Category Archives: Early Christian Rhetoric

Three points

After reading this alarming tidbit about Representative Virgil H. Goode Jr., Republican of Virginia, where he attacks an incoming representative for swearing their oath on the Koran, I’ll assume three things, safely:

1. When he took office, Goode swore an oath to defend the Constitution, which is required by Article 6 – “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution…”

2. Goode has actually read the Constitution, including the next clause of Article 6, “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

3. Goode swore said oath on a Bible (in an unofficial ceremony, as the official one rightly does not use one).

Conclusion: Goode should switch positions and support oaths for representatives on a Koran, because quite frankly it doesn’t look like his oath on a Bible is worth much.

I blame high school history textbooks for this. If everyone knew, for example, Thomas Jefferson was a Deist that wrote up his own version of the Gospels because he thought the various miracles and the resurrection were a load of hooey, then maybe kids would grow up appreciating the secular, philosophical miracle that the Constitution represents – that via the 1st Amendment, it guarantees a safe place for worship in any way one may see fit, to any deity or deities that one may believe in.

If Goode doesn’t believe in that, I have to question if he is really American as apple pie as he comports himself to be – or something else – something less, something narrower. And if so, he deserves the fieriest opposition available.

Exhausted

The semester is almost over, but not quite yet; there are still two more working weekends before my fall labors are complete.

My presentation last night, “Faith is Shared Food, and Other Conceptual Agricultural Metaphors in the NT Gospels” went ok. The Powerpoint was too dense, of course, and it showed it was a work in progress (the first half of it, I think, flows nicely, but then it gets bogged down in the 50 hojillion citations) and some of those citations/examples need some shoring up; but there was a lively discussion afterward. I went on teacher autopilot for most of it. Somehow I’ve got to get it down to 20 minutes for April’s PCA/ACA conference; H timed it at 35-40.

I’m not sure how to get around the bulk of the cites. The centerpiece argument, that FAITH IS SHARED FOOD is a major – if not THE major – conceptual metaphor in the gospels (as seen from their time of composition, of course) and that it overshadows more figurative agricultural metaphors – frankly, it all hinges on the number of occurrences. It’s hard for me to see a way around having slides filled with cites, even if they are just cites and not excerpts.

Then again, I have a citation fetish, it’s true. My first article has 95 sources. I don’t see the next one or the next one after that having much less – probably more, actually. I feel safer citing Tom, Dick, and Harry (and Jane, Jill, and Stacy); citations are the scholar’s armor, if academics is a battlefield as it is often implied, instead of the marketplace of ideas that it should be, ideally. In that particular source domain, citations would be more like friendly acknowledgments of fellow traders, I suppose. But with plagiarism hanging over everyone’s heads like the sword of Damocles, it often feels more like a defensive than a collaborative act.

I’ve been thinking about doing something on citation for the dissertation. A history of citation for a particular period – say, the NT, early Christian works, other Greek authors – compared to citation in the Attic period or to medieval, pre-typography times – and then carry that over to the citation systems that we worship these days. I am also worried over the loose views of citation that some freshmen have when they enter the university, especially when the proof text of Western civilization contains a brand of citation that is most definitely not up to Modern Language Association standards – and can’t be.

Even if you throw out impossible things like page numbers and publishers and dates, and accept just name of work or name of author and a word-for-word quotation (as that’s the best ancient citations tend to get and can be, as every document is hand-copied and unique) there’s a ton of stuff just in the gospels that doesn’t stand up. The author of Matthew in particular is quite willing to cite the Septuagint out of context or change its wording as to suit his rhetorical purpose… and then these citations come to us with nearly two thousand years of tradition as inerrant, and I get students who want to cite the Bible as a source.

There is a problem there – and it is the same problem that faces composition teachers who hold strong religious belief and yet teach rhetoric and research, with the necessary emphasis on logic and fallacy. How does one hold faith without evidence, and then demand of their students evidence rather than naked claims? Welcome to cognitive dissonance 101. Faith does not need reason any more than reason needs faith. Modern views that a text is just a text are not compatible with ‘well, some are inerrant and off limits’.

I would really like to spend some time looking at Celsus in the dissertation – he’s a Greek philosopher that wrote the earliest anti-Christian polemic still existent. No copies exist, but we have most of the text because Origen, one of Chrisitianity’s more colorful early figures, generously cited him in a lengthy rebuttal. It’s a great case for citation – it saved a entire work that the church very likely destroyed all known copies of.

