Monday, May 25, 2009

Ascension and postmodernity

Today was the Feast of the Ascension, which has always been interesting to me as a student of Biblical interpretation, because only the Lucan texts (Luke and Acts of the Apostles) recount the Ascension in their original forms (Mark’s gospel quickly mentions it, but only in the section that scholars generally agree was added later, and which was compiled from the post-resurrection accounts of the other gospels). Anyway, not only is it not mentioned by the other gospels, but within the Lucan tradition, the timeline given for how it operates differs: Luke’s gospel implicitly says that the Ascension happens on the evening of Easter Sunday (the road to Emmaus story happens on Sunday, they go from there right back to Jerusalem, Jesus shows up then and talks to them, takes them out to Emmaus and goes from there). Acts, on the other hand, explicitly says that Jesus taught them for forty days (symbolically significant as “a long time,” rather than a number to be taken at a literal level, but still more than one day). This is interesting to me not because the author of Luke-Acts can’t seem to keep his story straight, but because presumably he knows what he is doing. At the same time, other texts say exactly opposite stuff – for example, Acts has Jesus telling the disciples to stay in Jerusalem, but Matthew, Mark and John have them go to Galilee (that’s where they see Jesus, not in Jerusalem as in Luke-Acts). Again, the organizers of the canon presumably knew what they were doing; they were not stupid, in fact, they were extremely careful readers of Scripture. What we call postmodernity, which is in part about the end of overarching metanarratives that silence counter-testimonies, is in fact not simply a nineteenth- and twentieth- and twenty-first-century phenomenon, but is woven into the very canon of Scripture – those who organized the canon of Scripture deliberately included in the canon texts that made differing claims, without having to take out or edit those problematic discrepancies. They were allowed to sit side by side in tension, without one final answer running roughshod over any of those multiple voices. That is maddening, of course, for people who want to be given one final claim about what “actually happened,” (as if the Bible is simply “camcorder theology”) but I would argue that the Bible reflects well that our lives are all lived in the context of multiple testimonies, none of which ever earns finality in the common discourse. We all know that political liberals and conservatives, for example, have different story lines about what our nation’s identity is about (and of course it isn't simply as clean as "liberal vs. conservative") – witness last week’s competing speeches by Barack Obama and Dick Cheney regarding “enhanced interrogation techniques” – and most of us choose one side in that issue and call that the genuine script of our nation, to the exclusion of the other, but there is no higher authority that finally settles the dispute for everyone. The Constitution theoretically serves that very purpose, people might say, but witness the degree to which it, or any other text or story that could serve as an adjudicating testimony, gets used as a political football by all parties in the debate. Similarly, the Bible gets used as a theological football by those who would see it making monolithic claims: “the Bible says” is a most unhelpful referent for lots of issues that people want to say the Bible is crystal clear about, insofar as there is a multiplicity of perspectives represented therein. Again, maddening for us who so often just want someone to deliver a final answer – I use the image of a person wearing a wristwatch: someone who is wearing one watch likely feels pretty confident about what time it is, but someone wearing multiple watches not only has no idea what time it is without some higher adjudication (looking out a window, for example), but is likely to lose faith in the very possibility of knowing what time it is. The claim that one might “boil down” from all the perspectives of the different gospels and Acts regarding the post-Easter Jesus is that Jesus really is alive with God, or that the totality of Jesus’ being has been taken up into the reality of God’s life, or that Luke-Acts is trying to explain for a Gentile audience what the other texts are trying to communicate for Jewish-Christian audiences, or something like that, but that runs the risk of too easily smoothing them all out into one claim, losing their very narrative quality in favor of seeing them simply as resources out of which Christians can mine doctrines. Were that to be the way we ought to see Scripture, there would be no point in having multiple gospels included in the canon – we would just choose one, or squeeze them all together into one common storyline (as has been attempted repeatedly throughout Christian history, presumably by people who are as uncomfortable with ambiguity as we are). However, life is endlessly (and inherently?) contestational, so that all we can do is keep going back to the various scripts that are there for our perusal and contesting the implications of the choices we make as individuals and as a society for the scripting of our lives...

