Jeremy Hultin on You Tube: Obscene Speech in Early Christianity

After reviewing his excellent book, I announced that Jeremy Hultin of Yale Divinity would be entertaining questions about it in a short video. Jeremy has uploaded the video to you tube for all to enjoy. I’ll have to think more about the register of the phrase “brood of vipers”, and dig up an old article by Dick Rohrbaugh who believes it was more crass than Jeremy claims. Thanks to Jeremy for a fun and helpful discussion!

Ten Special Music Moments from Film and TV

Bullz-eye lists what they consider to be the top 40 music moments in film history. My list of favorites is far less comprehensive and much more eclectic. Here are my favorite ten.

1. Into the West, by Annie Lennox. The Lord of the Rings. 2003. In the films the song plays over the end credits of the final installment, The Return of the King. I must be a sap after all; listening to this brings such tears to my eyes.

2. Llorando (Crying), by Rebekah Del Rio. Mulholland Drive. 2001. A close second on my list, and with as much emotional resonance. This scene — straight from the film — is the dividing point between Diane’s Hollywood dream and the cruel reality she wakes up to. It’s a very haunting scene and the Spanish singer’s voice is perfect.

3. The Order of Death, by Public Image Limited. “Little Miss Dangerous”, Miami Vice. 1986. The video clip covers the final 8 minutes of this classic episode, and the song starts at 3:49. But it’s worth watching the entire thing. This was the TV episode, back in mid-80s, which taught me the harrowing power of minimalism. “This is what you want, this is what you get; this is what you want, this is what you get…”

4. Your Arms Around Me, by Jens Lekman. Whip It! 2009. This is fabulous: Ellen Page and a lanky-looking dude diving into a swimming pool and having fun with each other, all to the tune of a Swedish indie singer, as they hold their breath for amazingly long periods, somersault, kiss and grope each other… you get the idea.

5. Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon, by Urge Overkill. Pulp Fiction. 1994. Tarantino always has a good ear for music in film, but this one stands for me as quintessential Quentin. The video isn’t from the film, but has shots from it, with Uma Thurman “getting down” to a groovy tune, while getting equally high on a supply of heroine which she thinks is cocaine. Oops.

6. Nobody Jesus, But You, by “The Sunshine Singers”. Palindromes. 2005. I’m going to take flak for this one, and yes it’s pretty sick, but I never fail to be perversely delighted by the sight of these mentally and physically challenged kids shucking and jiving to a ridiculous Jesus song. Raised in a fundamentalist home, these kiddies have the love of Jesus on their side 24/7, and this tune is so disturbingly catchy it makes part of me want to join in dancing. The video is straight from the film. Enjoy, or throw up — whatever your pleasure.

7. Air on the G-String, by Johann Sebastian Bach. Seven. 1995. A list from me wouldn’t be complete without a library scene, and this one is perfect: Air on the G-String playing over images of Morgan Freeman leafing through pages of Dante’s Inferno. The list from Bullz-eye includes a different song from this film — the Nine Inch Nails’ Closer playing over the opening credits — but I think my choice is more powerful. The video clip is straight from the film.

8. I’m Shipping Up to Boston, by Dropkick Murphys. The Departed. 2006. This clip doesn’t show anything from Scorsese’s film, so you just have to picture mean gangsters burning rubber on the highway, evading Massachusetts State Troopers, to the tune of a raw, awesome song.

9. Anyone Else But You, by Michael Cera and Ellen Page. Juno. 2007. From the tail end of my favorite feel-good comedy of all time, and possibly the only feel-good comedy I’ve ever really liked. It’s a bit sappy out of context, but very touching.

10. Song for Ten, by Murray Gold. “The Christmas Invasion”, Doctor Who. 2005. The version released on the official soundtrack is horrible, but I managed to locate a clip of the original performance, and the original singer, in David Tennant’s first outing as the 10th incarnation of Doctor Who. Music wasn’t often Murray Gold’s strongpoint, but he did strike gold with this one.

Mike Koke on Paul’s Calling/Conversion

Mike Koke asks whether or not Paul was called or converted, an issue I’ve addressed quite heavily in the past. Here’s the comment I left for Mike, but with added links to older blogposts on the subject.

