Monday, April 30, 2007

Academic (mis)Blurbing

Sunday's NY Times Book Review carried an essay by Henry Alford on literary misblurbing. We've all read or written examples of carefully worded blurbs for academic books. Here are some of my favorites:-

"Once again, Professor X shows his imaginative power in challenging the received wisdom about the historical Jesus. His new book...is sure to be a catalyst for much discussion and controversy in the years ahead. One can only be grateful for his fresh and innovative views on the teacher from Nazareth."

Archbishop Tutu describes as "riveting and plausible" Jeffrey Archer and Prof. Francis Moloney's new book "The Gospel According to Judas by Benjamin Iscariot." Jeffrey Archer quipped, "And we know which one of us he thought riveting and which one he thought plausible."

A blurb by (the late) Edward Heath on William Temple's Christianity and the Social Order was:- "The impact of William Temple on my generation was immense. It embraced the whole spectrum of those who were seriously concerned with social, economic and political problems of his day."

I've seen variations of this:- "a solid piece of scholarly work which can profitably inform even the casual reader. The results are stunningly suggestive." And this: "X's book tackles some crucial problems in an extremely perceptive and creative way."

Because its the end of the semester, here are others:-
On 1066 And All That:- "We look forward keenly to the appearance of their last work." On Monty Python and the Holy Grail: "Makes Ben Hur Look Like an Epic."

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Pen Writers: Marilynne Robinson and Per Petterson

Yesterday, I went to hear a conversation between Per Petterson, author of "Out Stealing Horses" and Marilynne Robinson, author of "Gilead" as part of the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, April 24-29 in NYC. I'd gone to other events earlier in the week including one at 192 Books, our local bookstore with readings by Lluis-Anton Baulenas, Abla Farhoud, Moses Isegawa, Dorota Maslowska, and Per Petterson, introduced by Francine Prose.

Both Petterson and Robinson discuss memory and relationships between fathers and sons. Both work effectively in the first person singular. They agreed that writing about families encompasses human phenomena by including values like loyalty. Robinson discussed the elaboration of metaphors in her books. "Housekeeping" has the particular audience of her family in mind. The book is a photo of a lake around which her family congregates regularly. She described the origins of an authorial voice as "an intense, plangent, musical atmosphere."

Hearing readings of their works (with eyes closed) and explanations of how they work was an interweaving of pattern and result. It was a magical hour.

Another Audio Bible

"The Word of Promise," another audio bible is being released soon. We can hear Terence Stamp as the voice of God and Richard Dreyfuss as Moses. For historical information, the producer told NPR that he used Men and Women of the Bible. I'm all for treating the bible as an oral text but will it leave room for imagination?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Michael Marissen on unsettling aspects of the Hallelujah Chorus

In today's Herald Tribune, music scholar Michael Marissen, internationally known Bach scholar comments on what the Hallelujah Chorus of Handel's Messiah actually celebrates: not the birth or resurrection of Jesus but the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in A.D. 70. For most Christians in Handel's day, this horrible event was construed as divine retribution on Judaism for its failure to accept Jesus as God's promised Messiah. He concludes by urging us to think about what we are standing to sing the next time we sing the Hallelujah Chorus.

To create the "Messiah" libretto Charles Jennens, a formidable scholar and a friend of Handel's, compiled a series of scriptural passages adapted from the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Version of the Bible. As a traditionalist Christian, Jennens was deeply troubled by the spread of deism, the notion that God had simply created the cosmos and let it run its course without divine intervention. Christianity then as now rested on the belief that God broke into history by taking human form in Jesus. For Jennens and others, deism represented a serious menace.

Deists argued that Jesus was neither the son of God nor the Messiah. Since Christian writers had habitually considered Jews the most grievous enemies of their religion, they came to suppose that deists obtained anti-Christian ammunition from rabbinical scholars. The Anglican bishop Richard Kidder, for example, claimed in his huge 1690s treatise on Jesus as the Messiah that "the deists among us, who would run down our revealed religion, are but underworkmen to the Jews."

Kidder's title says it all: "A Demonstration of the Messias, In Which the Truth of the Christian Religion Is Proved, Against All the Enemies Thereof; but Especially Against the Jews." Jennens owned an edition from 1726, and he appears to have studied it carefully. Kidder's work reads like a blueprint for "Messiah."

Jennens had the discernment to see that he couldn't thwart his adversaries simply by producing reading matter insisting that biblical texts be understood both typologically and as Jesus-centered. Like Arius, who won popular opinion for his views with catchy anti-orthodox jingles in the fourth century, Jennens resorted to music, approaching Handel with his libretto.

