Monday, June 30, 2014

University of Oxford Lecture: "Killing the Fatted Calf: Some Variations in the Reception of the Prodigal Son."

A few months ago, Dr. Christine Joynes (Trinity College, University of Oxford), the Co-Director of Oxford's Centre for Reception History, extended an invitation to me to come to Oxford to give a lecture. The ongoing series of lectures is called The Hussey Seminar, and it is described as "The Bible in Art, Music, and Literature Seminar."

I gave the lecture on June 16, 2014, in the Danson Room at Trinity College. Here is a picture of Dr. Joynes and me during the questions and discussion after the lecture:

Dr. Christine Joynes moderated the questions/discussion after the lecture

I wish to thank Dr. Joynes for her invitation. The lively discussion after the lecture was extremely enjoyable. Some details about the lecture and discussion:

I titled the lecture, "Killing the Fatted Calf: Some Variations in the Reception of the Prodigal Son." 

Of the hundreds of examples of the "afterlives" of this parable, I chose just five examples to discuss in the 50-minute lecture (I will discuss these examples in detail in later posts on this blog):

1. The depiction of the Prodigal Son parables in the stained-glass window of Chartres Cathedral. I chose this example for two reasons: It details the younger son's behavior while away from home (its seven scenes of the son's debauchery equal the seven scenes of rejoicing at his return--out of a total of 30 scenes), and it gives a definitive answer to the question that is left ambiguous in the parable itself: Does the older brother join the celebration?

2. The Prodigal Son play of Antonia Pulci (ca. 1500). Pulci’s play is notable for incorporating the seven deadly sins into the narrative, extending the theme of gambling, reconciling the two brothers, and explicitly applying the message to all humanity.

3.  Dürer’s The Prodigal Son amongst the Pigs (1496) was included because of the impact this powerful image had on later representations of the prodigal and because of the possibility that Dürer himself identified with the prodigal.

4. Robert Wilkins's blues song, "The Prodigal Son," is important, because it illustrates three major things: (1) how people identify with the prodigal, (2) how the parable is used as a universal call for repentance, and, (3) most importantly, how the “prodigal Son pattern”—the redemption that comes after returning home from leading a life of sin—provides a well-traveled bridge between the sacred and profane in African-American music during this era.

5. Thomas Hart Benton’s lithograph of the prodigal son is perhaps my favorite image of the parable. It has a haunting power, and its interpretation is especially intriguing, including the possibility that, like Dürer’s image, there are autobiographical elements included. Dominant, though, are the social, political, economic, and human implications--and its connections to the Great Depression and Dust Bowl.

I closed the lecture with some words about the importance of the centuries of conversations about the interpretations of the parables and the importance of our responses to the parables--what Mikhail Bakhtin calls "Answerability"--the ethical and other demands they seek to make upon their interpreters. 

The discussion after the lecture was lively. Dr. Joynes began it by asking about what differences it might have made in the Prodigal Son play genre that the play I discussed was written by a woman. Jonathan Downing asked whether Wilkins's blues album containing "The Prodigal Son" was an act of trying to reclaim it from The Rolling Stones, who had recorded a truncated version of the song in 1968 on the same album that contained "Sympathy for the Devil." Another questioned whether the image in Dürer’s The Prodigal Son actually looked like Dürer’s image in self-portraits (part of the answer is that in at least one of his self-portraits, Dürer modeled himself after the image of Jesus, which is quite different from a portrayal where you model yourself after the prodigal son). Another person asked about the ambiguity of parables, and we were able to discuss how the fact that parables resist monologic interpretations actually serves to encourage interpreters to have greater depths of engagement with them instead of less engagement.

Other questions were also very interesting, and I will address those in future posts as I discuss the interpretations above in detail, but one thing was universally agreed upon: People in the audience preferred interpretations that maintained the ambiguities of the parable. That is, the two visual images that portray just one point in the parable--Dürer’s  and Benton's--were valued more highly than those that depicted numerous scenes in the parable and offered specific interpretations of questions unanswered by the parable--such as the stained-glass window, Pulci's play, and Wilkins's blues song, all of which declare that the elder brother joins the celebration. Those images of just one scene left many of those questions still unanswered, and they raised other questions as well.

