"There is silence all around…"

… at least on this blog lately. But like the Baptist, I’ll appear without warning, and with ideas just as fiery and offensive, probably sometime after Labor Day. In the meantime, I’m taking a breather from biblical studies. Doctor Who has been demanding much of my attention in the past few weeks, and one does have to prioritize.

Does Theology Bring Death to Biblical Studies?

(Previous posts here and here.)

I’m still digesting Hector Avalos’ The End of Biblical Studies, and would like to address some points made in the chapter on biblical theology. At one point Avalos criticizes Jon Levenson for maintaining that scripture’s nature is to be reinterpreted, and that readers inevitably, and should, recreate meaning to the extent that it doesn’t matter much what an author originally meant (pp 265-267).

“In essence Levenson champions the legitimacy of ‘recontextualization’ and ‘reappropriation’, which claims that a text can and should mean whatever a faith community needs it to mean to keep the community alive. For Levenson, recontextualization is legitimate even when it might contradict what an author originally meant.” (p 265)

This is of course a common position advocated in the past by theologians like Hans-Georg Gadamer and Krister Stendahl. Distinguishing what the bible means from what it meant is what we were all taught to do as fledgling students of the bible. But it’s that basic distinction Avalos exposes as so problematic:

“Levenson’s argument (and that of Stendahl) is seriously flawed. First, it relies on relativism, which Levenson denounces elsewhere. If senses other than the original are to be allowed, then why argue against any of those other senses at all?” (p 265)

I agree. If, for instance, we’re going to say that the Lutheran view of Paul is fine in a contemporary faith setting, even though we know it’s historically bogus, why not say the same for (say) the Nazi-Aryan view of Jesus? Why can’t anything go? As Avalos asks throughout the entire chapter, what is our criteria for judging what counts as legitimate interpretations of scripture? He continues:

“Another flaw is that [Levenson’s] allowance of senses other than the original one would render superfluous his own warnings not to misunderstand him. For example, he says, ‘My point would be misunderstood if it were taken to be that only a religious affirmation can justify the presence of biblical studies in a curriculum.’ But what if two hundred years from now, someone makes Levenson’s own book into some sort of scripture that recontextualizes his words to mean exactly the opposite of what he says he wants readers to understand? Would he allow ‘room for other senses’ to his own work, especially if such senses were the complete opposite of what he intended. Would he argue that since people do engage in such reinterpretations all the time, it is therefore proper for them to treat his work that way? I suspect he would find that unethical, and so the same applies to any recontextualization of the sort he allows to faith communities.” (p 266)

Again I agree completely, and have used this argument myself many times, particularly against those who resent being misunderstood in the slightest. For it’s these grievants who often insist that the bible carries many legitimate meanings, and who are we to say one is better than the other? But how would Isaiah feel about this? How would Paul? Wouldn’t they be as outraged as we are when our words are “recontextualized” for different purposes? We hate being cited out of context; we hate being misrepresented; we hate having our thoughts massaged into different paradigms. And we know from his letters that Paul did too.

I can’t go along with Avalos’ conclusion, however:

“Levenson’s own reappropriation program carries the seeds of the destruction of biblical studies. When considering the meaning of a biblical text for faith communities, two positions can be identified for those who believe there is even such a thing as authorial intent:
A. Authorial intent is the only one that matters.

B. Authorial intent is not the only one that matters.

If one chooses A, then biblical studies has been highly unsuccessful. We often do not possess enough information to determine what an author meant, even if we believe authorial intent matters and should be the primary goal of interpretation. If one chooses B, then the only result is chaos and relativism that renders scholarly biblical studies moot and superfluous. Faith communities do not need academic biblical scholars to inform them about any original context in order to keep the Bible alive for themselves. So what is the purpose of academic biblical studies in such a case?” (p 266)

I agree with his point about B, but not A. Biblical studies has been far more successful in getting at original meanings than he allows (see my review of Jacques Berlinerblau’s The Secular Bible for a related critique). And once we realize this, we won’t copy the mistakes of Gadamer, Stendahl, and Levenson. We needn’t agree with scripture to be engaged by it, or even live by it in a faith-based context. We don’t need to make the bible say something it never did. The theological approach of someone like Philip Esler becomes a viable alternative. In New Testament Theology Esler slams Gadamer, and says that Christians should meet the biblical writers on their alien terms, disagreeing with them whenever necessary. This is preferable to (and more honest than) paying disingenuous homage to original intentions and then polymorphing them into something more relevant. Paul’s letter to the Galatians stands as a lesson of how not to behave/believe in a faith-based community — and it belongs in the Christian canon all the more for this. Romans, by contrast, shows Paul learning from his errors and dealing with ethnic conflict in more commendable ways.