What better means to comfort disquieted Christians against the faith-busting wiles of deists and Jews than to draw on the feelings and emotions of art over and above the reasons and revelations of argument? "Messiah" does exactly this, culminating in the "Hallelujah" chorus.

Oxyrhynchus explained

A book on the Oxyrhynchus discovery and its significance by Peter Parsons is reviewed by William Dalrymple in the New Statesman (April 23, 2007).

On the second day of the excavation of an Egyptian village in 1896, Hunt noticed a papyrus fragment and read on it the rare Greek word karphos. While it reminded him of Jesus' saying about "the mote in your brother's eye," the wording was sufficiently different so that he realized with a thrill of excitement that the papyrus was from an unknown gospel of Jesus' sayings. We identify that fragment now as part of the Gospel of Thomas.

The review continues:-
In total, the excavation yielded no fewer than half a million fragments of papyrus, some 700 boxes full - enough, remarks Peter Parsons in his fascinating and authoritative new book, not only to keep Grenfell and Hunt busy for the rest of their working lives, but also to swallow up the lives of - so far - "six generations of scholars", with many more boxes as yet unopened: "Volume I of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri came out in 1898; Volume LXII is due out in 2007; at least 40 more volumes are planned."

Parsons has been studying papyri for more than half a century, and for many of those years has been head of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri Project. Yet there is no sign in his writing that his enthusiasm has been in any way jaded by familiarity with box after box of these endlessly elusive and fragile scraps of scroll. Instead, he brilliantly conveys both the difficulty of working on the material and the excitement of the historical detective involved in the thrill of the chase: open a box of unpublished papyri and you never know what you will find - high poetry and vulgar farce, sales and loans, wills and contracts, tax returns and government orders, private letters, shopping lists and household accounts. Then there is the pleasure of comprehension: as you decipher the ink, still black after 2,000 years, you begin to make words out of letters and then sentences out of words; the eye looks for shapes, and the mind looks for sense, and the two in alliance turn a string of symbols into intelligible text.

Naomi Wolf: 10 steps to Close Down an Open Society

This post by Naomi Wolf is really worth thinking about. A friend and I were conversing last night about a current national climate of fear that others have remarked. Its been going on for quite some time as Wole Soyinka observed in 2004.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Doonesbury (and the Democrats) on Republican Family Values

Doonesbury has a perspective on James Dobson and Republican "family values." And the Democrats are finding ways to talk about religion.

Spong: Jesus' divinity= humanity without hate, malice or prejudice

Bishop Spong's new book, Jesus for the Non-Religious, argues for a new understanding of what it means to be divine.

Divinity, he says, means to be a whole, perfect human being, without hate, prejudice or malice. That is what he believes the disciples saw in Jesus and were genuinely awed by it. Spong says he is awed by it 2,000 years later.

The problem, he says, is that the disciples lacked the facility to express what they had witnessed and felt, and did the best they could by equating Jesus to the perfection of a god. From there, he said, the traditional Christian understanding of divinity evolved.

I haven't read the book. This seems an ahistorical interpretation. Until I get to read the book, we can at least all agree that Jesus existed.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

ABC's Lecture in Toronto yesterday: The Bible--Reading and Hearing

Yesterday, the ABC, Rowan Williams lectured on the Bible: Reading and Hearing. He spoke of the Bible as the sacred literature of the Church to be heard and received in the context of Eucharist. I'm concentrating here on what he said about biblical interpretation.

Asking first what the church's relation to Scripture is, he pointed out that most people in pews hear the Bible before they read it for themselves. Reading Scripture in church implies 1) that Scripture is not a self-generated reality and 2) what is read needs to be read as a communicative act, that is, as a summons to assemble as a called public community. Just as celebrating the Eucharist together is as a response to an invitation, so hearing the word is a public act of being called together. On such occasions, we are asked to imagine how we are one with a historically remote audience hearing those texts and (when hearing texts that are not directly invitations or summons--genealogies, laments of Job, some Psalms, narratives of the gospels etc.) to ask, ‘What does this text suggest or imply about the changes which reading it or hearing it might bring about?’ As hearers (or readers), our primary obligation is to receive the text. This requires a particular sort of receptivity or openness to the text. We are not going to hear it if we engage it only through our present concerns which may well judge the text solely by its utilitarian value.

First, we need to think through the initial relation of the text to its audience. We need to apprehend the entirety of the text, as part of a whole argument. "It is always worth asking, ‘What is the text as a full unit trying not to say or to deny?’" For example, in the farewell discourses of John's gospel, Jesus' declaration, "no one comes to the Father except by me" is not actually about the fate of non-Christians but, in the context of the discourse, a way to understand Jesus' death as an opening of a way to the Father--a way of self-forgetting and self-offering. This is a change in reading or hearing Scripture.

