Sunday, 27 February 2011

Lives of Jesus 5: Marcus Borg

While I'm on the subject of The Jesus Seminar, the various members of the Seminar are a great illustration of how it is possible to start at the same point and yet end up somewhere radically different.  Enter Marcus Borg, Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University, prominent member of The Jesus Seminar and advocate of "progressive Christianity".

Borg's Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time was published in 1994, just before the Jesus Seminar publication The Five Gospels (with whose contents Borg was intimately familiar) and two years before Robert Funk's Honest to JesusBorg shares with Funk the basic presuppositions that drove the work of The Jesus Seminar - that the gospels are layered works in which it is necessary to peel back later additions to arrive at the true Jesus; that the earliest layers are those involving Jesus' distinctive parables and aphorisms, while later layers include his references to himself as God's Son and messiah, his prophecies of the coming Kingdom, and the stories of his birth, death and resurrection.  Yet for something with the same basic starting point this book could hardly be more different to Honest to Jesus.  Where Funk seems lost and angry, Borg seems at peace.  Where Funk destroys, Borg builds.

Perhaps it's presumptuous to say so, but the difference seems to lie not in the scholarship of the books (which is very similar) but in their spirituality.  As well as a Life of Jesus, Meeting Jesus Again has elements of spiritual biography, especially at the beginning where Borg summarises his own spiritual journey.  Brought up in a devout Lutheran family he spent his childhood and youth immersed in traditional Christianity.  Yet through his teen years and his young adulthood, despite a brilliant theological education and a career studying and teaching in seminaries, he describes himself as a "closet atheist", unable to reconcile the faith he learnt as a child with either the critical scholarship of his seminary studies or the broader modern worldview which has an atheist bedrock.

So far so Funk.  However, in his mid 30's Borg had his own deep spiritual experiences.  He doesn't go into any detail but describes them as a form of "nature mysticism", an awareness that there is more to the world around us than its mere physicality, that the universe is inhabited by an intelligence that we refer to as God.

It is this insight that informs Meeting Jesus Again.  He briefly rejects two common ideas about Jesus - the orthodox view that he saw himself as the Messiah, and Albert Schweitzer's view of him as an eschatalogical prophet.  However, unlike Funk he doesn't dwell on what he rejects.  Instead he focuses on four aspects of Jesus' personality and ministry which he sees as summing up his enduring message.

First, he sees Jesus as a "spirit person".  By this he means a person who has had a direct, personal encounter with God, which he spends his life trying to communicate to those around him.  This puts him in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets who came before him, the apostles who came after him (he includes Paul in this category) and sages and spirit people from other religious traditions.  This aspect of his personality and teaching can be seen in factors such as referring to God as "Abba" (roughly translated into Aussie idiom as "Dad"), his being portrayed as "speaking with authority" and his proclamation in the synagogue of Nazareth using the words of Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me".  In this aspect, his desire is to bring us to the same intimacy with God that he has.

Second, Jesus is a "social prophet", challenging and criticising the elites of his time and place with a message of inclusion and compassion.  This aspect of his mission involved a deep critique of the ideas of purity and exclusiveness which guided the leaders of first century Judaism.  His reaching out to lepers, blind people, tax collectors, women and other social outcasts, including them amongst his disciples and welcoming them at his table, set him apart from the religious leaders of his day.  He backed this up with trenchant criticism of their attitudes and practices, recorded in various Gospel sayings.

Thirdly, and closely associated this this, is his role as a "teacher of wisdom".  In this role he challenges the conventional wisdom (of his day and ours) based on the idea of right behaviour, rewards and punishments.  In its place he puts a wisdom based on the abundant goodness of God, who clothes the flowers of the field, sends his rain on the just and unjust, pays the labourers who have worked one hour as much as those who have laboured an entire day, and forgives the son who has squandered his wealth.

Finally he sees Jesus as a "movement founder", setting his followers on the same road as himself, sending them out to spread his message of unconventional wisdom, social challenge and deep personal experience of God.  Hence, he doesn't share Funk's anger at the Church and the first century disciples who added layers to the Gospels and the movement's message.  He doesn't see these additions as harmful or bad, he sees them as natural developments in the movement Jesus founded, as it spread his message into new, non-Jewish communities and dealt with new issues and needs.  These additions, he implies, have their own value.  They just don't go back to Jesus.

