What Dog Experts and New Testament Experts Have in Common

May 24, 2010

Today I was reading Mary Ann Tolbert’s book, Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective. In the conclusion she explains why she disagrees with those who see in Mark an attempt to address the same issues that are addressed in the Pauline epistles:

… one of the central principles of biblical form criticism ought to have raised questions from the beginning about the appropriateness of applying this Pauline model to the Gospels, for form critics argued that different genres imply different functions and different settings. (p. 303)

Well, wait a minute, here – who proclaimed “the central principles of biblical form criticism” to be the final arbiter of truth in all situations? Who can guarantee that no one would attempt to do in a narrative what someone else tried to do in a letter? Since the time long ago when people began to commit narratives to writing, how many of those narratives have been written solely to entertain with no interest in teaching or persuading? Throughout the history of literature, different literary forms (in this case, letters and narratives) have often been written in order to perform similar functions, and in similar settings.

Tolbert goes on to explain:

While a letter may be an effective medium for directly challenging a community’s practice or correcting its theological views, a Gospel, a narrative purporting to relate the actions, words, and views of characters from an earlier time, is not.

Why not? This has been a strategy from time immemorial: if you can’t get someone to do what you want them to do now, and if you and they acknowledge a common authority, write a narrative in which the authoritative person can be seen speaking and modeling the behavior you want to promote. You can find excellent examples of this approach throughout the two thousand year history of Christian saints’ lives. The hagiographer is a member of a very conservative community that is not behaving well, so what does the hagiographer do to try to change that? He or she writes a narrative that makes it look as though the saint’s community was doing the right thing under the saint’s leadership way back in the past when the saint was around (although in fact the bad behavior that needs reforming may have around from the beginning). As a result, now, in the hagiographer’s day which might be a hundred years later, the leaders trying to reform the community can say “look at this story about our past: we need to eliminate the corruptions that have gotten us off the proper path that we used to be on” rather than “we need to change to do something new.” A community that is fundamentally conservative – resistant to change – is far more likely to accept the former argument than the latter.

A historian who is not a biblical scholar sees this phenomenon so often it ranks as little more than common sense. Why then can’t some of the greatest biblical scholars of the modern world see it? I am reminded of a book written by Dean Koontz about his Golden Retriever, A Big Little Life: A Memoir of a Joyful Dog. Anyone who owns and loves a dog will identify with what he says in this book about how his dog showed a range of emotions so similar to his own. And yet, as he points out, many so-called experts in animal behavior assert that animals cannot have emotions anything like ours, and ascribing human emotions to them such as embarrassment, sadness, happiness, fear, and the like to them is simply naïve anthropomorphism. I once actually read such a study where a mother gorilla was observed when her baby died and she went through all the outward symptoms of grief and depression, and yet the interpretation was that it couldn’t possibly be anything like what a human feels in a similar situation. I like the way Mr. Koontz responds to such “science,” and what he says here applies equally as well, mutatis mutandis, to scriptural scholars:

Scientists and animal behaviorists have written libraries full of nonsense about the emotions of dogs, suggesting that they do not have emotions as we know them, or that their exhibitions that appear to be emotionally based do not mean what we interpret them to mean in our sentimental determination to see a fellowship between humanity and canines.  Like too many specialists in every field, they are educated not out of their ignorance but _into_ ignorance, because they are raised to an imagined state of enlightenment — which is actually dogmatism — where they no longer experience the light of intuition and the fierce brightness of common sense.  They see the world through cloudy windows of theory and ideology, which obscure reality.  This is why most experts in economics never see the financial disaster coming until the wave breaks over them, why most experts in statecraft and military strategy can be undone by an enemy’s surprise attack. (p. 81)

This is one reason why even today, a text that has been studied so thoroughly as Mark’s Gospel can be fundamentally misunderstood by the bulk of those seemingly best equipped to understand it.

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A Festschrift for Fr. Paul Tarazi

May 23, 2010

Last December I received an invitation to contribute to a festschrift in honor of the fortieth anniversary of Fr. Paul Tarazi’s ordination to the priesthood.  Fr. Tarazi was the Professor of Old Testament at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, which I attended from 1985 to 1988, and since then I have edited a number of books and articles for him.  A festschrift is a book that is made up of articles written and published to honor a distinguished scholar who has worked in his field for many years.  The long period of service typically means this person has mentored a large number of students who themselves have gone on to be scholars, and they are generally the ones who contribute articles to the festschrift.

