Thursday, March 25, 2010

Binding the Strong Man, 1B

Ched Myers
Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus

Part One: Text and Context
Chapter One: A Reading Site and Strategy for Mark
Section B: Why Mark?

The section title suggests that Myers will now tell us why he is addressing Mark, rather than Luke, Ruth, 1 Kings, Exodus, or Revelation, say. But in fact, this section does not answer that question, and instead answers a separate question.

The separate question is to compare the political reading which Myers wishes to give with other techniques of reading. The titled question, "Why Mark?" is addressed only by-the-way. The main question is thus actually, "What is wrong with non-political readings of Mark?"

The answer is thus to be found in an engagement of the "battle for the Bible", and specifically, the problem with strategies which regard the local, the political, the social, as irrelevancies which the interpreter's job is to look past, to find the "timeless and universal theological principle" underlying the text. Such a method is deeply embedded with the interpreter's own situation, and here we see the benefit of Myers' up-front declaration of his own hermeneutical starting places in the previous section.

Myers rejects first the theological method which suppresses the contextual and socio-historical character of the text in favor of the interior and universal. Second, he rejects the historical relic method, which attempts to situate the text so firmly in the past that it pretends an objective and timeless examination of its past character. Myers insists that the root of the argument between these two, and between him and them, is to be found in economic differences, and not in existing denominational or theological allegiances.

Myers then addresses insiders, to argue for the value of Markan study. Mark is, as he puts it, a "political manifesto", and "we" (fellow radical disciples) are in need of such texts. So if we are to find an answer to "Why Mark?" it is for two reasons: Mark is a traditional starting place for new strategies of reading, and Mark's message particularly suits the movement Myers wishes to advance.

There is then a high-level form of eisegesis going on here. Myers is aware of the risk that his strategy will control the text rather than unpack it, and argues convincingly that supposedly "neutral" readings inherently fail even more strongly by leaving unaddressed the very factors which tend to control the text. But Myers does not discuss the way in which the choice of text plays a role. Mark functions as a manifesto for his movement (or, if Myers is right, it does), but what of Matthew?

Myers will beautifully write that there is a traditioning of the story built in to Mark: "Jesus gets the gospel from God; Mark gets the gospel from Jesus; readers get the gospel from Mark." But it is not Mark in isolation which is canon, but Mark in community with the other texts in question. Luke and Matthew, in different ways, try to "correct" Mark, and we must hear both their "correction" and the original Mark. It is surely good to hear the original Mark, but ultimately, our ears as Christians do not "get the gospel from Mark" as if we did not also get it from Matthew, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, and the rest.

And so the choice of Mark amounts to the following two arguments:
  • Mark's politics are similar to "our" politics so we can find a useful ally,
  • Mark is a fun text to work with.
Myers may successfully avoid the charge that he makes Mark into his own puppet, but by choosing the voice which is, he thinks, most similar to his own, he does perhaps make the ''scriptures'' his own puppet, by listening exclusively to the voice which sounds most like his own.

Index of Comments on Ched Myers

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Index of Comments on Ched Myers

Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus

Part One: Text and Context
1. A Reading Site and Strategy for Mark
A. Why a Political Reading?
B. Why Mark?
C. Political Discourse and the "War of Myths"
D. Gospel as Ideological Narrative
E. A Socio-Literary Reading Strategy
2. The Socio-Historical Site of Mark's Story of Jesus

Part Two: Reading the First Half of Mark

Part Three: Reading the Second Half of Mark

Part Four: Mark and Radical Discipleship

Index of Indexes

Binding the Strong Man, 1A

Ched Myers
Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus

Part One: Text and Context
Chapter One: A Reading Site and Strategy for Mark
Section A: Why a Political Reading?

Myers begins his commentary with a hermeneutical prelude. He says this is necessary for "any serious study of a biblical text." It is, however, quite uncommon, however necessary he believes it to be. As a result, he cannot appeal to a common-sense assumption that we must start with hermeneutics.

To seriously address the question of hermeneutics is to place one's presuppositions on the table, as it were: to make them clear. There is always a gap between reader and writer, and a responsible commentator will therefore attempt to be transparent in the assumptions and starting places taken. Typical once was to assume a neutral and unbiased starting place, "that someone interprets without bias." Myers will therefore interpret from an announced starting place.

