Sunday, March 30, 2014

Noah Review

After going to see “Noah” on Friday a few friends asked me to write a review. Here goes. My opinion: I thoroughly enjoyed Noah as a movie, an adaptation of a biblical story, and for drawing attention to a largely forgotten but important tradition—the Watchers!

I. As a Movie

I thought Noah, directed by Darren Aronofsky, was an entertaining and, in some ways, profound movie. The acting and writing was well done and I was particularly impressed with Russell Crowe’s portrayal of Noah as a conflicted man. Too often Christians tend to think of biblical characters, especially the good ones, as righteous robots. They have no inner-conflict, no choice, and, as a result, no humanity. Crowe showed us a Noah at the brink of insanity because of his calling. In addition to Crowe’s Noah, the movie explored profound existential questions about justice and humanity’s relationship with the rest of the world. I was intellectually challenged and engrossed in the movie that somehow managed to avoid being predictable. 

At the same time, there were parts of the movie that I didn’t enjoy. I thought it was a bit long, dragging out scenes without much effect. There were occasional montages of nature footage which I thought were over the top. (Confession: I hated Aronofsky’s “The Fountain”). I thought the environmental justice message was inconsistent with Noah’s unflinching and merciless killing. Still, I was challenged to see a well-known story in a new way and think about its implications for the contemporary world.

II. As an Adaptation

As an adaptation of a biblical story I thought Noah was fantastic. Sure, there were parts of the story that were not exactly as portrayed in the text of Genesis 6–9, but Aronofsky managed to stay remarkably close to the text and write a fascinating story addressing contemporary issues. Good preaching does much the same thing, fills in narrative gaps to re-tell an old story in a new way. Agree with it or not, I think the movie is an interesting adaptation that deserves attention.

III. Watchers

What about the “Watchers”? 

Did this Hollywood director simply add angels-turned-rock-people to make Christians angry and blow some of his budget? The short answer is no.

The flood narrative in Genesis begins with an odd account of the “Sons of God” taking “daughters of men” as their wives and producing giant offspring (Genesis 6:1–4). Most contemporary preachers avoid this weird story so many people have never heard it. But, this story was the most important resource in the Hebrew Bible for Jews and Christians from about 300 BCE to 200 CE to talk about the origin of evil.

To summarize a fascinating and complicated narrative, the story of Genesis 6:1–4 was interpreted in the Book of Watchers to tell the story of fallen angels called “Watchers.” In this story, angels see human women and want to have sex with them and produce offspring. These 200 angels make a pact, leave heaven and find earth girls are easy. The result of their transgression is the introduction of magic, sorcery, metallurgy and cosmetics, all technologies that led to the deterioration and destruction of humanity. In addition to these destructive arts, the Watchers have giant offspring that devour humanity and perpetuate more and more violence on the earth. Eventually, these creatures become demons.

This story gets reworked in different ways in Jewish and Christian literature, but the basic outline of the Book of Watchers story is fairly consistent. In fact, the Watchers story is explicitly mentioned in 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6. It also appears in post-New Testament Christian writings as an important resource for explaining the origin of evil. Justin Martyr is a particularly clear example:

God, when He had made the whole world, [. . .] committed the care of men and of all things under heaven to angels whom He appointed over them. But the angels transgressed this appointment, and were captivated by love of women, and begat children who are those that are called demons; and besides, they afterwards subdued the human race to themselves, partly by magical writings, and partly by fears and the punishments they occasioned, and partly by teaching them to offer sacrifices, and incense, and libations, of which things they stood in need after they were enslaved by lustful passions; and among men they sowed murders, wars, adulteries, intemperate deeds, and all wickedness. (Apology 2:5, cited from ANF 1.190).

Aronofsky draws from an ancient interpretive tradition that developed around the story of Genesis 6:1–4 to tell his story about angels getting redeemed. The movie version of the story is substantially different from the ancient one because in the ancient retelling the Watchers are far more problematic and mate with human women. SPOILER ALERT: The rock-people Watchers of Aronofsky’s movie are basically good angels trying to help humanity and end up returning to heaven. Also, they are not getting physical with the ladies. Interestingly enough, then, the most substantial deviation that Aronofsky makes from the tradition is in regard to the Watchers, but not because they appear in the story but because of what they do in his version. Had we gotten a more “accurate” version this movie probably would not have been PG-13. 

