Sunday, September 10, 2017

I will be speaking at "The Prodigal: A Curated Experience of Art and Scripture" in Edmonton

For those readers who are near enough to Edmonton (Alberta, Canada), I am delighted to announce that I will be giving three lectures at what looks like will be an outstanding conference on the parable of the Prodigal Son.

The conference is sponsored by the E. P. Wahl Centre of Taylor Seminary on September 29-30, 2017. You can check out the program here.

Friday night I will begin with a short lecture: “Why Reception History?”

Saturday I will give two lectures, parts one and two of: “What do Parables Want?: The Afterlives of the Two Brothers in the Prodigal Son as a Test Case.”

In addition to all the other interesting lectures and discussions on the prodigal son's text, cultural context, and reception, there will be over twenty original works of Prodigal-themed art on display created just for this conferences.

The conference will conclude with a first-century-style feast that includes a fatted calf (to welcome all the attending prodigals home?).

I am grateful to Tim Willson--the Director of Communications and Marketing for Taylor Seminary and the E P Wahl Centre, and curator of the onWORD Conference--for inviting me to speak at this year's conference. I am really looking forward to it.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Review of James Through the Centuries

Although my book, James Through the Centuries, is about the Epistle of James and not the parables, I thought I should share excerpts of a recent review of the book, since it is about reception history.

This review, by R. Alan Culpepper, appeared in the Society of Biblical Literature's Review of Biblical Literature in July 2017.

RBL is available only by subscription at here, so I am only able to post "fair use" sections of it on this blog. I will include only the introduction and the conclusion of the review:

The aim of the Wiley Blackwell Bible Commentaries, according to the series preface, is to provide convenient access to the reception history of the Bible, book by book and chapter by chapter. The commentaries gather readings of the biblical text from the history of scholarship but also from such diverse sources as, to quote John Kloppenborg’s endorsement [of Gowler’s book] on the back cover of the volume, “the history of icons, mediaeval woodcuts and other representations, … monastic rules, hymnody, literature, political polemics, and much more.” Readers are therefore given an overview of the influence of the Bible on Western culture . . . .
David Gowler has taken this commission and carried it out in a breathtaking fashion as he has gathered and summarized readings of James “through the centuries.” For each section of the letter, Gowler addresses first the “Ancient Literary Context” and then “The Interpretations,” which generally follow a roughly chronological order: “Ancient and Medieval” followed by “Early Modern and Modern.” Gowler also makes explicit his ambitious hermeneutic. Appealing to Mikhail Bakhtin’s dialogism, the principle that truth is not to be found in the understanding of an individual person but is the product of dialogic interaction in the collective search for truth, Gowler contends that the “meaning” of the Epistle of James “does not reside alone in the creative genius of its author; it exists in a relation between creator and contemplators” (4). In other words, it exists not in the text alone but in the readings and rereadings of the text through the centuries, in the dialogue of readers with the text and with each other. Interpreters therefore participate in the meaning of the Epistle. Accordingly, “voices that are sometimes silenced or marginalized receive a fair and equal hearing” (8). One of the collateral benefits of this approach is that “it makes explicit what in reality is inherent but usually implicit—that our own interpretations are incomplete without a dialogic response to the responses of those interpreters who have preceded us” (5) and whose readings have shaped our own. 
. . . .
[Gowler’s] James through the Centuries treats readers to a symphony of readings drawn from many generations and cultures, while pioneering an expansive understanding of the task of interpretation and showcasing important as well as marginalized and novel interpretations. The sheer effort involved in this research and the access it gives to such a wide range of resources insure that Gowler’s work will continue to be a part of the dialogue about James for years to come.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Review of my book (part 3) by Nijay Gupta

Here's the final part of Nijay Gupta's review of The Parables after Jesus.

I am grateful for his careful reading and thoughtful critique.

He raises a valid point at the end, one which readers of this blog may remember (since I catalogued the decisions I made and why while writing the book) that I debated and struggled with many times.

