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Mark Noll and the potential contributions of Christian scholarship

Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994), a book that scandalized the evangelical mind by noting that it wasn’t much in evidence (Noll then scandalized some further when he announced in 2006 that he was leaving Wheaton College after 27 years on the faculty for Notre Dame), was in a sense sequeled in 2011 by Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Eerdmans).  Life of the Mind moves in a more hopeful direction by reconnecting with one of the most ancient of theological questions, often shorthanded as the distinction to be understood between Jerusalem and Athens:  how does one reconcile the life of faith with the life of the mind?

The very question can seem absurd.  Some Christian traditions have revered intellectualism when understood as supplemental or even constitutive of faith, and the world’s great centers of learning include many dedicated to propagation of the faith, but within the contours of profoundly thoughtful efforts to apprehend God’s creation through both the registers of reason as well as the more affectively sensitive mechanisms of intuition or unquestioning simple belief.  For advocates of those traditions – I have in mind the towering scholarly accomplishments of Catholicism and the scholarly products of the Jesuits or the Episcopalians with their metaphorical three-legged stool, but also the textually rigorous insistence that animates many of the Protestant and fundamentalist traditions and brings intellectual coherence to the “priesthood of the believer” (such as the originary impulse of the Churches/Disciples of Christ, founded by the Campbells and Barton Stone, to find converts by way of rigorous actual interdenominational debates) – a faith inconsistent with the dictates of rationality is a belief not worth having.  Why would one worship a God who cannot be apprehended, if only in part, by use of the very mental capacity that most fully distinguishes humans as God’s creation?

But the New Testament itself provides ammunition to those who see the Gospel as requiring a renunciation of the foolish dictates of reason.  The Apostle Paul thunders at the church in Corinth in a tone that taunts the ivory tower elites of his time:

For it is written:  “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”  Where is the wise man?  Where is the scholar?  Where is the philosopher of this age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?  For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.  Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified:  a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.  Brothers, think of what you were when you were called.  Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.  But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.  (1 Cor. 1: 19-29).

There is much to say about this passage, and regarding related passages in the Book of Acts that describe moments of encounter between budding Christian doctrine and the worldly philosophers.  But to some, Paul is here recommending the abandonment of scholasticism and the deep methods of inquiry that can incline humans to hubris.  Augustine and others famously warned against confidence in academic inquiry – how might one have confidence that truth will emerge out of the exchanges conducted among fools? – all presumably to be renounced in preference for the interactions that conducted in prayer bring human frailty into contact with Divine perfection.  And yet the New Testament also recounts multiple scenes of attempted conversion predicated not on the performance of miracles or the enactment of loving care but through the incisive work of public argument (e.g., Acts 6:8-10; 9:28-30; 17:16-17; 18:27-28; 19:8-10).  The message regarding scholarship is thus often read as profoundly mixed:  helpful as a tactic of potential conversion but also dangerous, not only because of its possible inducement to hubris but because clever sophistry (of the type Satan practiced on Jesus as he wandered the wilderness for forty days and nights, or attempted in his jousting with God over Job) can lead the innocent astray.

When it comes to those Christians who have made professional commitments to the work of the public university, the issue is further complicated.  A life built on unwavering adherence to the Christian gospel can be understood as profoundly at odds with the spirit of skepticism and unending inquiry that underwrites the academy.  Only several short steps lead many believers to see secular institutions (like, for example, public universities) as inevitably hostile to Christian discipleship.  Meanwhile expressions of doubt, the very lifeblood of academic inquiry, are too easily read as heretical when articulated in religious settings.  Athens and Jerusalem are thus apprehended as two worlds completely divided and incommensurable one to the other.  (This, I think, is deeply unfortunate, and it has always seemed to me that faith traditions would be made stronger by welcoming and working through expressions of doubt.  There is support for this position in the New Testament gospels – in one case, recounted at Mark 9:24, the father of a demon-possessed boy comes to Jesus and asks that his son be healed.  Jesus says something like Everything is possible for those who believe.  The father replies by expressing a paradox often felt by even the most dedicated believers:  I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.  Importantly, Jesus is not offended by the contradiction but heals the boy.  And when the famous doubting Thomas expresses his skepticism about the resurrection, Jesus does not throw him out; rather, as recounted in Luke’s gospel, Jesus replies “Look at my hands and feet.  Touch me and see.”  Doubt is heard as an invitation to fellowship and grace and not read as blasphemy).

The risk that the phrase “Christian intellectual” will be thought a contradiction in terms, and the related consequence that Christianity will, if seen as embracing anti-intellectualism, repel brilliant seekers, is what I take as the animating impulse of Noll’s recent work.  His project is to argue the consistency of scholarship with Christianity, and more than that, to assert that Christians who do scholarship importantly enrich academic work.

A common approach in taking up this issue is to cite scripture on the topic of noble work.  In a number of places believers are called, irrespective of the location or nature of their employment, to excellence in the workplace, and I have heard these admonitions cited to induce even professors into offering their dedicated and best work.  Some examples:  The OT Proverbs in several places advocate for diligence (12:24 – “diligent hands will rule”; 14:23 – “all hard work brings a profit”).  Or from the Acts of the Apostles (5:38), a test that much academic work seems easily to pass:  “For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail.  But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourself fighting against God.”  Or, alternatively, the commendation made in the letter to the Colossian church at 3:17: “Do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (which one might read as a command to dedicate all work, especially the work of the mind, to God’s honor); later (3:23), “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart…”  Or, from the first letter to the Corinthian Christians, an injunction essentially to “bloom where you are planted”:  “Nevertheless, each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him.”  Versions of the same idea are repeated three times in that one chapter (7:17, 7:20, 7:24) alone.  In the letter Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus, he writes (6:5-8) “Obey earthly masters with respect and fear and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ…  like slaves of Christ doing the will of God from your heart.  Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men.”

But this is not the path laid out by Prof. Noll.  Instead, Life of the Mind searches scripture for those places where insights into intellectualism can be abstracted into a philosophy of Christian scholarship.  What Noll finds everywhere are invitations to closer scrutiny and deeper inquiry.  In the Christian creeds and in the major doctrinal worldviews found in the New Testament (such as the first chapter of Colossians (1:16-17) are statements about the created world that he reads as inviting Christians to respond to creation with the impulse to further explore and learn.  In the statements of Jesus to which I’ve alluded already (especially for Noll: “Come, and see!”), Noll apprehends a scholarly impulse which one can credit by faith with always rewarding closer scrutiny.  What Noll advocates is a faithful confidence that deeper engagement with the protocols of learning will lead thinkers closer to God and not further away:

The specific requirements for Christian scholarship all grow naturally from Christian worship inspired by love:  confidence in the ability to gain knowledge about the world because the world was brought into being through Jesus Christ; commitment to careful examination of the objects of study through “coming and seeing”; trust that good scholarship and faithful discipleship cannot ultimately conflict; humility from realizing that learning depends at every step on a merciful God; and gratitude in acknowledging that all good gifts come from above.  If, as Christians believe, “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” are hid in Christ (Col 2:3), the time is always past for talking about treasure hunting.  The time is always now to unearth treasure, offer it to others for critique or affirmation, and above all find in it new occasions to glorify the one who gives the treasure and is the treasure himself.  (p. 149).

