Wise Men at the Birth: David Brown on Christmas Traditions

Present-day Christianity, it seems to me, will go badly wrong, if it attempts an unmediated dialogue with the biblical text rather than recognizing also the intervening history that has helped shape its present perception of the text’s meaning…[S]o far from Christianity being undermined by post-biblical developments in its self-understanding, it has been hugely enriched by them.

–David Brown. Tradition and Imagination: Revelation and Change (2000)

     As with many treatises on the topic of hermeneutic methods, this book situates itself somewhere between Enlightenment modernist prejudices against rootedness and postmodern arbitrary readings as though there was no reference point beyond the text (‘il n’y a pas de hors texte’). As Brown points out, the first seems preoccupied with mathematical models of truth, while the latter is “crucially dependent on what it rejects.” Both perspectives contain some truth. The strength of postmodern approaches lies in that they understand that “narratives succeed by conveying significance and values rather than by one to one correspondence with historical fact.”  On the other hand, Brown seems slightly more sympathetic to what might be called a ‘soft Enlightenment’ approach.

There is no easy way of meshing the significance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ into an historical metanarrative that is entirely shared by popular culture, but that does not mean that Christians cannot go part of the way … Close attention to original context can uncover open trajectories as it were, pressure points that almost demand further development.

Brown_Traidition_Imagination     Much of Brown’s discussion in the early chapters of the book is devoted to determining the positive contributions and subtle inadequacies of various philosophers and theologians who have each proposed a hermeneutical method: Bultmann, Ricoeur, Gadamer, Lonergan, Frei. At the risk of oversimplification, each of these, despite much of value, has an inadequate understanding of the interplay between history, tradition, and context. Equally important is Brown’s insistence that we cannot return to pre-critical methods of seeking the ‘spiritual’ or allegorical meaning of the text. We must remain committed to both the original context of scripture and the experiences of our own context while seeking to reason through the way in which tradition remains at the center of this relationship. In what follows, and in keeping with the season, I want to highlight the chapter on our modern celebration of Christmas to illustrate this.

Our contemporary Christmas traditions go well beyond the biblical texts. To use a favorite term of Walter Brueggemann, we should take seriously our ‘reimagining‘ of the text. After all, the biblical tradition itself does this. Why shouldn’t we expect the process of revelation to continue through dialogue and interpretation in new contexts? As many have pointed out, Judaism has done this for centuries.

The reason why narratives retain their power in different circumstances is because readers give new prominence to hitherto neglected aspects of the text or because they resolve to tell the story in a new way.

Most Christians are aware of how often artistic depictions of the events associated birth of Jesus take a number of liberties. We are not disturbed by ships sailing into Bethlehem because we recognize that the artist is attempting to convey something other than pure historical truth. Brown is quite straightforward in saying that,

… rewriting succeeds better than does Scripture itself, and in that I include both its effectiveness as narrative and, more importantly, its claims to truth.

Various depictions in song, poetry, painting, and exposition have continued the process began by the gospel writers of rewriting and improving upon the story of Jesus’ birth. For example, we have traditions begun in the middle ages that focus on the child in the crib as an individual person with a kind of awkward sentimentality towards the infant that the original authors would have found foreign — loving, gazing, kissing, laughing — but which are now a part of our consciousness as exemplified in our Christmas songs. Brown gives verse 4 of Frances Alexander’s hymn ‘Once in royal David’s city’ (1848) as an example:

For he is our childhood’s pattern
Day by day like us he grew;
He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us he knew;
And he feeleth for our sadness,
And he shareth in our gladness.

As with many households in the U.S., our family begins decorating right after Thanksgiving and the display of the creche on a bookshelf along with the retelling of the story is something our children look forward to. My father-in-law built a wooden structure for the set which includes the Magi, some shepherds, and a few animals. Once upon a time, we would take care to try present the ‘history’ accurately by moving the Magi further away from the creche to sequence the events. But perhaps this is a failure to understand the very nature of these stories? What is biblical history anyway but the complex interaction of past events, the original context of the writers, and the long trail of that text’s interpretation through the centuries?