I immediately accepted the invitation, and proceeded to confer with Fr. Paul about what topic I might write on.  I had some ideas, but he suggested I write about one of his favorite New Testament subjects:  the Gospels as narratives whose blueprint is Paul’s apostolic preaching as reflected in the Pauline corpus, concentrating on Mark.  This appealed to me, so I discarded my ideas and adopted his.

I edited the first book in which Fr. Paul publicly presented that theory:  The New Testament:  An Introduction.  Volume 1, Paul and Mark, published in 1999. When I first received the text of this book for editing and began to read it, I thought for sure he had gone off the deep end.  It was an approach I had never seen before and it seemed to be way out in the realm of conjecture rather than composed of solid arguments based on evidence, as I had seen so much of in the previous book I edited for him (a commentary on Galatians).  Nevertheless, I was an editor at that stage and not an author, and so I edited it as best I could while retaining some doubts about the accuracy or viability of the ideas presented in the text.  Even after the book was published I remained doubtful about the positions espoused in it.  But gradually over the following ten years I increasingly saw evidence pointing in the same direction and came to adopt a similar view of Mark’s gospel myself.  This doesn’t mean I’m convinced by every individual assertion made by Fr. Paul, but I have come to think that his overall approach to understanding the origin and purpose and meaning of Mark is on the right track.

Why write about what Fr. Paul has already written about?  He was writing for the Eastern Orthodox faithful and did not situate himself in the tradition of scholarly research or cite other scholars, and thus his book never got noticed by scholarship.  (He is himself quite conversant with modern scholarship but consciously chooses to write books for the general reader rather than for scholars and so does not fill them with footnotes.)  He was also limited in how much text about Mark he could fit into a short book that also had to introduce the epistles of Paul.   Of course I am only writing an article for the festschrift, and that is also limited in size, but I can address a few key issues in the article and incorporate the rest into a book to be published later.

You might also ask:  after modern scholars worldwide with all of the tools available to modern scholarship have pored over the Gospel texts for centuries, how could there be anything new to find that is not already widely known?  What makes me think I’m better equipped to see what Mark is really about than all those other scholars, and how can I hope to convince anyone now of anything other than that Fr. Paul and I are both crackpots?  I’ll discuss that in my next post.


Oliver Wiswell

May 15, 2010

Your first speech in the Toastmasters Competent Communicator series is called the “Ice Breaker” because in it you introduce yourself. In my Ice Breaker I introduced myself not by talking about my personal background or my career but about my life goals. Most people tend to define themselves by informing a new acquaintance that “I am a computer programmer” or “I am a salesman” or “I am an engineer” as if the job defines what is most important about their identity. Maybe that is true for some people, but in my case it is not. And so I would introduce myself not by my current day job title “programming writer,” but as a historian who aspires to write historical fiction.

Why historical fiction? The idea came to me when I was around twelve years old. My brother-in-law recommended to me the historical novels of Kenneth Roberts, and I read them, not really to learn about history but as adventure novels, much like kids today read the Harry Potter or Eragon books. But it happens that Kenneth Roberts’ books are about the American Revolutionary War period and are meticulously researched and historically accurate. And so they bring the people of that period to life in a way that history books can never do. One of those books did more than bring the people to life. The one titled Oliver Wiswell radically transformed my views about the basic character of the American Revolutionary War.

Oliver Wiswell is a book that tells the story of the American Revolution from a viewpoint that many of us have not seen before: the viewpoint of a Loyalist. I don’t know how schools portray the American War for Independence today, but in my day it was presented as a justified struggle against foreign tyranny. The people who helped to incite it, such as Sam Adams and John Hancock, were shining examples for lovers of liberty everywhere. They were called Patriots, a word imbued with positive connotations. The people who opposed the Revolution were short-sighted, misguided, or just plain traitors. They were not Patriots; they were Tories, a word imbued with negative connotations. The general who began on the side of rebellion and changed sides halfway through was vilified as the blackest of traitors. To this day, the name Benedict Arnold is virtually synonymous with treason and treachery in American culture.

You get a radically different picture from reading Oliver Wiswell. You learn that many of the so-called patriots who incited armed rebellion were opportunists with economic motivations. Sam Adams and John Hancock were smugglers who stood to profit from a break with England. Benedict Arnold was a great man who inspired loyalty in all who served under him and who acted upon deeply held convictions. You and I would share many of his convictions if we knew what he knew. You begin to see that the Revolution was incited by people who would shoot and lynch people for no other reason than for holding contrary political views. You see that slogans like “taxation without representation” were excuses to kill people over petty political disagreements.

