Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Jesus, a Galilean Story-Teller

Whatever else he may have been Jesus was clearly a teller of tales.  His stories remind me of the world's first photographic process, the daguerreotype.  His tales, like those old photos, were black and white, grainy, and often blurry, but nevertheless provided realistic images of life in first-century rural Galilee.  For the most part the stories replicated common life in small peasant villages.  Chances are that all his characters in peasant village life were accurate to type, but those few modeled on characters from the upper classes are, likely, lacking in verisimilitude because of the inaccessibility of the oral "folk poet" to their exclusive social circles.  Few of the stories reflect religious motifs, however general, and none of the stories are theological or eschatological in character.  Theology and eschatology are brought to them by pious believers, and early "Christians," who preserved them purely for theological and religious reasons.
               The stories treat human beings in Palestine momentarily caught in the act of being human—except two.  One of these (Luke 16:19-31) contrasts the states of the rich and the poor after death.  The other, a Q story (Matt 12:43-45a = Luke 11:24-26a), describes "unclean" Spirits who possess an individual.  This last narrative provides the only confirmation among the stories that their artistic creator shared in the mythology of evil spirits, and demons endemic to the ancient world.  According to the Jesus Seminar this story did not originate with Jesus, and it seems to be little discussed in academic literature.  Brandon Scott, Craig Blomberg, and Arland Hultgren do not include the story in their parables surveys; Graham Twelftree does not include it in his book on spirit possession and exorcism in Palestine.
               The story of the twice–possessed person, however, is narrative, as is the classic form of "parable." In form the story is not unlike other better known stories Jesus told.  The story of the twice-possessed person narrates a case of possession by an "unclean" Spirit, later described as "evil."  Contrary to the highly respected German scholar, Joachim Jeremias, the Spirit is not "cast out," but merely goes out of the person of its own volition.  It passes through the desert (i.e., "waterless places") seeking rest, but finding none (why the Spirit needed rest is not stated), the Spirit returns to its "house," in the person in whom it formerly resided.  It found the "house" cleaned up and put in order (Matthew adds that it was "empty"). Speaking in images like the story, apparently during its residency this possessing Spirit had only disarranged and cluttered the house, leaving a dirty floor. The Spirit went out again, and found seven other Spirits "more evil" than itself.  And all eight entered and dwelled there.  Q added an interpretive conclusion (Matt 12:45a = Luke 11:26a), "and the last state of that person becomes worse than the first."  Matthew adds a second interpretation (12:26c): "So shall it also be with this generation."
               The story describes the helpless and the hopeless condition of a person possessed by a Spirit: if for some reason the possessing Spirit decides to vacate its "house," nothing prevents it from returning and causing even more serious harm to its host, who had in the interim regained an ordered life.  Jeremias argued that the relapse is not "predetermined and inevitable," but merely possible, and makes the individual responsible for keeping free of future possession by not letting the "house" become empty, and hence subject to repossession.
               In short the story describes the absolute control that evil spirits exert in the ancient world.  Apparently anyone could be possessed or repossessed at the whim of any Spirit.  Matthew regards the story as a curse upon "this evil generation" (Matt 12:45c; 12:38-39).  In Luke it becomes a warning about the dangers of demon possession (Luke 11:14-26).  Jeremias turned it into Christian theology.  He thinks the life of the healed individual must be filled with a spiritual element—"the word of Jesus."
               The canonical gospels, with the exception of John, relate several stories about the exorcism of demons.  Oddly there is only one story about Spirit possession in the Old Testament (1 Sam 16:14-16; 18:10; 19:9), but the amelioration of Saul's depression by David's harp playing is scarcely an exorcism in the later Hellenistic style (cf. Tobit 3:7-8; 6:7-8, 16-17).  None of the other seven exorcism stories in the gospels concern repeat possessions by evil Spirits.
               Does this story of Spirit possession have any relevance in the 21st century, other than as an astute observation on life in the 1st century?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

