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scott gray

hey john--

i really, really like this essay of yours. there's oodles here to think about here. some of it's a little hard for me to follow, though.

one of my favorite false dichotomies appears in the genesis text itself-- order/chaos. the text itself is full of them, and there's a funny kind of fun in your dichotomy play regarding a text filled with dichotomies.

your nature/nurture example of intertwined dichotomies is excellent.

but there's something wrong with applying this to history/myth as you've done it here. i can't figure out what it is, exactly, that feels wrong with this. something about the act of classification/idea taxonomy that dichotomy implies. i'm still thinking. as soon as i 'get it,' i'll share it with you.

somehow, it feels like it's about reality/non-reality; perhaps i draw too direct an implied correlation that history=reality and myth=non-reality(fiction). then again, maybe not.

i'm drawing a matrix (another application of useful dichotomy thinking) of realty/history, non-reality/history, reality/myth and non-reality/myth boxes, and thinking about that awhile. and then i'll compare/contrast (yet one more application of useful dichotomy thinking) in some written thoughts.

excellent ideas of yours in this essay. good food for thought. thanks for thinking about this out loud, as it were.

peace--

scott

JohnFH

Scott,

Always a pleasure to have you a conversation partner. One problem I came up against: is there a genre of literature that succeeds in dealing with non-reality? To do so would seem to be a typically human goal, in the best sense of the word.

But fantasy literature is not about non-reality. It just points to reality in a different way.

scott gray

john--

you know, i think it has to do with my association of 'dichotomy' with mutually exclusive opposites. and actually, any dichotomy can be 'created' between any two characteristics; they need not be actual opposites. i don't consider history and myth as opposites; the opposite of myth is...what? the opposite of history is...what? (it's a discussion i was having elsewhere about inerrancy: the opposite of error is...what?) is it the 'truth/untruth' component of each that is carried into the entire meaning of history/myth? it's easy in our rush to classify, identify, and taxonify things and ideas into categories (often so as to rank hierarchically according to some standard, and ultimately dismiss as not-valuable; as though 'truth' is more valuable than 'untruth'), to treat differences as opposites. i think this might be what doesn't feel right about your dichotomies here. for instance, i wouldn't call the opposite of righteousness 'wickedness.'

it might not be what you're presenting at all; it might be some internal heuristic i'm anchoring and adjusting to here that i'm wrestling with, as i classify things. or somehow your anchoring and adjustment starting point is not mine.

just thinking...

scott

JohnFH

That's what I like about blogging. It's a chance to think out loud.

I am wary of attempts at overcoming dichotomies as if they didn't exist or as if the poles did not exist.

For example, one becomes an accomplice of oppression if one says that the opposite of being oppressed is...what?

The opposite of being oppressed is oppressing: they are mutually defining terms.

The same is true for the righteous:wicked dichotomy.

Which is why Job, in describing his conduct before he lost everything, speaks about the fact that he would break the jaw of the wicked. To think that one can confront wickedness in life without doing that on occasion, or without someone doing it on our behalf, seems to me to be a very pious pipedream. Puff the Magic Dragon who lived by the sea. That, come to think of it, is an example of escapism of the kind that is difficult to find in the Bible.

One way to pose the truth question is in terms of teleology. Where does it take you? That, I think, is the experience of the believer - maybe of a non-believer, though not as often: the word is a light unto one's path. It leads in a direction that is fraught with purpose.

On this understanding, untruth is a form of anarchy. No beginning from which to proceed, no end to which to go.

On the other hand, it is necessary to turn that upside down. That is done in the Pauline-Lutheran dichotomy, an extraordinarily productive one: law:grace.

This time around, grace, freedom, even a kind of anarchy founded in an Alpha and Omega constitute a pole, and law the other pole.

scott gray

john--

this 'pole' notion has me thinking further. when we place two 'isms' or identifiers at opposite poles on a gradient, several things happen for me:

i treat the two identifiers as some how quantifiable, as though the thing being assessed contains percentages of the two identifers; 'the genesis story is 8% history and 92% myth.' that sort of thing.

there's a chaacteristic, or trait, that is being assessed in deciding what the two poles are. for instance, in a law/anarchy gradient, 'order in community' is being assessed (measured?).

so in your oppressed/oppressor gradient, one characteristic or trait is being assessed. but one could just as easily have the poles be 'oppressed/free,' in which case a different characteristic is being assessed. the first is about the relationship of two actors and coercion, the second is about a single actor and coercion.

so in this gradient assessment thing, what characteristic is being assessed or measured in history/myth?

and what characteristic is being assessed in law/grace?

peace--

scott

JohnFH

Peace to you, Scott. These are interesting topics.

