31 December 2008

Return of the Ktismatically Repressed

Filed under: Culture, Genesis 1, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 5:16 pm

I originally started writing this blog with the intention of promoting a book I’d just written about the Genesis 1 creation narrative. Subsequently I’ve come to realize that, while the central exegetical premise remains strong, the book itself is kind of lame. But I can do better, and now I’m ready to get on with it. Here’s a tentative outline for the rewritten nonfiction, working title 7 Creations Redux.

* * *

The book would begin by putting forward two basic and seemingly incompatible commitments. One, evolutionary and cosmological theories are right: the gods had absolutely nothing to do with creating the material universe. Two, the Genesis 1 creation narrative is literally true. This sets the stage for the paradoxical reading of Genesis 1; namely, that it’s the story of two guys having a week-long conversation about the universe. What gets created isn’t the material stuff of the universe but the conceptual-linguistic structure by which the idea of a universe came into being. It’s the archetypal story of that first singularity when prehumanity became fully human.

By looking closely at this reading of the ancient text the reader witnesses a sevenfold creation.

  1. The creation of science: the first attempt to match observation with thought.
  2. The creation of hermeneutics: the first attempt to understand one another through language.
  3. The creation of creation: the recognition that, even in a pre-existing universe, it’s possible consciously to create something unprecedented.
  4. The creation of history: the first time something recognizably new happens in human experience.
  5. The creation of culture: the beginning of a cumulative and communicable result of human invention.
  6. The creation of man: the emergence of that which most distinguishes humanity from the other animals.
  7. The creation of god: man’s amazement in witnessing his own seeming transcendence of nature.

This “original” version of the creation story preserves the words of the Biblical text as written. It also is surely a true story. At some point prehistory turned to history: early humans developed language; they began to arrive at an understanding of the world they live in; they started progressively reshaping the world; they arrived at self-awareness. Even if we don’t remember the details, each of us has personally lived through this true story of achieving sentience.

With the creation of god the original narrative undergoes a mystifying transformation. The basic story remains recognizable, but the meaning of the story is completely inverted:

  1. Creating the idea and structural concept of a thing gets conflated with creating the thing itself. This mystification leads to the reification of the social order.
  2. The mutual give-and-take of conversation gets replaced with revelation and reception, making belief more important than understanding and agreement.
  3. Instead of marking the beginning of human history, the sixth day marks the beginning of the end, when man starts falling away from God’s created order.
  4. God is the only creator, with man demoted to the position of maintenance engineer.
  5. Instead of arising as a cumulative “second nature” built on and complementing the first, human culture is regarded as the degenerate product of human arrogance.
  6. Man, rather than ratcheting himself up on these earliest experiences of invention and self-awareness, immediately descends into decadence.
  7. God, instead of being indistinguishable from man, becomes wholly other and above.

Despite updated theologizing, or perhaps because of it, the contemporary Christian church maintains its commitment the creator-god of its scriptures and traditions.

  • By adopting the postmodern rejection of the scientific “metanarrative,” the church is able to discount the massive empirical support for a creatorless cosmogeny.
  • By adopting a postmodern reader-centered hermeneutic, the church is able to discount the factuality of the Genesis 1 narrative while upholding its “truth.”
  • By upholding a postmodern skepticism regarding progress, the church is able to discount human cultural advances.

Even in limiting God’s role to that of designer, first cause, or immanent force of creativity driving the evolutionary process, the church retains its belief in God as ultimate creator of the universe, with humanity still relegated to an infinitely lower status in the cosmic hierarchy. Suppose this belief in a creator were completely excised from the Bible: what would a creatorless Judeo-Christianity look like?

  • By abandoning the idea of the Creator’s ultimate power over the world, the theological justification for holy warfare is nullified.
  • By abandoning the idea of a created natural order, moral rationales justifying institutionalized homophobia and misogyny are nullified.
  • By abandoning the idea of humanity’s fall from an original created purity, the notion that human culture is intrinsically corrupt is set aside. In addition, there remains no justification for perpetuating the belief that Christians are magically restored to the original pure human state, which supposedly bestows on Christians an ontologically superior essence relative to non-Christians. This sense of superiority has been used to discount the significance of violence and persecution perpetrated by Christians on non-Christians.
  • That God is creator is seen by New Testament writers as the reason why God can restore humans to life after death. Without a creator the notion of the immortal soul would be jeopardized.
  • Similarly, abandoning the idea that the creator can decide to destroy his creation and start over would presumably reduce Christians’ belief in unlimited abundance of natural resources and their tacit zeal for bringing on the apocalypse.

The proposed book concludes with an exercise in speculative theology. Would Christianity survive if it lost the creator? Would people continue to worship the Christian God, seek his counsel, pray to him, etc. if he no longer claimed to control the universe? Is it possible to reconfigure the basic job description for the Christian God if his creatorly credentials and functions are eliminated? Would God have to be radically redesigned? Or does the whole point of God slide down the slippery slope into irrelevance? Does the Apostle Paul’s concept of a “new creation” render the old creational underpinnings of the religion obsolete?

* * *

One good thing about this proposed book is that I’ve already done the background work on almost all of it. Portions of the old book I can cut-and-paste into the new one. I’ve also written a number of blog posts that could be adapted for the book. But perhaps the main thing I like about 7 Creations Redux is that it’s more irreverent and less conciliatory to the Christian tradition than was the old book. Plus the speculative theology bits should be fun to play around with.

I’d given considerable thought to rolling this whole idea into a novel. I do think there are interesting fictional implications to be exploited. But separating out the detailed exegetical and theoretical components and gathering them inside a tightly constructed speculative nonfiction gives me greater freedom to loosen up the fiction-writing.

30 December 2008

The New Creation in Paul: Summary Observations

Filed under: Christianity, Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 3:16 pm

Based on the Pauline passages describing the “new creation” and “new man” on which I’ve posted here, here, here, here, and here, I draw three general inferences. First, the new creation constitutes a radical departure from what preceded it. The death and resurrection of Jesus is the event that marks the end of the old and the beginning of the new. Second, perhaps the most important hallmark of the new creation is that the traditional distinctions between groups of people no longer hold. Jew or Gentile, circumcision or uncircumcision, male and female, freeman or slave – the “Christ event” has rendered these differences irrelevant. By implication, the Old Testament’s structural division of humanity into microcosm (Israel) and macrocosm (everyone else) is an old-creation concept that died on the cross. Third, for Paul the old and new creations overlap not just in space and time but in the lives of individuals. The historical Christ event is binary: his death brought an end to the old creation, while his resurrection ushered in the new. But the individual’s subjective participation in the Christ event is always a matter of here and now, of continually and simultaneously dying to the old man and being renewed in the new man.

It must be acknowledged, however, that the breadth of Paul’s thought isn’t fully encapsulated in these five crucial but brief passages. It’s clear elsewhere that Paul does distinguish between believers and unbelievers. While believers may experience a chronic internal split between the old man and the new man, unbelievers presumably define themselves solely in terms of the old man. So, while Paul insists that the wall separating Jew from Gentile has been demolished in the cross, he seems to lay the groundwork for building a new division between Christian and non-Christian. Though the post-crucifixion entrance requirements may have changed, the practical upshot may be the same: a chosen microcosm arises from within a failed and dying macrocosm.

The most important question concerns the nature of the barrier separating inside from outside.

  1. Following the Jewish precedent, is the division between Christianity and non-Christianity a structural one, marked by distinctly Christian confessions, worship rituals, creeds, moral codes, fellowship with one another, dedicated physical spaces, and so on?
  2. Is the distinctive mark of the Christian primarily a matter of an ongoing subjective experience of dying to the old man and being renewed in the new man?
  3. Do Christians distinguish themselves by their working together in filial love and resurrection hope to manifest collectively the new creation throughout the world?

If I were to choose based on the Pauline new creation texts, I’d say that the second and third options more closely correspond to Paul’s expressed thoughts on the matter.

Relegating most of the human race to the status of a failed experiment, subject to termination at a moment’s notice by the Experimenter, might be okay if you happen to be one His laboratory assistants, but for us rats running through the maze the whole concept smacks of fascism. Having read, thought about, and discussed Paul’s descriptions of the new creation, I think it’s not only possible but scriptural for Christians to disavow this sort of antagonistic us-versus-them mentality as a relic of the old-creation thinking that Jesus’s death and resurrection rendered obsolete. I came not to judge the world but to save it, Jesus said (John 12:47). It would seem that, for Christ’s fellow-heirs and co-workers and participants in his death and resurrection, saving the world is the work that still needs to be done.

* * *

In reviewing these passages I wanted to determine whether Paul said that the pathway into the new creation passes through Israel, and whether he emphasized the “peculiar people” idea for separating the chosen people collectively and structurally from the macrocosm. I think it’s fair to say that he does not. That Jesus was a Jew isn’t a mere matter of happenstance, inasmuch as he did play a pivotal role in Israel’s national project. However, in the aftermath of his death and resurrection Jesus’ Jewishness is irrelevant: in the new creation there is neither Jew nor Gentile, as Paul is repeatedly at pains to emphasize.