In other words, people preferred interpretations that maintain the dialogic nature of parables to those that try to impose some sort of monologic discourse.

That's an insight that deserves further discussions in future posts. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Chartres Cathedral (#12): The Finale

The stained-glass window depicting the parable of the Good Samaritan concludes with three final scenes. First, God appears in the middle of the last medallion. Once again, congruent with the interpretation that Jesus is the true Good Samaritan, God appears as Jesus with a cross nimbus around his head. His right arm points down toward the previous scene, where Adam and Eve, after their sin, clothe themselves and attempt to hide from God. Opinions differ as to what this scene signifies. Some argue that it portrays God/Jesus as subjecting human beings to mortality. Others, however, argue that the main point of the window is portrayed: God is promising human beings redemption. 

      The latter seems more likely, but first, just to the right of this scene, the pattern of sin continues, because the next scene depicts the predicament of human sin and the struggle to choose between good and evil. This continuation is demonstrated by a portrayal of Cain murdering Abel. Cain murders Abel with a hoe, while his left foot stands upon him.

But that is not the final answer or situation, because the portrayal of Jesus concludes the story with Jesus appearing at the top of the window. He sits on a rainbow in between two angels who kneel before him. He, as the redeemer of the world, holds a globe of the world in his left hand and blesses the viewers with his right hand. Jesus/God is the one who has offered the solution to the predicament of human sin, and the parable of the Good Samaritan, when allegorically interpreted, gives that answer.

Other examples of stained-glass windows that combine the story of Adam and Eve with the parable of the Good Samaritan in the same allegorical way may be found in the cathedrals in Bourges and Sens. 

As I discussed earlier, these windows relate the story of salvation history. The fall of Adam and Eve introduced sin into the world, and it continued through their offspring to future generations. 

The window then reproduces in visual form the allegorical interpretations of the parable of the Good Samaritan from such theologians as Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Augustine, Gregory the Great, Bede, and others: The man leaving Jerusalem is Adam and is symbolic of fallen humanity leaving Paradise (note the common red door motif). The thieves who stripped and beat him represent the devil and other hostile powers who attack fallen humanity and leave them “half-dead” with sin. The priest and Levite represent the old dispensation and its inability to provide salvation. The Samaritan is Jesus, who rescues fallen humanity from their sin, brings them to the “inn” of the Church, and promises to return again. The parable, then, remains symbolic of Jesus’ incarnation and the process of redemption of human beings.

One interesting element that occurred in my recent lecture at the University of Oxford was that the audience members much preferred an artistic work that depicted only one scene of a parable over an artistic work that depicted the entire story (such as the stained-glass window in Chartres that depicts the parable of the Prodigal Son). In my next post, I will discuss that perspective and other aspects of the discussion after my lecture in Oxford.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Chartres Cathedral (#11): The Fall Continues

The Good Samaritan window continues its rendition of the Creation story so that the allegorical connections of the parable to fallen humanity can be more fully understood.

Adam and Eve, after their sin, clothe themselves and attempt to hide from God. God, however--still portrayed as Jesus the true Good Samaritan--finds them hiding behind some plants:

Because of their sin, Adam and Eve are expelled from Paradise, forced out through a red door by an angel brandishing a sword. The serpent is nowhere to be seen, although a tree with red fruit is visible just behind the angel, which most likely represents the tree of life that God is concerned that Adam and Eve might eat and therefore live forever:
Gen 3:22-24: Then the Lord God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’— therefore the LordGod sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.
Jesus, the Good Samaritan, will later be the one to give fallen humanity the chance at eternal life

The next scene depicts some of the punishments that Adam and Eve face in Genesis 3. Adam tills the soil and Eve spins (not mentioned in Genesis). They wear the clothes that God made for them (Gen 3:21):

In my next (and final) post about the Good Samaritan window, I will discuss the three final scenes and then (re)connect the Creation and Fall Stories to the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Jesus and Brian Conference and the Parables

I am packed and heading to Heathrow in a few minutes, but I thought I'd share one more photo from the Jesus and Brian conference. Guy Stiebel (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) gave an excellent lecture on Saturday: "Identity and Expressions of Resistance in Judaea."

