Thursday, March 29, 2007

Wikid Germs and Online Sources

The virus I had last week has opened the door to something bacterial, so the blog suffers neglect as I continue suffering in other ways. But I do want to call attention to Mark Goodacre's interesting Defense of Wikipedia and then some. I agree with a lot of what Mark says; I find Wikipedia a covenient tool, but never treat it as authoritative, and will always double-check with other sources for information I really care about. The crucial point, as Mark points out, is that Wiki is here to stay -- just as blogs are, and just as the internet itself is -- and the solution to Wiki's problems is to combat them proactively and positively. In his second post he responds to Jim West as follows:
"Jim West says that he has disdain for Wikipedia, 'Disdain because Wiki are "edit-able" by any Tom, Dick, or Harry who may, or may not, know what the devil they are talking about.' This confirms my analogy with what many academics were saying about the internet in general a decade ago. The same thing was often said, that any Tom, Dick or Harry can put up their own website. Was the answer to discourage students from using 'the internet'? Well, that was exactly the response that many engaged in at the time, but there is now a broad consensus that that was wrong, and that the answer in fact is to point students in the right direction on the internet, and to encourage them to engage critically and to assess the sites they are using in the light of their other reading. The same is becoming true, and will continue to become true with Wikipedia. We can disdain it all we like, but the fact is that it is here to stay, and it is only going to get bigger and better. We may as well get involved if we want to have a stake in the future. And let me throw in another analogy. Any Tom, Dick or Harry can start up a blog. Why should we get involved with the blogosphere when it is clearly so full of dilettantes?"

UPDATE: The interactions between Goodacre and West have called forth a strong reaction from Rick Sumner. Be sure to read it. It's nice to see Rick blogging again.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Rohrbaugh Reviews Crossley

In an RBL review Richard Rohrbaugh reviews Crossley's Why Christianity Happened. Danny Zacharias and Jim West respond to the review, not pleased with Rohrbaugh's remark, "it is unfortunate that Crossley appears to have only a superficial acquaintance with the now well-established scholarship in the field of social-scientific criticism". He probably wanted to see more of the honor-shame model assimilated into this account of Christian origins. On the whole I think it's a sharp review, giving Crossley his due (particularly regarding his knowledge of the Torah and rabbinic traditions) and criticizing fairly (especially regarding Mark as pre-50 and pro-law). It's true that the book delivers less than the title promises, but it's worth reading nonetheless.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Bad Quote for the Day: Authorial Death

Most of my "quotes for the day" are cited approvingly, but once in a while it's worth calling attention to something so bad which couldn't have been said better, if you take my meaning. Take Roland Barthes, who, like Paul Ricouer around the same time (the 70s), claimed that written texts inevitably become detached from their authors' original intent, and that such is a cause for rejoice:
"Writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing... This disconnection occurs, the voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death, and writing begins." (Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author"; in Image-Music-Text, p 143)

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Light Blogging

My apologies for neglecting the blog this week. I had a nasty virus and only began feeling human again yesterday. I hope to be back in full swing (and rare form) sometime next week.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Top Titles in Library Collections

OCLC has a list of the top titles owned by member libraries. They call it a top-1000 list, but it's actually 1001 -- but who's counting? Here are the top 25:
1. The Holy Bible
2. The Census
3. Mother Goose
4. The Divine Comedy
5. The Odyssey
6. The Iliad
7. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
8. The Lord of the Rings
9. Hamlet
10. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
11. Don Quixote
12. Beowulf
13. The Koran
14. The Night Before Christmas
15. Garfield
16. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
17. Aesop's Fables
18. Arabian Nights
19. Macbeth
20. Gulliver's Travels
21. Robinson Crusoe
22. Romeo and Juliet
23. The Bhagavadgita
24. A Christmas Carol
25. The Canterbury Tales
(Via Stephen Carlson.)

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Paul's Use of "Righteousness"

Dikaiosyne. A simple enough term, but endlessly disputed. Does Paul use "righteousness" in a more declaratory/judicial sense -- as when God acquits or restores someone to fellowship -- or in a behavioral/ethical sense -- as when the person leads a new life in Christ?

