Friday, March 12, 2010

And Baby Number 3 Will Be. . .

So, my wife had her 18 week ultrasound today, and we found out that baby number 3 will be another boy!

Saturday, March 06, 2010

McGrath, Godfrey and "Assuming" Historicity.

And on it goes. James McGrath has taken issue with another of Neil Godfrey's posts on the Jesus Myth.

I'll state for the record that I am not persuaded by the mythicist position, and think E P Sanders is probably the greatest living NT scholar. So I have some sympathy with McGrath.

I appreciate James' point (and even more with Steph's in the comments, I have always thought "assumption" such a terrible term here, though it's often used. . .just because people don't outline a full explanation doesn't mean they've "assumed" it). But there is a counterpoint to be scored here as well.

What other characters do we attempt to reconstruct in any detail based solely on texts? Especially texts that are all written "in-group," none of which are autobiographical?

Neil and I would probably disagree on what standard of evidence is required before we move forward, but I would concede (in the spirit of the 1913 Schweitzer he's been citing lately) that we can only move forward provisionally, recognizing the limits of our conjecture.

Even if we agreed there was an historical Romulus, for example, if you started telling me a specific act he did in the founding of Rome, with details about his consciousness while he did it, I'd laugh in your face. It seems preposterous everywhere but here. And even if we let you get away with it, your statement would be a lot more provisional. If someone replied that they doubt Romulus even existed, you would doubtlessly allow for the possibility, and acknowledge that your later conjectures were based on an earlier conjecture: That Romulus was real.

When we deal strictly with textual evidence elsewhere, we recognize the limits of our conjectures. But here we have none (still germane to my post Why Bother?). Not only do we not have to be provisional, we can suggest that all the gospels fundamentally misunderstood Jesus' message, and we know even better than they do what it was. While many critics would disagree with those sorts of efforts, we don't deprive them of dialogue, while virtually anywhere else we wouldn't deem to treat such speculation with a grain of seriousness.

As I pointed out before, we have no rules.

So, to get back to the point, Neil's probably wrong. Or at least should be more provisional in his comments. Sanders' may have assumed historicity. He may not have. He doesn't tell us, so we don't know. Some academics probably do. Some probably don't. But without an explanation we can't be sure what they've done, and can't be sure they've "assumed" anything. Simple decorum and charitability demands that we give them the benefit of the doubt.

But James is wrong too. What we do with texts is a lot different here than everywhere else. Not because we treat them differently--it's often suggested that the biblical historian is engaging in some new species of history. We can flatly reject that. We figure ways to find authentic information from texts the same way any other branch of history does. Sometimes with the same criteria.

But what we don't do is see the limits. We don't recognize the provisional nature. And (as I've said again and again lately), we build on people who also didn't see the provisional nature. The last guy's speculation becomes my fact in a sense we really don't see outside of this branch of historical inquiry.

It's not that we don't see any limits at all, of course, just that the ones we push are too far removed from what our evidence can really state to be of much use. But we still have an outer boundary, beyond which we pay proponents the most serious of insults: We deprive them of a dialogue partner.

Robert Eisenman flatly rejected hard science. Hard science he requested. Now there's an analogue to creationism. But he got dialogue partners. Baigent and Leigh, Barbara Thiering, hell, even Dan Brown. Truly ridiculous, crackpot ideas. That got dialogue partners.

Are we really going to suggest that an Earl Doherty or a Robert Price is so over the edge that even these crackpots are more deserving of engagement than they are? Because if we are, we're wrong. And wholly unjustified.

Here's the simple reality: Earl Doherty does very little that a Crossan or a Meier doesn't do. He uses the same criteria. He just attaches different (entirely subjective, the same as everyone else') weight to them. And by tweaking the weight--this criteria has more force than this one--he uses established methods to drive ineluctably to a given conclusion. That is how history is done, biblical or otherwise. And if it's okay for a Crossan or a Meier (as examples who rely heavily on methodological criteria for authenticity), the it's okay for Earl too.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Quote of the Day, Ovid

No matter what you're trying to say, someone has said it better. Usually thousands of years ago. So germane to my recent post, Why Bother?, here's a gem from Ovid, Metamorphoses, 3:253-55

As the tale spread, views varied; some believed
Diana’s violence unjust; some praised it,
As proper to her chaste virginity.
Both sides found reason for their point of view.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Why Bother?

Yeesh. Finish up the movie list later today or tomorrow morning, I'm only two months behind Loren

So, about a month and a half ago I started reading Questioning Q: A Multidimensional Critique, editted by Nicholas Perrin and the de facto mayor of the Biblical Studies global village, Mark Goodacre. For reasons I'll outline, it took me until yesterday to finish it.