For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law. Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the grounds of their faith and the uncircumcised through faith. (Romans 3:28-30)

So now we have to think about a different way of characterizing the in/out distinction (again, presuming there is one). For Paul the way in passes through the person of Christ, and in particular through his death and resurrection. Jesus experienced these events personally, and it’s through personal identification with these events that the individual enters into the resurrection life of the new creation. The “Christ event” isn’t universal, happening to all nations through a multicultural array of different saviors. Rather, the specific event attains its universality by opening up a personal subjective possibility for everyone, a possibility that’s actualized by faith. One can of course draw the inference that the subjective possibility is nullified by lack of faith, thereby establishing the in/out criteria of traditional evangelicalism. But Paul seems to emphasize the observation that even the people of faith often act in ways that are indistinguishable from those who have no faith. At the same time he emphasizes the idea that Christ died for all, that all might be saved. It seems that Paul wanted to exercise caution in erecting a new set of criteria for separating sheep from goats.

Like many others, I cannot reconcile myself to the “ungenerous” elements in the Old Testament story. Retaining a generally high view of Scripture seems to demand that the reader accept the editorial stance of the Biblical writers when they assert that Israel perpetrated mass genocides and enslavements on God’s explicit order. In the early days of Christianity the Marcionites, appalled by Yahweh’s vengeful bloodthirstiness, concluded that Jesus represented a different God altogether and that his mission was to save the world from Yahweh. (Marcion was condemned as a heretic and excommunicated by the elders in Rome, but his particular Christian variant enjoyed considerable popularity for a couple of centuries at least.) Many evangelicals acknowledge their own revulsion at the Canaanite genocide recorded in Deuteronomy 7 without explicitly endorsing or disavowing it. At minimum I would hope that Christians would reject the genocidal Scriptural passages as tragic misrepresentations of God’s intentions, or perhaps even as an ill-chosen strategy in God’s historic dealings with Israel. At least it should be clear that, following the “Christ event,” this sort of divisive policy has no place in the new creation.

When God encourages Noah and Abraham and Israel to be fruitful and multiply, He’s echoing the blessing He bestowed on the original creation narrative of Genesis 1. Though the words are never explicitly stated in Scripture, I can see how one might regard these blessings as repeated efforts to renew the original creation. However, Paul speaks not of yet another renewal of the old creation but of a new creation. Disjunction rather than continuity characterizes Paul’s language. In this new creation Paul says that there is neither Jew nor Gentile, and that in Christ’s crucifixion he reconciled the two into one new man. (Gal. 6, Eph. 4). Paul speaks not at all here about the work of Christ bringing about another renewal of Israel as a microcosm and another destruction of the surrounding macrocosm. Rather, addressing himself explicitly to the Gentiles, Paul says that Christ destroyed the dividing wall that had previously separated these two mutually antagonistic subdivisions of the old creation (Eph. 4). While Paul elsewhere acknowledges God’s distinct blessings on Israel, I see nothing in these passages to indicate that he regards Israel as retaining a distinctive microcosmic status in the new creation.

In Gal. 3 Paul contends that the whole era of Israel and the Law constituted not a fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham, but rather a temporary measure instituted “because of transgressions.” The Abrahamic promise finds its fulfillment not in the national identity of Israel but in solidarity with the dead and resurrected Christ. It’s a blessing that extends not to just one nation but to all, as envisioned in the original promise. Paul pointedly does not say that the Gentiles have become part of Israel; rather, the two, formerly divided by a wall of enmity, have been merged together into something altogether new. Paul regards those who believe in Christ as a blessing to the whole world. But God’s particular blessing on Israel, setting them apart as “a kingom of priests and a holy nation,” is precisely what Paul sets aside. This sort of spiritual aristocracy is old-creation thinking that’s been nullified in Christ.

It’s impossible to miss the parallels between the Genesis 1 creation narrative and the blessing on Noah. These parallels highlight the continuity between the two events, both of them playing in the same register. From within the corrupted world God chose Noah and his family to embark on a renewal and a purification of the old creation. Periodic renewals and purifications are characteristic of the Old Testament narratives, most of which deal specifically with Israel as the chosen microcosm: their separation from the world as a chosen people; their periodic disobedience, punishment, and repentance as indicators of God’s continual and specific concern for their well-being; and God’s use of the unchosen macrocosm as his usually unwitting agents in dealing specifically with Israel.

This is all old-creation stuff, says Paul; it died on the cross. Paul never uses the biological be-fruitful-and-multiply formula in describing the new creation. That sort of language is inadequate to describe the radical break created in Christ’s death and resurrection. Also, repeating the old-creational tropes would likely trigger old-creation associations especially among his Judaizing readers, and Paul is relentless in insisting that the old paradigm of separation and purification of a chosen race no longer holds.

Paul explicitly addressed his Epistle to the Romans to a Gentile audience. In chapter 9 he shifts his attention to “my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh,” who are Israelites. There’s no way of knowing for sure, but I could imagine that the Gentile believers wondered whether, in light of the “new creation,” God had abandoned Israel. As he did also in the Galatians letter, Paul shifts the temporal context back in time, from Israel to Abraham, emphasizing that

it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants (Romans 9:8)

In other words, the Abrahamic promise isn’t fulfilled through the biological “be fruitful and multiply” apparatus of the old creation — the means by which the nation of Israel attained distinction — but through some other channel altogether. Specifically, the biopolitical collective entity called “Israel” is not that channel, and it never was. Why? Because the channel passes through Christ and is apprehended not by biological inheritance nor by moral superiority but by faith in a resurrected Christ — the same channel by which Paul’s Gentile readers have entered into the new creation.

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him. (Romans 10:12)

Paul begins Romans 11 by distinguishing a chosen and faithful remnant of Israel — a microcosm within the microcosm one might say. But he says this narrowing of Israel is a temporary measure, intended to make possible the expansion of the promise far beyond the geographic and ethnic boundaries of Israel. When Paul speaks metaphorically of the olive tree (11:17ff.), he’s again referring not to Israel according to the flesh but to the descendants of Abraham according to the promise. While some of the “natural branches” — i.e., Israelites according the flesh — have been pruned from the branch, they can be grafted in again through faith.

…a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fulness of the Gentiles have come in; and thus all Israel will be saved. (Rom. 11:25-26)

Is Paul saying that “all Israel” is a newly-pruned olive tree of the spirit, consisting of a faithful remnant selected from among Jews and Gentiles alike? Or is he saying that all Israel according to the flesh will eventually be reconciled and regrafted into the spiritual descendants of Abraham, along with the “fullness” of the Gentile descendants? It’s hard for me to say, but Paul wraps up his excursus on Israel, embedded within this longer letter to the Gentile believers in Rome, with this:

For just as you [i.e., Gentiles] once were disobedient to God but now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience, so these [i.e., Jews] also now have been disobedient in order that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy. For God has shut up all in disobedience that he might show mercy to all. (Rom. 11:30-32)

As I read this extended passage, Paul contends that the pruning of the Israelite branch down to a remnant constituted a temporary measure. The pruning was implemented in order to make possible the explosive growth and flowering of the whole tree, Jew and Gentile alike, fulfilling the expansive promise made to Abraham long before Israel had even sprouted. Participating in this promised expansion — call it the “new creation” — is achieved by faith in God’s grace and mercy bestowed despite disobedience, or even because of it, through the death and resurrection of Christ.

To regard Israel as any sort of model for building the new creation in Christ seems fundamentally ill-conceived. A radical spiritual exceptionalism in which God acts with benevolence on behalf of only a small subset of humanity while dismissing the rest as degenerates worthy of enslavement and destruction: I suspect I’m not the only one who regards this sort of thing as barbaric and fascistic. It’s the ideology of separation, elitism and violent suppression of infidels that has fueled so much destruction and insular self-absorption in the name of Christ over the centuries, and that still motivates the American religious right’s “crusades” in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. As a collective force of militant separatism, Christianity presents itself as an imminent threat to outsiders, bent on eventual world domination and the concomitant destruction of its enemies. This radical anti-humanistic aggression might be an inescapable feature of Christianity in all its guises.

* * *

In looking carefully at those five passages I was tentatively exploring the possibility of discovering a more all-embracing version of Christianity in Paul’s writings, one in which grace and resurrection life replace judgment, punishment and insular separatism as the basis for new life in Christ. If those five texts are a valid indication, then Paul regards Christianity as a radical break from the old us-versus-them paradigm. He does not commend anything about Israel — its ethnic purity, its law, its separation from the other nations — as exemplary of the new creation. When he looks for a precedent he hearkens back before Israel to Abraham and the expansive promise God made through him to all nations. He speaks of grace and faith and an explosive opening outward of God’s benevolence.

The reason I react with such vehemence to distinctions between microcosm and macrocosm, between sheep and goats, between regenerate and degenerate, is that on all these divides I occupy the position of the rejected “other.” I would have been one of the Canaanites slaughtered by the Israelites in the name of their God; I am the one whom many evangelicals regard as unregenerate and under condemnation; I am the one who will presumably be swept away in the last judgment so that the regenerate microcosm can fill the whole earth.

Now my condemnation might be justifiable if this particular God really exists: His ways are beyond our ways, the clay can’t question the potter, etc. The radical barrier distinguishing membership in the regenerate microcosm consists in believing that this God does exist, that He is right, and that one should cooperate with Him — even if it means actively helping Him slaughter entire nations or affirming His right to destroy everyone who doesn’t believe in Him. From the non-believer’s standpoint this sort of radically non-humanistic theism is fascistic by definition. And the barrier is a rigid one: join us, believe what we believe, or our Leader will execute you. Of course one can choose to believe in order to save one’s skin, but isn’t there more integrity in upholding one’s beliefs even under threat of death?

