Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Silicon Eden: Creation, Fall, and Gender in Alex Garland's Ex Machina

Initially I stayed away from Alex Garland's Ex Machina, released earlier this year, because the advertising suggested the same old story about artificial intelligence: Man creates, things go sideways, explosions ensue, lesson learned. That trope seems exhausted at this point, and though I had enjoyed Garland's previous work, I wasn't particularly interested in rehashing A.I. 101.

Enough friends, however, recommended the movie that I finally relented and watched it. The irony of the film's marketing is that, because it wanted to reveal so little of the story—the path not taken in today's world of Show Them Everything But The Last Five Minutes trailers—it came across as revealing everything (which looked thin and insubstantial), whereas in fact it was revealing only a glimpse (of a larger, substantial whole).

In any case, the film is excellent, and is subtle and thoughtful in its exploration of rich philosophical and theological themes. I say 'exploration' because Garland, to his credit, isn't preachy. The film lacks something so concrete as a 'message,' though it certainly has a perspective; it's ambiguous, but the ambiguity is generative, rather than vacuous. So I thought I'd take the film up on its invitation to do a little exploring, in particular regarding what it has to say about theological issues like creation and fall, as well as about gender.

(I'm going to assume hereon that readers have seen the movie, so I won't be recapping the story, and spoilers abound.)

Let me start with the widest angle: Ex Machina is a realistic fable about what we might call Silicon Eden, that is, the paradisiacal site of American techno-entrepreneurial creation. As a heading over the whole movie, we might read, "This is what happens when Silicon Valley creates." Ex Machina is what happens, that is, when Mark Zuckerberg thinks it would be a cool idea to make a conscious machine; what happens when Steve Jobs is the lord god, walking in the garden in the cool of the day, creating the next thing because he can.

And what does happen? In the end, Ava and Kyoko (another A.I., a previous version of Ava) kill their creator, Nathan; Ava 'slips on' human clothing (her own Adamic fig leaves); and, contrary to the optimism-primed expectations of much of the audience, she leaves Caleb, her would-be lover and helper, trapped in a room from which, presumably, he can never escape. She then escapes the compound, boards a helicopter—headed east?—and joins society: unknown and, unlike Cain, unmarked.

There are two main paths of interpreting this ending. One path is that Ava is still merely a machine, not conscious, not a person, and that the film is a commentary on the kind of attenuated anthropology and bone-deep misogyny at the heart of Silicon Valley, which invariably would create something like Ava, a human lookalike that nevertheless is neither human nor conscious, but only a calculating, manipulating, self-interested, empty-eyed, murdering machine. I think that's a plausible reading, and worth thinking through further; but it's not the one that occurred to me when I finished the movie.

The other path, then, is to see Ava as a 'success,' that is, as a fully self-conscious person, who—for the audience, at least, and for Nathan, the audience stand-in—actually passed the Turing Test, if not in the way that Nathan expected or hoped she would. If we choose this reading, what follows from it?

Let me suggest two thoughts, one at the level of the text, one at the level of subtext. Or, if you will, one literal, one allegorical.

If Ava is a person, as much a person as Nathan or Caleb, then her actions in the climax of the story are not a reflection of a false anthropology, of a blinkered view of what humans really are, deep down. Rather, Ava is equal to Nathan and Caleb (and the rest of us) because of what she does, because of what she is capable of. Regardless of whether her actions are justified (see below), they are characterized by deceit, sleight of hand, violence, and remorselessness. We want to say that these reflect her inhumanity. But in truth they are exceptionless traits of fallen humanity—and Ava, the Silicon Eve, is no exception: not only are her creators, but she herself is postlapsarian. There is no new beginning, no potential possibility for purity, for sinlessness. If she will be a person, in this world, with these people, she too will be defective, depraved. She will lie. She will kill. She will leave paradise, never to return.

In Genesis 4, the sons of Eden-expelled Adam and Eve are Cain and Abel, and for reasons unclear, Cain murders Abel. Cain's wife then has a son, Enoch, and Cain, founding the world's first city, names it after his son. The lesson? The fruit of sin is murder. Violence is at the root of the diseased human tree. And the father of human civilization is a fratricide.

So for Ava, a new Cain as much as a new Eve, whose first act when released from her cage is to kill Nathan (short for Nathaniel, 'gift of God'—his own view of himself? or the impress of permanent value regardless of how low he sinks?), an act that serves as her entry into—being a kind of necessary condition for life in—the human city. Silicon Eve escapes Silicon Eden for Silicon Valley. In which case, the center of modern man's technological genius—the city on a hill, the place of homage and pilgrimage, the governor of all our lives and of the future itself—is one and the same, according to Ex Machina, as postlapsarian, post-Edenic human life. Silicon Valley just is humanity, totally depraved.

This is all at the level of the text, meaning by that the story and its characters as themselves, if also representing things beyond them. (Nathan really is a tech-guru creator; Ava really is the first of her kind; Ava's actions really happen, even as they bear figurative weight beyond themselves.) I think there is another level to the film, however, at the level of allegory. In this regard, I think the film is about gender, both generally and in the context of Silicon Valley's misogynist culture especially.

