Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Job and Satan and source criticism

Susan Garrett (The Temptations of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998]) points out that in Second Temple Judaism, the arch-enemy of God was known by many names, not just by the title satan [adversary/accuser], as found in the OT at 1Kgs 22:19, Job 1-2, Isaiah 6:2-3, Zech 3:4-7. There were names like ‘the tempter’, ‘the devil’, ‘Belial’, ‘Mastema’, ‘Sammael’, ‘the enemy’, ‘the angel of darkness’, ‘the ruler of this world’.

She then asks, and answers, Why was there such a bewildering variety of names and titles for this figure? The character of Satan as known in the first century was the end product of long reflection by the Jews on a number of ancient mythic traditions pertaining to the adversaries of Yahweh and mankind. (p.33) Jewish reflection on these diverse traditions occurred because of the seductive appeal of foreign cultures in general, and from the exilic period because of foreign occupation of their land and the need to call upon apocalyptic and cosmic battle ideas to explain their situation and give them hope.

Acknowledging the influence of the Genesis account and the Job-account (p.34, fn. 29) what happened to “Genesis” and “Job”?!) on ideas of Satan, Garrett cites a significant number of studies – and summarises their principal themes – that attempt at great length to trace these other pagan and mythological links and sources (pp.34-40).

This is all part of her discussion of traditions about testing, setting the scene for analysing Mark’s gospel. Only when one understands Satan’s composite nature (that is, blending elements from diverse mythic accounts) do certain tensions in the New Testament portrayals of this character become explicable. The most significant such tension is the seeming contradiction between Satan’s role as eschatological adversary who fights against God… and his role as servant of God, who carries out certain unpleasant duties for God… (p.35, her emphasis)

That claim is simply not true. Coming to an understanding of diverse sources behind the ‘Satan’ of the NT does not make the tensions explicable, it merely alleges their origins. It offers precious little by way of explanation – how did authors not spot these contradictions? Why did they let them stand? Unless the NT is seen simply as an uncritical reflection of the socio-religious beliefs of 1st century Palestine (and no one thinks that!) then an explanation of the apparent contradiction will take some theological work, not mere source criticism (which is shaky in its own right, let alone as an explanatory tool).

Furthermore, the digression in pp.34-40 onto divine warrior, cosmic battle, and heavenly court traditions casts no light on that particular tension. Garrett attempts to make all this relevant by alleging that the portrayal of satan as a member of the heavenly court in Job and Zechariah (and thus in the role of servant of God rather than enemy) is also not independent of the combat myths, which also presuppose a divine assembly of the gods (p.35, fn. 31). But all this serves to do is to make the claim that sources lie behind the OT. It does not explain how the writers made use of these sources, thereby implying an uncritical acceptance of whatever the sources portrayed. As if source criticism counted as exegesis! (What if we imagine another model: what if the sources were all fragmentary pagan witnesses to a theological truth faithfully synthesised in the Bible by Yahweh’s servants inspired by his Spirit? Just a thought…) Regarding this great tension, enemy-servant, we have it portrayed in the relationship between God and the human actors of the Pentateuch. Joseph’s brothers intended it for evil but God intended it for good (Genesis 50:20), while Pharaoh and the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 5-). The question of explanation is a theological one to do with God’s sovereignty, not a source-critical problem of images of divine enemies in other cultures.

Strangely enough, having stirred up all this mud Garrett still concludes after all that Job was the most important influence on the NT portrayal of Satan (p.40). However, she fails to explain either the predominance of ‘Satan’/‘tempter’ in the NT (her evidence that Job was decisive) or the particular uses of much rarer alternative names. Perhaps, stripping the unsupported stuff away, all Garrett is really saying is that Christians and Jews had an understanding of Satan that was based on the biblical account. But she can’t bring herself to say it. Perhaps that would offer too muh succour to unreflective fundies like me!

