“Genius!” “Dancing!”

P.Z. Myers has the opportunity to dance his Ph.D. thesis, in the third annual “Dance Your Ph.D.” interpretative dance video contest. Sadly, the contest is only open to the physical sciences and social sciences. But, that doesn’t have to stop me from choreographing in my head.

An interpretive dance for my dissertation would involve:

  • six dancers in muted blue, dancing in a Martha-Graham-inspired, low-to-the-ground style of resigned but heart-felt obedience. These represent the chapters Daniel 1–6.
  • four dancers in shades of concrete gray, who dance sweeping steps around the Dan 1–6 dancers, lording it over them, occasionally lifting them up to moderate heights, while a nameless crew of faceless figures in black threatens the whole but always bounce harmlessly back into the wings. The four dancers in gray represent the gentile nations.
  • six dancers in blazing orange, who represent Daniel 7–12. They take the stage, pick up the dancers in blue, and use them to bludgeon the four dancers in gray. They then incorporate the now-unconscious dancers in blue into their own active, aggressive display.
  • the stage becomes a giant cloud on which the 12 blue and orange dancers join, pyramid-like, into a single human figure.
  • the cloud bursts into a giant chrysanthemum.

How does your dissertation translate into modern dance?

[“Genius!” “Dancing!” was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/07/01. 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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“Uh, What Kinds of Biblical Historical Conclusions Do You Usually Have Here?”

After accepting Professor Bruce Waltke’s resignation, for having spoken aloud about the plain facts of the state of our knowledge concerning the natural world, Reformed Theological Seminary Campus President Michael Milton gushed enthusiastically about the vast spectrum of scientific/historical conclusions that the seminary would find acceptable from its faculty:

“Oh, we got both kinds: Young Earth Creationism and Old Earth Creationism!”[1]

Milton said that the seminary allows “views to vary” about creation, describing the faculty members there as having “an eight-lane highway” on which to explore various routes to understanding. Giving an example, he said that some faculty members believe that the Hebrew word yom (day) should be seen in Genesis as a literal 24-hour day. Others believe that yom may be providing “a framework” for some period of time longer than a day. Both of those views, and various others, are allowed, Milton said.

But while Milton insisted that this provides for “a diversity” of views, he acknowledged that others are not permitted. Darwinian views, and any suggestion that humans didn’t arrive on earth directly from being created by God (as opposed to having evolved from other forms of life), are not allowed, he said, and faculty members know this.

Here’s a hint to President Milton, but especially to any prospective students considering places like Reformed Theological Seminary:

  • no matter how “diverse” the spectrum of “acceptable” conclusions,
  • if an institution draws a line anywhere and says, “The conclusions of your research may extend here, but no further; beyond this line your inquiries may not lead you,” then
  • you are not in an institution of learning. In fact,
  • you couldn’t be more in the dark if you were stuffed into a sack.

I was going to add that those who enforce such parameters or assent to them should be willing to stop using the internet, and all computers (which rely on those merely theoretical critters called “electrons”); forego the MRI, the CAT scan, antibiotics, and all of modern medicine, returning to the leech-craft of their forebears; grow their own food, eschewing the disease-resistant strains available at market; keep the radio off, doing without satellite-produced early warning of natural disasters. After all, these are all the results of unbounded critical inquiry, and have arisen only where such inquiry has won out over efforts to suppress it.

But then I realized that these folks won’t return to their pre-modern dystopia without dragging everyone else along by force, so sorry, they’re just going to have to learn, one at a time, to live in the actual world, with its pesky, bias-challenging data. If one fears that one doesn’t know how, I offer the gentle and redoubtable Professor Waltke as an example.

For other feedback in the biblioblogosphere, see John Hobbins’ response and his round-up of other responses, and more recently, Jim Getz.

BACK TO POST “Creationism,” including so-called Intelligent Design, is always the view that God created all the species in the form that they have today: in other words, that evolution leading to speciation has not happened.

[“Uh, What Kinds of Biblical Historical Conclusions Do You Usually Have Here?” was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/04/10. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Write the Bible

Or supplement it, anyway.

In my niece’s middle-school, the kids first read some book or series of their choice; then, they get to write an extra chapter, either within a book, or between two books of a series, or as a prequel or sequel to a book.

I am thinking of adapting this to a discussion-board assignment. I would give them a notably thorny or confusing biblical text, and the students would get to write some additional material (just several lines of dialogue, exposition, whatever). They would then also be asked to explain what “goods” are offered by their own additions, and to comment on one another’s work: Does it alleviate some moral problem in the text?  Does it help explain some character’s behavior (including God’s) that is otherwise hard to understand in the text at hand? Does it cause two adjacent narrative elements to better cohere together, and if so, how?

In choosing a text, I would like it to be 1) narrative, and 2) somewhat off the beaten track while not so obscure as to feel irrelevant (not, say, Gen 3, yet not unexplained corpse of Deut 21 either). Aaron and the golden calf is a possibility; or the dismembered concubine; or David and Bathsheba; or an epilogue to Jonah; or Job 1–2.

What text would you consider for such an assignment, and why? What do you think of the possibilities for such an assignment?

Breaking News, Anumma Style

So, Berubé has been back for eight months. I just noticed it, while loitering around Akma’s picking gum off my shoe and scratching. More bleeding-edge news as it arrives, if I don’t wander absent-mindedly into the sea or break my legs tripping over my slack jaw.

Kings on NBC: Who Knew?

