Noah, Irenaeus, and Classification (Or, Look Mom My Research Does Matter)

Noah Movie ScreenshotEveryone, it seems, is weighing in on the new Noah movie that has just been released. My favorite “review” comes, unsurprisingly, from The Onion. By far, though, the vast majority of reviews of the film I have seen and read have come from evangelical Christians urging other Christians not to see the movie. This led me to stumbling upon one by previously-unknown-to-me Brian Mattson, Sympathy For The Devil. Mattson’s review is interesting for a host of reasons.

First, his review provides a stellar example of how classification works and why classification matters. For Mattson, Aronofsky was not making a movie based on the Bible, it was instead based on the Kabbalah and is highly “gnostic.” Here’s why this matters:

Darren Aronofsky has produced a retelling of the Noah story without reference to the Bible at all. This was not, as he claimed, just a storied tradition of run-of-the-mill Jewish “Midrash.” This was a thoroughly pagan retelling of the Noah story direct from Kabbalist and Gnostic sources. To my mind, there is simply no doubt about this.

You see, for Mattson Kabbalah and Gnosticism cannot equal anything close to Judaism or Christianity. Nevermind that many so-called “gnostics” likely self-identified as Jewish or Christian in some way, Mattson is now the one that gets to classify and they are not Jewish or Christian according to his classificatory scheme. (Aside: I will speak to “gnosticism” since that is squarely within my research and “expertise,” Kabbalah is not. Further, I say “many” and “likely” because we do have sources that survive from “gnostics” that allow us to know this, but many “gnostic” sources were intentionally destroyed or simply did not survive the accidents of history, so we must speculate about their means of identity formation.) Aronofsky, then, according to Mattson, has not told a Jewish story (or a Christian story) – regardless of the Jewish texts that contain many of these traditions like 1 Enoch, Jubilees, etc. – he has told a pagan story.

The next aspect of Mattson’s rewview that caught my eye was his use of the 2nd century heresiographer Irenaeus of Lyons. Irenaeus wrote Against the Heresies in which he identified “heresies” and “heretics.” Scholars have known for some time that Irenaeus is not the most reliable source, particularly in this text. For we should always be cautious about trusting one’s opponents to give an accurate view of a person or group. That would be like trusting Sarah Palin to accurately describe Democrats or trusting Chris Matthews to accurately describe Paul Ryan. Yet, this does not stop Mattson from accepting Irenaeus as gospel.

Here’s a 2nd century A.D. description about what a sect called the Ophites believed:

“Adam and Eve formerly had light, luminous, and so to speak spiritual bodies, as they had been fashioned. But when they came here, the bodies became dark, fat, and idle.” –Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies, I, 30.9

Mattson does not question Irenaeus’ claims, though we know that Irenaeus and those who followed in his footsteps, like Epiphanius, often made up “heretical” groups whole cloth. Their project was about labeling those who were “in” and those who were “out.” They would list out the “heresies” and urge people to avoid them. Some descriptions were loosely based on historical groups with whom Irenaeus happened to disagree on some matters, others were simply straw men used to strengthen his position, to scare his readers about those numerous and crafty “heretics,” and to offer him a chance to denounce something that someone might come to think/believe or to denounce a group about which he had heard rumors. This is exactly the type of literature with which I work on a daily basis, which leads me to my last point.

I am in agreement with Mattson that more and more people should be reading Irenaeus.

In response, I have one simple suggestion:

Henceforth, not a single seminary degree is granted unless the student demonstrates that he has read, digested, and understood Irenaeus of Lyon’s Against Heresies.

Because it’s the 2nd century all over again.

Now, Mattson and I will clearly differ on what it means to have “read, digested, and understood” Against Heresies, but more people reading it can only mean a bigger audience for my work (right? right?!).

There is more that could be said about Mattson’s review: he rails against “Gnosticism” while apparently not recognizing the dualism and “gnostic” elements that are ever-present in his Bible (just a cursory reading of Paul or the gospel of John will reveal this); he went looking for Kabbalah, so he found Kabbalah; he legitimately believes that Aronofsky did all of this as one big, elaborate, expensive experiment to make fools of evangelical Christians; he derides the “elitism” and the prominence given to special knowledge in “gnosticism,” but advocates a clear hierarchy between “rank-and-file” Christian viewers and “Christian leaders: college and seminary professors, pastors, and Ph.Ds.”