Shortly after its publication, the great Yale theologian Nicholas Wolsterstorff wrote a positive review that nonetheless wondered whether Noll’s three-chapter discipline-by-discipline case studies were rich enough to make compelling the case for Christian contributions to scholarship.  He wrote:

Let me add that whereas the Christological case that Noll makes for Christians engaging in serious learning seems to me both compelling and rich, the guidelines that he teases out of classic Christology for how we actually engage in learning strike me as rather thin by comparison.  Christians, he says, will affirm contingency.  They will affirm particularity.  With the Incarnation in mind they will insist, by analogy, that ascribing a natural cause to some event is compatible with ascribing it to God as well.  They will resist the pride characteristic of intellectuals.  All true; but very general and abstract.

That point is well taken, although given the common radical separation of secular and sacred intellectual inquiry, it may be that the simple articulation of a Christian alternative itself might engage deeper thinking.

For me, the trickier question is whether, despite the intellectual payoffs to be found in the great faith traditions, they should ever be strongly asserted in the public university.  One need not condemn Christians to silence in the public square to recognize that in an institution aiming to welcome and encourage thinkers from all backgrounds and perspectives, the forceful articulation of Christian theological imperatives risks doing as much damage to the open spirit of inquiry (by silencing those who will wonder if they can freely disagree with faith commitments so deeply held) as good.  I wonder.  It may be that the scholarly work Noll advocates is best undertaken in explicitly religious institutions, from which point its findings and main claims can be disseminated more widely as an implicit corrective to the narrower work of a public educational system that will of rightful necessity orient its efforts to reach more widely.

For me, then, Noll’s work finally raises this question:  Even conceding the strongest case for Christian scholarship (which is to say, the case that an articulated Christian worldview can enliven any disciplinary conversation), does it then follow that Christian commitments should be always and everywhere articulated?  Or, put a bit differently, does every workplace obligate the believer to proselytization?  Is it possible that, as Paul made tents to raise money for his missionary journeys, there were days when he simply quietly engaged in craftsmanship without preaching to his colleagues?  As the New Testament figure Lydia made purple silks, which we are told she did to fund the work of the church, did she try to determine how this or that biblical verse might better inform her artistic practice?  Or were these believers content simply to segment their good work, willing to concentrate their evangelism within other locales where Christian testimony would be more gratefully received than the tent or silk workshops?

Interpreting ossuary boxes

Roughly seven years ago the discovery of a 2000-year old bone box (or, ossuary) which is engraved with the words James, Son of Joseph, brother of Jesus, was announced, setting in motion a media, scholarly, and now judicial frenzy.  There is not much doubt that the 20-inch long box is about the right age to be from the period when Jesus lived; the controversy has to do with whether the inscription was added later.  The editor of the Biblical Archeological Review (BAR first headlined the find in 2002 in an essay written by the Sarbonne scholar André Lemaire) has written a book defending the authenticity of the find, which he says makes this one of the greatest archeological finds of all time since it would be the only contemporaneous evidence that Jesus lived and that the New Testament naming of his (step-)father and brother is accurate.  By contrast, Nina Burleigh has a new book out (Unholy Business:  A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land, Harper Collins) arguing the whole thing is, as the title implies, a gigantic hoax.

The antiquities collector who sprang the find on the world is Oded Golan, who says he was sold the box by an Arab antiquities dealer; he can’t remember who the man was.  An investigation was subsequently undertaken by the Israeli Antiquities Authority, which pronounced the inscriptions a fraud (their Final Report is available on their main website); soon thereafter Golan and three others were arrested and, for the last almost four years, have been on trial for taking valuable historical artifacts and adding fake lettering in a scheme to make them massively more valuable.  Golan denies the charges.

The case is obviously complicated, and pretty interesting.  Golan is accused of also faking a tablet he claims came from the first Solomon Temple.  The ossuary, if confirmed, might rock the world of Christian scholarship (more on that in a moment); the Jehoash tablet, if confirmed, might rock the world of Judaism by proving the existence of Solomon’s Temple on the historically contested Al Aqsa Temple Mount.

A lot of the skepticism derives from the fact that the finds just seem too good to be true.  The tablet contains sixteen full lines of text, when similar finds from the right period are lucky to include a smattering of textual fragments.  Burleigh note that when the authorities searched Golan’s house, they found little baggies of ancient dirt and charcoal, along with carving tools one would use to fake age an object.  During one search, as the Toronto Star reported it, “the James Ossuary was found sitting atop a disused toilet, an odd place, police felt, for a box purported to have once contained the DNA of Jesus’ family.”

The Israel Antiquities Authority sees the case as open and shut.  While some have argued that scientifically valid tests of the stone patina verify the authenticity of the engraved lettering, the panel of experts convened by IAA judged the inscription a fraud.  In part their argument was based on a finding that the inscription cut through the old patina (implying it was of recent origin).  Parts of the inscription, they argued, were recently baked on; in that more recently applied inscription patina (the part that seems to connect the box to someone named Jesus), they found trace elements that wouldn’t have existed in ancient Jerusalem but are found today in chemically treated tap water.

But under intensive question-and-answer in the lawsuit, the case has weakened – one expert from Germany said the IAA had contaminated the key evidence and another (Ada Yardeni) said she would leave her profession if the ossuary turned out to be a fake.  Opponents of the IAA conclusions argue that their objectivity cannot be trusted given IAA’s strong opposition to artifacts brought to light via the commercial antiquities trade.  The testimony has been so conflicted that two months ago the judge actually suggested the prosecution drop the charges against Golan; he said it seemed unlikely to him a conviction could be achieved (which in turn led Hershel Shenks, the BAR editor, to issue a report that the find had been “vindicated” – this month writing, the “forgery case collapses”).  Burleigh is frustrated because a possible key witness is an Egyptian who says he used to forge for Golan.  But Egypt won’t extradite the man and he doesn’t seem interested in testifying, and so his story likely won’t be heard.  Defenders of the box’s authenticity argue Burleigh is just trying to sell her book, and the book’s thesis blows up if the find proves genuine (and so, they insinuate, she’ll say anything to discredit it).

