August 29, 2003

Berlin’s Poetics

Category: Bible :: Permalink

Last night, I finished reading Adele Berlin’s Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative. In some ways, the book was a disappointment. Berlin focuses primarily on characterization and point of view, and what she says about them seems sound. But it also seems fairly obvious. Some characters are complex and fully developed, some are depicted in ways that make them (stereo)types, and some are merely agents, there because they play a role in moving the narrative forward but not described in any detail (e.g., Abishag). Well, yes, but that just seems to be the case for any narrative.

With regard to point of view, Berlin points out how the biblical narrative indicates a change with regard to point of view. For instance, the word hinneh often (but not always) introduces a new point of view. For instance, when Jael has killed Sisera, we then read about Barak arriving at the tent, and hinneh there’s Sisera, dead. Hinneh here suddenly switches us to Barak’s point of view, his surprise at what he suddenly sees. All of which seems to be true, but again it also seems to be fairly obvious.

Berlin’s discussion of “naming” is helpful. The way characters are referred to tells you something about the person doing the referring or about which of the person’s many relationships is important at this particular moment. When Joseph’s brothers are plotting to kill him, Reuben intervenes and Reuben keeps referring to Joseph, not as “Joseph,” but as “the boy.” Michal is David’s wife, but when she shows contempt for David’s dancing, the narrator (whose naming and whose point of view is always authoritative) calls her “the daughter of Saul.” She’s acting Saul-like at this point, opposing David.

At times, Berlin does make some interesting and potentially helpful comments about particular biblical narratives. I’m not convinced by her reading of the connection between David’s relationship to women (Michal, Abigail, Bathsheba, and Abishag) and David’s public life (p. 33), but the possibility of such a connection is worth thinking about. Is there a connection? Does the narrator show us David’s relationship with women (the private sphere) as a way of characterizing David’s relations in the public sphere?

I’m also not convinced by some of the elements in Berlin’s reading of Ruth (chapter 4), and in particular I find it hard to swallow her interpretation of Ruth’s nighttime visit to Boaz. Naomi had romance in mind (on Berlin’s read, it sounds like seduction), but Ruth misunderstood:

She [Naomi] wanted Ruth to approach Boaz after he had eaten, when he had just lain down, but before he had actually fallen asleep — just at the time that “his heart was good” and he would be most receptive to Ruth’s visit. But Ruth waited too long. She did not realize that her mission was a romantic one, thinking rather that she was there on secret legal business (p. 91).

I grant that the procedure in Ruth 3 is a bit hard to figure out, but that Ruth thought she was up to some legal business and that it involved sneaking up to Boaz alone when he was lying down and uncovering his feet (on Berlin’s view, “legs” as a euphemism for genitals) and lying down with him? As Maxwell Smart’s enemies always said when he tried to bluff, “I find that hard to believe.”

In the last major section of the book, Berlin takes on source criticism and form criticism. Source criticism tries to determine the original sources that (on this view) went into the making of the text we have today (e.g., verses 1, 5, 6a, and 8 are from one source and they’ve been stuck together rather badly with verses 2, 3, 4, 6b, and 7, which were originally a different story). Form criticism builds on source criticism and wants to trace how the story developed from the original version into the version we have today, gaining bits and losing bits along the way. In both source criticism and form criticism, repetition, (apparent) inconsistencies, and doublets (the same story told twice or even similar stories) all indicate different sources (source criticism) or later developments in the story’s history (form criticism).

Berlin shows, however, that both source criticism and form criticism operate at odds with the findings of rhetorical and literary criticism. The rhetorical and literary critics show that there are good reasons why the author (or final editor) included repetitions. Repetitions and apparent inconsistencies (or real inconsistencies between what the narrator has said and what a character says) and such things are in the text for a reason, not because someone edited some earlier sources badly.

To be sure, there are gaps, inconsistencies, retellings, and changes in vocabulary in biblical narrative, but these can be viewed as part of a literary technique and are not necessarily signs of different sources. The whole thrust of source criticism is toward the fragmenting of the narrative into sources, while, at the same time it ignores the rhetorical and poetic features which bind the narrative together (p. 121).

I recall Rev. VanderHart in seminary telling us how the earlier critics — source critics and form critics — got upset with the newer, younger literary critics at the Society of Biblical Literature meetings. The earlier critics wanted to take the wall of the Bible and break it all down into bricks and mortar and once they had destroyed it all, they thought they were done their exegesis: “See? The whole thing looks like a unit, but it really isn’t. It’s all a bunch of stories that some rather stupid editor stuck together badly.”

