Archive for May, 2010

The answer is yes or no, depending on what one means. Popularly, it is thought Nietzsche’s familiar “God is dead” referred to the death of the transcendent, omnipotent Being named “God,” but this is not what Nietzsche had in mind. Instead, Nietzsche had in view the modern death of the theistic intellectual infrastructure of Western culture. Given that ancient, and especially medieval, belief in God had informed and determined the evolution of every facet of human life for centuries, the modern, Enlightenment-driven “collapse” of that belief, at least in the sense that it was no longer possible to assume it of the man across the table, had wide-reaching and often unappreciated consequences for the whole network of beliefs that had given rise to recognized standards of morality and social order. As Nietzsche himself recognized, the unbeliever now had to go back behind his moral conclusions to justify his own assumptions about the “ought,” given that, for him, God in his self-revelation is now excluded from the picture as the starting point for such an assumption.

Since I referred recently to David Bentley Hart’s article in First Things I’ll refer to him again on this point as he ties it to the problematic assumptions of the so-called “New Atheism.” He writes:

“Because he understood the nature of what had happened when Christianity entered history with the annunciation of the death of God on the cross, and the elevation of a Jewish peasant above all gods, Nietzsche understood also that the passing of Christian faith permits no return to pagan naivete, and he knew that this monstrous inversion of values created within us a conscience that the older order could never have incubated. He understood also that the death of God beyond us is the death of the human as such within us. If we are, after all, nothing but the fortuitous effects of physical causes, then the will is bound to no rational measure but itself, and who can imagine what sort of world will spring up from so unprecedented and so vertiginously uncertain a vision of reality?

For Nietzsche, therefore, the future that lies before us must be decided, and decided between only two possible paths: a final nihilism, which aspires to nothing beyond the momentary consolations of material contentment, or some great feat of creative will, inspired by a new and truly worldly mythos powerful enough to replace the old and discredited mythos of the Christian revolution (for him, of course, this meant the myth of the √úbermensch).”

Perhaps, then, it is best to understand Nietzsche’s “God is dead” as “Christendom is dead,” which is not only quite a different matter, but quite a different death.

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Before you say David, note that Goliath’s death is attributed to one “Elhanan son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite” in 2 Samuel 21:19. The flat contradiction with 1 Samuel 17, in which David figures famously as the victor over Goliath, has long been paraded as an example of the unreliability of Scripture. The body of literature on this question is prohibitively, and predictably, vast, but V. Philips Long, an excellent scholar of biblical historiography, summarizes the findings very well in A Biblical History of Israel (WJK, 2003).

If 1 & 2 Samuel seem to disagree with each other, perhaps we’re not alone in thinking so. Entering stage left is 1 Chronicles 20:5 which neatly tidies up the situation by having Elhanan kill not Goliath but Goliath’s brother, Lahmi. What do we do with this? The question has been explored for centuries. Some have tried to explain 2 Samuel 21:19 by suggesting “Elhanan” is another name for David. However, despite some internal precedent for this kind of thing with Solomon (as Jedidiah in 2 Sam. 12:25) and the supporting comment for David as Elhanan in the Aramaic Targum, this fits neither the consistent use of “David” instead of “Elhanan” elsewhere in the chapter nor the inclusion of Elhanan among David’s heroes. Further, the killings occur in different places: Elhanan kills Goliath at Gob whereas David kills Goliath at Socho. In other attempts, Josephus simply omits the name “Goliath” in connection with Elhanan, and others propose two Goliaths. Most scholars argue these days that the narrator put Elhanan’s act into David’s biography since David was more famous and the association with Goliath’s death would add to his mystique, yet that would make the narrator, who keeps both in his narrative, more than a little sloppy.

The much more likely solution is that Chronicles preserves the original reading, of which Samuel is thus a textual corruption. This is far from unusual and a standard matter of textual criticism. Importantly, textual scholars have long recognized that the text of 1-2 Samuel is not among the most stable and strongest texts in the Old Testament, and it is in fact here in 2 Samuel 21:19 that one finds a clear instance of textual corruption: “oregim” in “Jaare-oregim” is a duplication of the same word translated “weaver’s” at the end of the verse which reads “the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.” In a common scribal error, the word was inadvertently duplicated in the same verse. Further, in Hebrew, “Bethlehemite” differs only very slightly in sound and sight from “Lahmi” so that the Samuel scribe could have easily mistaken the rarer “Lahmi” for the much more common “Bethlehemite” (a possibility strengthened considerably by noting that 2 Sam. 23:24, the only other occurrence of “Elhanan” in the OT, reads “Elhanan son of Dodo from Bethlehem“). Crucially, without “Lahmi” as the direct object of the sentence, “brother of Goliath” would then be corrupted naturally to make Goliath the direct object. In other words, it would turn “Elhanan… struck down Lahmi, Goliath’s brother” into “Elhanan… the Bethlehemite, struck down Goliath.” This is as near a decisive consideration as one could hope for. Putting the two sentences together in Hebrew shows how strikingly similar they are and how easily this corruption would occur (see in BHI, p. 225). (I also see that the textual note to 2 Samuel 21:19 in the ESV points to Chronicles as possibly preserving the original reading.)