For the reasons that I will recount in full here (e.g., of the ~40,000 words of painful cuts I had to make, such as deleting all of what I wrote about Bede and Chaucer), I decided to do most of the "synthesis" work in the various sections themselves (e.g., the allegorical interpretations in contrast the less allegorical in the early Church) and also to limit myself to one lengthy example of such a "synthesis" in one parable (the Prodigal Son in the Introduction) as an example of what others could do to build upon my work in this book. 

My own inclination is to celebrate heteroglossia and to react against what often is an over-simplification of eras or trends in eras (e.g., such as in the proposed stages of the quest of the historical Jesus), so that also probably played a role in my decisions. 

Let me hasten to add that Nijay clearly is not asking for that; I'm just saying that such concerns (and biases) were part of my rationale for not doing more of the synthesis for which he (rightly) seeks. 

Chapter 5
Parables After Jesus
The last main chapter focuses on both the 20th and 21st centuries (pp. 207-153). Here Gowler covers 9 people/groups including Thomas Hart Benton, the Blues, Flannery O’Connor, Martin Luther King Jr., Godspell, Latin American interest in the parables, David Flusser, Octavia Butler, and Thich Nhat Hanh. I will mention a few interpreters that were especially interesting to me. I love Flannery O’Connor. Her novel, The Violent Bear It Away, is considered to be inspired by the Parable of the Sower, a harrowing but vivid modern tale. As for Martin Luther King, he preached with passion about the Parable of the Rich man and his storehouses. Also, unsurprisingly, King was inspired by the Parable of the Good Samaritan. My favorite musical of all time is Godspell and as a young Christian I learned many of the teachings of Jesus through it. Gowler is no doubt right when he says that Godspellmore than any other Jesus film/play/musical “incorporates parables so deeply into its narrative of Jesus’ life and teachings” (232).
Gowler’s conclusion is concise, less than three pages. He simply affirms that we see such creativity and  rainbow of readings of the parables no doubt because they are puzzles and riddles worth pondering extensively. Gowler likens them to art works, inviting the reader into active imagination.
Gupta’s Final Thoughts
Gowler’s The Parables after Jesus is such a fun book to read – the case studies are well-chosen and refreshingly diverse. Gowler balances ancient and modern, East along with West, men and women, academic and art/popular culture. The visuals in the book are helpful and show the impact of the parables even in earliest Christian art. If I have one lingering desire after completing the book, though, it is for more synthesis and guidance from Gowler. I would have enjoyed some commentary on trends and distinctives of certain periods or communities, perhaps briefly at the end of each chapter. In the conclusion, Gowler could have adumbrated how readings have flowed through various watershed moments. These ideas notwithstanding, I warmly recommend this book to all students of the Gospels and the parables of Jesus.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Review of my book (part 2) by Nijay Gupta

One of the reasons I was so delighted to see Nijay K. Gupta's two-part (soon to be three-part) review of The Parables After Jesus is that he reads carefully, and he thoughtfully works through all the books he reviews.

I should have mentioned the name of the blog he co-writes with Christopher W. Skinner, Crux Sola

The first part was posted on April 27 (see my previous post about it). 

The second part was posted on May 12, 2017, and it can be found here.

I will copy and paste the second part of the review below, but I encourage you to go read the other reviews Nijay does on Crux Sola, not just this one.

As Nijay notes, Reception history of the Bible is important both because you learn about fascinating interpreters and interpretations and because you gain additional perspectives on the Bible itself. 