Neither, actually.(1) According to Philip Esler, "righteousness" meant the same thing to Paul as it did to the rest of his contemporaries: "a form of ascribed honor, that is, an honor gifted to someone by a notable person of authority, in this case God, as an exercise of will and choice by that person, not because the recipient of the honor has done anything to deserve it". Righteousness conveyed the simple sense of privileged and blessed identity, often in contrast with ungodliness (Rom 1:17-18).(2)

Esler looks to the Septuagint for confirmation of this, and zeroes in on the book of Proverbs:
"It is important to note that Proverbs 10-15 contains the greatest concentration of [righteousness] and [godlessness] in the Greek Old Testament. Thus, of some 375 examples of [righteousness], 100 are found in Proverbs, with a full 50 of these in Proverbs 10-15, while 50 of the 240 examples of [godlessness] also occur in Proverbs 10-15. No other sections of the Septuagint approach such an intensity of use, apart from Psalm 36 (LXX)... Both Proverbs 10-15 and Ps 36 (LXX) concretely illustrate the meaning of righteousness by offering numerous antitheses that contrast the happy and blissful identity of the righteous with the wretched and doomed identity of the godless and impious person."(3) (Conflict and Identity in Romans, p 165)
For Paul's opponents in Galatia, blessing came from being Judean ("Jewish"), and the main content of that blessing was the Torah. The pagan, ipso facto, was godless. Paul gave this a sectarian twist: blessing now came from believing in Christ, and the main content of that blessing was the Spirit. He radically co-opted dikaiosyne while keeping its general sense intact. Esler again:
"That he should have chosen this path at all is noteworthy. He could have simply agreed that righteousness was a purely [Judean] phenomenon and instead opted for defining the identity of the gentile believers in terms of the language of sanctification which he employs in I Thessalonians. The fact that he did not pursue this option was probably a result of the evident appeal of the prize of righteousness; its advocates were finding a ready ear for their arguments (Gal 4:10) that Paul was simply unable to abandon this trophy to the opposition. No, he must wrest it from them for his congregations, never mind how challenging the objective might be." (Galatians, pp 169-170)
This is an important point, and shows how insignificant the idea of righteousness was for Paul outside a Judean-Gentile context. Esler follows Wrede and Schweitzer aggressively here. Though there are many Galatians-and-Romans-type issues present in a letter like I Thessalonians (faith, the Spirit, Christ's death, etc.), none is linked to the theme of righteousness. Paul didn't use the word at all -- he even went out of his way to redact it out of Isa 59:17 (I Thess 5:8) -- instead using sanctification language. Righteousness was so keyed to Judean identity, and it would have been foolish to use it in a context where only Gentiles were involved.

But once Judeans entered the picture, Paul became audacious, co-opting the Israelite term for his Torah-free converts. "Righteousness", in effect, was called forth by his opponents,(4) forcing him to raise the stakes of his game even higher.


(1) Anyone who understands honor-shame cultures knows that trying to distinguish between "forensics" and "ethics" is misguided anyway, because it assumes that ethical behavior exists independently of its recognition by others. That may be true of us in the individualized west, but in Paul's world one was ethical to the extent it was credited by others. (See Esler, Galatians, pp 149-150)

(2) Conflict and Identity in Romans, p 167. See also Bruce Malina and John Pilch, Social Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul, p 394. The latter note that "the closest English equivalent to this usage is 'acceptability'" (p 200).

(3) Esler catalogs the comparatively few usages which involve forensic/judicial understandings. For instance, there are only eight examples of righteousness used in a literal legal sense, with respect to the action of the judge (Exod 23:7, Deut 25:1, II Sam 15:4, Ps 82:3, Isa 1:17, Isa 5:23, Ezek 44:24, Sir 42:2). "This is hardly a large number when one considers how many scholars assert that the primary meaning of the word is 'forensic'." (Galatians, p 161)

(4) Mark Nanos thinks the term "opponents" is misleading, because it implies that the circumcision advocates in Galatia were initially and intentionally opposing Paul, and that Paul was defending himself accordingly. But Paul may just as easily have been making an offensive and preemptive strike, anticipating that these advocates would become his opponents after his letter arrived. Nanos thus prefers the more neutral term "influencers". (See The Irony of Galatians, pp 119-127)

Friday, March 16, 2007

Quote for the Day: Critique by Ridicule

"One cannot fairly criticize an idea by ridiculing its distortions." (Dale Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, p 222)

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Snyder's Shameless (and Shameful) 300 Film

What's all the hype about? Not much if you ask me, but enough if you ask the majority of critics, and damn plenty if you ask the outraged Iranians.

