Saturday, 29 January 2011

Lives of Jesus 2 - James M Robinson

James M Robinson's A New Quest of the Historical Jesus is not so much a life of Jesus as an essay about the possibility of writing such a life.  It is also a serious scholarly work, which means I am completely unqualified to make any judgement on it.  However, because it is a reflection on the possibility of the Quest, and because it was written in 1959, 50 years after Schweitzer's work and before the more populist Lives I will review from here on, it provides a useful bridge between these works.

Robinson is an American bible scholar but recieved part of his theological education in Germany and at the time of writing this book was immersed in German theology.  His starting point is that Schweitzer's The Quest of the Historical Jesus marked the end of a stream of historical research.  This stream was based on a Enlightenment view of history as an objective pursuit of "what really happened".  While Schweitzer critiqued the various attempts at this task, he was positive about the task itself and ended with his own attempt at it.

Later theologians, led by Rudolph Bultmann, criticised both the possibility and legitimacy of this task.  They saw it as impossible, because the "factual" history could not be seperated from the proclamation of the Church enshrined in the New Testament.  There is no way, they said, of getting past this to the historical details that lay behind it.  They also saw it as illegitimate, because they saw these "historical facts" as a minor part of the understanding of history.  Of greater importance to them was the underlying meaning of the events, the world views and thought processes that lay behind it, the structures and relationships.  This meant that the content of the proclamation and the way it was used were seen as of much greater importance than the "brute facts of Jesus' external biography."  Hence, attention shifted from trying to write a factual biography of Jesus, to understanding the content and significance of the proclamation.

The initial result of this thinking was to kill off the Quest - or at least to put it to sleep.  Robinson asks the question "can it be revived, and if so on what basis?"  In responding to this question, he reaffirms that the Enlightenment version of the Quest is indeed dead.  Neither the emergence of new source material, nor further developments in the study of the New Testament, can resurrect it.  Instead, he finds guidance for a new Quest in radically changed notions of both history and human identity. 

History is the act of intention, the commitment, the meaning for the participants, behind the external occurrence....  Hence it is the task of modern historiography to grasp such acts of intention, such commitments, such meaning, such self-actualisation; and it is the task of modern biography to lay hold of the selfhood which is therein revealed.

In other words, the task of history is not to sift each detail and put together a collection of verifiable facts.  Rather, it is a search for the meaning of events, for an understanding of how people saw themselves in time.  This not only makes the task more holistic and to a large extent more interesting, it also makes it more possible.  The proclamation of the Church, which must by definition at least preserve something of the proclamation of Jesus himself, is precisely this - a declaration of meaning, a proclamation of how Jesus and/or his followers saw themselves and the world in which they lived.

Once this view of history is accepted, the sorting of fact from myth becomes less crucial.  Whether Jesus said these precise words, or did these deeds precisely as recorded, is less important than what they meant, for him and his followers.  Myths invented after Jesus death are just as important as his actual words and deeds in understanding how he was perceived, and what meaning he gave to himself, his society and the cosmos.

However, Robinson is not content to just show that a new Quest is possible.  He also wants to know what purpose it will serve.  He is particularly keen to warn against the use of such a Quest as a way of avoiding faith.

It is illegitimate to dodge the call of the "kerygma" (the proclamation) for existential faith in the saving event, by an attempt to provide an objectively verified proof of its historicity.  To require an objective legitimisation of the saving event prior to faith is to take offence at the offence of Christianity and to perpetuate the unbelieving flight to security.

Instead, he sees the new Quest in the following terms.

...the objectivity of modern historiography consists precisely in one's openness for the encounter, one's willingness to place one's intentions and views of existence in question, i.e. to learn something basically new about existence and thus have one's own existence modified or radically altered.

The researchers of Schweitzer's day worked with a basic distinction between the "Jesus of history and the Christ of faith".  Robinson wants to dissolve this distinction.

...the historical Jesus cannot be seperated from the Christ of faith, as the original quest attempted to do.  Yet...the Christ of faith cannot be seperated from the historical Jesus, if we do not wish to find 'a myth in the place of history, a heavenly being in the place of the Nazarene'.