A discussion on historiography on the FRDB interrupted me to re-read Hayden White's MetaHistory, which (in the sort of bizarre lead-ins that can only happen in real-life; and we hope to understand ancient minds?) led me to Statues in Roman Society, which led to The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Augustus, which led (by reference) to The Companion to the Roman Army (which led bizarrely, to a couple brief looks at commentaries on Samuel). In the midst of all this, I decided to do something I'd intended to do for awhile, and read the Aeneid through.

Something struck me as I read Vergil's work. The care he took with it is well-known, and often emphasized by the observation that his average pace is roughly three lines a day. The fruits of that careful labour are readily apparent, and the Aeneid is a literary masterpiece by any standard.

But I'm not the intended audience, so more than once I had to check references, consider interpretations offered by scholars of the subject matter. And here's the rub: The most convoluted reading of the Aeneid pales in comparison to the most straightforward reading of the Gospel of Mark.

I am implicitly expected to accept that the Aeneid is less densely nuanced than a work whose greatest literary contribution is slapdash Greek and the abuse of the word kai.

When you look at it, phrased like that, it seems absurd.

The reason for that is simple: It is absurd.

Hervey Cleckley's seminal work on psychopathy, The Mask of Sanity, provides an insight that now seems self-evident but at the time, psychology being what it was, did not. He cites a piece on the attraction of a drum majorette.

The attraction of a drum majorette should be obvious. She's hot, scantily clad and jumping about. But no, the piece contended, the obvious attraction wasn't it. The drum majorette protruded from the band the way an erect penis protruded from the body, and attraction to the drum majorette reflected our repressed homosexuality.

This notion, Cleckley observes, was accepted, cited and built upon uncritically by a number of professionals. That it's ridiculous should be self-evident. A hideously unattractive drum majorette would not be terribly appealing no matter how she protruded.

Cleckely's criticism, of course, is that there was a tendency to accept crap because it sounded good, and sounded like it was in keeping with the received notions of what psychology was. But it had nothing to do with whether or not it was true, nothing to do with whether or not it was critically assessed, and nothing to do with even the most basic test of whether or not it makes obvious sense.

While I would not suggest that Biblical Studies at large has gone as far as the drum majorette, I also wouldn't suggest that there are not a few drum majorette papers out there.

We have no rules. And consequently our interpretations of the texts are as nuanced as we need them to be, and we build them on the last guy, who also made it as nuanced as he needed it to be.

Which brings me back to Questioning Q. Or, more specifically, a paper by Eric Eve contained therein. In "Reconstructing Mark" Eric Eve takes on a test he discussed before online. Can we build Mark from Luke, Matthew and Q? The answer, predictably, is no, and even if one isn't persuaded against Q, surely we should follow the caution in the difference between what Perrin calls "Warranted Q," and "Actual Q." The former is exceedingly unlikely to be the latter.

But he provides a necessarily brief discussion on Matt.16:22-23. He plays by all the "rules," and develops a case from linguistics and Matthean redactive tendencies that we would have to view 16:22-23 as a Matthean invention. The case is solid, and it's easy to see how it could develop into a very full treatment. Even if we ultimately rejected it in an "International Mark Project," I'm hard-pressed to believe that everyone would be convinced of that.

Except the answer, of course, is wrong. Matt.16.22-23//Mk.8.32-33.

So he makes his case, so far as the IQP goes, but the implications go farther than that. Because Eve doesn't do anything that we don't do in virtually every branch of Biblical Studies. We try and find out if this verse or that verse owes itself to the author's redactive tendencies, if it was interpolated, if it is OT symbolism and on and on. Eve has essentially falsified the entire approach we take to the texts.

Falsification isn't inherently that big of a deal. Speculation is a necessity, not a vice, as a Beck quote I posted recently attests. I can't think of a criteria that can't be reversed, that can't be applied in at least one instance to get the wrong answer. It's the nature of the beast that we deal in plausibilities, things like "explanatory power" and "common sense."

But to be falsified so fundamentally that we would, quite realistically, mistake a distinctively Markan theme as a distinctively Matthean verse? That's a problem. That's a very big problem indeed.

So with the combination, Eve's paper and reflections of Virgil, it just seems so futile. I'm severely tempted to pack the NT in. . .maybe I'll switch to the early Romans. I know little enough that the subject still fills me with wonder and excitement at finding something new, not so little that I'm starting from scratch, and not even close to enough that I'm filled with the same sense of frustration.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

The One True Best Movies of the Decade List (21-30)

Whew. Too busy lately. My best of decade list won't be done until 2020 at this rate!

Coming into the second half now, and like Loren, I find myself looking at a lot of great movies, even if they're way down here. I mentioned in the comments on the last ten that it was the hardest ten to do, since there are so many great movies that shoud never be associated with the term "bottom half."