Matthew’s story of the Magi appears to have been related to the fulfillment of pagan astrological longings in the child. Later, this idea drops into the background as they become ‘kings’, representatives of the known world, and the child the ‘desire of all nations’. We continue to see these figures as relevant in different ways depending on the culture and time we live in.

In our own day the imagery of kings may not seem particularly appropriate. Yet Christmas cards of the kings far outnumber sales of the shepherds’ adoration. Might this not be because, however remote experience of kingship might be from most people, it can still perform its essential role of hinting at the possibility of the transformation of all values in a way that the shepherds cannot? Ultimate worth, it is implied, does not in the end lie with power as the world now assesses it.

So, go ahead. Put the Wise Men in the manger. Have the angels speak Latin or Latvian. Dream about the inspiration for eco-theology provided by the presence of the animals. A theologically informed imagination in the context of community and tradition has tremendous latitude.

[M]y objective has been a simple one: to challenge the common assumption that the power of revelation is necessarily undermined if external material from the surrounding culture is used to illuminate or even to rewrite its story. That can happen, but need not if due care is taken to integrate what appeals to the pagan or secular imagination into an appropriate underlying Christian framework [emphasis mine]… [F]ar from the Church being embarrassed by the ‘legendary’ material which has accrued to contemporary celebrations of Christmas, this sometimes deserves to be seen not merely as illuminating but even as corrective of the original biblical narrative.


Interpreting Violence

Hardin, Michael. Mimetic Theory and Biblical Interpretation: Reclaiming the Good News of the Gospel. Cascade Books, 2017.

Rene Girard, a French thinker who wrote most of his important works in the 1970s and early 80s, has become an important guide to issues of violence and religion, whether that takes the form of religion-inspired violence, the violence of God in the text of the Bible, or interpretations of atonement and afterlife that emphasize the wrath of God. Violence is a topic of broad and current interest among Christians today.

Mimetic Theory has grown beyond the Girardian canon and attracted the interest of scholars of various backgrounds. Many of these are members of an affiliate group of the American Academy of Religion, the Colloquium on Violence and Religion. The purpose of this book is to show how Mimetic Theory (hereafter MT) can be a guide to Christian biblical interpretation with attention to how it can illuminate the Gospel. The author, who knew Girard and is recognized as a prominent interpreter of his, promises to provide a satisfying framework that will makes sense of the contradictions and problems we face when interpreting the texts as modern people. Michael Hardin is keen to point out that “mimetic theory is not in competition with other biblical interpretive methods.” This is accurate as far as he is referring to both modern historical criticism and many pre-modern perspectives. Those committed to interpretative methods that do not recognize or give prominence to the dialogue, multiplicity, and reworking of the texts within the Bible itself will have the hardest time, however, swallowing the ‘red pill’ of MT.

After teaching literary and mythological texts across the centuries for many years in a French school, Girard hit upon the seemingly revolutionary idea that mimesis was the driver of myth and therefore society. Others, notably Raymund Schwager, built upon this in theology, resulting in a school of interpretive theory that has grown up over the past forty years. As Girard came to see, ideas about humans as learning by imitating were not just his own discovery. They are found throughout history from Heraclitus to Foucault. It was an idea hiding in plain sight. According to Girard, humans, as inter-individuals, non-consciously desire the desire of another. This leads to both positive growth, but also, negatively, to violent conflicts. Early on, a mechanism for dealing with violent cultural crises was found in sacrificing one person, or a minority group, for the many, thereby bringing about a temporary harmony. Sacrifice is a mechanism of violence that ‘solves’ the problem of an even more violent downward spiral, a Hobbesian war of all against all. It is a pharmakos, both cure and poison. Ever since the dawn of consciousness, violence has therefore been associated with the sacred, with religion, but this connection is hidden from us due to its origins. 9781532601101

Hardin spends a chapter detailing the genesis of the theory in this manner before diving into the heart of the material, the application of MT to biblical interpretation. At the core of this approach is the distinction between texts in the Bible that feature the acceptance of the scapegoat mechanism (sacrifice as victimization, not the willing giving of oneself), and those that reveal this same mechanism as murder. The former Hardin calls ‘religion’, while the latter is labeled ‘revelation’. The majority of the texts of the Bible, especially in the Hebrew scriptures, are typically a mixture of both, although at times they may even speak solely with the voice of religious myth, by which he means that the victim agrees with their persecutors that violence is deserved. More often, the authors seem to be aware, however dimly, that this violence is undeserved. Their usual response is a cry for justification and revenge.