Part 2 of the review:

Gowler -Parables After Jesus Part 2 (Gupta)

Parables After JesusWe are continuing a short series on David Gowler’s The Parables After Jesus (Baker; PART 1)
Here we will look briefly at chapters 3 and 4, respectively on the interpretation and use of the parables in the 16th-17th centuries, and on the 18th-19th centuries.
Chapter 3: “The Afterlives of Jesus’ Parables in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries
Here Gowler examines ten case studies, we will just mention a few of these. The first is Martin Luther. Luther rejected allegorical interpretation, calling it “stupid.” He promoted a more simple approach which drew out the plain meaning, though Luther himself did not discount the possibility of symbolic meaning. As can be expected, Luther focused his interpretation of the parables on Christ. When it comes to the parables, they often focus on moral behavior and good works. How does Luther handle this? According to Gowler, as far as Luther was concerned, “The ‘works’ are outward signs of one’s inner faith…Works do not make anyone good; instead, works bear witness to the genuineness of one’s faith” (120).
I was also fascinated by Gowler’s discussion of Shakespeare’s interest in the Synoptic parables. Apparently, Shakespeare was especially infatuated with the plot and themes of the Parable of the Prodigal Son – sibling rivalries, rebellious children, mercy, restoration, etc. Gowler notes how Shakespeare alludes or tips his hat to the prodigal son in numerous works such as Comedy of ErrorsLove’s Labour LostKing LearTimon of AthensTwelfth Night, The Winter’s Tale, and Two Gentlemen of Verona.Prodigal.jpg
Perhaps my favorite case study in this chapter is Rembrandt. While Rembrandt famously portrayed many biblical texts in his artwork, he did few on parables, though when he did, they all came from Luke (152). Rembrandt’s painting of the Return of the Prodigal Son is especially famous, though he did more than one version of the scene (see image). It is especially satisfying that Gowler included artwork images throughout the book.
Chapter 4: “The Afterlives of Jesus’ Parables in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries”
There are nine case studies here, including Fanny Crosby and Charles Spurgeon, but I will briefly mention tidbits about Leo Tolstoy and Emily Dickenson.
Tolstoy was not shy about criticizing the structured and dogmatic Christianity of his day. He longed for the simple way of Jesus that focused on love of God and love of neighbor. He wrote a story called “Where Love Is, God Is” and drew from his own reading of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. Dickenson also took interest in this Parable, which inspired a poem based on Matthew 25:35 called “I bring an unaccustomed wine.” Dickenson’s interest in and use of the parables is not just thematic, but perhaps also hermeneutical, as her reflection on poetic communication seems to align with the riddling nature of parables.
Tell all the truth but tell it slant–
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind
(see Gowler, p. 197)
Again, very insightful chapters, lots of fun learning, and prods the reader to follow up on many of these interpreters of the parables.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Review of my book by Nijay Gupta

I was delighted to see that Nijay K. Gupta did a two-part review of The Parables After Jesus on the blog he co-writes with Christopher W. Skinner. The first part was posted on April 27.

Here is part one of the review:

Gowler – Parables After Jesus Part 1 (Gupta)

Parables After JesusI love studying and teaching about Jesus’ parables in the Gospels – that is one of my favorite class sessions in the NT intro course I teach. I am also fascinated by the history of interpretation of the parables. So, I was overjoyed to see David B. Gowler’s new book The Parables after Jesus: Their Imaginative Receptions across Two Millennia (Baker, 2017). Because this book covers more than fifty case studies in reception – most of them deeply engaging and insightful – I will talk about the book over several posts. Here we will briefly cover the introduction and first main chapter.

Why a book on the “afterlives” of the parables of Jesus? Gowler seems to be intrigued by the impact of these tales and riddles on Christians and other readers of the gospels throughout the centuries. But he also mentions how attentiveness to reception helps us to be aware of our own blindspots and the disadvantages of having just one human tradition or perspective. The more engagement from people outside of our era and locations/culture, the more our
David B. Gowler
vision is expanded to what may be going on in the parable. In his own words, Gowler says that “One of the goals of this book is to help readers better understand the importance of context for interpreters’ responses to Jesus’ parables” (9).
He uses the Prodigal Son parable as a test-case, noting that some (from their own vantage point) argue that the point is ethical, others focus on ethnicity (elder brother = Israel, younger = Gentiles), and others still believe it talks about different kinds of Christians. Gowler is not directly interested in settling on the “right” interpretation. He sees the attentiveness to these many interpretations instructive regarding the act of learning itself.
Chapter 1: The Afterlives of Jesus’ Parables in Antiquity (to c. 550 CE)
In this era, Gowler is selective, but covers figures like Irenaeus, Clement, Tertullian, Origen, Chrysostom, Augustine, and the under-appreciated Macrina the Younger. Gowler also looks at Christian a
Domitilla Catacombs
rtwork from this period which depicts parable images (though admitted there is not very much). It is difficult to give any sweeping summary to patterns of reception and use in this period, but Gowler does note that allegorization and blending of biblical passages and images was popular.