Tired

I should really be finish this linguistics paper off. It’s about hyphens. But it’s not going to happen tonight – probably in the morning. There are a variety of topics I could babble about in this post, and have been meaning to babble about, but the full-bore babbling instinct is out for repairs.

I could talk about my recent guilty enjoyment of a poorly-reviewed PC game, Scarface (which is a brilliant take, I think, on the movie of the same name – I’ve never played a game based on middleman-level cocaine distribution before).

I could talk about the persuasive writing class I taught tonight, which went well despite my repeated inability to pronounce the names of various OT prophets and the predictable failure of the laptop cart. The major ideas seem to have taken – that the gospels are a series of arguments that present four different perspectives on Jesus and the OT citation schemes that the respective authors use is not dissimilar to what they as students do when supporting their own arguments. Next time I’ll have a handout for everything instead of just half. There was way too much page-flipping. They kept up, though.

I could talk about my unrealistically optimistic view of the drive to San Antonio that I must do later this week for a conference. I hope the car holds out. I have a odd feeling it needs more attention than just an oil change and a wash. Nothing a garage on the way can’t fix if necessary.

I could talk about my new, more conservative approach to my doctoral studies. I have more or less decided to cut back some for sanity’s sake. Instead of sending out 3-4 papers this semester, I will aim for 2, and let the others simmer ’til spring and develop in presentations. This approach should allow me to swim to the shores of Christmas relatively intact. I was in danger of burning out. It’s still uncomfortable, but I no longer feel panicked.

I could also stop saying that I could talk about something and then start talking about it anyway, too, I guess.

Rationality, religion, etc

There’s a really good article in the new issue of CCC by Patricia Bizzell on the arguments used in the Barcelona Disputation of 1263. It’s a model, I think, of the kind of stuff I’d like to do in my dissertation, although in a much more exploded and in-depth way. But the thrust behind her essay pushes all the buttons that I like pushed – rhetoric as a double-edged sword, the manner in which rationality can serve or hinder religious and political thought (the ethos of using logos when people’s worldviews are based on pathos, perhaps?), and how religious texts with an assumption of holy inerrancy are presented and digested by various groups.

I was just plain glad to see some NT & OT discussion in a comp journal, too. My particular interest is way, way before the 13th century, before Christianity formed orthodoxies capable of setting up one-sided debates like the one Bizzell describes, but the question of how reason can sit with religion (and in particular with religious texts) is essentially the same. She’s spun it with a modern classroom twist – which I supposed is necessary for CCC – which I agree with fully, though I would take it a bit further and say the religious texts that our culture is/was largely based on are fair game for analyzing and teaching argument – not just the debates surrounding them. Friar Paul and Nahmanides are not just making arguments centered on textual evidence, they are doing argument analysis, creating arguments about polemic religious claims that are themselves arguments, much like any student in one of my courses writes an argument analysis paper.

Now while the act of analysis is technically similar, there is also the religious and political charge of analyzing a text that is supposedly inerrant after centuries of textual corruption and redaction. Pick your testament – they had less knowledge of manuscript transmission in the 13th century than we have now.

Inerrancy assumes, I would argue, that any claim in an inerrant text is not an argument or part of one – it is truth, and stating truth is not an argument, per se. Reason, however, sees a claim as a claim, whether it is in the Gospel of Mark, the New York Times, or President Bush’s latest speech. Claims, if they are to be believed beyond faith, require reasons, evidence, etc, the whole Toulmin model. When much of the NT cites the OT for evidence (quite often inaccurately, alas) that Jesus is the Messiah (the key subject of the Barcelona debate, I gather), there is a tacit assumption that those ‘inerrant’ claims need evidence. But if they are true to begin with, why descend into the realm of reason at all? It’s still difficult for me to deal with Christianity’s historical concerns for proving itself in terms of reason when faith, it seems, is all that is required. Even a holy and inerrant text seems superfluous. Why all the concern over documentation? Does the Bible come down to just being a conversion tool?

Anyway, that article really cheered me up, as I’ve been having some doubts that I can write a dissertation concerning NT and early Christian rhetoric without creating an impression I’m some sort of biblical studies person lost in an English department. That’s just not the case; that area is just the angle I tend to think about composition and agrument from these days, along with whole text/paragraph theory. my general obsession with diction, and a concern for the visual from technical writing.

Late

It is quite late, 3:35 am to be exact; yet there is some residual energy, so I will type it away.