Another example is from Romans 1. The whole context includes the opening of chapter 2 in which Paul argues that the examples in chapter 1 of the perversity of those who cannot see the requirements of the natural order are in fact "the same perversity that affects those who have received the revelation of God and persist in self-seeking and self-deceit. The change envisaged is from confidence in having received divine revelation to an awareness of universal sinfulness and need." The primary point is not about homosexuality but the delusions of the addressed community. Such readings prioritize challenges of the text to a community and asks how these might be received in a contemporary listening community. Hearers are converted to the argument of the text rather than a passive application of a text.

He then cites the example Peter Ochs elucidates in several books about oral Torah being the continuation and elucadation of the argument of written Torah so that a reader sharing a covenant relationship with the first recipients of Torah has to draw out a connection between the initial goal of Torah and the application of Torah now in light of historical catastrophe (the destruction of the temple, the Holocaust).

Finally (for my precis) he argues that "there is an analogous problem at the heart of Scripture. Christian Scripture, the New Testament, is already a work of interpretation, a statement of some very paradoxical connections; it is an attempt to chart what is ‘between’ the texts of Jewish Scripture on which it works." The canon is presented to us as a whole, whose unity is real and coherent, even if not superficially smooth. We are to locate ourselves within this set of connections and engagements, the history of Israel, called, exiled, restored, and of Jesus crucified and risen and alive in the Spirit within the community, not to regard Scripture as one element in a merely modern landscape of conflicts.

I have three points in response to the address. I'm sure there will be many others.

1) Where do we ever hear Romans 1 together with the beginning of chapter 2 in the lectionary i.e. daily office?
2) What is the coherence of canon? This is particularly important if the lectionary presents an incoherent scripture.
3) What about "texts of terror?"

1) The readings of the Daily Office for the week of March 4-10, 2007 this year include for Monday Rom 1:1-15; Tuesday Rom 1:16-25; Weds Rom 1:28-2:11. I remember sitting in chapel on consecutive mornings listening in incredulity to the readings that omit Romans 1:26-27. When we reached Romans 1:28 to be read as the epistle for Wednesday, I asked myself what any reader or hearer would make of the "they" in, "And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God.." You can't understand it without the previous verses. I discussed the omission with Clay Morris, of the Office for Liturgy and Music for the Episcopal Church, and he could not explain it. The omission stands. If this is the case for Romans 1-2, it probably is not an isolated example. One would have to say that the lectionary is a major obstacle to the hearing of Scripture.

2) If the lectionary presents a fragmentary hearing of scripture, whence is a pew listener to derive a coherent hearing of scripture in order to be able to consider changes in ancient and modern listeners a reading of the whole text might imply? In sermons? In private readings? Answering this question shifts the emphasis from comprehending the text to just obtaining a hearing of it in a(ny) liturgical context.

3) As women scripture scholars (Phyllis Trible, Elisabeth Schuessler Fiorenza) have pointed out, sacred scripture of synagogue and church contains "texts of terror" in which women are victims: Hagar, the slave used, abused and rejected; Tamar, the princess, raped and disgarded; an unnamed woman, the concubine raped, murdered and dismembered; and the daughter of Jephthah, a virgin slain and sacrificed. How do we hear these texts in the lectionary? Do not texts that inscribe terror and oppression, and that reinscribe the objectification, suppression and marginalization of women's voices raise questions about the coherence of canon?

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Jesus, through Mary Magdalene's eyes on SAT-7 (thanks to Dan Brown)

People (particularly women) living in "the Middle East and North Africa" will be able to see a new film today: "Jesus, as witnessed by Mary Magdalene" thanks to SAT-7. The film, produced by LifeAgape and Nardine, is being broadcast by satellite today and its intention is to present "the loving Jesus who protected a woman’s honor, built up her dignity and gave her a role in preaching the good news."

LifeAgape Director Henri Aoun said, “The goal behind the production of this film is to help every woman to know her value in Jesus Christ. The Heavenly Father richly esteems women. That’s why, since the Old Testament, during the days of the prophet Solomon, He said, ‘Who could find a virtuous woman? Her price is far above rubies,’ Proverbs: 31:1.”