This is where the importance of the new Quest lies.  Sure, we have the proclamation contained in the New Testament, which for most of its life was all the church had.  This in itself is sufficient for faith.  However, we also have a body of historical research produced from the 18th century onwards which presents another picture of the historical Jesus.  We can't pretend this research doesn't exist.  Instead, we need to grapple with it and use it to deepen our understanding of Jesus. 

What this means in practical terms is left open, as is how it differs from the earlier Quest.  It seems to me that Schweitzer's work is not too dissimilar to what Robinson is describing.  Schweitzer's conclusion is not a shopping list of historical "facts", but a comprehensive and stirring picture of Jesus' self-identity and mission.  Nor does Robinson reject the methods of historical criticism.  His final chapter discusses briefly the implications of Bultmann's "demythologising" of the Gospels, and of the findings of biblical criticism.  However, these questions are for later works.

Robinson himself, now in his 80s, has continued to be a prominent New Testament scholar and was a leading member of The Jesus Seminar, which I'll be writing about later.   It's enough to say here that his wish was fulfilled.  After the fallow years of the first half of the 20th Century, the Quest of the Historical Jesus has blossomed and produced a diverse and times bewildering array of fruit, some of which I'll tell you about soon.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Love of an Orchestra

The explosion of "new folk" music is definitely a Good Thing.  My latest love along this line is Noah and the Whale's The First Days of Spring. 

The album is a little on the gloomy side, being (what else?) a series of songs about lost love and the associated despair.  Cue lots of slow songs about loneliness and depression, before the final song climbs out to a kind of acceptance and hope.

But now I'm free,
Now I'm free,
Now I'm free from all your pain.

Well you have only let me down
you have only, let me down
but my door is always open
yeah my door is always open.

Like the album title says, the first days of spring.  At first listen the whole thing seems gloomy and a tad boring.  Repeated listens get you cued into the clever arrangements, the lush orchestration and memorable hooks, as well as the lyrical movement from despair towards hope.

What's really got me buzzing, though, is that in the dead centre of this gloom and despair is an absolute gem of a song, a mini-masterpiece of bubbling hope and joy called Love of an Orchestra.  I defy anyone to listen to this song without feeling joyful.

I know I'll never be lonely
I've got songs in my blood
I'm carrying all the love of an orchestra
gimme the love of an orchestra

So now in my deepest sorrow
there's no need for despair
I'm carrying all the love of an orchestra
gimme the love of an orchestra

Sure you lost your love, but who cares when you can make music like this?

Monday, 24 January 2011

Brisbane Floods Part 3

We moved back home on Friday, power reconnected.  Phone has been restored this afternoon along with our internet service and so except for an incredibly clean and empty downstairs to our house, we are close to being back to what passes for normal around here. 

Our street, though, is eerily quiet.  The moderately loud neighbours on the upside haven't returned - perhaps they never will, being tenants.  The same with the tenants next to us on the down side with their young children and the dad with chronic sinus problems - they lost almost all their possessions and they're tenants too.  The man with the dogs next to them has lived here all his life and went through the 1974 flood here, so I guess he'll be back eventually but he had water almost to his roof.  The family over the road are having problems with their insurance company which is delaying their electrical repairs.  The shopping centre is still closed.  I'm guessing it could be months before the neighbourhood is really back to normal.

The cleanup goes on but the army of volunteers has basically disbanded.  Most of the remaining jobs require experts, or are things people need to do themselves.  So now, after the flood and the clean-up, comes the inquiry.  It will cover quite a few things - you can check out the Terms of Reference here

It's tempting to think the answer is obvious.  It rained a lot, we had a flood.  The water has to go somewhere.  Perhaps that's just the part of me that wants to forget it ever happened.

The other temptation is to look for someone to blame.  Chief candidates are the operators of Wivenhoe Dam, who released a huge volume of water in the lead-up to the flood.  Should they have released it earlier, so it wouldn't meet the deluge from the Bremer and Lockyer?  Should they (and could they) have waited longer?  Hopefully the inquiry will find that everyone did the best they could, with the knowledge and time they had, but perhaps there are lessons to be learnt for next time.  Reflecting on my own experience, a lot happened fast, and it wasn't easy to make good decisions.

