Wednesday, March 26, 2014

On Whether Victims Need Conversion

Richard Beck has a post up today called "The Victim Needs No Conversion." Per usual, it is thoughtful and robust food for theological thought. I agree with a great deal of it, in particular the move of prioritizing God's act of identifying himself with victims, and locating himself with and among them. However, I think the post reflects a problem that is prevalent in a lot of discussion of victims and the oppressed, namely, a too formal generalization that leaves undifferentiated the complexity of actual human beings who at once experience some form of victimization and themselves make victims of others. There are any number of obvious examples: the abused son who becomes a father who abuses his children; the male slave who oppresses his wife; the emotionally abused wife/mother who emotionally abuses her friends or children; the alcoholic whose genes and social context lead him to drinking yet whose own drinking inflicts evil on others; the sub-manager lorded over by his boss who in turn lords over the workers he manages; and so on.

I don't have time right now to try to articulate fully how I think the gist of the post might be combined with this more differentiated perspective, but I think the move is necessary. Perhaps something like this: all people, even victims, need conversion, because conversion is (by God's grace) a radical turning into a new form of life, and all people, even victims, are in bondage to forms of life that inevitably result in hurting others and/or themselves.

In this way "conversion" isn't code for "believe in this set of propositions" and/or "change your religious affiliation." It means the total revolution of one's life. And, to be sure, victims are in a uniquely privileged place to hear the call to conversion as good news; and in many ways the gospel comes simply as sheer blessing on their life as such. But it nevertheless enables and demands a change of the heart and of one's way of life—and that, too, both is good news for victims and applies to them like all others.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Paul Griffiths on the Figural Reading of Scripture: "possible, interesting, and, for theologians, unavoidable"

"I assume that figural reading of scripture is possible, interesting, and, for theologians, unavoidable. There are many reasons for this, among the more important of which are these: that scripture itself self-referentially performs and depicts such reading; that the practice and teaching of the church requires it; and that it is axiomatic for Christian theological interpretation that scripture as a whole and in each of its parts is first and last about more than what the surface of its text says. That more is always and necessarily the triune Lord and, necessarily, that Lord’s incarnation as Jesus Christ.

"But what, in more detail, is figural reading? One event or utterance figures another when, while remaining unalterably what it is, it announces or communicates something other than itself. Eve’s assent to the tempter and her consequent taking of the forbidden fruit from the tree figures, in this sense, Mary’s fiat mihi in response to the annunciation and the consequent incarnation of the Lord in her womb. The second event—the figured—encompasses and includes the first, without removing its reality. The first—the figuring—has its reality, however, by way of participation in the second. This is in the order of being.

"Ontological figuration may, however, be replicated at the level of the text, and in scripture it inevitably is. Here, a depiction of a person or utterance or event—say, the lover’s praises of the beloved or the details of the construction and ornamentation of Solomon’s bed—may figure a textual depiction of some other person, utterance, or event. Christian theological commentators on the Song, as on any other scriptural text, must, in seeking their text’s scriptural reverberations, be attentive not only to the sheerly verbal, but also to the figural. Allegory—which may or may not be present in scripture, unlike figure, which necessarily is—differs from figure in that it dissolves the allegorical text into what it allegorizes. Following allegorical method strictly means that an allegorical text’s literal sense must be ignored except in so far as it permits understanding of what it allegorizes. The figural text’s literal sense—like its ontological reality—does not dissolve in this way: Eve remains Eve, the lovers of the Song remain the lovers of the Song (as will be apparent, I do not read them as if they were figures in a parable), and the text of the Song remains what it is: a constant demand for interpretation whose results are not determined and which may, for Christians, often be uncomfortable."*

*"Commentators on the Song with historicist or literary interests often dismiss figural reading along with allegorical reading on the dual ground that both (if any distinction is made between them) obscure the particulars of the Song because they treat it as piecemeal support for a general theory arrived at independently and because they advocate reading the text for itself, free from assumptions imported from elsewhere. Jill M. Munro, Spikenard and Saffron: The Imagery of the Song of Songs (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), 10–16, is representative (if a little extreme) in making these criticisms. But neither is defensible: figural reading, as defined, requires rather than calls into question attention to textual and literary particularity; and it is not possible to read a text for itself."

—Paul J. Griffiths, Song of Songs (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible; Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011), pp. lvii–lviii (with a portion of footnote 36 on p. lviii)

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Karl Barth in Conversation Officially Published

A few years back I contributed in a small way to the Karl Barth Blog Conference: I responded to Jon Coutts's lovely imagined dialogue between Barth and the Coen Brothers, centered on the latter's 2007 adaptation of No Country for Old Men. Now the proceedings, since revised and expanded, have been published by Wipf & Stock in a volume edited by W. Travis McMaken and David Congdon, titled Karl Barth in Conversation. It's officially on sale now, with a peak at the table of contents here.

Jon's essay and my response are the very last in the volume, concluding the third and final portion of the book ("Expanding Conversations"). His essay, "No Country for Old Man: Barth Calls the Coen Brothers," is found on pages 234–246, and my response follows on pages 247–254. Some others who contributed to the volume (and I list only those I know from meeting in person!) include Andy Rowell, Ben Myers, Derek Woodard-Lehman, Peter Kline, Halden Doerge, Ry Siggelkow, and Paul Dafydd Jones.

It looks to be an exciting and creative entry in Barth studies, and I'm honored to have played a small part. My thanks to Travis and David for the invitation to participate.