The whole thing got even wilder earlier this year when a documentary film produced by James Cameron (yes, the Titanic guy) was released.  Directed by Simcha Jacobovici, The Lost Tomb of Jesus, which has by now screened around the world (Jacobovici has also co-authored a book on the subject called The Jesus Tomb and the documentary aired under the title The Jesus Family Tomb on the Discovery Channel), argues that the James ossuary and others found nearby establish (at a high level, they say, of statistical probability) that what had been found was the final burial grounds of Jesus’ family.  The statistical part is interesting – the expert quoted in the film did calculations given a series of contingencies laid out by the film’s director.  The statistician is credible (Andre Feuerverger, from the University of Toronto) and the calculations have been judged serious and methodologically sophisticated by a peer-reviewed forum in a leading statistics journal, but the original parameters are highly disputed (especially given how common the names Mary, Jesus, Joseph, and James were back then).

Stephen Pfann, from the University of the Holy Land, isn’t buying it:  “What database serves as the basis for establishing the probability of this claim?  There are no surviving genealogies or records of family names in Judea and Galilee to make any statement concerning frequency of various personal names in families there.”  Joe Zias, former curator of archeology at the Rockefellar Museum in Jerusalem, quoted in a March 2007 Newsweek article, was even blunter: “Simcha has no credibility whatsoever.  He’s pimping off the Bible…  Projects like these make a mockery of the archeological profession.”

Smart people got involved in the film (among them Princeton’s James Charlesworth and the University of North Carolina [Charlotte]’s James Tabor), but the film still reaches pretty far.  Based on a fourth ossuary from the same tomb (which some now aim to turn into a mega-tourist site), (here quoting a summary by David Horovitz in the Jerusalem Post) the filmmakers:

 …point to Ossuary 701… inscribed “Mariamne,” who they say is identified as Mary Magdelene in the 4th century text, The Acts of Philip.  And since Mary Magdalene is in the Jesus family tomb, and ultra-modern testing has established, astoundingly, that her bone-box and Jesus’ contained DNA of non-blood relatives, she must have been Jesus’ partner, they reason.  And since there’s a “Judah son of Jesus” in the tomb too (Ossuary 702) they dare to suggest he was most likely their son.  

Why, it’s the Da Vinci Code, all over again!  Burleigh half jokingly predicts we’ll soon see Solomon’s crown and Abraham’s sandals appearing on the antiquities market.

The case, beyond its intrinsic interest, has implications for how knowledge is created and distorted and popularized.  Some believers eager for evidence confirming their faith prove gullible to media mythmakers who popularize (and sometimes grotesquely distort) the scientific basis for their claims.  And the scientists get hauled into courts, where the standards of evidence vary dramatically from the tests of the laboratory or the peer review publication process.  Two sides get ginned up, science goes on trial, and (as Burleigh puts it) “the subjective underbelly of the science is… exposed…, big time” (qtd. by Laidlaw, Toronto Star, 11/4/08).  In cases of ambiguity, either fraud is perpetuated or doubt cast on potentially astonishing discoveries.  The debate rages on forever, creating cottage industries of scholarly blood feud.  It is this very cycle that accounts for the fact that Holy Family tombs have now been “authenticated” (as the Newsweek report put it) beneath the Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem and at another site in Ephesus (the Catholic Church says Mary was buried both places), the rock on which the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was erected in Jerusalem (Constantine said that was where Jesus was laid to rest), and a tomb in Safed (where last year Tabor said he found a Jesus tomb).

Stay tuned.  The Golan trial gets going again later this month.

SOURCES:  “’Jesus box’ may not be a fake after all,” Daily Mail (London), 30 October 2008, pg. 11; Stuart Laidlaw, “Forgery of antiquities is big business,” Toronto Star, 4 November 208, pg. L01; David Horovitz, “Giving ‘Jesus’ the silent treatment,” Jerusalem Post, 2 March 2007, pg. 24; Nina Burleigh, “Faith and fraud,” Los Angeles Times, 29 November 2008, pg. A21; “Forgery case collapses,” Biblical Archeology Review, January/February 2009, pgs. 12-13; Lisa Miller and Joanna Chen, “Raiders of the lost tomb,” Newsweek, 5 March 2007, pg. 60; Nicole Gaouette, “What ‘Jesus hoax’ could mean for Mideast antiquities,” Christian Science Monitor, 19 June 2003, pg. 7.

Interpreting the nativity accounts

A book written last year by Marcus Borg (the professor of religion at Oregon State) and John Dominic Crossan (whose work on the “historical Jesus” has long been controversial), The First Christmas:  What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth (New York:  Harper Collins, 2007) starts with a premise likely to be rejected by most mainstream Christians.  I’ve been reading it today – appropriately, I received it as a Christmas gift.

What if, ask Borg and Crossan, we set aside for a moment the impulse to read the nativity accounts in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke as either historically true or false, and work to read them either as parables or overtures?  Doing so, they suggest, produces interesting readings that can help explain how first century believers would have understood the birth accounts.  They argue that such an approach is warranted, at least in part, because only the later gospels deal extensively with the birth of Jesus (Mark’s gospel, believed to be the first, includes no account of extraordinary birth, and Paul’s letters, which may predate all the gospels, do not dwell on anything exceptional about his birth).  Thus, “the reason that references to a special birth do not appear in the earliest Christian writings is either because the stories did not yet exist or because they were still in the process of formation.  In either case, these stories are relatively late, not part of the earliest Christian tradition about Jesus” (26).

Reading the birth accounts as parables, Borg and Crossan insist, “does not require denying their factuality.  It simply sets that question aside.  A parabolic approach means, ‘Believe whatever you want about whether the stories are factual – now, let’s talk about what these stories mean” (35).  And reading them as overtures, where “Matthew 1-2 is a miniature version of the succeeding Matthew 3-28, and Luke 1-2 is a miniature version of Luke 3-24” (38), makes each a “summary, synthesis, metaphor, or symbol of the whole” (39) gospel that follows.

Reading Luke’s account as purposely constructed for certain persuasive ends (as opposed to a diary-like review of day-by-day chronology) reveals it more plainly as an anti-imperial story whose details enact an antithetical narrative set in diametric opposition to stories then circulating about Caesar Augustus as Savior of the World and Son of God and Bringer of Peace.  Every detail situates Jesus-as-not-Caesar.  Every specific feature of Jesus’ miraculous birth is made more spectacular than the mythologized birth of Caesar Augustus then in public circulation.  And the details dwell on the powerless and marginalized – women and shepherds and the poor are given pride of place, but all within a narrative structure that would have been readily recognizable to any Roman/pagan cosmopolitan.  In patterns that continue in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, the story places the marginalized at the heart of empire and positioned to speak truth to power, challenging Roman rule at every turn in a contrast that makes ever-present the difference between the Roman Way (peace through victory) and the Jesus Way (peace through justice).