So when I read attempts to come to grips with the Canaanite genocide by acknowledging God’s right to do away with whole nations man, woman and child, I regard it as a justifying an all-powerful fascistic regime whose ruler may change tactics but whose strategy (microcosm versus macrocosm) remains constant throughout history. But there are other ways of reading Paul’s new creation texts, even within a Christian exegetical framework — ways that emphasize disjunction from Old Testament fascism rather than continuity, ways that emphasize the expansiveness of the resurrection life rather than its restrictiveness, ways that destroy barriers between in and out rather than erecting them, ways that emphasize grace rather than judgment. It’s in the context of these more gracious readings that I can find at least the possibility of common cause with Christians, in which all of us retain the integrity of our beliefs in the spirit of love. Of course evangelicals aren’t obligated to make the effort; neither am I obligated to search for a version of the Christian faith that I can live with. And there’s no assurance that our efforts will bear fruit that satisfy everyone’s tastes. But I do make that effort, for reasons that aren’t always clear to me — maybe it’s masochism, as some of my non-Christian friends suggest. Sometimes I get tired of it.

* * *

It would be wise for me to stop here, but I’m interested in the practical implications. What happens when Christians explicitly to regard themselves as participants in the new creation as Paul describes it? Not being a professing Christian I’m clearly not the best man for the job, but I’ll have a tentative go at it.

New-creation Christians break down structural differences between groups of people. Wars, racial and ethnic insulation, economic mechanisms maintaining the class divide between rich and poor, legal obstacles to the free movement of workers across national and regional boundaries – these sorts of antagonistic divisions would seem to be appropriate areas for intervention.

New-creation Christians make the boundary more permeable between sacred and secular realms. That some undertaking is a church project should be less important than the nature of the project itself. Just because Israel divided the calendar between the work week and the Sabbath doesn’t mean that the new creation is irrelevant in the workplace and the schools. Instead of buffering themselves inside the microcosm, Christians can leaven the dough of the world with resurrection life.

New-creation Christians acknowledge the dividedness of the Christian self. Death an resurrection are the two moments of the Christ event; both are part of the believer’s participation in that event. The urge to self-gratify and the urge to self-justify, the desire to obey and the desire to violate, the conflict between what we think and what we find ourselves doing, the compulsion to impose barriers between ourselves and others along with obsession to imitate and to compete – the death throes of the old man are continual and perpetual. But there’s also this other self, this new man, that is continually coming alive – what is he like, I wonder? Both are part of the Christ event; both are part of the Christian’s subjective participation in that event.

29 December 2008

Let the Right One In, 2008

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 9:17 am

Something I just realized: in each of the last three movies I’ve watched — Abre los Ojos, The Passenger, and now this one — the central theme is death and resurrection.





28 December 2008

Doppelgänger Theory in Colossians 3 and Romans 6

Filed under: Christianity — ktismatics @ 11:54 am

It’s been said that Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians serves as a template for the letter to the Ephesians. Whether or not that’s the case, the passage on the “new man” in Colossians 3 closely parallels that in Ephesians 4 (the subject of the prior post), with some notable augmentations:

Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory. Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry. For it is because of these things that the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience, and in them you also once walked, when you were living in them. But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old man with its evil practices, and have put on the new man who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him — a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all. So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father. (Col. 3:1-17)

The “therefore” that begins chapter 3 refers back to Paul’s reminder at the end of chapter 2 that following ascetic laws (“Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!”) and other forms of self-abasement have no value in eliminating fleshly indulgence. Stop paying attention to these worldly concerns, Paul tells his readers. Consider yourself dead to immorality and impurity. Instead, :keep seeking the things above,” “set your mind on the things above” (3:1-2).

Is Paul advocating a simplistic psychology here, along the lines of “ignore it and it will go away” combined with the power of positive thinking? Or is he envisioning a magical mystical transformation of the self, whereby the believer is able to draw directly on the power of God to overcome sin? These interpretations can’t be ruled out, but I think Paul’s main point is to emphasize that persistent immorality isn’t all that important in the long run. You are flesh: you will surely die, and when you do these fleshly shortcomings will die along with you. Paul suggests that, instead of obsessing about your continued failures — failures which will go away eventually anyway — pay attention to the things that will last. It’s the resurrection life that matters, a life characterized not by the absence of sin but by the presence of knowledge, compassion, patience, peace, and love. These are “the things above, where Christ is.”

…and have put on the new man who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him (3:10)

As in Ephesians 4, the new man isn’t a static entity but rather a source of continuing vitality. Again the believer is encouraged to “lay aside” the old man and to “put on” the new. Again there’s the idea of the new man being a new creation in which the old-creation distinctions — Greek versus Jew, slave versus freeman — no longer hold.

* * *

The only remaining Biblical passage referring to the “old man,” though without the symmetrical reference to the “new man” we’ve seen in the other instances, appears in Romans:

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. (Rom. 6:1-7)

In this passage the old/new symmetry remains unstated yet implicit. Each live man has a doppelgänger who is himself divided, being both dead and resurrected. The live man occupies a dead world that is divided against itself: Jew/Gentile, law/sin. In this dead world is a graveyard. By going into his grave, the live man enters a portal. The portal transports him from the dead world into the new creation, a living world where the old distinctions are dead. By passing through the portal of death the man is freed from these old distinctions by which he defined himself while alive in the dead world. Passing through the grave he arrives on the other side, dead but resurrected, a new man. But the portal is bidirectional: it’s possible to go back through the grave, to be reanimated inside the old creation, to re-emerge as a live man in the old world. But now the reanimated old man realizes that the whole world he left behind is a tomb, and that even while he was alive he was already a dead man walking. The resurrected new man, freed from the old distinctions of Jew/Greek and law/sin, cannot live inside the old dead creation. He has to turn around, go back down into the grave, come back out on the other side…

* * *

For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory. Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry… But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old man with its evil practices, and have put on the new man who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him. (Col. 3:5,9-10

In Romans 6:2 Paul says that he died to sin; then, in 7:4, he says he also died to the law, in order that he might be joined to the resurrected Christ. Paul repeats this thought in Galatians:

I through the Law am dead to the Law, that I might live to God. (Gal. 2:19

Now, in Colossians 3, Paul tells his readers to consider themselves dead to sin, but in the prior chapter he told them that ascetic self-denial wasn’t of any value. So which is it: dead to sin or dead to law? The general message is something like this: neither obedience to the law nor disobedience, neither self-denial nor self-gratification, will bring you into the life of God. Both of these seemingly opposing attitudes are part of the same dead thing; namely, “the flesh.”

For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace. (Rom. 8:6)

Reading this translation one might think that Paul is advocating an Aristotelian tripartite division of the self into body, soul, and spirit: the soul (or mind) can focus on bodily lusts, which lead to death, or it can turn its attention to spiritual things, leading to life. But here is a more literal translation of that same verse:

For the flesh’s way of thinking is death; but the spirit’s way of thinking is life and peace.

The flesh and the spirit are alternative ways of thinking, of orienting oneself to reality. The orientation called “the flesh” is concerned with the old-creation distinctions between Jew and Greek, and it is simultaneously obsessed with achieving justification through obeying the law and with succumbing to the desire to break the law. This fleshly orientation is death, so Paul tells his readers to die to this death-dealing thought pattern: death to the distinctions between Jew and Greek, death to law, death to sin. Instead, Paul encourages his readers to adopt the alternative orientation toward the world called “the spirit.” The spirit is concerned with other matters: knowledge and wisdom, peace and compassion, kindness and forebearance, God, love, life. It’s not through setting aside the sinful life that the believer is gradually transformed into a good person. When considered from the perspective of the spirit the believer is already good.

But setting aside the unholy life doesn’t provide the means of living a holy life. If that were true, then following the law would lead to holiness. Paul insists this isn’t the case: consider yourself dead to the law and any expectations you might still entertain that through ceasing your immorality and behaving well you will become holy. Dying to unholiness isn’t the same thing as living in holiness. The one is part of the continual dying to the old man; the other results from the continual renewal of the new man. To live in the new creation is to participate in Christ’s resurrection life. Death to the old life, the flesh, the old man, the Jew-Gentile distinction, the law and sin — this death is inevitable and not to be resisted. The new creation is something else altogether: a subjective participation in the subjectively-experienced event of Christ’s resurrection. Ultimately it’s living in the new that’s Paul’s main concern throughout his letters.

What is the relationship between the new man and holiness? If we equate holiness with sinlessness, then holiness is reduced to a negative quality, an absence of sinfulness. It would seem that Paul envisioned something more, something positive about the resurrection life. Positive holiness is what Paul regards as the centerpiece of his message to the Colossians:

the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you (or among you), the hope of glory. (Col. 1:26-27)

Christ’s crucifixion brings Jews and Gentiles together collectively as the “new creation.” As Grenz and Franke say in Beyond Foundationalism,”Through the appropriated biblical text, the Spirit forms in us a communal interpretive framework that creates a new world” (p. 81). But participation in the new collective is also an individual affair, as evidenced in Ephesians 4 and in Colossians 3. The new creation is energized by resurrection life, as is each “new man” who participates in it.

A dual operation is underway here: a setting aside of the old man, as well as a taking on of the new man. The old man participates in the old dead world, in which all Gentiles were by Law excluded from even the possibility of holiness. That’s what the Law was for: to set a holy nation apart from all other unholy nations, and to divide holy from unholy within the holy nation and among its people. In the old creation the Gentiles are unholy by definition, regardless of what they do, whether they act in accord with the Law or in opposition to it.