But now the newer critics are coming along and challenging the older view. Sure, the newer guys often grant that there may be a bunch of sources underlying the text of Scripture as it stands, but they aren’t interested in that and they question whether the existence of those sources can even be proven. What they’re interested in is the text of Scripture as it stands right now. The author (or perhaps editor) wasn’t stupid. Even if he edited a bunch of sources, they point out, he put things together deliberately.

To say, “The story about Judah and Tamar is clearly from a different source and we know that because it’s right in the middle of the Joseph narrative where it sticks out like a sore thumb,” isn’t exegesis. It’s the refusal to exegete. It’s the refusal to notice the literary function of that text in the whole narrative as it stands right now. Unless we assume that the author/editor was stupid, we should suppose that he thought the Judah story fit where he placed it and played a role in the whole narrative of Genesis. And it seems to me that it’s more likely that the source critics are the stupid ones here.

In the end, however, Berlin’s book was disappointing. While I grant much of what she said, much of it also seemed obvious, though it wasn’t bad to see it spelled out (e.g., the function of hinneh). Her demolition of source and form criticism was fun, but not especially helpful, since I’ve never bought into either. Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative was much more helpful for interpreting the narratives of Scripture. Any other books on narrative you’d especially recommend?

Posted by John Barach @ 4:41 pm | Discuss (0)

Busy Week and Pirates

Category: Updates :: Permalink

It’s been a fairly busy week so far, but today is my day off, so I figured I could afford the time to blog. I’m currently waiting to hear from someone about the possibility of getting my (future) lawn hydroseeded.

Ever since I moved into this house in March, the lawn has been a mess. At first, of course, it was covered with snow. Later, it was covered with construction junk. Now the houses beside me are finished and occupied and the last of the debris and detritus has been cleared up, leaving only dirt and, in the back, weeds. That wasn’t so bad when everyone else’s yard looked the same. But this week, my neighbours had sod put in and now my yard stands out like a sore, black, muddy thumb.

Some of the guys in the church are figuring out how to get topsoil for me. There is a large pile of it near here, and the owner says that it’s free. But how should we transport it? We could rent a dump truck, I suppose. Or Alex could just borrow a payloader and drive the thing back and forth repeatedly (his idea). Once we get it, we’ll have to find a time when someone from the church can come over to backhoe the stuff and rake it into position. Before we get the topsoil, however, we should probably deal with the weeds, and for that I’m waiting to hear from another guy from the church.

And then comes the big question: seed or sod? Sod looks good right away, but it’s quite expensive and it’s a bit of a job to put it in and cut it to fit the yard. Seed tends to let a lot of weeds grow up with it and sometimes doesn’t look like a lawn for years.

The other option, I’ve discovered, is hydro-seeding. With hydro-seeding, the guy sprays a mixture of stuff, including (you guessed it) seed, onto the ground, turning the whole ground green like paint. It takes less water than regular seed or sod because the water stays close to the seed in the cellulose mixture. It also germinates fairly quickly and comes up pretty evenly. The quicker germination also prevents the weeds from coming up as fast. At least, that’s the theory. I’m waiting now for the guy to come by and give me his free estimate. It’s supposed to be about a third of the price of sod, he says.

In other news from this week, we had a congregational meeting on Wednesday night. I wrote two sermons. And today I met with some people involved with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at the Regional College. I’m planning to lead a Bible study on the college campus this year, and we’re also working on getting me installed as the college chaplain.

And finally, last night I went to see Pirates of the Caribbean: not, by any means, a deep movie, but a lot of fun.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:55 pm | Discuss (0)
August 22, 2003

Baptism & Identity

Category: Theology - Liturgical :: Permalink

As a follow-up to my earlier post, here’s some more about identity and “the real me,” this time from Peter Leithart’s very enjoyable Against Christianity:

Many Christians say we cannot be sure that anything has changed once someone is baptized. What are we saying? In baptism, God marks me as His own, with His name. God makes me a member of His household, the Church. If we say nothing important has happened we are suggesting that we have some identity that is more fundamental than God’s name for us, some self that is beyond God’s capacity to claim and name.

“Of course,” we object, “God says I am in His family, a son, but I’m really something else.” That is a most egregious claim to autonomy: I yam who I yam regardless of who God says I yam.

It may turn out, of course, that God’s final name for a baptized person is “prodigal son” (pp. 91-92).

Posted by John Barach @ 10:34 am | Discuss (0)
August 20, 2003

Sandlin on Catechesis

Category: Catechism :: Permalink

In a recent article, Andrew Sandlin discusses some potential problems with the use of catechisms. His first point is something I’ve thought about, too. When we catechize, we tend to focus on definitions (“What is justification?”) whereas the Bible focuses primarily on the story.

