An update

I’ve been pretty swamped at work and doing some double-duty with the kids so my posting here is really on and off.

I have a few things in the cooker though.

I started to write a post connecting Watchman Nee’s Love Not the World to Rene Girard, but quickly realized that Nee writes concisely enough that there is not a ton of condensing I can do to his quotes. That means it’s going to take more time to give it a just treatment. I think there is a lot to connection though. Both Girard and Nee are a lot more interested in Satan’s big-picture activity in the world than they are about the specifics of who he actually is (demonology, etc.).

I also picked up Paul Zahl’s older book, Who Will Deliver Us? At first glance, it looks like any other mediocre Christian book, with a cheesy early 1980s abstract cover to boot. Wrong. This is the gospel, totally RAW. Very good stuff. I wish I had had some exposure to this sort of thing when I was younger. I’d like to say that I would have recognized how different it is back then, but probably not.

And, as I always pick up WAY more books than I have time to deal with, I have David Bently Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite sitting here on the table as well. I’ve wanted to read a book on aesthetics for a while and this one comes highly recommended. I forgot that Hart is not a popular author though. Oops. This book is pretty heavy duty. I might not make it through before the library loan undertaker knocks.

I’m also taking Jazz theory, for the 2nd time from my favorite old professor. I first took it seven years ago, but it’s different every year. I’m going to post some notes here, just because so much of it is fascinating!

It’s more than just vocabulary that is lost in translation

Check this out.

One might imagine the Bible as a rich and variegated landscape, perfectly accessible to the observer’s eye, but from which we now stand almost three millennia distant. Through the warp of all those intervening centuries, lines become blurred, contours are distorted, colors fade; for not only have we lost the precise shadings of implication of the original Hebrew words but we have also acquired quite different habits and expectations as readers. (emphasis mine)

-Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, p.185

I’ve heard a lot of people try to mix in a little bit of ancient near-eastern scholarship into their Bible study and interpretation. This is good! I think I like N.T. Wright the most though since his is so dang thorough. The footnotes are beefy on all points and NOT at all the “spam” footnotes that show up so often in academia lately. He doesn’t just mix in a little bit of handpicked quotes from Josephus to bolster a point in his sermon. The work in his Christian Origins series is serious, exhaustive scholarship from someone who is about as passionate about this stuff as possible.

In has been my own experience in making a sustained effort to understand biblical narrative better that such learning is pleasurable rather than arduous.

-Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, p.188

True dat!

How Alter can also be passionate about this stuff and not be anywhere near orthodoxy is something I don’t quite understand. Perhaps he’s more of a straight up bible nerd, rather than Wright, who is also a shepherd.

How did the bible writers always get the inside scoop?

Look at the conversations between David and Jonathan in the Bible. Most of these are completely private. How is it possible that the author of 1 Samuel was able to provide us with a transcript? Did he have a tape recorder? Did he have a magic mirror that he used to spy on them? Did God tell him while he wrote the scripture in some sort of trance? I must say, I was amazed that in all my Christian education, nobody had ever bought this up.

Alter offers what seems to be a pretty convincing explanation: that the author knows the important parts of the story and is filling in the details (read: making them up!) so as to give the story more power, memorability and literary beauty.

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the role played by the narrator in the biblical tales is the way in which omniscience and unobtrusiveness are combined. The sweep of the biblical narrator’s authoritative knowledge extends from the very beginnings of things, which he can report down to the precise language and order of the divine utterances that brought the world into being, to the characters’ hidden thoughts and feelings, which he may summarize for us or render in detail as interior speech. He is all-knowing and also perfectly reliable: at times he may choose to make us wonder but he never misleads us.

-Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, p.183

He knows everything, but chooses to leave so much out sometimes!