He starts with two central facts: he comes from North America, from a place of relative privilege, which he describes as an imperial context. Thus, while Mark writes from a peripheral place, Myers is writing from the center. Judging that Mark will call us to discipleship, Myers is therefore interested in hearing his voice as the voice of one on the periphery, addressed to one in the center.

Myers is also allied with "radical discipleship" as a historic question, and the "so-called Christian left". He sees that this radical discipleship calls to two central practical activites. First, repentance, which requires a deliberate "turning away from empire". It is a transfer of allegiance away from the imperial surroundings of contemporary North American life. And then, resistance, which is about active steps to "impede imperial progress".

There is an ironic aspect to Myers decision to be up-front about his starting places, and in my own reading and commenting on Myers' reading and commenting on Mark. Just as Myers feels it necessary to announce his starting places, so should I, right? Just as Mark cannot simply have an "obvious" meaning, "requiring no interpretation", the same is true for Myers.

A discovery that we should think about hermeneutics before interpreting Mark thus produces the discovery that we should think about hermeneutics before interpreting Myers. And, one of the key insights in hermeneutics as a whole is the role of suspicion. The words on the page say "this is what I'm up to", but we are entitled, from our own starting place, to judge what Myers is up to, and his statements "this is what I'm up to", are only grist for the mill.

So there is a parallel here. As Myers reads Mark, so I read Myers. My starting place seems similar to Myers, but there are crucial differences. I live in a different place than he does; we are not simply both in "North America", but rather, he wrote in the mid-eighties, while Ronald Reagan was president, and before the cataclysms of the fall of communist states in 1989. The character of American imperial strategies has radically changed, and with it, the nature of radical discipleship.

I start with a clearer attachment to anarchism, which has in more recent years enjoyed some splendid writing by Christian anarchists. Jacques Ellul's Anarchy and Christianity appeared in English in 1988, and Vernard Eller's Christian Anarchy only in 1999. Likewise, while Myers came out of the peace churches (Mennonite, specifically), I was a Presbyterian as a child and adolescent, and became an Anglican as an adult. Myers' understanding of radical discipleship is thus going to be very different from mine, as we drink from very different wells.

Myers wants to provide a political reading for Mark, because he believes that it is particularly necessary to provide political readings in general, as a radical disciple in an imperial center. What kind of a reading do I give of Myers? What questions do I bring to Myers' text? One, of course, is to discover more about Mark's text. Another is to tease out the distinctions underlying Christian anarchism, Christian nonviolence, radical discipleship. The distinctions between anarchists, Marxists, and social democrats are very interesting to me, and Myers writes from a time when only Marxist and social democratic voices were heard from the left.

I am very interested in identifying anarchist readings of Scripture in general, and Myers' reading of Mark is helpful. There is the danger, of course, that Myers' affection for Mark will lead him to discountenance the other Gospels. It is perhaps a slogan that Mark is not canonical scripture, except insofar as Mark is one among four (or more!). If we read Mark in such a way as to declare the other New Testament authors erroneous then we are reading Mark uncanonically, and in a way which is thus at odds with the authority Mark has for the church. My interest in the whole canon and the whole tradition means that I am in dialogue with more New Testament texts than Myers may be, and I will be interested to see whether what he says will stand up when one holds all the Scriptures in view.

Index of Comments on Ched Myers

Sunday, August 17, 2008

St. Isaiah the Solitary 12

St. Isaiah the Solitary, On Guarding the Intellect, Twenty-Seven Texts

12. Our teacher Jesus Christ, out of pity for mankind and knowing the utter mercilessness of the demons, severely commands us: "Be ready at every hour, for you do not know when the thief wil come; do not let him come and find you asleep." He also says: "Take heed, lest your hearts be overwhelmed with debauchery and drunkenness and the cares of this life, and the hour come upon you unawares." Stand guard, then, over your heart and keep a watch on your senses; and if the remembrance of God dwells peaceably wihin you, you will catch the thieves when they try to deprive you of it. When a man has an exact knowledge about the nature of thoughts, he recognizes those which are about to enter and defile him, troubling the intellect with distractions and making it lazy. Those who recognize these evil thoughts for what they are remain undisturbed and continue in prayer to God.

