New Criticism

Jonathan Robinson has some as yet unbaked1 thoughts on the hidden presence of children in gospel narratives.

As someone who still remembers being a child (it always surprises me how many people seem to turn off those memories, or at least fail to use them to generate empathy) I like the way he’s thinking. It seems to me he opens up a whole new discipline of biblical criticism. We’ve had Feminist, Womanist, Black, African, Asian… Criticism, how about some serious Child Criticism?

Now, it may be that someone has already published on this, if they have please give me details!

  1. He calls them half-baked, but I think that’s unduly rude []

Psalm for a new year

Psalm 90 makes a fine reading for a new year. Through the psalm, time (and especially the haunting disparity between short brutish human time and the timeless divine reality) is a strong theme. The psalm is peppered with time words:

  • dor generation in v.1 (x2)
  • b’terem before in v.2
  • shanah year in vv.4, 5, 9, 10 (x3), 15
  • yom day in vv.4, 9, 10, 12, 14, 15
  • ashmorah night watch in v.4
  • boqer morning in v.5, 6, 14
  • ereb evening in v.6
  • chish quickly in v.10

The psalm opens in the distant past with a heading associating it with Moses the great leader from Israel’s pre-monarchic origins.1

The rest of the first verse forefronts the two key ideas of the psalm, time and our relationship with God. The wording of the opening stresses the persons involved. Very literally it would read: “Lord, a dwelling, you, you have been for us from generation to generation.

This attention to time carries on through the psalm, and is straightaway extended in the next verse from a human timescale from “generation to generation” to extend from before the birth of the world into the “age”2  to come:

Before the mountains were born
or ever you had given birth to the earth and the world,
from age to age you are God.

From verse 3 to 11 the focus on time stresses time and again that the human and the divine timescales are incommensurable, and that humans suffer the divine wrath. This is not a psalm for the faint hearted, or for people living the comfortable smooth lives our TVs and magazines tell us should be ours. This psalm is not compatible with the Western dream.

But it “works” in a world full of natural disaster: earthquakes (still going on in Christchurch after over a year), floods (and even the minor ones in the Bay of Plenty yesterday cause pain and disruption), and all of man’s inhumanity to man (although 2011 was a year with more glimpses of hope for Burma that anyone expected as 2012 begins the Army is still attacking ethnic villages and destroying their crops, the political prisoners kept in inhuman conditions in the jails can still be counted as over a thousand).

Ps 90:10 is often quoted in something approximating to the fairly literal KJV: “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years” this with its mention of strength suggests (or in the last few generations reminds us) that we might even live longer. However, in the psalm the effect is quite different, to quote the whole verse:

The days of our years are threescore years and ten;
and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years,
yet is their strength labour and sorrow;
for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

The whole point of the verse is that even if our life is long it is marked (sooner or later) by toil and trouble, and in any case (by any measure but our own pitifully brief one) are so short. Anyone who has reached “a certain age”3 will recognise how the years begin to fly away faster and faster.

So far, if I have presented it as I think it should be read, Psalm 90 is as far from contemporary cheery upbeat “worship songs” as it is possible to be ;)

Yet, it was my grandmother’s favourite psalm. Perhaps because the hymn based on it “Our God, our help in ages past…” used to be sung every “Remembrance Sunday”, and she had cause to remember. Her groom, my father’s father, was killed in the first world war leaving his new wife and toddler. Psalm 90 is a good new year reading in such circumstances. For as well as human mortality it reminds us of the divine author and finisher of our lives. “…our hope for years to come!

There are two more reasons why this psalm is a favourite of mine. It is one of the few passages in Scripture to deal seriously and in any depth with human aging. And it contains one of the Bible’s few descriptions of creation as birthing:

Before the mountains were born
or ever you had given birth to the earth and the world,
from age to age you are God. (Ps 90:2)

As a result it gets a brief appearance in my new book Not Only a Father,4 and will deserve much fuller treatment in the one on human aging, if I ever write it ;)

  1. Although there is considerable evidence that the headings may have been added to psalms after they were first written and used, there is no textual evidence for them being absent from the psalms that have them in most modern translations. Rather the reverse the early Greek  translation and the Qumran psalms scrolls seem to have more of these headings, suggesting that they were later additions. []
  2. Whatever exactly ‘olam means. []
  3. 50, 40, 30…? []
  4. I will add a link to the print version soon, for now the text is already available online in discussable format. []

Twilight world

THE TWILIGHT ZONE "The Bridge to Nowhere" by Thad Roan - Bridgepix

Around now I’d be retired, according to our schedule. Actually I’ll be working at Carey for another six months, but we’ve just taken a big step on the journey.

