Monday, December 31, 2012

Song 8:5-14 - A Better Way

5 Who is that coming up from the wilderness,
   leaning upon her beloved?
Under the apple tree I awakened you.
There your mother was in labour with you;
   there she who bore you was in labour.
6 Set me as a seal upon your heart,
   as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
   passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
   a raging flame.
7 Many waters cannot quench love,
   neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love
   all the wealth of one’s house,
   it would be utterly scorned.
8 We have a little sister,
   and she has no breasts.
What shall we do for our sister,
   on the day when she is spoken for?
9 If she is a wall,
   we will build upon her a battlement of silver;
but if she is a door,
   we will enclose her with boards of cedar.
10 I was a wall,
   and my breasts were like towers;
then I was in his eyes
   as one who brings peace.
11 Solomon had a vineyard at Baal-hamon;
   he entrusted the vineyard to keepers;
   each one was to bring for its fruit a thousand pieces of silver.
12 My vineyard, my very own, is for myself;
   you, O Solomon, may have the thousand,
   and the keepers of the fruit two hundred!
13 O you who dwell in the gardens,
   my companions are listening for your voice;
   let me hear it.
14 Make haste, my beloved,
   and be like a gazelle
or a young stag
   upon the mountains of spices! (NRSV)
This is the last of our section by section posts on the Song of Songs. Stay tuned for a post discussing the didactic intention of the Song and for our usual commentary review post. Since we're making announcements, also look for a post coming soon giving a personal update and another announcing major changes at this blog.

The scene opens with the man and woman coming up from the wilderness. This is the second time this has happened. Weren't they just in a lush garden? Is this a signal to read against the grain? Against the expression of the two lovers?

Their love has grown strong. The girl  insists that nothing can tear them apart. They are not married and the
girl will not accept any other. Like death, love has consumed her.

Verses eight and nine are a tough nut to crack. With Exum, I find it highly unlikely that the brothers are the speakers of these verses. They are yet to speak in the entire poem. However, against Exum, I take the 'we' to imply a group speaking, that group being the daughters of Jerusalem. The Song is didactic and hence it's not shocking that it might want to make its point clear here at the climax. The daughters of Jerusalem have seen what has happened to the woman. How do they prevent it from happening to others? They must keep them pure once they are are betrothed. They must become truly inaccessible. Attractive but inaccessible - and not the pretense of inaccessibility that the girl of the Song exhibited. Attractive inaccessibility required the help of the community. The girl responds by saying that she was just like a beautiful inaccessible city - except that she wasn't inaccessible.

The next two verses are spoken by the man. He does not believe that there was a need for the girl to have been tended to by others. He could tend to his own woman just fine - except that she wasn't really his woman. We don't know if the girl was betrothed to another or not, but it does not seem likely that she was betrothed to him.

The Song closes as we might expect. The woman gives one more wistful cry for union, for love not satisfied, to indulge in the most sensuous of pleasures yet once more.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Books of the Year: 2012

I've been extraordinarily busy at work lately so I'm barely getting this out before Christmas.. Oh well. I still want to keep up the tradition and briefly mention the best five books that I read for the first time in 2012. This year was the year of the long books so my volume, again, was a little lower, but I believe I made up for it with quality. Anyways, here's the list!

5. History of Sexuality Vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure by Michel Foucault

All three volumes are worth reading, but this one stuck out to me the most by showing that the way(s) we have thought about sex and sexuality over the past few hundred years is far from the only way. The heavy citation of primary source material also makes this book invaluable. Anyone studying sexual ethics needs to wrestle with this book.

4. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien

I read this on my flight to China and back. Even though I knew the whole story it was a very rich and enjoyable read. I love the way Tolkien creates a world full of meaning and wonder. I enjoyed that as much if not more than the story.

3. Song of Songs  by J. Cheryl Exum

There are several good commentaries on the Song of Songs, but I found Exum's to both be the best and the most fun to read. You can tell that she's spent a lifetime in the Song and has many creative solutions to difficult passages. Not only is there a lot of good information and sound reasoning, but also a lot of great prose. It may be the best written commentary I've ever read.

2. Church Dogmatics Vol I.2 by Karl Barth

What can one say except, it's Barth, so of course it's brilliant. I learned a lot pouring through these pages. Yes, Barth is dense and hard to grasp at times but the payoff is big. If nothing else, it's worth reading for this very very lengthy discussion on authority. It's a very rich section with profound practical implications. He articulates, for me, a strong reason why I could never become Catholic (or, for different reasons, Episcopalian under their current leadership).

1. Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul by Douglas Campbell

I believe Campbell's work is the most significant on Paul since Sanders. He provides a fresh rereading of Romans from the foundations up. One that I find, at many points, persuasive. It's an extremely long and difficult read - I think I spent about four months in it - but it is rewarding. I would rate it as one of the five best books I've ever read.