Most of today has been devoted to finally reading through the books I got from Harding a month ago and taking notes. I’d rather just read – I’d already read the things weeks ago, but taking accurate notes (in MS Word, alas, as these books are not mine and I cannot mark them up!) are quite necessary, as I need to cite all of these books in the to-be-rewritten-metaphor article, especially Joachim Jeremias’ The Eucharistic Words of Jesus. I actually understood half of the points he made on Greek syntax in the Gospels; I’m not sure whether to be thrilled or frightened.

Which brings me (Killick is not only person that begins sentences with ‘which’, aha!) to a more disturbing point. Certain books lately have just pissed me off. I threw Michael Crotty’s The Foundations of Social Research across the den the other day. It deserves its heavy front-cover crease. I’ll read it many times over the next few years, but I’ll throw it about the same number of times, I’m sure. Then I think I’ll burn it. Likewise I found Mogens Stiller Kjargaard’s Metaphor and Parable to be intolerable today (and it’s not just the translation – it’s the sheer inane thrust of the whole work) but its binding is too stiff for anything but a firearm. Sigh.

I think one of the biggest reasons I got into rhet/comp is that the authors are half readable. There are exceptions, of course – Nan Johnson’s 19th Century Rhetoric in North America flops to mind – although once deciphered, its value emerges. But the tech writing books I spent ‘03-’04 reading in grad school were almost always snoozers. The only one that wasn’t was Dr. MacNealy’s Strategies for Empirical Research in Writing – if only all textbooks were written so clearly and with such brevity. If I ever teach methods, it’s first on the list, updated or not.

But for the most part, the New Testament rhetoric stuff that I read is pretty passable in terms of readability. They usually dig into the text right away, which I like, and forgo an overdose on theory. If they do begin such a rhapsody, it is generally short, within reason, and not physically painful. I’m fully aware that there is a “popular” kind of scholarly writing where a crossover with the bestseller list is possible, and I’m not talking about that. I’m simply referring to actual clarity of speech when discussing complex ideas. I have not yet learned to control my book-throwing impulses when I encounter potentially good, complex ideas that are further obscured by unnecessarily complex, and therefore poor, language. I can dig deconstructionism, but I have to take Chomsky’s position on Derrida – if all reasonable efforts by an intelligent entity to understand the text have failed, what is left may be brilliant, but it is useless.

The Pope, mistranslated

I find this brouhaha over the Pope’s recent remarks fascinating in the context of scholarly citation and popular mistranslation.

I have no real interest in defending/attacking him, Christianity, or Islam, but I do have an interest in what he said as opposed to what it was taken as.

My gut instinct, initially, was that he had offered a quote to illustrate some point, being the ex-professor he is, and this was mistranslated or crudely summarized into being his own remarks or even that he agreed with the gist of the quotation.

After a brief search, I found the text of the speech and proceeded to read it instead of sorting through conflicting and oft biased news accounts.

Assuming that the English within is accurate, I would say my initial guess was correct. I was actually impressed by the smooth flow of the speech, though you’re not going to find me agreeing with faith/God and reason being compatible, which is a large part of his argument.

A very simplified summary of the speech’s thesis would be that God acts rationally and this is a key tenet of Christianity. The infamous quotation in particular offers a theological debate between a Byzantine (and Christian) emperor and a unidentified Persian (and assumed follower of Islam) in 1391. The emperor states God is bound by reason, and that he believes spreading faith by war and violence are not reasonable activities; he goes on to question how Mohammad or the Koran address this issue, as much of Islam was, admittedly, spread by holy war. The Persian’s (Ibu Hazn) remarks are paraphrased through another author, but the response seems to be that the God of the Koran is “transcendent” and thus beyond rationality, is free to disregard even his own statements on violence and such.

The rest of the Pope’s speech drops the Christianity/Islam context and focuses instead on the “Must God be bound by reason?” question, the role of reason in Christianity, and in particular how Greek philosophy intersects.

I would have extreme difficulty calling this an attack on Islam. The Pope does not use the quote to even denounce the use of war or violence to spread religion (though I’m sure he agrees with that position); his focus at that point in the speech is the differing view of God’s rationality between the two religions, and he then moves quickly on to Christian-only concepts. In the preceding paragraph, even, he explicitly states he is only using the quote as a “starting-point for my reflections on the issue,” which is the issue of “faith and reason.” I think he wanted an equally scholarly response from an Islamic scholar, as the Persian responded to the emperor. But in today’s supercharged, simplified media…

Ergo, I think the Pope got mistranslated, but he left the opening.