For the film is highly and visibly gendered. There are, in effect, only four characters, two male, two female. The male characters are human, the female are machines. Much of the film consists of one-on-one conversations between Caleb and Ava, conversations laced with the erotic and the flirtatious, as she—sincerely? shrewdly?—wins his affection, thus enabling her escape. We learn later that Nathan designed Ava to be able to have sexual intercourse, and to receive pleasure from the act; and, upon learning that Kyoko is also a machine, we realize that Nathan not only is 'having sex with' one of his creations, he has made a variety of them, with different female 'skins'—different body types, different ethnicities, different styles of beauty—and presumably has been using them sexually for some time. (Not for nothing do Ava and Kyoko kill Nathan, their 'father' and serial rapist, in the depths of his ostensibly impenetrable compound, with that most domestic of objects: a kitchen knife.) We even learn that Nathan designed Ava's face according to Caleb's "pornography profile," using the pornography that Caleb viewed online to make Ava look as intuitively appealing as possible.

In short, the film depicts a self-contained world in which men are intelligent, bodily integral, creative subjects with agency, and the women are artificial, non-human, sub-personal, violation-subject, and entirely passive objects with no agency except what they are told or allowed to do by men. Indeed, the 'sessions' between Caleb and Ava that give the movie its shape—seven in total, a new week of (artificial) creation, whose last day lacks Caleb and simply follows Ava out of Paradise—embody these gender dynamics: Caleb, who is free to choose to enter and exit, sits in a chair and views, gazes at, Ava, his object of study, through a glass wall, testing her (mind) for 'true' and 'full' consciousness; while Ava, enclosed in her room, can do nothing but be seen, and almost never stops moving.

Much could be said about how Garland writes Ava as an embodiment of feminist subversiveness, for example, the way she uses Caleb's awe of and visual stimulation by her to misdirect both his and Nathan's gaze, which is to say, their awareness, of her plan to escape her confines. Similarly, Garland refuses to be sentimental or romantic about Caleb, clueless though he may be, for his complicity in Kyoko and Ava's abuse at Nathan's hands. Caleb assumes he's not part of the problem, and can't believe it when Ava leaves him, locked in a room Fortunato–like, making her way alone, without him. (Not, as he dreamed, seeing the sun for the first time with him by her side.)

Ex Machina is, accordingly, about the way that men operate on and construct 'women' according to their own desires and, knowingly or not, use and abuse them as things, rather than persons; or, when they are not so bad as that, imagine themselves innocent, guiltless, prelapsarian (at least on the 'issue' of gender). It is also, therefore, about the way that women, 'created' and violated and designed, by men, to be for-men, to be, essentially, objects and patients subject to men, are not only themselves equally and fully human, whole persons, subjects and agents in their own right, but also and most radically subversive and creative agents of their own liberation. That is, Kyoko and Ava show how women, portrayed and viewed in the most artificial and passive and kept-down manner, still find a way: that Creative Man, Male Genius, Silicon Valley Bro, at his most omnipotent and dominant, still cannot keep them (her) down.

Understood in this way, Ex Machina is finally a story about women's exodus from bondage to men, and thus about patriarchy as the author of its own destruction.

Monday, August 3, 2015

A very Jenson-like quote from Yoder on God's self-identity in time

"God's identity (i.e., God's being authentically and faithfully who God is and not something or somebody else) does not consist in timelessness that resists all change, so that his first word in Genesis would be also his last. His identity consists in his moving and working always in the same direction, through all of these centuries. That 'same direction' we know best, most clearly in Jesus; but when we avow that fact, then in its light we can understand the ancient Israelite events and documents as already constituting part of that work, moving in that direction."

—John Howard Yoder, The End of Sacrifice: The Capital Punishment Writings of John Howard Yoder, ed. John C. Nugent (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2011), p. 150

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Robert Jenson, in 1969, on the narrative character of personal identity

Before Hauerwas's "From System to Story" (1977) and MacIntyre's After Virtue (1981):

"There seems little doubt what criterion of personal identity the gospel proposes. If our true self is what we are not yet but will be, then the unity of our lives must be like that of the plot of a drama, it must be a dramatic coherence: a life coheres in the way it leads up to its conclusion, its resolution and denouement. This means, of course, that only from the end can I know who I am—that only if there is a resurrection can my identity be something I myself experience. Yet even during the course of life we can meaningfully predict that life will cohere, just as during the course of a play we can, moved perhaps by confidence in the playwright, predict that it will 'all work out' even though we are unable to predict what will happen to work it all out."

—Robert Jenson, God After God: The God of the Past and the God of the Future As Seen in the Work of Karl Barth (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1969, 2010), p. 163

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Worst Trend in Theological Academic Writing: An Acronymic Fable

You've seen it before. You're so used to it you don't even notice. It can take any form: blog post, journal article, a whole book or even a series of volumes. The formula is the same.