In full disclosure, I was disappointed with the portrayal of the Watchers, who do not get redeemed in any traditional retelling of the story and are held as significantly responsible for the evil that plagues humanity. Also, the rock-people Watchers seemed goofy to me, just sayin.


This is a good movie. I don’t think it was a great movie, but certainly worth watching. I thought it was a laudable adaptation, faithful to the original story and an imaginative retelling. Best of all, Aronofsky’s Noah can help us recover a largely forgotten tradition.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Deutsch für Neutestamentlers

As a developing scholar who is keenly interested in the Apostle Paul I am devoted to developing my German competency. I've used three different reference grammars/reading guides and I'm currently working my way through Rosetta Stone. Also, I'll probably take a readings course before I finish my PhD. For those interested, let me draw your attention to a new online resource.

There are a few good websites out there for those interested in learning to read German for advanced biblical/theological studies, but the newest addition, which is a gift to budding New Testament scholars merits your attention. Wayne Coppins, Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Georgia has started a blog devoted to German for New Testament scholars. The site looks great and will no doubt be a helpful and unique tool for those interested in learning the language for research purposes. Coppins is a seasoned translator who, as some of you might already know, recently translated Jens Schröter's Von Jesus zum Neuen Testament for the Baylor-Mohr Siebeck Studies in Early Christianity series. Anyone interested in learning to read German should frequent Coppin's blog.

You're welcome blogosphere.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Did Paul invent Christian Theology?

In some down-time from PhD coursework I am reading N. T. Wright's long awaited Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG). I came across this striking claim,

One of the extraordinary achievements of Paul was to turn 'theology' into a different kind of thing from what it had been before in the world either of the Jews or of the pagans. One of the central arguments of the present book is that this was the direct result of a corollary of what had happened to Paul's worldview. Paul effectively invented 'Christian Theology' to meet a previously unknown need, to do a job which had not, until then, been necessary. (p 26, italics original)

This statement is in the larger context of Wright's argument that the study of Paul, or any ancient person, must be holistic. That is, one cannot simply explain Paul’s “theology” as a systematic collection of ideas as though Paul were simply a brain walking around on two legs (p. 28). This is a throwback to his argument in The New Testament and the People of God Part II (especially chapters 2–4) and makes an important point. When Wright speaks of “worldview” he clarifies that he wants to include social scientific studies while avoiding reducing Paul to a mere product of his culture, social imaginary, etc. In this way he posits a threefold hermeneutical spiral for Paul that includes worldview, theology and history (p. 23–24). Each is element is necessary for a “thick description” of Paul and no element can be avoided without reductionism.

In PFG, however, Wright goes further to make a specific claim about Paul’s role in creating Christian theology. It’s not entirely clear to me what exactly Wright means by “Christian theology” here, and his explanation of this claim is terse. However, I think that as Wright sees it, when Paul was confronted with fundamental “why” questions,“he had to speak of one particular God, and of the world, in a way nobody had before” (p. 27). Wright sees Paul doing something radically new with theology both in its content and its function within his larger worldview.

As Wright sees it, Paul’s theology is part of a new worldview, a revision of Jewish theology so radical in content that it came to a serve a new function in his worldview. Using the example of Philemon, Wright describes Paul’s unique worldview as it relates to “reconciliation”,

There is no sign that he is appealing to, or making use of, the symbols and praxis of his Jewish native world. Nor is he appealing to an implied world of social convention [. . .]. Nor is he drawing on any previously elaborated philosophical [. . . ] schemes of thought. He has stepped out of the Jewish boat, but not onto any hidden stepping-stones offered from within the non-Jewish world. He appears to be walking on the water of a whole new worldview. (p. 30)
Based on what Wright does here, it appears to me that Wright is saying Paul's invention of Christian Theology is a result of new theological content about God based on his experience of the risen Christ which raises theology to a new more central activity for those who claim to follow the risen Christ.