Continuing the topic of vigilance from the previous text, we hear now of prerequisites for vigilance and the results.

Guarding the intellect is a matter of two things. First, it is the remembrance of God, dwelling peaceably within us, which enables us to "catch the thieves" who steal in. Remembrance is not just a momentary remembering, a thing which comes and goes, but rather the habitual resting of the soul in God. If we wish to be vigilant--and surely we do!--then we must cultivate this remembrance. Here lies the essence of spiritual practice, of discipline: to cultivate this resting, this remembrance, this ongoing practical knowledge of the peace of God dwelling within us.

For it is indeed knowledge that is at stake, as the second prerequisite makes clear. We can ward off the thieves only when we know which thoughts are thieves and which are not, and this is a matter of knowledge. It is a subtle knowledge, however. It lies not in the realm of propositions and things of which we could be convinced. It is more in the realm of acquaintance, of intimate relationship.

This text marks a transition to a more mature spiritual life as well. We are promised rest, and lack of disturbance--how different from the holy anger of the first text this is, and how striking is the shift from battle to recognition. It is as if, once we have acquired the knowledge and the remembrance of God, we no longer need to battle the enemies which assault us.

Instead, we recognize them, and can prevent them from making even an initial enemy. What a blessing this is, because with it we are no longer in the need to engage them. We already knew that with God's help they could not hurt us, if we willingly fought them, if we had the holy anger that St. Isaiah's first text calls for. But now we have a stronger promise: if, with remembrance and knowledge, we recognize them before they even enter, we will be at peace.

Index of Comments on the Philokalia

Saturday, November 17, 2007

On the Use and Interpretation of Scripture: Private Prayer

Having completed my discussion of the use and interpretation of Scripture in liturgical contexts, I can turn to the remainder of the topic, beginning first with private prayer.

Lectio Divina

A particular famous and important use of the Scriptures in private prayer is of course the practice known as sacred reading, or in Latin, lectio divina. This has sometimes been worked up into a fairly detailed four-stage method of prayer, but this is perhaps not true to its real nature.

Instead of the most common description of sacred reading as being about particular stages, I want to look "under the hood," as it were, and see what is particular to this form of the use of Scripture which can perhaps illuminate other non-liturgical uses.

The primary thing we notice in attending to this monastic practice of sacred reading, is that it is not merely the text which is sacred, but the manner in which it is read. Moreover, there is reason to think that for monks this was for a long time the only way to read a text, rather than merely one, that it was what it is to read a sacred text.

The conviction then is that the proper way to read the sacred text is to do so in a particular way. Only later does that way become understood as a particular method of prayer. So embedded in this particular method are some convictions about what it is to read properly.

First, and most clearly, reading is done with no particular goal beyond edification. The reading is not targeted at reading any particular amount, or to establish some point or other, or to address a particular question. Of course, these had always been ways Scripture is used, but the prayerful sacred reading of Scripture, as practiced by the monks, was not this.

The assumption is made that God will be met in the text, and if that assumption is correct, if God will be met there, then it will be the transcendent God who cannot be controlled and refuses to be at our beck and call. Indeed, the more sure we are that we will meet God in our reading of the text, the more careful we inevitably will be that we approach without a presupposition of what we will find.

The reading is undertaken slowly as if we were savoring every bite. (And the word ruminatio, rumination, is associated with this practice, after all.) There is an attitude of reception, of waiting, of hearing. This is very different from exegeting Scripture for the purpose of proving a point, or just the scholarly task of hearing what the text says.


Scripture also forms a great source of material for private prayer. The psalms are not merely a great source of prayers for liturgy, but they are also prayers which can be used at need as one's own prayers.

And there are of course a whole host of quasi-liturgical devotions, whose words are substantially from the Scriptures, for example, the rosary, the angelus, novenas, and so forth. As a general rule, the observations I have already made about the Scriptures as liturgical source texts apply here.

But there is an additional aspect to the use of the Scriptures as sources of private prayer, and that is that they are chosen by the individual in a way that the liturgy is not. (And for quasi-liturgical devotions, there is a spectrum here.)