After reading Oliver Wiswell, I no longer saw the American Revolutionary War as something to look back on with a sense of civic pride. Not a glorious and honorable beginning to our nation, but rather in many ways a shameful one. That was a radical change in viewpoint effected in a remarkably short time, and the understanding developed further in later years. I learned somewhat later about how differently India achieved its independence from the same British Empire, and today I see that struggle for independence as one whose inner dynamic and execution was substantially just and honorable in way the American one was not. And I wonder if events like today’s Iraq war is in some way an echo of the way our nation was founded and the way it was kept from splitting apart. Today I go so far as think of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi as greater political leaders than George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. This is not to denigrate Washington and Lincoln, for we owe much to them and they had elements of greatness in them – but organized non-violent resistance, the way of Gandhi and King, is the better way to oppose oppression.

If my goal is to be able to help transform other peoples’ historical misperceptions though historical fiction, as Kenneth Roberts did for me, one might ask, why fiction? Why not nonfiction? I can cite at least three reasons. First, nonfiction is limited to the available source data. The sources are often just too scanty to give the ordinary reader the feel for living life through the eyes of a real person of the period. Second, for most periods of history the remaining sources are all written by the winners of a conflict. You rarely even get direct evidence of the losers’ side of the story. Even today, nonfiction history tends to be written from the perspective of the winner. Third, nonfiction history does not reach very many people. Historiography tends to read like an encyclopedia article. Few people read it aside from those who are forced to do so in school or in college, or those who make it their career, such as university professors.

So far I have accomplished the first part of my goal – becoming a historian. After starting my career programming computers I went back to school. I got a Bachelors degree in Russian language and history; a Master of Divinity from a Russian Orthodox Seminary, focusing on church history; and a Ph.D. in medieval Russian history. I taught undergraduate and graduate courses in Russian history. I published a book based on my dissertation which is the definitive guide to the monks of the Volokolamsk monastery in Russia in the 16th century. I continue to research and write articles and books.

But until now I have only written nonfiction. I am a historian but not a novelist. After all these years I am just getting started writing fiction, and it seems to be a daunting task. That is why I can introduce myself as a historian but only as an aspiring historical novelist.

So what does all that have to do with my blog theme “mandatory for decent human life” (see my first post for an explanation of the origin of that title)? Peoples’ behavior in the present is affected by what they think of the past. I have seen this most in the area of religion, and that is where I am turning my attention at the present. I am convinced that the more people in any religious tradition can see the heroes and villains of their own tradition as human beings — and in the process appreciate the flaws of the heroes and the goodness of the villains — they would become more tolerant and more, shall we say, “decent,” to people in other traditions. The lack of such tolerant attitudes led to events such as the Crusades and the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers. And in today’s world of increasing technological means for destruction, you never know if by changing the attitude of one person you could be preventing a nuclear or biological conflagration that could destroy a city or poison the earth. That is the sense in which books like Oliver Wiswell are mandatory for decent human life. They use accurate portrayals of historical human beings, presented in a form appealing to ordinary readers and not just specialists, to help defuse human discord and conflict and thus make “decent human life” possible for all.


Mandatory for Decent Human Life (aka My First Ever Blog Post)

May 14, 2010

Yesterday I completed my tenth speech for Toastmasters, which means I have completed requirements for the “Competent Communicator” designation.  My second speech in this series was inspired by the phrase that I have made the title of the blog, and I’ll use my first post to explain where it comes from.

Gary Paulsen is an author of outdoor adventure books for children and young adults.  In an autobiographical book about his experiences with his own dogs over many years, Paulsen writes at one point, “They are wonderful, and, I think, mandatory for decent human life.”  The first time I read that in My Life in Dog Years (it’s on page 2) it sounded a bit over the top, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked it.  I like it because it expresses a basic truth about the relationship between people and dogs, although it does sound absurd the first time you hear it.

Historians take for granted that a text written in a now-dead language by people who lived halfway across the globe hundreds or thousands of years ago requires careful thought and analysis in order to understand accurately.  They get into the habit of approaching any text they read with the same suspicion that what seems to be the obvious meaning might not be.  This can be counterproductive when you find and react to deeper meanings in an email from a colleague who threw words together quickly without much thought.  But books by published authors usually involved some careful thought, so they are fair game.