The producers want to correct the depiction of the relationship between MM and Jesus in the "DaVinci Code." She was a follower and the first witness of the resurection. "I feel the film is a much-needed production, one that is very important in the Arab world where women’s position in society, and even in the Church, has historically been marginalized,” says Jinan Slim, SAT-7’s Acquisitions Manager. We are assured on their website however that SAT 7's broadcasts are sensitive to the political, social and religious dimensions of Middle Eastern society.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Living in a UK vicarage when you aren't the vicar

[Confession: I love to listen to "Women's Hour" on Radio 3 and I watch "The View" frequently.]

Here's a segment about living in a UK vicarage when you aren't the vicar (you'll need Real Player to listen). The resident of this particular vicarage is Jill Fraser who has published a book on her experience of living in one, "More Tea, Less Vicar." Local children frequent the vicarage once a month for various activities (because that's a tradition to which the vicarage occupants consent) and the segment concludes with excerpts from a play celebrating Easter put on by the children.

Jeffrey Sachs: Choices for a more Harmonious World

Jeffrey Sachs gives the Reith Lectures this year all of which can be listened to and downloaded as a podcast starting with the first one, "Bursting at the Seams" here. We are promised in the series strategies to implement, amongst other things, the MDG's. It is essential listening.

In the Q&A there was this exchange (Sue Lawley is the moderator):-


JENNY RUSSELL: The core problem that you're discussing Jeffery is really one of over-consumption, and I do believe that you're an optimist when you say that you feel that actually most of these problems can be solved without much sacrifice on people's part, because I simply don't see how that can be so. So what you're really saying is that people have to stop wanting to consume so much. Now I see absolutely no evidence whatsoever that anybody is willing to do that. You talk about governments being short-term, which they are, but we as individuals are all extremely short-term, we've got extremely poor people in this country…

SUE LAWLEY: I'm hoping for a question mark.

JENNY RUSSELL: …and no-one's willing to do anything about that. When you, when you talk about this, what is it that you're actually proposing will change, because all I can see is that everyone in the globe is going to go on wanting to consume as much as possible until it's impossible.

JEFFREY SACHS: I am not arguing the over-consumption argument - that is actually not my point. I do not believe that the solution to this problem is a massive cutback of our consumption levels or our living standards. I think it is living smarter. I do believe that technology is absolutely critical, and I do not believe on the evidence that I'm going to be discussing in these lectures that the essence of the problem is that we face a zero sum that must be re-distributed. I'm going to argue that there's a way for us to use the knowledge that we have, the technology that we have, to make broad progress in material conditions, to not require or ask the rich to take sharp cuts of living standards, but rather to live with smarter technologies that are sustainable, and thereby to find a way for the rest of the world, which yearns for it, and deserves it as far as I'm concerned, to raise their own material conditions as well. The costs are much less than people think. You are making the argument that this is so costly we don't dare do it.

Handel's Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar) at the Metropolitan Opera

I went last night to an unforgettable performance with Ruth Ann Swenson as Cleopatra and David Daniels as Caesar. For $15.00 I sat in the family circle with my binocs listening to riveting performances. The New York Times' review describes David Daniels in the title role as extraordinary and adds:-

The entire cast was excellent, notably the soprano Ruth Ann Swenson, a vocally exquisite Cleopatra; and, in a significant Met debut, the rich-toned Irish mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon, as Cornelia, the grieving widow of Caesar’s Roman archrival, Pompey.

A highlight was Patricia Bardon's duet at the end of act one with the excellent British mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, as Sesto. It was an absolutely perfect rendering of deeply shared sorrow. Remaining dates are: April 17, 21, 24, 27 with ticket availability.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Doggie Yoga


Just what I need on a Friday with faculty meetings of various kinds all day. According to the article, the Seattle/King County Humane Society now offers 40 minute classes of "doggie yoga."

Brenda Bryan, who teaches human yoga as well as the new class for both dogs and humans, says the dogs react to the gentle energy in the room.

"As we get into it, the dogs all kind of calm down," said Bryan, who developed the poses for the class by working with her own two dogs — Gus, a mixed breed, and Honey, a Shar Pei-Boxer mix — and talking to instructors in such cities as New York, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh where yoga for dogs and their owners is starting to catch on.

Sign me up! One shouldn't be too ambitious, of course. But apparently the dogs get used to the mat and at home, rush to the mat when it is unrolled whether yoga is planned or not :)

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Monday, April 09, 2007

Diocese of Bethlehem on April 29th

In the morning, I'll be giving a talk on the origins of the Bible and in the afternoon, along with several other authors, I'll be at the Cathedral from 1-3pm in the Diocese of Bethlehem signing copies of my new book, Jesus’ Family Values. The other authors are: Anne E. Kitch, Taking the Plunge, a practical theology of baptism and parenting. Peter Pearson, A Brush With God, an inside look at the writing of icons. Jenifer Gamber, My Faith, My Life, a guide to teen confirmation. Gene Witiak, True Confessions of a Veterinarian: An Unconditional Love Story, a lifetime of wonderful stories from this Vet’s view.