The private use of the Scriptures as prayer then is something chosen, and the question of how the individual can adopt the words of Scripture as her own prayer becomes manifest. What remains, however, once a given text is used and is appropriate, is that it can be a tremendous asset to many to have words provided. This is particularly true at times when words fail, or with individuals who may not know how they feel until they find words for it.


The question now is what implications the use and interpretation of Scripture in private prayer may have for the remainder of the church's life. In one sense, the answer is not at all, and in another, it is immeasurable in every way.

In the former sense, the understandings reached in private prayer have no authority for the church. What one encounters in sacred reading, or the understanding one uses in taking a text as one's own prayer, is not therefore the correct use of the text in preaching or otherwise ordering the church's life. As I have already argued, the liturgical use is primary, and therefore cannot be dependent upon the private use.

This does not mean that the preacher's private prayer and encounter with God in Scripture is irrelevant. It simply means that, once the prayer is over, the preacher must now ask the questions of what must be preached, and there is no question of taking the encounter in private as normative in public. What is to be preached must be judged on a liturgical basis (as I have already argued) and is not to be subject to any particular private encounter, even that of the preacher himself.

But if the prayer is genuine, it will also be that the encounter with God in the text will be transformative, as any true prayer and encounter with God can be expected to be. And this will in turn bear its fruit in all areas. As a Christian becomes more and more conformed to God, especially through prayer and contact with God, we can expect that all their life will become more embued with the will of God, and this applies to their use of Scripture no less than the rest of life.

On the Use and Interpretation of Scripture: Index

Sunday, November 11, 2007

On the Use and Interpretation of Scripture: Supervening Liturgical Authority

We turn now to the last liturgical category for the use and interpretation of Scripture: its use as an authority prescribing or prohibiting liturgical actions.

For some, this follows from a general rule that Scripture must be the authority for all of life. In this of course there is broad agreement, though the exact parameters of what it means in practice are highly controversial. So we will do well, in accord with my general procedure in this series, not to attempt a general, over-arching account, but rather to attempt merely to understand this one small piece.

Positive Obligations from Scripture

We can of course find in Scripture some positive commands regarding worship. For example, that we pray, that we confess our sins, that we give thanks to God, that we celebrate the sacraments, all these are commanded in Scripture.

Beyond this, Scripture occasionally commands certain texts, for example, the Lord's Prayer, as normative for prayer. I have already noted the importance of the Lord's Prayer and lamented its neglect by some churches which proclaim a very high view of the importance of the Scriptures.

What is striking, however, is that the positive obligations from Scripture are so spare. The tractarians as well were impressed by this fact, and concluded from this and from minor references to liturgical practice that the apostles taught liturgical practice, but it was not the role of the epistles (let alone the Gospels) to command this practice to the church.

Here we see a striking variance from the historic position of the Reformed, who proclaim that only what is commanded may be done. As evidence of this, they point to the strong language in the Old Testament which seems to absolutely prohibit any human invention about how to best worship God. For the Reformed, God tells us what God wants from us in worship, and that is the end of the matter.

But of course this is a useless doctrine when it comes time to write a prayer. Did God command this or that particular sentence of thanksgiving? No, of course not. The Reformed plead that God did command, for example, thanksgiving. Yet, the Scriptures do not tell us what the sentence must say. So if we are actually writing a liturgy, we cannot possibly hope to find complete instructions in the Scriptures.

At best we find general heads, and we are left to fill them out. But then we have a loophole through the Reformed principle which is big enough to drive the entire Tridentine liturgy through. We are left then with the Lutheran position.


The Lutheran position then is that some things are obligatory, and some things are prohibited, and in between them are things indifferent. One may do them, but one may not make them a condition of church unity. Of course, the problem with that, again, is that they are a condition of church unity, when we look at the actual folks in the pews.

The exact language of a thanksgiving prayer will serve again as example. The exact wording is an adiaphoron. Now, think of the average worshipper: it is a condition of their participation that they pray that particular prayer, because that simply is the prayer the group is using. And there may well be no other church around for them to attend.

The actual worshipping dynamics of congregations, as I have argued before, always involve people who decide what will happen and other people who simply must take what is offered and do not get to decide. And precisely because of this, talk of "freedom"--or adiaphora in the Lutheran fashion--is quite out of place.