The biggest problem in the ‘conversion/calling’ debate is the question of perspective. Paul describes his calling in a prophetic way, but that’s not the end of the story because his opponents could readily deny his claims and say he actually taught apostacy. And in view of texts like Philip 3, in which he cheerfully writes off his heritage as excrement in view of the Christ event, I think it’s entirely reasonable to speak, objectively, of Paul’s conversion.

Then there’s the technicality of the structure of Hellenistic Judaism which further blurs distinctions between ‘calling’ and ‘conversion’. Zeba Crook argued that by this time, it was possible to speak of someone being called and thus converted: Paul was invoking the call of the divine patron-benefactor (which involved conversion by definition) and the call of the prophets at the same time.

As for why Paul initially persecuted Christians, Fredriksen dismisses the issue of indiscriminate table-fellowship too lightly. In my view that stands as the best reason, and thus precisely why Paul did an about-face on this issue: like many converts, he was attracted to what repulsed him.

The other two reasons commonly advanced for Paul’s persecuting the Christians — for belief in a crucified messiah, or for politically subversive reputation — aren’t as impressive, especially the first which is too abstract and doesn’t do justice the diversity of messianic beliefs at the time. The second (advance by Fredriksen) is admittedly more plausible, but one would think that whatever political misunderstandings were (understandably) fueled during Jesus’ final week during passover would be increasingly corrected and put into perspective.

The E-Space Trilogy: A Full Review

I’ve been meaning to review the E-Space Trilogy, painfully aware how hard it is to do justice to a symphony that approaches perfection, especially when there’s so much to say about it I hardly know where to begin. The stories come at the tail end of Tom Baker’s incarnation as the Fourth Doctor, during John Nathan-Turner’s first season as producer, and Christopher Bidmead’s only season as script-editor. That last is too bad, because Bidmead’s intellectual drive took the show to new heights throughout season 18, and the E-Space Trilogy, sitting in the middle of it, was the pinnacle of this success. Its only real weakness is Adric, the universally despised TARDIS companion who couldn’t walk, let alone talk, without looking stilted and phony.

The trilogy begins with the Doctor and Romana finding themselves trapped in the parallel world of E-Space (“Exo Space”), the universe of negative coordinates, and ends with them finding a way back home to N-Space (“Normal Space”). While in E-Space they visit two planets before getting trapped in a void that bridges the two universes. In each case they encounter groups who are enslaved in some way — the enslavement gets exponentially worse in each story — and a “lost” spaceship is always involved. The stories are so different in terms of setting and plot that the common theme of systematic oppression is almost invisible, but there’s no denying a progression of stakes being raised, and it would seem almost deliberately inversely proportional to how long the ship in each case has been stranded.

The ship in Full Circle crashed about a million years ago, and its current caretakers are not the descendants of the original crew as they’ve been taught, but people who have evolved from the planet’s marshmen. They carry out routine repairs on the ship, never making any progress, preparing for a day of departure which can never come. Their three leaders (the Deciders) aren’t overtly oppressive, but keep them in ignorance to maintain the status quo. The ship in State of Decay has been mired for a thousand years, keeping generations of colonists trapped in a feudal state of serfdom, forbidden to read or learn, and treated as livestock by a trio of aristocratic vampires. These overlords reign from a tower that was the colonial spaceship, harvesting peasant blood for the return of a Great Vampire lying dormant beneath the earth. Once part of the original crew, they are now gifted with undead life to pave the way for the beast’s dominion over the universe. The ship in Warriors’ Gate, frozen in the void for less than a year, becomes the microcosm through which we see brutal power being wielded over another species, requiring the rescue operation of fate itself, manipulated in advance from an infinite set of possibilities.

The Doctor’s role in each story, or the antidote to the enslavement, is completely different. In Full Circle he serves as a catalyst for change, mostly by yelling and heaping insults on the Deciders for keeping their subjects in ignorance. In State of Decay he’s aggressively proactive, instigating a peasant revolution against the vampire overlords. And in Warriors’ Gate he does literally nothing –- but “the right kind of nothing” — at the behest of a Tharil who knows how things are destined to play out. It adds up to a structurally flawless symphony, but one which requires tremendous unpacking. Let’s look at each story in detail.