The biggest problem with Paulsen’s proclamation about the importance of dogs is the word “mandatory.”  But Paulsen is a thoughtful person and clearly did not mean to say that human decency is absolutely impossible if you don’t live with dogs.  “Mandatory” here must be meant more like the way a speed limit is mandatory.  You can ignore a speed limit and all may go well for you.  The right driver in the right vehicle on the right roads could drive all day long at 100 mph on roads where keeping the speed under 70 is mandatory.  Conversely, if you obey the speed limit that’s no guarantee you’ll stay out of trouble.  Certain drivers are unsafe at any speed.  But in general speed limits are there for a reason and everyone is better off if most people obey them.  So the idea is that having a dog is like obeying the speed limit.  Makes sense for most people.

As for “decent human life,” I take that to refer to positive, mutually beneficial relationships with the people around us. And not only with people but with all aspects of the environment we live in.  To be decent is to show care and consideration for other people, animals, and even the earth itself.  So to paraphrase, living with a dog can help a person develop positive relationships in uniquely effective ways.

Paulsen doesn’t elaborate, but I can.  Perhaps the most important way a dog can do this is by helping you feel good about yourself.  That’s important because a prerequisite to positive relationships with other people is a positive relationship with yourself.  In other words, your ability to have a positive impact on others is limited if you are not a happy person yourself.  Anyone who has not had a dog might wonder, how then can a dog impact how happy you feel?

Imagine for a moment the following scene.  You are coming home from work after a long hard day dealing with cranky people and insane deadlines.  You walk in the door of your house and what do you find? Your spouse had a hard day too and wants to vent about it. She also wants to remind you to wash the windows and mow the lawn.  Your daughter is busy watching YouTube videos of skateboarding squirrels and hardly notices you’re there. Your son is reading the sports page and will only acknowledge your presence when he needs to ask for money to go out with his friends.  Your cat is, of course, sleeping. But your dog … what is your dog doing?  Your dog can hardly restrain himself for joy that you’re home.  His ears are back and his mouth is open, his tail is wagging so hard his whole body shakes, and he barks with joy.  Now, the spouse and kids love you too, but the dog makes that palpably obvious.  There are few things in the world that can be repeated every day and still effectively give you an uplifting feeling about yourself. Having someone be so ecstatically joyful just to see you come home from work each day is one of them.

Also, it has been shown that the most effective way to make yourself happy is to do something that makes someone else happy.  Trying to do that for spouses, children, and other people is worthwhile but is a complex business that is fraught with peril.  People are complex and sometimes nothing can make them happy.  And if you have kids, your efforts to make them happy in the long run will often make them rather unhappy in the short run and they will do their best to make you even more unhappy about what you’re doing.  But with a dog all you have to do is say the word “walk” and he jumps and barks and wags his tail for joy.  And the dog is always ready, whenever you are. He spends most of his life just waiting for you to give the word that will make him jump for joy.

There is a reason why dogs have been called “man’s best friend.”  A dog’s unconditional love is unique.  People love too of course, but personal relationships are complex and often difficult to keep on a positive course.  Having a dog recharges your batteries for tackling the difficult relationships positively.

And what is it that makes positive human relationships so difficult? One factor is the human tendency to be dissatisfied with what we have.  We tend to think we need something we don’t have to be happy – more money, more possessions, more social status, more of everything.  That often puts is in competition with other people.  It is a truism that our value system would change radically if we thought we would die tomorrow.  Money and possessions would lose their meaning, we would think more about how we treat other people and the impact it has on our legacy, and we would appreciate little things like relationships and walks in the woods.  Having a dog helps you remember your own impermanence.  There is a reason why every famous dog story, including recent best-sellers such as Merle’s Door and Marley and Me, ends with the dog dying.  Dogs just don’t live as long as we do.  It’s like having a child who you know will predecease you.  A child who teaches you what it’s like to treasure every moment and be happy with the life you have rather than pine for what you don’t have.

I can think of many other ways that dogs have a positive influence on people.  But ultimately I like Gary Paulsen’s statement not by analyzing it to be true but because it reflects my own experience.  I got a dog myself about a year ago for the first time in decades.  And that dog has definitely helped transform my life and my relationships. Speaking for myself, “a dog is indeed mandatory for decent human life.”

In my next post I’ll say something about why I apply the title to history — or rather what I’ll call a realistic understanding of history — as well.