Through all this is a firm but loving critique of orthodox, conventional Christianity.  I have referred to this in an earlier post, so just to briefly summarise.  In the church, he says, we have turned the message of Jesus into a piece of conventional wisdom, similar to that of the Pharisees.  Christianity has come to be primarily about believing certain intellectual propositions about Jesus.  Those who believe are rewarded, those who don't are punished.  His problem is not so much that these beliefs are later additions to the life of Jesus, but that they contradict his core message.  His unconventional wisdom points to the goodness of God poured out freely and indicriminately on all.  His social message is about inclusion, about breaking down barriers not erecting them.  And his spiritual message is about the possibility of a direct, intimate contact with God.  Jesus is not asking for our assent to theological propositions, he is asking for our transformation.

Conservative Christians hate Borg because he denies the divinity of Jesus which is the cornerstone of orthodox theology.  He does so on the basis of an approach to Biblical criticism which has substantial flaws.  Yet we should not allow this question to blind us to his positive message.  It is not enough to assent to Jesus' teachings and revere him as a divine being.  All this is meaningless if we don't allow his message to transform us, to bring us into contact with God and to change the way we treat each other, to lead us to bring outcasts and pariahs into our fellowship and to allow the abundant generosity of God to flow through us.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Lives of Jesus 4 - Robert Funk

Enough of this frivolity!  After the bizarre speculations of Thiering and Pullman it's almost a relief to come to something as scholarly as Robert W Funk's Honest to Jesus.

Robert Funk was a serious American scholar, lifelong academic and biblical historian.  His biggest claim to fame is as the driving force behind The Jesus Seminar, the work of which I have already alluded to in discussing James Robinson.  However he is also the founder and during his life the director of the Westar Institute, "a member-supported, non-profit research and educational institute founded in 1986 and dedicated to the advancement of religious literacy. Westar's twofold mission is to foster collaborative research in religious studies and to communicate the results of the scholarship of religion to a broad, non-specialist public" as it's own website says.

The first and most famous (or notorious) publication of The Jesus Seminar, edited by Funk, was The Five Gospels, a critical edition of the four canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) plus the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas.  What they did was this.  The two hundred or so members of the Seminar met regularly over a number of years to discuss the various saying of Jesus in each of these gospels, in an attempt to decide the extent to which each passage represented the "authentic" historical Jesus, as opposed to a later Christian or Jewish interpolation into his life.  At the end of their discussions they would vote, with four choices - red for "almost certainly Jesus", purple for "something like Jesus", grey for "not much of the original Jesus" and black for "certainly not".  The votes were tallied up, and the passages in The Five Gospels are printed in the colour of the conclusion reached by the Seminar as a whole.

This process, of course, required its participants to accept two premises - that the gospels contain a mix of "genuine" stories about Jesus and later additions, and that it is possible to tell which is which.  It's hardly surprising, then, that they ended up rejecting a large proportion of the gospel accounts.  Very little of John or Thomas survives their scrutiny.  All the birth and resurrection stories, and indeed all the miracles at every point, appear in black print.  All of Jesus prophetic statements, claims to divinity or special status are gone.  Many of the teachings also miss the cut.

Honest to Jesus picks up where The Five Gospels leaves off.  Where The Five Gospels presents the raw material and leaves readers to draw their own conclusions, Funk provides a context, rationale and his own solution to the question "who was Jesus".

This is no work of dry scholarship.  Part of Funk's mission is to bring critical Bibilical scholarship out of the closet.  In his view there is a huge dysjunction between what scholars (at least those in The Jesus Seminar) conclude about Jesus from their research, and what ordinary church members believe and are being taught.  This mission is deeply personal for Funk, a Bible scholar alienated from the Church.  His ambition is quite breathtaking.  He wants to rescue Jesus from the clutches of the church, from the hands of Peter and Paul, the New Testament writers and the Church Councils, and present him "as he really was".  He aims for a thoroughly radical seperation of the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith.

The aim of the quest is to set Jesus free.  Its purpose is to liberate Jesus from the scriptural and creedal and experiential prisons in which we have incarcerated him.  What would happen if "the dangerous and subversive memories" of that solitary figure were really stripped of their interpretive overlay? Were that to happen, the gospel of Jesus would be liberated from the Jesus of the gospels and allowed to speak for itself.  The creedal formulations of the second, third and fourth centuries would be de-dogmatised and Jesus would be permitted to emerge as a robust, real, larger-than-life figure in his own right.  Moreover, current images of Jesus would be torn up by their long affective roots and their attachment to pet causes severed.  The pale, anemic, iconic Jesus would suffer by comparison with the stark realism of the genuine article.

