Saturday, March 28, 2009


Free from Frei

Ugh. I just finished Hans W. Frei's "The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics." Ugh. Ugh. Damn Germans. Clunkiest, most dense work I think I've ever read.

I wish someone would write a paraphrase of it, like the "Living Bible." :-)

And, I think it's put together almost exactly backwards. As a history of ideas more than events, I think the present and near-present -- or the latest period under consideration -- would have been a better place to start, followed then by peeling back layers to get to earlier thinking.

Or, at least start with a chapter that sets the present as the stage -- because when it comes to histories of ideaa, the present has to be the stage for understanding past thinking, IMHO.

I'm gonna have to think about this and skim it some before I can even figure out what his thesis is. Y'all who've read it, feel free to enlighten me. Note that I'm not saying the book wasn't worthy of the effort it took to read it. Just, ugh. :-)

Next up is something that's popcorn by way of comparison, but judging from the first skimming, it's perfect timing that I read it -- and the fact that a gal at church, knowing something of where my thinking is regarding formal academic pursuits, just handed it to me last Sunday morning and said I ought to give it a looksee:

John Ortberg's "If You Want to Walk on Water, You've got to Get Out of the Boat."

:-) A cursory glance at teh Google revealed no Ortberg critics and I have great respect for the one who recommended I read it. So I will.

(Should take about 20 minutes after slogging through Frei, he faux-grumbled ...)


On the history of ideas I'd recommend not starting with the contemporary, but the last time something became common practice (e.g., start with modernism rather than post-modernism). The still-not-digested-and-memed stuff is almost impossible to get right - and it's still evolving to boot. Come back to it after getting the arc of the competed down.
Well, I think that was what I was trying to say. The Frei book is limited to the 18th and 19th centuries. What I meant was i think it would have suited me, anyway, and made it easier to "get," if he'd laid the groundwork for the state of hermeneutics at the turn of the 20th century, and then peeled it back to its state at the turn of the 18th.

Oh, and it took me awhile to figure out why he spent so much time on the novel as it developed in England, and some other areas that seemed, as I was first reading it, to be sideroads: He was writing about hermeneutics, as the context for writing about biblical hermeneutics -- he wasn't just writing about biblical hermeneutics.

Ugh! But :-), I'm glad I slogged through it. At the end of the penultimate chapter, I realized I might could use some of this to help me understand the role of interpretation, evolving uses of language and comprehension in my own studies of 19th-century wtiting in English by cross-cultural American Indians and the non-Indians writing and working with them.
You've just started reading a guy who informed the thinking a number of Yale professors who have been teaching twenty and thirty years, students of his who are now teaching all over the globe.

His approach to textual interpretation, specifically that of the sacred christian scriptures called gospels, is unique to him and comprised of three or four major modern streams of biblical theologies.

Give yourself time to let what is forming into major school of thought become part of your theological education.

It's not rocket science, but a rocket scientist couldn't do it.
I'm all ears, man. :-) Just letting my brain muscles unwind.
See, especially, "The 'Literal Reading' of Biblical Narrative in the Christian Tradition: Does It Stretch or Will It Break?" in Frei, Theology and Narrative.

And Frei's The Identity of Jesus Christ.
As a historian you would be interested in what has come out of the Nag Hammadi finds and how that impacts our "modern" thought.

I recommend Elaine Pagels' scholarly work "The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters". Paul's letter's are of course the very first written Christian documents. Pagels presents the early Christian Gnostic reading of them based on Nag Hammadi materials compared to the early Orthodox exegesis.
Buy a good copy. It will become a reference text for you.
With all due respect to DrLBJ, Frei and Pagels have little to do with each other and are up to completely different tasks. Pagels is using recently discovered documents to update and reform our understanding of the history of the hundred years on either side of Jesus in order to picture the heterogeneity of the communities that were operating in the same syncretic religious foment that gave form to the main (read winning) trunks of Christianity, diasporic Judaism, and several other kinds of each and other religions. This serves to place the Christian canon in historical perspective as to its writers, readers, opposing alternatives, thus construction of an argument. This is indeed revolutionary in some senses, as study of the Bible has had very little insight into the nature of the arguments by those whose writings we knew nothing about for almost sixteen hundred years.

