Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Scriptural Flatland

Last week I went to two theology seminars. One was on the theology of joy, and the other was a discussion on hermeneutic approaches to Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures/Tanakh (there was debate, each of these terms being problematic as 1) the term 'Old Testament' implies its being surpassed by the New Testament 2) 'Hebrfew Scriptures' is a somewhat patronising term of liberal theologians of the past 3) Tanakh, as we know, is a compilation that is not finalised until perhaps as late as the third century AD (or CE, as it is fashionable to say today). Just to complicate matters, as Margaret Barker has pointed out, there are changes between the Septuagint (which is the Christian version of these scriptures) and the Tanakh, because Judaism resented some of the uses to which early Christians put these texts.
The speaker at the first seminar, while mentioning in passing apophasis and 'asceticism' (meaning self-forgetfulness, one assumes), he put much more emphasis on creating the conditions in which joy could be caused to appear. This idea smacks suspiciously of materialist movements such as Cargo, in which certain peoples in the Pacific came to think that salvation would arrive in the form quite literally of their ship coming in. Among some American fundamentalists there is a similar 'prosperity' movement, which smacks more than a little of magic ('Give the pastor your money and it will come back to  you tenfold'. OK, this is a caricature.)
As readers of this blog will know, happiness, much less, joy, are gifts. They cannot be created; and while one can dispose oneself to receive them, they can seize one at any time and in any circumstances without warning. Light comes out of the darkness; it doesn't come instead of the darkness. The best way to prevent happiness and joy is to ask people if they are happy or joyous! As soon as the question is asked, the grasping nature of self-consciousness kicks in.
The second discussion revealed a lot about the Oxford theology faculty and graduate students—at least about those who were there. After the brief and very good presentation, someone formulated the question for discussion as to what, if any, template one should bring to Sunday preaching, when one is confronted with readings from both groups of texts? It was quite amazing how those who responded did so each from a blinkered and entirely abstruse perspective: the more uptight types insisting that the older set of scriptures had to be read through the lens of the new, some even saying that the older set was now entirely irrelevant. This to me seems foolish since so much of the New Testament is based on phrases from the older texts; one person, as I recall, suggested that as much as 85% of the New Testament was taken from the older set of texts. I once knew a French biblical scholar who was trying to prove that there was nothing in the New Testament that wasn't in the other group of scriptures.
Someone made the quite valid point that as soon as one uses the word 'Scripture' one is already putting an interpretative spin on these texts. More 'orthodox' voices suggested that everything had to be read in light of the resurrection—at which point I couldn't resist breaking in with a highly ironic rhetorical question, 'What do you mean by resurrection?' which, astonishingly, rocked a good many people back on their heels. It was clear that the speakers who took this position were very much into what David Jenkins used to call 'a conjuring trick with bones'. It was a very sad example of the flatness with which these texts are approached today, even in academia.
What I was thinking, but did not say, since I was a newbie in the group, was that any text should be approached with two questions, which are really one question: what are the human constants in this text, i.e., the repeating patterns  and attitudes we see in human beings throughout history, and particularly in the bible, beholding or refusing to behold; and what are the constants we see in the behaviour of God towards the creation. This latter is a bit more subtle, for one has to allow for projection, blame, and the rest, which humans project on God, as opposed to the reality of the constancy of God's mercy and—again as we know from Margaret Barker—the subversive harking back to the ritual of transfiguration that was the core ritual of the first temple that Josiah destroyed.
But none of the people involved in the fray came anywhere near this common-sense approach; it was one of the most disincarnate discussions I have ever heard, and I must say that I came away shaking my head, and with a heavy heart. 
At the same time it only added to my impetus to get this book finished. Tomorrow I am on my way to deepest darkest Devon to dog-sit and write. Five chapters have gone out to two publishers who have asked to see them, so fingers crossed!


Anonymous Al said...

The anthropological constants you hinted seem to grind in a profound way against established theoria of Biblical interpretations. Aside from the fact that translation is already interpretation which was the case with the Septuagint, what the theoria on Biblical interpretations also missed is the oral tradition background of Tanakh, a perspective that is gaining more momentum in current scholarship - the Hebrews used to memorize and recite and chant those stories and verses which entails the involvement of the human voice, skin, hands, etc. Adoration first before interpretation so that the urgent question it seems is - how much of this attitude of adoration that the oral tradition of the Hebrews set gets lost not only in the theoria of Biblical interpretation but also in Sunday gatherings and seminars?

8:11 am, June 11, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Maggie,

I hope you get some space/peace to write and think and pray.

Can I suggest you consider writing something in the book about the role of affect in the life of a 'beholder'. What part does it play in the 'spiritual development' of a person? Is there a place for 'discernment' (which seems connected to 'feelings') in the daily grind of life? Where is the place for desire?

Can I also suggest you consider writing about the place (for want of a better word) of sexual behaviour and feelings. I suspect that many of the people here are in relationships with others and not celibate. There is so little written about sex and spirituality (at least as seen from the perspoective of my reading over the years).

Just some thoughts.


9:17 am, June 15, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Hi Theo,

These are great suggestions. In fact, in my book 'The Fire of Your Life' there's a long essay on chastity and relationships in general, both sexual and otherwise. Not sure I can improve on it.

But I will try to find a way to incorporate what you suggest into the new book.

Many thanks,s


9:32 am, June 15, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Maggie,
Recently I watched a few of Creflo Dollar's programs on television. His name has been attached to the prosperity movement as you likely know. Some of the stuff he describes doesn't appear to be that different from the "Beholding Process" that is discussed in this blog. His take on the uselessness of self effort in the spiritual life was very interesting.

8:07 pm, June 15, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Never heard of him.

However, if he's into 'prosperity' (which used to be known as 'cargo') I don't see how he can possibly know what beholding is. They are utterly incompatible!

There are, however, counterfeits of beholding, e.g., surrender to me and I'll make you rich.

8:17 pm, June 15, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Maggie,

I'll go back to 'Fire of Your Life'. Thanks.


11:28 am, June 16, 2013  

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