First, catechizing may easily become a substitute for knowledge of Biblical history and its narratives. Certain Christian children know (or at least can recite) the meaning of regeneration and justification and adoption, but know nothing of Shamgar, Jonah, Zacchaeus, Samson, and Priscilla and Aquilla. It is astounding how many children in intense doctrinal churches have an extensive (though rote) knowledge of soteriology but not of Samuel and Saul; of eschatology, but not of Elijah and Elisha; of ecclesiology, but not Matthew and Andrew.

This has things just backwards. Biblical doctrine has significance only because of the history that it interprets (though the Bible itself is, or rather can be, an aspect of a redemptive event [1 Pet. 1:23]). As George Eldon Ladd once wrote, the Bible is not so much a Book of religion as it is a Book of history. He goes on to write in the same essay: “The bond which holds the Old and New Testaments inseparably together is the bond of revelatory history. Orthodox theology has traditionally undervalued or at least underemphasized the role of the redemptive acts of God in revelation.”

We can understand little of the Bible, and almost nothing of the Christian Faith, if we lack knowledge of the Bible’s history, no matter how much theology we may know. So, before we catechize children, we need to teach them the stories of the Bible — the Creation, Cain and Abel, the Great Flood, the calling of Abraham, Joseph in Egypt, the Exodus, the wilderness wanderings of Israel, the conquest of Canaan, David’s and Solomon’s and their predecessors’ reign, the minor prophets, covenant judgments, right on through the New Testament. The history, not the doctrine, always comes first. And the history should precede the catechism.

Posted by John Barach @ 9:37 pm | Discuss (0)
August 19, 2003

Machka’s Ride

Category: Family :: Permalink

My sister is riding another 1200 km bicycle ride. Last summer, she rode in the BC interior: Kamloops – Jasper – Lake Louise – Vernon – Kamloops. This summer, she’s riding in France: Paris – Brest – Paris. That’s 1200 km in less than 90 hours from start to finish, including time spent sleeping. Last year, she did it in 88 1/2 hours.

You can follow her progress here. Her nickname is “Machka,” and she’s in the first column. Go, Char!

Posted by John Barach @ 9:22 pm | Discuss (0)

Theology After Wittgenstein

Category: Theology :: Permalink

Tonight, I finished reading Fergus Kerr’s Theology After Wittgenstein. I can’t say that I understood all of it. In fact, I’m certain that I didn’t understand a lot of it.

Still, it was well worth reading and probably worth rereading in a year or two. Some books you understand completely with no effort at all, but often that’s because you already understood what the author was talking about. Other books stretch you. They’re hard to read, not (necessarily) because the author is unclear but because they’re forcing you to think in different ways.

That was the case with Theology After Wittgenstein. To start with, I’ve never studied Wittgenstein or, for that matter, any modern philosophy. At times, Kerr lost me, though I have to admit that he is often quite clear and even, as one reviewer says, “droll.”

But Wittgenstein himself wrote to challenge the ways people are accustomed to thinking and he wanted his material to be read slowly because he wanted people to think through what he was saying, not simply to let their customary way of thinking be challenged but to put up a fight, and then gradually to see what Wittgenstein was saying. And Kerr’s book, as it traces the relationship between Wittgenstein’s attack, for instance, on certain views of personality and our theological thinking often required me to slow down and think furiously. Having now been forced to think in a different way, I may profit from the book more on a second reading.

One part I (think I) did understand was Kerr’s critique of the idea that the “real me” is some hidden thing deep down inside me, something which can be separated from history, relationships, and so forth. He quotes Timothy O’Connell:

In an appropriate if homely image, then, people might be compared to onions…. At the outermost layer, as it were, we find their environment, their world, the things they own. Moving inward we find their actions, their behaviour, the things they do. And then the body, that which is the ‘belonging’ of a person and yet also is the person. Going deeper we discover moods, emotions, feelings. Deeper still are the convictions by which they define themselves. And at the very centre, in that dimensionless pinpoint around which everything else revolves, is the person himself or herself — the I (20).

I suspect there’s a connection between this (Cartesian) view of personality and the way people often protest that their actions don’t represent who they “really” are (“That’s not the real me!”) or the way that a criminal’s mother will claim that “deep down” her son is really a nice person, as if his actions or his relationships can somehow be separated from who he is.