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Full Circle is known for its brilliant plot twists and surprising revelations. The script was penned by a gifted seventeen year old, Andrew Smith, chosen, like many writers of season 18, for showing remarkable initiative with fresh ideas. Most notably, and for the first time ever in Doctor Who, there are no villains in the story. The Deciders are middle-aged farts who want to maintain the status quo and keep their privileges, to be sure, but they also operate out of a genuine belief of what’s best for the community, fearing truth will do more harm than good. In the end, they see the errors of their ways and assert a positive leadership. Full Circle is about the cyclic patterns of society and evolution, the ethics of questionable experiments, and willful ignorance. If that all sounds unusual for a Doctor Who story, be sure that it is, and in a good way.

Because there are no villains, tension is carried on hidden mysteries and heated arguments. The best scene comes in episode three as the Doctor stands in an arena before the Deciders, yelling at them contemptuously for needless prevarication, revealing (stunningly, to us as viewers) that the Starliner ship has been ready to take off for centuries, and that the daily maintenance people are forced to carry out is based on nothing more than the “fraud of perpetual movement, the endless tasks of going round and round, the same old components being removed and replaced, and the willful procrastination of endless routine”. But just as we’re cheering him on — Tom Baker hasn’t gotten in a thundering indictment like this for a few seasons now — we get the rug jerked out from under us by the Deciders’ counter revelation that while the ship is indeed ready for takeoff, they don’t know how to fly it, which completely deflates the Doctor’s contempt for these poor men. The double revelation is wonderfully executed and one of the finest segments of dialogue ever written for the show.

The full truth of events cascades in the last episode: the Starliner crashed not forty generations ago, as everyone believes, but forty thousand generations ago; its original human inhabitants died right away, and the people don’t descend from them as the Deciders have taught. They come, as the Doctor declares stunningly, from the planet’s marshmen through an accelerated course of evolution.

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The marshmen are more — or perhaps less — than the typical monsters we’re used to seeing in Doctor Who. They’re dangerous and kill plenty of the Starliner’s people, but as their ancestors pose interesting questions and force us to view them as adaptive animals more than actual monsters. Dexeter’s lab work on the marshchild in episode three is particularly upsetting. After its early playful reaction to the Doctor and developing trust, the child is now cruelly subjected to experiments under supervision of the Deciders. Traumatized, it manages to lash out and kill Dexeter, and then tragically dies itself when reaching out to the one individual (the Doctor) who was nice to it.

Special mention must be made of Login, the Decider who behaves more decently than the others, going especially out of his way to protect his renegade daughter in spite of what The Procedure dictates. In effect he’s the internal critic of the trio he’s only recently become part of, learning quickly that “deciding” is exactly what this group does not do. At the very end, when the Doctor shows the Deciders how to fly the Starliner, it’s no surprise that Login is the one to reach for the launch button, while Garif stalls him on grounds that such a decision “requires some thought”. We don’t get to see who ultimately makes the decision when the Starliner takes off on the TARDIS scanner, but it’s safe to assume that it’s Login, who will presumably take the strongest role in leading people to a new life.

The twin perils of purposelessness and ignorance can be said to form a base level of enslavement which keeps people “running in circles”, as it were, with liberation effected by a final willingness to accept cold truths. It’s funny that evolution wasn’t a particularly hot issue in 1980; the Intelligent Design madness gained momentum in the 90s and exploded in alarming ways just this past decade. Full Circle has even more to say today than to its original viewers, not only about the bond we share with lower forms of life, but the politics of not wanting to evolve as a species or society. It retains freshness and proves that villains are superfluous when people do a fine enough job being their own worst enemy, and in more ways than one. As a self-contained story it stands on its own splendidly. As the first beat in a trilogy, it foreshadows deeper threats relating to enslavement. Rating: 5 jelly babies.

Now for State of Decay. As a rule I go into vampire stories with low expectations. I love vampires, and so I’m all the more furious that they’re rarely allowed to be frightening. The aristocratic version based on Dracula has been way overused, and the bubblegum pop-model (Blade, Underworld, Buffy, Twilight) is a joke. I prefer the savage breed that go for the jugular with little fanfare (Near Dark, From Dusk Till Dawn, 30 Days of Night). That being said, State of Decay uses the aristocratic model to astonishingly good effect, in a truly horrifying story that harks back to the terrors of seasons 12-14. It allows us to relive Hinchcliffe’s Gothic Age in the middle of the otherwise science-based season 18 — and let’s face it, vampires were long overdue in Doctor Who by this point.