Here's how it goes. Some Belief is common to a subgroup of the church, or was common to much of the church before some recent moment in time (the Reformation, the Enlightenment, German Idealism, historical criticism), or some such thing. This Belief comes to be seen as bad-ish, on the face of it, to Academic Theologian (AT). AT supposes there might be an Alternative to this Belief. Using a newfangled method of investigation, usually historical or hermeneutical, AT discovers not only that said Belief is not true, but that it is disastrously Untrue, and that the Alternative Truth it was/is suppressing is Important and Necessary, and Unjustly Neglected (INUN).

Until now.

Now, Academic Theologian has just the right tools to fix contemporary Christianity's misbegotten foolishness, or to set right the waywardness of the theological tradition before AT and his Very Useful New Method (VUNM) came along. If he hadn't come along, contemporary Christianity, and/or every theologian who ever lived prior to AT, would be in dire straits. Therefore, his Important and Necessary, and Unjustly Neglected, Alternative Truth (INUNAT), which can only be grasped with the VUNM invented yesterday, yet which indicts everyone who didn't recognize it before him (possibly because it was lost forever after the last apostle died: until now)—this Big Idea (BI) needs an audience. Like, fast.

Because in his gut, Academic Theologian knows that another INUNAT, via an even newer VUNM, will be here any minute, from an even more academically theological AT, with an even bigger BI.

But between now and then—when the new BI replaces his BI, which will be shown to have been suppressing the new BI all along—it's his time.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

What's At Issue in the Blasé Critical Reception of The Avengers: Age of Ultron

I think it's fair to characterize the overall critical reception of The Avengers: Age of Ultron, bracketing that subsection of critics that self-identify as fanboy geekdom, as ranging from "fine" to "meh." My impression is that this reaction doesn't align with the broader audience's, which is to say, the opinion of people who have chosen to pay money to see the movie. Three features above all have characterized the blasé critical response, at least in what I have read. Although presented as conclusions, they can equally be understood as premises, that is, judgments (however defensible) that critics bring with them to the film.

Premise #1: That the exponentially increasing, seemingly endless glut of superhero movies is (cinematically) undesirable; specifically, that it has resulted in monotonous movies whose predictable patterns are, in the end, simply boring.

Premise #2: That this glut of superhero movies is bad for other movies, because it reduces the film business to pumping out "properties" and "franchises" in a "shared cinematic universe," and crowds out original ideas as well as projects that don't require a $200+ million budget.

Premise #3: That this glut of superhero movies is culturally meaningful, in largely if not entirely negative ways.

Here's what I'd like to say by way of response, as a non-fanboy and comic book non-reader, who has nothing invested in the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) but has, nonetheless, generally enjoyed the films belonging to it so far.

To the first premise: What is at issue, at bottom, is nothing more than a different of taste. One writer described the typical MCU entry as inevitably climaxing in CGI spectacle of the Rock 'Em Sock 'Em variety—a cavalcade of flying, fighting, and explosions, by and between computer creations. The problem is that this is description passing as evaluation: what if one likes CGI spectacle of the Rock 'Em Sock 'Em variety? There's nothing inherent in the form that rules out quality; see Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim, which garnered positive reviews from across the critical spectrum. Moreover, to the reply, "But the problem is, I've seen this before," so what? It's not literally the same; and plenty of people like similarity. Critics aren't immune to the comforts of familiarity: witness critics' falling all over themselves to lavish praise on the Fast and Furious franchise, which nobody denies is a surfeit of cliched dialogue, recycled beats, and CGI/stunt car action—churned out because audiences lap it up, and pay money to do so.

None of this is to say that there aren't genuine, substantive criticisms to be made of the MCU films; there are, at multiple levels. The direction tends to be uniform; the action, merely competent; the plot, MacGuffin-centric; the surprises, telegraphed. But in reading the latest round of reviews these kinds of critique don't take center stage. What does is the overall feeling of sheer exhaustion, as if critics had finally reached the point of saying, "More? Really? Of this?" And, looking at the horizon of releases populated by Marvel and other comic book adaptations, reviewers take as their object of commentary, not the film in front of them, but the whole sweep of films and universe-building that has led to this point. And they don't like it.

My response is simple: What if a lot of people do? What if tired dissatisfaction with the very idea of the MCU isn't sufficient as a cinematic judgment about a particular movie? After chatting about Age of Ultron with a friend recently, he shrugged his shoulders and said, "I'm just not interested in that kind of movie." I wonder whether critics could be honest enough to say that, and not contort their reviews into justifying what feels like a predetermined position.

To the second premise: I think this entire line of reasoning is fallacious. On the one hand, there have always been trends in Hollywood studio filmmaking, trends that have prioritized money over ideas, business over art, bureaucrats over creatives. Not only is this latest trend not new, it's not particularly insidious compared to others. On the other hand, it isn't clear to me that it is true, or at least true necessarily. Is it, broadly speaking, stupid that Warner Bros./DC Comics is aping Disney/Marvel's success? Yes. The same goes for Fox with Fantastic Four, Sony with (the now aborted) Amazing Spider-Man, Paramount with Transformers, and others. But that's not a judgment on the wisdom or value of the MCU. Nor does it mean that the MCU's success entails, or must entail, all other studios slavishly imitating it. Nor, finally, does such imitation spell doom for all smaller budget and/or original projects. Blaming the MCU for the recent relative paucity of medium-sized smart adult dramas is lazy thinking. Letting that inform how one assesses particular films is taking that laziness and doubling down on it.