Smaller aspects of the inquiry interest me more personally.  For instance, when the police officer knocked on our door to advise us to evacuate, he knew nothing except that our street was going to flood.  We had to decide when and how to evacuate based on this single line of information.  Perhaps if we had listened to ABC news at the time we could have learned more, but we were hardly thinking clearly.  If we had known that evening how high the water was expected to rise, we would have had much longer consider what to do.  This was even more of an issue for our neighbours.  When we arrived early on Wednesday morning, we could still get into our house and had time to remove almost everything of value.  Our low-set, lower ground neighbours were already awash by then.

Another example - planning.  Brisbane planners in recent decades have used the "Q100" flood line - that is, the height of a flood statistically likely once in 100 years.  This is roughly equivalent to the 1974 flood level, adjusted down for the presence of the Wivenhoe.  When the townhouses were built next door, the developer was required to raise the ground by 300mm to lift the property above that level.  All the units had water in them on January 13.  Was this because it rained more than the one in 100 chance?  Or are the assumptions behind that flood level flawed?

My final thing is with information after the event.  Obviously, a huge flood places a lot of pressure on infrastructure.  It took a week after the waters receded to restore our power, a week and a half to restore the phone.  The insurance company is still coming. 

These kind of jobs require years of training, so it's impossible to just bring in extra people and there will always be a bottleneck.  On the other hand, the information systems of the various providers are universally poor.  Some are better than others but all of them have defensive customer service strategies.  They don't commit to anything in case they fail to deliver.  They don't give you much information because they believe you will misunderstand it.  Yet for me the uncertainty was one of the biggest sources of stress.  If I'd known it would be a week I could plan for a week.   Waiting and checking each day was a form of torture.

A final thought, before I stop rabbiting on about this and go back to stuff like the Lives of Jesus.  After a lifetime of working on homelessness, I've finally been homeless.  It was only for a bit over a week, I had a great place to stay with loving and supportive family members around me, and after Day 3 I knew I had a place to go back to.  Nonetheless, it was very stressful.  I didn't sleep properly, I got grumpy, I now have a virus.  I keep forgetting things like where I'm supposed to be, and where I put my keys.  Multiply this by 50 or 100 and you get the kind of stress experienced by people who are truly homeless, or refugees, or people in indefinite detention.  Is it any wonder they have mental health problems, that they get angry and violent, that the trauma stays with them for life?

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Brisbane Floods Part 2

A flood makes you see your suburb in a new way.  I always thought of Fairfield as a flat place, and particularly of my street as a flat street.  The hill started on the other side of the railway line, where the streets climb quickly up to the top of the ridge.  Down on the floodplain the land appears to run evenly from the bottom of the ridge to the river.

Now I know differently.  Our street dips, then rises again.  Because we are half way up the rise, we got half flooded.  Our neighbours at the top were high and dry.  Those down in the dip were submerged.  Those two metres make all the difference.

When the floods first receded the mud painted a physical contour line on the street - below was brown, above was black.  Then as people started to clean up the mud line got blurred because cars and boots carried mud all over, and hoses swept much of it into the stormwater drains. 

A new line emerged, of broken furniture.  Riding through the suburb yesterday evening on my way back to my sister's house, I could see the places where the piles stopped.  Here, people lost masses of possessions.  Here, two doors up, none.  The change is stark, abrupt.  This line too is disappearing as the crews take the rubbish away, and we will have to work hard to remember.

This line is both the curse and the blessing of the flood.  It's a curse because there seems no reason to it, no punishment or reward, just the irrefutable logic of geography.  Remember, next time the line could change, the water could rise higher and there would be a new, even crueller line, or lower and the line would be kinder.  On the other hand it is a blessing, because there are plenty of people unaffected and on hand to help.  Many who helped us came from just up the hill - out of danger themselves, they were on hand to help those at risk. 

I guess there is a psychological line too.  If you watch the news footage it is as if the flood affected the whole city, and in a way it did.  But for some it was an inconvenience - less fruit on the shelves, power cut, transport disrupted.   For some, it means homelessness and huge financial shock.  For us, in between - major inconvenenience, but nothing seriously harmful.  For many it was an exciting event, a once in a lifetime adrenalin rush in an otherwise routine life.  And I would think some people hardly noticed it, and got on with their daily lives as if nothing was happening.