The parallels between the world view of the Romans and the Judeo/Christian eschatology include the then-common theory that Rome was the fifth of five world historical empires (following Assyria, Medes, Persians, Macedonia, as recounted in Caius Velleius Paterculus’ Compendium of Roman History, written around 30CE), and Daniel’s Old Testament description of four empires (Babylon, Medean, Persian, and Macedonian) that would be superceded by a kingdom of God.  Borg/Crossan:  “It is not accurate to distinguish the imperial kingdom of Rome from the eschatological kingdom of God by claiming that one is earthly the other heavenly, one is evil the other holy, or one demonic the other sublime.  That is simply name-calling.  Both come to us with divine credentials for the good of humanity.  There are two alternative transcendental visions.  Empire promises peace through violent force.  Eschaton promises peace through nonviolent justice” (75).

Matthew’s birth account, which barely focuses on Jesus as a character and mainly on Joseph and the wider efforts made by the regional prefect, Herod, to murder him, emerges as a parable of Jesus-as-Moses.  “It would scream to those Jews as it should to us Christians as loudly as a giant newspaper headline:  EVIL RULER SLAUGHTERS MALE INFANTS.  PREDESTINED CHILD ESCAPES” (42).  The pattern fixed in the account of Moses’ birth (elaborated both in Exodus chapters 1 and 2 and in later accounts written by Philo and under the titles Targum Pseudo-Jonathan and the Book of Memoirs) lays out a detailed chronology of royal decree, necessary divorce (marriages were abandoned to avoid the risk that sex would result in the birth of a child condemned to death), a divine prophesy, and remarriage.  This, in turn, lays the predicate for a New Testament account where Herod commands infant death, Joseph is made to threaten divorce (this time fearing Mary’s infidelity), but the New Moses is born and survives, ironically finding safety in the country of Egypt from which the original Moses had to flee.

Modeled after the Five Books of the Pentateuch, Matthew’s gospel repeats the pattern:  five divine dreams, five scriptural fulfillments, five women in the genealogy, five mentions of Jesus as Messiah, and a subsequent five major discourses delivered by Jesus (starting with the Sermon on the Mount at chapters 5-7, then sermons delivered in chapters 10-11, 13, 18-19, and 24-25).

The genealogies that accompany each account, the discrepancies between which have long provoked theological debate and downright skepticism from non-believers, are also constructed for certain persuasive purposes.  Borg and Crossan “see those genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke as countergenealogies to that of Caesar Augustus” (96).

Borg and Crossan repeatedly insist that their thought experiment is not offered as an exercise in “pointing out ‘contradictions,’ as debunkers of the stories often due.  In their minds, the differences mean the stories are fabrications, made-up tales unworthy of serious attention.  This is not our point at all.  Rather, paying attention to the distinctiveness and details of the nativity stories is how we enter into the possibility of understanding what they meant in the first century” (23-24).  But the extent to which they press their case will still unnerve many believers, especially those persuaded that the two birth accounts can be easily harmonized.  An example is a brief detour that seems to imply a radical retelling of Jesus’ birth as inflected through the event of the Roman ransacking of the Sepphoris region in 4 BCE:

Jesus grew up in Nazareth after 4 BCE, so this is our claim.  The major event in his village’s life was the day the Romans came.  As he grew up toward Luke’s coming of age at twelve, he could not not have heard, again and again and again, about the day of the Romans – who had escaped and who had not, who had lived and who had died.  The Romans were not some distant mythological beings; they were soldiers who had devastated Nazareth’s backyard around the time of his birth.  So this is how we imagine, as close to history as possible, what his actual coming-of-age might have entailed.

One day, when he was old enough, Mary took Jesus up to the top of the Nazareth ridge.  It was springtime, the breeze had cleared the air, and the wildflowers were already everywhere.  Across the valley, Sepphoris gleamed white on its green hill.  “We knew they were coming,” Mary said, “but your father had not come home.  So we waited after the others were gone.  Then we heard the noise, and the earth trembled a little.  We did too, but your father had still not come home.  Finally, we saw the dust and we had to flee, but your father never came home.  I brought you up here today so you will always remember that day we lost him and what little else we had.  We lived, yes, but with these questions.  Why did God not defend those who defended God?  Where was God that day the Romans came?”  [pgs. 77-78]

The account is sure to infuriate, though in explaining away a virgin birth scenario at least Borg and Crossan do not slip into the more explosive accounts offered by the first opponents of Christianity (that Mary was raped by a Roman soldier or that Jesus was otherwise an illegitimate child, both stories insinuated by Celsus in his ancient anti-Christian polemic On the True Doctrine).

Others will rebel against the definitive refusal by Borg and Crossan to entertain the factual possibility of a Roman worldwide census – they categorically rule out that part of the Luke account as wildly improbable (there was a regional census organized by Quirinius, they agree, but the timing is wrong and it would have come ten years too late to anticipate Jesus’ birth, Joseph wouldn’t have been living in the right region, citizens were not typically required by Rome to return to their birthplaces but were taxed and counted where they lived and worked, and the way the census is made to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem doesn’t square with how a Roman census/taxation would have worked).  But, again, for B/C the issue of factual (in)accuracy is beside the point.  The real power of the census story is that “Jesus and earliest Christianity are… historically located, imperially dated, and cosmically significant events” (149).

The value of the thought experiment this little book performs arrives in the reading of the Christian creed it finally unfolds, which I find compelling.  Contrasting Rome and Christianity, the authors note:

The terrible truth is that our world has never established peace through victory.  Victory establishes not peace, but lull.  Thereafter, violence returns once again, and always worse than before.  And it is that escalator violence that then endangers our world.  The four-week period of Advent before Christmas… are times of penance and life change for Christians…  We [have] suggested that [the Easter-season] Lent was a penance time for having been in the wrong procession and a preparation time for moving over to the right one by Palm Sunday.  That day’s violent procession of the horse-mounted Pilate and his soldiers was contrasted with the nonviolent procession of the donkey-mounted Jesus and his companions.  We asked:  in which procession would we have walked then and in which do we walk now?  We face a similar choice each Christmas…  Do we think that peace on earth comes from Caesar or Christ?  Do we think it comes through violent victory or nonviolent justice?  Advent, like Lent, is about a choice of how to live personally and individually, nationally and internationally. [168]

Or, as they put it in closing the book:  “Both personal and political transformation… require our participation.  God will not change us as individuals without our participation, and God will not change the world without our participation” (242).