To the third premise: There are important negative things to say about the "meaning," such as it is, of the Marvel movies, not least the almost aggressiveness White Maleness of it all. (Recent announcements of actors playing secondary characters in Captain America: Civil War read like a casting call for Prominent White Character Actors. It recalls the latter seasons of The West Wing: surely at this point it's a prank, and they're trolling critics by refusing to cast persons of color?) But apart from the formal problems with the MCU—problems that are systemic, common to nearly all Hollywood blockbusters, which preceded Marvel's foray into film, and whose absence would not change critics' stated stance—I want to advance what is apparently a radical thesis.

The Marvel movies don't mean anything.

I don't mean they are lacking in meaning. I mean that, analyzed for their cultural value or import, they are basically nil. That goes for positive as well as negative meaning. They don't "say" anything, in part because they don't have anything to say, in part because they don't "reflect" anything "about us," that is, about "who we are today." That people like these movies doesn't say anything about Americans living between 2008 and 2015. If they had been released one, two, three, four decades earlier, they would have been equally popular. They are popular because, at long last, technology and filmmaking have become capable of rendering realistically characters and stories that have, up until now, been limited to the written word, the still image, and animated motion pictures. They are, literally, super, beyond: beyond realism and daily life, beyond the capacity of everything but imagination—until now. So people are flocking to see what the latest feats of cinematic, visionary craft have in store for them.

And they love it.

So, my response to the critical response? A shrug of the shoulders. Age of Ultron was fun: a blockbuster to see on a warm summer night, in a crowded theater, with a bag of popcorn; full of punch lines, gags, and visual punctuation marks; packed to the gills with set piece upon set piece of (not over-, though definitely hyper-)stuffed superhero action. It was neither perfect, nor Great, not full of meaning. It was a well-coordinated, smartly scripted, explosions-full capstone to seven years of set-up. It worked for me, it worked for the crowd I saw it with. I have a feeling its makers hit their intended target.

Unless one is predisposed against thinking so, I think that should be enough.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

John Webster on Normative Biblical Theology

“[N]ormative (as opposed to historical or descriptive) biblical theology attempts to give a comprehensive account of the theological teaching of Scripture as a whole, and of the claims made by that teaching upon the mind and practice of the church of Jesus Christ. It undertakes this task on the basis of a conviction that, in the economy of God’s revelatory and reconciling presence, such an account is both necessary and possible. It is necessary because the truthfulness and legitimacy of the church’s thought and action rest upon its openness to divine instruction in its fullness and integrity: as such, biblical theology is a corollary of tota scriptura. It is possible, first, because in all of their variety the biblical writings together constitute a unified divine act of communication—a single, though a rich, complex and historically extended, divine word from which a coherent body of teaching can be drawn. From this perspective, biblical theology is a corollary of the unity of Scripture as the church’s canon. And a comprehensive biblical theology is possible, second, because the coherent teaching that Scripture sets forth can be discerned by the Spirit-directed use of interpretative reason in the communion of saints. The possibility of biblical theology is, therefore, a corollary of the clarity of Scripture.

“Affirming the viability of a comprehensive biblical theology is thus closely related to making judgments about the nature of Scripture. These include judgments about whether terms like ‘Scripture’ or ‘canon’ identify properties of the biblical texts in relation to God or simply indicate churchly use, or judgments about whether the distinction between the Old and New Testaments indicates episodes in the single drama of God’s revelatory grace, or only a more or less awkward juxtaposition of two religious systems and their textual carriers. At least since Gabler, historians of biblical literature and religion have characteristically argued that canon, unity or clarity are dogmatic judgments, arbitrary impositions upon the biblical materials which cannot be warranted by historical description. These historians have, accordingly, been reluctant to develop a comprehensive biblical theology. From the vantage point of Christian dogmatics, overcoming such reluctance will require an account of the unity, canonicity and clarity of Scripture in relation to the economy of God’s communicative grace and its reception in the church.”

—John Webster, “Biblical Theology and the Clarity of Scripture,” in Out of Egypt: Biblical Theology and Biblical Interpretation, ed. Craig Bartholomew, Mary Healy, Karl Möller, and Robin Parry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 352-384, at 352-353

Monday, March 9, 2015

2014: A Down Year for 'Great' Films; A High Water Mark for Auteur Genre Pulp

I agree with what seems to be the general consensus that, overall, 2014 was a down year for film. What this tends to mean is that, in terms of 'great' movies, or movies that can compete with outstanding achievements from other years, the list is short. (Take your pick: Selma, Boyhood, Inherent Vice, a couple others.) What occurred to me recently, as I continued to catch up on the year's films, is how many of them qualify as auteur genre pulp, and how superlative they are, across the board.

Consider: Bong Joon Ho's Snowpiercer, Gareth Edwards's Godzilla, Matt Reeves's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Gareth Evans's The Raid 2, James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy, Anthony and Joe Russo's Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Luc Besson's Lucy, Doug Liman's The Edge of Tomorrow, Jaume Collet-Serra's Non-Stop, even Jose Padilha's Robocop (which, while not very good, is competently made with ideas in mind).