This new and exciting information and the interpretive possibilities open up new ground on the foundations of Judeo-Christian faith and the lacunae and even prejudices existing within the sacred scripture of the church.

Frei, on the other hand, is taking up - not the question of how historical studies alter our reception of the texts - but how the historical approach as an entire field of study has effectively dismantled how these texts operate as sacred, but only as constructed in modernity with a literal understanding of their “reference,” or “world,” or “intent.” In other words, a post-enlightenment understanding of the authority of scripture is built on the very foundational platform that ultimately undoes this way of constructing scripture’s authority.

Frie is seeking to describe how, in a theologically valid, or, at least, a contemporarily authentic fashion, scripture can still be sacred operationally. This project he inherits negatively from Bultmann’s dymythologizing (i.e., biblical readers, if looking for the sacred text that founds the community of the church, can no longer go down the alley of thinking the New Testament to be factually historical), and positively from Barth and post-modern literary theory (i.e., read the text like one reads the non-textual kerygmatic preaching core of the text).

How does a narrative reading (to escape the rationalistic use of “literal” reading in this case [after all, I read a novel in literal fashion without thinking it happens in reality]) of the gospels operate to reveal God in a way that nonetheless fertilizes true and reasonable faith?

She is an historian. But she feels that she and we can now add more kaleidoscopic elements to our sacred scriptures that make for a more splendid, and comprehensive even if contradictory, picture.

She reads texts and finds sacred history.

Frei assumes the fatal blow of historicism to the way the Bible’s authority has been read since the enlightenment. He is looking for how it survives for the faith community after one historical overlay has now been removed.

He asks how does one read sacred narrative – not history couched in sacred texts.

(GKS should add yet another voice concerning these issues.)
In short, as she has said in interviews, Pagels nourishes her faith by worshipping in a community of collected individual and partial truths. The liturgical act centers on texts that both reveal and hide that this existence was the same at their birth. She finds renewal in the fact that now, in the church, even those things hidden by the text (not just in the text, but by intention) can be known and taught and unleashed for their own revelation of truth.

Frei nourishes his faith by finding a new (or rather uncovered) way of worshipping the Jesus Christ who is not the result of our epoch of being distant from or mistrusting the biblical text. He does not want to end up with an icon in our mind's eye, or an abridged version of a Jesus that ignores so many parts of the gospels, a cartoon superhero for the hip set. He wants to worship the Jesus Christ who is the character realistically narrated in all of gospel scripture. He wants realism like a novel's realism, but in the case of the Gospels, a real realism.
I like.
I agree with most of Feodor and his analysis. But...

Read Pagels for her information about bones dug from the second century sand not for her views.

Read Frei for his reconstruction of the medieval cathedral and his view as to why its foundation is architecturally sound.

Regardless of who you read:
If you want to nourish your faith you'll take one path. If you want to know what your faith can be you will take another.

Pagels and others like her do indeed, "...nourishes... faith by worshipping in a community of collected individual and partial truths."

Frei nourishes himself within an authority, an alternative authority but still an authority.

If Frei and his tradition are the sun, Pagels and her community of individuals are the milky way.

Vaya con Dios.
I think I want to nourish myself by nourishing others, somehow. In my wildest moments I think I've been doing that already. "ER, I never read agricultural news until you started writing it," the implication being I 1., made it interesting, and 2., gave it context, which 3., gave it value. "ER, I never read (news I cover and edit now) until you started writing it." Same thing. And those are just topics I was born into in the first case, and fell into in the second. Faith-God-religion stuff is the real stuff ...

