Thomas’ In/Dependence

Over on The Forbidden Gospels, April DeConick tells us how the gospel of Thomas was written — or actually, more how it wasn’t written. I particularly like her point that

“The Academy is about 100 years behind in its understanding of ancient compositional practices. I still cannot believe that we are operating with unmodified Form and Redaction Criticism models of production, when they don’t work beyond schoolhouse exercises. The ancient world was a rhetorical culture wholly dominated by an oral consciousness. Scholars in the Academy must start learning about orality from sociologists and anthropologists. The studies are there. But they do not jive with what biblical scholars in our field keep saying and want to keep saying. Read Professor Ong, read Professor Foley, read Professor Lord, read Professor Kelber. We must stop looking at the ancient people through our own literate lens.”

But she targets the purists of both camps, i.e. those who argue for Thomas’ direct dependence on the synoptics, and those who maintain his complete independence. I lean far more in the “dependent” direction, but am always open to new ideas; the truth may well lie somewhere in-between. I just wish her ideas for a rolling corpus could have persuaded me more.

UPDATE: Mark Goodacre interacts heavily with DeConick, suggesting that we eschew terminology of “in/dependence” in favor of “familiarity”:

“Given that only about half of Thomas has parallels with the Synoptics, we need to hold open the possibility that the most important thing about Thomas is not the Synoptic parallel material but the non-Synoptic material. Perhaps it is in that 50% that we will learn most about Thomas. My preference, therefore, is to move the terminology away from ‘dependence’ or ‘independence’ and instead to talk about ‘familiarity’ or otherwise. The term ‘familiarity’ allows us to ask the question whether Thomas knows the Synoptic Gospels without prejudging the extent of their influence on his thinking… The obsessive focus in so much Thomas scholarship with Synoptic parallel material, whether among ‘dependence’ or ‘independence’ people, tends to focus attention on reconstructions of the Gospel’s evolution and development, sometimes at the expense of working on the text as we have it, and building from there.”


Shogun and Biblical Studies

The novel Shogun is an engaging account of Will Adams’ expedition to Japan in 1600 AD and success in befriending a dangerous warlord. Stephen Carlson notes how the story provides an education in honor-shame cultures, such as that out of which the bible came, for all the differences between East and Middle-East.

One of the limitations of works written by The Context Group is that honor-shame values are frequently explained in the abstract, making it hard for the western initiate to grasp the alien mentality. Stories like Shogun show more than tell. By the time you finish Clavell’s novel, you feel like you’ve lived and breathed feudal Japan, and think in terms of honor and shame.

I’d once thought about making an exhaustive list of Shogun passages which “parallel” biblical ones, much in the way Stephen compares an incident from the novel with Rom 4:

“One passage in Shogun gives an insight into how grace operates in that honor-shame culture. The following passage occurs shortly after the English pilot, John Blackthorne (a.k.a ‘Anjin-san’), saved the life of the future Shogun Toranaga (chapter 39):

‘Then he heard Toranaga say, “Today I was almost killed. Today the Anjin-san pulled me out of the earth. . . . But though it is bushido that vassals should never expect a reward for any service, it is the duty of a liege lord to grant favors from time to time.”‘

In Romans, Paul exploits on a similar contrast between earned rewards and favors:

4:4 ‘Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. 5 But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. . . . 16 For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all [Abraham’s] descendents…'”

This is a good illustration of why the Lutheran understanding of grace is so misleading. Pharisees in Paul’s day didn’t expect rewards for keeping the Torah (anymore than medieval samurai expected rewards for serving their daimyos), but God had a duty to grant such rewards on occasion, often unexpectedly. That’s what “grace” is about in the honor-shame/patron-client context.

Here’s one of my favorites: When the daimyo Yabu assigns an entire village the task of teaching Blackthorne the Japanese language, he threatens mass murder. If Blackthorne has not learned satisfactorily within six months, Yabu will burn the village down, but before that crucify “every man, woman, and child”. Blackthorne is appalled by the threat, and manages to extract a promise from Yabu not to harm anyone no matter what. Yabu finally does so, but “of course, he had no intention of keeping any promise” (chapter 31), and thinks this western man a fool for actually believing him.