What do you think? Did Paul "invent" Christian theology? And if so, in what sense?

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Advent Exhortation

The words from the second century Christian Apocalypse Shepherd of Hermas seemed particularly appropriate for the first day of Advent:

Do not partake of God’s creation in abundance by yourselves, but also share with those in need. For by overeating some people bring on themselves fleshy weaknesses and injure their flesh, while the flesh of those who do not have anything to eat is injured because they do not have enough food, and their bodies are wasting away. [. . .] Look to the coming judgment. You, therefore, who have more than enough, seek out those who are hungry. (17.2-5)

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Blow Up in Baltimore (Part 2 – The Sparks)

Having given a summary of the papers delivered during the Social Memory session in the Historical Jesus section at SBL, I know want to highlight why it was a “blow up” and offer my interpretation of the ensuing audience interaction. After a round of strong papers, each presenter was given the opportunity to respond in the same order as originally delivered.

Chris Keith primarily answered Paul Foster in his rejoinder. The reason for Keith’s response was that Foster gave what I think was an awfully uncharitable dismissal of Keith on account of a blog response to an article Foster wrote arguing that memory studies are a “dead end” for historical Jesus research (Keith’s blog post is available here). Foster made it sound as though Keith’s well-founded criticisms were childish and petty. Keith protested the fact that Foster’s article argues against memory studies as employed by Richard Bauckham, but ignore his own more nuanced approach, as well as that of Anthony Le Donne and Rafael Rodríguez. In his SBL paper Foster essentially described Keith as whining that his work was not paid sufficient attention when Keith et al did not merit attention because according to Foster, their work is not really historical Jesus research.

I thought Keith’s response was incredibly gracious, saying that while he also has qualms with Bauckham’s use of memory theory he maintains that his work is historical Jesus research. There was a palpable sense of “Oh no he didn’t” in the audience when Foster jibed Keith, but I thought Keith’s response was irenic. In general, I thought Foster failed to engage in the argument made by Keith, Le Donne and Rodríguez and Allison, among others. It seems to me that Foster wants to continue to operate historical Jesus studies by the criteria approach. It made me wonder if he has read Jesus, Criteria and the Demise ofAuthenticity. If he has, what would he say in response? Is there a review in order?

I don’t remember Crook’s response particularly well (!), but it was clear that he did not think he was correctly understood. In fact, I vividly recall one point during the Q & A, when Crook slammed his hands on the table, jumped up and exasperatedly exclaimed, “If that’s what you think I’m saying, then I’m not being heard!” In a comment he made in the previous post, it became clearer to me what he was saying. He sees the work of Keith, Le Donne and others (in Jesus, Criteria and the Demise of Authenticity) as definitive for making the Quest for the historical Jesus impossible. He believes, however, that it is still possible to study the way Jesus was remembered. He is simply convinced that there can be no confidence in memories about Jesus as more authentic/historical than others.

Crook’s argument did not convince me because it seemed that he was drawing on a different kind of research and that his epistemological assumptions were too strict to make any historical claims. I was a bit surprised to see Crook drawing primarily from an essay by Baumeister and Hastings published in 1997. Perhaps the article is seminal, but it would seem that research in collective memory has become more nuanced in the last fifteen years. Also, Crook often referred to memory studies that occur in laboratories, but it would seem that these individual studies in memory would have limited value for collective memory theory. One example that interested me was Crook’s recognition that while there are numerous stories circulating about Ned Ludd, he never existed. But, how can such a historical judgment be made? Just because false memories circulate and can be planted in individuals does not mean that we cannot come to some fairly conclusive historical judgments. Surely Crook is correct to see that memory theory ought to temper and nuance the way historical judgments are made, but does that mean they cannot be made at all?

Perhaps I’m not giving Crook his due. I wanted to ask more questions, but the audience was jumping to ask questions and I didn't get a chance. Unfortunately, some of the comments occasionally deteriorated into lengthy pontifications from the audience, but I think that speaks to how strong the reactions to the session were. I cannot emphasize enough how fantastic session this was. If you're interested in more, check out Chris Keith's reflections and the ensuing debate in the comments over at Jesus Blog.