I want one foot in the tradition I find myself in now, and the next foot going forward, knowing my footprints are always behind me if I get lost, confused and ascairt.
"Pagels and others like her do indeed, '...nourishes... faith by worshipping in a community of collected individual and partial truths.' Frei nourishes himself within an authority, an alternative authority but still an authority."

I don't think DrLBJ gets Frei quite right in suggesting that Frei submits to some construction of authority in the sense of being a tradition-bound quitter on God's ineffability.

But, then, DrLBJ is an evangelist.

Both Frei and Pagels have some internal consistency problems.

Professor Pagels is a self-professed christian, worshipping the ineffable God in a christian church. One cannot do either without professing explicit or implicit belief in Holy Scripture which is the single most - though not only - authoritative source for christian faith and the christian community.

And here is the problem: how can a community be a christian community while mistrusting its own sacred scriptures... especially the centrally pivotal group of the gospels, the very texts revealing the figure of our salvation. I am not saying there are no answers to this problem. But, so far, all the answers given by the historical approach are not satisfactorily complete as to erase the dilemma.

Do we open up the canon of the bible to add further diversifying witness? And which of the previously excluded texts do we include? Five? Ten? Twenty? Why not twenty-one? Which get in and which do not? We are back to the very same work as those who made decisions in council over two hundred or more years.

Or do we dissolve the notion of the canon, leaving all things open? Bring in to the worship and formation of the community gnostic ideas? Bring in Buddhist ideas, zoroastrian thought, shinto, confucian, sufi practices? This would be an historically unprecedented move and would constitute the disestablishment of the Christian tradition of understanding ourselves.

Such communities already exist: Ethical Culture, for one and a pretty good one for all that. And they could use the influx of money.

This option, perhaps the right one, would seem to be the logical conclusion - and the one of integrity - for where the historical approach leads. For who can stop the relativist bleeding? If a christian wants to remain a christian, how does he or she do it on the basis of the historical approach?

Professor Frei seems to think this option will not lead the church to a place that maintains what it claims to be. He seems to think that the historical problem is a temporal one brought on by constructs of the enlightenment notion of reason, reading, and science. This is a certain period of a paradigm already passing. It has term limit problems.

So he is focused on what will not pass away - unless jettisoned - from the christian community's perspective: sacred scripture, particularly that which is directly revelatory of the Lord. There is the narrative, as it has always been, textual or oral, the narrative of Jesus Christ. If the christian church is to remain the christian church, the narrative must have some performative authority in the worship activity of the church; worship being its primary self-identifying and self-creating activity.

But among the difficulties of Frei - somewhat present in DrLBJ's mention of the medieval cathedral – is how to put humpty dumpty back together again after the bible has had such a great fall? How can we ignore learning? While willed ignorance is an active choice in Christendom, Frei is far from a conservative. He focuses on how we read the narrative. Yes, Frei thinks there can be found a kind of continuity with all periods of Christian history in reading the text as narrative. This is, of a sort, an anthropological argument: human society has always communicated itself to itself in main part by certain chosen/elected/received stories/myth/epics/gospels. It is an absolute pathway always necessary to the existence of human community.

Frei believes this argument, as intellectual as it is, is more descriptively and structurally true of human life as it has always been lived; a claim that clearly cannot be true of the historical approach to biblical interpretation. But Frei’s difficulty is asking the Christian church, so hobbled for centuries now of historical bombardment, to thoroughly make it’s internal pedagogy spring from literary and anthropological theory. And that request will ultimately fail. A lot more people read popular revisionist history than literary theory. It has the advantages of numbers. And that is unlikely to change.

In the end, let’s grant for hypothesis sake, Frei’s efforts to restore the gospel narrative may very well restore the protestant faith in the bible, now as realist readers, indentifying and modeling themselves after and prostrating themselves in faithful obedience to, the character they read there.

So Frei restores faith in reading the bible. And Pagels constructs renewed faith for our times in loyal mistrust of the bible.

But of what kind of transcendence are these text bound, protestant needs?
Feodor, this is persactly what I wanted to blog about today, so I'm going to make it its own post.
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