How will we see this event in the future?  Who knows, I'll think about it when the electricity is back on and the books back on the shelves.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Brisbane Floods

We interrupt normal programing to bring you this update from damp and muddy Brisbane.

Brisbane's paradigmatic flood occurred in January 1974, when I was 12.  A rain depression in the Brisbane River catchment combined with a king tide to inundate large areas of Brisbane.  I remember going with my scout group to Rocklea in the days after it subsided and helping people clear out houses which had been completely submerged.  The mud and the stench was terrible.

Our house in Fairfield stood in about 2.5 metres of water in 1974, filling the downstairs part of the house and covering the floorboards upstairs.  Our neighbours in low set houses were completely submerged.  We didn't live there then, of course.  When we bought the house in 1994 we checked out flood levels and were told that the building of Wivenhoe Dam lowered them by about 2 metres.

Fast forward to 2010-11.  The La Nina weather pattern dumped huge amounts of rain on Queensland and town after town went under.  Rain poured all through the Brisbane River catchment once again and Brisbane was threatened. 

On Tuesday, January 11 we listened to the radio and Brisbane's Lord Mayor warned that about 6000 Brisbane properties were at risk of flooding, including four in Fairfield.  This clearly wasn't us - there are hundreds of homes in Fairfield lower than we are.  In the morning I cheerfully reassured friends and family that we weren't at risk, and cleared a few things off the floor downstairs just in case.  Early on Tuesday afternoon a police officer knocked on our door and advised us to evacuate.  He had little information - he was just delivering the message.  We got some people over to help, moved any valuable stuff upstairs, picked things up off the floor, and decamped to my sister's house with our most precious possessions.

That evening we watched the TV news and for the first time got a full picture of what was happening.  The Mayor and Premier used the words "worse than 1974".  In 1974 the Brisbane River was 5.45 metres above sea level at the City guage.  The predicted 2011 peak, in the early hours of Thursday morning, was 5.5m.  Wivenhoe Dam was overfull and water was being released.  Huge amounts of rain had fallen in the Lockyer and Bremer Rivers, flooding Laidley and Ipswich and then sending water into the Brisbane River below Wivenhoe.  Just as in 1974, incoming tides pushed seawater up river to meet it.

Early in Wednesday morning we went back to our house to find water already lapping around the bottom step.  We rang friends and relations and started removing anything we could.  As the water rose the evacuation gathered pace as both friends and complete strangers, those we'd called and those we hadn't,  helped carry stuff our to the waiting cars and trailers.  A man I'd never met from a little way up the hill parked his truck on the corner and we loaded it up.  A huge Maori man helped us carry the fridge downstairs.  When we called a halt at about 10.00 am, with water up to our thighs at ground level, most things of any value were either on their way to other people's houses, or at least up off the floor in the upstairs part of the house.

Then we waited.  The water rose.  SEQ Water slowed the flow from Wivenhoe as the tide came up.  The flood peaked at 4.46m above sea level.

On Thursday morning I rode my bike down to take a look.  Police were stopping cars at the railway underpass, but letting residents through.  I couldn't get near the house to see where the water had got to but the high water mark on the front fence looked hopeful.  Less hope for the neighbours further down the hill, whose houses sat in deep water.  Our local shopping centre was flooded out, the park was a lake. 

Thursday afternoon the water receded futher and confirmed hopes - I could get to the house and see the water line half a metre below our upstairs floor.  I waded to the front steps and checked upstairs.  Everthing was dry, but a mess from our quick exit.

So began the cleanup.  All the water had gone by Friday morning, leaving a film of mud on the concrete floors and walls.  Our electricity switchboard and hot water system had been submerged.  We brought gloves, hoses and brooms.  More friends and strangers came and helped.  Sodden furniture and possessions were piled on the footpath for the promised Council collection.  We hosed, swept and scrubbed.  People brought food.  The food hastily emptied from the fridge was added to the pile of rubbish.  A crew upstairs sorted the rubble in preperation for the return of our possessions.  By the end of the day most of the mud was out of the house and off the paths and driveway, upstairs was in reasonable order, the rubbish was out, and we were all exhausted.  Saturday most of the furniture came back.  We're still waiting for the electrician, and for the phone service to return.