Does that mean any of this stuff is “false” or “not true”? Well, no. It IS how stuff really happened, more or less. This shows though how you have to be really careful pulling big theological principals out of one isolated verse, especially if that phrase is dialog. The Bible is completely reliable for what it is, but what it is is sometimes more like a film with actors than raw documentary footage. I don’t think this diminishes the truth of scripture one bit. In fact, this is difficult to explain, but I think it makes studying the Bible even better!

Bible contradictions just a symptom of human language

Some would say the Bible is full of contradictions because it is full of crap.

Christian theologians (who believe it’s full of diamonds) nevertheless have plenty to argue about too. Why is this?

I like Alter’s suggestion here that God’s intersection with mankind is difficult to describe!

It’s the best that could be done with human language.

The monotheistic revolution of biblical Israel was a continuing and disquieting one. It left little margin for neat and confident views about God, the created world, history, and man as political animal or moral agent, for it repeatedly had to make sense of the intersection of incompatibles – the relative and the absolute, human imperfection and divine perfection, the brawling chaos of historical experience and God’s promise to fulfill a design in history. The biblical outlook is informed, I think, by a sense of stubborn contradiction, of a profound and ineradicable untidiness in the nature of things.

-Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, p.154

Concerning the two creation accounts in Genesis

Why should the author of Genesis have felt obliged to use both these accounts, and why did he not at least modify his sources enough to harmonize the contradictions? The scholars – who of course refer to him as redactor, not author, generally explain that he viewed his inherited literary materials as canonical, which meant both that he had to incorporate them and that he could not alter them.

-Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, p.141

Later, Alter suggests that it was possible there were other creation narratives in circulation that were axed when the compiler (or author right!) was putting everything together. These two HAD to be kept though. They were certain to be accurate, despite their being incompatible on some of the details.

It’s all about the words

The biblical writers are often less concerned with actions in themselves than with how individual character responds to actions or produces them; and direct speech is made the chief instrument for revealing the varied and at times nuanced relations of the personages to the actions in which they are implicated.

-Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, p.66

The Bible is long, but it spends astoundingly little time describing simple things like appearance, setting, scenery, and other basic details. We are told nothing about Rebekah except that she was “beautiful”. Saul is tall. David is ruddy. We can infer that he had a beard. We virtually never know what sort of clothes anyone wore or what their houses looked like. Compared to the miles of description that show up in modern novels (Clan of the Cave Bear anyone? Holy crud.) this is rather amazing.

The same goes for actions. Wouldn’t a blow-by-blow of the fight with Goliath have been pretty neat? But it’s only a couple of sentences. The Passion of the Christ (movie) drags it out for over an hour but all Mark says is “it was the third hour when they crucified him.”

Even the action we get is often in the form of being “told” by someone else. If something happens away from the main character, we hear about it from a messenger. It does not often cut to action far away. With the bible, there is only one camera unit. It’s all about speech and characters.

Spoken language is the substratum of everthing human and divine that transpires in the Bible, and the Hebrew tendency to transpose what is preverbal or nonverbal into speech is finally a technique for getting at the essence of things, for obtruding their substratum. In a mode of narration so dominated by speech, visual elements will necessarily be sparsely represented. And even in the exceptional case when a scene is conceived visually, the writer may contrive to report what is seen through what is spoken.


(See example of David talking with the watchmen in 2 Samuel 19)

Language is everything to God it would seem. It’s no wonder why the incarnation (Jesus Christ) is described as the logos, the Word.

With language God creates the world; through language he reveals His design in history to men. There is a supreme confidence in the ultimate coherence of meaning through language that informs the biblical vision.


How exactly did God “speak” to people in scripture?

“God spoke to David.” “God spoke to _____.” “God told _______ such and such.” We find this all over scripture, but most of the time the method is left out. Occasionally a dream is mentioned or an angel or a burning bush, but the bulk of God’s communication is presented as plain dialogue without any mention of the medium.

Does God just speak to people from the sky? Why doesn’t he do that today? Oh, but he still does of course, right? You’ll find quite a few Christians that will answer yes or no to that. Maybe we are filling in the blanks with something of our own invention. Why not? Take a look at this discussion about the many instances of God talking to David.

