10 Random Beliefs…

James McGrath tagged me on an intriguing meme.  The idea is to list 10 random beliefs that I hold.  It’s tougher than it sounds, but here’s my try.

1. I believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.

2. I believe in one holy and catholic Church.

3. I believe that reality is an awful lot bigger than we are able to imagine or access.

4. I believe that all human knowledge is conditioned and situated.

5. I believe in my family.

6. I believe that my wife is the best person I know.

7. I believe that language is beautiful.

8. I believe that the Bible is the Word of God…though I’m not always sure what that means.

9. I believe that music has universal power.

10. When it comes to food, I’m an idealist.

There you are.  No tagging though.  As I always say, this is where memes come to die.

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The Critique of Idolatry, Representing God…

Roland Boer offers some interesting thoughts on the critique of idolatry found in Isaiah 44:9-20.  He suggests that, after a fashion, the monotheistic critique of empty idols is hoisted on its own petard.  The monotheist, like the atheist, attacks the idol-making polytheist by suggesting that this bit of wood or stone that is being worshipped is nothing more than a bit of wood or stone.  It doesn’t walk or talk or act or speak, and it is consequently silly to worship it.  The monotheist therefore determines that the symbolic connection that the idol represents must be severed.

But what kind of symbolic connection are we talking about?  Boer suggests that “[the] idol worshipper does not think of this stature [sic] or that icon as the god itself; no, it is a finger pointing to the deity.”  I’ll grant the possibility that the idolater does not believe that the statue or icon is, in and of itself, the deity but a representation of that deity.  But what of this notion of the idol as “a finger,” or a kind of sign designed to point the deity?  Is this really what an idol does?  Or, to put the point differently, is this what is being forbidden in the first and second commandments?  Let me quote Boer again:

These two commandments are not discrete items, for they flow into one another: one should have neither other gods nor idols, for they are intimately connected. In other words, there is a signifying link between god and idol, deity and representation, and the one who shows reverence for the idol does so in order to honour his or her god the [sic] whom the idol directs one’s attention.

Boer then goes on to suggest that in order to be consistent the monotheist must be an iconoclast, forbidding or destroying any symbolic representation whatsoever that might point to God.  If signifying links are idolatrous then all signifying links must be severed.  Boer rightly points out that such a commandment is exceedingly difficult, nigh on impossible, to follow.  Jews and Christians have always had signifying links to God, from the Ark of the Covenant to the various trappings of the Temple (to say nothing of the Temple itself), to the menorahs and crucifixes and scriptures that Boer notes specifically.  Boer doesn’t quite drive the point home, but the consequence is fairly obvious.  Humans need signifiers to enable worship.  We need sign-posts to direct us, to enable us to engage with what a theist would call the Divine and an atheist would call the social/psychological experience we call the Divine.  And so the anti-idol monotheist is in a bind.  The first and second commandments, which Boer rightly notes are tightly linked, demand that there be no symbols to point one to the Divine, but symbols are needed in order to point one to the Divine.

But what if there is a difference in quality between idols as symbols and other kinds of symbols?  This is where Boer’s argument breaks down for me.  Though I do accept that idols are a kind of pointer, I don’t accept that they are the same kind of pointer as a cross or a menorah.  The idol is a representation of the deity.  It is meant to capture and depict the god him/herself.  But a cross or a menorah is meant to depict the act of a god.  The first and second commandments are not, I would contend, a demand that there be no symbols that point to the Divine, but a command that there be no symbols that represent or capture the Divine.  There must be symbols to point to the Divine.  Even if there are no symbols made by human hands the Theist will still suggest that there are symbols that point to the Divine (“The heavens declare…” says the psalmist).  But those symbols cannot represent the Divine.  They are signs, not models.  They suggest something about God’s character, but do not claim to offer an accurate representation of who God is.  No such representation can be given because God is beyond such representation…thus the prohibition against representational images.

So the author of Isaiah 44 is not suggesting that there can be no symbolic pointer to direct our attention to God.  He is suggesting, instead, that no symbol can capture and represent God.  And if it could what kind of god would that be?  A god of wood and stone, deaf, dumb, and blind.