So who is this "genuine article"?  The miracles, the birth, death and resurrection stories, the prophecies and claims about himself, are all stripped away as later creedal additions which do not come from Jesus himself.  What is left are certain sayings, mainly parables and aphorisms extracted from the synoptic gospels by the critical processes of The Jesus Seminar.  These parables are allusive in nature, radical in the changes they ask of the listeners, and elusive in that their meaning is not plain and simple.  Jesus is a sage, a radical, secular sage who draws more inspiration from the Greek Cynic philosophers than from the Old Testament.

The renewed quest points to a secular sage who may have more relevance to the spiritual dimensions of society at large than to institutionalised religion.  As a subversive sage, Jesus is also a secular sage.  His parables and aphorisms all but obliterate the boundaries separating the sacred from the secular.  He can teach us something that has nothing directly to do with what we know as Christianity or, indeed, with organised religion as such.

Funk is well aware of the implications of this view.

Jesus is one of the great sages of history, and his insights should be taken seriously but tested by reference to other seers, ancient and modern, who have had glimpses of the eternal, and by reference to everything we can learn from the sciences, the poets and the artists.  Real knowledge is indiscriminate in the vessels it elects to fill.

This is as thorough a piece of skepticism as one can imagine.  Funk's deconstruction is complete.  Jesus is severed from his Jewish roots and his Christian followers, even those who knew him personally.  He emerges as a supreme individual, a Neitszchian or Randian superman who stands alone and misunderstood amidst a sea of mediocrity and religious obscurantism.  Yet far from being "larger than life" he is hardly there at all.  Only a few brief, obscure parables and sayings remain.  The rest is a product of Funk's imagination, his own construction to replace the bits cut from the gospels.

It seems to me that there are two problems with the approach taken by Funk and by The Jesus Seminar.  The first is inherent in the exercise itself.  The information we have from closest to Jesus' time is almost all in the canonical gospels.  This means that if you want to examine them critically with the aim of determining which parts are "genuinely" Jesus and which parts are not, you must have some other way of telling what the "genuine" Jesus was like.  Where will this information come from?

Funk's answer lies in the "criterion of dissimilarity".  If something sounds like a piece of Christian or Jewish theology, then it has come from a Christian or Jewish source, not from Jesus.  Jesus' unique voice is recognised by its difference from anything else.  This is a remarkable leap of faith, the hugest of heroic assumptions.  Jesus is, by definition, isolated from both his Jewish context and heritage, and from the subsequent thinking of even his most intimate followers.  It is tempting to believe that in jettisoning these connections, Funk has simply created Jesus is his own image.

The second problem follows.  Within a few decades of Jesus' crucifixion, a movement initiated by his closest followers had spread throughout the Roman Empire.  This was not a school of philosophy which celebrated Jesus' subversive sagacity, it was a religious movement which revered him as the Son of God.  How did this come about, in the face of a Jesus so completely different from the one we meet in the New Testament?  Either the disciples completely misunderstood him (and we had to wait a full 2000 years for Dr Funk to correct their misunderstanding), or they simply manipulated his name for their own devious ends, as Thiering suggests.  But what did they gain from this save for flogging, imprisonment and execution?

Funk says he is trying to rescue Jesus from the chains of dogma.  Perhaps Jesus didn't need rescuing as much as Funk himself, struggling with a theology he could no longer believe and yet yearning for a place to belong, a true sprituality by which to guide his life.  I find his concusions hard to swallow, but I can relate to his questions, and respect his passion, his honesty and his hunger for truth.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Late For Their Own Funerals International Edition

Of course in writing about politicians who tried to delay their own funerals, I was thinking of Australians.  In actual fact it's pretty hard for an Australian politician to delay their own demise, what with free and fair elections and all.

But how could I have ignored the world's best practice examples of the art from other countries?  Of course we've recently seen Hosni Mubarak deposed, a fading old man trying to hang on for another six months against the will of the people.  But I find myself wondering - how did the army commanders, who kept him in place for the past 30 years, suddenly become the heroes of democracy by deposing him and dissolving the parliament?  The king is dead, long live...?

Others seem more able to escape.  Somehow Robert Mugabe, despite being even older than Mubarak and having caused economic collapse and widespread starvation in one of the most fertile countries in Africa, is still hanging onto the reins of power in Zimbabwe and even plotting to dispose of his recent power-share partner Morgan Tvangirai.  Could it be that Mugabe has discovered the fountain of youth and will literally live forever?

