Tuesday, 29 September 2009

How Brother Juniper cut off the foot of a pig to give it to a sick brother

One day, Brother Juniper was visiting a sick monk. He asked the ill brother if there was anything he could do for him, to which the ailing monk replied that there was nothing he'd like more than a pig's foot to eat (these were the days before McDonald's). So Brother Juniper borrowed a knife from the monastery kitchen and set out to see what he could do. In the forest he found a herd of pigs. He caught one, cut off one of its feet, left the rest of the pig to hop around the forest, and ran back to the monastery where he cleaned, cooked, and served up the tasty pig foot. The sick monk was happy, and Brother Juniper was overjoyed at the success of his kind gesture. The swineherd who saw Brother Juniper sawing off the pig's foot: not so happy. He went to his lord, who stormed round to the monastery, pretty angry, shouting that the monks were robbers and thieves. 'Why', said he, 'have you cut off the foot of my swine?'

St. Francis and the monks had no idea what the lord was talking about, but apologised profusely, and offered to repay the lord. He refused, however, and stomped off home, still fuming. It occurred to St. Francis, a wise man, that perhaps Brother Juniper had something to do with the situation, so he called him in for a chat. Brother Juniper confessed quite happily to stealing the pig's foot, clearly unable to see that he'd done anything wrong, relating the story of how he'd gone out of his way to make the sick monk happy, entirely oblivious to the idea that not everybody would be quite happy about what he'd done.

St. Francis sighed. 'Oh, Brother Juniper. I'm afraid you're going to have to go and apologise to the pig's owner, or he'll go round slandering us to everyone.' Brother Juniper was amazed that there should be such a fuss over his act of kindness. He ran off after the lord, and when he caught up with him, related the whole story of how and why he had cut off the pig's foot, fully expecting the lord to share his joy over the happiness of the sick monk. The lord was still struggling to see things from Brother Juniper's perspective, and shouted and cursed him even more. Brother Juniper could not understand the man's lack of joy, so assumed he simply hadn't understood, and proceeded to explain to him again the love and charity which had motivated him, encouraging him to donate not just the remaining feet but in fact the whole pig. He made his case with such humility that the lord fell to the ground in repentance and weeping, and made haste to take the three-footed pig round to the monastery to donate it to the friars to make up for his bad temper and all the shouting.

Considering the simplicity and patience of Brother Juniper, St Francis turned to the monks and said, 'Would to God, my brothers, that I had a whole forest of such junipers!'

Photo credit: johnmuk on Flickr

Thursday, 24 September 2009

De arte conscribendae historiae

Some definitions to get us started:

Historicity is about historical actuality - that's the stuff that really happened. This morning I ate Weetabix for breakfast. The battle of Hastings took place in 1066.

Historiography is about the different ideas that people have about what counts as good history. Does anyone care what I had for breakfast? Does it matter how I ate my Weetabix? What would be a Marxist/feminist/poststructuralist reading of my breakfast habits?

History is never simply a presentation of every single thing that happened. If you wanted to write a book about a battle that included every single thing that happened to every single person - all the blisters acquired by each soldier, everyone who tripped over at an embarrassing moment, everyone who wanted to go home to mum, every piece of underwear irreparably damaged in combat - you'd never finish writing. Similarly, if you wanted to write about something you weren't around for, but only if you could be 100% certain that everything happened exactly as you said, you probably wouldn't write much. History is all about selecting certain things to include or to leave out, about drawing conclusions and making hypotheses. And different people at different points in history have had different ideas about what counts as good history.

This is one of the things that makes it tricky to read the gospels: we're not sure exactly what process of editing and assuming went on as they were being written. But one thing that's helpful is that, at the time the gospels were being written, lots of people were writing books about how to write history, so we can get some useful pointers from there. Two key people are Dionysius of Halicarnassus, whose Epistula ad Pompeium ('Letter to Pompeii') was written in about 30-37 BC, and Lucian of Samosata, whose De arte conscribendae historiae ('How to write history') was written around 166-168 AD. Here are some of the things that these guys and others writing at the same time thought were important for writing 'good' history:

i) Criteria of usefulness. Dionysius said that history should be about 'a good subject with a lofty character.' Lucian said that history should be about topics 'important, essential, close to home or of practical utility.'

ii) Criteria of structure. Dionysius said that history should be structured well, with a clear beginning and end. Lucian said it should have an obvious sequence. This one's interesting, because although we'd probably agree, I don't think we'd necessarily think to mention it, because we think of literary quality as a separate thing to 'good history'.

iii) Criteria of eyewitness evidence

iv) Criteria of objectivity
. At least some ancient historians go in for this one. Tacitus says that 'no one should be mentioned out of favour or out of hate.'

v) Criteria of concision.
Unnecessary information should be omitted. Again, I think we'd tend to see this as a literary quality rather than a measure of good history.

Criteria of vividness. History, thought ancient historians, ought to engage the readers' emotions. Be as accurate as you like, but don't be boring.

vii) Speeches should fit both the speaker and the occasion.
Here's an interesting one. It's pretty obvious that not many important historical speeches were written down verbatim at the time, but that didn't stop historians including them. It was ok to write your own, basically, as long as it was appropriate. An interesting one for biblical studies, no?

Photo credit: notashamed on Flickr

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Interesting Fact of the Day

There are no exorcisms in John's gospel. I wonder why?

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Who stands fast?