And after promising much with her insistence on the influence of Genesis and Job, she returns to the vomit…

I have already suggested that the conflicting notions of Satan as opposed to God but nonetheless subordinate to God had their origins in distinct mythic or literary complexes (p.44). This is not only simplistic (one idea, once source; two ideas, two sources;… n ideas, n sources) but unnecessary, since the biblical data give enough of a picture. We might as well say that the notions are conveyed to us through the OT text (and are thus inaccessible by other means) and that the authors of those texts conveyed their notions sometimes using existing cultural material that is distinctive enough for a source-critic to spot. The question of the origins or substance of the notions, however, is something that cannot be decided on the grounds of alledged sources. Material is used by authors of literature to generate meaning. Continual harping on at how sources explain (clarifying tensions or paradoxes, p.49) the apparent contradictions [they don’t!] spoils Garrett’s sensible theological and literary discussions (pp.44-49) on how Jewish and Christian writers did use this material.

Mrs L described this section of Garrett (1998) as a house of cards when she first read it for her OBI study on Mark, and I think she was right (not to mention considerably more succinct than me).

A box of chocloates

The “Eden” selection from Thorntons the posh (but not too posh) chocolatier. There is a gold fig leaf. There is artwork (is it cartoonish or is it imitating medieval illustration?) depicting Adam and Eve and a serpent in an arboreal environment. The box is a cube, substantial and black, cradled in some luxuriously soft and eye-achingly pink material with (of all things) bells on. I was half-expecting knobs, to be quite honest.

As such, it is hardly the worst appropriation of Christian symbolism by the advertising or marketing professions – either in the sense of the most offensive, or even the most confused. However, it is substantially coloured by both faults, and serves as paradigmatic for the parasitic relationship in which twenty-first century consumerism’s ‘creative’ arm stands with respect to everything else in the discourse(s) of our society, old and new.

In this rant I am very far from suggesting that ‘originality’ is what advertisers should be aiming for (as if, in its purest sense, such a thing were possible) or that they ought to steer clear of material drawn from cherished religious traditions. Rather, I am suggesting that that the packaging of this box of chocolates represents a particularly shallow and tasteless take on the early chapters of Genesis. It should be noted right from the start that this is not the same species as the crucified Santa that adorned a Japanese shopping centre this Christmas. That was an essentially meaningless, and even slightly amusing in a sad sort of a way, confusion, easily explicable on the grounds of ignorance. What it might say about the poverty of research and historical knowledge among Japanese advertising executives, or possibly on the audacity of someone trying to exploit a putative insularity with respect to that island, is of course nothing compared to what it says about the mess of Western (presumably North American) culture – that bits of it would be susceptible to such a robbery and recombination for commercial purposes! The mind truly boggles. But here it would be hard to imagine that ignorance could be a defence for whoever designed this product: these chocolates and all that comes with them are far too arch for that…

We’ve already seen most of what the packaging is: let’s now examine what it relies on. It relies on a connection between chocolate and sex (pop science preaches similar results in the brain). It relies on black and pink being the cultural colours of forbidden sexual fun. It relies on the idea that something that is bad is actually good – that transgression is to be pursued, especially for the sake of physical pleasure. It relies on the notion that pleasure is foreign to the Christian faith. Most troublingly, it relies on the idea that in the Garden of Eden it was sex that was prohibited. Of course its imaginary narratives can’t be sustained. On the one hand liberation from that prohibition is a good thing – after all, we can get these chocolates now, which are basically like sex. On the other hand, since the product is called Eden and all the artwork depicts Eden, were chocolates and sex freely available there? If so, what has happened to their putative prohibition? If no prohibition, then no need for all the thoughts of transgression and secret pleasure, which bring the allure to the product. But if prohibition after all, then since expulsion from the garden followed the transgression and we could no longer run around naked eating chocolates with whoever we pleased, Eden was hardly a great place to be. So, simultaneously, it seems to rely on the idea that being in Eden was great and that it wasn’t. Or maybe we are being asked just to look at Eden (nudity is always fun, eh) as a stage in our development to true chocolate freedom and maturity. It’s self-conscious and smug while being crass and confused: a most embarrassing combination, if only those who created it had the wit or the shame to be embarrassed. And it all rests on perpetuating a hackneyed and warped version of the Christian faith, of the original relationship between humans and God, of the proper and actual joy of physical createdness and sex, of what sin really is, and much more…

Here endeth the rant.

[Most of that post was written years ago when I was a grumpy old man. It has languished in a Word document. I notice that the chocolate range is still available, looking less tasteless on the Web, to be fair, but clearly muddled in the marketing. "Divinely sinful" and "paradise in a box"... even the miniscule quotes on the webpage reflect the theological confusion. Ho hum.]