Note, it’s not clear what particular method of consulting an oracle David used, but the common ones – drawing lots, divining through gems set in the priestly breastplate – were not verbal, and since David is nowhere presented as a seer vouchsafed direct communication from God, there is no reason to assume that an actual dialogue took place as it seems to be reported.

We might recall that even when God wants to convey to David the divine judgment that not he but his son will build God a house in Jerusalem, He does not address David directly but conveys His detailed message through Nathan the prophet in a dream vision. In the case of David’s inquiry of the oracle then, the writer almost certainly counted on his audience’s understanding that God did not in fact respond to David in this manner, that the inquiry itself was made not through speech but through some manipulation of cultic objects, and that what is reported is by no means the form but rather the gist of the inquiry.

-Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, p.69

Geesh, the idea that David might have used “cultic objects” such as casting lots to determine the will of God would freak a lot of churchgoers out that I know. But what alternative is more plausible?

I’m not sure but I think these are great questions. I think you could argue that since the Holy Spirit has come, NOW God does speak to us directly, or at least that is perhaps a more frequent form for us than it was for folks in the OT. This would jive with C.S. Lewis’s notion that God operated in more imperfect “old school magic” methods in the ancient past and has been progressively moving away from that stuff. Hence no more temple rituals, etc. This can be seen in his explanation of Merlin in That Hideous Strength.

How art is all about timing the thought process of the observer

Much of art lies in the shifting aperture between the shadowy foreimage in the anticipating mind of the observer and the realized revelatory image in the work itself, and that is what we must learn to perceive more finely in the Bible.

-Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, p.62

I love this one-sentence description of what makes for good art! This works for music too and is probably even more obvious in film. Much of Alter’s work is to point out how there is a lot more of this going on in the Bible that most folks realize.

The bible is going out of it’s way to not sound pagan

The bible is really quite different from other ancient religious or mythic texts. Here, Shemaryahu Talmon (quoted by Robert Alter) proposes that this is very intentional on the part of the writers.

The ancient Hebrew writers purposefully nurtured and developed prose narration to take the place of the epic genre which by its content was intimately bound up with the world of paganism, and appears to have had a special standing in the polytheistic cults. The recitation of the epics was tantamount to an enactment of cosmic events in the manner of sympathetic magic. In the process of total rejection of the polytheistic religions and their ritual expressions in the cult, epic songs and also the epic genre were purged from the repertoire of the Hebrew authors.

They were trying quite deliberately to distance themselves from paganism, including the literary genres typically associated with it. The story of Exodus could have been written in a style very similar to the Odyssey. In fact, that’s how everyone else would have done it! But the people of the one true God are different and they didn’t want their history lumped together with the other myths. They invented a new story-telling style. It’s more like raw history, but more intimate.

Hammerton-Kelly quotes

In the For Rene Girard essay collection, Robert Hammerton-Kelly certainly sounds the most “popular” as opposed to academic. In fact, he even seems a bit grouchy at times.

Oh well. It makes for some good one liners!

The sad fact of most academic discipleship is that the teachers are so often unworthy examples of their teaching – immoral moralists, clumsy aestheticians, and prejudiced philosophers.


The right explanation can help heal a mind distressed beyond endurance by events whose significance it cannot grasp.

This is really really important. Some of us just HAVE to keep digging into mountains of theology and philosophy. It’s not because we’re heartless or bookworms or nerds (though that can at times be part of it). Our mind is distressed and our hearts damaged. We are looking for healing that only a “right explanation” can bring.

In another place, he points out that mimetic theory can actually be pretty helpful for chilling out and not taking everything personally. This is especially hand for pastors.

Perhaps most helpfully, it enabled me to take less personally the inevitable punishment load on the pastor as part of the venting of violence from a social system. It helps if the goat knows that it is not all his fault.