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!