But the most important point of all of this is that my research is relevant. The processes of identity formation are not new. Heresy and orthodoxy are both political creations of parties with something invested in who’s in and who’s out. Just as Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Augustine, Epiphanius, etc. drew boundary lines to demarcate “Christians” and “heretics,” people today are doing the same thing. The data set is different, but the process and the goals remain the same. Place arbitrary significance on some aspect of difference, put yourself in a position to name and classify, and you’ll end up in while your opponents end up out.

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Is Dead Poets Society Hurting the Humanities?

Dead Poets Society

Dead Poets Society is a Terrible Defense of the Humanities | The Atlantic: For what Keating (Robin Williams) models for his students isn’t literary criticism, or analysis, or even study. In fact, it’s not even good, careful reading. Rather, it’s the literary equivalent of fandom.

I admit to loving the movie, or at least to having loved the movie. After reading this piece, I find myself questioning just what I loved about the movie.

To be honest, I think it is the “fandom,” the appreciation that Keating instills in his students. Yet Dettmar is right:

But while avoiding the pitfalls of dull pedagogy, Keating doesn’t finally give his students anything in its place besides a kind of vague enthusiasm.

As Dettmar does not want Dead Poets Society to be the image that people conjure up when they think of his work as an English professor, so I do not want people to think of my work as simply fostering a “vague enthusiasm” for the texts I study.

Enthusiasm and appreciation are, I maintain, important elements in the humanities, broadly speaking. I have a great deal of enthusiasm for the texts I read, translate, study, and analyze. But that’s just it: I do not stop at enthusiasm and appreciation.

Dettmar’s larger point is that the picture of the humanities presented by Dead Poets Society is detrimental on two fronts. Since it does not accurately reflect the rigorous work done in the humanities, but rather presents an anti-intellectual, anti-critical-thinking image of the field, some are able to dismiss this “sentimental humanities.” Others, who have a somewhat more accurate view of the humanities dismiss them on the very grounds that they analyze too much. Neither view understands humanities professors as professional scholars.

There are, to be sure, many more factors at play in the so-called “crisis in the humanities,” but is Dettmar on to something here, that Dead Poets Society calls for – and prefers – “fans over critics, amateurs over professionals”?

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The Olympic Marriage Metaphor

Ice Skating - McLaughlin_Brubaker_Death_Sp iral

An Olympic Lesson for Husbands and Wives | Desiring God: They do not fight for equality on the ice; they possess it as a given. They are not jostling about fairness. They are focused on doing their part well. No one yells, “Oppressor!” as he leads her around the arena, lifting her up and catapulting her into a triple spin. No one thinks she is belittled as she takes her lead from him, skating backwards to his forward. No one calls for them to be egalitarian. “She should get to throw him into a triple Lutz half the time!”

This blog post has garnered quite a bit of attention since it was post two days ago. Some have been humorous (Rachel Held Evans tweeted the link with the comment, “Egalitarians: Urging female figure skaters to toss male figure skaters through the air since *never*.”). Some have been responded more thoroughly (like this post that draws on the author’s dancing experience). And some have been more akin to the subject of an email I received about the article, “Really??”

If the author weren’t so serious about why complementarianism is THE ONLY APPROPRIATE CHRISTIAN AND BIBLICAL MODEL FOR MARRIAGE, we could laugh at the absurdity of a piece which claims that a man should be the clear masculine leader of his appropriately feminine wife by means of a metaphor that includes men who dance, on ice, wearing make up, and often in costumes that contain beads, rhinestones, feathers, and glitter.

But as it is, John Ensor is serious. His larger point seems to be that pairs ice skating is an appropriate metaphor because everyone who watches it instantly realizes how each skater complements the other perfectly because they understand their roles. Esnor clearly does not fully understand pairs ice skating, as this piece points out. But the part of the blog post that bothered me the most was his suggestion that everyone agrees with his view of pairs ice skating. In truth, many of us realize the systemic sexism involved in many sports and in the Olympics as a whole. With many commentators making comments like, “She’s even as good/fast/strong as some men we’ve seen here in Sochi,” even the Olympics, with their high ideals and international appeal, leave a lot to be desired when it comes to promoting true equality.

So, no, I will not be telling my wife that I must now lead here and she must receive me because some guy thinks that pairs ice skating shows some inherent “truth” about how men and women should interact in all facets of life. Pairs ice skating is nothing like marriage, but you know what is a lot like marriage? Marriage.

