialism as the actual main point of the NT, however, is misguided.

– The basic thrust of empire criticism? That saying ‘Jesus is Lord’ entails saying and believing that ‘Caesar is not’. A weakness here lies in the rather obvious fact that such an antithesis is never explicitly made in the NT. While this doesn’t mean that it’s an implicit antithesis, arguing from the implicit to the explicit can be a bit tricky.

– The dynamics of power, government etc are far more fluid than simple antitheses.

– The main culprit here is the imperial cult. There’s a problem here already, though, because to monolith-ize (my new term) something like the imperial cult doesn’t do justice to a movement/pattern of religion/pattern of thought that was actually fairly diverse and dynamic.

– The imperial cult, surprisingly, was more or less a grassroots movement, and not imposed from the top down.

– The deification of the emperor was less strict than one might imagine – deification shouldn’t be imagined to be so much of an ontological status (a man became divine) so much as, with regards to normal people, the emperor was divine, though with regard to the gods, he was still very much a mortal.

– Other aspects of the imperial cult that prevent it from being a monolithic kind of thing: benefaction and patronage, which reflect a real patron/client relationship aspect of ancient Hellenic society.

– There is a real oppositon between Jesus and the powers and principalites, however – but I don’t see it being between Jesus and Rome/Caesar qua Rome/Caeser. Neither is power or power structures – the critiques leveled against Rome in the NT are about rulership, ruler worship and the mode in which the power is exercised.

– Worship is to be offered only to God/Jesus/Holy Spirit – this is a big point in NT critiques of Caeser.

– Instead of an empire built by war, political intruige, with power in the hands of the elite, the Kingdom of God which Jesus proclaimed is seen to be a kingdom in which the way that the world does power is inverted. Peace, love and the the last being first are the order of the day in the Kingdom.

– The contrasts drawn between Jesus and Caeser aren’t, then, so much about how evil Rome is and how Rome is the real topic of the New Testament, but moreso about the overthrow of the present fallen order under which Rome is a servant of the powers and principalities.

– The opposition of Jesus and Caeser must always be seen in terms of the story of Israel, which is more often than not concerned with a contest between YHWH and the pagan gods.

– The narrative of Israel provides an anchoring for the opposition of Jesus to Caeser – consider Romans 1:3, where Paul refers to the Davidic king – and then consider Romans 15:12, where Paul refers to the root of Jesse. The Davidic kingship, one of peace, is set against the powers of the world, which operate by force, corruption, etc.

– Jesus must be seen as the climax of salvation-history, which is a thoroughly Jewish history. This is and must be a first principle.

Some Scattered Thoughts on Peter Enns Ideas on Scripture, the Enlightenment and God

This post is basically an edited and condensed version of some comments I made at Rachel Held Evans blog and on Alastair Roberts blog:

It seems that despite Enns not wanting keep the Bible at a safe distance in all its troubling messiness, he does a remarkable job of keeping it at a safe distance while allowing some fairly modern presuppositions to shape how he reads it.

For starters, I wonder what makes our current and modern sensibilities the standards by which everything must be measured, which seems to be a given for Enns. I’d also wonder about his method of reading Scripture – i.e. to see the violent portrayals of God as ‘tribalistic’ etc and his, despite his insistence that he’s not doing so, dismissal of such portrayls. These are examples of his holding Scripture at arms length – can’t have those violent pictures of God, can we? Chalk em’ up to a primitive tribes record of their experience of God seen thru their own agendas and assumptions. Hence, no need to really believe the same thing as those Israelites wrote down – we now know better. This seems to be little more than Enns holding Scripture at arms length. I get that his project is to ‘wrestle’ with the ‘messiness’ of Scripture, take it on its own terms blah blah blah – got it. I really do . The end result of that, however, is that certain parts of the Scriptures that don’t conform to his method are jettisoned as being the imaginings and mistakes of an iron age tribe engaged in primitive warfare. Hence it’s not really wrestling with the texts or allowing them to really speak on their own terms. Hence my comment. (And, as an aside, invoking things like ‘enlightenment presuppositions’ does more to muddy the waters than anything else – what is an example of an ‘enlightenment presupposition’?) I could probably argue that Enns’ thinking is actually quite influenced by ‘enlightenment’ presuppositions, honestly. It strikes me that a position such as Enns’ isn’t far at all from the very real Enlightenment idea that we are free from the past and must progress past it. Alastair observes a rather important point that seldom gets noticed:

‘One could also argue that Enns et al are directly in line with the Enlightenment ideal of universal reason. Revelation conditioned by historical particularity is instantly exposed to suspicion because it doesn’t attain to this ideal. The historical and cultural particularity revealed in the Scriptures is cause for distrust for those of us who have attained to the regime of liberal universal reason. We must free Scripture from its cultural shackles and discover the timeless and universal truth that it was straining towards within its problematic cultural embeddedness.’

The picture of God that emerges from Enns’ thinking bears a suspicious resemblance to a lot of very modern, liberal ideas – ‘enlightenment based sensibilites’, to use those terms, hence (again) the point of my comment – for all his attempts to let the texts speak on their own terms, it seems like he ends up with a view of God based on some a priori viewpoints he has than what the Scriptures actually say.

The issue surrounding the use of ‘enlightenment’ is that there is no one ‘Enlightenment’ way of thinking, or, if there is, it’s so broad and vague as to be almost meaningless (‘progress’, could fit, but that is, as I said, so vague as to be usless.). In terms of the natural sciences, it refers to Newton, an anti-a priori/pro-empirical approach (for the most part – Newton made plenty of hypotheses), in terms of political philosophy it refers to individualism, the development nation-state and nationalism, John Locke, private property and the beginnings of liberalism, in metaphysics it refers to the blank slate, Hume, Locke, suspicion towards classical metaphysics and scholasticism, skepticism and the way of ideas, in terms of historical study it means Lessings broad ugly ditch and the march of history, in ethics, the categorical imperitave, the project of morality without God and the absolute moral autonomy of the self – there is no one monolithic way of thinking that we can invoke by saying, ‘you and your damn enlightenment presuppositions!’ It’s a buzzword, honestly, that is invoked more often than it is critically examined.

Random Thought Note

Odd feelings listening to late 19th/early 20th century European nationalist music, in this case the Bohemian Bedrich Smetana’s ‘Ma Vlast’, or ‘My Fatherland’. Sustained reflection on the attitudes and cultural spirit behind such works can leave one with feelings of unease, though it is interesting to trace the thread of the developments of such attitudes through history, with most beginning with the enlightenment and seeing a lot of development and expression in German idealism (which was a failure as a coherent system of metaphysics but a powerful cultural force), such as Fichte and Hegel, continuing to Nietzsche and Wagner. Hegel’s philosophy of the state (which is genuinely chilling) gave definite impetus to later ideas that proved rather disastrous such as Marxism (the march of history, for example) , and it is of no small consequence that Nazi field libraries in WWII were stocked with Fichte’s writings. That many of these ideas found their fullest expression in music is a very interesting matter to think on.

A fuller exploration of these would take one back to the middle ages (where William of Ockham’s political thought was and remains hugely influential) and the development of the nation-state leading to the rise of nationalism – which in turn would take one back to the seminal political writing of all time, Plato’s Republic. Other crucial early modern thinkers would include Hobbes and Locke, though the political side of the reformation and the thought of the reformers is equally important.

 

A Few Notes on Liberal Protestantism

– A good deal of older liberal Protestantism (Tillich et al) seems to conceive that reality can only really be understood and participated in by virtue of ‘symbols’

– When it comes to Christian beliefs and dogma, the agenda seems to be primarily one of stripping away the time and space elements from Christianity to transform Christianity into a kind of ‘timeless symbol’.

– This idea, as far as I can tell, comes from the belief that the if there are genuine time and space elements within the kerygma, then that entails that the kerygma depends on contingent time and space elements.

– Thus, the time and space elements are stripped away, leaving the ‘timeless’ message (Bultmann, for example).

– I see this as a reaction to the perceived ‘modern’ world, but ultimately a misunderstanding of the ‘modern’ world.

– There’s also a genuine distrust of metaphysics (perhaps this comes from Heidegger?).