In his lecture he showed the following very ironic slide to illustrate that we should have humility in our interpretations of texts, archeology, etc.

There is a big difference between confidence and over-confidence, between monologic discourse and dialogic discourse--the latter is exemplified by the parables.

It was a happy accident that I was doing research in London at the same time as this conference (I signed up at the last minute just for the Saturday sessions and the John Cleese dinner event). It led me to think that I might use part of the Life of Brian film in my reception history of the parables book. I do not yet have any films represented, and Life of Brian is a good foil, among others, for discussing what happened to the Jesus traditions once people, including scholars, got their ears/hands on them.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Chartres Cathedral (#10): The "Fall" and Adam's Apple

This is my last night in London, so I thought I'd post another entry on the Good Samaritan window while I wait for the US/Portugal World Cup match.

Since the stained glass window at Chartres Cathedral interprets the parable of the Good Samaritan allegorically, the creation of Adam and Eve and their "fall" are depicted in several scenes.

The last scene of the "medallion" discussed in the previous post depicts God (again, shown as Jesus with a cross nimbus) showing Adam and Eve the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and telling them not to eat its fruit (cf. Gen 2:15-17, where only Adam has been created at that point). Note also that the tradition had already been established (early 13th century) that the fruit was apples (although some acorns are also depicted as red in the Prodigal Son window at Chartres).

The serpent already appears in this scene. It is red, entwined around the tree, and its head points toward Adam and Eve:

The next scene depicts Eve convincing Adam to eat of the fruit (which is also an elaboration on the story in Genesis 3:1-7). Note the very happy red face (apparently of the serpent) depicted just below them:

The next scene shows Adam and Eve after they have eaten the fruit. Adam grasps his throat, perhaps in pain or shame, but most likely because of the tradition that the Adam's apple was caused by a piece of the fruit sticking in Adam's throat. 

I will write later about some of the research and other work I did in Oxford, Cambridge, and London, but here is a bonus photo. I attended one day of the "Jesus and Brian" conference in London. My day ended last night with a fantastic dinner at the Inner Temple Hall. John Cleese was the featured speaker, and he did not disappoint. Here is a photo of him speaking at the dinner:

Friday, June 20, 2014


A picture from last week: Working on the parables book at Victoria Arms in Marston (near Oxford). 

Yes, sometimes life as a scholar is hard:

The fish and chips were great.

I have finished the Oxford and Cambridge (including Ely Cathedral) parts of the trip but am still working in London. Researched parable images at Tate Britain and St. James the Less Church today, and tomorrow I head off to the Jesus and Brian conference at King's College London. I will update with details of the trip--in connection to the parables book--as soon as I can. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Chartres Cathedral (#9): Adam, Eve, and James

Here is a better picture of other elements of the "medallion" that I talked about last time. At the bottom of the photo is Jesus/Good Samaritan taking care of the wounded man in the inn. To the left Jesus/God creates Adam. Here the focus is on the center of the medallion, where Adam is placed (alone) in the Garden (Genesis 2:15).

Then comes Genesis 2:21-22: "So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man."

This scene is just to the right of the scene where Adam is alone in the Garden. Adam (on the left) is in a deep sleep, and Jesus/God is creating Eve, pulling her out of Adam's side.

The next scene, that I will discuss in the next post, prepares the way for the transition to the story in Genesis 3. It also begins to illustrate how an allegorical interpretation of the parable drives the construction of this window in the cathedral. But now we are still in "mid-sermon."

On a different subject, it was nice looking through the New Testament section in Blackwell's bookstore in Oxford (UK) yesterday and finding this:

Some great choices, but blue is my favorite color.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Chartres Cathedral (#8): The Samaritan creates Adam?

Luke 10:34: ". . . [the  Samaritan] put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him."

