Thursday, December 31, 2009

The One True Best Movies of the Decade List

Over on The Busybody Loren Rosson gives us a list of the Top 40 Films of the Decade.

Now, I enjoy Loren's posts on movies. His tastes are somewhat eclectic, his insights are great, and his enthusiasm for Ellen Page is the right and appropriate response to such talent.

But his list is. . .well, wrong. If I can lapse into my more primitive Counter-Strike persona, it is truly epic fail. He's in good company. Ebert's best of the decade is wrong too.

So here is the one, true authoritative top 40 list. We'll do them ten at a time, because I'm kinda busy over the next few days, and these type of posts can take awhile, if only for the link editting.

1) Un Prophéte (2009)

This didn't win the Palme d'Or because the panel was on drugs. It's the only explanation I can come up with. Not that The White Ribbon wasn't a brilliant film, but seriously. This is probably my new top movie of all time. If you only watch one foreign film this year, make it this one.

2) Cidade de Deus (City of God) (2002)

Raw. Visceral. Brilliant cinematography. I couldn't possibly say enough so it might be better that I don't say anything at all. Before this year it would have been number 1.

3) 4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) (2007)

Probably the last great film of the brief Romanian Invasion, and handily the best. While the broad outline is almost a cliché (A story about X in Soviet era Y), it's nonetheless one of the most powerful films you'll ever see. Long takes shot from one angle give the narrative a more "real" feel, moving the story along fluidly in a sense many dramas seem to lack these days.

4) Oldboy (2003)

Gripping screenplay. The excessive violence moves it solidly into exploitation flick territory, and the story requires perhaps a little too much suspension of disbelief. The frenetic pace and absolutely brilliant cinematography more than compensate for those shortcomings, however. Brilliant. That Spielberg is making an American Oldboy starring Will Smith is an affront to humanity.

5) The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001) (2002) (2003)

I'm not sure that there's much to say about this that hasn't been said already. First American film(s) on the list come in at #5. If that doesn't make me a film snob, I'm not sure what does.

6) The Dark Knight (2008)

"Because some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn."

7) Juno

The only film Loren, Ebert and I all agree belongs in the top ten, though they both place it higher. The dialogue was fresh, the soundtrack quirky and as appropriate as anything Tarantino has ever had, and Ellen Page is--as always--brilliant. The one catch is that I wonder if Michael Cera will ever play anything that isn't a variant of "awkward kid from Arrested Development."

8) El laberinto del fauno (Pan's Labyrinth) (2006)

Fairy tales as they were meant to be: grim, sordid, terrifying. But the real horror exists outside the dream.

9) Brick (2005)

Film Noir meets The OC with a smattering of old radio shows for good measure. The quirky dialogue seems more at home in a 1940's reading of Dragnet than a contemporary mystery set in a high school. This entirely bizarre combination. . .works. In a sense you'd never think it would. "Fun" in the sense that "wow, that was oddly genius."

10 Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

As we'll see in spots 11 and 12, my top Documentary was a tight, tight race. This one takes the spot for being a gripping narrative in a sense the next two aren't. You're obviously only getting half the story (a point made even clearer when watching the special features), but what a story it is.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

New Year's Resolutions

So, this year I've decided to set myself some clear goals for what I intend to accomplish--in the bent of the study of the NT--before the end of the next year.

1. To become conversant in at least one mystery school.

The aim, on the heels of my recent post lamenting the lack of familiarity with one side or the other in comparisons between the mystery, is to be able to carry on a conversation about a mystery school without reference to Christianity. A substantiative conversation, not a list of facts.

The Eleusinian cult seems the most obvious, because it was easily the most popular, at least in the earlier stages. It's also, at least to me, the least interesting. So right now I'm torn between Mithras and Magna Mater, though I'm leaning toward the latter.

2. Form a coherent definition of "Hellenism."

Far, far too often, the term "Hellenism" is used to mean "not Jewish." While I could give a broad definition of it, I couldn't give a terribly specific one--like indecency, I think I "know it when I see it." Which, of course, isn't good enough.