The phenomenon of breaking promises — as common as breathing air in honor-shame cultures — is what lies behind the Antioch incident (Gal 2:11-14), and which I wrote about in Treachery at Antioch:

“The pillars had revoked their own agreement: in Jerusalem they had agreed to leave Gentiles free of any obligation to become circumcised (Gal 2:7-10). Why the about-face at Antioch (Gal 2:11-14)? The immediate answer has to do with honor and revenge. Esler should be cited at length:

‘[Paul] had extracted an agreement from the Jerusalem leaders without giving away anything himself. True, he had consented to remember the poor…but his point [“I was eager to do so”] is that he would have done it even without any action taken by the pillars, so that they really got nothing in return for the promise of fellowship…’ (Galatians, pp 135-136)

Not only did Paul get the better of the pillars, but of outside factions, like the “false brethren” of Gal 2:4-5. Esler goes on:

‘The defeat of the circumcision group in Jerusalem would have left them steaming with the desire for revenge. Their honor had been besmirched by Paul’s very obviously getting the better of them, and in this culture we expect that they would seek to turn the tables on Paul, just as Israel did on Ammon in II Sam 10-12… When Paul left Jerusalem, he would have been well advised to watch his back… Persons in this culture who are shamed to this extent do not forgive or forget… With Paul and Barnabus, and later Peter, out of the city they would have been left with James and John upon whom they could exert pressure to revoke the agreement.’ (pp 132,136)

To western readers, this kind of back-biting seems to make James and Peter dishonorable liars, but actually the opposite is true. Lies and deceptions are honorable and expected of people in these cultures. As rival apostles, the pillars were under no obligation to keep any ‘promises’ made to Paul, and indeed they would have been childish to do so.”

That’s why the Antioch incident was about treachery more than “hypocrisy”. Paul called Peter a hypocrite (rather than a liar), because that’s the best he could do. Otherwise he’d have made a fool of himself.

Try reading Shogun and then revisit your favorite parts of the bible. You’ll probably start seeing them differently.

The "No Asshole Rule": A Question of Ethnocentricity

“Every organization needs the no asshole rule because mean-spirited people do massive damage to victims, bystanders who suffer the ripple effects, organizational performance, and themselves… The effects of assholes are so devastating because they sap people of their energy and esteem mostly through the accumulated effects of small, demeaning acts, not so much through one or two dramatic episodes.” (Robert Sutton, The No Asshole Rule, pp 27,29)

Robert Sutton’s The No Asshole Rule is a book every manager should read, and indeed everyone should read. Those of us who enjoy healthy work environments tend to forget that others don’t have the same luxury, and spend most of their lives surrounded by bullies, creeps, jerks, weasels, tormentors, tyrants — assholes, in other words, who should be fired without second thought.

Sutton stresses at the outset that he doesn’t advocate recruiting wimps: “I am a firm believer in the virtues of conflict, even noisy arguments… My focus is squarely on screening, reforming, and getting rid of people who demean and damage others, especially others with relatively little power.” (pp 16-17) He further acknowledges that everyone acts like an asshole from time to time, and he himself has been an offender. It’s the “certified assholes” he has in his sights.

The certified asshole, then, is “one who displays a persistent pattern, and has a history of episodes that end with one target after another feeling belittled, put down, humiliated, disrespected, oppressed, de-energized, and generally worse about themselves” (p 11). You can find out if you’re a certified asshole by taking the author’s test, found either in the book (pp 124-126) or online here. (I’m apparently clean: I got 4 asshole points out of 24; according to Sutton’s grading, under 5 means you’re okay.)

Sutton then lists “the dirty dozen” everyday tactics used by assholes (p 10):

1. Personal insults
2. Invading one’s “personal territory”
3. Uninvited physical contact
4. Threats and intimidation, both verbal and nonverbal
5. “Sarcastic jokes” and “teasing” used as insult delivery systems
6. Withering email flames
7. Status slaps intended to humiliate their victims
8. Public shaming or “status degradation” rituals
9. Rude interruptions
10. Two-faced attacks
11. Dirty looks
12. Treating people as if they are invisible

He believes that more companies and organizations should enforce a “no asshole rule”, and fire employees who make their colleagues’ lives miserable through repeated use of any of the above.

Speaking personally, I’m inclined to agree with Sutton. I have no tolerance for assholes, and count myself fortunate to have worked with few of them. Those I’ve had the misfortune to know were damaging to people in ways they may never understand. I would support the implementation of the no asshole rule in almost any work environment. But at the same time, something about the “dirty dozen” list gives me pause: most of these tactics are not only acceptable, but expected, of people in honor-shame cultures. Is there an ethnocentric bias here that needs to be addressed?

In Asian and Middle-Eastern (and other) cultures, insults are fine and frequent arts; belligerence a commendable show of machismo; public degradation a staple of life; two-faced attacks (and backhanded compliments) prestigious displays of wit; and “treating others as if they are invisible” a proper way of snubbing inferiors and equals. What constitutes being an asshole in one culture can be honorable in another, and not nearly as psychologically damaging.

