A Monstrous Indifference, by Joy Overcome: Pt. 1

The reader of this essay may at first be excused for the feeling of bewilderment that is sure to set upon her on her reading of the title. Cormac McCarthy and H.P Lovecraft are hardly literary bedfellows, and to draw the central themes of their writing together by interpreting an independently developed video game may appear to many to be a futile, as well inappropriate, exercise in interpretation. Continue reading

My Favourite Tolkien Line

‘Morgoth is thrust through the Door of Night into the outer dark beyond the Walls of the World, and a guard set for ever on that Door. The lies that he sowed in the hearts of Men and Elves do not die and cannot be slain by the Gods, but live on and bring much evil even to this day. Some say also that secretly Morgoth or his black shadow and spirit in spite of the Valar creeps back over the Walls of the World in the North and East and visits the world, others that this is Thu his great chief who escaped the Last Battle and dwells still in dark places, and perverts Men to his dreadful worship. When the world is much older, and the Gods weary, Morgoth will come back through the Door, and the last battle of all will be fought. Fionwe will fight Morgoth on the plain of Valinor, and the spirit of Turin shall be beside him; it shall be Turin who with his black sword will slay Morgoth, and thus the children of Hurin shall be avenged.’ (J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘The Shaping of Middle-Earth’, p. 47)

Tolkien and Grief

The sense of grief that pervades Tolkien’s writing is probably its greatest quality. There are a couple different facets to this, though. One is a genuine sense of sorrow. Much of Tolkien’s writing deals with themes of exile, loss and death, and these situations evoke genuine grief. Love is lost, life is lost, and home is lost. These things stain the land – the land itself is, in a sense, grieved.

Another facet, one that Lewis wrote on frequently, is longing – for Tolkien, the longing for Eden. Even though the world is a place of sorrow and grief, love and beauty still lurk. Then land which aches with the grief of war, exile and death also longs for the restoration of Eden and even the surpassing of Eden, when, to paraphrase the prophecy of Turin, all the wrongs, all the griefs, all the hurts of mankind are redressed and avenged and set right in one great victory.

Thoughts on Walter Bruggemann’s ‘Theology of the Old Testament’

I started reading Bruggemann’s massive ‘Theology of the Old Testament’, and finally made it through the first 2 sections, which form a ‘lay of the land’ of Old Testament theology and scholarship. As a work of scholarship in its own right, it’s brilliant – well-researched, heavily footnoted, calm, carefully reasoned – in other words, a great academic book. I do, however, have a few cautious and open criticisms/questions, regarding the viewpoint and methodology Bruggemann holds to. I’ll confine my comments here to a few specific instances so as not to be distracted by meta-questions of history, postmodernism and literary theory.

The discussion of the inadequate-ness of thin, positivst/pseudo-objective historical methods is very good – there is a good amount of time spent dismantling the ‘assured results of higher criticism’, and establishing the fact that presupposition-less exegesis/history is impossible.

I do, however detect a certain inconsistency with Bruggemann’s insistence that we should not import claims and categories foreign to the text to help us understand text or the ‘behind the text.’ He resists, for examples, what he terms ‘essentialism’, which seems to be the idea that there is a kind of ‘essence’ behind the text or to the ideas which the texts talk about (in this case, God). He also argues against ontologies foreign to the Hebrew way of thinking – ‘Greek’ ontologies, as he terms them, that focus on abstract concepts of ‘being’ which are incompatible with Jewish modes of thought and discourse (as an aside, I don’t find the dichotomy between Greek/Hebrew thinking terribly helpful, and think that on closer examination, such an objection loses a lot of force).

‘A student of Old Testament theology must be alert to the problem of conventional thinking about ontology, thinking that is essentially alien to the Old Testament testimony.’ (p 118)

The inconsistency arises when Bruggemann seeks to impose modern categories of literary thinking onto Scripture – ranging from conceptions of drama and narrative to Bakhtin-esque ‘many voices’ theory. For example:

‘…the characters, the plot and the subplots must be recognizable in order to sustain the plot. This means that the characters must have consistency and constancy. It also requires however, that the characters must change, grow, or develop, in order that successive scenes are not simply a reiteration of the first scene.’ (p. 69)

For someone so opposed to importing foreign categories onto Scripture, Bruggemann seems to foist very modern categories of drama and narrative onto the text – categories that draw from an understanding of drama that is more at home with the modern novel than with ancient narrative. Such an imposition, while seeking to do justice to the dynamic, rhetorical, dramatic and ambiguous aspects of the text, seems to be rather inconsistent in light of Bruggemann’s opposition to imposing metaphysical and theological categories onto the text to help us understand it.