As with the above resolution, I'm not looking to become an expert. Just to be conversant.

3. To read at least 3 commentaries on Revelation

Pretty self-explanatory. It's a fairly large hole in my knowledge.

So, there we have it. My goals this year. What are yours?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas

Here's hoping everyone has a happy holiday. My son's first (well, second, but he was like 2 months old last year so that doesn't count), and the first one where my daughter really gets it (she's 3). I thought she understood a bit last year. . .but now I see that I wasn't even close.

Though she's quite concerned. Apparently Goofy (her plush Goofy, that they gouge you for at the Disney Store because your kid will not possibly let you leave without something) has asked Santa for a new hat. She's not sure if there's enough room in the sleigh for a hat and the In the Night Garden toys she asked Santa for.

I have a sneaking suspicion he had room for both.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Answering. . .what now? Or "Baptism" in Bull's Blood.

Over on The Church of Jesus Christ we find a post on the usual populist tripe regarding the mystery schools and Christianity. While some cogent points are raised, I think the entire approach is endemic of the same problem.

I'm reminded of the cry of E P Sanders in Paul and Palestinian Judaism, for a comparison of religion that begins by first ensuring a solid understanding--in their own right--of the things being compared. With the exception of Smith's Drudgery Divine, I'm aware of no real inquiry into Christianity and any mystery cult that attempts to do this, and even Smith is, at times reactionary, and on the whole seems to me to have bitten off too much.

The problem, in the case of Smith, is that he discusses too many religions for the reader to really share an understanding of any of them. The problem, on The Church of Jesus Christ, is that it falls into the old trap of "yes it is"/"no it isn't." Which might help us catalogue some facts, but does nothing to further our understanding.

I'm certainly not about to suggest that I meet the description of the comparative scholar I long for, so instead I just wanted to touch a little bit on a cogent point raised: Namely the difficulty in telling which way syncretism might run.

In recent weeks I've spent some effort investigating the enigmatic rite known as the Taurobolium. It's frequent description as a "baptism in bull's blood" perhaps underscores the problems of comparison noted above, since in describing it as such we are "Christianizing" the ritual. A bibliography noting this phrasing would take far too long, but it's a conception of the ritual that makes it's way up to the highest level of academia, down to the outright layman who happened on the rite by chance. It's simply the description that best meets our post-Christian sentiments.

The "baptismal" form of the rite, as it's known to Prudentius in his Peristephanon, is in fact a quite late version, however. The earliest epigraphic attestation to the rite describes it as a sacrifice, frequently for the emperor or for the empire, a tendency that continued for quite some time. The cleansing or life-giving powers of the blood, with its 20 year efficacy, didn't appear until much later.

So, by indications of chronology and proximity, it is more likely Christianity that gave the bull's blood its powers, not the other way around, and while we should still avoid the term "baptism in bull's blood," there's a better than passing chance that it was the baptism of the exploding Christian movement that inspired the new interpretations. Certainly it is more plausible that the taurobolium was reinterpreted in the face of Christianity than it is that the taurobolium had had that significance all along, but nobody thought to mention it until centuries after.

Of course, in understanding the rite for its own sake, this just makes it all the more confusing. It was a sacrifice, but what, exactly, made it special? Differentiated it from other "bull-killings" such that it got it's own term? Clearly there was a concrete ritual involved, the full significance of which may be lost to us beyond conjectural speculation.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Quote of the Day

Beck gives a nice turn of phrase on the necessity of subjectivity and appeals to plausibility:

Unfortunately, iconography’s bailiwick does not extend very far. As soon as we start to interpret the iconography, to say what it ‘means’, we enter the domain of error, or at least of potential error. There is of course a considerable zone of agreement in the interpretation of the monuments (for example, on the intent of the banquet scene, as discussed above), and little likelihood that the consensus of scholars there is completely mistaken. However, this clear zone of agreement soon gives place to thickets where the intent of the iconography is by no means self-evident and the inferences which are hazarded can at best be no more than plausible.