Sutton seems aware of the ethnocentricity behind his rule. In the middle of the book he not only brings honor-shame cultures into the discussion, but honor-shame subcultures — like that of the southern United States:

“People raised in these cultures are especially polite and considerate in most interactions, in part because they want to avoid threatening the honor of others (and the fight it provokes)… [But] once they are affronted, men raised in these places often feel obligated to lash back and protect what is theirs, especially their right to be treated with respect or honor.” (pp 116-117)

He then cites an intriguing study conducted in 1996 at the University of Michigan, in which the behavior patterns of southern and northern Americans were contrasted:

“Subjects (half southerners and half northerners) passed a stooge who ‘accidentally’ bumped into him and swore at him. There were big differences between how the northerners and southerners reacted: 65% of the northerners were amused by the bump and insult, and only 35% got angry; only 15% of the insulted southerners were amused, and 85% got angry. Not only that, a second study showed that southerners had strong physiological reactions to being bumped, especially substantial increases in cortisol (a hormone associated with high levels of stress and anxiety), as well as some signs of increased testosterone levels. Yet northerners showed no signs of physiological reaction to the bump and insult.” (p 117)

In other words, if you are from an honor-shame culture like Asia or the Middle-East — or from an honor-shame subculture like the southern United States — “you will likely be more polite than your colleagues most of the time, but if you run into an even mildly insulting asshole, you are prone to lash out and risk fueling a cycle of asshole poisoning” (p 118). The implication seems to be that people from honor-shame cultures, or subcultures, are inherent assholes (or at least have strong asshole-leanings), even if Sutton doesn’t spell things out this harshly.

But this should be clarified: “assholes”, as defined by Sutton, do a lot more damage in guilt-based cultures than shame-based ones. In the latter, people are conditioned to defend themselves constantly and forcefully against abuse, and they aren’t psychologically wounded by the kind of things presumed in the no asshole rule. “Asshole” is thus a misnomer for such people, even if their behavior should not be excused in a western work environment.

We’re not done with Sutton’s book yet. In the next post we will look at his interesting complement to the no asshole rule — the one asshole rule. Ponder the following until then: Was Paul right about a little bit of yeast leavening the whole batch of dough (I Cor 5:6)? Or can the opposite be true?

UPDATE: See Bob Sutton’s blogpost and comments underneath, where a librarian named Daphne Chang objects to some of my remarks.

A Pet Peeve Revisited

Chris Heard, Kevin Wilson, and Mark Goodacre list some pet peeves, and I notice that Kevin and Mark include one of my biggest: the “reckless creation of denominative verbs”. In an earlier post I complained about “The Dumbing Down of English Nouns”. For instance, I find “to dialogue” odious in the extreme, but unfortunately it’s becoming more acceptable. Evolution can be painful.

See if you can tell which of the following (a) have become acceptable, (b) are on the road to becoming acceptable, or (c) remain unacceptable.

1. The benefits office has identified several ways to INCENTIVIZE employees to reduce absences.

2. A disturbing DISCONNECT between the company’s product development policies and marketplace realities has become apparent.

3. The planning commission members excused themselves briefly from the city council meeting to CONFERENCE outside.

4. We will recycle that scrap metal, but we’ll LANDFILL the old logs.

5. The new purchasing procedures ADVANTAGE larger suppliers.

6. The Peace Corps’ campus representative will OFFICE in Thompson Hall and report to the director of international education.

7. The agency favors foster parent applicants who previously have PARENTED or cared for children in some capacity.

8. The organization’s attorney is WORDSMITHING a draft.

9. The agency is helping growers to TRANSITION to organic production.

10. Cooking contest rules state that chefs must SOURCE all of the ingredients within the county.

11. Sharon said she welcomes the opportunity to MENTOR children.

12. In our analysis, we are EFFORTING to determine the cause of the decline in water quality.

13. The report will BENCHMARK business processes, including average order processing time, average margins, inventory turnover and average sales per employee.

14. Ellen was TASKED to analyze the competition.

15. Each entry point in the building is ALARMED after business hours to detect unauthorized intrusion.

16. A team composed of senior officers was formed to hold an OFFSITE to discuss and recommend appropriate action.

17. The bank has begun TRIALING a new voice-recognition system to ease telephone account access for customers.

18. School administrators encourage parents to PARTNER with their child’s teacher.

19. We can help the company diversify by LEVERAGING our office leasing experience.

20. We must seek ways to NORM the data with other agencies that have conducted similar surveys.

21. The police department rerouted traffic until construction crews UPRIGHTED the fallen crane.

22. He REFERENCED a previous variance granted in 1996 that authorized 15-foot setbacks.

23. After making their presentation, the consultants DIALOGUED with interested business owners.

24. Do not SEWER melted agar, which will congeal and then clog the pipes.

25. Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first people to SUMMIT Mt. Everest.