Our neighbourhood is a mess.  On the high side of our block its not too bad - the neighbours at the top of the street escaped altogether, the ones next down had small amounts of water.  The two houses lower down on our side of the street are low-set, and the residents lost pretty much everything.  Down at the shopping centre the mud is ankle deep.  No-one will be playing cricket in the park for a while.  On the other hand our neighbourhod has never been busier.  The whole area is full of parked cars as volunteers stop wherever they can.  People in boots, with shovels over their shoulders, wander by all day.  People patrol the street with food and drink to sustain the workers.  Somene handed the guys working in our front yard some beers.  A swarm of Energex workers fanned out across the street yesterday, tagging and leaving forms for electricians still to come.  

I'm still trying to think what we can do to recognise all the people who have helped us.  I don't even know who they all are.  Whoever and wherever you are, thank you from the bottom of my heart.

The story continues here and here.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Sinking Feeling

Do you ever get that feeling in the pit of your stomach, like you've just gone down the slope of the roller coaster except that you know you're sitting still?  I've been getting it a lot lately.  I get it whenever I'm reminded that the lifestyle I enjoy, and the feeling of security I have, is based on a global system that is profoundly unsustainable.

I got it again last week.  At the same time I was reading Albert Schweitzer's description of Jesus as a harbinger of the end of civilisation as he knew it, I was also reading Richard Ellis's The Empty Ocean.  Each chapter of this book is a variation on the one theme.  Not too long ago, the ocean teemed with huge populations of cod, tuna, albatross, seal, whale, dolphin, herring, etc etc.  Then within a few decades humans exploited the species to the point of extinction.  Some species are rebuilding after strong conservation efforts, others are not.  Undeterred, we plough on with our exploitation of the next species, deaf to the warnings of impending collapse.

What gets me despairing is the sense of helplessness.  It's the same feeling I had during the Copenhagen Summit.  Despite the obfuscation, everyone knows there is a problem, and the solutions to it are clear, although not easy.  But when it came down to it, competition triumphed over all else.  Our leaders could not reach agreement.  In effect, they agreed to go on being stupid, to go on failing to act in the face of overwhelming evidence.  Just like Ellis's fishermen.  Just like our governments who keep building more roads despite the looming decline of oil stocks.  Just like the loggers who go on felling rainforests despite our alarming loss of biodiversity. 

One of the most profound things I've ever read in my life is a passage in Henri Nouwen's Reaching Out.  I came back to it again and again.

The greatest obstacle to our entering into that profound dimension of life where our prayer takes place is our all-pervasive illusion of immortality.  At first it seems unlikely or simply untrue that we have such an illusion, since on many levels we are quite aware of our mortality.  Who thinks that he is immortal?... Although we keep telling each other and ourselves that we are going to die soon, our daily actions, thoughts and concerns keep revealing to us how hard it is to fully accept the reality of our own statements.

As with each of us, so with all of us.  We know our lifestyle is unsustainable, that our civilisation has to change to survive.  Yet day by day, year by year, we keep going in the old way, shutting our eyes to the coming end.  The sad thing is that while our individual deaths are inevitable, the suffering and chaos of social collapse can be avoided if we so choose.  But will we?

Monday, 10 January 2011

Lives of Jesus 1 - Albert Schweitzer

Albert Schweitzer is the interpreter of all the "lives of Jesus" which came before him, and godfather of all that came after.  His book The Quest of the Historical Jesus, written in German in 1906 and first translated into English in 1910, not only gave its name to a whole genre of theological writing, but  set the terms in which the subject would be approached.  Any "life of Jesus" you pick up today has its counterpart in the works reviewed by Schweitzer, or in his own views.  Reviewing such a work is like humming a Beethoven symphony.

Schweitzer was 30 years old when the Quest was published, already working as the Principal of the theological college of St Thomas in Strasbourg.  This is a scholarly book, but warm and lucid as hot coffee.