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Saturday, 16 May 2009

The reality of my impending departure from St. Louis is finally sinking in. I was so busy with grading exams and papers during the last week that I didn't really have time to think about it, but now grades are done, students have left, and graduation is over, and I am aware of how many people I have grown so close to over the past three years. Oddly enough, given that I have been living with the Marianists rather than men from my own order, this is the longest I have lived in any one place in thirteen years of religious life. That, plus the fact that I have enjoyed the work so much and have had so many varied opportunities to interact with students, means that there are a lot of people here who have become very special to me, so leaving is painful. That is as it should be, of course - to not miss anyone would mean there was no one whose presence I desired. This weekend has become a whirlwind of chances to see people - after commencement today, one of my students and his parents took me to eat, and then another graduation party this evening. Tomorrow, lunch with a colleague and former professor of mine, then two back-to-back parties for students or friends who just graduated. I genuinely can't wait to get started in Syracuse in the fall, but in the meantime saying farewells to people I have known and cared about for years hurts. Last week we had a closing event at my house for all the students in the Micah program, the residential service-learning community with which I have worked for three years. About fifty students took over the back yard, and included in all the goofing off were slideshows from the freshmen and from the upperclassmen - there are a lot of memories tied in to thatprogram and those people - so I'll post a few photos soon from those slideshows...
On a side note, I was just watching a video of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, and he was talking about his work before and during the Vietnam War to build a school of public service and to care for people who had been traumatized by the war. He referred to the number of widows and orphans that the war created, and as a teacher of Old Testament, my thoughts went to the endless repetitions of the obligation to care for widows, orphans, and aliens (see EX 22:20-21; EX 23:9; LV 19:33; DT 10:18; IS 1:16; IS 10:1-2; etc.) as groups that had no patron and so could easily fall through the cracks of society. While certainly any moment can produce orphans and widows, war naturally produces them in hyperabundance - Nhat Hanh as well as Torah seem to be pointing people to recognition of the underbelly of warfare. Our own community was founded in the wake of the French Revolution, when civil war had not only left large numbers of children orphans, but had decimated any social systems that might have been in a position to care for them. Our community was founded to care for orphans, and of course we have focused on schools for much of our history rather than orphanages (although we still had orphanages until not that long ago), but in a number of places in the global south, our Brothers are returning to that founding work and caring for orphans, although this time they are the product of the AIDS epidemic rather than armed conflict. I love working in the university setting and really (REALLY) want to continue doing so, but I have been reminded of late not to let myself get sucked into the parts of academia which, although attractive, are conducive to getting lost in the ivory tower: a focus on publishing for its own sake, producing "academic b.s." - that which may well be totally accurate but is completely worthless, and allowing myself to stay inside the "bubble" of the university rather than engaging with people living in far less pristine circumstances.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Earth Day (belatedly)

A week or so ago, on Earth Day to be exact, the gospel for the day included John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever should believe in him might not perish but might have eternal life,” which of course famously appears in crudely scrawled letters on pieces of posterboard at any number of public events, from baseball games to pro wrestling tournaments (I almost said it appears at sporting events, but it’s a stretch to call pro wrestling a sport per se). Given that it was Earth Day, it was a particularly appropriate reading: the next verse, which doesn’t show up much at pro wrestling matches, reads, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” John’s gospel was written in part in response to Gnostic groups, which taught that the material world was evil, by contrast with the goodness of the soul, whose task was to escape the prison of the flesh and return to the spiritual realm, the true home of the soul. If that last line sounds something like what you have been taught, that’s because dualism, i.e. seeing the physical realm as evil or inferior to the spiritual, is perhaps the most widespread heresy in Christian history: it has shown up in any number of guises over the centuries, from Gnosticism to Manichaeism to Albigensianism to more modern overspiritualizing of the gospel. “The world” has a particular valence in Gnostic terms, as the defective realm that is to be left behind, so for John to say that God loves the world, and desires to save the world, is exactly not about getting souls out of this mess, but as a transformation of the entire cosmos. We continue too easily to fall prey to that sort of dualism, but Jesus’ own ministry is amazingly holistic – how much time does he spend talking about whether someone is going to heaven or not, and how much time does he spend responding to the sufferings of people’s quotidian lives? N.T. Wright, a widely respected scripture scholar and the Anglican bishop of Durham in England, recently wrote a book entitled Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, in which he argues that the consistent witness of the New Testament is not to heaven as our eschatological hope, but the resurrection. Indeed, Christians of almost every stripe recite the Nicene Creed at their liturgies, and it plainly includes the line, “We believe in the resurrection of the body,” but I have almost never come across a student who has the foggiest idea of what that means (most of them think it means heaven). That dualistic misunderstanding has fueled plenty of suffering in the Church’s history, particularly in the missionary practice of “killing the body to save the soul,” but also in overlooking injustice because the Church’s mission is “spiritual,” meaning uninvolved in overcoming the sufferings caused by social sin and oppression. Resurrection as a symbol points to the renewal and transformation of the entire created reality – rather than “body in the ground, soul in heaven,” the hope of the New Testament is to share in a resurrection like Jesus, who was the “firstborn from the dead (Col. 1:18). God loves the world, not just souls – salvation is not an individualistic reality, but a corporate and holistic one – the crushing weight of sin and suffering are to be saved or overcome, but so is the wrecking of the environment, the destruction of cultures, the abuse of women and children, the denigration of the goodness of our physical reality.