21) Inglorious Basterds

Tarantino is just so. . .Tarantio-esque. Nobody has more distinctive dialogue, delivers better soundtracks. The criticisms are probably all true: He does take other film's ideas. He is a movie store geek that got lucky. He also makes great movies, so that's okay by me.

22) Children of Men

Is it Sci-fi? Is it a satire? Is it an action flick? It's all three! A mix that made me think of Kubrick while I watched. Always a fan of long takes (it just seems to give a film a grittier, more realistic feel), I was delighted to see them used even during action sequences.

23) L'Enfant

2005 Palme d'Or winner. They sell their kid. Which is a bad day for everyone. . .maybe. The absence of a soundtrack results in a novel effect, giving the film a verisimillitude it might have otherwise lacked.

24) Palindromes

Loren and I both buck critical consensus by including this in the list. If Solondz doesn't manage to offend you here, you weren't paying close enough attention, as he gives his take on the abortion debate: We're all hypocrites.

25) The Departed

Finally Scorcese gets his Oscar. Not that he hadn't deserved it most of the previous goes (Raging Bull lost? Really?).

26) Synecdoche, New York

Kaufman's movies are always so distinctive, and always so profound. I wasn't as blow away as Ebert in his best of decade list, but I was impressed.

27) The Wackness

Hey, I was a dope peddler in the 90s. I'm allowed to indulge this bit of nostalgia.

28) Mulholland Dr.

Does anybody deliver better plot twists than David Lynch? In a lot of ways this is the archetypal Lynch movie, and if you watched everything else he'd made before this it would almost become predictable.

29) Adaptation

A stronger finish, and this would have made the top 20. Prior to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, neither Gondry nor Kaufman seem to have known how to wrap their stories.

30) Crash

Wow. What an intricate weave of story arcs.

Friday, January 01, 2010

The One True Best Movies of the Decade List (11-20)

So we move down our list to numbers 11-20. A couple brief proviso's though:

1) The Ebert Principle

When looking at a great indie film or a great mainstream film, the indie film is to be preferred.

Heavy preference will be given to arthouse movies now that we're out of the top ten. One thing I always hate in these kind of lists is that they always name a bunch of movies I've already seen, and don't need anyone to tell me were great. Movies like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days that score highly on Metacritic and aren't seen by most people are such exceptions, so the great indie flicks that aren't exceptions are getting their air time here.

If you're wondering why I'm calling this the Ebert Principle, take a look at Ebert's blog sometime. Guy can't say a bad word about an arthouse film. Even if it's a bad arthouse film.

2) I'll do my best to avoid indulgences

The nostalgia train for The Wackness being probably the biggest exception to this. I loved Star Wars Episode III because, well, I love Star Wars, not because it was a great film in the sense that Un Prophéte was.

Don't like the arrangement? My list. My rules. It's good to be king!

11) Man on Wire

Wow. This guy is seriously insane. "If I die, what a beautiful death!"

12) March of the Penguins

No real story. Nothing truly stunning about the cinematography. All they do is survive. And that's enough.

13) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet both give solid performances in what was the most philosophically profound movie of the decade.

14) Chop Shop

Ramin Bahrani is the best director you've never heard of. A powerful story not because of the emotions it evokes (though those help), but because of the verisimillitude. Bahrani painstakingly researched his subject matter. As hard as it might be to fathom, this is real.

15) Hard Candy

A stronger finish and this would have easily made the top ten. It seems clear that the filmmaker lost his nerve (perhaps fearing an NC-17?), and decided it would be better to lower a god with ropes. We all know how it should have ended.

16) Memento

You almost have to watch it twice to catch this complex story. Brilliantly crafted, like the story's protagonist, you never know what has already happened.

17) Persepolis

Animated coming of age story? Really? My skepticism was increased by the story's setting in Iran, where I feared it might fall prey to political correctness or a crusade. It did neither.

18) Batoru rowaiaru (Battle Royale)

Lord of the Flies in futuristic Japan. The game is brutal, the winner unexpected, the story compelling. Suspension of disbelief is well-rewarded.

19) Das weisse Band (The White Ribbon)

Big year at Cannes in 2009, with four Palme d'Or nominees making the best of decade cut. The second entry, The White Ribbon, took home the Golden Palm. It shouldn't have, Un Prophéte was head and shoulders above it, but it's a masterpiece nonetheless. While the rise of Naziism is the obvious context, the film's subtext extends far beyond that.

20) Gaau ji (Dumplings)

Fruit Chan's horror on the lengths we go to to serve vanity. A horror in the Edgar Allan Poe sense of the term. Do yourself a favour, watch the short on Three Extremes, don't trouble yourself with the feature length offering, which is just the short with a lot of filler.