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 café, 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.

Fatal Revenant

Thomas Covenant fans will be pleased to learn that Stephen R. Donaldson has finished writing the first draft of Fatal Revenant, the second of four volumes in The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Not so pleasing is that it will still be over a year until publication. Here’s what Donaldson says on his website (see “from the author”, and then “news”, entry 2/24/06):

“The first draft of Fatal Revenant is now finished. But don’t get your hopes up. I anticipate a year of rewriting — and editorial to-ing and fro-ing — before D&A (‘delivery and acceptance’); and my publishers may not commit to a schedule for release until after D&A.

“Fatal Revenant is roughly 150 pages longer than The Runes of the Earth was at this stage. As I recall, I cut about 125 pages out of Runes before publication. I think we can assume that the same thing will happen to Fatal Revenant, so the final version will still be somewhat longer than Runes.

“Incidentally, the first draft of Runes took me 20 months. I put Fatal Revenant on paper in 16.”

UPDATE: According to amazon the release date is October 9, 2007.

Schweitzer’s Legacy: “The Unknown One”

The most famous words ever penned about the historical Jesus would have to be the lyrical conclusion to Schweitzer’s classic, in which he demonstrated that Jesus was a deluded apocalyptic:

“He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old by the lakeside, he came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same words, “Follow thou me!”, and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who he is.” (The Quest of the Historical Jesus, p 403)

High-profile scholars have tried to outdo Schweitzer by recycling this passage in support of their own view of Jesus. I know of three — Tom Wright, Dominic Crossan, and Dale Allison — all of whom stand at very different points in understanding Jesus. Let’s take them in turn.

Here’s Wright:

“Schweitzer said that Jesus comes to us as one unknown. This is the wrong way around. We come to him as ones unknown, crawling back from the far country, where we had wasted our substance on riotous and ruinous historicism. But the swinehusks — the “assured results of modern criticism” — reminded us of that knowledge which arrogance had all but obliterated, and we began the journey home. But when we approached, we found him running to us as one well known, whom we had spurned in the name of scholarship or even faith, but who was still patiently waiting to be sought and found once more. And the ring on our finger and the shoes on our feet assure us that, in celebrating his kingdom and feasting at his table, we shall discover again and again not only who he is but who we ourselves are: as unknown and yet well known, as dying and behold we live.” (Jesus and the Victory of God, p 662)

Like Schweitzer, Wright thinks Jesus went to Jerusalem to die and bring in the kingdom. But his Jesus was victorious, his prophecies fulfilled in an unexpected way: via resurrection. Jesus’ bodily resurrection was the fulfillment of the kingdom of God in miniature, with the full eschaton being postponed to a later date.

Here’s Crossan:

“He comes as yet unknown into a hamlet of Lower Galilee. He is watched by the cold, hard eyes of peasants living long enough at subsistence level to know exactly where the line is drawn between poverty and destitution. He speaks about the rule of God, and they listen as much from curiosity as anything else. What, they really want to know, can this kingdom of God do for a lame child, a blind parent, a demented soul screaming its tortured isolation among the graves that mark the edges of the village? Jesus walks with them to the tombs, and, in the silence after the exorcism, the villagers listen once more. Earlier Jesus had received John’s baptism and accepted his message of God as the imminent apocalyptic judge. But Herod Antipas moved swiftly to execute John, there was no apocalyptic consummation, and Jesus, finding his own voice, began to speak of God not as imminent apocalypse but as present healing.” (The Historical Jesus, pp xi-xii)

Crossan rids himself of the Schweitzer-problem differently than Wright, insisting that apocalyptic expectations attributed to Jesus are unhistorical: Jesus broke with the Baptist’s vision and introduced the kingdom of God as a completely present reality. Interestingly, Wright and Crossan are flip sides of the same coin, Christian believers who need Jesus to be “correct” and legitimate their view of the world. Their Schweitzer-summaries are thus more Christologies than histories.

Here’s Allison:

“He does not come to us as one unknown. We know him well enough. Jesus is the millenarian prophet of judgment, the embodiment of the divine discontent that rolls through all things. He sees those who go about in long robes and have the best seats in the synagogues while they lock others out of the kingdom. He sees the poor, the hungry, and the reviled, and he proclaims that the last will be first. He makes the best of a bad situation: things are not what they seem to be; everything will be okay. He knows that God promised never again to destroy the world through a flood, but he makes ready for the flood of the end-time anyway. His realism is so great that it must abandon the world, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. He knows that we, being evil, cannot fix things, that the wall cannot climb itself; but with God all things are possible. Jesus was wrong: reality has taken no notice of his imagination. And yet despite everything, for those who have ears to hear, Jesus says the only things worth saying, for his dream is the only dream worth dreaming.” (Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet, highly condensed from pp 217-219)

Allison is Christian, though he evidently doesn’t need Jesus to be “right” to the same degree Wright and Crossan do. He says: “From one point of view, Jesus was wrong, because he took apocalyptic language literally and expected a near end. But he wasn’t, from my Christian point of view, wrong in hoping for God to defeat evil, redeem the world, and hold us responsible. I continue to be amazed that we can’t do with the end what we do with the beginning. We have become very sophisticated in our understanding of Genesis as mythology. It still serves us homiletically and theologically even after we’ve given up the literal sense. Why can’t we do the same with eschatology? We can say that the writer of Genesis was mistaken about the beginning of the world — it didn’t take place a few thousand years ago, there was no Garden of Eden, etc — but he wasn’t wrong — God made the world, the world is good, but responsible human beings wreck things. I just want to do this with eschatology. I emphasize Jesus was wrong so that I can get to what he was right about.”

Well said. Whether or not we claim the Christian faith, we can take seriously the hope and despair embodied in a vision of God throwing cataclysm onto the world, righting wrongs, and ushering in a utopian paradise. Most of us can’t do without some kind of belief in a “good time coming”, lest we relinquish ourselves completely to despair. The apocalypse can be one of many mythological pointers to something better, and offer “hope without delusion” when interpreted non-literally. Jesus may have been deluded like all apocalyptics, but we needn’t keep repeating his error.

Jesus of Nazareth is known more through confessionalism (Wright) and revisionism (Crossan) than by acknowledging his failings and delusions (Schweitzer/Allison). Perhaps, in the end, that’s why he’s sure to remain the Unknown One.