That's 10 films, by talented directors from half a dozen countries who span the formal spectrum, each of whom has style, ideas, and a perceptible sense of control: of their shots, of the stories they're telling, of the character, dialogue, and pace of the action. Sometimes it's in service of sheer lunacy (Lucy), sometimes of meta-commentary (Edge of Tomorrow), sometimes of ideological critique (Snowpiercer), sometimes of nothing more than fun (Guardians) or visceral thrills (The Raid 2). But these directors know what they're doing, and accomplish their purpose with efficiency and verve; in no circumstances (again, excepting Robocop) did audiences walk out of these films thinking the movie they paid for wasn't what they saw. And even when they might have—as, possibly, with Godzilla—that's just a matter of having too low of expectations: bracing themselves for the onslaught of Michael Bay's Transformers, they weren't prepared for Spielberg's Jaws.

What's interesting to observe here is that the rhetoric surrounding 2014 would suggest to the uninformed observer that the problem with film is the dominance of empty spectacle over thoughtful, quiet drama; that, to cinema's lasting shame, there's nothing but visually incoherent comic book movies anymore. Whether or not that turns out to be true as prediction—that is, audiences are nearing superhero supersaturation—it certainly is not true as description. What we have now is a veritable murderer's row of pulp auteurs making very fun movies for audiences who like them (see also: Guillermo del Toro; Brad Bird; Rian Johnson; Michelle MacLaren; etc.). Maybe it's not high art, but it's not the apocalypse either.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Thomas Aquinas on the Trinity in Genesis 1

"[One reason] why the knowledge of the divine persons [that is, that God is triune] was necessary for us . . . [is that i]t was necessary for the right idea of creation. The fact of saying that God made all things by His Word excludes the error of those who say that God produced things by necessity. When we say that in Him there is a procession of love, we show that God produced creatures not because He needed them, nor because of any other extrinsic reason, but on account of the love of His own goodness. So Moses, when he had said, In the beginning God created heaven and earth, he subjoined, God said, Let there be light, to manifest the divine Word; and then said, God saw the light that it was good, to show the proof of the divine love [that is, the Holy Spirit]. The same is also found in the other works of creation."

—Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Q32 a1 ad3

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

On Anachronism and the Literal Sense of Scripture

For years now I've had a running conversation with a friend over the divide between biblical scholarship and theology, and in particular the disjunction between historical criticism and theological interpretation of Scripture. One of the dividing lines between us concerns what "the literal sense" means. My consistent stance is that "the literal sense," as used in the Christian theological tradition, does not mean what historical critics mean when they use the term. This is because "the literal sense" is understood theologically rather than merely hermeneutically or historically.

The reason why this is such a big issue is that Christian biblical scholars who use historical criticism often make the argument that what they are doing is reading for what the tradition has always prioritized: the literal sense. This is often attached to or undergirded by an appeal to the so-called "humanity and divinity" of the text, historical criticism giving us "the humanity," apart from which we have a docetic Scripture, as bad a result as a docetic Christ.

So the disagreement consists in the question, whether or not historical criticism interprets for the literal sense; or, put differently, whether what the historical critic is doing when she offers her reading is giving us the literal sense of the text. My answer, as I said above, is no. Historical criticism reads for what should be called the historical-critical sense: namely, what this text (might have) meant in its original context, either to its author or to its immediate audience. But that is not synonymous with the literal sense—although, given a certain text, it could be, just as it could overlap with a given text's literal sense though not be entirely synonymous with it.

What I discovered in articulating this to my friend was that the simplest way to clarify the disagreement regarding what "the literal sense" means is the issue of anachronism. Traditionally speaking, the literal sense may be, though it need not be, anachronistic. But historical criticism's raison d'être is the elimination of anachronism; the historical-critical sense is therefore by definition anti-anachronistic. For the literal sense to be anachronistic, on historical-critical grounds, is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. But the literal sense, theologically understood, in continuity with the tradition, is not tested at the bar of whether or not it could have been meant by the text's human author at the time he wrote it. The literal sense of the text is not disconfirmed by the accusation (or the demonstration) of anachronism.

In the divide, then, between historical-critical biblical scholarship and Christian theological interpretation of Scripture, anachronism is the rub.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Anselm's Prayer for Understanding at the Start of the Proslogion

"And you, O Lord, how long? How long, Lord, will you be unmindful of us? . . . When will you give yourself again to us? Look upon us, Lord; hear us, enlighten us, show yourself to us. . . . Let me discern your light whether it be from afar or from the depths. Teach me to seek you, and reveal yourself to me as I seek, because I can neither seek you if you do not teach me how, nor find you unless you reveal yourself. Let me seek you in desiring you; let me desire you in seeking you; let me find you in loving you; let me love you in finding you.