Thus, careful attention to the Hebrew text of Samuel and Chronicles, as well as to scribal practice, points to Chronicles as preserving the original reading. Who killed Goliath? David did. And Elhanan killed Lahmi, Goliath’s brother.

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I’m in the middle of working on a substantial review article, a review, and research for two books. So it’s a heavy reading stretch for me these days, including literature both within and outside my own ecclesiastical orbit. At the same time, I’m having a lot of fun with a brilliant little book titled Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in our Everyday Language. Unfortunately, I find these two activities are overlapping far too often.

I hope to begin posting some examples of nonsense, both to amuse and (naively?) to instruct. Truly puzzled – and often simply exasperated – at what masquerades as sensible thinking and argumentation, you can call this my own effort to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” that is, to go down involuntarily, kicking and screaming. But understand I don’t have in mind only the kind of “argumentation” and “reasoning” that one finds, lamentably, in print, though there’s more than enough of that going around. (See David Bentley Hart’s pointed remarks on this problem in the literature on the New Atheism.) I cringe, too, and despairingly, at the everyday nonsense that sadly seems to bother so few. Being one of those annoying, rolling-eyes-inducing types who still believes – even in a Facebooking world – in things like punctuation, spelling, and (gasp!) coherence in argumentation (should not Eat, Shoots & Leaves sit on every bedside table?), it’s inevitable, I suppose, that I should keep a running tab of mental notes on rational atrocities committed in the course of conversation. In some cases I wish I had a mental flash drive for back-up, and I mean a hefty one, too. Truly it is painful, especially when I witness the relationally destructive effects of nonsense. What is more, I have been forced to conclude, ironically and perhaps somewhat pessimistically, that human beings suffer nonsense most often in conversation with people who are shockingly self-confident in their abilities to express and argue a point. Oblivious to what constitutes nonsense, they provide, I speculate, some explanation for the otherwise mysterious success of Kelly Clarkson, soap operas, Joel Osteen, cable news, and infomercials. If not, I confess ignorance: help me bridge my knowledge gap, please.

On a more serious note, all this has to do, of course, with the ethics of communication, something in which you know by now I have no little interest. We have a duty to love our neighbor enough to sound only as confident as our knowledge of a subject actually reaches, and then to ask questions in the hopes of bridging that aforementioned knowledge gap somewhat. For good reason, we admire and respect those who are humble enough to be less dogmatic in an opinion than they have a right to be. Not taking themselves too seriously, we find we can take them seriously.

Focusing on one part of this picture for the moment, to love one’s neighbor also means saying what one really means, and this requires in turn one’s deliberate denial of the temptation to hide one’s real intentions behind vocabulary. Perhaps we’ve been desensitized by advertising, politics, and other publicity machines to the violent cruelty of half-truths and misleading language. (Ever imagine what it would be like to take every advertised word as completely trustworthy? Try it next time you watch commercials and notice how calloused you’ve become.) But if, ethically, words are for communication and not manipulation, it’s not only bad punctuation but devious verbosity that qualifies as abuse. The lesson here: to love our neighbor requires we say what we mean. To illustrate, I note the following lighthearted and mostly tongue-in-cheek examples (found here) of the “real” (intended) meanings which our philosophical and theological terms often have in the course of supposedly rational discussion:

discourse – talky talky
hermeneutics – what I mean
logic – why I’m right
apologetics – why you’re wrong
fallacy – why you don’t even know you’re wrong
epistemology – how I know I’m right and you’re wrong
existential – don’t feel bad–everyone is wrong
postmodern – who cares if I’m right or wrong
systemic – your wrongness goes deep
neo- – you’re as wrong as those old guys
crypto- – I’m the only one who knows your wrongness
paradoxical – it only looks like I’m wrong
hyper- – you’d be right if you could learn to state things paradoxically
grand meta-narrative – he thinks he’s right about everything
paleo- – you’re as wrong as that new-fangled stuff
phenomenal – I only seem wrong
transcendental – if anyone’s right, I must be
false consciousness – deep down you know I’m right
subjugated/subaltern – they’re right, but everyone says they’re wrong
bourgeois – they pay good money to be right
proletariat – we’re wrong now, but wait for the revolution!
deconstruction – w/ri(gh)t(e)
Platonism – I know the very Form of rightness
Thomism – it would appear that you are right
categorical imperative – if you’re right, let’s make it a universal law
problematize – I’ll show you how wrong you really are
Cartesianism – cogito ergo rectitudo
ontological argument – I am so right that none greater can be conceived
epiphenomenon – this sentence is neither right nor wrong, as it is the product of a chemical reaction
post- – now we’re finally right
eclectic – you are wrong in a lot of different ways
synthesis – you are so wrong that you are right
exegesis – I know what it means and I can discourse all day about it; cf. hermeneutics
presuppositional – I’m right and I won’t even discuss it with you
-istic – you started with something good and made it really stupid
dialectic – I’m right, but then again, I may be wrong
Weltanschauung – how you see the world when your brain has been made into mush by German philosophy
deconstruction – if I grind you up I can show that even your molecules are wrong
Bayesian – I’ll give you even money that I’m right
teleological – you’ve got everything backwards
a priori – we’ll just assume that I am right
a posteriori – having seen who won, I can assure you I was on that side all the time

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