I think I’ll let my wife and I figure out what’s best for our marriage and ignore the unsolicited advice of someone who expends so much time and energy on trying to make sure that a male hierarchy is maintained.

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And God Bless The United States of America

Obama State of the Union (2010)The State of the Union address is tonight. For the first time in as long as I can remember I will not be watching it live, though I will read it or watch it tomorrow. I think these kinds of things are important. No, these speeches do not usually change poll numbers or have a huge effect of legislation, but I think it’s good to hear the vision that our President thinks is important to lay out for the next year(s).

President Obama’s vision for the next year is not all that will be on display tonight, though. No, we will see a great example of civil religion on display.

So, as you prepare to watch the SOTU, or after you have watched it, check out our latest episode of ThinkingReligion in which we take up the topic of America’s civil religion.

ThinkingReligion 21:  American Civil Spirituality | Thinking.FM:

Thomas and Sam continue last week’s conversation on canon and discuss whether America really is moving toward a new civil spirituality and whether an American civil religion can survive in a religiously pluralistic society.

God bless you and God bless the United States of America.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Identity Politics of Celebration

MLK JrIt seems to be becoming more and more difficult to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The vast majority of articles I have seen leading up to this day seem to have done one of two things. They either co-opt King’s words, name, and brand in an attempt to drum up support or sales. Or they tell me why I do not actually understand what Dr. King was about.

Articles of the latter kind are, likely, more necessary than I would like. Many people do seem to have forgotten (or perhaps simply never knew) many of the issues about which Dr. King cared so dearly. Even so, it seems a rather arrogant position to announce to the world that you are one of the few chosen ones who really understands Dr. King, particularly when your own pet interests turn out to be “what Dr. King really fought for.” The disingenuousness is palpable.

We are at a time when just about everyone desires to claim the mantle of Dr. King, to assert that he/she is continuing his fight. This is not, I think, a completely bad thing. For it means, at the very least, that, generally speaking, we as a nation recognize what Dr. King meant to our country and the power of his legacy. Yet much of it still strikes me as distasteful and a bit of a charade.

I am not questioning any single person’s commitment to carrying out Dr. King’s dream, but I am wondering to myself whether simply putting up a quote from one of his speeches or letters actually does anything to see this dream realized. Is it done out of more than desire to have a certain box checked – the box in question being something like, “Thinks Civil Rights are a good thing”? And what about other causes which I think are important and for which I voice my support? Is what I’m doing actually helpful? Am I advancing the causes of freedom and equality? Or have I become too comfortable with my slacktivism?

[Aside: I reread Dr. King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" again today. It is one of the few modern texts that I reference in my Introduction to the New Testament class. This letter comes up when I talk about the process of canonization and how we got to the New Testament that we have today. I explain to my students that the canon has never been stable. The first list that we have record of that contains all 27 - and only these 27 - books that are currently in the New Testament is from 367. That's over three centuries after Paul wrote his letters. And the list-making did not stop there. I talk about other canon lists but my students perk up the most when I tell them of the suggestion that King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" be included in the New Testament. I always enjoy the surprise on their faces.]

My larger point is that I recognize how history-making and history-writing happens. I am quite familiar with famous people, ideas, and movements being used to advance various causes – some seemingly quite foreign to their ostensible inspiration. This is much of what I study in my own work as a historian of early Christianity. Doing history well is hard work – some would say impossible – even with a figure as recent and as well-written as Dr. King. Michel-Rolph Trouillot has shown us this quite well in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History and Constantin Fasolt reminds us that “history is in and of itself political” in The Limits of History. The days leading up to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day here in the States this year and the spate of articles, commentary, and social media posts they produced only make this reality more clear to me when I see the co-opting, revisionism, selectivity, etc. at work in how he is talked about, celebrated, and used to condone one’s own views and actions while condemning everyone else’s.

We are all of us, it seems, engaging in politics. Do I understand Dr. King better than another because I have read the authors he frequently references like Socrates, Augustine, Tillich, Buber, and Eliot? Or does someone who has grown up on the opposite end of the privilege-scale from me better understand Dr. King because of shared experience? No answer to these questions is free from some sort of political agenda (and I don’t mean political in the Republican-Democrat sense). And this is what is so hard about being an actor in a society and not merely an observer distanced by time and space. For now I must think about my own use of a famous historical figure like Dr. King.

Just how deeply involved in these identity politics am I already? And is there another way?

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