The atmosphere of State of Decay is appropriately grim and depressing, with peasant villagers randomly selected by The Three Who Rule for a hideous purpose. The lucky ones get to join the tower guard, while most either become dinner for the lords or get stored in special bays which drain their blood for the Great Vampire. The Great Vampire itself — mercifully glimpsed for only moments at the end; unlike everything else in this story, it looks rather silly — is an ancient evil threatening on the same level as Sutekh in Pyramids of Mars, inspiring legends on countless planets, and whose goal is nothing less than the conquest of the multiverse (N-Space as much as E-Space). The overlords of the tower have been preparing for his imminent Arising, and it’s the dominating presence of these three fiends that makes the story such a success.

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What makes the aristocratic vamps work so well are that (a) they actually look menacing (the costume designs and colors are perfect), (b) their performances never go over the top, and (c) their characters are fleshed out by tensions within the group (King Zargo and Queen Camilla resent the cleric Aukon who has more powers than they do, able to summon hordes of bats at will and commune directly with the Great Vampire). But it’s the morbid way all of this is funneled into a Doctor Who story that makes State of Decay, in my opinion, one of the best vampire stories ever. As the Doctor and Romana discover the true nature of the tower, they see that some of its functionality as a spaceship has been put to disturbingly efficient use — most notably the fuel tanks are full, but of blood, which is channeled beneath the earth to the Great Vampire. The scene where the Time Lords discover the bays with drained bodies and the blood tanks is unsettling in the extreme, and it paralyzes me when Aukon catches them snooping and assaults them with his hypnotic powers.

The peasant rebellion against The Three Who Rule, instigated by the Doctor, isn’t like anything seen before on the show, except in The Sun Makers when the Doctor started a riot against a government for taxing people to death. That was an exceptional course of action for him; the Time Lord usually remains aloof from politics and certainly isn’t in the habit of toppling ruling systems. The obvious rejoinder is that in State of Decay the fate of the multiverse is at stake (these are vampires with apocalyptic ambitions, not just local tyrants), and to an obvious extent that’s true, but it’s not quite the whole story. There’s enough weight attached to how literacy and scientific knowledge have been criminalized by The Three Who Rule, that one senses politics being grounded here as much as in Full Circle.

If we look at this helpful graph which chronicles Doctor Who’s revolutionary character, there’s a curious spike at the tail end of 1980 and the year 1981 when the E-Space Trilogy aired. With the Winter of Discontent just over, the Thatcher government in place for over a year, and countries like Zimbabwe throwing off the yoke of British colonials, the scriptwriters may have felt the time was ripe for a more politically active Doctor. I confess that until recent years I’ve never thought of the E-Space Trilogy as political, and it’s a sign of grade-A storytelling when political issues can be made to seem invisible by subordinating them to themes of biological evolution (Full Circle), gothic horror (State of Decay), or deterministic fate (Warriors’ Gate) so things don’t get preachy.

There’s an anecdote to this story worth spotting. The off-and-on relationship (and impending marriage) between Tom Baker and Lalla Ward can be clocked to precision in this story, and has become something of an obsession among Who fans. Notice that the Doctor never looks Romana in the eye during the first two episodes (at which point the two actors were barely speaking to each other), but shares a tender moment with her in episode three (having patched up their quarrels in the real world). It’s memorably beautiful: when she explains that his type 40 TARDIS contains the Record of Rassilon’s special documentation of vampires, he slowly turns to her, smiles, and says softy, “You’re wonderful.” The marriage bells were ringing.

State of Decay has aged as well as The Three Who Rule. No dangers of it turning to dust for at least another millennium. Rating: 5 jelly babies.

Warriors’ Gate is the most original story of the Tom Baker period, and possibly the most original story of the entire classic era running from Hartnell to McCoy. Like The Deadly Assassin it had a controversial reputation when it first aired for breaking too radically with formula, and also for not making sense, but has since undergone a serious reassessment to be considered a near flawless classic. For me it’s one of the crown jewels of Tom Baker’s 42-story career (the others being The Talons of Weng Chiang, Pyramids of Mars, Genesis of the Daleks, The Seeds of Doom, The Face of Evil, and The Deadly Assassin), and a litmus test to gauge one’s enthusiasm for what classic Doctor Who had to offer at its finest moments. Those who don’t like this story are invariably the same ones who fawn over the lamest stories penned by Russell T. Davies in the new era.