Christianity: Undergoing a Great Emergence?

Phyllis Tickle is the founding editor of the religion section of Publisher’s Weekly, a position created when the market for spiritual books exploded in the late 1980’s (she started in the early 1990’s).  From that vantage point, and given her own theological predispositions, she has had a unique perspective on the unfolding debates within Christendom that are both dividing denominations and arguably creating what she, in a recent book, terms a Great Emergence (Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, BakerBooks, 2008).

The book starts with an intriguing premise whose promise is, I think, unfulfilled as Tickle works through the argument.  The idea is that Christianity (she is also willing to concede this may be true of the Islamic and Jewish traditions; pgs. 29-30) moves in roughly 500-year cycles, each concluded by significant ideological upheaval, schism, and regeneration.  Thus roughly 500 years ago was the Protestant Reformation (dated to 1517, when Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church, portrayed in the image above), another 500 years before that the Great Schism, and another 500 years earlier to the work and aftermath of the Chalcedon Council.   Following the standard accounts, the Great Schism is credited as producing, in no small measure under the example of Gregory the Great, an end to the wars that had split Christendom into three competing regional institutions.  And the debates settled or papered over at Chalcedon in 451 led in turn to the production of a monastic culture that preserved literacy and learning through the aftermath of the collapse of the Roman Empire.  By this historical reckoning, we are roughly due for another rebooting of the Christian faith, or, as Tickle puts it, following the Anglican bishop Mark Dyer, a “giant rummage sale” – all of which will induce Christianity 5.0, as it were.

The term Great Emergence references the phenomenon of religious uncertainty and a crisis of spiritual authority in the modern world, and also broader cultural transformations, such as globalization (15), information overload (15), and the World Wide Web (53).

While one can never be certain of the outcome, Tickle takes comfort from the historical fact that “there are always at least three consistent results or corollary events.  First, a new, more vital form of Christianity does indeed emerge.  Second, the organized expression of Christianity which up until then had been the dominant one is reconstituted into a more pure and less ossified expression of its former self…  The third result is of equal, if not greater significance”:  “…every time the incrustations of an overly established Christianity have been broken up, the faith has spread – and been spread – dramatically into new geographic and demographic areas…” (17).  This leads her to a repeated expression of optimism, even when (as follows) she is recounting the worst aspects of Christian history (here, colonialism):

…the more or less colonialized Church that Reformation Protestantism and Catholicism managed to plant was, obviously more or less colonialized, with all the demeaning psychological, political, cultural, and social overtones and resentments which that term brings with it.  One does not have to be particularly gifted as a seer these days, however, to perceive the Great Emergence already swirling like balm across that wound, bandaging it with genuinely egalitarian conversation and with an undergirding assumption of shared brotherhood and sisterhood in a world being redeemed. (29).

The ferment in the Christian world today is, depending on one’s perspective, evidence of the End of the Age and a coming Rapture/Apocalypse, evidence that rationalism has finally ushered religious superstition into the final death throes announced almost fifty years ago with the phrase God is Dead, evidence of a long overdue urgent need for Christian revival, or, as is argued here, the birth pangs of a reconfigured and stronger faith tradition.  One problem in Tickle’s argument is that she starts by asserting a case that needs to be proved:  why derive confidence from the Episcopal or Anglican schisms, or the increasing divide between mainstream Christianity as understood in, say, North America and Africa?  why believe that the denominational spasms opened by the debates over gay marriage and Terry Schiavo are the happy start of a revitalized faith as opposed to signifying irreparable breaches in the Body of Christ?  One cannot simply point to prior reformations as establishing the case for optimism.

The book goes downhill, not because the author lacks insight, but because the issues it engages are inevitably too complicated to be reduced to the metaphorical images Tickle offers as roadmaps to an ever more fragmented religious scene.  Those maps are just complicated enough to seem awkward (religious signification is like a cable connecting a boat to a dock, where the cable has an outer waterproof covering that is the story of community, an internal mesh sleeve which is the common imagination, and internal woven strands signifying spirituality, corporeality, and morality:  get it?) but not complex enough to do justice to the worlds of faith.  And all this is worsened in the final pages, where a 2-by-2 grid is made more and more complex, such that by the end the picture has been made into an unholy mess.  The grids that organize the book thus give rise to sentences that make no sense:  “Corporeality’s active presence in religion is also the reason why doctrinal differences like those surrounding homosexuality, for example, are more honestly and effectively dealt with as corporeal rather than as moral issues” (39).  Huh?

The book’s middle section, which aims to enumerate the factors that have brought us to this juncture, is the weakest.  While naming all the usual suspects (Darwin, Freud, the pill, industrial transformation, science, Marxism, recreational drug use, womens’ rights organizing that changed the family, and others), the argument sometimes veers into weird territory.  Alcoholics Anonymous is blamed for making God generic.  The automobile is accused of weakening grandma’s Sunday afternoon hegemony over religious training (instead of interrogating the kids about that morning’s Sunday School lesson, the kids took the car on a fast Sunday drive; pg. 87).  The Sony Walkman and the iPod are blamed for ruining worship services (105).  Generation X disenchantment with organized religion is ironically blamed on efforts by the church to extend programs into communities, like after-school basketball (91).

Joseph Campbell (the Hero With a Thousand Faces, Bill Moyers guy) is named the leading suspect in the collapse of Christianity authority, a claim that seems wildly exaggerated (Tickle:  “It would be very difficult, in speaking of the coming of the Great Emergence, to overestimate the power of Campbell in the disestablishment of what is called ‘the Christian doctrine of particularity’ and ‘Christian exclusivity,” pg. 67).  The central claims of Marx’s Das Kapital are significantly caricatured (89).  A couple pages later (90) Tickle implies the Great Society was a communist plot (judge for yourself:  “Twentieth century Christianity in this country met the statism and atheism in communist theory head on, and American political theory militated from the beginning against the heinous brutality inherent in unfettered power.  Nonetheless, we voted in Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society.”)  Left out altogether or only passingly mentioned are other events that seem to me a lot more theologically decisive:  the Bomb, the Holocaust, the world wars, Vietnam, the Cold War.   The case starts to feel sloppy, too quickly written.

