Monthly Archives: October 2010

Breaking News: Fire at VTS Chapel

There’s apparently a fire at VTS. What’s odd is that M was just there for an SCP Solemn High Mass. I sure hope the low-churchers there knew how to put the thurible out properly!

Update: M said that the SCP didn’t do the mass—it was the seminary’s worship group that did it; the SCP group was only there in attendance.

Further Update: This has been picked up by the Lead and ENS and other places and the news is not good at all. From FaceBook:

“Seminary chapel is definitely consumed. Windows are melted and roof is completely gone. All that is left is brick.”

For Gadget-Happy Americans: A Grim Reminder

As somebody who’s currently sitting in front of two computers and a smartphone, this is a must-read reminder of the costs of these devices:

The fact is, we’re going to keep buying our consumer electronics. The good news is, doing so is putting food in people’s mouths. The bad news is, it’s also putting blood on all our hands. That’s our world.

What is the Christian response?

Considering The Malice of Herodotus and Biblical Genre

One of the things that I find myself saying again and again to both clergy and parishioners is that moderns in general and modern Americans in particular seem to have real genre issues when it comes to the Bible.

Every act of reading happens within an interpretive frame. That is, we start making interpretive assumptions from literally the time we pick up a book until we close it and put it down. These interpretive assumptions shape what we find and how seriously we take it. Any book cover with a ripped bare-chested dude hovering over a voluptuous female automatically shunts the book into a certain interpretive category that shades what we find therein. This isn’t good or bad—it’s just how the interpretive process works.

I believe that one of the most important interpretive frames that we normally assume is genre—what kind of text we think we’re reading. For the most part this works when we pick up texts from our time because from the time we begin to read, we learn genre cues. Sometimes they’re book covers, sometimes they’re stock phrases: Once upon a time… Three nuns walk into a bar… We can automatically categorize these with no problems. It’s when we come to texts from radically different times and cultures that we run into problems. Like—biblical texts.

I see three major issues with our interpretive assumptions about genre when it comes to the Scriptures First, the genre cues aren’t the ones familiar to us. What does “Once upon a time…” look like in Hebrew? Are we completely missing the genre cues an ancient author would have thought so obvious? Second, the genres into which we map and categorize texts are not necessarily those of the past. Furthermore, the categories that do overlap don’t have the same contours. More on this below… Third, because of our inculturation as modern Christians, we have inherited “Bible/Scripture” as a distinct genre of its own that, in effect, tends to mentally “overwrite” the other genre options. Thus, when we pick up the chronicles of the reign of Esarhaddon and pick up 1 Kings, we tend to place them in different genres: “ancient history cum propaganda” and “Bible.”

The problem raised by these category errors is that we mistake the nature and intent of the texts. Trying to learn history from the visions of the Book of Daniel is analogous to trying to learn history from a bodice-ripping romance novel. Yes, it has a historical-ish frame, but that’s so not the point!

There are two steps that we can take as readers of the Bible to help overcome this issue. The first is simply being aware of our interpretive assumptions. Once we realize that we are making assumptions, we can examine them and get a sense of how on target they may be. Unquestioned assumptions aren’t always wrong, but it’s always better to examine them especially if something like your immortal soul is on the line…

The second step is to become more familiar with ancient genres from the inside. It’s when we start reading comparable and comparative ancient texts that we start getting a sense of what an ancient genre looked like, how authors of that time understood it, and what the stock tropes and genre cues really are. And that brings us to The Malice of Herodotus.

When considering the New Testament and texts analogous to it, one of my favorite authors is Plutarch. Essayist, moralist, and biographer, anyone who works with the gospels should, in my opinion, be familiar with his works. Folks with a classical education will be familiar with his essays on the lives of the great Greeks and Romans. However, he also wrote a host of other essays on moral, religious, and literary topics. I recently came across the Malice of Herodotus, a text of his that I had never encountered before. This is a great text because it exposes an educated author contemporary with the writing of the New Testament thinking out loud about the craft of writing history and biography. (Not a common thing, although Lucian does it too in his aptly titled The Way to Write History—he’s a satirist so watch your step…)

Plutarch is annoyed because of the way that Herodotus paints his people, the Boeotians, in a bad light because they sided with the Persians in the eponymous Persian Wars. As a result, he accuses Herodotus of malice and in making his case he gives us an interesting set of both explicit and implicit genre rules for the category of history in his day. This online version of On the Malice of Herodotus helpfully pulls out to the side Plutarch’s eight major charges against Herodotus.

What I take away from this text is an even greater certainty that for Plutarch history is a sub-discipline of moral philosophy. Note how many of the signs of malice pertain to the depiction of vice and virtue… In particular, I draw your attention to sign 6. This is, in my estimation, the great difference between modern (and especially popular/populist) history and classical history:

An historical narration is also more or less guilty of malice, according as it relates the manner of the action; as if one should be said to have performed an exploit rather by money than bravery, as some affirm of Philip; or else easily and without any labor, as it is said of Alexander; or else not by prudence, but by Fortune, as the enemies of Timotheus painted cities falling into his nets as he lay sleeping. For they undoubtedly diminish the greatness and beauty of the actions, who deny the performer of them to have done them generously, industriously, virtuously, and by themselves.