The monotheist does not say to the idolater “that piece of wood points to nothing, for there is no god to whom it refers,” but “that piece of wood points to nothing, for there is no (worthy) god whom it could represent.”

Anumma…

I’ve just added Brooke Lester’s blog Anumma to the blogroll.  A long overdue addition.  Brooke is a recent PTS grad who teaches OT/HB around Illinois, and he has great posts on pedagogy, linguistics, and ANE culture, as well as lots of great OT/HB stuff.  Check him out folks.

Once More, With Feeling…

Taking a break as Sunday evening winds down, and what better way to take it easy but to watch some Buffy?  And lucky me, my favorite episode ever just happened to be next in the queue.  “Once More, With Feeling…” is one of the most original episodes of television I’ve ever seen.  A whole episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer set to music.  What could be better?  The juxtaposition of broadway-style music with vampires and action scenes is bizarre yet brilliant.  Emma Caufield and Nicholas Brendon provide the show’s most charmingly funny scene with their duo “I’ll Never Tell,” but Joss Whedon also provides more than a few painful and touching moments as well.  Another fun bit of trivia?  Whedon (the show’s producer and creative genius) actually learned music in order to write the episode.  Pretty impressive.

Speaking of the best of Buffy, how about best TV episodes generally?  That would be an interesting top 5 list.  Any suggestions?

The Hardest Part…

I’m hosting my first ever Intro Hebrew tutorial tomorrow. The idea is that students in the college’s Intro Hebrew course can show up for some extra help with whatever they’re struggling with. The class is using Pratico/Van Pelt, Basics of Biblical Hebrew (the same text I learned on), and they’re just starting the chapter on adjectives in class tomorrow. So these students are still pretty much brand new to the Hebrew language. I’m trying to remember what it was that I found hardest at that point in my studies. Probably it was syllabification and vocalization (I still have trouble with vocalization sometimes). I’m interested to see where people are struggling tomorrow.

So for those of you who’ve done some Hebrew, what was the hardest part for you? Where was the learning curve the steepest in your novice Hebrew days? And for that matter, what kinds of things do you think students would find valuable in a tutorial?

Fiddling, and The Servant Song…

Still fiddling with the new WordPress features.  I like this theme much more than the last and I think I’ll stick with it for a while.  Points to whoever can name the document in the header pic.

I’ve also been fiddling with the text-critical issues in Isaiah 53.  I’ve never troubled to read the LXX translation, and now I know I was the poorer for it.  There are some fascinating changes, but the one that’s really piqued my interest is the LXX reading that clearly indicates a taw at the end of verse 8, thus producing the translation εἰς θάνατον. I’m not reading any secondary literature on the subject at the moment (part of the assignment) and I still have lots of other texts to finish reading, including both Isaiah scrolls from Qumran and a quick look over the Vulgate (as much as my non-existent Latin can manage at least), but what seemed at first like a clear case of later Christian interpolation does not seem so clear-cut to me now.  More anon.

Also, what did I do to my back!?  I’m like a friggin cripple here!

Good Writing…

Alan Lenzi has a funny little post on a writing exercise for his fresher* class.  As he notes, the kind of uber-structured writing he is forcing them to do is “boring and formulaic” but it’s also the only way to get people to write well.

Writing is one of those things that people, for whatever perverse reason, think you should be able to just sit down and do well.  You hear all kinds of nonsense about writing “from the heart” and how writing shouldn’t be structured.  The fact is, however, that good writers are like good musicians.  The only way to make free, improvisational, artistically expressive music is to practice fundamentals until your fingers bleed.  Nobody picks up a guitar and “just plays” jazz improv.  Thousands of hours of practice go into “just playing.”  Same deal with writing.

Want to be a good writer?  Then go read Alan’s post, and practice until your fingers bleed.  Only once you can work through a pedantic exercise like the one he’s designed are you ready to “just write.”

This is a point driven home particularly well in my single favorite book on English grammar, Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax.  Learn the rules, and then learn how to break them.  That’s what great writers do.

*I’m picking up on the British use of “fresher” instead of the gender-exclusive “freshman” you find in NA.  HT to Mark Goodacre.