The biblically literate reader is likely already thinking of a number of texts where these themes of murder, scapegoat, sacrifice, guilt and innocence are prominent. Importantly for Hardin, the Bible does not speak in a monolithic voice as if all of its words were equally superintended by God. He claims that “the Bible is in the process of deconstructing itself.” Another way to say this is that when the Bible claims that God is speaking, we shouldn’t always take this at face value. Often it is not the true God speaking. Where we hear the true God speaking most clearly is in the forgiving victim, Jesus, on the cross and in the resurrection. Hardin’s approach to biblical authority is strongly Christocentric, polyphonic, and progressive. According to him, even the New Testament writers don’t always follow non-sacrificial logic. For instance, he detects turning points for Paul and views Matthew as more ‘mixed’ than the other three gospel writers.

Overall, the tone of Hardin’s writing is apologetic, even evangelistic. The book is in the form of a short primer written from the perspective of an advocate. As such, he counters common objections to the theory. Two most frequent critical responses are (1) MT is a modern form of the ancient heresy of Marcionism, and that (2) the theory, when applied to the atonement of Jesus, is a subjective one (a type of moral influence theory) that disregards the objective, metaphysical pole. On the first, Hardin agrees that “Marcion had asked the right question about the problem of the relation of violence and divinity.” He believes, in contrast, that the solution given by MT is significantly different. On the second criticism, Hardin enlists the help of LeRon Shultz to explain why the distinction between subjective and objective is not appropriate in a discussion of atonement and anthropology.

Readers will appreciate that Hardin is a clear teacher who communicates well to general audiences. The brevity of the book does not often allow him to develop particular ideas in great detail. He does cover a lot of ground, and occasionally chooses particular texts to read more closely. An entire chapter is dedicated to the exposition of the kenosis hymn in Philippians and the another to Eucharist. Both showcase the fecundity of mimetic approaches to scripture.

A version of this review first appeared in the Englewood Review of Books on October 11, 2017.


Punk Jesus: Hesert’s Christ and the End of Meaning


[H]appy is the man who does not lose faith in me.”  -Matthew 11.6

The shock of death lies in that life ends before meaning is fulfilled.

– Paul Hesert

I found Paul Hesert’s book challenging. Often I could not tell if the concepts themselves were disorientating or if Hesert was overstating his case with a kind of Kierkegaardian starkness. There is something that calls to me here, but I’m not always sure how to put that in language. What follows is my attempt to make sense (am I already implicated?) of this text. The image that came to mind (Hesert doesn’t use it) was of an iconoclastic Jesus (in punk-rock garb, of course), or as a surreal artist deliberately challenging the sensibilities and securities of the comfortable world.

What if the message of Jesus was more destructive of the status quo than we realize? What if the kingdom really was the in-breaking of a completely different world, not a fulfillment of this one? These are themes in Hesert’s nearly forgotten work, Christ and the End of Meaning. He thinks our Jesus is too tame. We need a Punk Jesus. Let’s start with some basic concepts.

(1) Rationality, which includes our myths and images, is employed to “make sense” of life. Something is deemed meaningful if it produces a particular outcome or goal.

(2) Meaning, therefore, is always orientated toward the future, toward both power and possibility.

(3) Christ crucified is a hammer to all forms of cultural accepted meaning rather than a validation of them. Validation takes two basic forms:

(3a) ‘signs and miracles’: the attempt to make God serve our purposes or looking for historical change

(3b) ‘wisdom’: grasping God in the realm of ideas, making God an ideal.