But apart from people like the British royal family, who retained their hereditary position by allowing themselves to become irrelevant, surely the grand prize goes to the late North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung.  Technically Kim Il Sung has been dead since 1994 with his son Kim Jong Il minding the family business and preparing to hand over to grandson Kim Jong Un.  However, in 1998 Grandfather Kim was named "Eternal President" and the post of actual president was abolished.  So despite the outrageous laments of the people at his death, he appears to have skipped the subsequent funeral and presumably will rule forever.

Monday, 14 February 2011

On Being Late For One's Own Funeral

It's often said of chronically tardy people like me that we would be late for our own funeral.  What I've always wondered is what could be wrong with this.  Politeness to ones friends and family can be taken too far.  After all, if its OK for the bride to be late for her own wedding, why shouldn't the guest of honour be late for that other great family occasion?  And what would be so bad if you missed it altogether?  No worse, surely, than Finnegan waking up in the middle of his.

However, there's a broader sense in which we all need to learn to depart at the right time.  I often talk to organisations about this.  It's called "succession planning".  If you are a leader in an organisation - say, the President - then you should groom a successor, and then when they're ready to step up, you should step down and let them get on with it.  This ensures that the organisation doesn't go stale, and that new ideas and ways of doing things can flourish.  Show me an organisation where the same person has been president for 40 years, and I'll show you an organisation that is slowly dying.  This person is, indeed, late for their own funeral, but no-one can put off the day indefinitely.

One place where people seem to constantly work at delaying their last rites in in politics.  I remember the long years when Joh Bjelke-Petersen was Premier of Queensland.  Joh had said at some stage that he believed the role of Public Works Minister was a good one for a potential Premier - you got to understand everyone else's portfolio, and to travel around the state opening things and delivering good news.  Whenever he had a cabinet reshuffle, journalists would look at the person given that portfolio and speculate about their leadership chances.  The only problem was that they were always nonentities.  Joh had no interest in grooming a successor.  He planned to stay forever.

Despite his  rat cunning and notorious manipulation of the electoral system, Joh didn't get to die in the job.  Instead he was dragged out kicking and screaming by disillusioned colleagues after the worst corruption scandal in the State's history.  He lived on for another 20 years and even had a rehabilitation of sorts, courtesy of long-time opponent and admirer Peter Beattie.

Beattie himself was one of the few political leaders to actually carry through a succession plan, grooming Anna Bligh for his job and then stepping out after ten years to hand over to her.  Most of them hold on until the numbers fall against them - either in their party room, like Kevin Rudd or Morris Iemma, or in the electorate like John Howard or John Brumby. 

However, some do get to to be late for their own funerals.  Paul Keating managed to delay his by a full three years courtesy of an incompetent opponent and a ruthless sense of when and where to insert the knife.  Anna Bligh is more subtle than Keating but she still managed to do the same thing in her most recent election, and her reassuring performance during floods and cyclones could even allow her to delay into a third term. 

I don't hold out much hope for the current NSW Premier, Kristine Keneally, though.  Much as she presents graciously and reasonably on our TV screens and talks like she's actually governing the state, the funeral march has been playing since the day of her election.  Those of her senior colleagues who haven't been sacked for various sorts of impropriety are lining up to bear the coffin out the door and we won't be seeing any of them again in a hurry.  The eulogies are all written, the Liberal successor is tapping insistently on the door.  It would almost be rude for her to try to stay longer.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Lives of Jesus 3.5 - Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ wasn't part of my original plan for reviewing Lives of Jesus.  It just leapt off the library shelf and into my hand, so I had to take it home and read it.  Spooky!

Pullman is, of course, not a noted Bible scholar but a famous novelist, best known for his fantasy writing.  He is also known for his distinct lack of enthusiasm for organised religion.  So of course he is the perfect choice for a secular publisher to commission to write a book about Jesus.  As Pullman himself says, "no-one has the right to go through their life without being shocked".

Having read a lot of Lives of Jesus, I have to say that I wasn't as shocked as Pullman may have been hoping.  More bemused.  Pullman is in fact rather timid compared to, say, Jim Crace's daring fictional treatment of the subject in Quarantine.  In general, he has stuck fairly closely to the structure of the life of Jesus as outlined in the gospels, starting with the birth in the stable (not, however, apparently a virgin birth), throwing in a few of the non-canonical childhood stories, and then following the broad outline of the public ministry of Jesus as we all know it.  Indeed, much of the book consists of reasonably faithful paraphrases of Jesus' teaching.

