James Cone Live Today at 11 and 3 CT

Dr. James Cone is delivering our Convocation address at G-ETS this morning at 11:00 CT, and there will also be a panel discussion at 3:00 CT.

His address is titled, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen: The Cross and the Lynching Tree in the Black Experience.”

The link for the live webcasts is www.garrett.edu/convocation. Viewers will need to have downloaded and installed Apple’s free QuickTime Player, and may begin viewing fifteen minutes before events begin.

[James Cone Live Today at 11 and 3 CT was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/09/15. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

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The Self-Serving Conventional Wisdom of the Incurious Laity

In which conventional wisdom is suspected to smoothly glove a muscled hand at the throat: a constructed justification for hoarding knowledge as power.

Are the Bible-blogging church-type educators among my readers reading Anastasia? And if not, why not?

It’s the same way I feel when people at church assure me that no one is interested in learning theology. My question is always the same. Has anyone tried it? Did we run a class like the one I’m proposing and had it flop?

The answer is no. No one has tried it because everyone already *knows* it isn’t going to work.

Oddly enough, the people telling me this are invariably interested. I would love it, they say. But no one else would.

This means my experience of people is exactly contrary to the received wisdom. I get cornered in the parish hall for conversations about theology—when people aren’t too afraid of me, I have to add—on a fairly regular basis. My experience is that people want to know these things. They just don’t know where to start.

Last week’s raft of graduates included a handful of students whom I had had together in “Introduction to the Old Testament.” During one session, as a result of a particular student’s deft handling of Jonathan Culler, they had an amazing conversation about the fact that many seeming concrete things—sexuality, the middle class, race—are invented social constructs. They discovered that, if “everyone knows” something to be true or real, then that thing especially needs to be pried up and dragged to the middle of the floor where the cat can sniff it. All conventional wisdom invites a hermeneutic of suspicion.

And finally—and this is why I am so excited about Anastasia’s post—these students aimed that insight at the “conventional wisdom” about Teh Seminary Book-Larnin’: “everybody knows” that our congregations don’t really want to hear about all thish-yere stuff we learn in these rooms. Except, when you ask around, lots and lots of us have experienced adult learners in the church as intellectually curious and patient of new ideas.

So: whose interests are served by this myth of the incurious laity? Some group who would be inconvenienced by an intelligent, knowledge-hungry mob of adult learners? Who prefer the unidirectional dispensing of approved perspectives to the unpredictable results of informed collaborative construction? Until such a group can be identified, we can assign them some meaningless cipher as a label; let’s just call them, floverly-controlling, flower-grasping, flinsecure fleaders in the flurch.

Example: I recall a student who dismissed all documentary hypotheses of the Pentateuch as “elitist.” He argued that all such inquiry was a fine “brain exercise” for those who enjoy higher education, but that there was no way he was going to inflict it on the “general public” in his care because they would only be “confused” and “outraged.” Clearly, he saw it as part of his ministry to

  1. enjoy the power bestowed upon him by the structures of accredited higher education and ordination, and to
  2. exercise that power to paternalistically keep the lay people in his care ignorant of such facts he judged they might initially experience as disorienting.

In other words, he didn’t see that he embodied the elitism he decried, and that he depends on that not-seeing to justify his exercise of paternalistic power. Seminary educators will recognize this stance as common. The “conventional wisdom of the incurious laity” serves the interest of those who see knowledge and power as a scarce resource to be hoarded among an elite, empowered ruling class. To challenge that conventional wisdom may be to challenge an oligarchical model of clergy and power. “The facts will set you free.”

[The Self-Serving Conventional Wisdom of the Incurious Laity was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/05/20. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Fifty Years

To what course work do these fifty-year seminary alums attribute some of their most important preparation for ministry? Read and see (*cough*…Bible… *cough*).

Last night was our annual, commencement-week reception and dinner for the trustees. As usual, we had also invited our “fifty year” alumni: in this case, members of the class of 1960. Part of the program was for two of these “fifty year alums” to speak briefly on the subject of how seminary prepared them for their ministries.

The first talked gratefully about how seminary had not “trained” him to deal with this or that specific pastoral or ecclesiastical emergency, but had rather educated him, so that he could think his way through situations on a solid platform of accurate data and habits of critical thought. The courses he specifically named? Hebrew, and Greek.

The second speaker recalled two professors that, for him, represented the best of the preparation that seminary offered him. The first professor he recalled for having taught him a large number of important facts. A second professor he recalled for having modeled the compassionate application of such facts. Facts without compassion, he had found, were tools without purpose; and compassion without facts, just useless dreaming. The subjects taught by these memorable, representative faculty? Old Testament and New Testament.

From the critical perspective of fifty years of ministry: Hebrew. Greek. Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. New Testament.

I’m not saying. I’m just saying. :^)

[Fifty Years was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/05/14. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

“The Story” (Zondervan): Reading the Bible?