And as usual, here's my list of books that came out in 2012 that I didn't get to read and am most excited about.

5. Bible Made Impossible, The: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture by Christian Smith

Perhaps the most controversial book of the year in Evangelical circles. I'd like, at some point to see what the hubbub was about for myself and I expect to find myself at least somewhat in agreement with him. My only question will be if he is too polemical to be constructive as these types of works sometimes are.

4. The Jewish Teachers of Jesus, James, and Jude: What Earliest Christianity Learned from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha by David deSilva

I've been trying to read a lot more of the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha over the past couple of years. The insights it has opened up for me into the New Testament have been significant. This book has gotten a lot of positive press and should be a sure guide.

3. Acts: Introduction and 1:1-2:47 by Craig Keener

Keener is one of my two or three favorite Evangelical commentators. I love his little commentary on Romans. This should  be his magnum opus. No other text of Scripture is as well suited for his skill set.

2. Four Views on the Apostle Paul ed. Michael Bird

I love Pauline studies and the contributors to this volume are very good. I'm particularly interested to see the reaction to Campbell's presentation. I love Luke Timothy Johnson as well and Mark Nanos' Jewish treatment of Paul intrigues me too,

1. Simon Peter in Scripture and Memory: The New Testament Apostle in the Early Church by Markus Bockmuehl

Bockmuehl is becoming my favorite New Testament scholar. His emphasis on the importance of reception history for understanding meaning is a breath of fresh air. I'm looking forward, very much, to his treatment of the undervalued apostle.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Balthasar on Faith

...Christian faith, being God's witness in us, can be understood only as the answer to this interior and intimate self-witnessing of the God who opens up the secrets of his Heart as he gives himself to humanity. This is a first and most formal affirmation, and one which must proceed all those particular modalities which are related to man's concrete condition: his sinful turning away from God, his blindness and obstinacy, and finally, those things which grace works in him - his conversion, his breaking, his humbling and his exultation. Faith is participation in the free self-disclosure of God's interior life and light, just as the spiritual nature of the creature means participation in the unveild-ness of all reality, which in one way or another must also include the divine reality. The created spirit does not "deduce" this reality (in which God is included in whatever way) from indications and logical premises; as spirit, it is from the very start set in the light of this reality, at the same time thinking from within it and directing its thought toward it - (Hans Urs von Balthasar The Glory of the Lord p. 157).

Monday, December 10, 2012

Doctor Who: A Murky Pond

The end of the 2012 portion of season 7 occurred two months ago. Ever since I've wanted to do a write-up on Amy Pond but I've been too busy with work to pull it off. Things aren't slowing down any, but I miss blogging to the degree that I'm going to write this post anyways. You'll get this post on Amy today, and at some point in the near future I'll write a comparison post or posts on Amy and Rory vs. Rose and Mickey.

As you can probably tell, I love Doctor Who. I'm a fan. I like almost everything I've seen. That doesn't mean that I'm not critical at the same time. I MUCH prefer the writing of Russel T. Davies over that of Steven Moffat. There are several reasons for that and I want to focus on one of them in this post. While writing strong episodes, Moffat struggles to develop his characters. In fact, I would say that Amy is neither believable nor, honestly, very interesting, or perhaps, better put, important.

At the start of season five I had high hopes. David Tennant and Russel T. Davies were gone, but the new Doctor seemed ok, and he had a gorgeous and flirty companion,[1] Amy Pond. Much like Rose Tyler, she was just a regular girl. And much like Rose she was conflicted over which of her boys she wanted.

Amy also brought two other things to the table. Unlike Rose and Martha Jones, travelling with the Doctor did not harden her. She upheld the value of life from her second episode (The Beast Below)[2] all the way through her end on the show (A Town Called Mercy).[3] The second thing that she brought was an unshakable faith in the Doctor. She adored him and knew he could always turn the worst situations around. And this is where things began to fall apart.

By far the worst episode in the history of the modern Doctor Who is The God Complex.[4] It's the clearest example of Moffat's biggest weakness as a writer. He loves brilliant ideas for episodes and he's going to implement them regardless of the violence they do to the character. In this episode, the Doctor and the Ponds end up in an unusual hotel. It's a hotel that seeks to create fear in its 'guests.' The beast who runs the hotel feeds on the faith of those trapped in it. Presumably, the invocation of fear will lead to clinging onto whatever one has faith in. For Amy, this is the Doctor. Even more than Rose did, Amy believes in the Doctor. Her steadfast belief in the raggedy man is brought up repeatedly throughout season five.[5] It forms the resolution to season five when her steadfast faith saves the Doctor when she brings him back to reality on her wedding day.[6] Nothing, not witnessing the future death of the Doctor nor the failure to rescue her child from the Silence (more on that shortly) can shake her faith in him. So, of course, the beast desires to feast on her faith in the Doctor, perhaps the greatest feast it will ever have.