In approaching the task Schweitzer makes use of the idea of the distinction between "the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith".  The core historical problem is that virtually all the records of Jesus were produced by Christians after Jesus had come to be revered as Christ.  The question for the historian is: what historical reality lies behind this revered Christ figure?  In this is also the deepest and most insoluble problem of the Quest - to go behind the Gospels is to venture into uncharted territory

His way of getting to the answer involved bringing together all the research and writing on the subject to date, working his way chronologically from the mid 1700s up to his own day.  His portraits of the various writers are as generous and sympathetic as his analysis is sharp and critical.  What he finds is not a project of objective historical analysis, but a set of works profoundly influenced by the passions and world views of their authors.

....it was not only each epoch that found its reflection in Jesus; each individual created Him in accordance with his own character. There is no historical task which so reveals a man's true self as the writing of a Life of Jesus. No vital force comes into the figure unless a man breathes into it all the hate or all the love of which he is capable. The stronger the love, or the stronger the hate, the more life-like is the figure which is produced....

The critical study of the life of Jesus has been for theology a school of honesty. The world had never seen before, and will never see again, a struggle for truth so full of pain and renunciation as that of which the Lives of Jesus of the last hundred years contain the cryptic record.

On his way through the history of this Quest he deals with issues like the use of the Gospels (is John the most reliable source, as believed by most critics in the 18th century?  Is Mark the primary gospel, as he himself believed?  In either case what use can be made of them as history?); the world view of first century Judaism (how much can be known about this, and of what relevance is it to Jesus?) and the interplay between Christian doctrine and free historical research (many of his heroes having been dismissed from their posts, or refused promotion, because of their conclusions).  However, at the heart of the story are the world views of the authors.

There are the rationalists, who try to explain the events of Jesus' life in "naturalistic" terms.  The healings are explained as the clever use of advanced medical knowledge.  The raisings of the dead (including Jesus' own) are incidents of coma or premature burial.  The expulsion of demons are acts of  psychiatry.  Schweitzer does his best to present this nonsense fairly, but sometimes his sharp tongue gets away from him.

He is similarly kind but even more dismissive of what he calls the "imaginative Lives of Jesus".  In these works, which crop up in each period he reviews, Jesus is placed in a richly imagined but almost wholly fictional world.  The work he regards as the model for all later works of this type is by Karl Heinrich Venturini, who protrays Jesus as the agent of a secret Essene cabal who guide and at times manipulate his actions in order to bring about their own political ends.

Venturini's "Non-supernatural History of the Great Prophet of Nazareth" may almost be said to be reissued annually down to the present day, for all the fictitious "Lives" go back directly or indirectly to the type which he created. It is plagiarised more freely than any other Life of Jesus, although practically unknown by name.

Nor has the ensuing century seen any evidence of loss of enthusiasm for this kind of exercise.

Schweitzer is no less critical of the creators of liberal Lives of Jesus, who attempt to craft a Jesus for their own time, who seek in him a completely a-historical figure preaching a timeless message.  All they acheive, says Schweitzer, is to make Jesus in the image of their own time, a "modern" high-minded German liberal.

As of old Jacob wrestled with the angel, so German theology wrestles with Jesus of Nazareth and will not let Him go until He bless it; that is, until He will consent to serve it and will suffer Himself to be drawn by the Germanic spirit into the midst of our time and our civilisation. But when the day breaks, the wrestler must let Him go. He will not cross the ford with us. Jesus of Nazareth will not suffer Himself to be modernised. As an historic figure He refuses to be detached from His own time.

Finally, through various byways, he comes to the skeptics, those who say that little can be told about Jesus one way or another.  This, for Schweitzer, is at least an honest appraisal.  Skeptical scholars attract his admiration because they refuse to compromise, they refuse to doctor evidence, they are relentlessly self-critical and refuse to impart on Jesus the rosy glow of their own philosophy.

Yet although he admires them, he does not follow them.  Instead, he takes another path - the path of eschatology.  Jesus, he says, proclaimed the end of the world.  When he preached in Galilee, and when he sent his disciples out in pairs to proclaim the Kingdom, what he was saying was, in essence. "repent, for God is about to bring an end to history as we know it and usher in his Kingdom". 

