Sunday, January 29, 2012

Torah, Prophets and Scribes

For a theologian, I'm on a pretty heavy Bible kick lately. Part of which is working in Barth's CD III -- as he says, it'd be nice to be able to rely on Bible folks, but sometimes to do theology we simply have to make our own way as amateurs.

"They were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes." Mk. 1:22

"... a prophet like me from among your own people." Deut. 18:15

Surely, in today's readings, the wisdom of mother church means us to see Jesus in this role. But this promise to Moses is fulfilled in every generation. God's word does not sit idle -- but we fear to hear it directly. We fear the immediate presence of God -- and rightly so! And so God has said, "Fine; here's the deal."

And the deal is that God will use a mouthpiece from then forward. God will speak through a mediator. God will raise up one who will speak for God, an oracle and interpreter, and God's word will come to you from your own mouths.

And so we haven't escaped the presence of God -- just some of the terrifying immediacy. And we haven't really decreased the likelihood of our own death -- but then, God didn't aim to kill us in the first place. And in this way, an individual takes up greater responsibility and risk at God's choice, in order to ensure that the people may not suffer consequences at God's hand without warning. In this way, God ensures that the people will still hear -- whether or not they obey. The redeemed people remain responsible to their covenant master for their actions in the world. The prophet is simply the channel for instruction.

And Mark shows us what the people will come to think of Jesus -- that he is the Mosaic prophet for this generation. One who does not simply tend the flame of the words already given; one who is vested with the divine means of new words. One who gives instruction as Moses did -- but one whose Torah is not adapted Pharisaically from Moses and the earlier prophets.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Talking About the Past in Greek (and not Latin)

Some tenses of the Koine indicative are easy and obvious. For example, the present and future work about like you'd expect them to, with one paradigm per tense. The only trick there is teaching passive and middle voices. But when it comes to paradigms for the past tense, things get muddy. Koine Greek has three common paradigms for the past tense: the aorist, the imperfect, and the perfect. And in Greek they are called tenses -- chronoi, "times." The aorist paradigm already carries its Greek name: aoristos, "undefined," as the alpha-privative of horistos, from horos, "boundary marker." It is as simply past as you can get -- and says nothing more definite than the time.

The paradigms we call the imperfect and the perfect suggest more definite things. But tempus imperfectum and tempus perfectum are only the Latin analogues for the Greek tenses. And I've gotten very suspicious, lately, of Latin analogues for Greek concepts. Latin is a different language, with a profoundly different mindset -- far more linear and orderly. What the Latins called the imperfect tense, suggesting incomplete action, the Greeks called the chronos paratatikos, from parateinw, to "stretch out." This is the tense of continuing action, action that happens over time. What the Latins called the perfect tense, suggesting complete action, the Greeks called the chronos parakeimenos, from parakeimai, the passive of paratithemi. This is therefore the tense of things that are given, things that have been set forth in the past and therefore are available in the present. It is also called the enestws suntelikos, which is to say the "completed present" or "present perfect."

When we go back into the Greek grammarians, all the distinctions we'd like to make as English grammarians using Latin categories get fuzzy, and the Greek past is definitely one of those places. I set out to write about these three paradigms as ways of talking about the past, which is how they've been taught to me. As referring to a single past tense, using different aspects. The aorist is a preterite, the simple past; the imperfect is still past action, but has a progressive, iterative, or habitual sense; and the perfect is the case of completed past action with present effects.

And that gets so much more complicated in the history of Western grammarians studying Greek and developing theories about it. Tense, Aktionsart, aspect, all manner of subjective and objective attempts to describe the action of the verb, and then many attempts to simplify and describe those tense meanings from morphology alone. And that all boils down broadly to what I just described as the differences between these paradigms of the Greek past by aspect: the aorist is perfective, the imperfect is imperfective, and the perfect is perfect. Which is not a Greek way of looking at it.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Teaching Mark as Script -- Scene by Scene

I've been teaching Koine Greek using a compositional method, and slowly, for a while now. I keep thinking "if I just add this bit of grammar, then we can start reading things." Of course, I've also been borrowing from James Tauber and his primer approach, as well as the simplification I learned from my favorite Hebrew primer, to try and give things that can be read at-level.