So how does the Doctor save her from the Beast? He breaks her faith. Very easily, actually. The Doctor utters a monologue about how he really only brought Amy along to feed his vanity, because he wanted to be adored and that he led her to her death, more or less knowingly, because it's what always happens. Voila, Amy’s faith disappears and the threat is over. The Beast dies. Granted, there is some truth to those claims by the Doctor, particularly about him feeding his vanity, but I doubt that they would have the effect of shattering Amy's faith. Was she disillusioned slightly? Sure, but after this episode you see the continuation of faith in the Doctor, especially in the Pond Life shorts. Only one person can save Amy and Rory's marriage, the Doctor, which he in fact does, vindicating her faith. While waiting on the Doctor was a common theme in Amy's life, she never seemed to lose faith in her Doctor. Thus, while an interesting concept, this episode violates Amy's character. Amy wouldn't have lost her faith that easily, in less than a minute, just because of what the Doctor said. Her faith was too rich and too strong. She would have realized that he was only saying those things (however true they were) to save her once again. Moffat was using her and her faith as a device to advance a plot for a single episode while utterly disrespecting her character. This wasn't the only time that happened.

Season six centered on the Silence and their plan to kill the Doctor. In many respects it was a brilliant season, but there is (at least) one major problem that is never adequately resolved. The secondary focal point of season six is the search for Melody Pond, Amy and Rory’s child conceived in the Tardis, while the Tardis was in the Time Vortex. This post is running long, so I’ll cut the discussion somewhat short. In essence, outside of a single episode, A Good Man Goes to War, there is never more than a pretense of a search for the missing baby. And by the time the season ends the whole issue is dropped. Now there are two explanations for this, but I don’t find them ultimately satisfying. One could argue that Amy had virtually no conscious interaction with her child, therefore her bond is weak and finding her lost child doesn’t matter to her as much as it should. I find it hard to believe that this argument would hold even for the shallowest of characters. The second, and more interesting option, is that while Amy and Rory didn’t get to raise Melody, they did grow up with her.[7] Perhaps for a different couple this might be a satisfactory answer, but definitely not for this couple, whose marriage falls apart because of the inability to have children. The real explanation is that finding the child would have destroyed Moffat’s idea. He needed Melody Pond to turn out the way she did. It didn’t matter that he never tried (perhaps because he couldn’t) to even resolve the search for the missing child. While that would have concerned a real person, it didn’t matter to characters whose primary purpose was to advance a plot.

In the end, this is the strongest argument I have for why Moffat should not be the lead writer on Doctor Who. He has brilliant ideas, but his ideas run roughshod over his characters, and at times, major plot elements are left largely unresolved and are forgotten. Things that, in real life, would never be forgotten. That’s a problem because the whole point of Amy and Rory was that they were supposed to be real people, much like the companions under the writing of Russel T Davies. That’s not hyperbole. Davies was brilliant, fantastic.[8] I’m not expecting Moffat to rise to the levels of his genius. No matter how entertaining Moffat makes the show, I find his shortcomings unacceptable. I would like to see the show look in another direction.

[1] I was originally going to include a discussion of Moffat’s portrayal of women but this post ended up being too long and that probably deserves its own post anyways.

[2] In The Beast Below, Amy stops the Doctor from an act of genocide by euthanasia. The Doctor was going to kill the last of the star whales to liberate it from the horrible life that the people of Great Britain had given it.

[3] In A Town Called Mercy, the Doctor was acting quite unmercifully in the name of mercy, ready to send the villain, the other alien doctor to his death. The Doctor did not want the innocent to die because of the mercy he showed to the guilty. Amy upbraided him for his hardness and inconsistency.

[4] I realize Moffat didn't write this episode but as the lead writer he did ok it. For the record, the worst under Davies was Love & Monsters, but that's just because it wasn't interesting.

[5] The one interesting part of this episode is how it juxtaposes Amy’s faith with religious faith. Moffat throughout is perhaps more explicit than Davies on the quasi-deity of the Doctor.

[6] A fascinating instance of believing something to be true making it true.

[7] I’m not even going to try to deal with the logical problems created here.

[8] I currently am watching classic season 16 and was thrilled to find the source of Eccleston’s and Tennant’s signature word in a single sentence in the closing scene of ‘The Pirate Planet.’ In the span of a year (I’m about 8-9 months into my Doctor Who fandom) I should be able to watch every episode that is available on Amazon. It’s a rewarding experience because I am able to connect classic and modern episodes more easily because it’s all so fresh. In January, assuming my work schedule frees up some to take some time off, I will do some comparative work on a classic episode that got a complete rewrite by Davies. Stay tuned.