Similarly, I suspect that this view of personality — what makes me me — has significant theological ramifications. Take what is often called “nominal” church membership. We sometimes think that, in the case of a “nominal” member, his connection to the church is merely “external” or “formal” or even, perhaps, “legal,” but that it doesn’t affect who he really is in any significant way. But that’s like claiming that being a Barach — that is, being a member of this particular family — has nothing to do with who I really am.

Now if I had absolutely no contact with a club but they added my name to their membership rolls and didn’t even tell me about it, then in that case my membership in the club might be termed merely nominal. But even then it would define me in some way. I might (in my ignorance) claim that “the real me” isn’t a member of that club, but the claim would be false: I really would be a club member, whether I knew it or not. All of my experiences and relationships do affect my personality: they make me who I am, and I am not me apart from them.

That’s true even if I wish to escape from those relationships. I may wish passionately that I were not a Barach and that I didn’t have any ties to my family, but that wouldn’t change the fact that I am a Barach and do have ties to my family. I might wish passionately that I weren’t a member of Christ’s church — or I might simply ignore my membership and live as if I weren’t a member — but that doesn’t change the fact that I am, in fact, a member.

Even in the case of a member who has nothing to do with the church, then, his relationship to the church isn’t “merely nominal,” a fact with no significance. Even in that case, his church membership still makes him who he is. And his rejection of that membership also makes him who he is: an unfaithful member of the church, a rebel and a traitor instead of a faithful son.

Posted by John Barach @ 9:09 pm | Discuss (0)
August 15, 2003

Warren Austin Gage

Category: Bible - NT - John,Bible - NT - Revelation :: Permalink

Last night, I returned home from a colloquium hosted by Knox Theological Seminary. During the course of that colloquium, we had the opportunity to hear three fascinating lectures by Warren Austin Gage, Knox’s Assistant Professor of Old Testament.

For the past several years, Gage has been engaged (pardon the pun) in a study of biblical typology. In particular, together with Fowler White, he has been studying the relationship between the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation, which is what he focused on in his lectures for us.

The papers in the John-Revelation Project trace the literary, structural, and thematic connections between the two books. Gage and White argue that John and Revelation are connected chiastically. The opening of John, for instance, talks about darkness not being able to conquer light, and Revelation ends with light triumphing over darkness. You’d think Gage had read Jim Jordan, but he hasn’t (yet).

Knox’s theological journal, Semper Reformanda, contains three articles by Gage: “Biblical Theology” (focusing a lot on Rahab, Joshua, and Jericho), “Analogical Imagination,” and “The Long Ending of Mark.” In the latter, he argues that the literary structure of Mark’s Gospel warrants accepting the longer ending. Similarly, in one of the John-Revelation papers, he argues for accepting the narrative of the woman caught in adultery (John 8) as an authentic part of John’s Gospel.

The Knox website also includes a sermon by Gage on the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8. Did you recognize that the three people converted in Acts 8, 9, and 10 are representatives of Noah’s three sons: Ham, Shem, and Japheth?

And while I’m talking about Gage, let me also mention his book The Gospel of Genesis, now back in print.

Enjoy! I certainly did.

Posted by John Barach @ 12:03 pm | Discuss (0)
August 5, 2003

Biblical Horizons and Beyond

Category: Updates :: Permalink

At long last, I’m home again. In fact, I’ve been home for almost a week now and I haven’t blogged, which means that I must be returning to my usual blogging schedule.

When I wrote my last entry, I was at my parents’ place in Red Deer. The next week, I flew to Florida, where I took part in the Biblical Horizons conference. Joel has posted a summary of the conference, so I won’t.

I roomed with Bishop Bill, who picked me up at the airport in a convertable (it was the only car the rental agency had available). The matins and vespers services were wonderful, and it was great to meet some old friends (some known only via e-mail and blogging before) and make some new ones.

After the conference ended, I spent the weekend at Jim Jordan’s house with Rich Bledsoe, about whom you can read more here. Rich and I watched The Apostle and Crimes and Misdemeanors and then, after dropping Rich off at the bus depot on Sunday evening, Jim and I watched The Truman Show.

I arrived back here in Grande Prairie on July 29, having been gone for about a month, which is way too long to be gone from a congregation. I’m glad to be home. I’d say I was feeling refreshed, but unfortunately I caught some kind of flu on Sunday night.

After our Sunday evening singing at his place, Jamie Soles came over for a while. He’s preparing to record a new CD and wants me to add some harmonica to one of the songs. After he left, I was suddenly exhausted and then thoroughly chilled and feverish. The fever lasted into the afternoon yesterday, but by late afternoon I was feeling a lot better. Today, the only reminder of the flu is a very stiff neck.

Posted by John Barach @ 12:42 pm | Discuss (0)