26. The underwater seismic survey was PURPOSED to delineate faulted zones and evaluate the physical properties of the bedrock.

27. Frank, can you STATUS us on the fund-raising campaign?

28. If you were not the instructor for the last lesson, please INTERFACE with the previous instructor before class starts.

29. She ARCHITECTED Web-based content management, electronic learning and electronic commerce systems for dozens of companies.

30. The legislation will SUNSET the state Acupuncture Board, and replace it with a bureau within the Department of Consumer Affairs.

Hint: nine are acceptable, nine are not, and twelve are “on the road” — meaning it depends on what source you consult: the Merriam-Webster OnLine Dictionary, American Heritage Dictionary, or Oxford Online Dictionary. (From my previous post and EditPros. See the latter for answers.)

Those Twins of a Gazelle

It’s nice to see people like Tyler Williams and Kevin Wilson in the spirit of Valentine’s Day. Kevin has some things to say about that wondrous piece of Hebrew love poetry, the Song of Songs:

“Whenever I teach an upper level class that includes the Song of Song, I always have the students try to draw what the lovers looked like according to the descriptions in chapter 4. It is always a fun exercise…

“One of the pieces of imagery that had always baffled me was the reference to the woman’s breasts, which are described as ‘two fawns, twins of a gazelle.’ Several years back, however, I found an explanation. I think it was in Marvin Pope’s massive commentary on the Song of Songs. He notes that in Akkadian, ‘anpu means ‘nose,’ just as its cognate ‘ap does in Hebrew. But in Akkadian, it also means ‘nipple.’ Hebrew probably also had this meaning, but it is not preserved. So, just as the face of the gazelle slopes down to the nose, so does the breast slope down to the nipple. It is not only a wonderful image but a great play on words as well.”

I’d always wondered at the metaphor myself, and now I can appreciate it thanks to Kevin. Maybe I’ll try it out today on someone in need of a Valentine.

The "Uniqueness" of Messiahs

Mark Goodacre mentions an excellent article by E. P. Sanders concerning the question of Jesus’ Uniqueness. Sanders has made a career of pointing out that Jesus’ teachings were hardly unique, but scholars have been slow embracing his wisdom — Steve Davies being one of the refreshing exceptions in Jesus the Healer.

Jesus, by all indications, seems to have been a typical millenial prophet, and we need to remind ourselves that movements are founded all the time by typical, if charismatic, individuals. He promised imminent deliverance to the disaffected, and revised sacred tradition in ways that could be construed as both innovative and conservative — but usually biting into it with sectarian fangs that upset its guardians. Like many charismatics he left behind followers, worshippers, and adorers who began mythologizing him into something really special and “unique”.

Closely related to the question of uniqueness is that of uncritical acceptance. Frank Herbert’s sci-fic series is an indictment on both: the Dune messiah turns out to be as typical and fallable as any other for all his accomplishments. In Omni magazine (1980) Herbert said the following:

“Don’t give over all of your critical faculties to [heroes/messiahs], 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.”

That’s been the problem with real-world superheroes like Jesus and Muhammad, and why I warm to Christians like Dale Allison who emphasize the Jesus who “made mistakes” and was not so unique after all.

Oscar Predictions

Check out Entertainment Weekly’s Predictions for the big winners of the ’07 Oscar Nominations. It looks like Babel stands a good chance of taking the Best Picture, and is a film I was sorry to miss in the theaters. But there are close contenders. Pan’s Labyrinth, of course, deserves the award hands down, but wasn’t nominated.

By rights the Best Director should go to Paul Greengrass (United 93), but I agree that Martin Scorsese (The Departed) will likely take it on account of being continually shafted for masterpieces like Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, etc. I usually don’t advocate giving awards “to make up for the past”, but Scorsese is an exception, and The Departed is a great film anyway. I’d be happy with either Greengrass or Scorsese winning this one. In terms of directing their films were the best I saw last year.

I haven’t seen The Last King of Scotland, but the trailer and other clips tell me the EW critics are right: Forest Whitaker is the foreordained recipient of Best Actor for an incredibly convincing performance as Idi Amin. Helen Mirren also seems to be a given for Best Actress (though I didn’t see The Queen either).

Let’s hope Pan’s Labyrinth picks up some awards in the lesser categories, like Art Direction and Cinematography. It really deserved Best Picture.