However, one of the privileges which novelists have and historians don't is that they are allowed to make stuff up.  Indeed, they are expected to do so.  The key thing Pullman makes up is Jesus' twin brother who goes under the name "Christ".  At the start of the story they have a bit of a Jacob and Esau thing going with Jesus as the father's favourite and man of action, and Christ as the stay at home mummy's boy.  Later on, Christ plays a number of roles in the story - the tempter in the wilderness, Judas at the betrayal, and finally Jesus himself at the resurrection.  All the while he is writing down Jesus' words and deeds, keeping a record which he alters and "improves" to fit in with a version of "truth" which is not the same thing as "history".  Jesus is the eschatalogical prophet of the Kingdom, uncompromising moral teacher and purveyor of grace of Schweitzer.  Christ is an embodiment of the "Christ of faith", a cautious, conservative figure with a love of order and authority, just rewards and punishments, and the subtlety to twist logic and justify moral compromise.

Another novelistic privilege is the right to avoid choosing between competing and incompatible theories.  As a result, Pullman's retelling of the tale is a curious amalgam of the various historical approaches to the Life of Jesus reviewed in this series.

At heart it is a rationalist account.  Jesus' moral teachings and even his eschatalogical ones come out of the story reasonably unscathed.  Anything miraculous, however, is explained away using the time-honoured (and frequently laughable) methods of the rationalists.  The feeding of the five thousand is an event at which people overcome their selfishness and share the food they have brought with them.  The healings are just cases of people feeling better in Jesus' presence.  And as for the resurrection...well of course Jesus has a twin brother, doesn't he, and he's easily mistaken for the man himself!

Yet this basic rationalism is combined with a heavy dose of the conspiracy theory genre of Theiring or Venturini.  Just like Theiring, the bad guy in the story (in this case Christ) plays various roles in the gospels - the Devil, Judas, the risen Christ.  As in Venturini there is a mysterious figure behind the scenes manipulating both Christ and Jesus, pulling the strings to ensure Jesus' death and the subsequent distortion of his message by the church.  This figure's name, who he works for and what motivates him are never revealed and hardly even hinted at.

At key moments Pullman's skepticism, and even more his bitterness against the church, break through to let you know that this is a 21st century story, not a first century one.  There are hints of it early on, as Christ tempts Jesus to work towards building a church, an earthly institution to guide believers in the right way.  Jesus angrily drives him away.  Yet in his long, bitter and thoroughly skeptical prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, in between berating God for his unfailing silence and lack of interest, Jesus forsees the creation of the Church in its gory, Satanic detail, complete with ornate palaces, corrupt leaders, inquisitions, crusades and habitual oppression of its members.

Once Jesus has died it is Christ's version of events which comes to dominate.  His altered and edited notes become the basis for the gospels.  His vision for the church wins out.  The shadowy figure succeeds in manipulating events to grow a faith and an institution which Jesus himself would have hated.

Pullman set out to be shocking and perhaps this book would shock someone who is unused to hearing orthodoxy challenged.  Admirers of his other work may simply have their prejudices confirmed and be discouraged from thinking any further about Jesus.  Yet he has let his hatred of the church distract him from a proper examination of his subject.  As a Life of Jesus this book is no more than a clumsy pastiche of disparate ideas, couched in an unconvincing conceit involving good and evil twins.  Jesus himself, without such fictitious or rationalist trappings, is far more shocking and far more offensive than anything Pullman can create.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Intimations of Multiculturalism

Some of my Facebook friends (or relatives to be more accurate) have been discussing British Prime Minister David Cameron's recent comments on the failure of "State multiculturalism".  Both Cameron's views, and those of my friends and family, are fascinating and enlightening.  Cameron particularly has some good ideas about building local cross-cultural relationships and promoting the ideals of democracy and free speech but for some reason seems to think this is different from multiculturalism.  Nor has he grappled with the implications of "liberal values".  It's easy to be liberal when everyone agrees, the challenge comes when someone spouts an idea you find offensive - how strong will your liberal values be then?  As an evaluator of social programs I also want to ask how the failure was judged.  What are the objectives of multiculturalism, and what evidence is there of its success or failure to acheive these objectives?  So often we use such terms loosely and instead of drivers for policy they are reduced to mere rhetorical flourishes.

As usual, amidst all this I had a tangential thought.  My teenage years coincided with the first flowering of multiculturalism in Australia, led by the Whitlam government and its flamboyant immigration minister, Al Grassby.  For the first time in Australia our multi-ethnic history was celebrated as opposed to being swept under the carpet.