For reasons that escape me, some continue to insist that Warriors’ Gate makes no sense. So let’s summarize the story clearly. A time-traveling mercenary ship has been stranded for months in the void between E- and N-Space by a Tharil (Biroc), who is determined to free his race from slavery (Tharils are a leonine species who serve humans by navigating ships through time, and their plight is absolutely horrible; I’d rather be turned into a vampire than strapped for life in a navigating chair). When the TARDIS happens by, Biroc summons it to the same point, able to sense the deterministic events that will follow from involving Time Lords. Biroc then escapes the ship toward a mysterious gateway which for his species of time-sensitives opens onto another universe (for other species it reflects the same banquet hall in different timelines). The Doctor follows Biroc, wanting to understand the plight of the Tharils more clearly. Meanwhile, the heavy dwarf star alloy used in the hull of the ship to hold the Tharils captive is causing the pocket universe of the void to collapse in on itself, intensifying the crew’s efforts to escape the void and the Doctor’s efforts to rescue the enslaved Tharils. But it is Biroc who single-handedly effects the rescue of his people from the ship; the Doctor is for once powerless to save the day, and does nothing, contrasted with the zealous ship captain Rorvik, who in the end screams, “I am finally getting something done!”, as he uses the back blast of his ship to try escaping through the gateway — annihilating his ship and crew instead. As the Doctor returns to N-Space, Romana bids him farewell, deciding to stay with the Tharils and (as a Time Lord) help liberate their species across the universe — which was the ultimate point of Biroc’s choosing her and the Doctor to begin with.

There is some question about Biroc’s wisdom of “doing nothing”. Appreciating the effectiveness of the wisdom depends on understanding the nature of the Tharils and the void. The void is a neutral ground where all future alternative possibilities are in a state of rest, and an interchange where time-sensitives (like the Tharils) can travel to — or see into — any place and time. Biroc brought the ship and the TARDIS to the void, able to sense events that would unfold from this combination. The Doctor and Romana needn’t do anything (at least not directly) to help the Tharils because events are playing out according to Biroc’s selected initial conditions. The shrinking of the void, moreover, reduces the permutations of outcomes, making the Tharils’ liberation (and the mercenary crew’s destruction) increasingly inevitable.

Amusingly, some fans have tried salvaging a proactive purpose for the Doctor in the famous banquet scene behind the mirrors, where he finds himself in a past timeline when the Tharils were kings and contemptuously enslaved humans. (The Tharils once ruled a vast empire until their slaves revolted by using the axe-wielding Gundan robots to hunt them down.) It does look like the Doctor is finally putting something to right as he yells at the Tharils for beating their servants: “This is no way to run an empire!” The problem is that Biroc isn’t only his past self but his present self simultaneously (since he obviously knows the Doctor), and when he responds that “The weak enslave themselves, Doctor,” he is speaking from the past (contemptuously against humankind) and also from the present (against his own race, whose weak character inevitably led to their current enslavement at the hands of the species they oppressed). Biroc is already repentant of the Tharils’ crimes against humanity and remains undeterred from the point he first chose in bringing the ship and TARDIS to the void. He is educating the Doctor — not vice versa — which, of course, is why he brought the Doctor through the mirrors to begin with.

Speaking of the banquet, episode three’s cliffhanger can’t go unmentioned — I practically have an orgasm whenever I watch it. It’s best simply described: The Gundan robots burst into the hall with axes raised, and the Tharils scatter while the Doctor remains seated; an axe thuds into the table right in front of him; time shifts with an immense rushing sound, and he finds himself back in the present surrounded by Rorvick’s hostile crew: “Well Doctor, this is a surprise!” This scene has taken on legendary status in the Who canon, and is definitely one of the top-10 cliffhangers of the classic era.

There’s something else about Warriors’ Gate that struck me in the middle of writing this review. Completely unintentionally no doubt, it’s way ahead of its time in portraying an oppressed group of “savages” affecting their own liberation without the leadership of an outside hero. By today’s standards, films like Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, and Avatar have come to acquire a racist air for implying ad nauseum that it takes a white hero to save primitive natives, and fueling western guilt fantasies about giving up one’s whiteness without losing white privilege over “noble savages”. When Frank Herbert did it with Dune it was fine, but it’s high time to allow other races the wherewithal to save themselves. Warriors’ Gate did exactly that, and in the year 1981. This is certainly not to imply that if the script had been written with Doctor Who saving the Tharils it would have made it in any way racist; Doctor Who is a Time Lord hero who is supposed to save the day, for anyone and everyone. It’s simply a further testimony to unprecedented innovation on the part of scriptwriters during the amazing season 18.