King of Hearts

Only last week I was on this web-page, accompanying Jane in a very exhilarating recital. Rarely have I been so exhausted at the end of a concert (and rarely have there been so few empty chairs!). The King of Hearts in Norwich is a truly inspiring place. I hope to return...

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Sonata in D major, Op.12, No.1

Allegro con brio
Tema con variazione (Andante con moto)
Rondo (Allegro)

Beethoven’s first three violin sonatas were dedicated to his teacher, Salieri (an Italian composer who didn’t poison Mozart). They display clear adherence to classical forms and were designated sonatas ‘for piano and violin’, with the emphasis definitely on the piano. In these early works Beethoven was writing music for the concert platform and music to pay the bills, not music driven by a need to express deep inner passions. The first movement is robust, driving forwards, and Beethoven achieves remarkable lyricism and tenderness with what is essentially a collection of arpeggios oiled with a few scales. The four variations of the second movement are exceedingly inventive, beginning gracefully in an almost Mozartian vein, passing through brutality (the third) and ending in simplicity. The finale is cheeky, almost folksy. Its sudden accents and surprising changes of key give hints of what Beethoven was later to achieve, and the dialogue between the two instruments is more effective here than at the start of the work.

Ernest Bloch (1880-1959)
Abodah (God’s Worship)

The programme continues, rather more earnestly, with a move to America in 1929. Bloch had left Switzerland and his father’s clock business ten years previously. He had established himself as a self-consciously “Jewish” composer, winning prestigious prizes as he also worked as a violin teacher and conductor. He is generally known for his serious, almost tortured style, but was capable of turning out lighter music. In 1924 he penned this salon-like Mélodie. It is in a simple enough A-B-A form, almost naïve in places, but the adventurous harmonies stray far from its home key of D major. More typical is Abodah, ‘a Yom Kippur melody’ (i.e. written to mark the Day of Atonement) which was a present for the young Yehudi Menuhin. It opens and closes with Bloch’s characteristic double-dotted rhythms, and makes full use of the violin’s dark sonorities. The form is rhapsodic, building to several climaxes, the violin always slipping from duple to triple rhythms, perhaps an echo of the human voice calling out in prayer.

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)
Sonata in F major, Op.8

Allegro con brio
Allegretto quasi Andantino – più vivo – Tempo I
Allegro molto vivace

After two surprising (random?) chords, Grieg launches into his spirited Allegro. As a very young composer he was perhaps too scrupulous in his observance of classical forms, but he makes up for it by the genius of his melodies and his risky (for 1865!) harmonies. The second movement combines a reflective minor-key Minuet with a jolly Trio inspired by the Norwegian hardanger fiddle, a folk instrument he was to imitate in several of his late piano works. The themes of both parts of the movement are built from the famous Grieg-motif (most prominent in the opening of the ubiquitous Piano Concerto) – the notes A, G(#) and E. The finale is a good-natured romp in sonata form, as full of chromaticism as the rest of the work and, if anything, even more playful and triumphant

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Half cocked

OK, so there aren't 400, as any arithmetician will tell you. That stat jumped off the eblogger dashboard as I logged in the other day, but I neglected to observe that it included draft posts. (Now, really, anyone reading this blog should ask the question "Why does something as haphazard as this blog have draft posts!?" Well, anyway, I do.)

So, I stuck some of them up - retaining their historic intended location, which renders them unfindable without the assistance of this little index...

Something worth doing
Privacy and naturalism again PS
What is Turkishness?

Four centuries!

This is post 400. And the first past the post of 2009.

A lot of fun, satisfying, tiring and even wearing stuff has been happening over the Christmas and New Year period. Some of it may even make its way onto the blog.

For now, here's a sad story of the vanishing bookshop chain (SPCK). Not connected with the credit crunch and the collapse in retail sales around the UK, but the result of some very murky dealings by some Orthodox businessmen. Speaking from a conservative evangelical perspective, I never found all that much of interest in SPCK (but, then, the faith-lite of what's in Wesley Owen these days is hardly better, alas), but I still lament their demise, especially if they have been beaten, stripped and robbed. I heard the story first from my brother's brother-in-law (yes, that's my claim to fame).