It all depends on how you define the terms, and what your goal is. What I'm trying to point out as gently as possible is that modern, progressive ways of framing the issues are a form of escapism. Modern, "progress"-oriented people walk away from the perennial problems of humankind. They don't resolve them. In a sense Dewey is clear on that.

Consider the representation of events. One can represent them as does the Bible, or the Iliad, in which what happens is understood in terms of conflict that involves both gods and men. Human actors and divine actors, furthermore, "text-message" back and forth. The result is a narrative which deep resonance, full of archetypes that speak to people of all times and places.

Now comes Thucydides, who wants to represent events in a different way. He leaves the gods out of the picture. He describes events in terms of cause-and-effect relationships that begin and end with human agents. He doesn't give up on the notion that there is right and wrong in the realm of politics and war, but he voices his views on those things through speeches he puts in the mouth of protagonists.

Which kind of literature better plumbs the depths of the structure of human existence and the nature of what happens in times of calamity and war?

Most people would concur that it is the Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the Bible, that do so.

Herodotus makes an interesting read for someone with antiquarian interests. Thucydides is a fine historian who poses a number of questions in a carefully circumscribed manner. But if I want to understand more than that, I'm going to read Homer, or go to the theater and catch a play by Sophocles.

As I said before, I'm not sure it's particularly helpful, when all is said and done, to concentrate on assessing, to use a different example which I hint at at the onset of this post, when Jesus dies on the cross, to what degree he was fully man and to what degree he was fully God. Or, to return to the example of a butterfly swimmer: with each stroke she takes, a full Monty of both nature and nurture are at work.

So, without falling into nonsense of the kind that says history is myth and myth is history, it seems to be the case that much of the Bible and Homer give us a full Monty of history (either in terms of one-time events or deep structure) and a full Monty of "myth" (ideology in narrative form).

To recap, if I preserve the history vs. myth dichotomy, and I'm arguing that we should, it's clear that Homer and the Bible develop myth with far greater tenacity and confidence than does Herodotus or Thucydides. It turns out, however, that that is a feature of Homer and the Bible, not a bug.

The law/grace polarity is, I'm convinced, an anthropological constant. I'm betting that you can understand this admonition of Luther on the fly: "sin boldly, and believe more boldly still." It is not all that different from Paul's advice: "Be angry, but do not let the sun go down on your anger." It is that kind of attitude that allows people to overcome moral paralysis. To take sides. To stand up for someone or something, whatever the cost. On this understanding, grace is a space in which law finds a place. Nonetheless, transgression of the law is incapable of defeating grace. On the contrary, where sin abounds, grace superabounds.

Joseph Kelly

I had a different understanding of Wright's suggestion that we find some new words, and it is probably because I am listening to him in reference to my own present situation. Remembering that Wright, more so than most well known scholars, lives and functions in two worlds--the academy and the church--I believe his advise is directed to the latter (or those who are ministering to/within the latter). This is the audience of the Science and the Sacred, if I understand correctly. I am, right now, "facilitating" a class on Genesis. We started with Jacob, went back to Abraham, and now we are reading the primeval history. Mind you, most of the class are young earth creationists who believe the practical application of the text is to abhor Darwin and anything to which his name is attached. The first thing someone said in response to my question, "What did you notice about our reading (Genesis 1-11) this week?" was, "No big bang." The last thing that I am going to do, as I facilitate this class, is to insist that we consider classifying this text as a myth. I need a different word (Sunday school friendly mind you--protological narrative won't work in this setting). Also, I need a word that will not lead to my removal from the class. To move in the direction you are suggesting is laudible, but only in certain contexts. My class is full of people who believe the scientific process typically produces atheists or atheistic science or atheistic philosophy. They can't separate ideologies from the mediums through which those ideologies are disseminated. In my context, I am doing good if I can get them to believe that Genesis 1 has as much to say about the heavens and the earth as God's temple as it does "the way the universe was brought into existence." Fundamentalism is called fundamentalism for a reason, and how we interact with it is necessarily different than how we engage one another in the academy. So I am not convinced that Wright is suggesting that we abandon the dichotomy (or the terms which make up that dichotomy) in the academy, but most certainly so when we are dealing with the American Fundamentalist movement.