We Live By Fiction as Much as by Truth

As a general rule we have little difficulty living by the fictions we invent.  Fictions are things "made up."  We recognize that they are not actually true, but we act "as if" they were.  The difficulty, however, is that some fictions harden into myths.
               For example, we sometimes fudge the truth by creating conscious fictions about ourselves to put things in a better light rather than the harsh light of actuality, and think of them as only slight "exaggerations."  Often we end up believing our own fictions, and even include them in our personal resumes.  Thus have we consciously imposed a fictional pattern on our personal reality, which becomes a datum in our personal story.  Over time some forget that it was once only a fiction.
               Society also creates fictions to live by.  In the recent court case of Sebelius vs. Hobby Lobby et al. Justice Alito cited the dictionary as part of the justification for regarding corporations as "persons," when they concluded corporations can have religious beliefs.  Corporations are fictional legal entities that can conduct business, acquire property, and sue or be sued, etc.  As legal entities they serve as shields for Boards of Directors. Even the most na├»ve among us, however, know that legal entities are not persons, for the first dictionary definition of person is "human being."  Corporations, do not have physical bodies and hence can neither make love, nor perform other human bodily functions.  They cannot think, feel, worship, or pray.  Therefore corporations cannot have "personal" religious beliefs as people do, even though the members of the Board of Directors of a corporation doubtless do have religious scruples.  Nevertheless the fiction that corporations are "persons" is now the law which governs our entire society.  The Supreme Court simply forgot that only Mother Nature can make a person.  What mischief this legal fiction will lead to in the future remains to be seen.
               Even scholars create fictions.  A good example is the collection of literary material shared by Matthew and Luke but is not found in Mark.  The source for this literary material is believed to be a hypothetical (fictional) gospel source, which is called Q (i.e., Quelle, i.e., Source).  Most New Testament scholars subscribe to the fiction that this collection of material comes from an actual written text that is no longer extant.  Degrees have been awarded, careers established, and money made on Q articles, commentaries, and theologies—forgetting, it seems, that Q is only a convenient fiction for explaining gospel relationships.
               Even church folk create religious fictions, forgetting in time that they are only fictions.  In a brief essay in the Springfield News-Leader on July 6, 2014 Rev. Cliff Rawley argued that Scripture "if used correctly" is a "proven resource of positive transformation…a guide to a peaceful life."  Rawley recognizes, however, that the Bible contains both positive and negative ideas, and used incorrectly it can be exploited for purposes detrimental and destructive to society.  He recites a litany of many who have misused the Bible for destructive ends.  But if the Bible is subject to exploitation by those who use it incorrectly, whence comes the idea that the Bible is an infallible guide?  The answer is that the infallibility of the Bible is a church fiction that has become doctrinal truth.  If the Bible can be misused by anyone who chooses to do so, it cannot be "infallible," since it has an inherent potential for misuse.
               Here is an example of a religious fiction turning into a myth.  Pausanias (2nd century A. D.), a Greek traveler and geographer, wrote a description of Greece, noting religious customs and traditions.  He described the beginning of the Hero cult of Theagenes of Thasos.  Theagenes was actually a famous athlete, a boxer, wrestler, and runner in fifth century B. C. Greece, who won awards in the Olympic Games in 480 and 476 B. C. It was rumored that he was actually the son of the divine Herakles, rather than the priest Timosthenes.  By the second century B. C., however, Theagenes was credited with curing diseases, and receiving divine honors as a God at cult centers in different parts of Greece (Pausanias, Description of Greece, Book VI [Elis II]. 11.1-9).  The fiction that great achievers in life have an affinity with the Gods, in time became the myth that the Divine Theagenes cures diseases and deserves to be worshipped.