Warriors’ Gate is a priceless gem that gets even better with more viewings, and a perfect conclusion to a triumphant trilogy. Rating: 5+ jelly babies.

Sin: A History

Gary Anderson’s book chronicles the evolution of sin in the Judeo-Christian tradition, showing how early metaphors of sin as a burden or stain became understood primarily as a debt. It’s also a case for works-righteousness and even indulgences being based strongly on biblical tradition.

As we often forget, metaphors don’t say the same thing just because they’re eventually conflated:

“When one sins, something concrete happens: one’s hands may become stained, one’s back may become burdened, or one may fall into debt. And the verbal expressions that render the idea of forgiveness follow suit: stained hands are cleansed, burdens are lifted, and debts are either paid off or remitted. It is as though a stain, a weight, or bond of indebtedness is created ex nihilo when one offends against God.” (p 4)

It’s of course the last metaphor that came to dominate for Christians as much as Jews. “Although it is theoretically possible to imagine a virtuous person such as Mr. Clean, who could have scoured away the blot of sin upon Israel’s body, or a St. Atlas, who was sufficiently strong to bear up under the weight of the nation’s sin, no such images exist in scripture” (p 135). Jesus was primarily a redeemer, even if metaphors of expiation and heavy-lifting occasionally filtered though that of payment.

But in Israel’s earliest period, sin was mostly understood as a weight. Anderson notes the frequency of metaphors in the Hebrew Bible (pp 16-17): “to bear away a sin (weight)” has 108 occurrences; “to forgive a sin (debt)” has 17 occurrences, and “to wipe away a sin (stain)” has only 6 occurrences.

The idea of sin as a weight is underappreciated due to poor translations of the Hebrew text. Consider the example of Cain, where “the weight of my sin is too great for me to bear” (Gen 4:13) is more accurate — and makes more sense — than, “my punishment is too great for me to bear” or “my sin is too great to be forgiven”. According to Anderson, Cain doesn’t mean that his sin is beyond forgiving nor that his punishment cannot be borne. He’s simply owning up to the severity of his offense. When he first asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, we see a man who has not yet felt the weight of his crime. When God imposes the severe penalty on him, he suddenly does feel its weight (p 24). An accurate translation portrays a man grappling with the terrible nature of his offense, instead of just whining about his punishment (p 26).

The idea of sin as a debt evolved when Aramaic became the primary tongue of the Persian Empire (in Aramaic the language for religious transgression comes from the world of commerce), and traces to Lev 26 and Second Isaiah. For the latter, Israel’s sins at the close of the first temple period had drowned her in debt, and decades of penal service in Babylon would be required to satisfy its terms. This may make God sound legalistic, but human sins have consequences, and when people sin, “a tangible form of evil is created in the world that must be accounted for”. This is even more true when an entire society goes astray (p 54). This would seem to cohere with recent attempts to relocate legalism, or at least a degree of it, into ancient Judaism. Commercial metaphors don’t necessarily imply a crass soteriology.

For the author of Leviticus, Israel will remain in her current plight until the land has repaid the debt of its sabbath years and the Israelites have repaid the debt accrued through their iniquity. The only difference is that Isa 40:2 looks backward on a debt that has already been repaid, while Lev 26:43-45 anticipates what sort of repayment will be required should Israel not respond to God’s warnings (p 65). By now — the exilic/postexilic periods — the metaphor of sin as a debt is firmly in place, with atonement the means of repaying on a debt.

Anderson stresses that the idea of sin-as-debt wasn’t understood univocally, and notes II Maccabees’ ingenious solution to the problem of theodicity. If God favors Israel, then why does she receive continual punishment while the pagan nations continue on in their evil ways? This is the answer:

“I beg the readers of my book not to be disheartened by the calamities but to bear in mind that chastisements come not in order to destroy our race but in order to teach it. If the ungodly among us are not left long to themselves but speedily incur punishment, it is a sign of God’s great goodness to us. With the other nations the Lord waits patiently, staying their punishment until they reach the full measure of their sins. Quite otherwise is His decree for us, in order that He should not have to punish us after we have come to the complete measure of our sins. Consequently, God never lets His mercy depart from us. Rather, though He teaches us by calamity, He never deserts His people. Let this be enough as a reminder to my readers.” (II Macc 6:12-17)

In other words, God never allows Israel’s sins to reach a level that would require him to disown her. Instead he frequently intervenes and punishes his chosen people — thereby extracting payment from them — so that a tipping point will never be reached. Israel suffers more visibly because God wants to make sure that her register of debts never rises too high (pp 90-91).