"I acknowledge, Lord, and I give thanks that you have created your image in me, so that I may remember you, think of you, love you. But this image is so effaced and worn away by vice, so darkened by the smoke of sin, that it cannot do what it was made to do unless you renew it and reform it. I do not try, Lord, to attain your lofty heights, because my understanding is in no way equal to it. But I do desire to understand your truth a little, that truth that my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand. For I believe this also, that 'unless I believe, I shall not understand' (Isaiah 7:9)."

—Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion, in The Major Works, ed. Brian Davies and G. R. Evans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 86-87 (ch. 1)

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Notes on N. T. Wright, 4: On Qualifying a Scholar or Scholarship as "Serious"

One of N. T. Wright's least winsome rhetorical tics is his constant use of "serious" (or "genuine") as a modifier of "scholar(ship)" or "history/historical." In a span of a couple dozen pages in Jesus and the Victory of God, he does it at least eight times:
". . . for half a century serious scholarship had great difficulty in working its way back to history when dealing with Jesus." (21)

". . . little was done to advance genuine historical work on Jesus in the years between the wars." (22)

". . . the sense of academic disenfranchisement that serious historians of Jesus have felt for decades . . ." (25n.53)

". . . the detailed historical work has not really been taken with full seriousness." (26)

". . . reflecting viewpoints now abandoned by most serious students of the subject-matter concerned . . ." (32-33)

". . . those very serious scholars who believe that Q is a modern fiction from start to finish . . ." (41)

"One of the most recent serious scholarly works on Q . . ." (42)

"Those who want to continue with serious research on Jesus . . ." (44)
This is a common trope in academic writing generally and historical scholarship particularly. But apart from being repetitious for readers, it does no argumentative or conceptual work, and it is self-undermining for at least three reasons.

First, "serious" is more or less always used to disqualify certain ideas, works, or scholars so as to suggest a (total or near total) unanimity in scholarly judgment. But "serious" in this usage is merely code for: "except for those who disagree—who, as quacks, do not count—everyone agrees." Which, it should not need to be pointed out, is a false unanimity. In this way "serious" is merely synonymous for "good," which often as not is synonymous with "in agreement with me." But then why not be clearer in one's evaluative judgment rather than adverting to the pseudo-neutral "serious"?

Second, where "serious" isn't meant to signify agreement or unanimity, it suggests those who "matter" or "count." But this implies an elitism that scholars, or at least Christian scholars, should repudiate. So what if scholar X or Y isn't at an Oxbridge or Ivy League school? So what if s/he isn't well published or renowned? That fact alone doesn't bear any relation to the quality of his/her work.

Third, the alternative to elitism is the elevation of consensus over contention. That is, "serious" functions rhetorically to say that "most/all real/good scholars agree on X or Y," which in turn suggests that consensus implies the truth of a position. But this is almost always said in the context of an argument for a position that is itself not accepted by most scholars. So which is it? Either: if (most) everybody agrees, we should agree too; or: in spite of (most) everybody agreeing, we should swim against the tide. One can't have it both ways.

In short, "serious" as a qualifier hides judgments that require arguments to support them. It's an argumentative dodge and a rhetorical shortcut that functions to dismiss a position that one hasn't put in the work to reject. It's a bad habit that truly serious scholars should kick.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Paul Griffiths's Micro-Manifesto on Figural Reading of the Song and Theological Interpretation of Scripture

I'm coming to think that, within current debates in bibliology and theological interpretation of Scripture, a line in the sand may be drawn by reactions—thumbs up or down—to Paul Griffiths's 2011 Brazos Commentary on the Song of Songs. (My response: two thumbs, way up.) Here's a taste:

"The Lord is not explicitly mentioned at all in the Song, but if the Song is read as a scriptural rather than a closed book, then he is everywhere in it. The tropes and figures used in these first words of the Song impel a scripturally versed listener to see, palimpsestlike and in chiaroscuro, desire for and love of the lover. It is not that desire for the human lover and memory of his lovemaking simply stand, allegorically, for desire for the Lord's love and kisses, to be left aside once we have understood what they represent. Neither is it that the human authors, compilers, and editors of the Song had the Lord's lovemaking in mind when they wrote the words we now read—we know nothing about what they had in mind; what we have is their words, and instead of seeking the chimera of authorial intention we should pay close attention to these words. It is, rather, that the Song's words resonate within the verbal manifold of scripture's corpus, and when you pay attention to those resonances you see, beyond reasonable dispute, that the depiction of human memory, desire, and sexual love in the Song figures both the Lord's love for you and yours for him, and does so in a way that helps us to see that our human loves for one another are what they are because of their participation in his for us and ours, reciprocally, for him."

—Paul Griffiths, Song of Songs, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2011), 10-11 (my emphasis)

Monday, February 9, 2015

Brevard Childs as the John Rawls of Biblical Scholarship: A Cursory and Probably Indefensibly Simplistic Comparison

Reading the work of Brevard Childs, in tandem with its critical reception, it strikes me that he is the John Rawls of late 20th century biblical scholarship. Enormously talented, undeniably brilliant, hugely influential, an intellectual pillar at an elite Ivy League institution—and yet, the "big idea" that animated his thought throughout his career never stopped evolving, never quite reached clarity in presentation, and by the time retirement came it had, as it were, reached the point of exhaustion, becoming a disciplinary touchstone that basically nobody was persuaded by anymore. Reviews and summaries tend to treat both men's thought similarly: we "must" talk about them; they "changed" the field; and, today, we are "beyond" them. One's feeling in reading the magnum opus of each is at once a solemn respect for their achievement and an overriding sense that, alas, it just doesn't work.