If more theologians heeded Esler’s call to listen critically to their ancestors in the faith — to honor original meanings as much as humanly possible, even when in disagreement — then I would see no need to sound the death knell of biblical studies on account of theology. Just the opposite: theology needs the historical-critical method.

The New Doctor Who

As a fan of classic Doctor Who, I put off watching the new series for too many reasons. There was just no going back to the Tom Baker days, and with rumors of a new postmodern tone and soap-opera “tear-jerk” factor, I wanted to keep my distance. But curiosity finally won out, and last week I bought the first two seasons on DVD and watched them over the course of five days. I’m now in the middle of the third season. All I can say is… wow. Special effects are one thing (the laughable effects in classic Doctor Who were actually part of its charm), but fresh ideas and raw emotion are what really take the show to new heights.

Rose Tyler is the one for emotion. She has to be the best TARDIS companion ever — even topping my all-time favorite Sarah Jane Smith — and had me in tears some of the time. Soap-opera this isn’t (it takes a lot to make a cold-hearted guy like me cry), so don’t listen to the purists. And as for the Time Lord himself, Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant are superb as the ninth and tenth incarnations, especially the latter. In my opinion Tennant comes close to rivaling Tom Baker (the fourth incarnation), and many fans think he already has. Baker was a Lord Byron/Oscar Wilde/Sherlock Holmes all in one, and Tennant is similar, though he’s warmer and (like Eccleston) acutely lonely. For Gallifrey is no more, having been destroyed by the Daleks in the mysterious Time War. So he’s the last of the time lords, with no home other than his TARDIS (considerably upgraded since we saw it last in the 80s), and as a result, he becomes attached to Rose more than any previous companion. And vice-versa. Her departure at the end of season two is sad.

Mark Goodacre is a Who-fan too. Back in May he wrote about the tenth Doctor’s kenosis, or emptying of his Time Lord powers to become human, and more recently about messianic ideas in the new series. Mind you, this injection of Christian themes was another factor making me apprehensive; classic Who avoided that stuff like the plague. But again my fears were groundless. The Doctor even confronts Satan, and that turned out to be my favorite story of season two. Trust atheist scriptwriters (Russell Davies and co.) to make good use of Christian myths in a science fiction context.

The story settings are as varied as ever, and those taking place in the past are as good as those in the future. I couldn’t have asked for a better return of the Daleks, first with the lone captive forming a strange bond with Rose (talk about a weird “E.T.” moment), and then season one’s apocalyptic finale which brought on zillions of them along with (wait for it) the Dalek God. They’re more fanatical than ever for having found religion. Repeated cries of “DO NOT BLASPHEME! WORSHIP HIM!” are as jarring as the “EXTERMINATE!” mantra. The return of the Cybermen also surpassed my expectations. But for the most part the Doctor is tackling new foes: the undead Gelth (with the aid of Charles Dickens), alien witches (Shakespeare by his side this time), Satan (on a planet perched perilously close to a black hole), and a werewolf (while travelling with the Queen of England). He takes Rose to see the end of the world in the year 5 billion (when the sun finally explodes), and then a season later to New Earth created in memory. Rose screws with the laws of time at one point — and the Doctor nearly disowns her — in the heartbreaking “Father’s Day”. TARDIS-travel has never been this good!

This isn’t to say I have no complaints; I’m too picky for that. Of the ten or eleven stories per season (some being two-parters), there are a few mediocre duds. But most of the stories are really good. My chief complaint is the frequent appearance of Rose’s irritating mother and boyfriend. And somtimes the humor goes a bit overboard. I confess, however, that the aliens’ repeated farting in “Aliens of London”/”World War Three” had me laughing until it hurt. The juvenile humor enraged a lot of fans, but flatulence is quite funny, even if it made the story more like a South Park sideshow with Terrence and Philip.

The bottom line is that if you were a fan of Doctor Who in the 70s/80s but have been afraid of the new series, fear no more. Hop in the TARDIS and tour the universe, as I will be getting back to doing tonight. Season Three hasn’t been the same without Rose, but it’s still top-notch.

UPDATE: Read Mark Goodacre’s commentary on the new series, which he describes as “a complete re-imagining of the original, loyal to the show’s mythology, in continuity with its story and charm, but brought right into the twenty-first century, with decent budgets, good special effects, great scripts, fine acting, and lots more emotion. I used to say after every episode of the first series of the new Doctor Who, ‘I think I’ve died and gone to TV heaven!'”