Supplemented by note 19:

Which is not a reason for not making them: in this field warrantable or grounded speculation is not a vice but a necessity.

Beck's field, of course, is broadly Classics and more specifically Mithraism, but his point holds as well here in the land of Dilettante Bible Geeks, and, indeed, pretty well anywhere in the Humanities.

Beck, R The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire, OUP 2006.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Q-ristmas Miracle?

Dear Santa,

I am writing on behalf of my friend James. See, he's a very good boy every year, and every year all he wants for Christmas is Q. I worry very much that he won't get it unless you can bring him a Christmas miracle, because I'm not sure there's any other way it can come. Please help.

All tongue in cheek aside, over on Exploring OUr Matrix, James offers some brief initial reactions to my post on Q and the infancy. As James notes, it's just an initial reaction, so this isn't so much a refutation of his criticisms as it is an elaboration on my proposal.

On the question of plausibility, James wonders if I've met the challenge, and whether or not I've found plausible motive for Luke's actions. So I'd like to just draw the reader's attention to my comments, both on James' post and on my own prior post on the topic here, where I've developed the proposed Lukan thought process a little more.

I proposed that Luke was sure three things were true

1) The Messiah would come from Bethlehem
2) Jesus was the Messiah, and therefore must be from Bethlehem
3) Jesus was regarded as being from Nazareth

We can add to this list two more things:

1) Matthew was wrong.
2) Luke, whether he meets the grade or not, fancied himself an historian, or at least wanted others to see him as such.

Those last two points preclude him from using Matthew's infancy, whether he had Matthew in front of him or not. Whether he's "Jewish" enough to get all of Matthew's symbolism, surely he would know that Matthew's story wasn't true if he heard it, or would at least be highly suspicious.

So what Luke "the historian" does is a sort of ancient historical crit. He takes the facts he knows, and tries to find out how they fit. They seemed to fit with the census, so that must be the result.

What we end up with here is Luke making a conjecture that is perfectly reasonable, given the evidence he had on hand. All he neglected to do was explain the deduction, which doesn't seem that unusually, given that he explains his thought process nowhere else either.

McGrath also notes the likelihood that Jesus' parents' names were circulated. While I can't deny the importance of familial association in the ancient world, this might score against Q, not for.

Jesus is identified as the son of Joseph, outside of an infancy or childhood narrative, three times. Once in Luke, and twice in the gospel of John.

If familial identity is so important, why does Luke only reference it in the same section that Matthew does, save that one reference and why does Matthew feel disinclined to mention it later? I'd propose the simplest solution is that Matthew made it up for his infancy, and had no interest in it after that, while Luke copied it from Matthew in his infancy, and didn't have it in any of his sources after that. The one reference (Lk.4.22) is easily explicable by Luke relying on his own notes. The point here is Jesus' humble origins, not the commonality of identification by the father's name.

In other words, discounting (for the moment, at least) the GJohn, Jesus is described as "the son of Joseph" in the sense of a common identifier, with no other clear motivation, precisely zero times.

Luke does it when Matthew does it because he has Matthew in front of him. That's the simplest explanation.

James has indicated he hopes to engage my post more thoroughly when time permits, so I certainly look forward to further discussion! I'm coming dangerously close to convincing myself I've come up with something here, so hopefully he can disabuse me of that before I start having to take myself more seriously!

There's still no Q in Christmas

Ah, it seems like only yesterday that there was a bit of a row on the biblioblogosphere about James McGrath's post about infancies, Christmas and Q. And here we are about to have another look, during the holiday season, at the same subject. Qoheleth was right. There really is nothing new under the sun.

So today over on Exploring Our Matrix we battle Contradictory Christmases

I'd like to state, from the outset, that I categorically reject the reasoning that gets us from the sort of difficulties McGrath outlines to the existence of Q. I would argue that both the name Joseph and the virgin birth are not only Matthean, but distinctly Matthean. Luke knows the shoes are red, not silver. He knows Dorothy is auburn haired, not blonde. Therefore he knows MGM's musical, in addition to Baum's book.