When we claim that Christianity is meaningful to the culture, what we often find is that we have allowed the message of Jesus to reinforce our cultural givens. Our theology ends up supporting our tribal beliefs or perhaps, more dangerously, the things that even most tribes seem to agree upon. The God that confronts us, however, is more than just a projection of culture, more dangerous and wild.


Hesert ranges over several doctrines but let’s take the doctrine of the idea of the sinfulness of humankind in the Christian tradition as a case study. Hesert says that ‘sin’ is a faith category, not a moral one. Understanding sin as a moral word makes God the guarantor of of the innocent/guilty distinction. This is a God who asks us to lose our life. Losing your life (meaning) is refusing to put yourself in terms of meaning. “Faith is not a resource to make one’s life in the meaningful world easier, more efficient, or even happier…to follow Jesus is to lose that world and base one’s life on the Gospel.

“Because life is meaningful when the guilty are identified and receive what is coming to them, … the most poignant challenge to meaning is the suffering of the innocent. The corollary of this is that within the structure of meaning, suffering is the greatest challenge to innocence … We are relieved to learn an allegedly innocent sufferer is really not so innocent after all.”

In the Garden myth the culture doesn’t hear the conditions of life but an “angry parent” and it creates the conviction that other people are why we can’t have nice things. We must determine guilt so that the rest of us are free of blame and safe from harm. Even common ideas of mercy can participate in this false view of sin. Mercy becomes either unseen factors mitigating guilt (so-called extenuating circumstances), the opportunity for another chance since you had your heart in the right place, or some type of universal tolerance (we are all not so bad). In all these, the truth of universal guilt is obscured. Sin is simply what the culture determines as wrong rather than the infinite debt owed to God that breaks the ledger. Sin, culturally defined,

 “…reinforces the sense of the present as deficient and even polluted. Extending far beyond specific instances, it creates an inexplicable ambiance of unease and a pervasive though vague sense of responsibility.”

The alternative is to lose our sense of righteousness altogether in repentance, which is a surrender of our systems of innocence and guilt. “One repents not so much of “sins” in the sense of those acts society condemns, but of sin as the cultural orientation to meaning. In place of meaning found by condemnation, there is forgiveness.” Sin is the whole structure of law, guilt, and condemnation in relation to the righteousness of God. Sin’s power, according to Paul, is the law as a system of meaning whereas Christ reveals a righteousness apart from the law. We begin anew with a recognition of our solidarity in baptism, or else we harden our heart.

I’m reminded here of one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letters where he says that he had written The Cost of Discipleship at a different stage in his life and how he had now learned to stop trying to make something out of himself, whether sinner or saint. Making something of yourself leads to the creation of an order where you and everyone else believe that they know where they stand.

Coveting is a crucial form of sin because it is the key to the quest for power and meaning … the driving concern for status, for self-significance … to reject that quality of human worth comes only through faith … Paul’s general premise is that the righteousness of God finds definitive expression not in the law and judgment (that is, the structure of meaning), but in Passion, the undergoing or enduring of Christ.

Thus the death of Christ, and our crucifixion with him in baptism, is to be present to and willingly identify with the guilty. Our part in the whole, according to Hesert, is not as fraction but as representative.














Webster’s Neo-Barthian View of Scripture

According to historic Christianity, Scripture is one of the ways God reveals God’s-self. But precisely how that occurs has been the subject of a good deal of discussion. There are many fundamental questions to be answered. Which doctrine does scripture belong under? Ecclesiology or Trinity? Is Scripture best seen (from a Christian viewpoint) as a continual dialogue81ozvta3drl akin to Jewish Midrash or does it communicate timeless truths? Is all Scripture equally inspired? Is there a canon within the canon?

The late John Webster presupposed a neo-Barthian picture of Holy Scripture. Like Barth, he asserted that only Jesus is the total self-revelation of God, i.e. the “Word of God” proper. Scripture is, or becomes, the Word of God as it points to Jesus, the Word made flesh. For Webster, Scripture is a part of the created order, and, as such, has need to be sanctified like all of creation. According to him, “it has to be asserted that no divine nature or properties are to be predicated of Scripture.”