I saw the film last Friday, but wasn't planing on reviewing it since there isn't much to review: it's an extended video-war and not much else. We get the Battle of Thermopyle served up graphic-novel style, which is arresting at first, but gets old fast. There's way too much slo-mo -- as if every thrust and parry is an act of artistry -- and the gore, commendable in itself, is too comicly portrayed to have dramatic impact. The ending is anti-climactic; the epilogue a rip-off of Braveheart's. The prominent role given to Leonides' queen turns out to be a wasted opportunity, pressed into a ridiculous side-story that insults the viewer's intelligence. I think the oracle's nipple-dance is what impressed me most in the entire movie.

Worth reviewing, however, is the strong reaction from Iran where the film has been banned. Iranians are affronted by Snyder's film because, they say, it insults their heritage and declares war on them. MSN reports:
"'Hollywood declares war on Iranians,' blared a headline in Tuesday’s edition of the independent Ayende-No newspaper... Javad Shamghadri, cultural adviser to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said the United States tries to 'humiliate' Iran in order to reverse historical reality and 'compensate for its wrongdoings in order to provoke American soldiers and warmongers' against Iran."
Never underestimate the power of humiliation in shame-based cultures. Iran feels globally shamed, and Time even has an article by one of the offended, Adadeh Moaveni:
"All of Tehran was outraged. Everywhere I went yesterday, the talk vibrated with indignation over the film 300... Iranians buzzed with resentment at the film's depictions of Persians, adamant that the movie was secretly funded by the U.S. government to prepare Americans for going to war against Iran... Agreeing that 300 is egregious drivel is fairly easy. I'm relatively mellow as Iranian nationalists go, and even I found myself applauding when the government spokesman described the film as fabrication and insult. Iranians view the Achaemenid empire as a particularly noble page in their history and cannot understand why it has been singled out for such shoddy cinematic treatment."
Well, we have an easier time laughing off "egregious drivel" than people like Moaveni. Nonsense is taken quite seriously in honor-shame societies, and I'm sure we haven't heard the last of this bit.

(Perhaps Chris Heard will review the film if he sees it.)

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Top 10 Most Misunderstood Movies Ever Made

Anthony Burch has a very amusing (and frighteningly accurate) list of the 10 most misunderstood movies ever made. Go down the list and see, for each film, "what everyone thinks the message is" and then "what it actually is". I especially like the commentary for Pulp Fiction, Raging Bull, Donnie Darko, Gone With the Wind, and Scarface.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A Secular Approach to Christian Origins

Over a year ago I made a list of dangerous ideas from the contributions of other bloggers. This was James Crossley's:

New Testament studies should become a secular discipline.

His wish was just granted a couple days ago. Check out the new list-serve Christian Origins, hosted by William Arnal and Zeba Crook.
"This list focuses on the social and historical location and the earliest Jesus communities, the development of their thought concerning Jesus, the development of their writings, the spread of their movement, and related topics: in other words, the stuff of Christian Origins. This is a moderated and scholarly list: lurking is welcome, but contributors to the list will either have knowledge of the languages, methodologies, and history of scholarship pertinent to the academic study of Christian Origins, or a willingness to become conversant in these. Contributors to this list attempt to understand the the various phenomena of Christians Origins exclusively from an humanist perspective: to explain the rise of Christianity and the development of Christian beliefs without invoking or relying upon such assumptions such as the existence of God, the reality of miracles, foreknowledge of the future, resuscitations of the dead, or any unique status accorded to Jesus, his earliest followers, or Christianity as a religion. This list takes the following quote of Jacques Berlinerblau with the utmost seriousness: '[T]he academic study of the Bible...desperately needs an infusion of learned critics who are willing to draw blood... Such an endeavor would not necessarily be exclusionary. All researchers would be welcome to participate as long as they pronounce something approximating a secular shahada, or profession of faith: to love critique more than God.'"
So it's a lot like Jeffrey Gibson's well-known Crosstalk list, but broader in scope, and with tighter restrictions against confessional intrusions. I've joined; it will be interesting to see where it goes.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Forsaking Mammon

Look out Duke University, here comes Stephen Carlson. I don't think Q stands a chance in Durham. Congratulations, Stephen.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Utility of the Term "Gnosticism"

On the Gospel of Thomas e-list, aptly hosted by Mike Grondin, William Arnal urges that we drop the term "gnosticism" when discussing early Christianity. In a follow-up post he emphasizes:
"These are not simply arguments about terminology or misuses of otherwise-fine categories. Both [Michael Williams and Karen King] are arguing, in one way or another, that the entity normally intended by the term 'Gnosticism' is not a real entity. King is stronger on this point than Williams, and suggests that instead of 'Gnostic' we conceive of and think in terms of various sub-categories such as 'Valentinian,' 'Sethian,' 'Thomasine,' and so forth. This implies not simply a shift in terms, but in conception as well..."
To speak of a monolithic gnosticism, in other words, delegitimates the many ways of being unorthodox -- even the many ways of being "gnostic" itself.