Many of my best friends at high school were of Eastern European origin - their parents were refugees from the Communist regimes in the USSR, Yugoslavia and Poland.  One of them in particular was a devout Russian Orthodox believer, and since I was a devout Protestant we had some very interesting discussions about faith and religious tradition.  I remember going to his First Communion and standing through a long Orthodox service (it's considered disrespectful to God to sit in an orthodox service) conducted entirely in a language I didn't understand.

Afterwards he told me that he didn't understand a lot of what was said either.  This was because Russian Orthodox services were not conducted in Russian, they were conducted in "Church Slavonic", an ancient form of the Russian language.  It would be similar to conducting Anglican services in Middle English.

In the process, he made me aware of a debate that was going on in the Orthodox churches in Australia.  While the Catholic Church prior to Vatican 2 privileged Latin as a sacred language and used it for all services around the world, the Orthodox tradition, at least in theory, was to use the local language of its believers in the same way Protestants do.  Greek Orthodox services are conducted in Greek, Coptic services in Coptic, and so on.  Of course liturgy becomes fixed and its language outdated, and churches are slow to change such things - hence Church Slavonic.  Protestants have the same issue - at the time I'm talking about, Anglican services still used the 1666 prayer book.  But the principle is that services should be comprehensible to the congregation.

The issue around this in Australia was and is that most Orthodox believers are immigrants or children of immigrants.  When they came to Australia they brought their faiths with them.  The Greek communities established Greek Orthodox churches and held Greek services.  The Russians established Russian Orthodox churches and held services in Church Slavonic.  The Serbians established Serbian Orthodox churches.  And so on.  These churches were not merely places of worship, they were cornerstones of their various ethnic communities - meeting places, rallying points, bases for community service.  Their members would struggle through their working week with their heavily accented English, but on Sundays they could relax and worship in their own language with people from their home country.

This is fine for the first generation of migrants, but posed some challenges for my second generation friends.  My friend was fluent in Russian but equally at home in English.  Others at school were much more comfortable in English.  What did this mean for the Orthodox church?  My friend's view was that over time, the original ethnic divisions in the church should be dissolved and they should develop into an Australian Orthodox church, with services held in English.  Orthodoxy is not an ethnic faith, he said, it is just as universal as Catholicism or Protestantism, but it can only fourish in Australia by moving beyond its ethnic roots.

His position was clearly a minority one.  There is still no Australian Orthodox Church, although I note that the Russian Orthodox Church in Brisbane now presents a lot of information in English and some churches adverstise English services.  Most second and third generation migrants I know don't attend church, except for big community occasions where they go to please their parents or grandparents.  Some have converted to Protestant faiths and go to English services. 

In the light of David Cameron's comments, I'm not sure if I should be sad about this, or happy.  The ethnic churches were crucial in helping new migrants feel at home.  They made, and continue to make, terrific contributions to the community.  Nothing bad has happened as a result of their retaining their ethnic identities and worshipping in the language of their countries of origin.

Yet the Orthodox faith could have been a great gift to the wider Australian community.  Its rich tradition and heritage can enrich our spiritual experience, link us to the wider world of Eastern Christianity and expose us to alternative ways of understanding the Bible and church history.  Instead, the churches remain ethnic curiosities.  English-speaking Australians, even those with Eastern European heritage, can only ever be tourists in these churches.  Much as we admire their tradition and their beauty, they remain incomprehensible to us.  What would have happened if my friend's view had won the day?

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

A Head Full of Readers Digest

Sunnybank State School had a large collection of Readers Digest magazines.  They seemed to me to be already old by the time I read them in the early 1970s.  I was one of the most advanced readers in my class, so I spent plenty of time immersed in their pages while other classmates were still struggling with basic reading tasks like distinguishing was from saw.

It was a strange world to inhabit and I still carry little bits of it around with me.  Many of the stories were childhood memoirs, written in the 1950s and 1960s about a time which seemed both harder and more innocent.  Children lived idyllic lives in small town America.  Their fathers went to work while their mothers stayed home and baked johnnycakes.  We never knew exactly what a johnnycake* was but this didn't prevent my friends from calling me "Cake" in the latter years of primary school.

I suppose the stories were meant to strengthen our moral fibre, and God knows we needed it.  I'm a little hazy now about the morality, though.  Certainly hard work and frugality were praised as cardinal virtues, along with honesty and good manners.  There was a story about the recruitment process in which the formal interviews were supplemented by a set of secret tests - books left lying in the middle of the floor to see if the candidate would pick them up, women entering the waiting room at strategic times to see if the candidates would open the door for them or give up their seat.  You will not be surprised to learn that the successful applicant was the one who paid attention to these little details of etiquette and had remembered to wash his fingernails, rather than the one who had the skills for the job.  Merit based selection be hanged. 