But now Paul moves toward something universal underlying the Law, an outscoping and abstraction that seems more Greek than Jewish. Acts of sanctification are prescribed in the Jewish Law — washings, offerings, rituals, designations of particular places for performing particular actions, circumcision — that serve only to maintain a structural barrier between the holy and the unholy. But there is also an intrinsically holy sort of human life for which being Jewish or Gentile makes no difference, a holiness which can, to an extent, be encoded in law-like prohibitions: don’t be angry or wrathful toward one another, don’t slander or verbally abuse or lie to one another (Col. 3:8-9). These aren’t positive statements of holiness (do this good thing); they’re more like the negation of unholiness (don’t do this bad thing). Still, obeying the prohibitions won’t turn the unholy man holy — negating the negative doesn’t become a positive.

Paul employs a variety of metaphors to describe to the Colossians the relationship between the resurrected Christ and the believer: Christ in/among you (1:27), you in Christ (2:6-11), you with Christ (2:12-13, 3:1-4). So when Paul exhorts his readers to “put on the new man” (3:10), it’s in this all-pervasive context of death and resurrection where “Christ is all, and in all” (3:11). To put off the old man is to set aside the deadly obstacles to holiness: anger, wrath malice, etc. (3:8-9). To put on the new man is to live positively in the holiness of Christ that characterizes the new creation. These aspects of positive holiness include compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, peace, and above all love (3:12-15). Ceasing to act from anger, wrath, and malice is one thing; acting with compassion, kindness, and love is something else altogether. The former is how the old man dies; the latter is how the new man lives.

To reiterate, then: Setting aside the old man means not doing unholy things; taking on the new man means doing holy things. To stop doing unholy things doesn’t make you holy; it only makes you dead to the old man. To do holy things means living inside the resurrection life of Christ, and letting that life live inside and among you. How this resurrection life “works” — whether it should be interpreted as a mystical force for goodness or a thoroughgoing change of heart and mind — goes beyond the scope of my observations here.

27 December 2008

The Passenger by Antonioni, 1975

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 11:12 am





26 December 2008

Abre los Ojos by Amenábar, 1997

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 11:03 am





The New Man in Ephesians 4

Filed under: Christianity, Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 8:44 am

So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old man, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new man, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth. (Ephesians 4:14-24)

In Ephesians 2 Paul said that Christ had created the Jews and the Gentiles into one new man. Here Paul tells his readers that the new man is created in the likeness of God. But wasn’t the first man created in God’s image and likeness? Does this passage imply that man lost the imago Dei in the Fall, and that now it’s being restored? Or is it possible that the original imago wasn’t complete? Genesis 1 focuses exclusively on God’s creational activity, implying that man is like God specifically in being able to create. At the end of Genesis 3 God says that man, in acquiring knowledge of good and evil, has become even more godlike. Here in Ephesians 4 Paul links the likeness of God specifically to His righteousness and holiness — yet another aspect of the imago.

Paul tells his readers that they’re acting like the Gentiles: ignorant, hard-hearted, impure and greedy. This sort of behavior Paul associates with the old man. Is Paul contradicting himself from two chapters earlier by now saying that the Gentiles are the old man and that the Jews, or perhaps the Christ-following Jews, are the new man? I don’t think so. Paul addresses his readers as “Gentiles in the flesh” (2:13) who through Christ have been joined together with the Jews into the one new man (2:15). Now, however, Paul sees evidence of his readers relapsing into their old ways, as if they were still defining themselves according to the old fleshly distinctions between peoples. The old Gentile way of life is characterized by enmity, ignorance, and immorality — in short, it’s a life that doesn’t manifest God’s holiness. Presumably Paul would levy the same criticisms against those “Jews in the flesh” who slipped back into their old Jewish ways.

Apparently it’s possible for a follower of Christ to slip back and forth between the old man and the new man. Though Christ has already created the new man, the old man persists, even among those who follow Christ. Paul enjoins his readers to “lay aside” the old man and to “put on” the new man, as if the transition were as easy as changing one’s clothes. If Paul was talking here about a distinctly new human nature having been implanted in believers, one would expect him to use different imagery. For example, if the old man is a fleshly, surface-level identity whereas the new man is deeper and truer, then Paul might exhort the backslider to lay aside the old man in order that the new, true man might shine forth. Alternatively, if the old man is deeply ingrained in human nature, then Paul might suggest that his readers put the new man over the top of the old man as a means of disguising or ritually purifying the old. Instead Paul seems to regard the old man and new man as interchangeable. He also assumes that the reader possesses an autonomy independent of the old man and the new man, a constant and continuous self that can take off the one and put on the other.

The old man and the new man are not static entities: the one is “being corrupted,” whereas the other is “being renewed” (Eph. 4:22f.). More precisely, Paul encourages the reader to “be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new man.” It would seem that, in Pauline psychology, the mind has a spirit that can either be corrupted or be renewed. Here in Ephesians the old man and new man are envisioned as alternative life trajectories or mindsets, and the individual self can at any given time be guided by either the one or the other. A person who sets his life course by the new man must put aside the traditional intercultural enmities (2:15f) and the ignorance and callousness (in Greek it’s “analgesia,” the numbness to pain) that lead to impurity and greed. Instead the person participates in the ongoing life of God (4:18), a way that leads in the opposite direction, toward peace, knowledge, sensitivity, purity, generosity.

walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God… (Eph 4:17-18)

The old man is aimed toward corruption and death; the new man, toward renewal and life. Paul isn’t enjoining his readers to assume a new personality or nature. He’s asking them to respond appropriately to the singular twofold event of Christ’s death and resurrection, to “walk in a manner of the calling with which you have been called” (Eph. 4:1). It’s possible not to respond appropriately, to “put on the old man” even if you’re already a participant in the “new man” that Christ created in the cross. Those believers who put on the old man act just like those who never responded to Christ’s calling in the first place.

* * *

The unbeliever and the believer who is currently “wearing the old man” — are they the same? In other words, is there anything that distinguishes the Christian from the non-Christian? Is it the initial statement of faith, or is it the walk, that identifies someone who has life in the Spirit? Or is neither of these subjective responses definitive? Is it instead the “Christ event” itself that creates the new man in the flesh and the new life in the spirit? Whether you acknowledge the event or not, whether you live inside the new man or not, is it the event itself that has already changed everything?

I think that for Paul the subjective response is determinative because the “Christ event” is itself the emergence of a new kind of subjectivity, a “subjectivation” that continually renews itself in spirit and in life. Paul’s injunction to lay aside the old man and to put on the new presumes the kind of free subjectivity that the resurrected life in Christ makes possible.

The “Christ event” has two parts to it: death and resurrection. The new man is one, but this unity participates in both parts of the event. There’s a continual dying of the old man and his concerns for fleshly distinctions, laws and desires; and there’s also a continual resurrection of the new man and his freedom to act in faith, hope and love. Is there something distinctive about the individual who participates in this sort of bivalent subjectivity, or does everyone engage in these same ongoing struggles to become a free subject in the world? Sometimes I see it one way, sometimes the other, but I’ll be damned if I know which is true.

I have a sense that many, perhaps most, at least occasionally consider living a life concerned less with inconsequential distinctions and more with truth, beauty, justice, love. I also think that, at best, people vacillate repeatedly and perpetually between the two. In this regard I’m not personally persuaded that those who proclaim themselves Christians are qualitatively different from those who do not. But this is idle speculation of one observer of the human condition and not a systematic treatment of Paul’s writings.

Awhile back I wrote some posts about contemporary continental philosopher Alain Badiou’s little book Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, which explores issues we’ve been addressing here. Badiou contends that Paul offers not a universalist expansion of the traditionally exclusivist Jewish faith but rather “the possibility of universalism.” Paul doesn’t point either to a universally true set of philosophical propositions nor to the universally commendable life that Jesus lived on earth, but rather to the distinctive event of Christ’s death and resurrection, an event that was in its very nature subjective, experienced by Christ alone. This intensely private event offers the possibility of universal truth and love not to those who abstract its truth or who testify to its miracle but rather to those who participate subjectively in the event itself. So, paradoxically, it’s a universalism that depends on subjective participation.

Drifting again, this time into sociology, it seems that Christianity — or is it Christendom? — has established itself as a kind of universal cult, with its rituals of initiation, its creeds, its liturgies, its moral codes, its communitarian festivals, and other structural apparatuses for distinguishing inside from outside, Christian from non-Christian. It’s a sort of synthesis between Jewish excusivism and Greco-Roman inclusivism. While this is the use the church leaders made of Paul, and while Paul himself may have encouraged this sort of thing in the interests of rapid expansion, I’m not sure it’s what he really had in mind.

In reading these Pauline texts one by one we discover that, instead of reinforcing the boundaries between micro and macro, Paul insists that the boundaries have been torn down — neither Jew nor Gentile. The old and new creations overlap in the world; now in Ephesians 4 we find that they overlap even in the lives of individuals who have already declared their faith in Christ. For Paul it’s less a matter of in versus out and more a matter of how one lives one’s life that’s at stake.

Maybe even Paul’s warning in 2 Corinthians 6 against being unequally yoked with unbelievers isn’t about unbelievers being sinful while believers are holy. Maybe it’s about the hazards of living inside a dark and dead reality defined by law in which everyone, believer and unbeliever alike, falls under condemnation. Maybe it’s not the unbelievers whom Paul is calling satanic, but the satanic “old creation” in which they find themselves inextricably mired. The important thing is to die to that dead reality in order to live inside the resurrection reality. Again and again the dead old life keeps coming back — the return of the repressed and the death drive in Freud’s formulation. Paul wants his readers to recognize what’s happening. When the old man returns, don’t condemn yourself for backsliding, don’t conclude that the old reality is the only valid existence possible, don’t repress that which you’ve unsuccessfully tried to repress so many times before. Paul seems to invoke a kind of cognitive-behavioral intervention: in Eph. 4 he asks his readers simply to lay aside the old man and put the new man back on. Maybe that’s the best he could do in written correspondence with a bunch of people he probably had never met.

