The Cow Says Moo

Picture 6To make the argument with students that language and identity are deeply connected historical phenomena — i.e., that what we designate as meaning results from the coordination of a variety of arbitrarily-related sounds and symbols that are themselves each arbitrarily assigned relationships with items in the world that strike our fancy.

That’s how we know what a cow says and that they have something to do with farmers and milk and horses and barns and….

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Words Matter

Picture 27This news story reminded me of teaching long ago, and trying to persuade students that “God” was not necessarily a generic, cross-cultural, trans-historical term but, instead, usually carried with it (as do all words) a specific baggage (e.g., the Christian doctrine of trinity, the role of Jesus, specific ideas of heaven and salvation, the bible, etc.) — an argument not that different from trying to persuade students that “man” is not necessarily a universal designator for all human beings (i.e., introducing them to the issue of gender inclusive language). Continue reading

Working Miracles

black-jesus-sacredDid you catch Bart Ehrman’s interview about his new book on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” the other day?

No? Then have a listen.

While there’s lots here to consider if we want to entertain what a truly critical, historical study of religion might look like, what a critical approach to how we talk about the past would look like — one that avoids anachronism, as if we can read back present day identities into the dim past — and even what it means for a scholar to “go public” with his or her research, consider just this one response to Terry Gross‘s question, beginning at 3:41 of the interview; Ehrman replies:

Well, what I argue in the book is that during his lifetime, Jesus himself didn’t call himself God and didn’t consider himself God…

So, at least judging by book sales, we have here one of the most famous current scholars of the New Testament telling us what a textual figure about whom we know nothing other than what we learn in a small number of ancient writings by a variety of subsequent authors who, of course, all had their own agendas in creating their narratives, writings that are themselves copies of copies of copies, and so on, and so on, that, yes, are the results of subsequent editors and copyists with agendas of their own, and so on, and so on…, telling listeners what he thinks this figure actually thought and actually said about himself.

“Jesus saw himself as…”? Really?

Is this what the work of a historically nuanced, critical, i.e., non-theological, scholar of religion looks like? (Better question: Is this what it inevitably looks like when writing for a mass audience?) For although Ehrman aims to be a rigorous historian — something he stresses in the interview, such as when he tells Gross, a little later

… there are some questions that history can answer and other things that history cannot answer.

— telling us what you think a character we only know from texts actually said and really thought sounds an awful lot to me like something other than doing history. For, as I understand writing history, to do so requires a time traveling, mind-reading miracle — but he repeatedly rules miracles as out of bounds for an historian.

So, if it wasn’t a miracle, then just how did we move so quickly from what is nothing more or less than a discourse on the character (the Jesus sign, as Bill Arnal phrased it in what I take to be a far more rigorously histrorical work on the same topic) to an actual historical actor whose thoughts we can somehow know? How did we transcend time and space to get to answers to the old “What did Shakespeare mean…?” question so easily, in only the first minutes of an interview that’s over half and hour long? For I’d hate to speculate on what my grandfather really thought about this or that, let alone what my 21 year old self might have thought, much less a character diversely portrayed in a collection of ancient texts who, though profoundly important to many today, is — at least for the critical student of religion — still just a character in a collection of texts.

(By the way, was that the “right” picture of Jesus for this post?
Perhaps you see my point…?)

Your Authentic is Illusory, of Course

nprchurchListening to a radio story this morning, on a church in Denver that prides itself on being diverse and on the social/political edge — one that, predictably, aims to “create an authentic Christian experience without the pretension that can come with church” — it occurred to me just how deeply reductionist, materialist theories of religion have seeped into daily life. For, despite how dangerous these theories are seen to be by some (when they’re applied to their own lives, that is), they’re surprisingly easy for people to draw upon when accounting for other people’s behaviors and institutions. Continue reading

Just the Facts

It’s that time of year again, when the local National Public Radio station does its semi-annual on-air fundraising. Interspersed with the sometimes witty pre-taped snippets from national correspondents and hosts of its various syndicated shows, the ten minute fundraising segments mostly consist of people associated with the local station, or local listeners, talking about the benefits of receiving your news from a non-profit sources like NPR. Continue reading