Thoroughgoing Eschatology and Thoroughgoing Humility

In The Historical Jesus: What If The Key Pieces are Missing?, Mark Goodacre reminds us:

“There is an assumption at work in a lot of historical Jesus research that all the relevant and necessary materials for a reasonably complete picture of Jesus are available. They are available somewhere and we can get at them somehow. We just have to work hard to get to them. We spend many painful hours sifting and honing criteria because we feel that the literary deposit is somewhere bound to contain all the material of real importance… The assumption develops out of an unrealistic perspective on the task… Discussion about the historical Jesus should constantly involve the reminder that massive amounts of key data must be missing.”

In the same vein, John Meier began his project by insisting that “the vast majority of [Jesus’] deeds and words, the ‘reasonably complete’ record of the ‘real’ Jesus, is irrevocably lost to us today. This is no new insight of modern agnostic scholars… The point I am making is true of most figures of ancient history.” (A Marginal Jew, Vol I, pp 22-23). And I believe the final sentence of the fourth gospel contains as much historical truth as confessional ecstasy: “There are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (Jn 21:25)

Meier and Goodacre each rightly emphasize the futility of salvaging a “reasonably complete” portrait of the historical Jesus, though I think we can get at a reasonable sketch of him, and that sketch sits across the synoptics, the letters of Paul, and the epistle of James. If these sources are largely unreliable, then we’re out of luck and should concede victory to the mythicists. As I said in Millenialism or Myth?, mythicism is actually a more credible position than minimalism. (I would sooner ally myself with a Bill Arnal than a Dom Crossan.) The Jesus/Christian movement shows every sign of being a failed apocalyptic movement and having evolved in the manner typical of one. The Schweitzerian cliché, “thoroughgoing eschatology or thoroughgoing skepticism”, imposes the same choice as ever. Though perhaps in view of Mark’s reminder, we should choose “thoroughgoing eschatology and thoroughgoing humility”.

Origen’s Use of Thomas

Keep an eye on the GThomas mailing list, because next month Stephen Carlson will be posting excerpts from his SBL paper, “Origen’s Use of the Gospel of Thomas”. Stephen’s abstract points to a conclusion that, “despite Origen’s recognition that the Gospel of Thomas did not rank with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and despite the presence of some content he must have found objectionable, Origen nonetheless thought that the Gospel of Thomas contained historically useful and homiletically edifying material.” I’m looking forward to this list discussion, hosted of course by Mike Grondin.

Bruce Malina on Rape Culture

Since we’re in the middle of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I thought it would be appropriate to revisit what Bruce Malina tells us about the rape culture of the honor-shame Mediterranean.

“Young men come to consider their own sex drive so strong that only the physical impossibility of sexual access to the women of his social circle (because of their segregation, supervision, etc.) prevents them from satisfying their urges. The image young men are provided of girls and women complements this self-image. Of course, this image of females has been developed and maintained by males. According to this picture, the female sexual drive is equally strong. So should he but manage to corner any female alone, she might put up a wild show of resistance at first, but once he has as much has kissed her, she would give in and readily become his. In fact, it is popularly assumed that a woman’s lust is greater than that of a man, hence the even greater urgency to keep women duly circumscribed.

“Women, in turn, are enculturated to believe this feminine self-image. Girls are brought up to believe that once they might find themselves alone with a male, they would be unable to resist his advances. Therefore the proper female must never allow herself to be found in such a situation. Girls are taught to believe from childhood that the central human being is the male — his honor replicated symbolically in his sexual drive. Thus from childhood, girls are led to believe that the mere sight of a woman is sufficient to arouse a man sexually, and only external, social circumstances can prevent him from having his way with her. These views and expectations are, of course, self-fulfilling.” (The Social World of Jesus and the Gospels, p 49)

And because these expectations are self-fulfilling, rape is often legitimated in these cultures, even when nominally decried. But elements of this model apply to western cultures too. Susan Brownmiller, writing in the ’70s, continues to speak for some feminists:

“The rape fantasy exists in women as a man-made iceberg. It can be destroyed – by feminism. But first we must seek to learn the extent of its measurements… Because men control the definitions of sex, women are allotted a poor assortment of options. Either we attempt to find enjoyment and sexual stimulation in the kind of passive/masochistic fantasies that men have prepared us to have, or we reject these packaged fantasies as unhealthy… Fantasies are important to the enjoyment of sex, I think, but it is a rare woman who can successfully fight the culture and come up with her own non-exploitive, non-sadomasochistic, non-powerdriven imaginative thrust… When women do fantasize about sex, the fantasies are usually the product of male conditioning and cannot be otherwise.” (Against Our Will, pp 322-324)

I don’t wish to address the accuracy of Brownmiller’s assessment of women’s rape fantasies (though I will in a future post, because I think she is largely wrong about this), only to note the underscored relationship between cultural conditioning and female passivity. At the very least, she’s right that enough women have been conditioned to think and behave vulnerably which makes (real-life) rape harder to prevent — and harder for certain men to acknowledge rape as such, especially the “acquaintance” variety. The conditioning may not be as strict and suffocating as in shame-based cultures (described by Malina), but it’s the same idea.

Sexual assault is obviously a problem everywhere (and let’s be frank and acknowledge, against Brownmiller, that as a species humans are naturally inclined to rape). But it won’t do to pretend that rape is institutionalized in integrity-guilt cultures as much as in honor-shame. Our western legislators certainly aren’t passing bills which legalize rape in the name of “democracy”, and it doesn’t hurt that plenty of women can be found on our legislative bodies. We have something called Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which promotes a doctrine of intolerance for rape in all manifestations. Integrity-guilt societies have done a verifiably better job in showing a commitment against rape than the world out of which Jesus came. In Jesus in an Age of Terror, James Crossley worries about our intense focus on issues of sex and violence in assessing that world (which he sees as unfair stereotyping), but that focus is part of a larger (and very real) picture of what shame-based cultures are about. The issues are important — not least for the light they shed, in varying degrees, on western subcultures, as much by comparison as contrast.

I should note that none of this is intended to downplay the phenomenon of men who get raped (especially by other men), nor those who get raped by women. But it’s no mystery that rapists are usually men, and women more often their victims. The phenomenon of male rape culture, deeply embedded in honor-shame societies, but more generally to be found everywhere, shows about as much sign of fading from the human scene, unfortunately, as war.

A Remarkable Acting Scene

I already reviewed Doubt, but want to call attention to a youtube clip of the film’s most powerful scene: the talk between Sister Aloysius and the mother of the boy involved with a priest. Viola Davis richly deserved her Oscar for this performance, and it’s challenging to watch in so many ways. If I had to make a list of mandatory movie scenes to show to student actors, this would surely be in the top-10.

Let the Right Film In

If you thought it would be an unbearably long time before another Pan’s Labyrinth hit the screens, think again, and don’t wait another day to rent Let the Right One In. I’d vaguely heard of this months ago, but had no idea it was supposed to be so good. It’s a Swedish film about a vampire girl who bonds with a 12-year old boy bullied by his classmates, and in so doing these pariahs manage to heal each others’ wounds. This reviewer puts it nicely:

“Think Twilight, but directed by Ingmar Bergman and starring twelve-year-olds instead of teens then you’ll have a good idea what to expect… Let the Right One In is the best vampire movie since, well, forever.”

In other words, it’s as good as Twilight is embarrassingly bad, and that’s, well, really all that needs to be said by way of review.

It has an incredible 98% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes, topping even Labyrinth’s 96%. Because this is a 2008 film, I guess I’m going to have to revise my recent pick list — and entertain seriously the idea that it ousts The Dark Knight from the #1 slot!

Salvation by Self-Knowledge? Not.

David Livingstone Smith cites the following thinkers who understood how suffocating self-knowledge is. They should have been around in the second century to tell the gnostics a few things.

Immanuel Kant: The “hard descent into the hell of self-knowledge” results in the “gloomiest melancholia”.

Wolfgang von Goethe: “Know thyself? If I knew myself I would run away.”

Mark Twain: “Man, know thyself, and then thou wilt despise thyself, to a dead moral certainty.”

Read the full article, “In Praise of Self-Deception”, which elaborates on a theme I’ve blogged about before.