We can't get around that by suggesting that because the story is closer to the Wiz than The Wizard of Oz they had independent red-shoed-auburn-haired traditions. The presence of difficulties such as those remarked upon by McGrath are not a strong argument in favour of Q, though somewhat ironically in many discussions they are the only type of argument offered.

That said, the difficulties still exist, and whether they point to Q or not they can still be a fun excercise to explore.

The first caveat I have with the general approach is the assumption that Luke, if he had no other source, would use Matthew almost invariably. Even Goodacre falls somewhat prey to this, in postulating a separate tradition that Luke regarded as more authoritative. Here, it seems to me at least, Goodacre has fallen victim to the sort of "cut and paste" scholarship he roundly (and rightly) condemns in his criticism of the 2SH, in postulating a lost source to explain a tradition.

While such a source may well have existed--I certainly don't want to suggest it didn't or couldn't--I don't think it's necessary to postulate to address Luke's break from Matthew. We might suggest such a source to explain why Luke says the things he did, but I do not think such a source is at all necessary to explain why he wouldn't follow his Matthean source.

I think we tend to underestimate Luke. To envision him little more than a copyist, while only marginally a redactor. I live in the twenty-first century, and I'm aware that the slaughter of the innocents is unlikely. Surely Luke, much closer than I in both time and place, was aware that something was suspicious. So whether he had another source or not, surely he was aware that he should be, at best, very cautious in regarding Matthew's infancy as authoritative.

Once we assume that Luke would have good reason not to put too much stock in what Matthew had to say in his infancy in the first place, it becomes much easier to envision him being creative with his sources.

So, the question McGrath puts to the reader is how we are going to explain why Luke has Jesus only in Bethlehem temporarily, while Matthew has it as his family's home.

I think the solution to this is actually simpler than it might first appear, and does not require us to postulate an external source.

Luke's audience certainly seems to be less familiar with "Jewish" sites than the other evangelists, his aversion to naming them is both well known and widely recognized. So it seems reasonable to suggest that they are more sympathetic, and more understanding, of "Jesus the Galilean" than they are "Jesus the Israelite."

So he sits down, the same as Matthew, with the well-established tradition that Jesus was "of Nazareth," but the equally well-known problem--the Messiah would not be Galilean. Since he has already rejected Matthew's slaughter of the innocents, and because his crowd accepts "Jesus of Nazareth," he still has to get his hero in and out of Bethlehem.

There was no slaughter, but there was a census, and even if Luke didn't know all the details of it, he knew enough to put it at roughly the time he needed. So he exploited it to get Jesus in to Bethlehem. Because they were always there only temporarily, it was equally easy to get him out.

In other words, even with Matthew open in front of him, once he has rejected Matthew's slaughter of the innocents--once he has rejected Matthew's Exodus--Matthew's chain of events isn't going to work to get Jesus in and out of Judea. So Luke kept the things he liked--"Joseph," the virgin birth, the birth in Bethlehem--and altered the rest so that it served his purpose and had some basis in what he knew to be historical realities.

Luke's version makes sense in a sense that Matthew's doesn't, because it sounds historical while Matthew's sounds primarily symbolic. Which makes perfect sense of why Luke tells the story he did. And the only external source we need is Lukan knowledge of the census. Which is far easier to explain than sources nobody has seen, and no ancient author has cited.

This is of course subjective conjecture, but unfortunately in this situation we aren't left with much else. Any question of motive is conjecture anyway, unless an author is explicit.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Five Things I Want to See in Earl Doherty's New Book. (pt III)

More Engagement of Contrary Positions

This stems somewhat from a previous point, and is illustrated beautifully by reference to some of the same material. Even if one allows that Doherty has employed C K Barrett fairly, as per the previous discussion, one cannot help but get the sense that he has not read Barrett through in any event. So if he hasn't quote mined, he has prooftexted.

To see this in action, one need only look at the real core of Doherty's argument, the Argument from Silence. Doherty's argument is, in essence, that if there are occasions where we should reasonably expect a source to mention knowledge of historical (or alleged historical) events, and the author does not mention them, the author therefore does not have knowledge of them.