Webster argues that if we say that the Bible belongs under ecclesiology, then it only says what the church says. It cannot address the church or call the church in any meaningful way. However, it does not follow that it speaks to us from above as the direct and unmediated voice of God. Webster’s dogmatic innovation is the use of the term ‘sanctification’ to describe the relationship. He also utilizes the terminology “means of grace” and  “testimony’ to the same effect:

“The very genre of ‘testimony’ – as language which attests a reality other than itself – is especially fitting for depicting how a creaturely entity may undertake a function in the divine economy, without resort to concepts which threaten to divinize the text, since – like prophecy or apostolic witness – testimony is not about itself but is a reference beyond itself.”

The church, as a result, has to listen, revere, and submit, but this view also qualifies scripture as an appointed servant and witness, a creature which cannot, ultimately, be divinized. It is God’s voice as it has been heard and repeated by people, not a mediation or repetition of God’s voice.

God continues to sanctify the Bible through the reading and discussion of the text within the Church. In this way, Webster connects sanctification to the process of dialogue. At least this is how I understand him.

“In sum: the biblical text is Scripture; its being is defined, not simply by its membership of the class of texts, but by the fact that it is this text – sanctified, that is, Spirit-generated and preserved – in this field of action – the communicative economy of God’s merciful friendship with his lost creatures.

Sanctification is not to be restricted to the text as finished product; it may legitimately be extended to the larger field of agents and actions of which the text is part.”   – Holy Scripture: A dogmatic sketch p.29

The Glass of Vision Lecture 6: Archetypes and Incarnation

It is, as it were, step by step that we have entered into an understanding of the truth.

This paraphrase of Aquinas by Austin Farrer summarizes the theme of the sixth lecture. If, as we have been told, the shadow of God falls upon the natural world, then we would expect it to fall upon our language and imaginations as an important part of that world. Farrer takes up the way in which certain powerful images, which he calls archetypes, develop or, alternately “burst” on the scene in particular moments of history. It is clear that he sees this as providential.

Early humanity in possession of these images is pictured by Farrer’s use of the term ‘Hottentot’, a particular southwestern African tribal group that we now call the Khoikho. His use of this term parallels Pope’s “Indian”, and he has in mind ‘primitive’ or ‘animistic’ religion as producing  genuine archetypes in a partial and confused way. Farrer thinks of the archetypes it traffics in as a part of reality given by God, but there is certainly a sense of necessary development from then until now. Yet he also disagrees with the Enlightenment view represented by Alexander Pope.

What Farrer really wants us to understand is that Christianity is not a simple acceptance of archetypes according to natural reason, nor is it a simple rejection of them. Christ “clothes” himself in the archetypes of the past; they take on new meanings in him. Christianity doesn’t reject the archetypes as meaningless just because they can produce unsophisticated dogmatisms.

Crass heathenism would have reduced the image of God to the scale of David. Enlightened rationalism would have abandoned the kingly archetype, and cut the thread connecting God with the throne.

Instead of reducing archetypes to natural creativity, Christianity understands God as raising them to the level of incarnation. There are three or four (depending on how you organize the material in this lecture) different views that can be taken concerning these archetypes. First, we can reduce the images to the natural level, or see them as supernaturalized by God. The one is idolatry, the other is the path of Christianity. Interestingly, Farrer thinks that the religion depicted in the Hebrew Bible is neither, but rather, a “suspense between the two“.

Modernistic thought fails to see the deep truths in the archetypes. Farrer quotes Alexander Pope’s poem, “An Essay on Man”, which ends with the famous line, “The proper study of man is man.” He asks whether this is the natural trajectory of these images as we move into the modern world. Do we accept God in general (as Creator) and drop the other images? Enlightenment rejection of archetypal images as illogical or unreasonable in light of our current state of knowledge is not Farrer’s approach as a Christian. Farrer agrees that the images must be universalized, but thinks that the Enlightenment procedure is a negative (in the sense of emptying or negating) one.