JohnFH

Very helpful observations, Joseph.

When you are dealing with fundamentalists of the anti-Bible persuasion, believe it or not, and state universities nowadays are full of them - profs and students - the problems are not that different. A quote from Jim Getz from his blog:

"In any given semester, I’m unsure to what extent I will be faced with the problem of the historicity of Genesis 1-3. Often I am forced to be an advocate for a text that students have rejected as nonsense rather than a proponent of the mythological in the text."

Fundamentalists on both sides of the spectrum almost crowd out all other takes on the text. They are equally incapable of reading the text on its own terms.

scott gray

john--

another dichotomy surfaces-- problem vs. predicament. problems are solved; predicaments are responded to. i think your dichotomy of problem solved vs. problem walked away from applies when 'modernists' choose to disengage from the problem/predicament. well, so do transcendentally enlightened mystics, and they don't seem to have the same bad press. rather, i would argue that whether you keep myth/history, or whether you ask for some other pole-set for the assessment, the 'doer' is still engaged. n.t. wright is not, as far as i can tell, disengaging from genesis, which seems to me to be the conclusion you are drawing here.

the quote by dewey, with serial numbers filed off, is as applicable to transcendental conclusions as it is to those who disengage.

i would argue that a lot of modernists, both before and after the earthquake in haiti, have chosen to be, and remain, engaged fully with huge attention and resources to what can really only be thought of as haiti's 'predicament.'

peace--

scott

JohnFH

It's not a question, for me, of engaging vs. disengaging. Let each engage according to his or her own lights. But the truth question remains, unless one is convinced that all that matters is that one has the best of intentions. Surely it is the case that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

It is the case that N. T. Wright engages the text when he sidesteps the history versus myth dichotomy. But I would rather walk into that dichotomy and "play it out" rather than walk away from it.

The example of Haiti is sobering. Without denying that the work of missions and charities of a religious flavor and missions and initiatives of governments and the United Nations have helped Haitians one individual and one family at a time, and will continue to do so, I can't help but notice that the fundamental predicaments all societies face continue to apply in Haiti, but with greater and unbearable ferocity. This might be seen as throwing into question the religious and secular models of intervention in Haiti to date.

scott gray

john—

a few last thoughts.

the text of genesis 1 is primarily a faith document. i would argue that the authors/redactors/editors have done whatever they felt was going to make this story a faith deepening tool (primarily for themselves, and their immediate community).

for you, the history/myth approach is faith deepening. and i suspect you feel this approach is faith deepening for others in your faith community.

now i haven’t personally spoken with n.t. wright. he and i travel in different theological circles. but i can imagine that part of what he is saying is that this history/myth approach is no longer faith deepening for him. perhaps it was at one time, but is no longer (don’t you just wonder what changed?). perhaps there are other faith documents that he still approaches in a history/myth venue, that still deepen his faith.

tolerating other approaches falls into three views for me:
--centrist—my way is the only way
--chauvinist—my way is the best way
--polymorphic—there are many ways, some i know better than others

for a centrist, she owns a hammer, and everything looks like a nail. for a chauvinist, a hammer is the best tool, although he acknowledges there are other tools possible, but they won’t work as well. everything still looks pretty much like a nail. for a polymorphist, there are many tools; when one doesn’t work, other approaches are tried.

it feels to me like you are chauvinistic about your history/mythology approach regarding the genesis reading and faith deepening. but if it doesn’t work any more for n.t. wright, a polymorphic approach would be to ask questions to find other approaches, other tools that deepen faith.

what approaches do you think might deepen n.t. wright’s faith regarding the genesis story?

form our dialog here, what approaches appear to be faith deepening for me?

peace—

scott

Johnfh

Thanks, Scott, for the conversation.

I don't have cut-and-dried answers to your questions, but I can at least explore a couple of them.