The reasoning here is perfectly sound, and employed in historical crit. all the time. Thus, for example, that Paul doesn't mention Peter's denial, when surely he would have benefitted from doing so, means he probably never heard of it.

But where we start running into problems is when it is questionable whether or not that expectation is justified. Many of Doherty's objections to standard readings of the epistolary record rely on Paul's term "gospel," and what he meant by it. To Doherty, "gospel" is Paul's "knowledge of the Christ," at least in most instances, and he bases his argument from silence on the notion that Paul's gospel concerns past events.

Which brings us back to the top. Because if he was engaging Barrett, he'd know that Paul's gospel isn't his "knowledge of the Christ," at least not all of the time (1 Cor 15 stands out as such an exception to this, which we'll discuss in more detail in the 1Cor series I promised a short while ago), and it in fact has Doherty's connotation at best only rarely (to be fair, Barrett would not agree with me. That's okay, we won't tell him. He would agree with me enough to make the point here). At the very least, Barrett and I would agree that Paul's gospel has as much or more to do with present reality than past events, mythic or otherwise. It reflects an existing opportunity more than how that opportunity came to be, except in broad strokes.

Thus, for example:

It is the message of salvation he is commissioned to preach, the announcement of the manifestation of God’s righteousness (see vv. 16 f.). Behind this usage, lies not only the common Greek meaning of the word but also its use in the Old Testament, especially in Isaiah where it (and particularly the cognate verb) points to the coming of God whose saving righteousness will bring deliverance to his people (e.g. Isa. 40:9; 52:7).

C. K. Barrett, Black's New Testament Commentary: The Epistle to the Romans (Rev. ed.; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), 19.


The new, good news is that now, in the present age, God’s righteousness has been manifested apart from the law.

ibid, p69 (emphasis original, citing Rom.3.21)

Romans 1.2, the verse Barrett is discussing, in fact makes an appearance just outside Doherty's top 20 silences (He suggests it should be next in line, so we can call it #21, I suppose), but is largely there because Earl doesn't know what Paul's "gospel" in this verse is, or, if he does know, he's not telling us how he gets there, and why he gets there in the face of exegesis to the contrary.

It is a great danger for the modern exegete to read their world back into his sources. I don't think there can be much doubt that Earl has done so here, confusing the modern "Gospel" (capitalized even!) with Paul's good news. That Paul's gospel here has no room for a "preaching Jesus" should come as no great surprise, since his gospel has nothing to do with what Jesus preached. Doherty would have done well to have read Barrett's suggested reason for Paul's epistle while he had the book open, because even if one doesn't find it wholly persuasive, it gives a perspective that is often missed, and doubtlessly missed by Earl.

Put most simply, in Barrett's (and many, probably even most) suggested motivations for the epistle leave little room for Doherty's expectations. The argument from silence might work. This argument doesn't work here, unless Doherty knows an awful lot he's not telling, in which case he should probably tell us. Even if Doherty happens to be right, so far as Romans goes, he gets the right answer for entirely wrong reasons.

It's symptomatic of a large problem throughout Earl's book; a tendency to think things are self-evidently true, when evidence in fact states the contrary. We can find the same in his treatment of middle-Platonism, in his treatment of ancient myth, and so on. He cites sources that present the contrary (and, for the most part, and at least IMO correct) reading, but makes no effort to engage that reading. It ultimately creates the impression that he checks through commentaries for whatever verse he's struggling with, finds the reading he needs, and then runs with it, without bothering to examine the broader picture.

Somewhat ironically Barrett himself often preferred to translate with the more literal "good news" to avoid precisely the mistake Earl has made (Romans, p19). If he'd read the man through, one must wonder why he's not aware of the difficulty. Indeed, it seems we are left a conundrum where Doherty either didn't read Barrett carefully, or didn't take Barrett seriously since he implicitly declares it self-evident that Barrett is wrong without further discussion. Either event reflects poor judgment on Earl's part, and an overconfidence in what he sees as obvious that deters him from further investigation.