I regret this because the book raises important questions:  Are we living in a time of religious transformation or evisceration?  Are there resources in the Christian faith sufficient to reconstitute doctrinal authority in an age that resists authority wherever asserted?  To what extent is the cultural elite rejection (sometimes articulated as postmodernism) of capitalism, middle class values, the nuclear family, and the nation-state also evidence of the collapse of institutional religion (or is religion the potential cure)?  Are current upheavals (economic, political, security) more likely to rekindle religious faith or to weaken denominations further by arousing skepticism?

Perhaps a Great Emergence lies close at hand.  Or maybe not.

Retrieving the historical David

The question of whether the biblical David actually existed and the extent to which he ruled over a minor tribe or a major kingdom may seem tangential to those who connect to him mainly as a mythic figure or by religious faith – the boy who killed Goliath, the young shepherd who loved Jonathan and whose musical playing could calm king Saul’s savage migraines and who later became king, the older melancholy intellect we connect with the Psalms, and the scheming sexual predator who murdered a general to sleep with his wife.  But the archeological interest connecting to recent finds that some see as confirming his biography have implications not only for Israeli identity and national history, they are likely to play a role in the ongoing work to vindicate Zionism.  This is so because the state of Israel has long been linked in the historical imagination as the modern-day incarnation of David’s united kingdom.

Yosef Garfinkel, a Hebrew University archeologist, has been overseeing a dig at Khirbet Qeiyafa near the historic Valley of Elah (the Bible says this is where David brought Goliath down and the dig is only a couple miles from Goliath’s home town of Gath), located near the modern Israeli town of Beit Shemesh, and containing the remains of a heavily armored 3000-year-old city.  In the immediate vicinity, scholars have long been at work to unearth evidence of Philistine culture and militarism, and the cryptic remains that date to the 10th-century B.C.E. are of special interest because that was the period of asserted national unification, when the biblical account says David brought together Judah and Israel and expanded the nation.  But defensible remains are hard to find, and as one journalist recently put it, “a  number of scholars today argue that the kingdom was largely a myth created some centuries later.  A great power, they note, would have left traces of cities and activity, and been mentioned by those around it” (Bronner).  Work at the Elah Fortress just began earlier this year in earnest.

The absence of historical data from this period so far is why archeologists and biblical partisans are interested in a new find at the Garfinkel dig, which is shown in the photograph above.  A shard of pottery, inscribed with charcoal and animal fat and carbon dated by Oxford University to the period between 1050 and 970 B.C. (the precise period in question), seems to offer evidence on several fronts.  First, if confirmed, it shows evidence of literacy from a period for which evidence of writing is sparse – this is important because for biblical scholars it offers a way to square the writings of received scripture with the assumption that the period’s culture was largely or even exclusively oral.  Second, the site holds promise because it was only active for a very short period before the encampment was shut down, possibly in the aftermath of a military defeat at the hands of the Philistines, and so the normal blending of archeological evidence in layer upon contested layer is less an obstacle to historical analysis than it often would be in other settings.

Garfinkel argues that the pottery fragment, inscribed in a proto-Canaanite script, shows that the city was a forward deployed military base of Israeli/Hebraic origin or use.  For him the site’s location, two day’s walking distance south of Jerusalem, proves or at least strongly suggests that the reach of David’s empire was considerable enough to invest the ten years time it would have taken to produce such fortifications.  The site is large and its six acre, 700-meter-long city wall would have taken a long time to construct (and the construction would not have been simple:  some of the stones comprising the wall weigh as much as eight tons apiece).  Such evidence might go far in settling an ongoing historical debate between those who argue the general surface remains show no evidence of urban centers or a large dispersed population capable of constituting a 10th-century B.C.E. kingdom, and those who read the anthropological evidence as strong enough to support the judgment that a centralized government and bureaucracy could have been sustained by the available population centers.

Garfinkel is no biblical literalist (“we have to calm down before we start jumping to sentimental, Biblical conclusions,” he has said).  For him the new find might simply suggest that the story of David and Goliath mythically represents the likely ongoing skirmishes between the people who lived in the Elah Fortress and the Philistines who lived nearby.  But skepticism has been expressed even about his more definitive claims, in part because some of the funding for the excavation comes from an organization called Foundation Stone, which encourages archeological work confirming the Jewish connection to the historical Holy Land.  Others are less sure of what to make of the findings than Garfinkel – while acknowledging its archeological importance, for example, Amihai Mazar (another archeologist working at Hebrew University) wonders at the strength of the evidence the Fortress has so far yielded:  “The question is who fortified it, who lived in it, why it was abandoned, and how it all relates to the reign of David and Solomon,” David’s son.

A more complicated suggestion made by Garfinkel and his colleagues is that the pottery piece directly hints at David himself.  The text is not fully deciphered, but because the words king, judge, and slave are written there, the fragment may suggest some sort of official communique from the time of David’s rule or a system of scribal regulatory conveyance.

For believers in the scriptural record, such a find would be a happy but unnecessary confirmation of what they already know:  that David unified a group of warring tribes into a significant Mediterranean kingdom whose existence was prophetically foreseen and which laid the foundations of the modern state of Israel (if one visits the website for the Israeli government one can see national historical maps that assume the biblical account of David and Solomon is literally true).  But for those who tend to read the Bible’s historical accounts as mainly mythological, the search for a historical David has never been settled by the biographical details enumerated in the books of First and Second Samuel.  And because so few extra-Biblical confirmations have been found (only one inscription from the period, the so-called Tel Dan stele, uses the phrase “House of David”), some doubt whether there ever was a King David.

A slew of recently suggestive finds have reactivated interest in the subject.  Beyond the new pottery shard, a Jerusalem researcher this past week claimed to have “found an ancient water drain mentioned in the Bible as the route used by David’s forces to capture the city from the Jebusites.  [And] in Jordan, scholars said they had uncovered an ancient copper excavation site that tests showed could be the legendary King Solomon’s mines” (Kalman).  The challenge is to avoid racing to friendly conclusions – on other occasions early finds have been publicly circulated as settling the questions surrounding the historical David (including the Mesha Stele and a Pharaonic inscription alleged to refer to the “highlands of David”) only to finally garner limited scholarly support after deeper investigation and debate.  Other sites have offered tantalizing hints of a Davidic reign (including digs done in the heart of Jerusalem and a site first announced as the site of David’s Palace), but have been judged inconclusive either because the sites were contaminated by remains from other periods or could not be definitively connected to the 10th century B.C.E. period under question.

SOURCES:  Ethan Bronner (New York Times correspondent), “Dig may shed light on biblical David,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, 31 October 2008, pg. A7; Matthew Kalman, “’Proof’ David slew Goliath found as Israeli archeologists unearth ‘oldest ever Hebrew text,’” The Mail online, 31 October 2008; Carolynne Wheeler, “Pottery shard lends evidence to stories of Biblical King David,” London Telegraph, 31 October 2008.