If I understand you, you wish to take a polymorphic approach, to this question and to others.

This corresponds, I would think, to a sort of Unitarian ethos in which you seek to appreciate many approaches, but commit yourself to none in particular. If you did, that would make you, in your own taxonomy, a chauvinist or - horror of horrors - a centrist.

But if it's true that you remain committed to the Catholic Church as an institution - I'm assuming that for the moment, without knowing for sure - it means that you accept the fact of working and living in a context in which chauvinists and centrists dominate.

Indeed, religious formations, generally speaking, have a centrist "core," and chauvinist "body," and a polymorph "halo."

From my chauvinist point of view, I think your faith would be deepened if you became a chauvinist. It is the life story of Evelyn Underwood, who went from vagueness to high definition without losing her empathy for all positions.

N. T. Wright and I, on my understanding of your trichotomy, are both chauvinists, but of different flavors. Here's hoping that you, too, will find a chauvinism you can commit to.

scott gray

john--

it's not about the beliefs i hold; of course i am chauvinistic about them (you've never asked me what ideas, beliefs, and principles i'm chauvinistic about; but you've made some interesting assumptions). it's about tolerance of the beliefs of others. the enclosed trichotomy of wee three kings are all in the faith deepening business. but when two chauvinistic positions butt heads, i think it is the polymorphs (i've never been accused of having a halo before! thanks!) who reframe the questions that allow faith deepening to ripple in a wider pattern.

and you are so wrong about my engagement to the catholic church. you just haven't asked me the wright questions.

peace--

scott

Johnfh

Thanks for the (semi-)clarifications, Scott. I'm glad to hear that you are a fellow chauvinist-in-arms.

Rather than make assumptions, I would appreciate if you were more forthright about where you are coming from.

Please do explain for the untutored where you are coming from, where your cultural and religious loyalties lie.

For the rest, no, I don't think it's true that polymorphs spark debate or force consideration of issues most would rather sweep under the rug. Polymorphs raise good questions, but are easily ignored, and usually are. That's because they don't stand in anyone's way.

The people who create ripple effects, sometimes tidal waves, tend to be centrists or at least chauvinists. People with an axe to grind. In the best case scenario: fearless prophets with a message from God. If so, the problem becomes: how does one distinguish between true and false prophecy?

Gary Simmons

John, have you read Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon? It's got fascinating insights regarding the necessity of the story (and how discipleship is an adventure within a community of faith shaped by a story), plus discussion of dichotomies and third alternatives.

This approach shows how the stories give us meaning. The word "myth" is never used (and Genesis is never addressed, but it would certainly lay the groundwork for understanding that Genesis is not a science book.

Johnfh

No I haven't, Gary. Though I have the book and think highly of both authors. It doesn't surprise me that they avoid the word "myth." It's a word that for most people has negative connotations no matter how carefully one defines it otherwise.

Gary Simmons

Well, John, they are addressing ecclesiology with the Sermon on the Mount as the main reference point. Their book is still quite relevant -- particularly with respect to the distinction between the conversionist church, activist church, and confessing church.

Right now I'm going through and summarizing the book. Five chapters down, two to go. I have renewed respect for anybody who summarizes books. It doesn't come naturally to me.

Johnfh

But it's helpful to the rest of us. Thanks for doing it.