Karen King's book is worth reading (I haven't read Williams), but I'm afraid I can't join Bill in jumping on the bandwagon. Hers is the same rationale used by those who insist on pluralizing Judaism, for the sake of reminding us at every turn that Judean faith was incredibly diverse and localized in the first century. The fact is religions are diverse and localized in all times and places. We don't anally-retentively use "Christianities" today when speaking collectively about Roman Catholicism, Greek Orthodoxy, Methodism, Mormonism, Jehovah Witness groups, etc -- nor for divisions within any of these groups. "Christianity" sits comfortably on our lips, just as it should. It's rather hokey -- even insulting to the intelligence -- to downgrade terminology like this. Our minds don't need to be handled with kid gloves. "Gnosticism" works just fine, so long as we bear in mind, with someone like Bart Ehrman, that it was "a complex phenomenon with numerous manifestations" (Lost Christianities, p 116), and that it should not be used synonymously with "unorthodoxy".(1)

I'm no linguistic fundamentalist and all for redefining terms when necessary, especially when the conceptual outcome squares with solid evidence. For these reasons I've lobbied for using "Judean" in place of "Jew" in translating Ioudaiou (here). "Jew" is an anachronism before the third century: Judean faith based on the temple cult was very different from Jewish faith based on later rabbinic law -- as different as the Israelite faith which preceded them both. But to speak of Israelite faiths, Judeanisms, or Judaisms on account of diversity within each three, is just underscoring the obvious.

King, of course, wants us to go beyond pluralizing "gnosticism" and drop the term altogether, but the Foucaultian strategy is the same. The amazon reviewer pnotley puts it this way:
"King in her final chapter prefers to riff on the advantage of a Foucaultian history [i.e regulating by defining, and interpreted in view of power struggles]... It is true that von Harnack's belief that a supposedly Hellenistic Gnosticism was corrupting and parasitic on Christianity is based on his Protestant belief that Jesus was the appearance of God in history and that any secular influences would bound to be impious and imperfect... But the main problem with the study of Gnosticism is the scarcity of evidence. We have texts, but we have almost nothing on who believed in them or interpreted them and how they influenced Christianity. A Foucaultian methodology is not going to get around that problem. King's argument that there is too much diversity to use the common term of Gnosticism is not altogether convincing. If we take away the idea of libertine/ascetic ideals or 'salvation by nature' as orthodox Christian misunderstandings, we still have a cosmological myth that is sufficiently different to get some sort of coherent understanding. King's emphasis on writing a more diverse, non-narrative account of Christianity's history seems less a corrective to the limitations of orthodoxy. Instead, it appears an indulgence in heterogeneity and diversity for their own sake."
I agree with this reviewer and would go even go stronger. Gnosticism can legitimately -- historically and objectively -- be viewed as a parasitic movement on orthodox Christianity. (Note, please, that I have nothing against gnosticism per se. As a secular-minded Unitarian, I say: if you find value in the gnostic worldview, so be it.) The gnostic groups, for all their diversity, rode the shoulders of an earlier tradition ("traditions", if you must) -- Thomas being a rather obvious case.(2) In so doing, they massaged it into a world-view which didn't depend on things they found wanting, such as apocalypses which never come. Whether that makes gnosticism superior or inferior (or neither) to orthodoxy is a different question, and should be kept distinct from the historical question. Downgrading or eliminating useful terminology isn't the answer to recognizing diversity within a commonality. If anything, it gives misleading impressions by erasing commonality.

UPDATE: See April DeConick's take on the matter, and then her follow-up.


1. Some of the Nag Hammadi documents aren't gnostic (let alone Christian), though I think Thomas certainly is.

2. The sayings of Thomas make perfect sense in view of gnosticism, and I tend to think the gospel was written anywhere between 120-160 CE. Regretfully, I find the various downward-dating attempts and stratification methods (Patterson, DeConick, etc.) unpersuasive.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Temple as a "Den of Robbers"

In the synoptics Jesus calls the temple a "den of robbers" (citing Jer 7:11) in his rampage against the money-changers (Mk 11:15-17/Mt 21:12-13/Lk 19:45-46). If there's an award to be given for Most Frequently Anachronized Gospel Saying, this one could well be the winner. Most Christians (like Will Manley) take the passage to mean that money-changers were fleecing people who came to sacrifice at the temple. More generally: Jesus opposed commercial activities in a house of God.