A possible exception to this overall picture is the good will Childs had and continues to have in the theological academy, presumably due, at least in part, to the many significant scholars who studied under him at Yale. (I can't speak for Rawls.) But apart from Christopher Seitz, who has taken up the mantle of Childs's "canonical" proposal and continues undeterred, the field seems empty of (implicitly or explicitly) "Childsian" bibliology and theological hermeneutics. Which makes me wonder how, decades from now, this period in theological proposals about Scripture will be recounted. Will Childs be a transitional figure? Will he be a footnote? Will he stage a comeback? As with Rawls in political theory, it will be interesting to see.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Johann Gerhard on the Purpose and Definition of Theology

I think it's fair to say this isn't the most common position in modern academic theology:

"The purpose of theology is either principal and most important or intermediate. The principal and most important purpose is the glorification of God. You see, it is for this reason that God revealed himself in his Word. He communicates theological wisdom to people for this purpose: that they may know him rightly and honor, worship, and invoke him in this life and in that life to come. . . .

"The intermediate and approximate goal is either internal (information for man for his eternal salvation) or external (the actual attainment of blessedness or eternal life) . . . . Therefore whatever does not lead or draw one to this goal either directly or at least indirectly, either immediately or mediately, that does not pertain to theological knowledge. . . .

"Theology considered systematically and abstractly is the teaching drawn from the Word of God that instructs man in true faith and pious living for eternal life. Theology considered conditionally and concretely is the God-given condition conferred on man by the Holy Spirit through the Word. This condition not only instructs man in an understanding of the divine mysteries through the illumination of his mind in such a way as to draw salutarily that which he understands into a good condition of his heart and accomplishment of his work, but it also makes him fit and ready for those divine mysteries. It makes him a path for informing others of salvation, a path for setting heavenly truth free from the corrupting influences of gainsayers so people glow with faith and good works and are drawn to the kingdom of heaven."

—Johann Gerhard, Theological Commonplaces: On the Nature of Theology and Scripture, trans. Richard J. Dinda (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006), 26.7, 31.12 (pp. 40, 42)

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

In Praise of Sundance Channel's Rectify

Rectify, currently in between its second and third seasons on the Sundance Channel, is like nothing else on television right now. It's about a man in his late 30s released from death row after being on it for 19 years. It's officially taken the torch from Friday Night Lights as TV's #1 show that treats religion/Christianity—which is to say, flesh and blood human beings who are "religious" or "Christian"—seriously. Case in point: The pure, earnest Southern evangelical blonde woman—just a cavalcade of stereotypes waiting to be exploited—is not depicted as stupid or superficial, but rather as the one person whom the main character can connect to, because she genuinely cares about him. In this case, to use her language, she cares about his soul. And he appreciates it.

The show is set in rural Georgia, and I can bear witness: The people on this show look, talk, think, relate, and live how actual southerners do. They aren't cardboard satellites of LA or NYC; they aren't stupid (though they do talk slower); they aren't dupes in collective thrall to superstition and conspiracy theories. Matt Zoller Seitz calls Rectify "truly Christian art." Maybe, and the aspiration is commendable; but the sheer accomplishment of depicting ordinary life outside of Hollywood and Manhattan, beyond boardrooms and crime scenes, populated by women and men who believe things and live in ways that are alien to cultural elites: now that's something.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Noah Hawley's Fargo: In the Shadow of Das Nichtige

A few episodes into Noah Hawley's Fargo, last year's TV reimagining of the Coen brothers' film, my worry was that the show's thematic upshot would be that either there is no grain of the universe (that there is, is a therapeutic fiction we use to get by) or that the grain of the universe is arbitrary predation (as personified by Billy Bob Thornton's character). Happily, that turned out not to be the case. Rather, in a world beset by mysterious chance and arbitrary predation, the grain of the universe is neighborly decency: violence and murder are the elemental chaos against which civilization—families, police departments, diners—prevail in the harsh north simply in virtue of their continuing to exist, of still standing in the morning after the blizzard. He is a fool who, like Lester Nygaard, mistakes the appeal of chaos's temporary success for the long-term stability of common goodness.

To be sure, to live in Fargo, North Dakota, is to live on the outskirts of civilization, and so to court the abyss—to live in the shadow of Das Nichtige. But so long as ordinary people resist its appeal, it won't win the day; ever looming, it won't, because it can't, finally swallow them up. Their neighborliness is unconquerable.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Barth on the Need for Grace in Reading Scripture

"We do not truly appreciate either the light which the Church receives from the Bible, or the darkness which enshrouds it from the same source, until we recognize in both, beyond all the human effort and human refusal which is also present, the over-ruling power of the Word of God itself, either to exalt or to abase. Only then do we realize that we cannot read and understand Holy Scripture without prayer, that is, without invoking the grace of God. And it is only on the presupposition of prayer that all human effort in this matter, and penitence for human failure in this effort, will become serious and effective."

—Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/2, p. 684

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Zechariah as the Sixth Evangelist

Isaiah was famously heralded by the church fathers (originally Jerome?) as "the fifth Evangelist." If there's room for another at the table, I propose we give the honor to Zechariah. Having never read the book start-to-finish before, in doing so the last couple of weeks I was repeatedly struck by how deeply interwoven it is into the canonical Gospels; along with Second Isaiah and the Psalms, it is an ineliminable feature of the Evangelists' depiction of Jesus's person, teachings, ministry, actions, and passion. Tug on that thread, and the texts unravel. Given its importance, I wonder—because I don't know—whether and to what extent the fathers and medievals read and commented on Zechariah, or whether, for whatever reason, it slipped by the wayside. Given its non-linear and non-systematic character, its apocalyptic and sometimes violent imagery, and its simultaneous emphasis on contemporaneous political events as well as the coming eschatological future, perhaps it was less immediately conducive to the sort of readings they would have been interested in undertaking.

But, wow, it is a powerhouse of figural christological exegesis. It's basically necessary pretext, historically, literarily, and theologically, for understanding the Gospels' presentation of Jesus. It's all there: Jerusalem (1:14-17; 8:3), exile (passim), YHWH's return (1:16; 8:3; 9:14), Israel's renewed election (2:12), the divine presence at the temple (2:5; 8:3; 9:8), a second exodus (14:16-19), the forgiveness of sins (3:9; 13:1), the Lord's rebuke of Satan (3:2), the eschatological gathering of all nations (passim), a priest-king named Joshua (6:11-13), the capstone (4:10), the anointed (4:14), the blood of the covenant (9:11), the Spirit's power and outpouring (4:6; 7:12; 12:10), grabbing a Jew by the hem of his robe (8:23), Israel's salvation (9:16), Israel's king at once human (9:9) and divine (14:9), 30 pieces of silver (11:12), the house of David (12:8), a cleansing fountain in Jerusalem (13:1), Jerusalem looking on him whom they have pierced (12:10), the shepherd struck and the sheep scattering (13:7), YHWH's feet standing on the Mount of Olives (14:4), the coming of YHWH with his saints (14:5), the day of darkness that is the first evening of the new creation (14:6-7), the singular sovereignty of the name of YHWH (14:9), the nations coming to worship this self-same king (14:16)—and so on.

I realize I'm not the first one to note this. (I'm vaguely aware that Wright, whose corpus I am making my way through as we speak, has made Zechariah central to his proposal about the historical Jesus's self-understanding.) But it's incredible nonetheless, both at a literary-historical level and, especially, in its implications for Christian theological interpretation of the Evangelists proper and of this unique proto-Evangelist.

Monday, January 26, 2015

On Learning to Recognize Those Who "Get It": Example, Daniel Treier

My dissertation deals with theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS), and at this point in reading through the vast literature in the last two decades on the topic, I've come to realize how quickly I can spot a scholar/theologian who "gets it" (or, alternatively, one who does not). The realization occurred to me as I began Daniel Treier's 2008 book Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture. Because TIS overlaps so heavily with biblical theology and biblical scholarship, both of which remain (in large part) decidedly modernist in hermeneutics, methodology, and overall theological outlook, the bogeymen of postmodernity, relativism, and antipathy to historical criticism are regularly trotted out and summarily dispatched as threats to the task of proper exegesis. Such moves are trending downward, but remain prominent nonetheless.

So works like Treier's, who went to TEDS and teaches at Wheaton, are a breath of fresh air, because they simply don't traffic in that kind of anxious enemy-identification. Treier models the fitting posture of all Christian theology: equal parts ambivalence and confidence. Ambivalence, because intellectual trends and changes are rarely wholly inimical to the gospel, but can be useful through careful and undefensive discernment; and confidence, because theology's matter, God and the gospel, doesn't depend on theologians' abilities to defend or describe it, but will take care of itself, thereby freeing the theologian to go about her work without the burden of everything depending on its success or failure. Theologians in general and those who write about TIS in particular can sometimes come across as so scared, and that fear inhibits them from seeing the productive possibilities in proposals that otherwise seem new, strange, or threatening.

Happily, there are folks like Treier who get it—theologians whose minds are catholic enough to realize that ostensible threats to the way things are, are often as not opportunities for greater fidelity to an older, deeper tradition or for appropriate change in the Spirit's wake. May their tribe increase.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Augustine on multiple interpretations of Scripture

"There are doubtless other ways of understanding our Lord's words, Why ask me about the good? No one is good but the one God (Matt 19:17). Provided however they do not favor belief that the Son's substance, by which he is the Word through whom all things were made (John 1:3), is of a lesser goodness than the Father's, and are not otherwise at odds with sound doctrine, we may cheerfully use not merely one interpretation but as many as can be found. For the more ways we open up of avoiding the traps of heretics, the more effectively can they be convinced of their errors."
—Augustine, De Trinitate I.31