The next scene in the window shows the Samaritan taking care of the wounded man at the inn. The man lies in bed while the Samaritan ministers to him:

The next scene may come as a shock to those unfamiliar with the allegorical interpretation of the Good Samaritan parable: God creates Adam. The first surprise would be that the creation of Adam is the very next scene--not quite an interruption but still quite a twist. The second surprise would be what God looks like in the creation story:

God has a cross nimbus and looks in other respects just like the Samaritan/Jesus.

One of the interesting aspects of this stained glass window, therefore, is the way it theologically and physically integrates the parable with the story of Adam and Eve. Not only do they inhabit the same window, but, in addition, the last scene of the parable depicted in the window (i.e., the Samaritan taking care of the wounded man) is found in the same “medallion cluster” that begins the story of Adam and Eve--you can see at the bottom right of the above picture part of the scene of the Samaritan/Jesus taking care of the wounded/sinful man. The two stories are theologically yoked. In this way, viewers understand how Jesus, as the true Good Samaritan, restores fallen humanity to a right relationship with God.

On a personal note, it's good to be back in the UK and enjoying the company of good friends. I'm staying this time in Regent's Park College of Oxford University, where Emory University holds its summer program, and the hospitality is wonderful. Emory's program doesn't start for a few weeks, but Regent's made room for me during an exceedingly busy time. Haven't seen the famous tortoise yet this year. I'll be here for a week before heading off to Cambridge and then London.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Chartres Cathedral (#7): The Samaritan has Compassion

Luke 10:33-34: "But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him."

This section is the first of four scenes about the actions of the Samaritan who has compassion on the wounded man. Here the Samaritan sees the man, stops, and is binding the wounds on the man's head. The man already has bandages on his leg and torso. Note the Samaritan's appearance: Although there is no halo/cross nimbus, the Samaritan clearly resembles Jesus, which follows the allegorical interpretations of the parable (see previous posts for details): The Good Samaritan is Jesus; the man symbolizes fallen humanity.

The next scene portrays the Samaritan (i.e., Jesus), having placed the wounded man on his animal, leading him to the inn. Once again, note the inconsistency between scenes in the window. Here the Samaritan is dressed in blue and green; in the last scene his clothes were red and green. Likewise the wounded man here is (half)dressed in blue, whereas in the previous scene it was red. The bandage is clearly seen on his head but not around his torso.

Notice how the Samaritan/Jesus has his arm outstretched. It is hard to see, but he has coins in his hand, and this action connects the scene to the next scene in the window, immediately to the right:

The Samaritan/Jesus is paying the innkeeper money to keep the wounded man at the inn (there are four horses depicted in his stable, depicted just below his outstretched right arm). In effect, Jesus pays the price for the salvation of sinful humanity in this "luminous sermon" (Stokstad/Cothran)

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Oxford Lecture/Jesus and Brian Conference

Jesus and Brian: A Conference on the Historical Jesus and his Times

While editing my lecture for the University of Oxford, I was reminded that there was a conference at King's College London June 20-22 on the Historical Jesus and the film, Life of Brian. I am already scheduled to be in London during that time to do so additional research for my parables book, so I decided to sign up for the Saturday of the conference. The conference dinner features, it was just announced, John Cleese as a speaker. There are a number of excellent historical Jesus scholars speaking at the conferences (the program is here), so I look forward to attending.

My lecture is on Monday, 16 June, at Trinity College, University of Oxford: "Killing the fatted calf: some variations on the reception of the prodigal son."

I decided to speak on five examples of the reception of the Prodigal Son parable, ones that show interesting (I hope) elaborations of/on the parable:

Chartres Cathedral (stained-glass window)
Antonia Pulci (play)
Albrecht Dürer (engraving)
Robert Wilkins (blues song)
Thomas Hart Benton (lithograph)

Here is a brief statement of why each one is particularly interesting:

Chartres Cathedral (stained-glass window). I chose the depiction of the Prodigal Son parable in the stained-glass window at Chartres Cathedral because it elaborates two major aspects beyond what is found in the parable itself: (1) It details the younger son’s behavior while he is away from home, and (2) it gives a clear answer to the ambiguity of the parable’s ending in Luke (i.e., the brothers are reconciled).