Altogether, the options in regard to archetypal images in this lecture can be summarized as follows:

  • Explain them as a completely natural phenomenon, whether in the primitive (or pagan) manner of concern for a “manifestation of creative power“, or by “reducing them to creative intentions“.
  • View them as suspended between the natural and supernatural; “half-transformed
  • Understand them as instruments incarnated by God and fully transformed in Jesus; “Christ clothed himself in the archetypal images.” They are a connecting point for supernatural revelation.



The Glass of Vision Lecture 3: Images and Inspiration

This post is the third in a reading of Austin Farrer’s lecture from 1948 (lecture 1, lecture 2).

So far, Farrer has led us through a general discussion of how we might understand the relation of the supernatural and natural as not entailing a metaphysical duality of mutual exclusion. The stated goal of this current lecture is to “make a fresh examination…about the form and nature” of Christian revelation, particularly as it touches on scriptural writing and authority. Farrer wants to find a middle way between two perspectives: revelation as given in the form of propositions, and revelation as the best memories and understandings of those immediately impacted by the original events. The problem with the first is that it entails the “senselessly duplicated account of revelation” known as dictation theory. The problem with the second is that the substance of revelation “has an uncanny trick of evaporating once its accidents of expression are all removed.” The choice is still a contemporary one: dictated propositions or divine events relayed second-hand.

Farrer begins to look for a path by noting the commonplace ‘Barthian’ insight that, for Christianity, Jesus is the primary revelation. If Jesus is the revelation of the divine coexisting with the human, then this is a clue about the meaning of revelation. Revelation, in its truest sense, is the self-revelation of Jesus. So what does Jesus reveal?

The primacy of the Head in revelation is seen in two things. First, the self-giving of the divine mind to man is fully actualized in the personal existence of Jesus Christ. Secondly, the communication to mankind in general of the human-divine mind of Jesus Christ is begun by Jesus Christ, who by that beginning lays down all further lines of development. Development is development, and neither addition nor alteration.

We have here a standard expression of Christocentricism. The unique move that Farrer makes comes next. The teachings of Jesus are given to us mostly in the form of (written) images. Think, for example, of “the kingdom of God” or “Son of Man” as true Adam.

These tremendous images, and others like them, are not the whole of Christ’s teaching, but they set forth the supernatural mystery which is the heart of the teaching. Without them, the teaching would not be supernatural revelation, but instruction in piety and morals. It is because the spiritual instruction is related to the great images, that it becomes revealed truth….The great images interpreted the events of Christ’s ministry, death and resurrection, and the events interpreted the images; the interplay of the two is revelation.

Theology analyses these images, but what we call revelation, according to Farrer, does not extend to theology; it is what theology works with. What then should be theology’s method? How do we theologize about way in which divine truth is captured in these images? One way is to systematize them so that some of them become the reason or meaning of the others. We are painfully familiar with the fruits of this method. Farrer wades through this and a variety of other options that we have encountered before settling on the idea that a fluid immersion in the power of the images given to us is most in keeping with the idea of revelation. The biblical writers themselves seem to be doing as much. “…[T]he images are still alive and moving in the writers minds, not fixed or diagrammatic. They continue to enter into fresh combinations, to elaborate themselves, to beget new applications.

In recent times, there has been a Christian rediscovery and appreciation of the Jewish concept of midrash for the interpretation of scripture. Much of what Farrer is saying resonates with that. Midrash, of course, simply means ‘interpretation’ in Judaism, but for many Christians brought up in a rigid, systematizing tradition it can be a novel idea. This strategy gives weight to the tensions within the texts, ones that are often papered over in an effort to achieve a fragile harmony. The tensions are allowed to pull the interpretations in different directions accordihebrew_text.jpgng to different contexts, nuancing the meaning. The point is to allow the text become life-giving once again. Because this approach is more topical than linear, the seeping in images that Farrer describes is a useful way to get at the deeper, complex meanings. When the texts speak with supernatural power into our life-situations, to illuminate, challenge, change, and console, this is revelation. “Through the secret act of God by which the Apostles were inspired there came upon us in imaged presentation the shape of the mystery of our redemption. It possessed and moulded their minds, it possesses and moulds ours…