Bruggemann also places a fair amount of weight on the ‘polyphonic’ character of Scripture – that is, the many voices within the text:

‘The Bible insists upon a common narrative, but one which includes a diversity of voices; many stories comprise the story. God’s story is both single and several. It also insists upon a narrative which at times is disjointed and the connectedness of which is perceived only by way of struggle. The Bible is no easy read.’ (Mark Coleridge, ‘Life in the Crypt or Why Bother with Biblical Studies’, quoted in ‘Theology of the Old Testament’, p. 89)

It is fairly obvious that the story of Scripture is made up of many smaller stories – any story is. However, the claims of disjointed-ness aren’t quite so clear cut – the Biblical text shows a remarkable unity (in spite of, or perhaps despite the ‘many voices’) in its narrative. That a narrative is composed of smaller stories is hardly grounds for disconnected-ness – if that were the case, no narrative could be said to have any unity (this is leaving aside the support that the extrabiblical and extratextual evidence offers to the idea of a unified narrative of Scripture. Perhaps a little more attention to facts and less attention to poorly-defined existentialist literary theory would serve a bit better here).

As I said, these are more open questions and criticisms rather than decisive refutations. Bruggemann’s insistence on the reality of the dynamics of the Old Testament text, as opposed to a more static positivistic conception is one with which I very much agree – simply click on the ‘philosophy of language’ category/tag to the right to see that my own ideas aren’t too terribly far from Bruggemann’s. At any rate, ‘Theology of the Old Testament’ is an outstanding book so far, and I very much look forward to being continually challenged by Bruggemann.

A Few Thoughts on Morality

Much is made by theologians, apologists and philosophers by morality, and various moral arguments – some attempting to demonstrate the reality of God, some for other reasons. The Christian claim generally goes like this:

Objective moral values exist.

If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.

Therefore, God exists.

Pretty simple argument. A few definitions: objective moral values = things like  murder is wrong in an absolute, objective way – it is true whether or not anyone believes it to be. It *is* wrong – not just determined by societal values or cultural values, but objectively wrong.

There are differing views on this line of argument (there are some pretty interesting takes on the argument, but this is pretty much the core of it). Firstly, is there such a thing as objective moral values, and, if there are, can the leap to God be made so quickly? Many would claim that no such OMV exist. Morality is simply a product of society, evolving with society.

Others would argue that a kind of natural law exists – that there are natural moral laws, such as don’t kill, etc. Most of the time these are grounded in some kind of theism, and most Christians would take this line. Folks like C.S. Lewis argued quite powerfully about the reality of the natural moral law. Aquinas was a key figure in the development of natural law ethics – the gist of his thought was that we could grasp the natural law by human reason apart from faith.

Not all theists agree with natural law ethics, however. Bonhoeffer, for example, denied that there exist natural moral laws that we can know apart from faith. This puts him quite apart from the Aquinas tradition.

There have been a lot of attempts to ground morality in something other than God, some good, some not so good.

A More Platonic Take on Language

My take on language should be somewhat known to readers of my blog – but perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps a more platonic philosophy of language is correct. I’m fairly Wittgensteinian – but let’s think about an alternative.

Let’s say that somewhere out there is the form of every word – and all our words are approximations of that form. Would this make sense? For a pure form of every word to exist? What would such a form look like?

Reading and Context

It is terribly easy to take things out of context – but it seems moreso with written text. While written text seems like it should be more objective, it’s not really. The text is there, on the page – but that’s about the only objective thing about it. It must be read – which involves a host of things that shape how one interprets the text (presuppositions, linguistics, context of the reader, etc, etc). It is sometimes astounding to me that anything can be communicated at all with language, written or spoken.