Scholars almost unanimously reject this Protestant reading, and even John Dominic Crossan gets things right for a change:
"There was absolutely nothing wrong with any of the buying, selling, or money-changing operations conducted in the outer courts of the temple. Nobody was stealing or defrauding or contaminating the temple's precincts. Those activities were the absolutely necessary concomitants of the fiscal basis and sacrificial purpose of the temple." (Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, p 131)
Jesus was prophetically destroying the temple (Mk 13:1-2/Mt 24:1-2/Lk 21:5-6; Mk 14:55-58/Mt 26:59-61; Mk 15:29-30/Mt 27:39-40; Jn 2:19-22; Thom 71), not spiritually reforming it. He wanted God to wipe it out and rebuild it after the apocalypse. Overturning seats and tables was a symbolic gesture anticipated the building's destruction.

How then do we explain the "den of robbers" charge? One way is to not explain it, to treat it as unhistorical. Thus E.P. Sanders:
"If the saying ['den of robbers'] were Jesus' own comment...we would have to accept that it was indeed trade and sacrifice which bothered him, possibly because dishonesty was involved... The saying, however, is quite correctly rejected by most scholars as an addition... 'Robbers' cave' is inappropriate, since 'robber' always means raider, never swindler." (Jesus and Judaism, p 66)
So why don't we try interpreting the phrase correctly, instead of banishing it because its incorrect usage makes no sense? The Greek word lestes indeed means raider/bandit, as opposed to swindler/thief. If historical, Jesus would have been calling the temple a "cave of bandits".

This makes sense, because a den/cave isn't the place where robbery is carried out. It's the place of sanctuary for those who rob elsewhere. It's also the place where bandits "store their ill-gotten gain" (Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p 250). To call the temple of a "den of robbers", then, would have called to mind a refuge for temple authorities, and a storage of wealth accumulated from the Jewish people (through taxes and tithes), leaving them barely at a subsistence level. Jesus wanted to see the temple destroyed for the same kinds of reasons Jeremiah did, which is exactly -- quelle surprise -- why he cited him. Thus William Herzog:
"The temple played a key role in legitimating oppression (Jeremiah) or in actively extracting all but a subsistence from the poor (Jesus). The difference in the roles played by the temple reflects the fact that the institution of kingship still existed in Jeremiah's day but had been replaced by the temple state in Jesus' time. As Jeremiah's sermon foretells destruction of the temple by recalling the fate of Shiloh, so Jesus symbolically acts out the destruction of the Second Temple... The reference to the cave of robbers harkens back to the previous verse, in which the ruling class is condemned for violating the commandments and then seeking refuge in the temple. The people addressed commit all sorts of crimes and then flee to the temple for safety, just as bandits lie low until pursuit dies down, and then go out to commit fresh depradations... The very wealth they bring to support the temple and to buy sacrifices has been taken from the poor... Jesus wryly suggests that the real bandits are not to be found hiding in the caves of the Judean wilderness. No, the chief priests, the very paradigms of rectitude, are the social bandits creating havoc in the land." (Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, pp 139-140)
It's almost too obvious: Jesus had nothing against commercialism, as if a western Protestant, and he certainly wasn't calling on God to destroy the temple for something so trivial as monetary short-changing (as if that were happening). Like classical prophets he was mad about systematic robbery, which would no longer be a problem in the kingdom of God.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Ebenezer Scrooge: A Social Prophet Ahead of His Time

In the March 1, '07 issue of Booklist, p 41, Will Manley (a gift from the editorial gods) advocates for "The Resurrection of Ebenezer Scrooge". Manley wrote this column back around the holiday season pursuant to his writing schedule. Fed up with the "excesses of the season", he finally decided to oppose it:
"This year I said no to Christmas altogether, totally and completely. I didn't go to any parties, didn't string up any lights, didn't send out a single card, didn't give a single gift, didn't send a single thank-you card for gifts received, and I sure as hell didn't put up a damn tree."
Manley is a Christian ("albeit flawed", he admits), and thinks Jesus' rampage against the money-lenders -- "the only time in the Gospels where Christ showed even the hint of a violent nature", he emphasizes -- serves as an indictment on modern credit-card consumerism.