Writing in the middle of Second World War Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer argues that all too many people have been led astray by evil masquerading as goodness. In the middle of a culture full of moral compromise, Bonhoeffer asks, what ethics will enable us to stand up to evil? Here are some that won’t:

Reasonable people fail, because they think they can sort the world out so that everything makes sense. They think that if they just explain things properly, the world can be put to rights, and when things turn out to be a bit more complicated than that, they're all out of alternatives.

Moral fanatics fail, because they think that they can take on evil single handed: they can take on evil and win. But they’re all brawn and no brain, like a bull charging at the red rag instead of the person holding it: they get stuck in non-essentials and are tricked by people smarter than they are.

People of conscience fail: they have nothing to rely on for support but their own conscience, and when evil approaches them again and again with persuasive arguments and seductive disguises, they lose confidence in their own ability to tell right from wrong, and end up compromising, salving their conscience rather than keeping it clear, lying to themselves so that they don’t despair. They don't realise that a bad conscience might be better than a deluded conscience.

Duty also fails as a moral guide: people who act on duty alone can never act on their own, and what happens if the people in charge are the people who need to be stopped? ‘The man of duty will in the end have to do his duty by the devil too.’ (Take that, Kant!)

People who assert their freedom in matters of morality will be brought down by their own freedom. They will agree to what is bad for the sake of avoiding the worse, and so never have the opportunity of realising that the worst might actually be the better option.

People who run away from public morality and hide in private virtuosness have to close their eyes to the injustices all around them. They can only stay pure by deceiving themselves, and sooner or later will lose their peace.

Who stands fast? Only those whose standard for moral action is neither reason, nor principles, nor conscience, nor freedom, nor virtue, but the command of God; those who will lay down their lives at the command of God. Only those who try to live their whole lives as an answer to the question and call of God stand fast.

Photo credit: still from the video for Unkle's Rabbit In Your Headlights. Rock.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Why are the gospels called the gospels?

This morning in church, we were asked if we knew what the word 'gospel' meant. One boy's hand shot up: he knew the answer, and he confidently proclaimed it: Ghosts.

I'm sure you're all aware that actually, it means 'good news', and has been used to mean any or all of the following: 1) The message Jesus proclaimed; 2) The message about Jesus; and 3) The records of Jesus' life, death, and a little bit after: 'The gospel according to...' But funnily enough, even biblical scholars go in for a bit of argy-bargy about the term 'gospel' (although none, to my knowledge, think that ghosts have anything to do with it). The big question is this: does the term come from the Jews or the Greeks? Answer, as always: probably a bit of both.

Isaiah talks a lot about God's message of salvation and promises to defeat Israel's enemies and put the world to rights. Both 'Gospel' and the title 'son of Man' occur in texts written by various Jewish sects of the time, often used to talk about some sort of messianic figure. When Jesus first appears, quoting Isaiah, it's clearly these ideas that he's invoking.

But the Greco-Roman world also had a lot of gospelly ideas knocking around, especially when talking about the Emperor and the imperial cult. The Greek word that the New Testament uses for gospel is 'euangelion', which means good news, but the Greeks and Romans tended to use 'euangelia' - the plural form (good newses?). In particular, it was good news when a new Emperor-to-be was born, and the Emperors tended to be portrayed as divine redeeming figures bringing peace to the whole world. Josephus, the David Starkey of his day, tells us that even the Jews saw Emperor Vespasian's ascension to the throne as gospelly good news. If you were a pagan in Jesus' day, then 'gospel' would have made you think of things to do with the Emperor. By referring to the message of Jesus as 'the good news', the gospel writers were being dangerously politically subversive - imagine talking about President Jesus, or Chairman Jesus, or Ayatollah Jesus, or Prime Minister Jesus (maybe not so much the last one. Poor Gordon). In the Empire, the Emperor is both King and God. His face is on all the coins, he's worshipped in the temples, he is The Man, and then this ragga bunch of gospel writers come along, saying, 'Good news! We have a new king, a new Emperor, and he will put the world to rights.' Controversial biscuits.

Photo credit: maistora on Flickr.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Bodies that matter

As my head is currently full of my dissertation (due in two weeks), I thought I'd treat you to some short thoughts from someone who's better than I am at making theology accessible and exciting. Robert Farrar Capon is, I think, the best theologian I have ever read, and he isn't an academic theologian: his best work is, in fact, part theology, part recipe book. For those of you who wanted a positive theology of the body in response to Mary Midgely's critique, Farrar Capon is a man who knows why bodies matter. I can't emphasise enough just how much you ought to read him. This is from the preface to a reissue of his theological recipe book, The Supper of the Lamb - read it slowly, and savour it:
If this book has any claim to make, therefore, it is that food is precisely an epiphany of the greatness of our nature -- or, to use the most accurate theological word of all, it is a sacrament, a real presence of the gorgeous mystery of our being. People have responded to The Supper of the Lamb, I think, because after all the modern reductionism about food ('Food is only a necessity,' 'Food is nothing but nourishment'), it gave them solid reasons for glorying in the truth that they had suspected all along; namely, that food was life, and that life was good.

Admittedly, this is a hard insight to keep track of. Food these days is often identified as the enemy. Butter, salt, eggs are all out to get you. And yet at our best we know better. Butter is ... well, butter: it glorifies almost everything it touches. Salt is the sovereign perfecter of all flavors. Eggs are, pure and simple, one of the wonders of the world. And if you put them all together, you get not sudden death, but Hollandaise -- which in its own way is not one bit less a marvel than the Gothic arch, the computer chip, or a Bach fugue. Food, like all the other triumphs of human nature, is evidence of civilization -- of that priestly gift by which we lift the whole world into the exchanges of the Ultimate City which even God himself longs to see it