What are your thoughts?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending. Studies in the Theory of Fiction (Oxford: University Press, 1967), 39.
Hans Vahinger, The Philosophy of "As If": A System of the Theoretical, Practical and Religious Fictions of Mankind (C. K. Ogden trans; New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1925).

Thursday, July 3, 2014

What is the Value of Religious Gestures?

Why do people make religious gestures?  I define a "gesture" broadly as any action, courtesy, or communication intended for effect or as a formality.  For example, an "offering" taken during public worship is a religious gesture, which the church teaches is an expression of stewardship, by which we return to God a part of what God has given us.  This is a seriously flawed idea, however—God doesn't need money!  A former seminary professor saw the flaw and described monetary gifts to the church as supporting what he called the "gospel enterprise."  Personally I have come to think of money contributed to the church as "paying my church dues."  The value of such a gesture, however defined, certainly benefits the church by keeping its doors open, but it only indirectly benefits givers.  In many cases paying church dues strains their budget, and to that extent the contributor is harmed, unless one believes they get credit with God for the gesture.
             Prayers, both individual and congregational, are religious gestures by which people "reach out" to God for a particular reason.  Congregational prayers are clearly ceremonial, formal, and conventional—i.e., the act is expected in religious services.  They may occasionally be comforting or inspiring, but more often are perfunctory and propagandizing.  Individuals gesture toward God for personal reasons, but even individual prayer can become a charade, if it is used by a "spiritual advisor" to develop piety in others.  Nevertheless in both situations the gesture is always one-sided.  No conversation occurs between the individual and God, however comforting the gesture may seem.  God never addresses the one who prays (people who hear voices in their head even in prayer need professional help).
             Words are also gestures.  For example, at a time of great sorrow in one's life someone may say "I am deeply sorry for your loss."  At its best the statement is a gesture of sympathy and caring; at its worst it is a perfunctory act performed to meet the requirements of social convention; we expect such gestures in times of crisis.  The verbal expression "God bless you" is odd.  It is hard to know the significance of the expression.  For the one who gestures, it could mean something like: [it is my prayer that] God bless you, or [may] God bless you.  That is, to say: I sense that you may need emotional support.  On the other hand, the individual may be arrogant enough to think that their utterance actually confers God's favor—such as occurred in the laying on of hands (ordination), a gesture in the early church that was believed to confer the Spirit of God (Acts 19:6, 8:17-18; 1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6-7).  Religious sentiments printed on t-shirts may be little more than church advertising, or a means of parading idiosyncratic beliefs.  Perhaps the wearing of the crucifix serves the same purpose, unless it is worn as a religious charm for personal protection.
             A digital gesture, such as making the sign of the cross, is a learned gesture, and may have no meaning beyond "I fulfilled the obligation required under such circumstances."  Pointing skyward at an individual's standout moment ostensibly to give God (or Jesus?) credit, on the one hand, may be conceived as a personal religious "thank you," but it also elevates an individual's piety in the public eye.  Digital gestures always run the risk of shallow religious show, for which Jesus said no one receives credit with God (Matt 6:1).
             In fact all such public religious gestures are disparaged by Jesus in Matthew's opinion (Matt 6:1-8, 16-8).  Jesus was thought to have said, "Beware of practicing your piety before people in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven" (Matt 6:1).  Hence the motivation for performing religious gestures is crucial for determining their value.
             Does God ever reward individuals for their religious gestures?  Some seem to think so.  Here is a case on point: Jesus said "unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you" (John 6:53); it is likely a reference to the sacred meal of the church (1 Cor 11:23-32), which Ignatius (ca. 110 A.D.) thought of as the "medicine of immortality, the antidote preventing death," which led to "life in Jesus Christ forever" (Ephesians 20:2).  Paul even earlier suggested that baptism benefited one by bringing a kind of union with Christ: "all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death" (Rom 6:2).
             Are religious gestures empty acts or does God, if God there be, actually post in his Divine Ledger a spiritual credit to the account of those who perform them?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University