23 December 2008

The New Man in Ephesians 2

Filed under: Christianity, Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 5:49 am

In trying to understand the Biblical idea of the “new creation” we’ve looked at the only two Biblical passages that explicitly use the phrase: Galatians 6 and 2 Corinthians 5. There are also three passages which refer explicitly to the “new man,” beginning with Ephesians 2:11-22.

Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands— remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, hope and without hope and having no God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. AND HE CAME AND PREACHED PEACE TO YOU WHO WERE FAR AWAY, AND PEACE TO THOSE WHO WERE NEAR; for through Him we both have our access in one Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a building of God in the Spirit.

Parallels between this passage and Galatians 6 suggest strongly that for Paul the “new man” and the “new creation” are closely related concepts. The differences between the circumcision and the uncircumcision, between the Jews and the Gentiles, have been abolished. Previously Israel had been granted privileged access to God. But now, through Christ, everyone has access. Paul doesn’t say that the Gentiles have now been granted entry into the commonwealth of Israel, nor that the Jews were already the “new man” even before Christ. Instead, Paul asserts that the barrier that formerly separated Israel and the Gentiles has now been broken down. What previously had been two separate and antagonistic old men — the Jew and the Gentile — God has now joined together into one “new man.” Paul says that this joining-together by Christ is an act of “creating,” the verb κτιζω referring exclusively in the New Testament to God’s acts of creation (and serving as the root of my imaginary English word “ktismatics”).

What was it that had previously kept the two old men apart? Paul doesn’t blame the Gentiles’ sinfulness or unbelief. Instead, he says that the dividing wall was the Law: the commandments and ordinances that distinguished Israel from its neighbors. As in the Galatians passage, Paul here associates the Law with the flesh: circumcision is “performed in the flesh by human hands” (v. 11); Jesus “abolished in the flesh” the enmity between Jew and Gentile, which is the Law itself (v. 15). In destroying the barrier and in creating the one new man, God reconciles Jew and Gentile to one another and establishes peace (v. 15f). Now Jews and Gentiles are fellow-citizens (v. 19), being built together into a spiritual home of God (v. 21f).

Paul doesn’t say that Christ’s resurrection unites the Jew and the Gentile into the one new man. Death in the flesh is the great leveler of fleshly distinctions like Jew and Greek. We are all one man in death. Paul says in Ephesians 2 that Christ broke down the dividing wall of the Law that brought enmity between Jews and Gentiles. This was achieved by “the blood of Christ,” “in His flesh,” through the cross” — that is, through the physical death of Christ. But oneness in death is only the starting point. There’s a change in tone beginning in v. 17:

And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near; for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.

I think it’s here that Paul shifts from death to resurrection, from flesh to spirit. The Gentiles were far away, the Jews were near, but in the crucifixion these distances were erased. Now, in the resurrection, Christ preaches peace to everyone, grants spiritual access to everyone. Again, Paul says nothing about his readers’ response: it is the efficacy of the resurrection that’s the source of this new spiritual life. The dividing wall is leveled in Christ’s death, making everyone equal in the flesh. In His resurrection everyone is “being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.”

*  *  *

Now that the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile has been torn down, does all of humanity come together in the new creation as members of the collective “new man”? Or does the traditional interpretation hold: because the structural barrier is broken down, no one is barred access to the new creation, which is entered only by those who exercise faith? When Paul speaks of “God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the corner stone,” is he saying that the household includes only those who follow this trajectory of faith?

We’ve observed that Christ’s death is the great social leveler, breaking down the old distinctions between Jew and Gentile and uniting them in one new man. Paul says nothing about Christ’s death being made efficacious only by virtue of his readers’ response of repentance or faith or love. Later in Ephesians Paul begins to emphasize his readers’ active participation in Christ’s work. He entreats them to walk in a manner worthy of their calling, with patience and love, in the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace. This is the new resurrection life that Paul is talking about here.

There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling. (Eph. 4:4)

The one body comes together in Christ’s death; the one Spirit arises from His resurrection: this is the twofold offer from God. Paul then outlines what will happen as his readers continue to walk in a manner worthy of this offer: grace, gifts, service, maturity. This leads to 4:17, the beginning of the next passage talking about the “new man,” and the subject of a separate post. The thrust of Ephesians is generally this: Christ reconciled everyone in the body of His death; Christ offered new life in the Spirit through His resurrection; Paul encourages his readers to respond appropriately to what Christ has already accomplished. Does Paul propose that a new distinction be made between Christian and non-Christian? Is he collapsing the old distinctions between Jew and Gentile, near and far, microcosm and macrocosm, only to open a pathway to a new microcosm along a different axis, leaving a newly-configured macrocosm separated from God outside a newly-erected dividing wall?

In Chapter 5 Paul does invoke certain threats about the loss of inheritance in the kingdom and about the wrath of God. And in 4:17 he encourages his Gentile readers not to live the way they once did, in a life excluded from God. But the thrust remains consistent: Christ did these things for you, therefore you should respond appropriately to what Christ has already done. If you don’t, then you’re living the life of the “old man,” where fleshly distinctions like Jew versus Gentile still hold sway. It would appear that even believers can slip back into the fleshly old man, separated from the spiritual life of God in the resurrected Christ. Does this mean that individual believers can go back and forth between saved and lost, between being Christian and being non-Christian? I don’t think that’s what Paul has in mind here.

* * *

It seems that, for Paul, Christ’s death and resurrection was an objective event that ushered in a new way of becoming a subject, of becoming a self. Paul presents this new subjectivity in contradistinction to the two main alternatives on offer in the first century: Israel and Greece/Rome.

Jewishness was based on exclusivity: the distinct geography, ethnicity, laws, and rituals were all intended to establish boundaries between inside and outside. To be Jewish would be to participate in this exclusivity, defining oneself according to collective and rigidly defined differences. The Gentile nations had their own distinctives too of course, turning the ancient Near East into a hodgepodge of separate nations whose perpetual conflicts derived from their essential similarity to one another as exclusionary microcultures.

The Empire model of Rome replaced exclusive communitarianism with universalism. Local distinctions could be maintained as long as everyone paid tribute to Rome. Military might ensured compliance. Greece provided a philosophical basis for this sort of universalism: all local differences constitute imperfect variations on the one ideal model of self, society, law, etc. To be Greco-Roman is to become generic, to define yourself in a way that disregards differences.

I think that Paul’s “new man” constitutes a different way. Local variations aren’t important, but not because they’re immersed in the universal solvent of comprehensive political, economic and legal systems that dissolve all differences. No law, says Paul; I’m dead to law, alive to love and the spirit. No Jew or Gentile, but no Roman or Greek either. One new man, but a man comprised of a wide diversity of men walking and working together toward some unprecedented truth and maturity and plenitude that can barely be glimpsed from here.

Whatever else Jesus was, he was a man. Jewish exclusivity and Roman universalism conspired together to do him in. But there arises in the resurrection some other way of being a subjective agent in the world rather than just an object defined by these two competing ways, both of which lead to the same death. I don’t think this makes the resurrected Christ a libertarian, carving his idiosyncratic course like some Nietzschean superman. Instead his is a subjectivity that’s characterized not by ego but by love: fellow heirs, free subjects freely working together. This is neither an us-versus-them exclusive cult nor a one-size-fits-all empire of universal indifference, nor even a scattered multitude of free-ranging individualists, but rather a new way of being an active collaboration of free subjects freely joining themselves together in common cause.

21 December 2008

2 Corinthians 5 and the New Creation

Filed under: Christianity, Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 10:09 am

For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf. Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:14-20)

The other day I posted on Paul’s idea of the  “new creation”  in Galatians 6. Here in 2 Cor. 5 Paul explicitly links the passing away of the old creation and the arrival of the new to the death and resurrection of Christ. The phrase καινη κτισις, here translated by the NASB as “new creature,” is rendered as “new creation” in Galatians 6. There is no indefinite article in Greek, and there’s no verb in the phrase, so a more literal translation might be: “if anyone is in Christ, new creation.” I like the alternative reading presented in a footnote to the NASB: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” One might say that each new creature in Christ participates in the more comprehensive new creation. Paul is saying that Christ’s death and resurrection didn’t just affect Christ Himself: these events changed the world. Therefore, those who are in Christ participate in this radically transformed world, which is the “new creation.” The death and resurrection of Christ don’t just transform individuals into new creatures; it’s an all-inclusive event.

When Paul associates the old creation with the flesh, he’s referring not to the sinful passions but rather to the materialistic worldview. Formerly he and his readers knew Christ “according to the flesh” — surely he doesn’t mean that they lusted after Jesus. Rather, they knew Christ as a flesh-and-blood human being who lived and died; now, though, they know him as a resurrected human, the firstborn of the new creation. Paul says that the reason they now know Him this way is that when Jesus died, somehow all died with him and are now resurrected in him. Jesus’s death brought to an end the old creation and ushered in the new creation for all. Just as he and his readers no longer know Christ according to the flesh as a merely mortal human, so they no longer know anyone according to the flesh. This is the case, says Paul, because in Christ God reconciled the whole world to himself.