His choice of quotation is airtight from an academic perspective, but politically poor. This is rhetoric that fails on a worldwide stage. Surely there are dozens of other theological quotations that he could have used to introduce the same God/reason thesis without juxtaposing Christianity and Islam so sharply.

But I can’t give that approach much weight at all, personally, as I have little patience for burying history to make people happy. There is a sharp divide between the theology of the two religions. From what I know of Islam (I took a course as an undergrad) he did not misrepresent its conception of God, and if the Pope – and a very educated Pope we have, for better or worse – doesn’t know Christian theology, I’m a saint.

It would be really, really easy to mistranslate or misquote that speech and turn it into an attack on Islam rather than a scholarly debate with, perhaps, a mild implication that Christianity and Islam should have theological rap sessions on occasion. I might even say that the Pope, eager to deliver a thoughtful rumination, accidentally left an opening that was exploited.

By the way, even English-speakers didn’t understand the speech. The NYT said today, “The speech was largely a scholarly address criticizing the West for submitting itself too much to reason, walling God out of science and philosophy,” which is a so-so summary of just one point of the speech.

I’d like to see an Islamic scholar write a good rebuttal to his speech, in a polite manner. The obvious counteragrument to the Pope’s speech is that Christianity may talk the talk of rationality and borrow the Greeks for backing, but there is no shortage of religious warfare done in the name of Jesus. The Crusades ring a bell. And why, there’s an overtly Christian nation right now waging war to make the world safe for Judeo-Christian Western civilization. You get one guess which one. The ‘war on terrorism’ is not eligible for a secular sticker.

Trip

Today (or, rather, yesterday, as it is 12:06 am) I went down to Starkville, MS to see H’s sister, J, have her coating ceremony at the veterinary school at MSU. It’s a tough school to get into, and I was envious, as was H, of the tour. They have a huge cross-shaped room there with desks and lab benches for each student, and a ceiling-mounted tracked pulley system, so they can swing horse carcasses or somesuch past everyone for easy viewing. J will have a blast there.

The school also has a really horrific color scheme – the auditorium was in a rainbow hue, if rainbows only contained yellow, red, and brown, such as those found in popular renditions of hell. Some of Blake’s watercolors come to mind. And, much like my beloved Patterson Hall here at the U of M, the entire college is made of concrete blocks that are then rigorously air-conditioned into sterility. Ah, the South.

My current stress level is remarkably even-keeled. I am behind on most everything, but curiously not as concerned as I really should be about any of it. Part of it is that I have decided not to kick myself over being slow to revise my NT metaphor paper, which I have hopes of being pub #2. Over the last week, I have set the ideas on a little mental scale, and the paper comes out as solid – I have no doubt that it is publishable – but it still needs more heft.

It’s chiefly an argument based on the text and barely contains any synthesis, so I feel a bit out of depth. I simply don’t feel comfortable with citing less than 7 or 8 pages of sources. Citations offer a certain ethical buoyancy that I have come to appreciate. Fortunately, my secret weapon, interlibrary loan, has been activated, and a book or two later I should feel better about the paper. It probably won’t go out until early Sept, though.

Gibson

I’m not in the mood to make a long formal agrument. But I thought I should write something briefly about the bruhaha around Mel Gibson.

I am puzzled over the media fascination with Gibson trashing Jews while stinking drunk. I bet several hundred other intoxicated individuals in North America did exactly the same that night and with greater pseudo-eloquence. Does the ADL really need to issue a press release?

Good grief. I haven’t seen the NAACP issue a press release decrying Steve the Drunk’s racist monologues on Deadwood, which are 20 times more nasty than anything Gibson said while plastered, not to mention E.B. Farnum’s even worst racism and anti-Semitism from the same show. They crank out vitriol every week and get paid for it; historical bigotry is subsidized for your entertainment. Not that I’m complaining – it’s educational.

Now, in the last few days I’ve seen a little more John 8:7 than the initial stone-throwing. That’s good. But I’d still like to see more attention to the DUI than the inane jabbering afterward, though. Drunk driving kills over 16,000 people per year and injures over 300,000 in the U.S. alone. That’s worthy of media scrutiny.

There’s real anti-Semitism in the world. A lot of it. But even if Mel Gibson thinks Jews blew up the Twin Towers on the Day That Will Not Be Mentioned, he’s still not even on the radar of people worth worrying or thinking about. He’s just an easier target than America’s various allies of convenience, which have populations teeming with such inane assessments – Saudi Arabia and Egypt, please stand up.