– Finally, there is a loss of realism (moreso in, say, Tillich, than in others) – theological statements and formulations don’t have an external reference but have only symbolic value.

Note on ‘The Kingdom of God’

An interesting aspect of Jesus’ kingdom-sayings and parables in Luke is that none of them make any reference to the great Jewish symbols – none of the parables/sayings are tied to the land, or Torah, or nationalistic hope of liberation. Jesus has redefined the kingdom (Luke is full of redefinitions – the most prominent ones being the redefinition of the family and the people of God) away from the traditional symbols and the hope of national vindication , and by way of odd little sayings and parables, shows and tells that not only is the kingdom at hand and the end of the exile near but is happening through his own work.

Reading Notes 3/18/14

I recently purchased ‘Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms’, which is a history of the evolution of, obviously enough, horseshoe crabs and velvet worms. Horseshoe crabs are one of my favourite animals, and learning about their biological history (and about evolutionary biology in general) is fascinating. Fun fact: the crabs can’t bleed to death, and the quality which makes this so is sought after by some of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world and is used in a variety of medical treatments.

E.P. Sanders ‘Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People’ has been getting a good amount of attention from me lately. It’s a great book for anyone interested in a sustained study of one of the central tenets of the (not so) New Perspective on Paul: that the keeping of Torah was not an entrance requirement to the people of God. While somewhat dated, it’s still a classic study well worth reading.

I’ve also been reading Wright’s ‘Jesus and the Victory of God’, which I finally bought for myself – the series has been reprinted with a great new cover artpiece, but still the same sucky Fortress press quality material – FP books always (in my experience) suffer from cheap construction, i.e. splitting covers, poor paper quality, poor binding, etc. But that aside, the book is obviously great – it’s good to be able to slowly go through it. I skipped a bit ahead to the part about the cross and the actual victory of God – good, good stuff. I love Wright’s take on Jesus’ vocation/calling. Wright’s mastery over the second-temple period and sources is pretty much without peer, especially when it comes to themes like exile, restoration, the covenant people, etc.

I haven’t been reading too much fiction lately, aside from very, very slowly reading Asimov’s Foundation series (like, 2-3 pages per night kind of slowly). What fantastic books – beat out Tolkien for a Hugo! Speaking of, Tolkien’s got a translation of Beowulf coming out, which has me excited. I haven’t read his translation/take on the Arthur legend, but I’d like to. I read his books to the point where they were falling apart (I had to duct tape some of them back together) some time ago, and haven’t read them seriously in some time, but every time I go back and skim through, I remember why he’s the greatest writer of all time. My personal favourite works are his ‘Book of Lost Tales’, both 1 and 2.

On a sad note, I lost my Nook ereader on my camping trip – but it gives me an excuse to save up for a bit and buy one of the new light-up ones.

N.T. Wright on Repentance

‘Repentance’, in a good many texts, was what Israel must do if her exile is to come to an end. Though the Greek word metanoia and its cognates, which occur in the gospels with this meaning, are rare in the Septuagint – and when they do occur, they refer, more often than not, to YHWH himself ‘repenting’ – the first-century sense of the word encapsulates a range of meanings expressed in other ways in the Hebrew scriptures and their Greek translations. Deuteronomy spoke of Israel ‘returning’ to YHWH with her whole heart; this would be the condition of her forgiveness and of the return from exile. In Deuteronomic terms, this would mean a return to the shema, to the love of YHWH alone with all the heart. The prophets regularly used the term ‘repent’ to denote the turning to YHWH which would result in restoaration, return from exile. Indeed, the word shub and epistrephein, since they mean ‘return’, hint constantly, particularly in Jeremiah, that for Israel to ‘return’ to YHWH with all her heart is the crucial thing that will enable her to ‘return’ to her own land. The whole point of passages like Daniel 9, Ezra 9 or Nehemiah 9 is that these great prayers of repentance – and we must be careful not to confine our thinking simply to occurrences of shub and epistrephein – are prayers precisely designed to bring about the return from exile. (We may note once again that all three books are clearly ‘post-exilic’ in the normal sense, and yet still seeking the real ‘return’.) (N.T. Wright, ‘Jesus and the Victory of God’, pp. 248-249)