As a kind of resolution for 2010, our rector has decided that we’ll be reading the Bible this year (I pause here for jokes about the Episcopal Church and knowing nods; better now? okay). The initial vehicle will be a ten-week reading group, working through The Story: Read the Bible as One Seamless Story from Beginning to End (revised edition; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008). Amazon/Publisher

I should say right away that, on balance, I am excited that we’re pushing Bible and finding ways to encourage familiarity with it. This church happens to have racked up some pretty staggering accomplishments in outreach, in community service, in local and international charity, and (less quantitatively but not less noticeably) in growing a community marked by a joyous mutual love. A more solid biblical foundation can only strengthen the kind of theological thinking that already drives the congregation.

Now for the gripes.

The Story starts with the TNIV as a base text. Put positively: at least it’s not a paraphrastic, expansionistic re-telling of the biblical text tending toward commentary (like at least one prominent translation I could name). Put negatively: I didn’t have any use for the NIV, and the TNIV doesn’t do anything to change that assessment. I believe strongly in the educational value of underscoring, rather than denying, tensions among the biblical texts. Harmonizing translations interfere with that project of teaching and learning, so I normally avoid them except for illustrations of the problems I associate with the harmonizing project. Overall, then: could be worse.

In terms of “Seamless Story from Beginning to End”: obviously the editors have had to decide on a timeline. Decisions made here are predictable: early patriarchs and exodus; Isa 40–66 as predictive prophecy; Solomon as pious but ultimately satyric author of Proverbs (but not, apparently, Ecclesiastes. Hey, where the heck is Ecclesiastes? Holy mo…where’s Job!? I guess there’s no room for the “dissenting wisdom” in The Story). And so on.

Where The Story skips or summarizes parts of the Bible, their stated plan is to put such summaries in italics, so that this editorial material can be distinguished from the biblical text itself. A couple of observations:

  • That transitional material can run to heavy-handedness (for Noah’s generation, life had become “one big party”? How do you get that from the biblical text’s description of “wickedness” and an inclination toward “evil”?).
  • The book inserts plenty of non-biblical commentary that is not set into italics. For example, this piece, that follows Gen 15:16 (“it was credited to him as righteousness”):

Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.

Similarly, after Gen 22:

Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a matter of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.

The perspicacious reader will observe that Paul of Tarsus has been set amok here, and that a brand of Pauline hermeneutic is shamelessly passing itself off as Hebrew Bible.

All this said: our rector is fully aware of the strengths and shortcomings of any attempt to abridge and narrativize the Bible, and she has invited the congregation up front to argue, wrestle, denounce, and question (which I’ve no doubt they will do). So, on balance, again, it’s a project that I can totally get behind and get excited about.

Anybody out there already have experience with The Story? Any stories about The Story?

Why Do They Have To Be All Wrong…

…For Us To Be Right?

I am teaching adult ed at a community church this weekend. The topic has evolved from “Hebrew poetry” to “things that Hebrew poetry shares with Ugaritic narrative poetry.”

I will be showing them the usual grab-bag of divine epithets and motifs: divine council, mountain of God, cherub throne, cloud-rider, and so on. I am going to teach them enough about the Ugaritic pantheon that they can distinguish between El elements and Baal elements, with some historical notes on how Israelite religion embraces or rejects such shared elements over time.

In order to relate the data to modern pressing theological concerns, I will invite them to reflect on how we reflexively attach theological importance to what is (or is thought to be) uniquely “Israelite.” As the title of G.E. Wright’s The Old Testament Against Its Environment (1950) suggests, Christian biblical scholarship has tended to theologically privilege whatever it thinks is uniquely Israelite, whether that thing is ethical monotheism, or social egalitarianism, or what have you. (Not to dismiss clear counter-currents: consider the title Ancient Israel in Its Near Eastern Context [Yairah Amit et al, 2006.]) Where the “uniquely Israelite” is theologically privileged, any religious elements that Israel shares with its neighbors and that we find unfamiliar or problematic are dismissed as “borrowings” or “accretions” (insofar as Israelite religion is viewed as originally wholly unique), or as “primitive” elements rightly left behind (insofar as Israelite religion is viewed as arising from its ancient Near Eastern context but as evolving toward uniqueness). Conversely, elements we prize in Israelite religion will tend to be denied its ancient Near Eastern neighbors.

This embarrassment about shared religious expression lays bare a very human, but wrong-headed, emotional reflex: a conviction that the overlap between “our” religious system and “theirs” should amount to zero, or put another way, that in order for “us” to be right about some things, “they” must be wrong about all things.

This urge to deny shared convictions can give rise to an arrogant sense that we know other faiths better than they know themselves. So, many Christians will insist that their own good works are responsive to a covenant dependent upon God’s gracious act, yet declare the covenant of the people Israel with God to depend upon works of the law: never mind how the Hebrew Bible or Jews in history have described their experience of covenant. Or, a Christian may hear with suspicion the Muslim claim to revere God as “merciful and gracious” (cf. Exod 34:6-7): they can’t really mean it or understand it, the implication runs, with an appeal to the existence of Islamic terrorists.

My favorite thing about introducing Ugaritic narrative poetry to lay Christians and entering divinity students—aside from its innate beauty and grandeur—is the challenge that it presents to this habit of denying to the “Other” particular religious convictions that we embrace for ourselves.

Do you see the impulse that I describe here as “they must be wrong about all things for us to be right about any things”? Are there areas or episodes in religious or academic life where you see it played out?

[Edit: added hyperlink, because I remembered that this is the internet.]