Through Christ’s death and resurrection the old creation died and the new creation is born, a transformation that affects the whole world: what does Paul mean here? Is he saying that the whole world, all of humanity, died in Christ and is now resurrected in Christ? That the whole world is now reconciled to God? That what remains is for us to recognize the reality of this transformation, no longer seeing things according to the fleshly old-creational perspective of a material world that’s been rejected by God? That all of us participate in the resurrection life of the new creation whether we realize it or not? That now, having been accepted by God, we in turn ought to accept God?

Or is Paul saying that the new creation affects only those who through faith accept Christ’s resurrection as ushering in a new creation, who accept Christ’s work of reconciliation and reciprocate by reconciling themselves to God? Is he saying that as long as someone continues to see Christ, himself, and the world “according to the flesh,” that person remains bound to the old creation, doomed to mortality, or perhaps to eternal torment? This is the usual interpretation of the passage. I think the text is ambiguous and could be read either way. Did Christ really die for everyone and through resurrection reconcile everyone to God — which is what Paul explicitly asserts here? Or did Christ die for and reconcile only those who can see things from this perspective? In other words, is each of us living in the AD era participating in the new creation whether we realize it or not, or do we have to perceive the new creation subjectively in order for it to apply to us personally?

Either way, Paul’s emphasis is clear in 1 Cor. 5: the old creation died with Christ; the new creation began with Christ’s resurrection. The new creation is meant to embrace the whole world, reconciling everyone to God through Christ.

At the end of the passage Paul exhorts his readers to serve as Christ’s ambassadors. It’s a call for a reciprocal response to God’s proactive move. This is similar to Paul’s call for reciprocity in response to the “new creation” in Galatians 6, where he says that through the cross “the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14). God has already reconciled the world to Himself through Christ (2 Cor. 5:19) — whether or not this is achieved through substitutionary atonement isn’t really the focus of this particular passage. “Reconcile to Himself” means in effect that God is willing to let bygones be bygones, to disregard whatever it is that people have done against Him. What might it mean for someone to “be reconciled to God”? I think it means reconciling God to myself. In what ways do I feel that God has harmed me, opposed me, offended me? Can I let those go; in effect, can I forgive God? That seems to be what Paul’s ministry of reconciliation is here: God forgives you; it’s time for you to forgive God. I understand that it’s not polite conversation to complain about God publicly, but I think a lot of people (me included) resent the hand that’s been dealt them as well as the new cards they draw. (Of course I’m veering away from the “new creation” topic here, but that’s the case with any passage: it’s hard to stick with one theme when so many others intertwined with it call for attention.

In 2 Cor. 5 Paul places the emphasis on the objective work of Christ: He died for all, therefore all died. It’s not just that I am crucified to the world through Christ; everybody is. The reader doesn’t have to look for a universal salvation theme in this passage; it’s there in the words of the text: Christ died for all, through Christ God reconciled the world to Himself. Reading this passage in 2 Cor. 5 it’s conceivable that the subjective response of the individual to the cross doesn’t activate salvation for that individual, but that instead it’s a matter of the individual subjectively recognizing what already happened objectively to everyone. In other words, maybe everyone already came through the cross during the historical event of the crucifixion. Paul sounds a similar note in Romans 5:

For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. (Rom. 5:10)

Three times in a row Paul in 2 Cor. 5:14-15 says “all”: “…one died for all, therefore all died, and He died for all…” It seems he’s emphasizing inclusiveness here. One would be hesitant to say that what Paul really meant was “all except” or “only those who.” He also says that through Christ God reconciled the world — cosmos in Greek — to Himself. Again, Paul seems to broaden the scope as far as possible. One could argue that participation in this universal new creation is conditional: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:18). However, it’s not necessary to interpret the “if” here as distinguishing between those who are “in Christ” and those who are not. I think, given the context, the “if” is a link in a chain of logical argument that Paul has been outlining: if A, then B. For example, earlier in 2 Corinthians we read:

For if that which fades away was with glory, much more that which remains is in glory. (2 Cor. 3:11)

Paul has just gotten done arguing that the “if” clause is true — in this case he’s referring to the temporary glory of God that shone on Moses’ face when he came down from Sinai with the Law. In 2 Cor. 5 Paul has just gotten finished saying that all died in Christ, in order that those who live might live for Christ. Therefore, following the logic, if anyone lives in Christ (which Paul asserts is true), then he/there is a new creation. I’m not prepared based on this one passage to argue that, for Paul, all who die in Christ also live in Christ. Still, it’s clear that in this passage emphasizes the all-inclusiveness of the new creation.

19 December 2008

The New Creation in Paul: Galatians 6

Filed under: Christianity, Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 6:02 am

In thinking about rewriting my book about Genesis 1 I find myself looking at references to creation in the New Testament. Awhile back I wrote a series of posts on Alain Badiou’s book about Saint Paul, in which Badiou touches on the “new creation” as a pivotal concept in Paul’s movement away from flesh and law to spirit. It turns out that Paul uses the phrase “new creation” only twice in his epistles, with the cognate “new creature” appearing three times. No other NT writer refers to the new creation, nor does Jesus as his words are recorded in the Gospels.

Briefly, what I see Paul working out in this idea of “new creation” is a path toward the universal reconciliation of all humanity. This reconciliation is achieved neither through universalizing a social and moral code (as represented by Israel), nor by participating in a universal empire (as represented by Rome), but through some sort of universal participation in Jesus. It seems that this participation has already been accomplished through Jesus’s historical death and resurrection, even if the consequences of this cataclysmic event aren’t yet widely recognized.

In the spirit of this Epiphany season — no wait, I guess it’s Advent isn’t it? — I’m going to look at each of the 5 Pauline references to “new creation” one at a time. The first one is in Galatians, a Pauline epistle on which I’ve previously written several posts.

Those who desire to make a good showing in the flesh try to compel you to be circumcised, simply so that they will not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For those who are circumcised do not even keep the Law themselves, but they desire to have you circumcised so that they may boast in your flesh. But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And those who will walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. (Galatians 6:12-16)

Throughout his letter to the Galatians Paul mounts an argument against those who would require Gentile believers in Christ to follow the Mosaic Law. Here at the end of the letter he reiterates his position. Paul frequently uses “circumcision” as a synecdoche, a figure of speech where a part stands for the whole. Thus circumcision stands for the whole Mosaic body of law, of which the specific act of circumcision constitutes only one specific law. Paul explicitly identifies the part-whole relationship in the preceding chapter:

And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. (Gal. 5:3)

So in Galatians 6:15 Paul is telling the Galatians that it doesn’t matter whether they follow the Law of Moses or not. But the specific act of circumcision isn’t lost sight of. In 5:12 and 5:13 Paul twice links the word “circumcision” to the word “flesh.” This is important too, because Paul wants to distinguish flesh from spirit. Synecdochally speaking, circumcision doesn’t just represent the whole Law; it also represents the whole flesh. Those who think the Law is important are those who judge matters according to the flesh rather than the spirit.

Now we get to the key phrase in Gal. 6:15:

For neither circumcision is anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.

The distinction between those who follow the Law and those who don’t is unimportant, because this is a fleshly distinction. Instead what’s important is a new creation. By implication, then, the world that distinguishes between circumcision and uncircumcision, between Law and not-Law, together comprise the old creation characterized not by spirit but by flesh.

Those who insist on preserving this old fleshly distinction are, of course, the Jews. Is Paul saying that Jewishness itself is an old-creation construct, that from the perspective of the new creation Israel doesn’t matter any more? Gal. 6:16 suggests we think again:

And those who will walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.

As far as I can tell, the phrase “Israel of God” is used nowhere else in the Bible. In contrast, “God of Israel” is a very frequent construction throughout the Old Testament. Is Paul calling attention to something by inverting the customary word order? He doesn’t elaborate here at the end of Galatians, moving directly from this verse to the closing of his letter. We might speculate from the larger theme of the letter to infer something like this: The Jews act as if God were their possession, as if they controlled the Gentiles’ access to God through the traditional means of circumcision and the Law. But Paul says it’s the other way around: Israel is God’s possession.

So does Paul mean that God gives access to Israel rather than vice versa? I don’t think so. Earlier in Galatians Paul talks about two sons of Abraham: Ishmael, born of the servant Hagar; and Isaac, born of Abraham’s wife Sarah. The nation of Israel traces its lineage through Isaac; the Gentile nations, through Ishmael. But Paul turns the story around:

This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. (Gal. 4:24-25)

Paul distinguishes between earthly Jerusalem, capital of the nation of Israel, and “the Jerusalem above.” How is earthly Jerusalem enslaved? Israel has become a province of the Roman Empire, so in a political sense Jerusalem is enslaved to Rome. But the subject of Paul’s Galatian letter is freedom from the Law. In Chapter 5 he describes the Jews’ subjection to the Law as enslavement. But, says Paul,

It is for freedom that Christ set us free… for in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love. (Gal. 5:1,6)

Earthly Jerusalem is enslaved to the Law, but “the Jerusalem above is free.” So in Gal. 4 does “the Jerusalem above” trace its lineage through the Gentile Ishmael? Paul doesn’t complete the analogy in quite this way; rather, he’s making the distinction between the physical and the spiritual descendants of Sarah. Physically, the nation of Israel sets itself apart from the other nations, and this “fleshly” Israel controls access to its God via fleshly circumcision and adherence to the Law. Spiritually, the “Israel of God” isn’t distinguished by ethnicity, national boundaries, or Law. Rather, the Israel of God, the “new creation” to which Paul extends peace and mercy at the end of his letter, is identified by the freedom from these fleshly distinctions between “in” and “out” that characterize the old creation, a freedom made possible by faith and love.