There are other creative ways of handling the potential of impossibly high debts. Against Strack and Billerbeck, Anderson shows for the rabbinic tradition that while God keeps an account of merits and demerits, and demands payment for the latter, he doesn’t administer his ledger in a one-for-one fashion. He found sufficient reason to suspend payment in the case of Cain for a full seven generations, and for Joseph he rescinded the bond altogether when the brothers made amends. God is often willing to overlook financial obligations to save his people — and even cook the books in Israel’s favor (p 106).

How did Christians work this out? If Jesus was the heavenly redeemer who paid the price as a once-and-for-all eternal sacrifice, did he completely do away with the human component to redemption?

Not according to Anderson. Christians still had to work at redeeming their sins on their own, primarily through almsgiving, the roots of which idea go back to Dan 4:24 (p 141). While Isaiah believed that debt caused by sin could be repaid only by suffering the consequences of the sin, Daniel offered almsgiving as a way out. Somehow the act of giving goods to the poor allowed one to raise a form of spiritual currency that could pay down the debt of sin accrued in heaven (p 144). (Prov 19:17 is much to the same point.) But Daniel never explained how it does that.

The book of Tobit explains it, through a creative interweaving of Prov 10:2 and 11:4, each of which speaks of improperly valued wealth. Having urged his son to give alms in proportion to his wealth, Tobit says that by doing so he will “be laying up good treasure for himself against the day of necessity; for almsgiving delivers from death and keeps one from entering the darkness”. Tobit explains what Daniel assumes: that almsgiving directly funds a treasury in heaven. And this idea carries over into early Judaism and Christianity (Sir 29:9-13; Mt 6:19-21/Lk 12:33-34; Mk 10:17-31/Mt 19:16-30/Lk 18:18-30; Lk 12:13-21), not to mention the rabbinic and later Christian periods.

This leads to the real question: Does the wisdom of Proverbs, Daniel, Tobit, Sirach, and the synoptic gospels imply a salvation by works? Criticizing Roman Garrison’s claim that Clement of Alexandria’s endorsement of almsgiving as a means to purchase salvation is a departure from earliest Christianity, Anderson claims that almsgiving was taken soteriologically seriously from the get-go. He claims that Protestant fears over a text like Dan 4:24 can be laid to rest, as almsgiving needn’t be construed as a purely human work. “God has gamed the system, so to speak, in a way that allows our small donations to count against the immeasurable debt of our sins” (p 160). When doing business with God, either via sacrifice or through the medium of the poor, it was never a matter of a one-for-one exchange. The tiny amount given to God is repaid a thousandfold. How else could Nebuchadnezzar have repaid the colossal debt he owed?

Fair enough, but what about the indulgences of medieval Catholicism? When the pope granted an indulgence, he was authorizing the use of a portion of the treasury of merits left to the church by Christ and the saints. As we’ve seen, this idea has roots in 2nd-Temple Judaism (esp. Proverbs and Tobit) and the rabbinic idea of the “merits of the patriarchs”. When he nailed his theses to the wall in 1517, Luther himself still believed that works of mercy towards the poor were meritorious (what offended him at this stage was the act of granting indulgences for the restoration of St. Peter’s in Rome). So the idea isn’t as draconian as we might think.

The best aspect of this book is its timeliness. At a time when the New Perspective on Paul is being seriously called into question, it has been reasonably suggested that we reincorporate legalism into the framework of covenantal nomism. While Anderson is cautious not to fall back on caricatures, his emphasis on the metaphor of redemption puts New Perspective advocates on the spot — though I seriously doubt he intended this! Put simply, redemption is all about legalism. It’s a commercial metaphor. It says that one’s debts to God will be paid down, either through the sacrificial system or almsgiving. The legalism isn’t crass, to be sure, but it is what it is. One gets one’s desert by paying down debt.