Antonia Pulci (play). I include this play as an example of one of the many “Prodigal Son plays” that proliferated starting in the 16th century. These plays, among other things, tend to emphasize the prodigal’s debauchery in order to stress moral teachings. Pulci’s play is notable for incorporating the seven deadly sins into the narrative, extending the theme of gambling, reconciling the two brothers, and explicitly applying the message to all humanity.

Albrecht Dürer (engraving). I chose Dürer’s The Prodigal Son amongst the Pigs (1496) because of the impact this powerful image had on later representations of the prodigal, and because of the possibility that Dürer himself identified with the prodigal.

Robert Wilkins (blues song). I include this blues song in the lecture because it illustrates three major things: (1) how people identify with the prodigal, (2) how the parable is used as a universal call for repentance, and, (3) most importantly, how the parable of the Prodigal Son—the redemption that comes after returning home from leading a life of sin—provides the most-traveled bridge between the sacred and profane in African-American music.

Thomas Hart Benton (lithograph). I chose Thomas Hart Benton’s lithograph of the prodigal son as my final example, because it is one of the most powerful visual images of the prodigal son that I have found. Depending on one’s interpretation, it serves as a dire warning of not waiting too long to return home, as a portrayal of the desperate situation facing many people during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, and/or as an autobiographical statement of Benton’s personal situation.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Chartres Cathedral (#6): The Priest and Levite pass by the Man

Luke 10:31-32:  "Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side."

The next scene in the window shows both the priest and the Levite passing by the wounded man. This portrayal is similar to many later paintings of the parable, which usually have both the priest and the Levite in the background after having passed by the wounded man. 

The man is obviously in distress, and his eyes are open. He is also clearly not dead, so the issue of uncleanness is a moot point (in reality, it probably would have been anyway). Note also that both are carrying books (of the law). Whether it is simply a means of identification or a commentary on why they passed by is unclear.

As I noted previously in the posts on Rembrandt and the parable of the Rich Fool (late December and early January), there are striking similarities between textual and visual exegesis. Both parables and works of art, for example, can be strikingly dialogic, ultimately urging readers/viewers to get involved, to respond, to "answer." 

Mikhail Bakhtin insists that art also includes moral obligation: One of his major works, Art and Answerability (1919), begins with the words, “I have to answer with my own life for what I have experienced and understood in art, so that everything I have experienced and understood would not remain ineffectual in my life” (Bakhtin 1990: 1). Bakhtin thus argues that art, like life, involves a moral obligation to “answer” concretely, to respond, and to interact with others and with the world. Such responsiveness is a key element of artistic creativity and the ethical responses of interpreters.

In addition, as W. J. T. Mitchell notes concerning images of all kinds: “The question to ask of pictures from the standpoint of poetics is not just what they mean or what they do but what they want­—what claim they make upon us, and how we are to respond” (2005: xv).

That is exactly the sentiment stated by parables scholars for many years. As I wrote in my own book on the parables years ago:
. . . parables in their polyvalency to an extent foresee and anticipate our responses; Jesus created them with one ear already attuned to our answers. Parables, therefore, are profoundly dialogic and do not pretend to be the last word because, in parable, the last word is continually granted to others . . . (WATSA Parables? 2000: 103).   
The open-endedness of the parable of the Good Samaritan is not just at the end, when the lawyer is asked "who proved to be a neighbor?" It starts at the very beginning: We do not know the identity of the man traveling down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. In fact, at first we don't even know whether the person is female or male. It is a "certain human being" (anthropos). It could have been anyone, including you or me. 

That open-endedness continues with the incredible words that it was "by chance" that a priest walked by. The parable is not giving us the illusion that there must be a happy ending or that God or God's kingdom is at work, when the next event happens "by chance." Once again, anyone could have passed by, including you or me.

And, as most interpreters point out, we are not told explicitly why the priest and the Levite passed by, although the parable later gives a hint that it was because of their lack of compassion (10:33).

I should also note that although both parables and visual art have a similar sense of open-endedness, they have to make different choices (e.g., the stained-glass window was to give the man a certain identity from the very first). Visual art has to make certain decisions about how to portray things that can be left open-ended by words, and vice versa. The open-endedness often occurs in different ways.

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