Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Parallelism and redemption

I'm currently reading a most beautiful book: Adele Berlin's The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism. One of the things that strikes me is that the particular way of understanding theological exegesis that I've often attempted to formulate in posts on this blog—i.e. that the living divine substance of the text reveals himself to us afresh within the form of the old, and that perceiving this requires a constant dialectic between, e.g. OT and NT, dogmatics and history, particular text and canonical whole—seems to be consistent with the mode in which large chunks of the OT itself has been composed. In other words, my (Childs', Barth's) theory is consistent with the compositional style of the Hebrew Bible (on the relation between literary mode and theology see the Minear's comments on typology in Revelation).

The literary mode is parallelism. Parallelism is held to be the defining feature of Biblical poetry, and one of the things Berlin does in her book is to extend this concept beyond the realm of parallel lines within poetry to contiguous lines in prose and to larger chunks of text, such as strophes and even whole psalms (she doesn't go that far, but others do). The function of parallelism is ultimately to communicate a message, and it does this by creating contrast within equivalence. Equivalence is established on various levels—e.g. grammatical, phonological, and semantic—, thus binding the pairs together, and yet within this bounded unit contrasts are set up. The contrasts that are set up have a double function: both to disambiguate and to ambiguate the previous part of the parallelism (i.e. they create redundancy and ambiguity, one of the major dichotomies in linguistic discourse). The significant point is that both functions occur simultaneously and that they occur for the sake of doing justice to the subject matter. Here's a quote from Berlin:

A parallel line does both; it insures the delivery of the information in the first line and, even in the context of the first line, it encourages a second view of things, an alternate interpretation. Redundancy and ambiguity (disambiguation and polysemy) are locked in eternal struggle in parallelism. To choose one is to lose the other, and thereby lose the major dialectic tension of parallelism. There is no better way to sum this up than to quote

Ps 62:

אחת דבר אלהים // שתים שמעתי

One thing God has spoken // Two things I have heard.

This verse not only lends itself to discussions of hermeneutics—that one statement has many interpertations—but it also reflects the essence of parallelism. Parallelism is constituted by redundancy and polysemy, disambiguation and ambiguity, contrast within equivalence. Parallelism focuses the message on itself but its vision is binocular. Like human vision it superimposes two slightly different views of the same object and from their convergence it produces a sense of depth (p. 99).

I would say that parallelism, whether in a poetic couplets like the above or within the juxtaposition of entire chapters like Gen 1 and 2, functions like a “stereoscope.” The true referent is neither line a or line b, but rather some other abstraction beyond both, an abstraction that can only be perceived via the dialectic tension of both.In terms of Ps 24, what is the referent of the singular feminine object pronoun in v. 2a and b? Tevel or Eretz? Or another reality that both point to imperfectly.

Paul Minear once pointed out that there is a connection between literary technique and theology (see my post Eschatology and historical methodology). Can we see that here? A major attribute of the Biblical God is that he is both creator and redeemer, he redeems his creation, he takes what he already once found good - the old - and brings it to its goal - the new (as I wrote in my post Beauty and the Piss Christ).

In a similar way, I wonder if one could call parallelism redemptive," in that partialities are made to point beyond themselves to something "more true." Redemption is the instantiation of the Kingdom of God, the eschatological New Creation. Whatever that is, it is both continuous and discontinous with this side of creation (see Paul's argument about resurrection). Though I certainly don't think that poetic parallelism was created for the purpose of witnessing to this reality (it's just a mundane literary tool that can be put to all kinds of banal uses), the dialectic between old and new that is the stuff of Biblical theology lends itself nicely to such a paratacic literary technique.

Perhaps if Biblical scholars trained their vision to be able to see what emerges from between the seams of the Bible, their exegesis would bring us and the world closer to the reality that evoked the whole of Scripture in the first place.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Beauty and the Piss Christ.

A friend of mine here in Bonn organized an informal salon last weekend on the topic of "beauty." Various people get together and make various cultural contributions. I didn't have time to think up anything myself, so I simply did a German translation of a wonderful post that Ben Myers wrote a while back entitled Desire and Beauty: An Augustinian Anecdote. Interestingly enough, somebody else brought along a picture of Serrano's (in)famous Piss Christ, which Jason Goroncy also posted on a while back. It seems to me that on the surface these two posts diametrically contradict each other. Augustine talks of God as beauty itself, the actual substance of the form of beauty that we see in created things. Regardless of what we think, God is ultimately the real reason why we yearn for beauty in the first place. Serrano goes on to visually present precisely this God - and yet this image is in fact the opposite of what any healthy individual would consider to be "beautiful": a corpse, tortured to death, soaked in human fluid. How do I synthesize that? This is my own inadequate attempt - please help me to fill in the gaps:

The God that Augstine describes - beauty itself - never, in fact, enters into one-to-one unmediated relation to humanity. The basic Biblical metaphor for the relation between God and man is not a disembodied, formless, spiritual experience, but the Garden of Eden. This image brackets the Two Testaments like an inclusio and it pops up repeatedly and in various permutations throughout the rest of Scripture too. Whatever it means to enter into relation with God, it is always presented as a relationship with God the Creator. How does the Nicene Creed begin and end?

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
However we conceive of God, then - Augustine's beauty itself - it can only be done within the context of the totality of God's good creation: interpersonal relationships, delicious smells, and spiritual fulfilment and all. The God who meets us in created forms is not a substance that supersedes the form, it is a substance that fills the form and thus redeems it (I think Ben's anecdote illustrates this wonderfully). We can rightly consider beauty in this world as a foretaste of what God has in store for us, his Kingdom, and a "post-taste" of something that once was but was lost (cf. Ps 24).