Gospel of Thomas, anyone?

An overview in under 200 words....for more substance, see Karen King's 2003 book, What is Gnosticism?

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Friday, April 06, 2007

Not (much) about Mary Magdalene (alas!)

was on the History Channel last night. Its a production of CTVC--a UK independent production company specialising in the impact of social, religious and ethical issues.

It was a pleasure to see and hear Prof. Pheme Perkins of Boston College who reads Greek and Coptic texts and who has written several books including one on Gnostic Revelation Dialogues in the Nag Hammadi Library along with Susan Haskins whose work on Mary Magdalene in Christian art is well known. While Esther de Boer and Ramon Jusino were featured prominently, their ideas about Mary Magdalene as the author of the Fourth Gospel were not assessed.

I received an email from CTVC in 2005 about the program and I'm pretty sure I referred them to the article by Prof. Schneiders, 'Because of the Woman's Testimony . . .': Reexamining the Issue of Authorship in the Fourth Gospel." New Testament Studies 44 (1998) 513-535) on the identity of the Beloved Disciple in John as:-

a textual paradigm derived from and realized in the leading figures in the Johannine School, some of whom were disciples of the pre-Easter Jesus, and refracted in the text through such characters as Nathanael, the Samaritan Woman, the Royal Official, the Man Born Blind, Martha and Mary and Lazarus of Bethany, Mary Magdalene, and Thomas the Twin. The most significant of these figures is certainly Mary Magdalene who is the witness to and proclaimer of the paschal mystery.

If this argument had appeared on the web, and been thoroughly digested, would Prof. Schneiders be on the program discussing the authorship of the Fourth Gospel? If so, then the focus of the program would be changed. As it is, I'm not entirely sure who the intended audience of the program is.

The program examines the ideas of Esther de Boer and Raymon Jusino that Mary Magdalene is the Beloved Disciple in John's Gospel and the Beloved Disciple "himself."


Keeping Mum and Family Values

"Keeping Mum" is a 2005 movie with Rowan Atkinson as the vicar of Lower Wopping, Kristen Scott Thomas as his wife (this poses as a traditional sort of film set in an English village--think: St Mary Meade). They are in the throes of a fairly dysfunctional marriage--their teenage daughter is a nymphomaniac and their young son bullied at school. Into this family steps Maggie Smith as their newly arrived housekeeper/nanny. She restores love to the adults, value to the daughter, and salvation to the son in some rather unorthodox and immoral ways.

There's a website that does four word movie reviews. Here's their one for this movie: "Crimes of Jean Brodie." My review: "Family Values justifies murder!"

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Sacred Texts from Jewish, Christian and Muslim Traditions

SACRED: Discover What We Share is an exhibit at the British Library from April 7 to September 23, 2007 presenting some of the earliest religious texts from the religions of the book. It is funded by representatives of all three faiths!

Among the manuscripts are:-


*Codex London: One of the oldest surviving manuscripts of the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, which are central to Jewish worship. The traditional Jewish view is that these five books were written by the Prophet Moses at divine dictation. This rare early copy was made in the Middle East, perhaps Palestine, in the 10th century.

* Codex Sinaiticus: It is the oldest complete manuscript of the New Testament and the earliest and best witness for some books of the Old Testament as well. It was produced around 350 CE possibly in Palestine, but its name derives from the still active Monastery of Saint Catherine near the foot of Mount Sinai in Egypt where it was preserved for many centuries.

* Ma'il Qur'an: One of the earliest Qur’ans in the world to have survived, this dates from the beginning of the 8th century AD. That equates to the 1st century in the Muslim Hijri calendar, which means that this manuscript was penned within 100 years of a key event in the founding of Islam i.e. the hejira or flight of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD to escape his enemies. It was produced on the Arabian peninsula, probably in or near the holy cities of Islam.

* Syriac Pentateuch: The earliest known dated Biblical manuscript. This copy of the Books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy in Syriac is the earliest known dated Biblical manuscript. It was written by Deacon John at Amida (modern Diyarbakir in south eastern Turkey) in 463. Syriac was the language of the Syrian Church which extended across modern Turkey, Syria and Iraq. This version of the Bible (known as the Peshitta or 'simple' version) became important as the origin of most of the translations made into other languages of the Eastern churches, including Armenian.

DV, I'll be able to see this on Friday June 1st. Anyone care to join me?