So far, I appreciate Gowler’s concise summaries of each figure or artist’s interpretation, and he includes artwork as able and relevant. Next up – the middle ages…
Rossano Gospels, Wise and Foolish Handmaids

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Rich Man and Lazarus (part 25): Geoffrey Chaucer (part 2)

The Hoccleve Portrait of Chaucer

I wrote a section on John Gower in the book and deleted the one on Chaucer because I found Gower's uses of the parables of Jesus more intriguing and important (although Gower's works quickly moved into the shadows of Chaucer's, which is another reason to write about Gower: to shed some light on texts that are often overlooked in contrast to Chaucer's).

Chaucer, though, uses the parables in interesting ways as well, including the rich man and Lazarus parable. The Canterbury Tales uses the parables in both positive and negative ways. The Summoner’s Tale, for example, includes the Rich Man and Lazarus parable in a morally dubious way. This story is told in response to the previous story, The Friar’s Tale, in which a friar relates a story against a summoner, a minor church official whose duties included notifying people who had to appear before a church (not civil) court. In The Friar’s Tale, the summoner is corrupt. He colludes with a bailiff—who is actually the devil in disguise—to extort money from people. At the end of the story, the devil takes the summoner to hell, after the summoner tries to extort a bribe from a poor widow.

The Summoner’s Tale retaliates to the friar’s narration of The Summoner’s Tale by relating, in a similar way, the story of a hypocritical friar’s attempt to extort money from a bedridden peasant. The prologue to the tale give’s use the narrator’s opinion of such friars, including a humorous and ribald statement of where such friars make their home. When an angel commands Satan to hold up his tail:
“Hold up thy tail, thou Sathanas!” said he, 
“Show forth thine arse and let the friar see 
Where is the nest of friars in this place!” 
And ere one might go half a furlong's space, 
Just as the bees come swarming from a hive, 
Out of the Devil's arse-hole there did drive 
Full twenty thousand friars in a rout, 
And through all Hell they swarmed and ran about. 
And came again, as fast as they could run, 
And in his arse they crept back, every one.
In the tale itself, the friar, named John, misuses not only his office and position for his own gain (the sin of simony) but also the Bible; he does not practice what he preaches, because he is more concerned about money than with saving souls. He preaches against those who waste and devour wealth while he goes from house to house begging for food and other goods—while he has elegant possessions—and pretends that he will pray for those who contribute. He comes to the house of a rich man named Thomas who was sick and bedridden. Thomas remonstrates that he had not seen the friar for over two weeks, and the friar responds that he has been working tirelessly praying for Thomas’s salvation. Thomas’s wife complains privately to Friar John about Thomas’s ill-humor and constant complaining (“He is as crabbed as an old pismire, Though he has everything he can desire”). Friar John says that he will speak to Thomas abut his anger, but he wheedles some additional food from her.” She then says that her child had died within the last two weeks, and the friar lies and says that in a vision he had seen the child being carried up into heaven. It is then that the friar hypocritically cites the Rich Man and Lazarus to stress his own life of poverty, abstinence (cf. how he had embraced her “within his two arms narrow, And kissed her sweetly, chirping like a sparrow With his two lips”), and fasting that allows his prayers to be accepted by Christ:

And may now, God be thanked for mercy shown, 
Observe their jubilee and walk alone. 
And I rose up and did my brothers seek, 
With many a tear down trickling on my cheek, 
And without noise or clashing of the bells; 
Te deum was our song and nothing else, 
Save that to Christ I said an orison, 
And thanked Him for the vision he had shown 
For, sir and dame, trust me full well in all, 
Our orisons are more effectual, 
And more we see of Christ's own secret things 
Than folk of the laity, though they were kings. 
We live in poverty and abstinence 
And laymen live in riches and expense 
Of meat and drink, and in their gross delight. 
This world's desires we hold in great despite. 
Dives and Lazarus lived differently, 
And different recompense they had thereby. 
Whoso would pray, he must fast and be clean, 
Fatten his soul and keep his body lean. 
We fare as says the apostle; clothes and food 
Suffice us, though they be not over-good. 
The cleanness and the fasting of us friars 
Result in Christ's accepting all our prayers. 
The friar compounds his lies by further comparing himself with Lazarus and contrasting himself with the rich man:
Therefore we mendicants, we simple friars, 
Are sworn to poverty and continence, 
To charity, meekness, and abstinence, 
To persecution for our righteousness, 
To weeping, pity, and to cleanliness. 
And therefore may you see that all our prayers- 
I speak of us, we mendicants, we friars- 
Are to the High God far more acceptable 
Than yours, with all the feasts you make at table.
The friar then assures Thomas that he and the other friars are praying for him day and night and that Thomas’s monetary support will make a difference, but Thomas replies that he had already contributed much of his wealth to the friars to no avail. Friar John responds that has not given too much but too little and demands that Thomas should give more to support the twelve friars. The friar gives an extensive rebuke, and Thomas becomes angry:
This sick man, he went well-nigh mad for ire; 
He would have had that friar set afire 
For the hypocrisy that he had shown. 
"Such things as I possess and are my own," 
Said he, "those may I give you and no other.
Thomas then declares that he will give the friar a gift into his hand on the condition that he divide it equally among the twelve friars. Friar John readily agrees, and the sick man then says:
"Lo, hear my oath! In me shall truth not lack." 
"Now then, come put your hand right down my back," 
Replied this man, "and grope you well behind; 
For underneath my buttocks shall you find 
A thing that I have hid in privity." 
"Ah," thought the friar, "this shall go with me!" 
And down he thrust his hand right to the cleft, 
In hope that he should find there some good gift. 
And when the sick man felt the friar here 
Groping about his hole and all his rear, 
Into his hand he let the friar a fart. 
There is no stallion drawing loaded cart 
That might have let a fart of such a sound.
This tale illustrates Chaucer’s interesting dialectic between the sacred and the profane (e.g., note the word pun that is included in Chaucer’s Middle English vernacular as well: Friar John moves from deliberating how to split a “farthing” among twelve friars; now he has to figure out how to split a “farting” twelve ways). 

In addition, it gives valuable insights into aspects of his biblical interpretation as well. Some of Chaucer’s characters unknowingly misinterpret biblical passages (e.g., January, in The Merchant’s Tale), but others intentionally misapply biblical passages, both clerics (e.g., Friar John) and laity (e.g., the wife of Bath). In fact, Friar John famously informs Thomas that he prefers the “gloss” to the Bible itself:
I have today been to your church, at Mass, 
And preached a sermon after my poor wit, 
Not wholly from the text of holy writ, 
For that is hard and baffling in the main; 
And therefore all its meaning I'll explain. 
Glosing's a glorious thing, and that's certain, 
For letters kill, as scholars say with pain.
In reality, for the hypocritical friar, to gloss on such passages as the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus makes it easier for him to manipulate the text in order to satisfy his pursuit of earthly gain while pretending to speak of spiritual values. 

I will be speaking at "The Prodigal: A Curated Experience of Art and Scripture" in Edmonton

For those readers who are near enough to Edmonton (Alberta, Canada), I am delighted to announce that I will be giving three lectures...