He initially expected this immediately.  When he sent out his disciples to preach in Matthew 10, he expected that before the end of their mission the Kingdom would have come.  This is why he talked in that passage about the suffering, pain and destruction which would accompany the Kingdom's inauguration.  When this expectation was disappointed he revised his approach, and took on himself the duty of suffering in place of the people in order to hasten its coming.  He expected that after doing so, God would in short order bring him back as the triumphant, conquering Messiah, and his disciples would rule the Kingdom with him.

After the length at which he analyses the views of others, his presentation of his own conclusion is tantalisingly brief.  It leaves you wanting more.  How, you want to know, was this Jesus transformed into the Christ of faith?  What led the disciples to go on revering him as the Christ despite the continual postponement of his triumph?  How did the Jesus of this history become the Christ of Paul and of John, the Hellenic Logos, the third person of the Trinity who came from and returned to the Father, from where he looks over us in our daily struggle?

Schweitzer does not answer these questions, but in his own conclusion he offers us this.

....it is a good thing that the true historical Jesus should overthrow the modern Jesus, should rise up against the modern spirit and send upon earth, not peace, but a sword. He was not a teacher, not a casuist; He was an imperious ruler. It was because He was so in His inmost being that He could think of Himself as the Son of Man. That was only the temporally conditioned expression of the fact that He was an authoritative ruler. The names in which men expressed their recognition of Him as such, Messiah, Son of Man, Son of God, have become for us historical parables. We can find no designation which expresses what He is for us.

He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: "Follow thou me!" and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfil for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.

In the end, Schweitzer took his own advice.  Although he continued to write and speak, he abandoned what could have been a glittering academic career to become a medical missionary in Gabon, founding a hospital and rebuilding it after it was ravaged during World War 1, continuing to work there on and off into his 70s.  He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952 and campaigned energetically against the deployment of nuclear weapons.

No doubt he could have given more on the Life of Jesus.  Instead his book, and the horrors of war and depression, marked a temporary end to the Quest.  Perhaps it had reached its logical conclusion.  Or perhaps, as for Schweitzer so also for others, there were more pressing concerns.  Those who were devoted to Jesus needed to leave their studies and allow Jesus to "set them to the tasks which He had to fulfil in their time".

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Lives of Jesus - Introduction

I thought it would be interesting to write a series of reviews on some of the "lives of Jesus" that I've read over the last few years. 

One of the reasons I thought it would be interesting is because there are so many.  This photo is only the ones on my shelf.  There's more in the local library plus a couple on my computer. 

Another reason is that they all say something different - often radically different. 

Why that's interesting is that they're all looking at the same evidence.  There are essentially three sources for a "life of Jesus".  There are the written gospels, including the four in the Bible plus a number of non-canonical versions of the story.  There are the references to Jesus and to early Christians in contemporary Roman and Jewish sources.  And finally, there is contextual information - documentary and archaeological information about life in Palestine in the first century which can throw light on the written materials. 

Two things make the task of using these materials difficult.  Firstly, the material itself is fairly sparse.  While the Gospels themselves are rich in detail, even the canonical ones are written decades after the events they describe, and they are not consistent.  With the other material, the documentary sources are fragmentary and not particularly reliable, while the contextual material requires a lot of interpretation.  Hence, what people make of it says as much about themselves as about the material itself.