Safe to say that Manley's acquaintances didn't appreciate his open attitude. Some thought he was sick, depressed, even terminal. ("That's right, a whole bunch of people thought I was going to die.") But they all called him a scrooge, and it's this epithet which prompted an article on the subject. Manley thinks Ebenezer Scrooge is "the greatest literary character of all time, bar none", and sets the the record straight by doing what all good biblical exegetes do -- going back to the original text:
"If only people were to stop watching all the hokey movies based on Dickens' Christmas Carol and start reading the book itself. Scrooge did not proactively 'scrooge' anybody. Cratchitt was free to seek employment elsewhere. The fact that he couldn't find another job gives you a pretty good indication about his lack of job skills. Also, Scrooge didn't exactly call up talk radio and start broadcasting his opinions about Christmas. It was his nephew, Fred, and those two dorks from the United Fund who proactively approached Scrooge at his place of business during working hours. He didn't seek them out, but when they interrupted him at work, he was honest about his views. He wasn't a hypocrite like so many others on the subject of Christmas. Blame him for his honesty, but don't blame him for going out of his way to ruin anyone's holiday. Third, Scrooge was not insensitive to the poor. His view that the poor are ultimately the responsibility of government was both enlightened and progressive -- certainly ahead of his time. Even the most rock-ribbed Republican would agree with his argument that, in a civilized society, government should make provisions to solve the problems of poverty. In that sense, Scrooge was a social prophet."
Beautiful, Will. I'm going to remember this come next December.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Crossley-Craig Debate to be Available on DVD

The debate between James Crossley and Willaim Lane Craig, Was Jesus Bodily Raised from the Dead?, will begin in a few hours. The good news (according to James) is that it will be made available on DVD for those who can't make it.

UPDATE: Read James's reflections on the debate from the following morning.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Back to Oral Culture: Internet Flaming and the Art of Invective

(Previous post here.)
"Oral cultures often evidence wars of words, such as riddle or song contests, name-calling, and bragging... Writing, on the other hand, separates us from each other, and therefore subdues the constant verbal jousting of oral cultures. Contemporary cultures still have their contests, their agons, but they have moved to other arenas, perhaps in our culture business and sports." (Robert Fowler)

"Internet flaming may be seen as one aspect of a partial return to oral culture in digital writing, which tends to be dynamic and playful, and which encourages interlocutors to pay attention to how messages are packaged. Flaming may therefore have important affinities with a large variety of stylized oral forms of verbal dueling in which performance is central, such as 'flyting' in medieval England, or 'playing the dozens' among contemporary Black Americans." (Brenda Danet)
Can flaming be a good thing? Conventional wisdom says no, but that may owe to a print-culture bias. In oral cultures insults aren't necessarily indicators of immaturity or a mean spirit. In this post we will look at the way invective has been used in three contexts -- the Middle-East, the antique north, and Black America -- and then see how internet flaming can serve a positive role when drawing on the best from these traditions.

Mediterranean Challenge-Riposte

The Judeo-Christian tradition is one of many from the Mediterranean steeped in the art of invective. Jesus was a master of the insult. Far from confronting his enemies in meek-and-mild fashion, he flamed with a vengeance. One of his favorite vulgarities (picked up from the Baptist) was "brood of vipers" -- which sounds archaic but really means "snake bastards". In a shame-based culture, to call someone the illegitimate offspring of a snake was as low and demeaning as you could get.

But even more generally, Jesus was skilled in the art of challenge-riposte, the game of verbal one-upsmanship played by men in many Mediterranean cultures. The Context Group explains that such men don't respond directly to public taunts and challenges. They escalate the conflict by firing back counter-questions, counter-accusations, scriptural one-upsmanship, and insults. The more you can dodge flame and stay on top of your opponent with counter-flame, the more honorable you are. Note the following:
1. The scribes accuse Jesus of blasphemy (Mk. 2:1-12/Mt. 9:1-8/Lk. 5:17-26)
Jesus' riposte: counter-questions

2. The Pharisees and scribes challenge Jesus for eating with outcasts (Mk. 2:15-17/Mt. 9:10-13/Lk. 5:29-32)
Jesus' riposte: rhetorical cleverness; backhanded compliment

3. The Pharisees challenge Jesus and the disciples for not fasting (Mk. 2:18-22/Mt. 9:14-17/Lk. 5:33-39)
Jesus' riposte: counter-question; rhetoric; clever aphorisms