On Friday morning as Barbara, Thomas and I began the final clean-up inside, workmen hammered the “For Sale” notice into the grass verge and our house in Auckland went on the market. On Saturday afternoon, as Barbara and I drove exhausted back to “the farm”, they held the first open home. That evening someone made the first offer, after a couple of phone calls they offered 20k over the CV and we accepted. (Subject to lawyers and a building inspection before Friday.)

We’re surprised and delighted, and I’ve taken a big step closer to retirement. So, this morning I woke thinking about “retirement”. Ceasing full-time employment marks the beginning of what, accurately if somewhat negatively, people used to call one’s “declining years”. This period is a time of life dedicated to (hopefully slowly) running down like a clockwork toy that no one winds any more. This is a period when, barring major illness or disasters, ones capacities and world gradually shrink. In traditional societies, as ones ability to act in and on the world around shrank, ones respect grew. Not so in the “modern world”. Here “old folk” just fade away.

So, how could anyone welcome retirement (the gateway to this twilight zone) and even deliberately choose to begin it early?

As in so many other things, I think of Grandad and Granny. Mum’s dad had planned and saved for retirement all his working life, took it early and enjoyed the “fruits of his labour”. He wasn’t well off, they’d been frugal all their lives and that couldn’t suddenly change.1 But he entered retirement planning to enjoy himself. Projects like making a dining chair set, and building a garage, as well as his garden and show rabbits kept him out of mischief.2 He enjoyed his grandchildren, savoured watching his children now safely grown into people he could like and even respect.

That’s what I want, come June. Oh, not the rabbits,3 and not the building and carpentry (much, though we do have some fences and a piggery planned) but the enjoying life. And like Grandad I don’t plan that my world should shrink too fast, so I do hope that nexct year will see real progress with the development of open resources for biblical studies.

  1. Carpenters in those days were not highly paid. []
  2. Yes, in the UK in the fifties rabbits were scarce enough that people held Rabbit Shows and won rosettes for the best in breed. Grandad and Granny were practical people, so they also bred rabbits for meat ;) []
  3. In NZ they are a pest. We’re hoping a friend will come to stay and bring a gun to shoot the ones our place seems to attract. []

Technology and generations or Sex between consenting adults

I do hope you guys are not in the same house! (Photo by Ed Yourdon)

I’m puzzled by what seems a widespread and regular pattern in our response to technology, and even more puzzled because it seems to fit the neat generation XYZ schema (which I’ve always needed more than a little pinch of added salt to swallow).The phenomenon is this:

  1. A nearly elderly (i.e. 50s-60s that is the age when you deny you are elderly, but are quite likely to be a grandparent, or if not are older than many friends who are grandparents already) couple communicate via Facebook perhaps by both commenting on a third person’s wall…
  2. A nearly middle-aged person (i.e. someone who is less fit and capable than they once were, but who has not yet admitted that they are past their absolute prime, i.e. in their late 20s-30s, they are likely to be a parent, or if not etc…) comments “I do hope you guys are not in the same place!” or some similar eruption of shock and horror at the prospect of communication between a married couple in the same house which is electronically mediated.

What’s going on? Haven’t these Gen XYZers not heard of electronic communications? Do they think that there is something less than useful in such media? Or is their shock somehow like that of a younger generation discovering that their parents actually have sex (or even once used to)?

Can someone explain this phenomenon to me? Or point me to a sensible discussion of this? I am really puzzled, what is wrong with “talking” to someone via a bunch of tame electrons if they happen to be in the same geographical location?

 

Does Jesus make me whole?

Alois Alzheimer's patient Auguste Deter in 1902. Hers was the first described case of what became known as Alzheimer's disease. (Wikipedia)

One of my long-term projects that I have hardly begun to work on (OK dreams rather than “projects”) is to address the theology of aging. As far as I can see no work has been done on the part the process of aging and decay plays in the divine economy. Having long sat at the back of my consciousness I’ve recently begun to think I might actually get to work on this next year.

So it was with great interest that I read ‘s excellent post: I’m Sorry but Jesus Does Not Make Anybody Whole, in which he points out that perhaps through popular worship songs and hymns (because “whole” rhymes with “soul”?) the claim  that Jesus makes us whole has entered our theological vocabulary.1 It is simply not true, as Joseph Black says, indeed the opposite is true, God makes us unwhole, we decay. The longer we live (on average) the worse we decay, body first and then the mind. At least in this life Jesus does not make us whole, life is not about becoming whole, but perhaps (as he says in the post2 ) it is about learning to love despite our brokenness.

  1. He may be correct in his implied claim that this is just an Evangelical and Pentecostal heresy, but I have not the evidence to evaluate the claim. []
  2. Do read it, even if you don’t subscribe to the excellent blog. []