Scholarship…

A couple of things via Dr. James Davila at Paleojudaica, both on the subject of scholarship in the world of Theology and Biblical Studies.

First Davila makes note of the…well, vindication is probably an overstatement, but we’ll call it the slight rehabilitation of Norman Golb’s theories about the nature of the Qumran community and its famous library (the Dead Sea Scrolls). Golb has long theorized that the Scrolls are not a single sectarian collection (more or less the common view) but instead a collection of many varied Jewish writings collected and preserved at Qumran during the 1st century CE. I have very little to say about either theory. Though I am very interested in the Scrolls and I’ve read them all and read a good deal about them, the questions involved are far beyond my own expertise (which means they differ not at all from most areas in Biblical Studies). What I wanted to comment on is the beauty of Golb’s insistence on his theory in the face of all but universal disparagement. I suppose you could just as easily call his attitude pig-headedness, but it’s the kind of pig-headedness I love. It reminds us that scholarship is not a democratic venture and just because the majority endorses an idea, that doesn’t give it automatic credence. All theories must be weighed carefully and considered with as much honesty, openness and curiosity as we can find.

Which leads me to the second note on scholarship via Paleojudaica. Stephen C. Carlson (check him out at Hypotyposeis) has recently released a book called The Gospel Hoax, which I understand to be a rather scathing attack on the authenticity of a putative Gnostic text called Secret Mark. I haven’t read the book, and I have even less experience with Gnostic texts and Secret Mark than I do with the DSS, but that’s not what I want to comment on. In his review of Carlson’s book the well-known biblical scholar Bruce Chilton reminds us of one of the great dangers of any form of scholarship. I quote from his article:

No literature has suffered more from this problem [popularization] than that of the second century of Christianity. In the case of “the Secret Gospel,” a modern researcher ( Morton Smith himself, or someone whose forgery duped Smith) has made up a Gnostic document in the attempt to manipulate scholarly discussion and public perception. The fact that this attempt succeeded for so long stands as an indictment of American scholarship, which prides itself on skepticism in regard to the canonical Gospels, but then turns credulous, and even neo-Gnostic, when non-canonical texts are concerned.

Now, I think that Dr. Chilton’s suggestion that American scholarship is neo-Gnostic might be a bit much, and from what I’ve read I’m not entirely convinced that this problem is any more prevalent in America than in other milieus. That being said the general timbre of his comment strikes a chord with me. As a young (hopefully) future biblical scholar I do indeed feel the inclination of some in the scholarly community to default to a belief in the radical and fascinating for its own sake and the consequent pressure to follow this trend. This is, I’m sure, an inevitable consequence of the “publish or perish” rule. Interesting and edgy will always outsell strait forward and predictable. I’m not trying to imply that scholarship must be dull in order to be accurate, or that unorthodox ideas are necessarily poorly constructed. What I am saying is that even in the academic world the marketplace is often driving the bus.

All of this to say that scholarship, regardless of the precise form it take or it’s exact scope of inquiry, should be an attempt to know more. That may mean the defense of the indefensible (or at least the wildly unpopular) or it may mean coming to terms with the less than sexy results of your thorough research. But we seek on regardless. So, here’s to the seekers, be they edgy or pedestrian, mainstream or maverick.

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Best Quote…

I came across one of the better quotes I’ve ever read in a friend’s email recently.

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
-Mohandas Gandhi

I got the quote from the email alone so I can’t give a better reference than this or personally guarantee the attribution (though I do trust my friend), but it sure sounds like Gandhi doesn’t it? I’m by no means an authority on the Mohatma (saw the movie, read a little about him here and there) but from what I know it seems to me that Gandhi understood the ethical truths about which Jesus spoke better than most. This quotation is the kind of thing that could just as well have been spoken by the Christ himself. Check out the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes in particular, and you’ll see that one of the key elements of Jesus’ message was the reversal of expectations. He came to invert the world as we see it or, as the Apostle Paul put it, to make “foolish the wisdom of the world” (1 Cor. 1:20b NRSV).

Gandhi’s quote about forgiveness reflects this inversion perfectly. It is natural to believe that asking for forgiveness weakens us and that offering forgiveness makes us look pathetic. Neither of these things is true. A person who forgives does what a weak, prideful, self-involved person can never do. He or she sets aside the right to be angry or vengeful not to keep peace, but to create peace (I would suggest that there is a phenomenal difference between the two). A person who asks for forgiveness also does what a weak, prideful, self-involved person can never do. He or she sets aside the desire for self-justification, the desire to think of oneself as righteous, again in order to create peace.