Digging into Plutarch’s claim here (especially when you couple it with sign 5), this criterion looks like nothing more than an explicit preference for moral instruction over against the facts of history. That is, Plutarch argues that whenever motives are attributed they should always be the most noble even when other motives are available and even more likely. If there’s a conflict between the two, Plutarch is willing to sacrifice “historicity” for the sake of moral edification…

What does this mean for us as readers of the New Testament? It reminds us that we cannot assume that the purpose of historical narrative in Antiquity is the same as ours. There is overlap—no doubt—but modern categories of what is considered edifying and necessary for “good” history cannot be mapped directly onto ancient texts.

Imprecatory Psalms

I got to scratch one item off the list last night—along with our twice-yearly crab cake supper (yum!) I taught our Christian Formation class. The title was “The Spirit of the Monasteries for the Modern Church.” The content was what you would expect, exploring the monastic roots of the Anglican Church and the prayer book with an emphasis on the counter-cultural qualities of obedience, stability, and conversion of life/habits.

I did get a good question when I was talking about the formative role of the Psalter—specifically, do the monks give us anything to help us make sense of the imprecatory psalms? These are those psalms that make us cringe when they get used in public worship (or at least have sections that do) and, as a result, have been chopped out of most denominations’ worship books and even get short shrift in the current BCP’s Daily Office lectionary: Pss 7, 35, 55, 58, 59, 69, 79, 109, 137 and 139.

Because we headed off to talk about other difficult passages where God or the people act in ways that seem amoral or immoral, I never got back to my usual answer. My usual tack is that these psalms function akin to a mirror. When we see these thoughts expressed openly, we recoil from them—and rightly so; it means that our moral sense is fully intact. How they assist us, though, is that they confront us with their honesty. When we are truthful about ourselves and the effects of sin within us, we must acknowledge that these psalms express real feelings that we feel. When they confront us, we have an opportunity to recognize the ugliness contained in our own interior life, an ugliness that can only be addressed when it is admitted, then confronted.

So—that’s where I didn’t go. Instead, I took another angle that I think I want to explore more. The patristic and medieval Christians took much more seriously than we the notion that all of Scripture is edifying. With our modernist notions of what’s right and wrong and convinced that our moral discernment trumps the text, I think we can and do often put ourselves in judgment over the biblical text and simply reject the portions that overly offend us. That approach both is and is not how the monks dealt with both the imprecatory psalms and some of the hard sections of the Old Testament.

First off, let’s acknowledge that there are certain biblical texts that should offend Christian sensibilities. Sometimes (like with Hosea and Ezekiel), I think the author was being intentionally provocative and intended to offend. In other portions (I’m thinking events in the historical books as well as the psalms), the author thought that the behavior narrated (genocide, what have you) was completely fine. And we can’t be fine with that.

In the second case, how do we deal with the text? On the surface, both moderns and medievals do the same thing: a rejection of the plain sense of the text. The difference is what happens next. For moderns, when we reject the plain sense of the text, we tend to also reject the text as a whole. For the medievals, they remained with the text, confident that somewhere in there was something edifying. Turning again to the fundamentals of obedience, stability, and conversion of life, they kept chewing on the text until they could extract some form of edifying meaning from it, no matter how tortured it appears to us. These meanings then, would co-opt the literal meaning and would, in effect, become the new “plain sense” of the text.

For instance, a common monastic trope is to talk about dashing incipient vices against Christ. Nobody had to ask what this related to. The literature inculcates the moral meaning of Ps 137:7-9 to the point where the substitution of “vices” for “the little ones” of the “daughter of Babylon” and “Christ” for “the rock” is automatic. So on one hand, the medievals were being more obedient towards the authority of the text than we tend to be. On the other hand, they were also more subversive of its meaning to the degree where the more palatable and edifying interpretation would be adopted as a wholesale replacement for a more obvious but less edifying one.

My questioner wasn’t totally satisfied with this answer—that we just make an end-run around the literal sense—and wasn’t convinced that this is a case where the monks can inform the modern church. Perhaps he’s right. But the lesson that we could stand to learn, though, is the patience and discipline of wrestling with texts that confront us with a moral perspective alien from our own.

Web Thinking

Posting has been light due to the usual excuses—too many commitments, too little time. One of the current commitments is my appointment to the Communications Committee of our parish. The first order of business is quite clear: build an effective web page and get our Facebook presence to where it ought to be!

As a result, I’ve been thinking a bit about church websites. I find myself in what I believe to be a fairly typical situation. I’m a volunteer with some good technical knowledge but with a limited amount of time, no budget, and the clear sense that someone other than me (or perhaps in addition to me) will be needed to enter material into the site. Furthermore, related to cost constraints, the site is being hosted by the diocese. Inquiries to the web guy at the diocese concerning the space we’re allowed and whether there is any MySQL support have not been answered. So here’s where we are:

  • There is a space for us on a server (bonus!).
  • It’s safest to assume no MySQL support (bummer). This means that the usual content management systems (CMS) apps like Drupal or Joomla are not an option.
  • Since the server is running at least PHP5, there is native SQLite support which means that I can use a light-weight database (bonus!). I don’t think I’ll try a custom CMS just based on time and possible server demands, but if there are some basic dbase uses, I can leverage it.
  • Diocesan support seems limited: I asked about a set of recommendations or best-practices from the guy at the offices and, again, no response (bummer).
  • I know some great folks who’ve been through this exercise before (bonus!)—if the diocese can’t come up with or circulate a set of best practices, maybe we can.

Anybody have some thoughts they want to kick out, sites to link to or other suggestions?