Heroes, Charismatics, and Messiahs

Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson have announced the imminent publication of their two-volume climax of the Dune series, based on Frank Herbert’s outline and notes for whatever Book 7 may have ended up looking like. The titles will be Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune. The prequels written by these guys have been so appalling — I stopped reading them a while ago — though I may give these a try (much as I expect a similar decimation of Frank Herbert’s vision) since they will be at least based on certain ideas the author had put down on paper before he died. Hunters is slated for publication this August, and who knows when Sandworms will come out.

So I’ve started rereading the original six-volume series in anticipation, and am almost nearly done the first book. It’s been eons since I read these classics, and I’d forgotten just how good they are. A great story above all, but also a fictional “case study”, as it were, of messiahship and the dangers of charismatic movements. Herbert had intended his epic to make a statement about the “messianic convulsions that overtake us” and inevitably fail — the depths of their failure being directly related to how successful they are initially. In Omni magazine (1980), Herbert said the following about heroes, charismatics, and messiahs:

Don’t give over all of your critical faculties to [heroes], no matter how admirable those people may appear to be. Beneath the hero’s facade you will find a human being who makes human mistakes. Enormous problems arise when human mistakes are made on the grand scale available to a superhero… Heroes are painful, superheroes are a catastrophe. The mistakes of superheroes involve too many of us in disaster.

What strikes me is how applicable this observation is not only to the Dune messiah, but the messiah we “revere” (some much more than others) on our biblioblogs, Jesus of Nazareth. Herbert’s remarks are obliquely reminiscent of Dale Allison’s, who has emphasized the Jesus who “made mistakes”, not least in his expectations of the apocalypse. Jesus didn’t stick around for as long as Paul Atreides — and his later heir, the “God Emperor of Dune” — but he remains with us nonetheless, followed mythically worldwide. I’d be inclined to call the Nazarene one of the greatest superheroes our world has ever known.

I’ll have to blog more about this when I’ve finished all six books. The mistakes of superheroes involve too many of us in disaster…

Second Call for Submissions: Biblical Studies Carnival IV

This is the second and final call for submissions and nominations for the fourth Biblical Studies Carnival. Please send links to suggested blogposts (your own or someone else’s) to: biblical_studies_carnival AT hotmail DOT com, or alternatively use the submission form at BlogCarnival.com. Only blogposts from the month of March (and which relate to biblical studies, of course) will be considered.

Please have all submissions/nominations sent by Friday March 31, and expect the carnival to be posted soon after April 1. I have other devilish blogging plans for April Fool’s Day itself.

Quote for the Day: The Powerlessness of Tools

(See previous quote here.)

“A tool just serves its user. It’s only as good as the skill of its user, and it’s not good for anything else. So if you want to accomplish something special — something more than you can do for yourself — you can’t use a tool. You have to use a person and hope the surprises will work in your favor. You have to use something that’s free to not be what you had in mind.” (Stephen R. Donaldson, The One Tree, chapter 22)

Evangelical and Secular Scholarship

Lately I’ve been lounging in Alan Bandy’s cafĂ©, thoroughly enjoying the interviews about faith-based scholarship. I find myself more on the same page with Crossley and Goodacre than the evangelicals (no surprise), but good points have been made all around. I want to comment on a couple of things in Mark’s interview. I agree with most of what he said, but would add the following, where he explains the advantages of evangelical and secular scholarship in turn:

I would say that one potential advantage is that the evangelical often gives the benefit of the doubt to a given Biblical writer, and that can enable a good case to be made for something that might otherwise not have been noticed.

Even more importantly, it enables a good case to be made for something that is alien or repulsive to a modern way of thinking. Evangelicals are predisposed to accepting the antiquated world-view of the bible at face value, so they don’t have the same level of “embarrassment baggage” others may have. It probably did take an evangelical like Scot McKnight to write a book like Jesus and His Death, which argues so convincingly that Jesus saw his own death in terms of a converted passover sacrifice — that his “body and blood” would protect people from God’s wrath at the apocalypse. It’s a persuasive argument, but doesn’t deal with terribly attractive ideas in today’s world — even to mainstream Christians.

As a Christian myself, I am conscious of wishing certain conclusions to be true, and so aware of the danger that I might give more credence to poor arguments than a non-Christian might. I sometimes envy the atheist and the agnostic here in that they don’t have to deal with the same baggage.

Speaking for myself, it’s admittedly nice to be free of such baggage, and I do wish (echoing James Crossley) there were more secular scholars in the field. Of course, there are plenty of atheists and Unitarians (my group) who go through life weighed down by a different kind of baggage, especially if they’re fighting a grim Christian past. I was fortunate: there was nothing suffocating or oppressive about my Christian upbringing (I was raised Episcopelian and went to Roman Catholic grade/high-schools). Like the rest of my family, I gradually “grew out” of Christianity but have positive memories of what I learned from it.

Jesus and Torah

James Crossley and Michael Bird have offered four-point manifestos about Jesus and Torah. I decided to take a stab with four points of my own.

1. Galilee vs. Judea. To an extent I think Jesus’ disputes owed to a regional interpretation of the Torah. Whether Richard Horsley or Sean Freyne is more right about the northern religion, it’s hard to escape the idea that early Christianity stood for a particular Galilean way of being Israelite. Josephus implies that Galileans adhered to a minimal Torah: circumcision (Vita 112-113,149) and sabbath observance (Vita 159) may reflect basic customs having roots in Galilee prior to Hasmonean takeover (from descendents of northern Israelite peasants left on the land after 722 BCE, as Horsley claims), but not adherence to a highly codified priestly Torah which had developed in southern Judah/Judea.

2. Competing Moral Imperatives. Jesus also entered into Torah debates in the interest of competing moral imperatives. An obvious case is where he appeals to the hunger of David and his men, saying that one imperative can trump another. Human need can override a commandment even if the commandment itself remains intact. Dale Allison notes (in Resurrecting Jesus, chapter 5) that we call this choosing the lesser of two evils. Peasant concerns to take care of their livestock, even on the sabbath, would be another example of pragmatic need trumping a general halakic rule.

3. Rhetoric and Honor. The ancients could be plenty offensive when it suited their needs, especially in order to justify views that were socially advantageous (see Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels passim). Men thrived on the macho game of challenge-and-riposte, and shafting their opponents with rhetorical wit and scripture one-upsmanship. But rhetoric can obscure the real reasons underlying a conflict. Jesus’ prohibition of divorce is an example, targeting a practice that Moses may have allowed but created lots of bad blood and feuding (especially in village settings). But it would have been shameful and weak for Jesus to protest about social problems like this. No one would have taken him seriously. So he “burned” his opponents — overturning Moses with the creation story (Gen. 2:24), cleverly implying that marriage was an unseparable “blood” relationship rather a legal one. In this way he honorably (and scripturally) legitimated what he wanted to accomplish.

4. The Apocalypse. I tend to think that almost everything Jesus said and did (whether it was about Torah or not) points back to the apocalypse in some way. And I’m rather surprised at Ed Sanders and Paula Fredriksen for resisting the conclusion that Jesus at least occasionally rescinded the Torah, while underscoring his millenarian outlook in the same breath. Breaking customs and defying tradition is exactly what apocalyptic movements are known for, from everywhere across the globe. They do this precisely on account of the new age being imminent.

So I doubt there is “a” single reason for Jesus’ alleged conflict with the Torah. Many factors converge to produce a regional, reasonable, macho, and millenarian figure — and above all messianic, who made himself the boss of these issues.