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  • Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth
    Nick Norelli's fabulous blog on Bible and theology
  • SansBlogue
    by Tim Bulkeley, lecturer in Old Testament, Carey Baptist College (New Zealand). His Hypertext Commentary on Amos is an interesting experiment
  • Ancient Near Eastern Languages
    texts and files to help people learn some ancient languages in self study, by Mike Heiser
  • Midrash, etc.
    A fine Hebrew-to-English blog on Midrash, by Carl Kinbar, Director of the New School for Jewish Studies and a facultm member at MJTI School of Jewish Studies.
  • Phil Lembo what I'm thinking
    a recovering lawyer, now in IT, with a passion for a faith worth living
  • Roses and Razorwire
    a top-notch Levantine archaeology blog, by Owen Chesnut, a doctoral student at Andrews University (MI)
  • Scripture & Theology
    a communal weblog dedicated to the intersection of biblical interpretation and the articulation of church doctrine, by Daniel Driver, Phil Sumpter, and others
  • Scripture Zealot
    by Jeff Contrast
  • Serving the Word
    incisive comment on the Hebrew Bible and related ancient matters, with special attention to problems of philology and linguistic anthropology, by Seth L. Sanders, Assistant Professor in the Religion Department of Trinity College, Hartford, CT
  • Singing in the Reign
    NT blog by Michael Barber (JP University) and Brad Pitre (Our Lady Holy Cross)
  • Stay Curious
    excellent comment on Hebrew Bible and Hebrew language topics, by Karyn Traphagen, graduate, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia PA (archive)
  • Sufficiency
    A personal take on the faith delivered to the saints, by Bob MacDonald, whose parallel blog on the Psalms in Hebrew is a colorful and innovative experiment
  • The Sundry Times
    Gary Zimmerli's place, with comment on Bible translations and church renewal
  • Sunestauromai: living the crucified life
    by a scholar-pastor based in the Grand Canyon National Park
  • ta biblia
    blog dedicated to the New Testament and the history of Christian origins, by Giovanni Bazzana
  • Targuman
    by Christian Brady, targum specialist extraordinaire, and dean of Schreyer Honors College, Penn State University
  • Targuman
    on biblical and rabbinic literature, Christian theology, gadgetry, photography, and the odd comic, by Christian Brady, associate professor of ancient Hebrew and Jewish literature and dean of the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State
  • The Biblia Hebraica Blog
    a blog about Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the history of the Ancient Near East and the classical world, Syro-Palestinian archaeology, early Judaism, early Christianity, New Testament interpretation, English Bible translations, biblical theology, religion and culture, philosophy, science fiction, and anything else relevant to the study of the Bible, by Douglas Magnum, PhD candidate, University of the Free State, South Africa
  • The Forbidden Gospels Blog
    by April DeConick, Professor of Biblical Studies, Rice University
  • The Naked Bible
    by Mike Heiser, academic editor at Logos Bible Software
  • The Reformed Reader
    by Andrew Compton, Ph.D. student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures (focus on Hebrew and Semitic Languages) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
  • The Sacred Page
    a blog written by three Catholic Ph.D.s who are professors of Scripture and Theology: Michael Barber, Brant Pitre and John Bergsma
  • The Talmud Blog
    a group blog on Talmud News, Reviews, Culture, Currents, and Criticism
  • Theological German
    a site for reading and discussing theological German, by Mark Alter
  • theoutwardquest
    seeking spirituality as an outward, not an inward quest, by David Corder
  • This Lamp
    Incisive comment on Bible translations in the archives, by Rick Mansfield
  • Thoughts on Antiquity
    By Chris Weimer and friends, posts of interest on ancient Greek and Roman topics (archive). Chris is a graduate student at the City University of New York in Classics
  • Threads from Henry's Web
    Wide-ranging comment by Henry Neufeld, educator, publisher, and author
  • Tête-à-Tête-Tête
    smart commentary by "smijer," a Unitarian-Universalist
  • Undeception
    A great blog by Mike Douglas, a graduate student in biblical studies
  • What I Learned From Aristotle
    the Judaica posts are informative (archive)
  • Bouncing into Graceland
    a delightful blog on biblical and theological themes, by Esteban Vázquez (archive)
  • Weblog
    by Justin Anthony Knapp, a fearless Wikipedian (archive)
  • Writing in the Dust
    A collection of quotes by Wesley Hill, a doctoral student in New Testament studies at Durham University (UK), and a Christian who seeks the charism of chastity
  • גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב
    by David Miller, Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism, Briercrest College & Seminary, Caronport, Saskatchewan, Canada
  • ואל-תמכר
    Buy truth and do not sell: wisdom, instruction, and understanding - a blog by Mitchell Powell, student of life at the intersection of Christ, Christianity, and Christendom
  • משלי אדם
    exploring wisdom literature, religion, and other academic pursuits, by Adam Couturier, M.A. in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)

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  • Ancient Hebrew Poetry is a weblog of John F. Hobbins. Opinions expressed herein do not reflect those of his professional affiliations. Unless otherwise indicated, the contents of Ancient Hebrew Poetry, including all text, images, and other media, are original and licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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    Copyright © 2005 by John F Hobbins.