By believing God, Abraham received the promise of a new creation, a promise which was to be fulfilled in the future. This promise, says Paul, has now been fulfilled in Christ’s death, ushering in the new creation. All who believe God can receive now that which had been promised long ago to Abraham. This is the thrust of Paul’s argument in Galatians:

Abraham BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS. Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “ALL THE NATIONS WILL BE BLESSED IN YOU.” So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer. (Gal. 3:6-9)

Throughout the centuries the Jews anticipated the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, which remained in the future. They failed to recognize that participation in the Mosaic Law — i.e., membership in the nation of Israel — wasn’t the portal offering entry into the new creation yet to come. The real portal is faith, by which many nations may participate in the fulfillment of the promise.

Many nations are to be blessed by the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. In Gal. 3:16 Paul emphasizes that “the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed: singular, not plural. Paul goes on to say that the seed of Abraham is Christ. I think Paul’s intention here is to assert that the promise wasn’t extended directly to the many nations that would eventually benefit from the promise, nor was it channeled through Israel the grandson of Abraham, nor through Moses by whom the Law was given to the nation of Israel. Instead, the promise passed through Jesus.

What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later [i.e., after Abraham], does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise. Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made. (Gal. 3:17-19)

Paul is saying that the promise to Abraham, the “new creation” through which many nations would be blessed, remained a promise rather than a fulfillment throughout all the intervening centuries between Abraham and Christ. It wasn’t until now, through Christ’s death, that the promise is fulfilled and the new creation begins.

But before faith came, we [i.e., the Jews] were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you [i.e., the Gentile believers] are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise. (Gal. 3:23-29)

There remains an element of the promise yet to be fulfilled, an aspect of the new creation not yet made manifest.

For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. (Gal. 5:5)

Paul directs this remark to the believers who, realizing that they haven’t yet become sinless, are tempted to revert to the Law as the means of achieving sanctification. Paul is reassuring the believers that, even though the promise is now fulfilled in Christ and the new creation is begun, it’s not yet complete. And so Paul begins his discussion of walking freely in the Spirit rather than obeying the Law as the right way to live in new creation.


17 December 2008

Cría Cuervos by Saura, 1976

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 12:39 pm



14 December 2008

Spinozan Neuroscience

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 1:08 pm

In injecting the slightest bit of empiricism into Kvond’s and Sinthome’s recent discussions of Spinozan psychology, I’m struck by the similarity of Spinoza’s framework (as I understand it from secondary sources) with contemporary distributed models of neural networks. Here’s a nice summary from a book I haven’t read, written by a neuroscientist who resonates with Spinoza:

The neural patterns and the corresponding images of the objects and events outside the brain are creations of the brain related to the reality that prompts the creation rather than passive mirror images mirror images reflecting that reality. For example, when you and I look at an external object we form comparable images in our respective brains, and we can describe in very similar ways. For example, when you and I look at an external object, we form comparable images in our respective brains, and we can describe the object in very similar ways. That does not mean, however, that the image we see is a replica of the object. The image we see is based on changes that occurred in our organisms, in the body and in the brain, as the physical structure of that particular object interacts with the body. The ensemble of sensory detectors are located throughout our bodies and help construct neural patterns that map the comprehensive interaction of the organism with the object along its many dimensions. If you are watching and listening to a pianist play a certain piece, say Schubert’s D.960 Sonata, the comprehensive interaction includes patterns that are visual, auditory, motor (related to the movements made in order to see and hear), and emotional. The emotional patterns result from the reaction to the person playing, to how the music is being played, and to characteristics of the music itself.

The neural patterns corresponding to the above scene are constructed according to the brain’s own rules, and are achieved for a brief period of time in the multiple sensory and motor regions of the brain. The building of those neural patterns is based on the momentary selection of neurons and circuits engaged by the interaction. In other words, the building blocks exist within the brain, available to be picked up — selected — and assembled in a particular arrangement. Imagine a room dedicated to Lego play, filled with every Lego piece conceivable, and you get part of the picture. You could construct anything you fancied, as does the brain because it has component pieces for every sensory modality.

The images we have in our minds, then, are the result of interactions between each of us and objects that engaged our organisms, as mapped in neural patterns constructed according to the organism’s design. It should be noted that this does not deny the reality of objects. The objects are real. Nor does it deny the reality of the interactions between object and organism. And of course the images are real too. And yet, the images we experience are brain constructions prompted by an object, rather than mirror reflections of the object. There is no picture of the object being transferred optically by the retina to the visual cortex. Likewise, the sounds you hear are not trumpeted from the cochlea to the auditory cortex by some megaphone, although physical transformations do travel from one to the other, in a metaphorical sense. There is a set of correspondences, which has been achieved in the long history of evolution, between the physical characteristics of objects independent of us and the menu of possible responses of the organism. The neural pattern attributed to a certain object is constructed according to the menu of correspondences by selecting and assembling the appropriate tokens. We are so biologically similar among ourselves, however, that we construct similar neural patterns of the same thing. It should not be surprising that similar images arise out of those similar neural patterns. That is why we can accept, without protest, the conventional idea that each of us has formed in our minds the reflected picture of some particular thing. In reality, we did not.

– Antonio Damasio, in Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain (2003), pages 198-200

11 December 2008

The Life of $

Filed under: Culture, Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 5:35 pm

In yesterday’s discussion on the Navel Gazers’ post, passing reference was made to The Da Vinci Code as an example of financially successful commercial fiction. It brought back to mind a conversation Anne and I had with a commercial novelist, a friend of a friend, I guess it must have been about four years ago now. I’m not exactly sure what his genre is called — survival supernatural adventure thriller maybe. I’d regard him as a successful mid-list author, having had several books published with most of them still in print as paperbacks. I read one of his books and found that he writes very well, with snap and idiosyncrasy.

It wasn’t hard for us to identify him at the coffee shop, since he’s got the casual grizzled look characteristic of old-school Boulderites. He’s climbed Everest, lived in various exotic locales, been in jail at least once, and now he’s somewhat uncomfortably settled into the middle-class life with wife and kid. We had to enunciate very clearly and face-on, since he’d lost most of his hearing to the cold in some climbing debacle. Throughout the conversation he continually looked over his shoulder, as if he suspected that someone was spying on us.

He told us about his six-figure settlement with a major Hollywood studio that had put together a screenplay based at least partly on one of his novels but without paying or crediting him. His sense was that the studios do this sort of thing regularly, figuring it’s cheaper to pay off the lawsuits than actually to pay the authors what they’re worth. The studios can afford the high-priced lawyers, the writers can’t.

He said he wished that he wrote books his young daughter could read, but he had to spice up his work with the usual “adult” elements of sex and violence. He said he wished he’d written The Life of Pi, which is a survival adventure story that’s both more literary and more kid-friendly than his own books. He felt locked into his authorial persona and style: the readers expect a certain kind of book from an established author, preventing him from experimenting and growing as a writer. What about creating a new pen name, we suggested: then you could write what you really want to write. I don’t have the time or energy to do that and still keep up with the demand for my usual stuff, he replied.

He talked about the disaster that was his most recent book. Previously he had written a first installment of a possible trilogy and, because it proved to be his biggest-selling book ever, the publisher gave him a big advance for the second volume. While he was writing this second installment his editor left the publishing house and signed on with a competitor. This editor was working on the manuscripts of two writers at the time, and he managed to take one of them with him to the new job. That writer was Dan Brown, and the book was The Da Vinci Code. Our new friend’s book, having been left behind, found itself orphaned, without an internal champion to move it forward. The new editor apparently resented being assigned this book in mid-edit and decided to bad-mouth it to the head of the publishing house. The publisher sent our new writerly acquaintance an extremely critical letter which included a list of ten things a new writer should do in order to write a good book. The writer was ordered to come to a meeting in New York to discuss the book, which he would have to pay for himself. Eventually the book came out, but the publisher did nothing to publicize it and effectively let it die on the shelves. At the time of our coffee shop discussion our co-conversant was working with his agent to find a new publisher for his next book.

Dan Brown still writes promo blurbs for the back covers of every one of this guy’s new novels.

9 December 2008

Navel Gazers’ Club

Filed under: Culture, Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 5:02 pm

I’m glad I didn’t have to drive off into the snowstorm last night to attend my writers’ group meeting, since earlier in the day we sent rejection letters to each other.

Remember the short story I presented at the public reading sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers group? Remember my subsequent email exchange with Dave, the MC for the public reading event? Well the RMFW sponsors a number of writers’ groups, and it turns out there’s one centered in Boulder where I live. Last Monday was the first meeting I attended, and I must admit I had an inkling it might also be the last. Though my wife has subjected herself to this sort of discipline before and generally found it more discouraging and irritating than helpful, I wanted to see for myself. I arrived late, having spent a quarter hour trying to zero in on the hotel where the group convenes its weekly critique sessions. Two of the regular members arrived after I did though, bringing the total attendance to six.