How have I missed this? Kings on NBC: A show…based on the rise of David to the throne…set in a monarchy that is culturally and technologically more or less modern-day American. David Shepherd slays a Goliath-class tank, to become a feared darling in the court of King Silas of Gilboah, in the modern city of Shiloh. And I don’t know about it? Clearly I need new minions.

On Hulu, I have watched the first three episodes of five. I will not offer a review, except to say that I remain intrigued and am enjoying it enough to keep watching (and I don’t watch much).

A thoughtful reviewer at Epic Beat reflects on the fact that, while Christian Americans are supposedly always asking Hollywood to give them something biblical, Kings is not dominating our culture’s discourse or the ratings charts.

I think that Kings has been under Americans’ radar because it is not extreme. It is not beholden to a precise adherence to the biblical narrative nor to irreverent iconoclasm, preferring to work more fluidly and thoughtfully with the biblical plots, themes, and symbols. It is not beholden to the Vast Conservative Conspiracy™ or to the Left Wing Liberal Agenda™: for example, a major character describes another’s gayness as “disgust[ing]” to him, but at the same time presupposes that it is “what God ma[kes]” that person. The God of Kings is, so far, an offstage character, invoked on screen but not entering pyrotechnically to take anybody’s side in a decisive display of disambiguation.

That is, Kings is using the David story to ask questions about God, not to deliver answers. The irony is, this may be just the kind of show that the religious 90%-ers—those not served by the bullhorns at any given polarized extremes—could take ownership of. But it may be just because the bullhorns aren’t sounding off about the show that it dies of anemia before anyone takes notice.

Hearing Out the Text: A Hermeneutic of Suspicion and Openness to the Voice of the Other

Bryan Bibb posted recently on Ben Witherington’s review article of Bart Ehrman’s latest book, Jesus, Interrupted. I have not closely followed Ehrman or conversations about his work, but Witherington’s review gripped my imagination, because he brought the “Ehrman conversation” into the context of some of the essential critical questions that animate biblical studies. I am interested in his words on the “hermeneutic of suspicion,” a mode of reading in which the reader remains warily alert to the text’s worldview with its peculiar heirarchies and how the text at hand will 1) reflect and reinforce that worldview, silencing and marginalizing other voices with their concerns, and also 2) seek through its rhetorical devices to reproduce in the reader that worldview and its heirarchies. (The phrase “hermeneutic of suspicion” is Ricoeur’s but the definition mine, expressed in terms of ideological criticism). Witherington writes in part:

to actually understand an ancient author you must start by giving them the benefit of the doubt and hear them out, doing one’s best to enter creatively into their own world and thought processes before understanding can come to pass. To approach the text with a hermeneutic of suspicion is to poison the well of inquiry before one even samples the water in the old well.

Reading this, I remember once hearing a biblical scholar argue that we should read without a hermeneutic of suspicion, equating a hermeneutic of suspicion with being “suspicious of God.” In that instance, my sense was that the lecturer was calling for us to move beyond a hermeneutic of suspicion, to stop reading in that vein. I do not know Witherington’s work as well as I would like, but I do not want to read him here as calling for an end to a hermeneutic of suspicion. Rather, I want to read him more literally: that a hermeneutic of suspicion is not a productive starting place in the reading process, that its right time is simply later in the game than one’s “approach to the text.”

I see a parallel claim in an essay by Norman R. Petersen, “Literary Criticism in Biblical Studies,” 25–50 in Orientation by Disorientation (ed. Richard A. Spencer; Pittsburgh: Pickwick Press, 1980). His question is how the critic can most productively use both historical-critical and literary-critical methods when reading biblical texts. He concludes that questions intrinsic to the text (“what is its form,” “what devices does it deploy,” “how is it structured”) allow us to keep reading to the end, to “let the narrator have his say,” whereas questions extrinsic to the text (“who wrote it,” “where/when/why,” “to whom did he write”) force our attention away from the details of the text at hand. Therefore, he proposed that after having established one’s text textual-critically, one should first approach the text with literary questions, and then only after completing uninterrupted readings of the whole approach it again with historical critical questions.

It is in the same spirit that I would agree with Witherington’s admonishment that we not “approach the text” with a hermeneutic of suspicion. Taking Hosea 2 as an example: if a hermeneutic of suspicion is my initial mode of reading, I may jump straight into a moral critique of the metaphor and reject precipitously the text’s ability to speak an appropriate word to modern listeners. I would then have failed to “giv[e the text] the benefit of the doubt and hear [it] out, doing one’s best to enter creatively into [its] own world and thought processes,” as Witherington puts it. By postponing (not indefinitely) a hermeneutic of suspicion, then I have the opportunity to let the metaphor work on me to convince me of its underlying claims about God’s ways with the people Israel and with creation, before I go on to consider rejection of the metaphoric vehicle Hosea has chosen.

I do not mean to say that such an exercise of mental division can really be accomplished in strict terms; Petersen, too, certainly acknowledges that we’re talking more about mutually-infectious cycles of reading than a linear “step program.” Also, I have reservations about seeking even to postpone a hermeneutic of suspicion: once you let your guard down to a text’s attempts to persuade you of its worldview, well, there’s little point in trying to bar the door when the intruder is already in the house.

What are your thoughts on a hermeneutic of suspicion? Is it more pressing than ever, given that the marginalized are with us always, or are there reasons to think that we are “beyond” it? If we hold to a hermeneutic of suspicion, how do you describe its right relation to a vulnerable openness to be changed by the “other” whom we meet in a text?