But several weeks ago I realized that I am teaching Greek to someone who does oratory already. This gives me an angle! So I've been talking about the oral culture and the ways that Bible "texts" are really scripts. (Thank you, Dave Rhoads and Joanna Dewey!) At which point it became obvious to me that one way to drive interest in translating and learning more grammar was to learn it on the fly translating the simplest oral text I have: the Gospel according to Mark. But not just as a translation exercise -- that's incredibly dull.

To make it better, we're doing two things. First, there's the joy of freely making one's own good English out of good Greek. "I like the way it sounds better this way." I love hearing that! That starts a conversation! And I try to encourage this by refusing to give "normal" church-word glosses for things like hamartia, metanoia, euangelion, etc.... I want common-sense Greek to turn into common-sense English, not "Bible Greek" into "church English" -- because Bible Greek and church English are ways of not thinking about meaning! They're ways of mechanically turning this word into that word. And second, there's the added interest of learning Mark as a prose script -- uncovering the dramatic structure of what Mark is doing for his audience.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Gender, God, and the Imago Dei

On Saturday, I had the privilege of attending a friend's ordination. I've been to several ordinations in the past few years, but this one made me happy for more than the usual reasons. And not just because she had a "pick-up" choir and I got there early enough to sing with them. And the liturgy was very well done, with good hymnody and an eclectic setting, and I like that. And it's always nice to see my friends installed in calls near me, especially when they have families to help support. It's especially nice to see friends situated in congregations that affirm and support their calls to ministry.

And did I mention the new pastor is a woman? Do I really have to? Does it matter? For us that isn't the big deal, because we've been ordaining women for decades. But while I'm mentioning things that don't make any difference to the God who calls, let me mention why this ordination made me more than usually happy. The new pastor's partner is also a woman. Their daughter just turned 3 recently -- it's amazing how fast children grow up when you're not looking! Anyhow, the thing that makes me so happy about this ordination is that, in spite of all the trouble some in our church have caused over issues of gender and sexuality, the perfectly ordinary beauty of congregations and pastors coming together goes on, and I love it.

I wanted to share that as background for how far outside of the Evangelical discussions of complementarianism I find myself. My friend Kait has been dealing with recent material from Mark Driscoll and John Piper, and perhaps I don't disagree with it quite as viscerally as she does, but that's only because I'm an INTP. I don't really do visceral.

Breaking the Fourth Wall: Remodeling

I hate breaking the "fourth wall" in blog posts. I'd much rather use this space for the real work, and tell you about the blog on separate dedicated pages. And so, usually, when I retool the site, I do it silently. But I've been thinking quite a lot lately about theoblogging and what it is I do here. And a Twitter conversation yesterday between Travis, Jason, Derek, and a few others has pushed me to change some things.

My last retool of the site made it a bit more pretentious than it needs to be. I was too focused on trying to make an impression. I don't need this place to be my resume any more than it naturally is. Read the work, and you'll see -- who I am is what I do. And before the last remodel, this had been very much a "beta site" for working theology. In fact, it never really stopped being that. I've gotten more polished over the years in ways that have nothing to do with posturing before an audience, even though I still have a good bit of polishing yet to do. But the whole point here has always been to let the rough edges show as much as the shiny things.

So I've gone back to that mentality in the hopes that it keeps me a bit more faithful to the calling that I exercise here. This is, as the subtitle says, "a drafting room and workshop for Bible, theology, and philosophy." And I'm damn well going to be honest about it! The narrative CV is still up under "Vita Brevis," but I never liked what I had under "Rationale," no matter how many times I fiddled with it. Always either too boastful or too apologetic. So I got rid of it. In its place is the answer to a simple question, "What Is This Place?"

