Generous Orthodoxy  

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Marcus Borg's message

Last night at a gathering, Marcus Borg said (twice), “Jesus trumps the Bible.”

This is an extraordinarily irresponsible thing for a scholar and leader in the church to say. It can’t be said often enough: we have no access to knowledge of Jesus except through the Bible and its interpretation. There is no record of him outside the Bible until years after his death. The only way to understanding who he was is through the witness of the New Testament apostles. Therefore to suggest that he “trumps the Bible” is to suggest that we can cut loose from the Scriptures and construct a Jesus according to the perspectives of our own time. It has been shown over and over again that attempts to construct a “historical Jesus” or “real Jesus” apart from the faith-based witness of Scripture end in failure because such attempts are grounded, not in the text, but in the bias of those who undertake them.

Borg talks constantly of the “pre-Easter Jesus” and the “post-Easter Jesus.” Again, this often-heard distinction is based on a false assumption. We have no access to the pre-Easter Jesus. Every single word of testimony to him in the New Testament is refracted through the Resurrection. Therefore, any attempt to reconstruct a Jesus before anyone knew he would be raised from the dead are doomed to fail, because such projects, again, will always reflect the personal agenda of the interpreter.

Like it or not, therefore, we must rely upon the Scripture as our only witness to Jesus. There is no other witness. (see note 1) In all of Borg’s remarks last night, he scarcely alluded to the Bible. His passion, he said, was “to get rid of stumbling blocks like ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ literalism.” This was not a message directed to anyone in his audience, since there was no literalist present (unless he would count yours truly as a “soft” literalist—he probably would). The fact is that very few people in his audience read or study the Bible at all, whether literally or not. This is one of the greatest obstacles in the path of the church today.

Borg’s use of the term “stumbling block” (Greek skandalon—offense, hindrance, obstacle, cause of ruin) to denote the attitudes he wants to remove was interesting. The only stumbling blocks in the New Testament are 1) Jesus himself, and 2) the gospel message about Jesus. He is referred to many times as the stumbling block or “stone of stumbling.” He himself is the one who causes offense. (see note 2)

The work of the church to understand and receive the Lord Jesus Christ is continually to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Scriptures, and to debate and discuss its meaning in every generation—through preaching, teaching, and small-group Bible studies. This has always been and always will be our responsibility, our privilege, and our unique access to the gifts of God through his “living and active” Word (Hebrews 4:12).

Footnote 1: Of course the living witness of Christians is essential. We serve a living Lord, not an inert book. But since Jesus is himself the Word of God, the link between his living presence and the verbal testimony is indissoluble.
Footnote 2: Borg’s presentation of Jesus seems sometimes indistinguishable from a sentimental reconstruction of St. Francis, whom he seems to regard as equal to Christ himself. Most churchgoers know almost nothing about St. Francis except that he blessed animals. His commitment to a life of poverty and chastity does not seem to have had any impact on those who put statues of him in their gardens.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Mini-talents trying to diminish Shakespeare’s genius

Roland Emmerich, a disaster-film director (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012) whose London flat features “200 or 300” penis sculptures might be challenged on grounds of taste. This goes for his new movie Anonymous, with (alas) an all-star cast of classical actors, which puts forth yet another tiresome variation on the theory about how Shakespeare didn’t write the plays. This time, though, given the power of the movies, much more damage will be done to Shakespeare’s reputation—which is, after all, the goal of the conspiracy-theorists.

Emmerich claims (proudly), speaking of the Shakespearean scholars, that his movie “is pretty much challenging their life’s work.” One of these scholars, Professor James S. Shapiro of Columbia University, author of Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? responded to this with good humor, saying, "That's pretty funny... [if a document actually turned up proving] that the Earl of Oxford wrote Midsummer Night’s Dream at the age of 9, as the movie has it, my career would be made.” On a more serious note, Professor Shapiro stated that Emmerich’s approach to Shakespeare is "reductively anti-intellectual, and dangerously so." Emmerich and Sony have produced a documentary and classroom study guide that Professor Shapiro described as full of “half-truths repeated through a 20th century perspective. I have no problem if Roland Emmerich wants to drink the Kool-Aid, but I do have a problem when it’s doled out in small cups to school kids.” Gag. (Quotes are from Ari Karpel's article, "Brush Up Your Shakespeare [or Who(m)ever]," The New York Times, 10/23/11)

The most distinguished English literary critic of our time, of Sir Frank Kermode (he never used the title) sums it up:

There are modern attitudes to Shakespeare I particularly dislike: the worst of them maintain that Shakespeare’s reputation is fraudulent, the result of an eighteenth century nationalist or imperialist plot. A related notion, almost equally presumptuous, is that to make sense of Shakespeare we need first to see the plays as involved in the political discourse of the day to a degree that has only now become intelligible. These and other ways of taking Shakespeare down a peg seem, when you examine them, to be interesting only as evidence of a recurring need to find something different to say, and to say it on topics that happen to interest the writer more than Shakespeare’s words, which are, as I say, only rarely invoked. The tone of these novelties is remarkably confident…As I believe in the value of Shakespeare and, without ignoring historical issues, regard the plays as about more than such issues, I shall not pay much attention to what are the nevertheless prevailing modes of Shakespeare criticism.
Forget Stephen Greenblatt. If you own one book of Shakespeare analysis, it should be Kermode's Shakespeare's Language.

More reactions:
Professor Shapiro has blasted the movie and its pretensions in an op-ed article. Here's the link:

And here is another link, to film critic A. O. Scott's dismemberment of the movie Anonymous (though he does allow that the actors who have unaccountably lent themselves to this pernicious enterprise are splendid):

I look forward to The New York Review of Book and its treatment of this subject.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Good news about "closure"

The good news about "closure" is that a new book critically analyzes this concept that many of us hate. The new book is called, suitably, Closure. The subtitle tells us a lot: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us. The author, Nancy Berns, was on NPR this morning and she had a lot of good things to say. A caller asked her for suggestions about what to say when well-meaning people speak of closure. She offered useful examples: "I am not interested in closure"; "I don't find the idea of closure helpful."

She emphasized the importance of longstanding family tradition and familiar rituals. Those of us who have been privileged to preside at the service for The Burial of the Dead can add volumes to that. When the NPR interviewer interjected, "People can create their own rituals," Nancy Bern was having none of it. She stated firmly that the rituals have to be in place already, with the weight of tradition behind them, long before the loss takes place. She emphasized the comfort that mourners can take from knowing exactly what to do and what to expect. (This should be a reminder to all of us to have our funeral plans ready and filed at our parish churches.) What she did not say, which we as Christians must say, is that "we do not sorrow as others do" (I Thessalonians) because the Lord Jesus Christ has gone before us into death, has emerged victorious over it, and will bring his faithful people through death into his eternal presence. The service is a witness to the Resurrection, not the "celebration of the life of..."

Closure is a pernicious concept. It is true that grief lessens over time, and certain steps can be taken to channel grief, but people have not been helped by the pressure put upon them to achieve closure. We can be thankful that this book has appeared to help us to understand grief better and to allow the bereaved to mourn in a way that helps them to cope, so that we do not push them into premature resolution in a way that makes them feel worse while making us feel better.

P.S. If you order this book, get the right one. There is another very different book called Closure which is about divorce.