On Gregorian chant

The relationship of the arts to Christianity yielded liturgical practices in the Middle Ages that survive to this day and which reflect the whole range of aesthetic practice, from the use of vestment colors to the development of more elaborate architectural schemes (including extraordinary stained glass depictions aimed to spiritually and physically elevate the eye toward the heavens) and the organization of sounds and smells (especially incense) that aimed to create an overarching sense of encountering the Divine.  At a time when congregants were often illiterate and uneducated, the Church made the Latinate mass accessible by the layering on of liturgical drama and ritual.

All of this evolved into highly specialized practices, and for those (like me) not raised in the Catholic or Anglican tradition, the subtleties of variation and repetition are too easily lost.  This is especially true of Gregorian chant (named, of course, for Pope Gregory the Great, who composed and encouraged certain plainsong practices); as WIlliam Mahrt has noted, “although remarkable for its beauty and art, its styles are differentiated according to the purpose of the text which they set.  For each kind of text, there is a particular style of singing which has its own rhetoric, differentiating and identifying that text and giving it suitable expression according to its function” (24).

The priest or other cleric sings two kinds of texts – lessons and prayers.  For each of these, simple formulae serve to deliver the text clearly and effectively, and at the same time to suggest something of its character.  These simple melodies set the grammatical structure of the texts, providing a comma at mid-sentence and a period at the end.  The tone for the first lesson, usually from the Prophets, has a certain harshness, and something of the character of a prophecy in the trumpet-like interval of a fifth; its astringent half-step comma gives it an ascetic, even harsh quality we might associate with a prophet…  The final lesson, from the Gospel, is sometimes sung to an extremely simple tone, sometimes to a more attractive melody.  In either case, the melody distinguishes the Gospel from the previous lessons.

That these and many other structural features of the chants have remained virtually untroubled for almost 1000 years (and the recorded antecedents go back to the late sixth century AD) attests to their continuing spiritual vitality, and more generally to their capacity to induce a sense of the sublime in hearers.  Given this, it seems curious that over time, sharp disagreements provoked by the practice of Gregorian chant have sometimes led the Catholic Church to explicitly discourage its use, and chanting within the context of liturgical practice has often been less visible.

Many explanations are offered that can be easily debunked.  One common misconception is that Gregorian chant fell totally out of favor during the Renaissance, when polyphonic music came more fully into style, but actually even then (for example, prominently in the French monasteries) chant was still nurtured.  Although the Second Vatican Council specifically affirmed the appropriate place of Gregorian chant, another misconception (which arises from the mistaken idea that the Second Vatican outlawed the Latin mass) is that the Church discourages Gregorian chant because it is not performed in the local vernacular.  Still, because singing the older versions mean the mass is not being performed in line with the 1969 revisions of the Latin Missal, some uses of chanting have been discouraged.

I often listen to recorded Gregorian chant as I write or read, since I find its rhythms soothing even when I am wholly separated from its sacred context and although I lack enough skill in Latin to closely follow the meaning.  It has become popular folklore to say that Gregorian chant produces beta waves in the brain which in turn have a calming and meditative effect; I’m not sure whether that’s why I listen or not, but I do find that when I’m listening I can settle more easily into a focused concentration to the task at hand.

As I learn more about the history of Gregorian chanting, I am struck at how many points of contact arise in the scholastic debates with an affinity to current debates over language and rhetoric.  The suasory power of chant derives from its full integration within an embodied context of ritual and wide-ranging connections with all the senses (which is to say, chant is not simply an mechanism of the verbal conveyance of meaning).  The academic disputes center on issues like the various paths of intellectual diffusion and shifts from orality to literacy that will be very familiar to historians of public address and rhetoric.  And scholars of the Gregorian repertory have recently been arguing over the flow of transnational musical discourses in a manner that would be fully recognizable to those at work on globalization topics today.

One of the chief theories, vigorously defended by Kenneth Levy (an emeritus music professor at Princeton and a world-renowned scholar of plainsong), dates the emergence of neumes (the often very precise plainsong notational system) as having its start early, propagated by the early Carolingian Renaissance (the continental aftermath of the reigns of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious);  it was the resulting educational reforms of Alcuin at schools designed to culturally reunify Europe that revitalized the ancient trivium – which included rhetoric – as standard educational method.  Levy has offered a significant revision in the normal timeline as Gregorian/plainsong practices flowed back and forth across Gallic, Frank, Roman, Hispanic, and Byzantine culture, changing and evolving along the way.  He argues that the influence was Gallic-to-Roman and not the other way around.  This hypothesis faces something of an uphill battle among musicologists, though it is taken very seriously, because the dominance of Roman intellectual practices means that evidence of influences on intellectually imperial practices flowing in the opposite direction is hard to find (as Levy puts it, “eventual departures from” Roman musical practice “were unlikely to be proclaimed”).

The orality-origins thesis did not emerge until championed by Helmut Hucke and Leo Treitler in the late 1970’s – before then the assumption was that the original Ur-text version of the chant had been written down from the outset and had simply disappeared.  Interestingly, the dawning recognition that chant (like other modes of public address) started in mechanisms of oral delivery preserved by memorization before it was codified as written script follows a very similar trajectory as rhetorical studies, since the orality/literacy thesis made famous by Walter Ong’s book on the subject in the early 1980’s had already widely circulated thanks to papers he published in the 1960’s and early 70’s.  Because the implications of the arguments over Gregorian chant are considerable for the region’s history, Emma Hornby has noted that “scholarly emotions have tended to run high in this debate” (422).

My own interest in Gregorian chant, and a key to my own tendency to return to it over and again, relates to the sense of mystery it evokes precisely because it sung in a language I do not understand.  My reactions mirror those reported by the religious sociologist Peter Berger, who found himself curiously moved in the early 70’s by a mass done at Stockholm in Swedish:  his conclusion (quoting Jacques Janssen) “was that precisely the use of an unknown or incompletely known language heightens and deepens the power of the ritual” (55).  Experiences like this led Berger to famously argue that making the worship experience wholly transparent and understandable was also, paradoxically, robbing it of its sacred mystery and trivializing the meaning of the Gospel message.  Partly this rests on a sense that when one believes the Divine Other to be wholly comprehensible, then one loses the necessary predicate that some aspects of God remain beyond our cognitive capacity.  Berger called attention to the related and more-than-simply-coincidental fact that two of the world’s major faith traditions, Islam and Judaism, remain faithfully dedicated to the languages of their origin.  [These ideas have a secular counterpart, perhaps best illustrated by Gustav Mahler’s decision to strip the titles off his compositions on the view that the titles were overdetermining the reception of the music.]