We went around the table introducing ourselves and describing the type of fiction we write. When it came to my turn I handled the first question well enough but found myself stumped on the second. The leader asked if I could at least give a two-sentence description of my novels. The first I characterized as the tale of a reluctant messianic figure, a leader of pilgrimages whose mentor has been asked to track him down and find out why he had dropped out of sight. It’s an adventure novel then, one member hazarded. No, I said: while the characters do eventually arrive at a destination they do tend to meander quite a bit. The second novel then: it’s about a guy trying to be a portalist, guiding people to alternate realities, but he keeps getting sidetracked by inconsequential mishaps. Does he find an alternate reality, asked one of the fantasy writers. Well, yes, but it’s not much different from this reality, and it’s never quite clear whether it’s real or in his head. Ah, magical realism, perhaps you would like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I nodded noncommittally, muttered a few half-conceived thoughts about Philip Dick and Borges, and started looking around the table for someone to rescue me. General fiction then, was the consensus. Yes, literary fiction, I asserted. Mutterings of disapproval all around: evidently that was the wrong answer too.

So now we get down to the main event: critique. One of the guys in the group, a fortyish high school English teacher, has brought with him a synopsis of his novel, which he plans to enter into some sort of competition. He hands around copies of the synopsis to all the attendees. As the leader reads it aloud everyone else is busy jotting notes in the margins of their copies. The oral reading concludes, and everyone flips back to the first page of the document, reading again silently, making more annotations. After awhile one of the members volunteers to go first. She commends a few turns of phrase and structural decisions made by the writer before leveling her main criticism: we don’t learn enough about the motivations driving the story. Cut out some of the back story and embed the plot details inside a more thematic context. I generally agreed: the synopsis was very heavy on plot details, and I found myself rereading again and again trying to keep the story straight. A more general overview would help frame the details. On to the next member: she wanted to know more about the main characters, mostly so that the reader would care about what happens to them in the story. I agreed with that too. She asked if there was a romantic interest in the story: was it the noble warrior-diplomat and the kidnapped princess, or the shadow warrior and the princess’ sister? Discussion revolved around how these romances were handled in Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, the intent clearly being to make this new book follow those successful precedents as closely as possible. Jungian archetypes entered the conversation. I said I thought the romance might be between the noble and the shadow warrior. No one found this remark either amusing or helpful. When it got to be my turn I said that I thought the whole synopsis ought to be longer: keep the detailed plot info, but add theme and character stuff as well. This proved to be the consensus recommendation to the writer. I felt a bit more comfortable, though I’m quite certain I wouldn’t want to read the book we’ve been discussing.

The next writer up for critique handed out 8 pages from near the end of a romance novel she’s writing. It turns out I know this woman: her daughter and mine used to attend the same primary school. At the time I’d regarded this woman as kind of a pain in the ass know-it-all. No matter: now we’re in a different context, I can overlook these things. The guy who wrote the synopsis is chosen to read this bit aloud, and he does a crackerjack job of it, even using a passable Irish accent for the dialogue. The story takes place in Dublin in the early 1800s, and it deals with the foibles and romances of a young country girl who was raped by her father and is trying to make a life for herself in the big dirty city. In the excerpt we’re considering, the girl and one of the big affable young Irishmen who are protecting her from some previously-described threat are being lured into a trap. Critique centers on a few details in the narrative: a motivational incongruity, an odd POV shift, improbable positioning of the entrapped characters. That all sounded fine to me, though again I had a sense that I would find it a chore to read through this book in such detail for week after week. As the discussion continued I found myself sinking deeper and deeper into my chair, bored and anxious. My own motivation was waning; my POV was starting to recede; I longed to fast-forward to the scene where I’m driving home.

* * *

The next day I received a brief and cordial email from the leader of the group welcoming me to come back the next week. I read about the audition process, whereby prospective new members who would like the group to read and critique their fiction must submit two short samples of their work for consideration. The email concluded: “we are for people wanting to write and sell commercial fiction.” Based on my experience in the group I interpreted this as meaning “not literary fiction,” and probably also “not the kind of fiction you write.” So I let it rest, figuring I would either return or not the following week as the mood struck, but not feeling particularly hopeful about the possible value I might derive from participating long-term in this process.

A week passed and, as Monday rolled around again, I began to feel like I ought to do something proactive about the writers’ group. So I finally responded to the group leader’s email, thanking her for the note, saying I found the group interesting, etc. I mentioned that I was thinking about writing a set of interconnected short stories and would regard the group as an external stimulus to getting the stories written. I speculated about whether I might stand on the other side of the commercial/literary divide:

“I would like people to read what I write, and I would be happy if they paid me for doing me that honor. However, I don’t try to craft what I write in order that an audience will like it. My hope is that I can write what I see and hope that people will find themselves liking it. Also, if I came to realize that my writing conformed to some convention of a genre I would probably go out of my way to change what I’d written. I’m concerned that my orientation might put me at odds with the rest of the group, in terms both of what I offer in critique and in what I might receive. I understand that the group isn’t a debating forum and that each writer finally decides what recommendations s/he will adopt. But you get my point I’m sure.”

To this email I attached a copy of the story I’d written for the RMFW-organized public reading event, mentioning that Dave the MC had announced after my reading, perhaps jokingly, that my story was “too deep” for him. I understood that I wasn’t presenting a formal audition, but I wondered if, by giving it a quick once-over, she could picture herself and the rest of the group offering useful critique for my kind of writing. She responded within an hour or so:

“We are a commercial fiction group and we are crafting specifically to be marketable. That is the goal for our group but there are other groups around that don’t have that as criteria. You may fit better elsewhere. And, by the way, successful writers know they have to go “out of their way” to “Change” what they’ve written, thus the critique group. It sounds like our purpose is not yours. I do get your point. I suspect you wouldn’t be there for the same reasons we are there – to make our work fit commercial needs…

“I’m pretty sure you are needing a different type of group. Especially in light of the idea that the work was “too deep” for the MC. If that means what I suspect, you are writing literary. Our group might even find it belly-button studying… all I was able to do was take a peek at the first couple of pages. This would not be the type of material we are looking at. It doesn’t get right to the action (which doesn’t have to mean physical action), it is what we call “belly button studying” …nothing wrong with that…it just doesn’t work for us.

“If at some point you find yourself writing commercial fiction (and having read many books on how to do that, gone to conferences, etc.) feel free to approach us again.”

So at least now I know what I’m looking for: a navel-gazers’ group. And I don’t have to subject myself to any more of that pulpy trash those people call “writing” — not that there’s anything wrong with pulpy trash…

7 December 2008

Emotional Contagion

Filed under: Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 7:54 pm

Thanks to Anne for calling my attention to this study, which presents evidence supporting the commonly held belief that happiness is contagious. Apparently the happiness contagion is more virulent among non-intimate members of one’s social network — neighbors and acquaintances, though curiously not coworkers. I was struck by this observation from political scientist Robert Fowler, one of the co-investigators:

For a long time, we measured the health of a country by looking at its gross domestic product. But our work shows that whether a friend’s friend is happy has more influence than a US$5,000 raise.

Presumably this remark is meant to reassure less affluent readers — and less affluent nations — that money can’t buy you happiness. However, the implication is that money and happiness are positively correlated. How much is a friend’s friend’s happiness worth? $5,500? $6,000? Or is it the other way around — people who make more money also have happier friends and associates? The researchers re-evaluated data gathered in the Framingham Heart Study ,a massive project that’s been following the same individuals for decades. Though the write-ups describe the results as causative — your neighbor’s happiness makes you happier as well — I’m pretty sure that the findings were derived from cross-sectional samples; i.e., measurements of happiness captured at a particular moment in time. If so, then all one can legitimately infer is that happy people tend to congregate together. And also that people with happy friends make more money than people with unhappy friends. By implication from Fowler’s remark, happiness and money go together. So what we see are networks of happy, affluent people hanging around together. The researchers also found that unhappiness doesn’t cluster as tightly — by implication, then, less affluent, less happy people find themselves more socially isolated. Of course I haven’t read a detailed description of this study so maybe I’m just being pessimistic.

Anyhow, yesterday at the grocery store checkout line I enjoyed one of those happy encounters with a distant member of my social network. The guy scanning my groceries noticed that I’d bought a bottle of peach-flavored iced tea. This is good stuff, he noted: it comes from Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania is the bottled tea capital of America. I had no idea. I also had no idea that people from Schuylkill County PA have the highest per-capita alcohol consumption in the USA. I wondered whether they mixed their booze with the iced tea. And so on, passing the time with idle chatter. I left the store on a happy note that actually persisted for maybe the next hour and, though I can’t be sure, I suspect that I spread my good cheer to my wife and daughter.

In contrast, the day after the presidential elections, also at the grocery checkout, I had an unhappy encounter with a fellow shopper. I was heading for the shortest line with my shopping cart when I noticed a woman, sans groceries, standing at the end of line. You’re kidding, I said to her. No, she said: my husband is on his way with the cart. And you’re saving a place? Yes, and our cart is REALLY full. But you can’t do that, I objected. The woman disagreed: where does it say that you have to have a cart to stand in line? It’s just not courteous, I countered. In fact, I said to the checkout lady, I’d like to register a complaint about this woman. You’re kidding, the woman blocking my way said. No I’m not. Oh bugger off, she said to me; get a life. Go fuck yourself, I replied. And here comes the husband with the full grocery cart. You can’t talk that way to my wife; you’re bullying a woman. Oh please, I said, she’s the one who told me to bugger off. So the husband and I stood there toe to toe yelling at each other. I’m going to call the police, he said; go ahead, said I. Somebody who works at the store intervened: please guys, take it easy. Meanwhile the checkout line had emptied out and the checker started scanning this pushy couple’s groceries. My line had now cleared as well (it was the principle of the thing for me, not so much the time I would save), so I too was getting processed. The delay was minimal, but I’d have to say that the unhappiness I acquired from this encounter lasted just about as long as my happy encounter from yesterday, and was just as contagious.

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