So here's my plan.  I won't review everthing, because you'd all get bored way before I reached the end.  Instead, I'll pull out examples of various sorts of Lives.  Probably as follows.  The first two books provide a kind of historical/theological background, while the rest provide more or less contemporary alternative views.
  1. The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer.  Written just on a century ago, this amazing book is a kind of touchstone for everything that came after.  Schweitzer reviews 150 years worth of historical and critical scholarship before finally outlining his own conclusion that Jesus is best seen as enacting in his own person the apacalyptic expectations of first century Judaism.
  2. A New Quest of the Historical Jesus by James M Robinson.  Robinson's book, written in the late 1950's, aims to revive research into the "historical Jesus" after it had fallen into neglect in the decades post-Schweitzer.  Looks like it worked!
  3. Jesus the Man by Barbara Thiering.  Starting at the most extreme end of oddity, Thiering's book presents us with a kind of "conspiracy theory Jesus" - everything we thought we knew about Jesus is wrong, and she will now reveal the truth.  Hers is, at least in approximation, the Jesus of The Da Vinci Code dressed in the garb of scholarship.  (At this point, I also give an honourable or perhaps dishonourable mention to Phillip Pullman's bizarre fictional Life of Jesus)
  4. Honest to Jesus by Robert W Funk.  The chief organiser of "The Jesus Seminar" presents us with a thoroughly skeptical view in which Jesus is no more than a clever teacher of philosophy and all the elements of theology attached to him are later additions of the Church.
  5. Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by Marcus Borg.  Borg is another participant in The Jesus Seminar but he has radically different use for its skeptical conclusions, using them to build a lively and rebellious spirituality.
  6. Jesus Before Christianity by Albert Nolan describes Jesus through a lense strongly coloured by Liberation Theology, focusing on Jesus social message in both his words and his actions.
  7. The Challenge of Jesus by NT Wright.  Wright is an Evangelical scholar but not afraid to use the findings of scholarship to challenge and revise the popular picture of Jesus, within the overall framework of respect for traditional Christian belief.
  8. The Jesus I Never Knew by Philip Yancey.  This popular evangelical author presents Jesus as if all the preceding books had never been written, drawing solely from the Biblical sources to present a Jesus that any fundamentalist could accept - but who nonetheless challenges the way we live at every point.
Then of course there's the reflection at the end in which I fail to answer the question, "what does it all mean?"

That's a long list already and no doubt there'll be some slips along the way.  Hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Learning Disabilities

Happy New Year, everyone.

I've been thinking for a while now about something that happened in school when I was about nine or ten.  One of my classmates was having some problems with his writing, and our teacher decided that he wasn't trying hard enough and a bit of public humiliation might sharpen him up.  So he stood him up and read out one of his essays to the class in a tone of biting sarcasm.  The rest of us squirmed in embarassment, torn between feeling sorry for him and being glad it wasn't us.  He may have cried, I can't remember that detail.  Nor can I remember the actual content of the essay but I clearly remember the problem.  It went something like this.

"I walked down the street and there I was a red car.  I saw very excited to see it."

You will imediately understand what was going on.  My classmate had dyslexia.  He mixed up his was and saw because he couldn't tell the difference.  It wouldn't matter how hard he tried, and how much humiliation he suffered, he would continue to mix them up until someone who understood his disorder helped him develop a strategy for recognising when he had gone wrong.  Although not all teachers of 40 years ago shared this man's love for humiliating students, very few of them understood these kinds of learning disorders and what to do about them.

I've been thinking about this because now it seems to be the opposite.  Every time I talk to friends or family with school age children we seem to be talking about learning disabilities.  Various young friends and family members have dyslexia, dyspraxia, various forms of ASD, ADHD, auditory processing disabilities and so on.  One of the favourite games is to work out which disabilities were inherited from the parents.  It's amazing realise how many of the people I've spent my life around suffer from learning disabilities.

To some extent, there is more help available now to young people with these disabilities.  Not enough, but at least teachers now understand what is going on, and there are guidance officers, OTs, learning support teachers, options to adapt exam conditions, and so on.  Most of those I know are doing well, succeeding at school or university, making friends and living happy lives.

I don't know what became of my dyslexic classmate, but the heartening thing is that most of the people of my generation got through OK as well.  Despite the complete ignorance of our teachers, the mature sufferers from these disabilities are now engineers, accountants, statisticians, school teachers and so forth, as well as loving supportive parents.  Often they took a bit longer to get there, with some false starts along the way, but they made it in the end.

It all makes me wonder.  Of course the various conditions are real, and the support and allowances made for them are necessary and appropriate.  But the fact that they are so pervasive, and that people suffering from them almost always overcome them, says to me that they are not "disorders" or "deficiencies".  The people who have them don't fall short of some imagined ideal of human perfection.  They are simply differences.  We all have things that come easily to us and things we find difficult.  This is what it means to be human.  We don't need to search for a cure, because there is no cure for being human.  Instead, we need to go on learning to love and respect one another as we are, to help each other with our respective difficulties and rejoice in each other's talents and acheivements.