Saturday, February 6, 2010

Rowan Williams on Money & God

Rowan Williams has a brief piece in Newsweek this week on "God and Wall Street." The nefarious Trinity of Marx, Darwin and Freud (or "Freudian Fundamentalists") comes in for a very mild drubbing here, as each is responsible for narrowing the scope of significance in human relationships. But it's not quite Marx he has in view. Wall Street is the real economic bad guy now. And he's right about the way economic language has infiltrated "even education and health care." How many of you are sick of hearing about your, our, their brand? Obama's "brand." My university's "brand." And, curiously, Williams' critique of Wall Street is sort of Marxist, in a way. "Money is a metaphor," he says; "our monetary dealings shed light on aspects of our human condition that, rightly understood, tell us something about how we might relate to God." Replace God here with some version of the social, "each other," and you've got a kind of Marxism. The Archbishop has, on other occasions, also offered Marx some highly circumscribed praise.

One other thing. Money's a metaphor. But so, it seems, is religion. "Our job as human beings is to imagine ourselves—using all the raw materials that science, psychoanalysis, and economics provide us—in the hope that the images we discover and shape will have resonance and harmony with the rhythms of what Christians, and others, call the will and purpose of Almighty God." Images, shapes, resonance, harmony, rhythm. The will of God as a multi-media performance? I could almost go for that.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Remembering Salinger

Holden Caulfield, in Catcher in the Rye, speaking about the New Testament:

"In the first place, I'm sort of an atheist. I like Jesus and all, but I don't care too much for most of the other stuff in the Bible. Take the Disciples, for instance. They annoy the hell out of me, if you want to know the truth. They were all right after Jesus was dead and all, but while He was alive, they were about as much use to Him as a hole in the head. All they did was keep letting Him down. I like almost anybody in the Bible better than the Disciples. If you want to know the truth, the guy I like best in the Bible, next to Jesus, was that lunatic and all, that lived in the tombs and kept cutting himself with stones. I like him ten times as much as the Disciples, that poor bastard."

Revitalizing the Bible and . . .

Starting it up again. Feel free to join in, friends.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Alter's Canon and Creativity

I've recently read Alter's little book Canon and Creativity: Modern Writing and the Authority of Scripture. Like so much of what Alter does, this study is rich and fascinating, and yet rather lacking in the requisite theoretical groundwork. For example, Alter wants to claim that writers of faith, writers in faithful ages, can produce destabilizing, even subversive literary reflections upon biblical material, only because they have a sense of the 'double canonicity' of the Bible. The Bible, that is, both organizes religious life and theological reflection and is the linguistic/literary repository of biblically-informed culture. Thus, when faithful writers playfully rework biblical texts in unorthodox ways, they are merely taking up the biblical language (i.e., the second sense of biblical canonicity), divorced from any and all religious or theological concerns. The reason for this claim?: "if the canonicity of the Bible were strictly a matter of doctrinal truth [i.e., if there were only a single way of understanding the Bible as canon] . . . radical [literary] redirecting of biblical language would be unimaginable" (48). What's lacking here is any awareness - odd, because Alter does know better - of poststructuralist textuality, intertextuality, etc., or even a much more basic appreciation of the multiple ways in which scholars of reception history complicate questions of interpretation and meaning.

This idea of 'double canonicity' seems ultimately a device for gauging a writer's religious commitment. If so-and-so alters biblical language in such a way as to call into question the Bible's authority or some basic doctrinal point, then so-and-so must be writing beyond or outside of faith. Why this simplistic binary should be attractive is quite unclear to me, but that it is attractive to some (like Stanley Fish or James Wood) is obvious. Unfortunately, it's also the very thing against which I must struggle in my Bible and Literature courses every year. Perhaps actually teaching Alter, thereby trying to encourage students to reflect critically upon their own positions by getting them to notice the flaws in his, would be one way to go.

Teaching the Fall

I'm about to teach David Maine's Fallen. It's an excellent retelling of the Fall, but in reverse. We begin on page 3 with chapter 40, featuring Cain as an old man, and we end with chapter 1 on the last page of the book, with Adam and Eve still in the garden. Additionally, each of the novel's four books takes up the narrative from a new character's perspective, but without disrupting the reverse plot trajectory. Really, it's a remarkable novelistic feat. In terms of biblical rewrites, Nino Ricci's Testament similarly attempts to divvy up the narrative into Rashominic segments, but it's less successful, in my view, than Maine's work. Maine seems to be making a career of biblical rewrites, having also written a book about the Flood (The Preservationist) and another called Samson. See his blog for more info.

This term I've also taught Paradise Lost and Byron's wonderful little verse drama, Cain: A Mystery, in which Lucifer (the Romantic enlightener) takes Cain on a cosmic journey to the "pre-Adamite" worlds, and to the realm of death. Almost immediately after his return to earth our hero has a rather unfortunate spat with his brother. However, because Cain is now a Romantic rebel, his biblical verses are spoken by his wife/sister Adah - which has the effect of making Cain seem radically indifferent to his punishment. He has already embraced his essential alienation and thus is already (figuratively if not yet actually) a fugitive and a wanderer in this earthly life.