How much of this carried over into early Christianity, however, remains murky. I don’t have the author’s confidence that almsgiving retained a meritorious function so ubiquitously. For the synoptic writers definitely, but not the post-I Corinthians Paul — not even when he advocated mercy to the poor. That Jesus became understood as an eternal sacrifice rendered at least one form of redemption superfluous. Surely some Christians drew the same corollary as Paul: redemption was effected by the savior alone.

He’s Back!

It didn’t take long for Jim West to do exactly as I foretold. After suddenly shutting down his fourth blog he has resurrected under a fifth, Zwinglius Redivivus, launched today, January 8, 2010. Please note this is distinct from his church blog, where Jim is no doubt unable to let out his bile, ire and constant diatribes for fear of alienating folk in the pews.

Just so that things are clear, let’s revisit a few places in biblioblogdom where Jim recently said he had no intention of blogging again.

(1) On Scott Bailey’s blog, Scotteriology, in response to the question, “Any chance we will see you back blogging in the future?”, Jim replied: “Nope. It – again- has become uninteresting to me. Now – if someone objects or maintains that the church website is a blog they simply show their ignorance. Its character is completely different because its purpose is completely different. So, again, no, I am not now nor will I in the future be ‘blogging’.”

Well, Jim lied.

(2) On Roland Boer’s blog, Stalin’s Moustache, Jim said in comments, “you can pass along word to loren- he’s completely wrong in his notion that i’ll blog again. as i’ve told you [Roland] privately, it’s just become boring. so no, dont imagine loren or anyone else to be correct in this matter.”

It turns out I was completely right. And it took only six days to be proven so.

(3) On Joel Watts’ blog, The Church of Jesus Christ, Jim said, “so, joel, all the guesses and loren’s silly supposition that i’ll be back to blogging are absurdities.”

It wasn’t a guess on my part, but a promise. Not a supposition, but a prophecy. Think about who looks silly and absurd.

(4) On James Crossley’s blog, Earliest Christian History, in response to inquiries about a possible resurrection, Jim said, “i’m afraid i’ll stay quite dead. as dead as the guy in the meaning of life who exploded after eating just one thin mint.”

Of course not. Jim is alive as he’s ever been, and in fact has already published seven blogposts today. He can’t stay away from that keyboard. We’ll see how long his fifth blog lasts.

Roland Boer’s Marginalization of Authorial Intent

(Previous post here.)

Roland Boer continues our discussion about Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, arguing that we need carefully to distinguish an author’s beliefs from the author’s literature, for “the two are not coterminous.” I should be clear that I never claimed they were, and am fully aware that an end result doesn’t always square with what an author intended. Everyone is prone to self-deception. But Tolkien’s case is one in which his intent largely matched what flowed from the pen.

Roland also claims that “to focus on an author’s intention is terribly reductionist… and deeply theological”. While I agree that authorial intention isn’t the end of the story (the proof of the pudding is in the eating, or the reading as the case may be), to marginalize authorial intention is the far worse crime. The claim that studying authorial intent is “theological” is not one that I take remotely seriously, and for more on this, see my review of Jacques Berlinerblau’s The Secular Bible. (Berlinerblau claims that trying to uncover an originally intended message of a biblical author is inherently theological, which is baloney. If that’s what Roland is suggesting here, then he’s equally off-base.)

I believe the charge that Tolkien’s work is fascist is essentially without foundation, but let’s assume for sake of argument that Roland is right. That still doesn’t detract in any way from the excellence of the work as a piece of literature. To appreciate the point let’s get Tolkien on a charge that really sticks. What about sexism? I would describe The Lord of the Rings as fairly sexist (though not misogynistic: no misogynist could conceive a hero like Eowyn). The societies of the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth are based on structural sexism. But this needn’t imply an endorsement of sexism, and certainly we as readers are not obligated to accept the sexist world-view to whatever degree it is endorsed by the author. The question of literary value goes way beyond stuff like this, and I’d advise Roland to read Glenn Arberry’s Why Literature Matters before he’s a month older.

“Reader-response” should really be about respecting authorial intent even when in disagreement. I happen to disagree significantly with some of what Tolkien urges in his wonderful tale, not least about the idea that a cyclically hopeless struggle against evil demonstrates the need for Christianity. But I can at least appreciate why he viewed things this way. I don’t need to distort his message by pretending it’s not there, nor, alternatively, will I jettison a great story simply because the author’s view of certain things doesn’t sync with my own.