The Authority of the Church

And so who will write that thanksgiving prayer? We cannot find it in Scripture. We cannot say that because it is not in Scripture, anything orthodox will do, without stepping on toes, since the priniciple of adiaphora preserves the right of all to reject the practice without losing unity.

The Anglican solution is to argue that particular churches have the right to order their ceremonies as they see fit, and impose them on worshippers, but must do nothing contrary to scriptures, and must not require to be believed what cannot be proved from the Scriptures. Notice that requirements about practice can be imposed--which is a good thing, since public worship necessarily involves the imposition of requirements about practice.

But this still leaves unsaid why the church should have this authority. And here, we appeal a good old Tractarian idea: the ministerial commission. As we all know, the talk about lay ministry in the Episcopal Church has not replaced the central authority of the rector over worship, nor could it. Indeed, I will subscribe to that hoary old Tractarian conviction that there is a ministerial commission, given to the church, and to particular individuals within it, to order the life and worship of the church. This commission resides in the bishops and the lower clergy to whom they have delegated that task through ordination.


So now we can get to the point! What does this tell us about the use and interpretation of the Scriptures when it comes to their role as the authority for our worship? It tells us that the task of deciding what must be done, when the scriptures do not give us prohibitions or commands, falls upon the clergy, and primarily upon the bishops.

But the interpretation of the Scriptures is controversial. Not everyone will agree on which points have been prohibited or commanded by Scripture. (For example, some believe that blessing same-sex marriages is prohibited, others disagree.) Who is to make the authoritative determination for the church? For either we do the controversial practice or we do not; someone must decide.

Clearly there is no way to separate this deciding (what do the Scriptures require or prohibit for our worship?) from the first one (what should we do when the Scriptures leave us free?). There is no way to constitute an authority for the second which will not, ipso facto be determining the first.

The bishops (and the lower clergy under their deputation) thus for the first time in these essays have a distinctive magisterial role, but one which is entirely practical. (Homiletic, already treated, is another, but does not involve authoritative statements in the way liturgical decisions do.) The bishops have an authoritative role in interpreting the scriptures as far as necessary to determine whether a given practice is commanded, prohibited, or left open to the church to decide: and in the last case, to make that decision.

This process requires that the bishops act with integrity. It is not plenary authority to do what they please with the liturgy; it is an authority constrained by the Scriptures. But, and this is absolutely crucial, the recognition of that constraint is not imposed by someone else. One might disagree with or object to the bishops' decisions about some liturgical question, or biblical interpretation weighing in upon it, but the determination of what to do still resides in the bishops' hands, and they are not acting illegitimately simply because their interpretation differs from one's own.

On the Use and Interpretation of Scripture: Index

Saturday, October 6, 2007

St. Isaiah the Solitary 11

St. Isaiah the Solitary, On Guarding the Intellect, Twenty-Seven Texts

11. The demons cunningly withdraw for a time in the hope that we will cease to guard our heart, thinking we have now attained peace; then they suddenly attack our unhappy soul and seize it like a sparrow. Gaining possession of it, they drag it down mercilessly into all kinds of sin, worse than those which we have already committed and for which we have asked forgiveness. Let us stand, therefore, with fear of God and keep guard over our heart, practising the virtues which check the wickedness of our enemies.

From the initial counsels about freeing the intellect and becoming at rest, we turn now to a crucial warning. It is tempting to think that, once freed, one has no enemies. Isn't this just what happens after great military victories? But the elation of V-E day yields shortly to the realization that the true enemies are not so quickly vanquished.

The modern tendency is then to say that the true enemies are internal, and in a sense, this is right. But the mythological language here, of demons, is helpful. Don't get caught up in metaphysics! The point is that the forces which plague us are not, truly, internal, but rather, external, and they succeed by a cooperation between the internal and external. What makes the external demons able to accomplish their nefarious task is an inward readiness for them.

And, alas, that readiness is what happens if we "cease to guard our heart, thinking we have now attained peace." It is the consequence of the spiritual pride, which would say, "I have now purified the intellect, and I am at peace," and that suddenly makes it possible for the true reality: that freedom and peace are not so simple.

It is when we think that we have nothing more to do that this warning comes to play. The spiritual pride of thinking that we have reached our goal is precisely the thing which opens us to even greater dangers.

Index of Comments on the Philokalia