4. The Pharisees challenge Jesus and the disciples for plucking grain on the sabbath (Mk. 2:23-28/Mt. 12:1-8/Lk. 6:1-5)
Jesus' riposte: counter-question; scriptural one-upsmanship; clever aphorism

5. The Pharisees challenge Jesus for healing a man on the sabbath (Mk. 3:1-6/Mt. 12:9-14/Lk. 6:6-11)
Jesus' riposte: healing (the Mediterranean principle, "actions shame even louder than words")

6. The scribes accuse Jesus of being demon-possessed(Mk. 3:19b-30)
Jesus' riposte: counter-question; rhetoric; insult

7. The Pharisees and scribes challenge Jesus and the disciples for eating with unwashed hands (Mk.7:1-23/Mt. 15:1-20)
Jesus' riposte: insult; scriptural one-upsmanship

8. The Pharisees challenge Jesus on the subject of divorce (Mk. 10:2-12/Mt. 19:3-9)
Jesus' riposte: counter-question, scriptural one-upsmanship

9. The temple authorities and scribes challenge Jesus after his prophetic act in the temple (Mk. 11:27-33/Mt. 21:23-27/Lk. 20:1-8)
Jesus' riposte: counter-question; blow-off

10. The Herodians and Pharisees challenge Jesus on the subject of paying taxes to Caesar (Mk. 12:13-17/Mt. 22:15-22/Lk. 20:20-26)
Jesus' riposte: counter-question; insult; demand; counter-question; clever aphorism
As the gospels have it, Jesus burned his opponents at every turn -- and without ever resorting to violence, which made him twice as honorable. In his culture the battle of wits easily escalated to the point of violence, even though it was understood that the first person to use physical force "lost" the game. As the writers at Tektonics note:
"The art of insult was highly valued in antiquity. Our modern 'victim culture' encourages persons to find the art offensive, but before getting too judgmental, consider that in these honor challenges, the person who ended the game by throwing a punch was considered the big loser. Losing one's temper and throwing a punch was as much an admission that one could not keep up the battle of wits and had to resort to violence. When Jesus runs from those who pick up stones to stone him [Jn 8:59], he is not the coward, but the winner taking his spoils."
When wits fail and bully tactics take over, the bully loses face. But that's a paradox, because violence inevitably takes over when men are driven to protect their honor by any means necessary (as in Jn 8:59). Thus flaming becomes even more prized as an art: the ideal way of battling for one's honor without threat of group annihilation.

The New Testament (like the Hebrew Bible) is loaded with flame. John the Baptist was a good instructor. Paul flamed in Galatians, Philippians, and II Corinthians. II Peter and Jude are classic pieces of nasty invective. The Judeo-Christian tradition has plenty of precedent for flaming, if precedent is what one is looking for.

Norse & Anglo-Saxon Flyting

Flyting was the northern pagan version of challenge-riposte, but more aggressive. According to Andreas Jucker and Irma Taavitsainen:
"In the Old English heroic tradition insults occur in the pragmatic space of boasts and challenges. The flyting of Anglo-Saxon warriors follows strict rules. The standard sequence consists of Claim, Defense, and Counterclaim, where the Claim and Counterclaim consists of boasts and insults, which relate to the past deeds of the contenders, and threats, vows and curses, which relate to the future. The setting is outdoors, where the contenders meet face-to-face, a body of water often separating them, or it is indoors in the drinking hall... Insults focus on cowardice, failure of honor, irresponsible behavior, and crimes of kinship... Flytings may either end in actual violence or in silence."
As in the Mediterranean, wars of wit are always conducted in public. But here the resort to violence is perfectly acceptable. If you can silence your opponent with heaps of flame, that's good. But if fighting is inevitable, slaying him is even better. Dying in battle was the most honorable fate for a north-pagan warrior.

An example of silencing is the flyting of Unferth and Beowulf in King Hrothgar's drinking hall: Unferth insults Beowulf by claiming he's frivolous and heroically inadequate, to which Beowulf retorts that Unferth is a drunk (Beowulf 525-532a). An example of a violent outcome would be in the Finnsburh fragment: the Frisians insult a group of visiting Danes, a Dane counters with boasting, and then all hell breaks loose (The Fight at Finnsburh).