Camels, Minimalism, Anachronism, and Kenneth Kitchen

‘Camels were last and least of Abraham’s possessions (Gen. 12:16), and in his time were used solely for the long-distance, desert-edge trip to Harran and back by his servant to obtain Isaac’s bride (24:10-64 passim). They were among the last named in Jacob’s wealth (30:43; 32:7, 15) and again were used solely for the long trip from Harran back to Canaan (31:17, 34). The desert-traveling Midianites used them (37:25). This is remarkably little. Then, at the time of the exodus and after (thirteenth century at the latest), they occur once among Pharaoh’s transport animals (Exod. 9:3) and twice in lists of creatures not to be eaten (Lev. 11:4; Deut. 14:7). Not much of a presence at all!

What about external sources between circa 2000 and 1200? We first consider the early second millennium (vaguely patriarchal), for which we have the following: from Egypt, a camel skull from the Fayum, “Pottery A” stage of occupation, within circa 2000-1400; from Byblos, a figurine of a kneeling camel, hump and load now missing (originally fixed by a tenon), about nineteenth/eighteenth century; from Canaan, a camel jaw from a Middle Bronze tomb at Tell el-Far’ah North, circa 1900/1550; from north Syria, a cylinder seal of the eighteenth century (of deities on a camel), in the Walters Art Gallery; and from mentions of the camel in the Sumerian lexical work HAR.ra-hubullu, going back in origin to the early second millennium….

[T]he camel was for long a marginal beast in most of the historic ancient Near East (including Egypt), but it was not wholly unknown or anachronistic before or during 2000-1100.’ ( Kenneth Kitchen, ‘On the Reliability of the Old Testament’, p. 338-339)

‘Abraham did not want his son to marry a Canaanite, so he sent his servant to Paddan Aram (as the Haran region of north Mesopotamia is called) to secure a bride for Isaac. With ten camels and adequate personnel, the servant heads the caravan towards his master’s Aramean kinsmen. The mention of camels here and elsewhere in the patriarchal narratives often is considered anachronistic. However, the correctness of the Bible is supported by the representation of camel riding on seal cylinders of precisely this period from northern Mesopotamia”

“It is often asserted that the mention of camels and of their use is an anachronism in Genesis. This charge is simply not true, as there is both philological and archaeological evidence for knowledge and use of this animal in the early second millenium BC and even earlier. While a possible reference to camels in a fodder-list from Alalakh (c. eighteenth century BC) has been disputed, the great Mesopotamian lexical lists that originated in the Old Babylonian period show a knowledge of the camel c. 2000/17000 BC, including its domestication. Furthermore, a Sumerian text from Nippur from the same early period gives clear evidence of domestication of the camel by then, by its allusions to camel’s milk…For the early and middle second millennium BC, only limited use is presupposed by either the biblical or external evidence until the twelfth century BC.’ (Kenneth Kitchen, full source here.

Barth Rant

A post in a Facebook group:

‘Barth was a prisoner of his early limited 20th century modern Western thinking…at worst, he had a somewhat unorthodox view of the gospel as a result of of philosophical European upbringing.’

This irritates me greatly. There is a vast difference between being a prisoner of X, and thinking that X is a legitimate thing with which and against which one can work. Barth did the latter – he was a modern, who realized that the church couldn’t simply go back to before the modern era had begun, and couldn’t continue to say the same things in the same way as it always had.

This, to me, is a huge problem. The idea that orthodox theology is purely about retrieval, purely about going back to the past. I find it quite ludicrous, honestly. I just got back from a run so maybe it’s the adrenaline, but this is just ridiculous to suppose that anything new or modern, or anyone who takes something new and modern seriously, is a prisoner of modernity.

God always has something new to teach us – and just as often as not, this involves not a retrieval but a move forward, often into the unknown. To suppose that the faith once and for all delivered means that there is never anything new to learn or never a new way of saying an old truth or (God forbid) a whole new truth to learn seems to me to be a bad case of head-in-sand syndrome.

This does not mean that the church sacrifices old truth for the sake of relevance – but the church must be prepared to receive new things from God, and to not freeze what God has given into all that God will ever give.