What we perceive as greatness is not, what we conceive of as power is not. We have been deceived. Though many of us don’t know it and those of us who know so often forget, the world has long since been set on its head.

Rest and Peace…

It seems that a great many people in my life are in the midst of severe pain and struggle. Not everybody to be sure, but more than seems usual to me. I’m not talking about angst or frustration here, I’m talking about pain. Family members in the hospital, businesses in serious distress, the disruption and even destruction of life…pain. We all know that it’s very hard to know what to say when somebody hurts, especially when there is little or nothing that you can do to help. That being said I think that our words can help, even if it is just a little. I write the rest of this in that spirit.

During the shabbat meal it is my understanding that Jews bless one another with the words shabbat shalom. These are Hebrew words, found many times each throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (aka the OT if you’re a Christian like I am). Like every language there are some Hebrew words that are more pregnant with meaning than others, and these two words are among them. Simply translated shabbat means “rest” and shalom means “peace.” This rest is most clearly exemplified when God completes his work of creation and then rests on the seventh day (cf. Gen 2:2). It doesn’t simply mean to cease being active but carries the sense of respite and even celebration. I can’t think of an act or event in Scripture that exemplifies the total meaning of shalom, but suffice to say it means more than an end to violence. It also connotes safety (Ps. 4:8), prosperity (Ps. 35:27), calmness and comfort (Is. 26:3), and is among the characteristics of the future rule of God that we call Heaven.

Rest and Peace. These are the things that I wish and pray for my friends. Rest and respite from pain and toil and celebration when pain and toil cease. Peace, comfort and calmness within trials and joyful relief when those trials come to an end. And so to all of you who read this may these two great words, these pregnant words, these words that bend and groan under the weight of their own meaning be made real in your life. As I write this it is both the end of the Jewish Sabbath and the beginning of the Christian Sabbath. It’s also thanksgiving weekend. I can’t think of any better blessing to offer on this holy day than to say this: shabbat shalom.

Too Big…

I’ve been thinking recently about big problems. I’ve posted about some of them on this blog…things like Canadian foreign policy in the middle east and such. Today it was the rather terrifying reality of global warming. Jin and I watched bits and pieces of a televised discussion forum on the dangers of pollution and global warming, and in particular Canada’s approach to these problems.

The environmental issue is, I think, one of the best examples of problems that are too big for us to grasp. I’m not entirely convinced that any group can honestly say they’ve wrapped their heads around all of the economic, social and environmental consequences of various theories on the environment. If we do X, then all of our grandchildren will have three arms, but if we do Y we’ll all starve to death because we won’t have jobs (another scenario that doesn’t turn out too well for the grandkids). The globalization effect is the same kind of thing. Is Wal-Mart evil or just a natural by-product of the best system we can come up with? The list of these big problems goes on and on and I continually ask myself how I should react to them.

Very often when I was growing up I heard people say that no problem is too big for God. I think that’s true, but also has the potential to be a tremendously dangerous idea. This is where many Christians (and conservatives from other religious traditions as well) get into trouble on the environmental issue. “If this is God’s world,” some say, “then He will take care of it and it will end when He decides no matter what I do” (yeah, I know it’s grammatically incorrect to capitalize the pronoun “he” in that sentence, but evangelicals do it all the time in an attempt to show respect for God using grammar so I thought I’d do it for the sake of authenticity). That kind of thinking scares me. We are responsible for the way we live in this world, including the way we live on this world. That being said, however, I think there’s a kernel of truth in this kind of pseudo-christian fatalism.

The are problems that are too big. They are too big for me or for you or for any one person (including, I think, individual world leaders like presidents and prime ministers). There are God-sized problems in the world. This does not mean, however, that we are not responsible. We have parts to play, even if they are small. I don’t buy the dichotomy that either God will save us or we must save ourselves. God will save us and we must save ourselves. There are things that we cannot do. We cannot alter hearts, we cannot be responsible for the nature of death and the next life, we cannot imbue to world with love and grace, we cannot be responsible for judgment and cosmic justice. Those things God must do. We can respond to God’s lead, we can allow our hearts to be altered, we can behave lovingly, gracefully and responsibly. Those who think that only God is responsible and those who think that only people are responsible are fools both.

God is responsible, and so am I.