For me this evokes something of a cognitive dissonance because of my long-standing and negative visceral response to certain Christian fundamentalists who claim to be “speaking in tongues” even though they are not speaking any recognizable foreign language (unlike the kind of miraculous speaking in a foreign language that Peter accomplished at Pentacost when trying to convert a multinational crowd), and who to my ears seem to me hopelessly lost in infantile babble.  Can it be that I underestimate the spiritual power of this untranslatable stew?  Should I credit its very incomprehensibility as conveying something of the Divine?

I resist such a move.

The allure (at least for me) of Gregorian chant is its ritualized predictability, the fact that I know it to be an effort to use actual words from a different language to bring prayers to life even when one (paradoxically) lacks the capacity to make logical sense of the power of prayer, and this seems to be missing in the more effusively spontaneous eruption into babble.  Janssen makes this point very well, I think, in defending the “magic” of Gregorian chant, noting how “the logic of religious language does not reside in its intelligibility, nor in its communicative power.  In several religions the liturgical language is understood only by a minority of adepts, and sometimes no one understands what is being said, not even the one who is speaking.  It is an old profundity with biblical roots that he who speaks about God will stammer and stutter.”  Extending the point, Janssen writes,

The magical effect of Gregorian chant is known of old.  Even the term “placebo effect” – by now a methodological term to measure magical effectiveness – has been derived from plainsong.  Since the Middle Ages the antiphon “Placebo Domino” (“I will please the Lord,” Psalm 114, 9), followed by the complete psalm, was sung during vespers in the evening of the day of death.  Thus, the text of the antiphon contains the first words to resound in church after someone’s death.  When the physicians can achieve nothing more, “vigils” are sung, i.e., “placebo” (62).

Janssen elaborates these ideas by noting how Dante’s Divina Comedia becomes less intelligible the closer the journey gets to Heaven, as it winds its way toward the Mount of Purification (where Dante says Gregorian chant is heard, at that stopping point between earth and heaven).

The implication, of course, is that language attains its highest intelligibility in hell.

SOURCES:  Jacques Janssen, “Modulating the Silence: The Magic of Gregorian Chant,” Logos 4.4 (Fall 2001): 55-72; William Peter Mahrt, “Gregorian Chant as a Fundamentum of Western Musical Culture:  An Introduction to the Singing of a Solemn High Mass,” Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 33.3 (December 1979): 22-34; Kenneth Levy, Gregorian Chant and the Carolingians (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1998); Levy, “Gregorian Chant and the Romans,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 56.1 (2003): 5-41; Levy, “Charlemagne’s Archetype of Gregorian Chant,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 40.1 (Spring 1987): 1-30; David Hiley, Western Plainchant: A Handbook (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993); Emma Hornby, “The Transmission of Western Chant in the 8th and 9th Centuries: Evaluating Kenneth Levy’s Reading of the Evidence,” Journal of Musicology 21.3 (Summer 2004): 418-457.

Hermann Hesse and joy/suffering

Garrison Keillor’s daily Writer’s Almanac on NPR yesterday mentioned the birthday of the Nobel Prize winner Hermann Hesse.  Born in 1877 and the author of Der Steppenwolf (1927) and Siddhartha (1922), he won the prize in 1946.  Hesse’s life was characterized by a recurrence of depression, but he is also remembered for his renunciation of German citizenship (he was critical of the nationalism in full force there) in favor of a move to Switzerland.

Keillor read an excerpt from a late work that I think is interesting:

What you loved and what you strove for,
        What you dreamed and what you lived through,
        Do you know if it was joy or suffering?
        G sharp and A flat, E flat or D sharp,
        Are they distinguishable to the ear?

At least in the context of this excerpt, of course, the question is rhetorical and the answer clear:  no.

In a little essay on happiness (I’m relying on a 1997 translation available online done by Gerry Busch), Hesse explains that his sense of the word happiness is idiosyncratic, in the sense that for him it expresses “something quite specific, namely completeness itself, timeless existence, the eternal music of the world, that which others may have called the harmony of the spheres or the smile of God.”  Seen in that context, one might imagine that joy/happiness can be seen as the (opposite side of the same coin?  best of times/worst of times?) equivalent of suffering to the extent that both are strong emotions expressing reactions to one’s place in the world, and both often fleeting and layered and complex.

The equation of two ideas so often opposed in our everyday sense of things will seem deeply out of kilter to those whose self-conceptions are anchored either in a sense of profound victimage or satisfaction (although of course there are some who derive enormous satisfaction from their victimage).  But for me, and I gather this was the case for Hesse, feelings of sadness and happiness are often simultaneous, and for some time my sense has been that this reflects a kind of coming-into-maturity.  I don’t mean to say that happy or sad people are immature, but rather that as I look back on my own life experiences, the same circumstances often produced precisely opposed reactions.  The very thing that prompted feelings of happiness also generated a sense that this moment is fleeting and will soon be lost forever.  Because the universe is not organized to make me comfortable (or you either), the same moments are sometimes both pleasurable and uncomfortable, funny and annoying, loving and unsatisfying, fulfilling and anxiety producing.  I think it is a realization of this sense, often achieved only long after the fact, that makes us so often aware that what seemed like a very good situation at the time was the very thing we needed to transcend or move on from or pass beyond.   Or this might also be seen through the lens of a marriage where both partners experience the same events but one resides in a state of bliss and the other in a state of total misery:  same facts simultaneously yield happiness and suffering.

(Tangential thought experiment:  A married couple lives together for sixty years.  The husband believes the marriage to be perfect and cannot imagine life without his wife.  The wife hates the marriage, prays every day for its end but never quite summons the courage to terminate it, and comes to secretly hate her partner.  How will this situation be handled in heaven, presuming they both make it there?  Discuss).

I am very contented with my life:  happy and lucky and loved.  But I still find it difficult to answer that most everyday of questions – how are you?  My immediate thought is always:  That is a more complicated question than you realize.  But if I say this, I risk coming across as depressed or self-absorbed.  And yet saying GREAT!!! also seems wrong, or inaccurate, because my days are filled with a wide range of moments that defy easy categorization, some of which feel life suffering in the moment but are also weirdly satisfying.  And so I often shrug my shoulders and say something like, I’m doing OK, or just turn the question around.  But the moment those words – I’m doing OK – leave my lips I want to take them back, since they imply melancholy and that isn’t what I’m feeling either.  I’m happy, but I just want to nuance it.

G sharp and A flat, E flat or D sharp?
        Are they distinguishable to the ear?

Well, no.  But as they catch in the throat they often feel utterly different.

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