Defending oneself and boasting is not only acceptable but expected, unlike in the Middle-East where one ideally avoids being put on the defensive as much as possible. In the antique north one should defend as much as counter-offend. That's why Beowulf and the Danes "prove" their heroism by boasting of their deeds. (In shame-based cultures boasting is much more risky -- one plays the fool if the claim goes unrecognized -- and it's better to let others boast for you; that's why Jesus never boasted of his healing accomplishments in the middle of flaming his adversaries.)

Norse & Anglo-Saxon flaming is obsolete in today's world, perhaps not surprisingly, since it sanctions physical as much as verbal assault. It's the least ludic (playful) of the three under consideration.

Black American Sounding

Sounding, also known as "playing the dozens", is the Black American version of challenge-riposte. According to blogger Dark Damian:
"Playing the Dozens [sounding] is more than a game of fun -- it is a battle for respect. It is an exhibition of emotional strength and verbal agility, a confrontation of wits instead of fists. The dozens is a war of words -- perhaps the best type of war there is... [It] is a thinking person's game. However, the tradition lives on because the game has soul. Ultimately, mastery of the dozens demands that you go to that place where humor, anger, joy, and pain all reside. It is from that cauldron that the greatest snaps [insults] are born and delivered."
Unlike the two models seen above (especially flyting), sounding is inherently ludic (playful), and should not escalate to the point of violence. Sometimes, of course, it does. Jucker and Taavitsainen note the inherent danger:
"The purpose of playing the dozens is to better one's opponent with caustic and humorous insults that are seen as patently untrue. Thus the practice is fundamentally ludic but with the inherent danger of seriousness as soon as insults are perceived as too close to reality... The appropriate response to a ritual insult is a response in kind [i.e. a counter-insult]. If the target of a ritual insult reacts with defensive action such as a denial, the ritual insult is redefined as a personal insult."
When snaps (insults) hit too close to home, it's easy to react personally. But as in the Mediterranean, defending oneself with denials is an implicit admission of defeat. You need to stay on top of your opponent with counter-flame every step of the way. A good illustration of sounding can be seen in the rap-showdown in 8 Mile. It's not a very good film, but does an excellent job portraying the snapping culture.

Internet Flaming as a Return to Orality

Internet flaming is patterned, however unintentionally, on the agonistic tugs-of-war that dominate oral cultures. Is that good or bad?

I should emphasize that just because flaming finds precedent in oral contexts doesn't in itself make it a good thing. At the same time, I think we can learn from the oral world and take the best from it. There are times when abusive ad hominem can be ludic (fun), and even appropriate. How many bloggers have never been pestered by a bratty or overly-contentious commenter who doesn't relent, who shows no signs of wanting to learn as much as criticize? In such cases a bit of ad hominem or rude dismissal may be warranted, and even do the offending party some good. Most of the time it's best to ignore such people (or use the convenient "delete" key) -- that's shaming by snubbing, incidentally -- but there are those who deserve to be insulted from time to time, even scholars.

Adam Engst thinks flaming can be good because it allows people to vent aggressions which might otherwise be channeled in violent directions:
"I've decided that in some respects a certain amount of flaming can be positive, because there are only three ways of ending an argument on the Internet. Agree to disagree, win your opponent over to your side, or stop from exhaustion. In no case does anyone get knifed or shot, and if participating in a flame war lets someone blow off some steam, that's better than their going home and abusing their children. Everything is relative."
So a hypertext culture may actually offer the best avenue for flaming, since a violent outcome is automatically precluded. This contrasts most strongly with Norse & Anglo-Saxon flyting.

But flaming can be just plain fun, especially when conducted in good spirit between friends. My best friend and I insult each other all the time; some days our IM dialogue consists of anywhere between 50-85% flame. Depending on your sense of humor, it's fun to trash your friends and make fun of them, even around serious discussion. (Using x-rated emoticons makes things even more fun and nasty.) Like joking it's socially dynamic and eases inhibitions. The ludic aspect of flaming is very similar to Black American sounding.

Whether in an oral or hypertext culture, flaming is artistic and sporting at best, immature and mean-spirited at worst. The key is to know your audience, keep things in good spirit whenever possible, and to use invective judiciously -- and sparingly -- when intended harshly.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Acupuncture Coyote

After a year-long sabbatical, it looks like Michael Turton is resurrecting The Sword under a new name. Watch out for Acupuncture Coyote, or "Adventures in Greco-Christian Fiction". Welcome back, Michael.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Biblical Studies Carnival XV

The fifteenth Biblical Studies Carnival is up on Charles Halton's Awilum.