My impression of Gibson is that he’s had some indoctrination from his dad (whose bizarre beliefs are well documented) that fortunately didn’t take; but it’s still there, a poison simmering just below the surface, waiting for a lack of inhibition – a poison that will take another generation or two to disappear. I hope his kids are ok.

As for the Passion movie… one of the more regrettable aspects of Christianity is that it has a certain amount of latent or at least suggested anti-Semitism that can be read into it – especially in John. This is tempered, at least in the gospels, by the stressing of Jesus and his disciples’ innate Jewishness.

But any movie made about Jesus’ death is going to have to include that a Jewish prophet, false or not, was crucified and no one stopped the Romans from doing it, including the apostles and the Temple – and also that Jesus’ thinly veiled anti-Roman rhetoric was a huge political problem for an occupied Jerusalem. Killing Jesus prevented (or, rather, post-poned) a revolt that would have been ruthlessly crushed, as the one in 66.

But there’s also the point that Jesus, in stating over and over that the events surrounding his death were already determined, essentially absolves anyone from wrongdoing as they had no free will. If it was all meant to happen, and he did die for humanity’s sins, then it’s more than a little hypocritical for a Christian to blame the Jews present for something they had by definition no control over and are forgiven for anyway, as necessary actors in a deity-ordained play. And of course, by extension, it’s even more ridiculous to blame people who just share the same religion, or descendents.

Is it clear that I don’t grok anti-Semitism?

Work

I have been trying to work today and get caught up with the five billion things that need to be done before the fall semester begins. Next to nothing has gone right, including this post, which I am now retyping as the web development software I was using in the other window succeeded in crashing Firefox.

My reading is about the only thing that I’ve managed to keep up. I finished the second volume of Isaac Asimov’s Guide to the Bible today. I find his fiction a snoozefest much of the time, but he’s a good read when he’s lecturing. His primacy focus in this commentary on the New Testament is the historical occurences and dates behind the various verses. The confusion between the various Herods in the gospels, for example, delights him, and allows for pages and pages of thoughtful asides. His approach to the birth narratives is also very good. He is not tough enough on Acts, though; he accepts the speeches at face value, rather than reveal them as Thucydides-style summaries.

The little NT Greek that I have picked up this summer greatly enhanced my enjoyment of this particular tome, however. Asimov is forever pausing to explain the Greek/Hebrew/Latin/English train wrecks that the NT is full of, and I wouldn’t have understood these comments as well a month ago.

Reading his commentary also reminded me that I haven’t redrafted my paper on agricultural metaphor in the NT and sent it to a journal yet – and this, in turn, prompted me to write out a long list of everything I have to do by late August. It’s a depressingly long document.

Catching up

Perhaps I should take a moment to clue in everybody about where the hell I’ve been.

The PhD grind continues. The spring 2006 semester was easily the hardest I’d had since becoming a graduate student. I escaped with a A- in one class, a scar that will surely haunt me to the end of my days. That’s my second, which keeps me at the frustrating 3.99 mark.

One more 12-hour semester in the fall, though, and the coursework is done.

I guess I did ok. I sent off my first academic paper, on paragraph theory, to a journal; I went to my first conference – CCCC in Chicago – and presented for the first time; and I won an award for being the outstanding graduate student in the English department.

I’m supposed to be revamping the English webpage this summer, but this task (when I actually get the server access to start it) will not quite pay the summer bills. However, I think a small teaching gig has appeared that will make up most of the difference.

In the meantime. I am not entirely idle. I have started teaching myself the Koine Greek of the New Testament, with the goal of getting through the Gospel of John by August. Why? Well, I have become more or less enamored with rhetorical criticism of the NT; I aim to send off a mostly-finished paper on NT agricultural metaphor by July. And I think I will try to write a history of prose rhythm teaching in the fall.

There are plenty of irons in the fire, I think, not counting at least two collaborations going on. If I am extraordinarily lucky, by Xmas I will have sent out five papers in 2006.

That would be a good thing, as when my comprehensive exams approach (spring 2007) I will not have much time to try my hand at publishing. I might get a paper out that summer as sort of a prelim to the dissertation, but I’m not counting on it. I’d like to leave the UoM in spring 2008 with 3 or so publications, and at least 1 of them being a good one in a good journal. Ideally one would be in comp, another in rhetoric, and another in NT criticism or tech writing, to show versitility.

That’s the plan. What actually happens between now and May 2008 is not predictable. But I am on schedule, one year into a planned three-year PhD, and I think it will come off mostly according to plan.