What does this have to do with the Piss Christ? This is something I'm still struggling to comprehend, as until now I've been used to thinking of the crucifixion in juridical rather than ontological categories. It has something to do with God's way of "filling the forms" ... God so loved this world, this cosmos, that he entered its deepest chambers in order to exhaust their darkness and bring light ... . As long as we live this side of the consummation, we have to train our vision to be able to see God everywhere, even in that place where God the Son cried "Why have you forsaken me?"

I can't wait until the day when form and content become truly co-extensive, the day when - as the poem on Jason's post puts it - there will no longer be such a thing as "useless beauty."

Update: Jason Goroncy has given a helpful response to my post in the comments section of his original post, which you can read here. I've taken the liberty of reposting his response in the comments to this post. He basically affirms my point and enriches it by drawing on a paper by Trevor Hart entitled "Ugly as Sin? Beauty, Holiness, and the Crucified." Well worth a read.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

One thing I like about Mowinckel

I was recently asked what I thought of the work of the psalms scholar Sigmund Mowinckel (in response to this quote of his). Thus far I've only read the opening chapters of his key work, The Psalms in Israel's Worship (if you follow the link you can read these chapters, plus a helpful preface by Crenshaw, for free), but he's said enough in order for me to formulate an initial impression.

What I like most about Mowinckel is - what at least appears to be - his sensitivity and openness to the reality and impact of the divine within Israel's history. In a German language biographical sketch of his life I read that at some point he went through something of a "religious awakening."[1] Perhaps it is this is that comes to expression at various points in his work on the cult (apart from his dependence on the anthropologist Grønbech) ...

For example, he summarizes his entire work on the psalms as follows:
The present author has ... endeavoured to apply a really cult-functional intepretation, and ... to prove that the psalms of the Psalter, on the whole, are real cult psalms and an expression of that experience of God which the cult seeks to further (p. 34; emphasis, here and elsewhere, mine).
According to this perspective, the cult functions as one of a number of possible vehicles of divine revelation within Israel. There is an experience of God - to which the psalms are a response and for which the cult is a medium.

Again, Mowinckel says the following concerning the function of music in the cult:
Like rhythm and tune it is a way of expressing the sense of rapture and sublime abandonment. It is a reaction to the encounter with the holy. ... Together with cultic song goes the dance, which is a common way of expressing the encounter with the holy. ... At a higher level it develops into an expression of joy at the encounter with the Holy One" (p.9; note the move from "holy" in general to "the Holy One" in particular).
Unlike many scholars today,[2] Mowinckel doesn't reduce Israel's spiritual life to socio-psychological categories. His language here smacks of divine immanence. In other words, there is a transcendence (however vaguely and inadequately Mowinckel may conceive it) which enters into Israel's time and space, an ontological (?) reality which Israel experiences and to which it responds. In fact, this reality even impacts the shape of Israel's institutions. See, for example, Mowinckel's statement that the cult is
the visible and audible expression of the relation between the congregation and the deity" (p. 16).
These presuppositions are expressed most explicitly on pages 16-17:
It may often look as thought he initiative lies with the congregation, on the human side. But seen from the point of view of cult and religion it is rather the other way round: the initiative lies with God. True enough, it is man that 'searches for God,' 'seeks God,' but he can, and odes so, because the deity first 'revealed himself' and taught man where and when and how to seek him. This is a fundamental idea of all religion, and not least in Israel. The deity represents a reality and a power which is different from the human, a belongs to the sphere termed 'the holy', he is experienced as something 'different' and 'separate' - ... Through the cult this effective [!] and wonderful 'power' is imparted to the partakers, the congregation or the society.
"... seen from the point of view of cult and religion .. ." Is it the case that Mowinckel is just using emic categories, like a good phenomenologist of religion? Or is this in some sense his perspective too? What modern psalms scholar would talk with such confidence about the "effective ... 'power', not of the cult, but of the deity that is mediated through the cult? And what impact would giving space to this possibility have on modern interpretation of the psalms?[3]

[1] 1934 erlebte er durch die Begegnung mit der sogenannten „Gruppenbewegung“ (Oxford Group Movement) so etwas wie eine religiöse „Erweckung“, nach der er in vieler Hinsicht ein aktiveres Kirchenmitglied wurde und sich schließlich (1940) auch noch ordinieren ließ.

[2] In a seminar here in Bonn, Prof. W.H. Schmidt bemoaned the way in which contemporary Biblical exegesis has been reduced to a form of cultural analysis.

[3] It seems to me that some kind of account of divine immanence is required in order to give theological substance and methodological nuance to the justifications usually made for form criticism. See, e.g., my post Justifying form criticism of the psalms.

Monday, 1 March 2010

The purpose of the Israelite cult

What the congregation wants to achieve through the cult, and what the 'power' from God is to create, is life - in the most comprehensive sense of the word, from the fundamental material need: rain, sun, fertility, the continuation of the race, the strength and victory of the child, and so on, up to the spiritual, religious and ethical values that are the lifeblood of the society - life for everything that belongs to its 'world.' The Israelites expressed the same idea by the word 'blessing'. Blessing is to be created, increased, and secured through the cult; the office of the priest is to 'bless in Yahweh's name'. Both life and blessing have their ultimate source in the deity.
S. Mowinckel, The Psalms in Israel's Worship, 18. You can read the whole of the first two chapters here.