The morality of other stories was a little less certain.  There was one in which the mother baked the most beautiful home-made bread, based on a recipe learned from her mother rather than one in a recipe book because of course she couldn't read.  Sadly, some do-gooder taught her her letters, she started reading the recipes on the flour packet, and from then on the bread went right downhill.  Were we supposed to conclude that there was no point paying attention in class?  That literacy is wasted on women?  Or just that you shouldn't believe anything you read on a flour packet? 

And what were we to make of the epic of the go-cart race, in which the poor, one-lunged hero of the street with his home-made cart challenged the rich kid with the beautifully engineered model supplied by his dad's workshop?  I seem to remember that the rich kid won and the poor kid died in the crash at the end.  The past may be romantic but you can't fight progress?  The rich will crush you at every opportunity they get?  Don't race go-carts at breakneck speed if you only have one lung?

My favourite, however, was the story about the gardening job.  A boy ventured into a neighbour's garden to retrieve his ball and was bailed up by the formidable elderly female owner (why are they always old women in these stories?) who hired him to do her garden.  He was to be paid by results - two shillings for a half-hearted job, three for an OK one, four for a perfect one, five for an impossible one. 

Of course he started out clumsily and was paid accordingly, before learning the job and improving until he plateaued at three and a half shillings.  No-one could be perfect, but one day he realised he was in a rut and decided to go for the full five shillings.  He trimmed back all the hedges in a perfect straight line, removed every last trace of weeds from the flowerbeds, meticulously rolled out all the bumps and hillocks in the lawn before mowing it to a bowling green evenness.  The sun had long set by the time he knocked on the door to claim his five shillings, to the delight and amazement of his hard-marking but ultimately benevolent mentor.  Obviously hard work pays off and you should never admit that anything is impossible.  But does perfection equal getting nature fully under control?  Did he have to pay part of the money back when the old woman realised a few days later that the plants hadn't stopped growing?  And what are we to make of the paradox of his acheiving something that is pre-defined as impossible?

Fortunately no-one restricted my reading and so I also read Lewis Carroll's Queen explaining that with practice you can believe three impossible things before breakfast.  Still, it's hardly likely that my ten-year-old self could have spent so much time reading this stuff without some of it being digested - especially given that I still remember it forty years later.  Perhaps it made me the fine upstanding citizen I am today.  Or perhaps, as we laughed about johynnycakes* and had our own go-cart races and shenanigans down at the creek after school, it just added more fuel to the fire of my growing cynicism.


*Thanks to the wonders of the internet I can now link you to a recipe for this culinary mystery.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Lives of Jesus 3 - Barbara Thiering

After the heady intellectualism of Schweitzer and Robinson, it is almost a relief to review something as plainly absurd as Barbara Thiering's Jesus the Man.

Barbara Thiering is an Australian biblical scholar whose speciality is the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  For those who have spent the past 50 years in isolation, the Scrolls (discovered in the 1950s) are the large and intensely fascinating library of a strict Jewish Essene religious community based at Qumran on the banks of the Dead Sea.  As well as manuscripts of various Old Testament books, the documents include unique and previously unknown writings of the community itself, many referring to a struggle between a character called the Teacher of Righteousness (the community's leader/hero) and his opponent dubbed the Wicked Priest or Man of a Lie.

Thiering's idea is that the events of the Gospels and the life of Jesus describe the other side of this conflict, and that Jesus is the Man of a Lie.  To arrive at this conclusion, she describes the Gospels as a form of "pesher" - stories which have two levels of meaning.  On the surface, to the uninitiated reader, the gospels tell the story of a miracle worker who died for his followers and then rose from the dead.  This understanding is the one used by the modern church.  For the inner circle of Jesus' followers, however, the documents contain a second, coded meaning, accessible only to those who have the code.

While most of us lack the code and hence are forced to read the gospels only at the surface level, Theiring has it and is not afraid to use it.  Hence from her rather vague description of the pesher idea itself, she proceeds to an extraordinarily vivid and detailed retelling of Jesus' life. 

In this version, most of the Gospel events take place in the Qumran community, with sites conveniently renamed after places in the larger world of Palestine so that uninitiated readers would believe they actually took place in Galilee or Jerusalem.  The various miracles are encoded stories of conflicts between Jesus and the Teacher of Righteousness (identified in this interpretation with John the Baptist, and also disguised as other characters in the story).  The parables also have a hidden meaning related to this conflict.  Jesus' crucifixion is real enough and in fact supervised by the real Pontius Pilate, although also taking place at Qumran.  However, Jesus doesn't die - after a stipulated time on the cross, drugged to make him unconscious, he is cut down and placed in a cave (Thiering is even able to identify which one) in which he is treated and revived.

Of course if Jesus didn't die at that point, he must have still been alive during subsequent events.  Indeed she believes that all the Gospels and the Book of Acts were written in his lifetime, John's Gospel first in around 37 AD, Acts the last sometime around 60.  Jesus continued to guide his followers during this time, as well as marrying and having a son with Mary Magdelene, but for various reasons stayed in seclusion, "behind the scenes" of the movement which bore his name.

In such a brief review it's difficult to convey the vividness and completeness of Thiering's retelling.  Every detail is covered, in a bewildering array of historical connections, interpretations of code words, speculation and sheer fantasy.  Its imaginative breadth, its astonishing creativity, marks it as a work of genius.  Yet as a work of history it is simply odd, taking a few slender and debatable items of evidence, drawing connections between them that defy evidence, and sewing on this fragile framework a tapestry of the finest artifice.

Despite her claims to revealing a previously hidden truth, most of Thiering's ideas can already be seen in the works reviewed by Schweitzer almost a century before.  Schweitzer's own favourite of the genre, Venturini's Non-supernatural History of the Great Prophet of Nazareth, describes Jesus as the agent of a group of Essene Jews and explains his various actions in terms of the political agenda of the Essenes.  Schweitzer's own comment is that Venturini's work "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."  Thiering is no exception.

Like other books of this type, her work also has a close affinity with the various "rationalist" Lives described by Schweitzer.  A characteristic of this approach is that miracles are given a "rational" or "natural" explanation and Thiering adopts a cornerstone of this approach - the idea of Jesus' resurrection as a revival from unconsciousness.   However, what she adds for herself is the idea that Jesus' closest followers were neither dupes nor ignorant bumpkins.  They knew very well that Jesus had not died and the story of his death and resurrection was a cleverly encoded message to the inner circle as well as a way of putting his enemies off the scent.

For all its fascinating detail, this account has little to recommend it as truth.  It is built on the flimsiest of foundations, and rejected summarily by serious scholars both devout and iconoclastic.  However, it has its own powerful place in popular culture.  Michael Biagent, co-author of Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, relies heavily on Thiering's account as the launching pad for his pseudo-history of the descendents of Jesus, the inspiration for Dan Brown's blockbuster novel The Da Vinci Code.  Thiering appeals to our love of a conspiracy, our desire to find hidden secrets behind the world as we know it.  In its own perverse way, it satisfies our longing for something more, for a hidden meaning behind our otherwise dull and pointless lives. 

At the same time, though, the challenge of Jesus is neutralised.  Once we are past our fascination with these hidden secrets we are left empty.  Jesus is removed from our present, from relevance to our daily lives, and turned instead into a mere oddity of history.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Theological Worlds

I've previously mentioned my enjoyment of Richard Beck's Experimental Theology blog.  His latest post deals with the idea of "theological worlds" which he takes from Paul Jones.  I haven't read Jones' book, but I love the idea. 

To summarise his summary, each person has their own obsessio, the question that drives their life and keeps them awake at night, the core problem that they need to solve.  They also have (or at least need) their own epiphania, the revelation or source of hope that helps them answer their obsessio

Each person's obsessio is their own and they need to find their own epiphania to answer it.  The interplay of these two creates their "theological world".  In traditional Protestantism, the dominant obsessio is about guilt and sin, and hence the dominant epiphania is the experience of God's grace and forgiveness, expressed through Jesus' sacrifice for us.  This is the dominant theological world of our Protestant churches.

However for many including Beck (and me) this is not their dominant obsessio.  Not that he disagrees with it in principle or necessarily thinks its wrong, but it's not what keeps him awake at night, it's not the key problem he needs to solve.  What keeps him awake is the fact that thousands of children die each day of preventable causes.  So what gives him hope is Jesus' death as an act of identification with these suffering children. 

It's another line into what I was getting at in talking about "black and white" or "shades of grey" people.  We live in different theological worlds.  What troubles you, and what gives you hope, may not be what does this for me.  God is able - indeed is eager - to respond to our diversity.  The church is built on it.  It's what makes us strong.