Also, I've kind of given up on begging for comments. If I say something worth reading and responding to, you're certainly welcome to chat me up in the comments thread. But I have no blessed clue how to write to stimulate conversation here on the blog, and lately, the best feedback I get comes to me completely outside of it. So I've added an invitation at the top, "Ask Me Something!" And maybe you will, and maybe you won't, but my door is open to you.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Abandon creativity and good sense, but stay on message.

Oh, I don't mean today's politics -- no, I mean Paul. Let's have some words for the wise, shall we, from the first speech to the assembly of God in Corinth, 1:17-2:9

Christ did not send me to baptize. Christ sent me to announce good news -- and not with semantic creativity, so that I do not abandon the cross of Christ. You see, to dying people, the language of the cross is idiocy. But to people who are being rescued -- namely us -- it is the power of God.

So it is written,
“I will destroy the creativity of the creative,
and displace the common sense of the sensible."
Where is the creative one? The writer? The modern conversationalist? Has not God stupefied the world's creativity? Indeed, when by God's creativity the world did not know God through creativity, God condescended to save those who trust -- solely through the idiocy of the announcement.

When Judeans ask for signs, and Hellenes look for creativity, we announce the Christ, crucified. This is a scandal to Judeans, and idiocy to the nations -- but to those who are called, both Judeans and Hellenes, the Christ is God's power and God's creativity. Why? Because God's idiocy is more creative, and God's weakness stronger, than the people.

Look at your call story, siblings. You were not very creative, by the looks of you -- not very capable, not very noble. But God selected the world's idiots to dishonor the creative. And God selected the world's weak to dishonor the strong. And God selected the world's ignoble and contemptible, those who have not, to hinder those who have -- so that no flesh shall boast before God.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

... and a translation of Jn 1:1-18 to go with it.

In the beginning was Wisdom, and Wisdom lived to God, and Wisdom was divine -- it lived first in relationship to God. Because of it, everything happened; not a single event took place without it. In it is life. Life was the light of humanity; that light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not surpass it.

And there was a person sent from God, and a word for him: Johanan, "God is gracious". This one came to report, to testify about the light so that everyone would trust because of him.

He was not the light; he lived to testify about the light. The true light that lights every person was coming into the world. It was in the world, and the world happened because of it, and the world did not know it. The light came to its own, and its own did not receive it.

It gave the right to become children of God to those who did accept it, to those who trust in his word. These come to be children not because of kinship, flesh, or husband, but because of God.

And Wisdom became flesh and took up residence among us, and we observed its character, the dignity of a father's only kin, fully invested with grace and truth.

John testified about him and shouted, saying "This is the one of whom I said, 'What is coming after me has happened before me'!" and "He was my better," and "From his fullness all of us have thankfully accepted grace," and "Moses was the means by which God gave Torah, but Jesus Christ is the means by which grace and truth happen."

No one had ever seen God; this only son, being in the confidence of the Father, explained him.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Creation of the World in John 1

So the more I deal with trinitarian thought, the more I find myself resenting John 1. Not for John's sake, certainly! But I'm convinced we've done a bad job of understanding what's going on there -- partially because of the Latin fathers, but also because we insist on John 1 as a pillar of trinitarian thought. Where else, after all, did we get a "logos Christology"? Five verses: John's creation story. Mark didn't need one. Matthew and Luke chose birth narratives to begin their stories of a Jesus who represents God's saving act. And John -- John chooses to tell the story of the creator God who alone makes sense of the world.

But for all the theology and history of interpretation, we don't read it according to the language that's there in the passage! So I'm taking this post as an opportunity to refactor John's language as a grammar and syntax lesson in Koine Greek. Let us try to hear it as children of a language that the Latins found preposterous, a language where syntax is simple, elements are noted by inflection and augmentation, and pieces can be freely rearranged for emphasis without confusing the audience. A language of poetic rhetoric.

And of course, we start with John 1:1-2:
Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος· οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν.