Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Augustine and the Parables (part 2)

"St. Augustine Teaching Rhetoric," Jan van Scorel (1495-1562)


Augustine's pre-Christian life affected his interpretations of the parables, such as his training and vocation as a rhetorician that is depicted in the above painting by Jan van Scorel. Augustine's mother, Monnica, is in the background on the right; the pairing of the two in this manner captures their situation at the time (i.e., pre-Christian) in an effective way. This image is part of a larger polyptych by the Dutch painter that depicts several other events in Augustine's life as well. 

I simply don't have room in 1600-2000 words in the section of the book devoted to his interpretations of the parables, though, to delve deeply into those issues about how his previous life affected his parable interpretation. That would be a fascinating study. 

As you can imagine, there is a huge amount of material from which to choose in Augustine's works to illustrate his approaches to parable interpretation. Along with variety of people, however, I am also striving to include a variety of the types of materials. For that reason, I decided to focus extensively (in the section devoted to Augustine) on his homilies/sermons. These examples also help illustrate Augustine's stress upon the "love of God and love of neighbor" in biblical interpretation (see the previous post).

Augustine often connects physical and spiritual aspects in his interpretations. The Sheep and Goats parable, for example, means that giving to those in physical need results in God giving you the gift of eternal life; Sermon 36.5-6). But Augustine declares that love of God and neighbor must underlie those actions, or those actions are in vain. Similarly, the wedding garment in the parable of the Wedding Feast symbolizes that a garment of love/charity is required for salvation (40.4-9): “So then, have faith with love. This is the ‘wedding garment’” (cf. Sermon 43.5 where the oil in the lamps in the Ten Virgins parable symbolizes love/charity).

Augustine also finds the imperative to love God and neighbor in the parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Sermon 33). Jesus relates the parable after he tells Peter to forgive people seventy times seven times (Matt. 17:21). This parable, Augustine says, serves as a warning to “save us from perishing,” since every person is in God’s debt and, in some sense, is owed a debt by another (33.2). Jesus provides the way out of our debts: “Forgive and you shall be forgiven” and “Give, and it shall be given unto you” (i.e., doing kindnesses; Luke 6:37-38):

Again, as to the doing kindnesses; a beggar asks of you, and you are God’s beggar. For we are all when we pray God’s beggars; we stand, yes rather we fall prostrate before the door of the Great Householder, we groan in supplication wishing to receive something; and this something is God himself. What does the beggar ask of you? Bread. And what do thou ask of God, but Christ, who says, “I am the living Bread which came down from heaven” (John 6:51)? Would you be forgiven? Forgive.

Augustine’s inclination toward spiritual meanings often leads him to discover great symbolism in numbers. In the parable of the Talents, for example, Augustine connects the 10 Commandments and the ten thousand talents the servant in the parable owes. The talents thus symbolize the debt of all sins owed to God, “with reference to the number of the Law,” since

a hundred times a hundred make ten thousand; and ten times ten make a hundred. And the one “owed ten thousand talents,” and the other ten times ten denarii. For there was no departure from the number of the law, and in both numbers you will find every kind of sin included. Both are debtors, and both implore and beg for pardon; but the wicked, ungrateful servant would not repay what he had received, would not grant the mercy which had been undeservedly accorded to him.


Augustine concludes that Christians should thus forgive others so that God will continue to forgive their sins (33.7).

The next post will focus on Augustine's famous interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan, but it will also include some of his not-as-famous comments about it.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Augustine and the Parables (part 1)

Botticelli, St. Augustine (fresco, ca. 1480)

Usually discussions of Augustine's parable interpretations focus on his famous allegorical reading of the Good Samaritan. Yet examinations of Augustine's parable interpretations should go much further than that, as the following posts hopefully will make clear (e.g., see his discussion, “The Knowledge of Tropes is Necessary,” that is mentioned below).

First, some context:

Augustine (354-430) was the most influential theologian of Western Christianity. Born at Thagaste (in modern Algeria), Augustine’s path to Christianity was a long, complex journey. His Confessions is the first Christian autobiography, and the narrative covers his early “muddy cravings of the flesh,” his opening a grammar school in Thagaste, teaching rhetoric in Carthage, and the birth of his son, Adeodatus (while remaining unmarried to his mother, with whom he lived for fifteen years). He writes about reading Cicero’s Hortensius, which awakened his spiritual aspiration and led to his nine years as a Manichean. Augustine also discusses his move to Rome and later Milan, where in a garden in July 386 he heard a voice to “take up and read” the New Testament (Romans 13). He documents the deep influence his mother, Monnica (a more accurate spelling than Monica), had on him, as well as Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, who baptized him. Confessions ends with a moving account of his mother’s death and burial in 387, on their way back to Africa. Augustine, delayed by a civil war, returned to Africa in 388 and organized a lay ascetic community in Thagaste with some of his friends. Augustine, against his will, was ordained a priest in the nearby town of Hippo, and later became bishop. He would never leave Africa again.

A prolific author, Augustine wrote voluminous letters, sermons, commentaries, and other books—such as The City of God, On the Trinity, and On Christian Doctrine—that have exerted a tremendous influence throughout the history of the church. He also was engaged in a number of controversies with such groups as the Donatists, Arians, Manicheans, and Pelagians, and his parable interpretations were part of his repertoire as he engaged in these debates. For example, in an approach influenced by Ambrose (e.g., see Ambrose’s interpretation of the Good Samaritan in his Treatise on the Gospel of Luke 7.71-84, which, in turn, is indebted to Origen’s interpretation), Augustine utilizes allegorical interpretations of the Bible to explain and affirm “troublesome” passages—such as some ethically questionable actions of biblical patriarchs—in opposition to the heretical views of the Manicheans who rejected the Hebrew Bible (see “The Knowledge of Tropes is Necessary,” chapter 29, The City of God). Augustine also believes that biblical interpretation should be based upon the two greatest commandments: love of God and love of neighbor: “Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbour, does not yet understand them as he ought” (On Christian Doctrine 1.40).

Most of Augustine’s interpretations of the parables are found in his homilies on the Gospels, such as his interpretation of the Laborers in the Vineyard. Like Origen, Augustine agrees that the calling of the workers at different times in the parable may explain something “in respect even of this present life,” where those called at the first hour symbolize those “who begin to be Christians fresh from their mother’s womb,” youth are called at the third hour, and so forth, including those who are “altogether decrepit” and called at the eleventh hour. This more literal interpretation means that all people, no matter the stage of life at which they become Christians, receive “the one and the same denarius of eternal life” (37.7). People should never seek to delay conversion, however, because people never know whether they will live to see that “later hour” (37.8).

Augustine’s spiritual interpretation of the parable, however, is more complex, and it also incorporates his reading of the parable of the Tenants (Matt. 21:33-41). The vineyard was “planted,” Augustine explains, when God gave the law to the Jewish people, who killed the prophets and then Jesus, the only heir of the householder: “They killed him that they might possess the inheritance; and because they killed him, they lost it” (37.3). The householder was a “good man” who made all the workers equal by his treatment of them (37.4). As Matthew 25:34 shows, the denarius is eternal life (37.5-6), which means that workers called at the “first hour” (e.g., Adam and Noah), workers called at the “third hour” (e.g., Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), those called at the “sixth hour” (e.g., Moses and Aaron), prophets called at the “ninth hour,” and Christians called at the “eleventh hour” will be equal with respect to the gift of eternal life.

In the next post, I will talk a bit about how Augustine interprets the parables of the Sheep and Goats, Wedding Feast, Ten Virgins, and Unmerciful Servant in his sermons.

Friday, September 26, 2014

“The Belated Return of the ‘Son’”: Thomas Hart Benton’s Prodigal Son

Thomas Hart Benton, Prodigal Son

I (finally) finished working through, researching, and writing the section of the book on Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away. I came away with a renewed appreciation for the richness and complexity of her work. As I studied her subtle use and reworking of a couple parables from Matthew 13 in ways that flesh out two of her characters (Rayber and Francis Marion Tarwater), I found a couple minor things that I did not see reflected in scholarship (she reworks the parable of the Sower and incorporates aspects of the parable of the Wheat and Weeds that follows it in Matthew 13).

I'll save details of that for later. What finishing that section means, though, is that I have turned to (a) a first revision of chapter one of the book, which currently is 30,000 words, about 10,000 too long and (b) my Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) paper for the annual meeting in November.

For the SBL paper--my thanks to Chris Joynes for the invitation--I was asked to try to connect the paper in some way to the SBL theme of "Labor and Migration." I therefore chose Thomas Hart Benton's Prodigal Son lithograph.

I'll give more details later, since this lithograph will also be covered in my book, but here is the abstract:

“The Belated Return of the ‘Son’”: Thomas Hart Benton’s Prodigal Son

Thomas Hart Benton’s Regionalism emphasized that art should represent life as it is actually lived in a specific time and place: “penetrating to the meaning and forms of life . . . as known and felt by ordinary Americans” (Benton 1951: 9). Religion did not play a dominant role in Benton’s work—Benton himself had little use for religion—but his art portrays the religious experiences of numerous people; his lithographs include, for example, African-Americans headed to their country church in southern Arkansas (Sunday Morning, 1939), a pastor preaching to his small white congregation in the mountains of West Virginia (The Meeting, 1941), and people headed to an evening prayer meeting in a church “anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line” (Prayer Meeting or Wednesday Evening, 1949). Other works illustrate additional dynamics of religious life, such as revival meetings, hymn sings, Ozark baptisms, and Salvation Army street testimonials, including the paintings, The Lord is My Shepherd (1926), Holy Roller Camp Meeting (1926), Lord Heal the Child (1934), and the provocative Susanna and the Elders (1938).

Benton’s lithograph, Prodigal Son (1939)—which was a study for his later painting of the same name—could be interpreted as connecting aspects of labor and migration in the context of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Benton, in fact, created this lithograph around the same time that he was employed to create a series of drawings of the characters of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath for the 1940 Twentieth-Century Fox film.

The black and white lithograph presents an idiosyncratic and haunting view of a prodigal son who has waited far too long to return home. The house stands as only a ramshackle shell of its former self—with no father to greet the prodigal, no servants to attend to him, and no elder brother to complain about him. The evocative sun-bleached bones of a cow are all that’s left of what could once have been a fatted calf. Although other interpretations are possible, this lithograph can speak about the utter despair of those people in the rural areas of the United States who were not able to survive on their desolate farms.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Why Reception History?

As a follow-up post to the one I wrote about my honors seminar on the reception history of the parables, I want to include some quotes that I will list at the top of the course's syllabus. These quotes help to illustrate the philosophical foundation of my approach to Reception History (primarily indebted to Mikhail Bakhtin)--and why I do reception history in the first place:

[1] Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction.
[2] For what is historical scholarship, if not an ongoing conversation about the past in which no one has the last word.
[3] 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.
[4] 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.
[5] There should be a responsive and responsible ethical moment in the act of reading, including a responsibility that leads to action in social, political, and institutional realms. Interpreters have a responsibility to texts and authors, to students and colleagues, and to society at large.  [Note: this is my paraphrase from an article I wrote; I will look up the exact quote]
[6] . . . 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 . . . .

[1] Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 110.

[2] Gerd Theissen, The Shadow of the Galilean: The Quest of the Historical Jesus in Narrative Form (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1987), 55.


[3] W. J. T. Mitchell, What Pictures Want: The Lives and Loves of Pictures (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), xv.

[4] Mikhail Bakhtin, Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays by M. M. Bakhtin (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990), 1.

[5] See J. Hillis Miller, The Ethics of Reading (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 4–5.

[6] David B. Gowler, What Are They Saying About the Parables? (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2000), 103.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Honors Seminar on the Reception History of the Parables

I have been selected to teach an honors seminar in the spring semester. At Oxford, faculty members who wish to teach an honors seminar submit proposals to the Honors Committee, which selects the three proposals they think would be best (we have only three honors seminars per year). 

The three honors seminars that we will offer in the spring are (1) an economics course, "Happiness Economics" that will be taught by Boris Nikolaev; (2) a religion course taught by Jill Petersen Adams, "Writing the Disaster: Witnessing, 1945," which "explores legacies of loss by addressing issues of catastrophic suffering in the contexts of the Holocaust/Shoah and the atomic bombings of Japan"; (3) my religion course on the Reception History of the parables, "A Chorus of Voices: The 'Afterlives' of Parables."

Every honors seminar has to be interdisciplinary, writing-intensive, and one of our signature "Ways of Inquiry" courses. Here is the description of the course that I included in the initial proposal:
Jesus’ enigmatic and compelling parables have fascinated their hearers since he first uttered them, and during the intervening centuries his parables have produced a multitude of interpretations, ones that are found in a variety of forms, sources, and perspectives. This course will explore the “afterlives” of parables: their use, impact, and influence through the centuries. Students will choose the parables they wish to explore throughout different eras, perspectives, and media. Examples will come from art (e.g., Rembrandt, van Gogh, Sadao Watanabe, He Qi), music (e.g., the Rolling Stones, Hank Williams, Blind Willie Johnson, Kontakia), literature (e.g., Chaucer, Shakespeare, Flannery O’Connor, James Baldwin), science fiction (e.g., Octavia Butler), plays (e.g., Antonia Pulci), poetry (e.g., George Herbert, Emily Dickinson, Rudyard Kipling), film (e.g., Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Son of Man, from South Africa), politics (e.g., Martin Luther King, Jr., Clarence Jordan, Elsa Tamez), and ethics/religion/philosophy (e.g., Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Kierkegaard). 
This course will be interdisciplinary, and it will introduce students to the dialogues between biblical traditions and the cultures and communities who received and interpreted them. These explorations span two thousand years, and they are found in literature, visual art, music, plays, and other modes of interpretation. This class will thus explore in inter and multi-disciplinary ways all sorts of voices—secular and scared, influential and marginalized, “orthodox” and heterodox (including unusual or distinctive), ranging from the fairly famous to the fairly obscure. 
This writing-intensive course is taught in a Ways of Inquiry (INQ) approach, one in which students not only learn important concepts, principles, assumptions, and terminology of Reception History, but they also actively learn and practice why and how scholars approach these texts the way they do. The focus is on exegesis: the multidisciplinary endeavor to understand these interpretations in the context of history, culture, religious practice, philosophy, ethics, politics, and social values. An INQ course begins with the interpretations, the questions and issues that result from reading/seeing/hearing them carefully from more than one approach or perspective. In other words, we will “start from scratch” and proceed step-by-step to build competencies in interpreting these interpretations of the parables.                 

I am delighted that the timing of the course overlaps with the visit of Chris Rowland, one of the foremost scholars in the Reception History of the Bible. He is coming in March as the Pierce Visiting Scholar, a faculty exchange program between Oxford University and Oxford College of Emory University that is one of the programs of the Pierce Institute. One of the things Chris will do while here is teach one session of the honors seminar. He also is giving a public lecture at Oxford College, and we are arranging an additional lecture at All Saints Episcopal Church in Atlanta. If you are in the area, you will want to come hear Chris. He is fantastic!

I won't include all of the details from the honors seminar proposal, but two aspects of the course may be of interest. The first is how the course is structured, because students will develop their interpretative abilities in activities that build upon each other:
  • Students will have writing assignments or in-class writing in almost every class. We will begin in the very first class with students doing elements of Reception History. We will focus on individual elements (i.e., students will begin by exploring one single aspect of exegesis) and use those exercises to build (by mid-semester) into a full-fledged Reception History analysis of one parable. These short papers will begin with the foundational “close reading/viewing” of details in the interpretations. Then students will move to additional short (one-page) Reception History investigations of their own, building upon their initial “close reading/viewing” and incorporating other elements of Reception History, such as key biographical elements, other works by the author/artist that affect interpretation, historical and cultural contexts, ethical implications, and so forth.
  • Also at the beginning of the semester, students will write critiques of existing reception history essays (e.g., sections of drafts from my book). Since students have much to accomplish as they learn how to do Reception History explorations, we will start with examples of Reception History studies on the parables. Students, however, will not assume that these examples are necessarily the way to proceed. They will critique the essays to discern the essays’ strengths and weaknesses and begin to form their own methodological approach/perspective.
  • The heart of the project: Reception history analyses of one parable. Students will do four or five of these explorations of interpretations in diverse media, eras, and perspectives, and they will complete a portfolio, which also will involve more than one medium.
  • The “capstone” of this milestone project is a reflective paper of the insights students have gained through their investigations, including the similarities and differences between exegeses of interpretations in diverse media.


The milestone project that is mentioned above will be a portfolio that includes (four or five, I expect) student explorations of the use, influence, and impact of one parable from the New Testament Gospels. Requirements for the project include explorations:
  • From different eras.
  • From varying perspectives
  • Involving different media in which the interpretations are found
  • Involving presentations in at least two media; one must be a formal paper
  • Involving interpretations that interact with one “scene” of a parable (e.g., a work of visual art)
  • Involving interpretations that interact with multiple “scenes” of a parable (e.g., a song, a stained-glass window with many scenes, a play about the parable, etc.).
  • Of the inter and multi-disciplinary insights that arise through these diverse modes of interpretation.


I envision that students would create a portfolio of their reception history investigations in various media and from various perspectives. The “capstone” of this milestone project is a reflective paper of the insights students have gained through their investigations, including the similarities and differences in exegetical approaches that different media require (e.g., the similarities and differences between visual and textual exegesis). In addition, a “public display” of this portfolio could be accomplished by creating a class blog or (with students’ permission) by posting students’ work on this blog.

I want to give students as much flexibility as possible, however, so beyond the parameters in the bulleted items above, other details of the milestone project will be subject to negotiation and will primarily be based on their interests.

I am looking forward to teaching the course. I think including drafts of selections from my book will prove to be mutually beneficial for the students and for the final version of the book. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

100th Post: Working on Flannery O'Connor

Hieronymous Bosch, Prodigal Son

I started this blog on December 9, 2013, with a post that announced my new reception history on the parables book project with Baker Academic. My James Through the Centuries--a reception history commentary--had just appeared in the UK and was soon to appear in the U.S. and elsewhere. 

This post is my 100th of the blog; I have been posting fairly regularly--every three of four days, on average. It has taken some time away from writing the book, but, in the end, it has helped me in several ways, most of all keeping me focused on what style of writing is necessary in a reception history textbook geared primarily toward students.

Work on the book has slowed down since the beginning of the semester, mostly because of the amount of time that teaching, the Pierce Institute, committee work, and other faculty duties demand. The writing pace also has slowed down, however, because of the person's work that I am examining: Flannery O'Connor. It has taken me some time to decide what to do and how to analyze it.

O'Connor's work is fascinating and distinctive, and her home, Andalusia, is about 100 miles from our house in Atlanta. Unfortunately, I have not been able to visit her Andalusia yet, but our son, Jacob Gowler, visited a couple times and took some pictures with his cell phone. Here's one of the peacocks that roam the house (O'Connor loved and kept peacocks at Andalusia):




Here is one of Jacob's pictures of the front of the house:




Since everyone knows about O'Connor and her peacocks, I thought it would be interesting to include in the book the following story from her early years in Savannah:
O’Connor was born in a prominent Irish Catholic family in Savannah, Georgia, on March 15, 1925. In the 1930s, O’Connor first gained brief national fame when she taught a chicken to walk backwards. Word of the feat spread, and a New York newsreel company made a short film of O’Connor and her backward-walking chicken that played before the feature film in movie theaters all over the United States (Kirk 2008: 3-4). 
That story does not directly help us understand how O'Connor uses the parables in her work. But it is an interesting bit of trivia that can be seen as a "character-revealing" akme (See Gowler, Host, Guest, Enemy, and Friend 1991: 123). It also, as the chapter explains, is connected to the famous O'Connor peacocks. So, if word count permits, I will keep the anecdote in the book.

There is so much rich material in O'Connor's work that I am trying to focus on her use of the parable of the Sower in her second and final novel: The Violent Bear it Away (the title is is a quote from Matthew 11:12). I will write in detail about that in a later blog post. Great stuff! 

At the top of this post is a picture of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. I chose it to illustrate this blog post, because both O'Connor and Bosch created interesting, distinctive if not idiosyncratic, artist works that interconnect the grotesque and Christianity. 

I can't tell you how long I spent in awe of Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights when I was at the Museo del Prado in Madrid a few years ago. It took me a long, long time to work through its pictorial story. In a similar way, it is taking me a long time to work through the grotesque and religious in the art of Flannery O'Connor.

Bosch's Prodigal Son is also distinctive, because it does not portray the scenes that other artists usually choose to portray: the riotous living in the inn (e.g., Rembrandt), the repentance among the pigs (e.g., Dürer), or the return home to the father (e.g., Rembrandt). In this image, the prodigal looks back at the left side of the painting that represents the dissolute life he is leaving behind (note the seven pigs, the amorous couple in the doorway, the man urinating on the side of the inn, etc.). The sturdy gate on the right side of the painting, with the cow behind it, represents the Prodigal's return back to his father's plentiful farm. An owl scolds the prodigal from a tree above, and a titmouse appears upside down--just like the prodigal's life up to this point--up above his head as well (Fraenger 1983: 260).

It has struck me just how many artists identify with the prodigal son. Bosch is among them:
Only a painter to whom the parable of Jesus was more than just a theme could have done this. Only a man with first-hand knowledge of the labyrinth of remorse, a man personally tested by temptation, could have caught that facial expression and concentrated it into such a state of spiritual shock that we feel as though, in the Prodigal Son's backward look, all the woes of mankind had laid hold on us. The picture is, then, not an illustration but the religious witness of a man who, recognizing himself in the parable, felt called upon to capture exactly that remorseful look (Fraengeer 1983: 258).
Flannery O'Connor and the parable of the Sower; Hieronymus Bosch and the parable of the Prodigal Son . . . .  Some days it is hard to believe that I actually get paid to study these things, something that I love and would do for free (please don't tell anyone at Emory that).

Should I start to tackle Augustine in my 101st post?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

"Quiz" on the last two parable sculptures at St. James the Less Church (London)

There are two other columns inside the church of St. James the Less that have sculptures that depict parables. I may have gotten this idea from the fact that the semester is going full swing (the New Testament first test is rapidly approaching), but I thought that in this post I would give a pop quiz, a "sight reading" of the remaining two images.

Below are photos of the remaining two sculptures. See if you can figure out which parables they depict. At first, try to do so without reading the words etched below (or above) the image. You get extra credit on the quiz if you can figure it out without peeking at the words.

Tomorrow (hopefully) I will place the answers in the comment section of this post. 

Parable #1:



Parable #2:

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Parable of the Wedding Banquet (and James the Less): St. James the Less Church (London)


James the Less (St. James the Less Church, London)


I recently discovered that St. James the Less Church was mentioned in an episode of Sherlock (with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman). The episode is called "The Empty Hearse," and in it Sherlock figures out that Dr. Watson is being held captive at St. James the Less Church. Sherlock and Mary race to the church on a motorcycle, and arrive just in time to save John, who was tied up and place inside a Guy Fawkes pyre that has just been lit (with petrol as an accelerant, to highlight the suspense). Unfortunately, in this episode, the church itself is not actually shown.

I took the above photo of the stained-glass window inside the church last June (2014). The window depicts Jacobus Minor--James the Less(er) or James the Minor. I include this photo in this blog on the reception history of the parables, because my last book--also a reception history book--was on the Epistle of James: James Through the Centuries. The Epistle only claims to have been written by “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” There are several people named James in the New Testament who are candidates for authorship, but it is clear that it refers to James the brother of Jesus (also called James of Jerusalem or James the Just). Another issue involves the question whether the book actually was written by James or by someone writing in his name. The situation becomes even murkier, because church tradition began to claim that Mary and Joseph never had any children, so James the brother of Jesus began to be seen as either (1) James, an older half-brother of Jesus, the son of Joseph from a previous marriage or (2) James the “cousin” of Jesus. Thus James of Jerusalem is also sometimes (erroneously) conflated with James the Less, one of the apostles, James the son of Alphaeus. The New Testament, though, portrays the brothers and sisters of Jesus (e.g., Mark 3:31–2; 6:3) as the actual (younger) children of Joseph and Mary. So the person the epistle implicitly claims as its author is James, the younger brother of Jesus.

James is often depicted with a fuller's club, because church tradition holds that he was killed by a blow from a fuller's club (he also often looks like Jesus, since he was Jesus' brother as well). You can see him holding a club in his left hand in the above picture. Josephus mentioned that James was executed by stoning, but we hear other traditions from from Eusebius. First, he cites Clement of Alexandria that James “was thrown from the pinnacle of the temple and was beaten to death with a club by a fuller . . .” (2.1.4). Eusebius also includes other details from Hegisippus:
The Scribes and Pharisees therefore placed James upon the pinnacle of the temple, and cried out to him and said: “Just one, in whom we ought all to have confidence, forasmuch as the people are led astray after Jesus, the crucified one, declare to us, what is the gate of Jesus.” 
And he answered with a loud voice, “Why do you ask me concerning Jesus, the Son of Man? He himself sits in heaven at the right hand of the great Power, and is about to come upon the clouds of heaven.”
And when many were fully convinced and gloried in the testimony of James, and said, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” these same Scribes and Pharisees said again to one another, “We have done badly in supplying such testimony to Jesus. But let us go up and throw him down, in order that they may be afraid to believe him.”
And they cried out, saying, “Oh! Oh! The just man is also in error.” And they fulfilled the Scripture written in Isaiah, “Let us take away the just man, because he is troublesome to us: therefore they shall eat the fruit of their doings” [Is 3:10].
So they went up and threw down the just man, and said to each other, “Let us stone James the Just.” And they began to stone him, for he was not killed by the fall; but he turned and knelt down and said, “I entreat you, Lord God our Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
And while they were thus stoning him one of the priests of the sons of Rechab, the son of the Rechabites, who are mentioned by Jeremiah the prophet, cried out, saying, “Cease, what are you doing? The just one prays for you.”
And one of them, who was a fuller, took the club with which he beat out clothes and struck the just man on the head. And thus he suffered martyrdom.
And they buried him on the spot, by the temple, and his monument still remains by the temple. He became a true witness, both to Jews and Greeks, that Jesus is the Christ. And immediately Vespasian besieged them (2.23.8–18).

At the bottom of the stained-glass window, then, you can see the martyrdom depicted, with James praying as he is about to be killed with the fuller's club.

The Parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matt 22:1-13)

Back to the sculptures of parables on the columns inside the church. I have already discussed in previous posts the sculptures of the parables of the Barren Fig Tree and the Sower. The next one I want to discuss is the sculpture that shows the last section of the parable of the Wedding Banquet in Matthew 22:1-13. The image depicts verses 11-13:

11 But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless. 13Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Verses 11-13 of the Parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22)

The king is seated in the left He wears a crown on his head and gestures to the attendant to remove the man. A pitcher and goblet from the banquet appear on the table behind him. On the right side of the image, we see the attendant grabbing the man by his shoulder. The man has a shorter garment than the others, and he has a small bag slung over his shoulder. He faces away from us, perhaps in the hope that the viewers will not join him and also be cast "into the outer darkness."

This image thus, like the other two sculptures we have examined in St. James the Less Church so far, offers a warning to the parishioners viewing the images. Are they as prepared as they should be for entrance into the kingdom of God? 

The next two sculptures we will examine will portray the overwhelming worth of the kingdom of God; they give positive encouragement about its worth and what we should do to be ready for it.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Parable of the Sower at St. James the Less Church (London)

The Parable of the Sower (St. James the Less Church, London)

The parable of the sower (the version in Mark 4:1-9, NRSV):
Again he began to teach beside the lake. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the lake and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the lake on the land. 2He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them:3‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. 6And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. 7Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ 9And he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’
As with many images that represent biblical stories, this sculpture tries to include several chronological elements of the parable in one static (in this case, carved in stone) image. Here is a photo that gives a closer view of the image:


The middle part of the sculpture obviously portrays the sower "as he sowed" (which is now a bit difficult for him, since his arm unfortunately is broken off!). He holds a basket of seed in his left hand, and the basket is supported by a strap over his left shoulder. The decoration behind him can function to imply a halo, but that also clearly is part of the over make-up of the background.

At the bottom right, we see the seed that has fallen on the path and the birds who came to eat it. At the middle right, we see three very small plants that represent the seeds that "fell on the rocky ground" but which will fail because they have "no depth of soil" and "no root." 

The plants among the thorns seem to be missing from the image, but another reading is possible. Perhaps the top plant on the right is the one that represents the seed that fell on rocky ground. There is a hint--barely--of other plants carved in the stone by the two plants on the lower level on the right. It is possible that those two plants are the ones that fell "among thorns" and did not produce fruit because they were "choked."

The seeds that fell on the good soil are shown on the left. They "brought forth grain" in an exceedingly fruitful way. So this image represents all the chronology of the parable from when the sower initially sowed until the great harvest.

Through this sculpture--this "sermon in stone"--the ones who have "ears to hear" is expanded to those who have "eyes to see" the "secret of the kingdom of God" (Mark 4:11; cf. 4:12, which includes a statement about "looking" but not "perceiving").

I have a couple more of these sculptures from St. James the Less to share in future posts. I'll also include a photo of the wonderful stained-glass window of St. James the Less.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Parable Sculptures at St. James the Less Church (London)


One of the things I wanted to see on my visit to London this summer was St. James the Less Church on Moreton Street (near Vauxhall Bridge Road). I had never been there before, and I wanted to see it for a couple reasons. First, there are some interesting sculptures of four of the parables on some interior columns of the church. Second, my last book was on the Reception History of the Epistle of James, and I wrote extensively about James the Less in the first chapter of the book (including many pictures of depictions of him, such as a sculpture at Salisbury Cathedral). I did that because some church traditions have (erroneously) conflated James the Less with James of Jerusalem (i.e., James the brother of Jesus). 

St. James the Less was well worth the visit. I went to the church on my way to an appointment in the Prints and Drawings Room at Tate Britain to see the Millais prints of the parables that I wrote about a few weeks ago. The church is very close to the Tate, so it was convenient to stop by there on the way (both are near the Pimlico tube stop). If you wish to visit St. James the Less Church, it's a good idea to call ahead to make sure you can get inside the building. Also, if you want a nice sandwich on the way to the Tate after visiting the church, I can recommend the Relish Sandwich Shop on the corner of John Islip Street and Ponsonby Terrace (I also recommend, weather permitting, eating the sandwich on a bench on the Thames near Tate Britain).

Please see St. James the Less's website to learn more about the church. The church was built in memory of Bishop James Henry Monk (his three daughters were behind it). The church's architectural style is Victorian Gothic, and it was designed and built (1858-1861) by George Edmund Street, who also was the architect for Bristol Cathedral. 

The day I was there, the church was extremely dark on the inside, and I once again regretted not bringing my good camera to England. I used my iPhone to take photos of what I needed.

Unfortunately, the church's vicar, The Revd Lis Goddard, was on a trip to the United States while I was there, so I did not get to meet her. But I am extremely grateful to Angela King, a licensed lay minister at the church, who graciously let me into the church and gave me a tour of its interior (Thank you again, Angela!). She also assisted with the photos, because she shined a flashlight ("torch" in England) on each sculpture while I tried to take its photo.

The sculptures are found on columns inside the church. Four of the sculptures depict Gospel parables, among other things. The columns were designed by W. Pearce. Here is a photo on http://salviatimosaics.blogspot.com that was taken on a day when the church interior was much brighter than when I was there! 

Interior of the St. James the Less (note the columns where the sculptures are)
Here are a couple photos I took of the sculpture that depicts the parable of the Barren Fig Tree. Here's one taken without a flash, but with Angela shining a flashlight on it:



And one with a flash:


The parable of the Barren Fig Tree is found in Luke 13:6-9 (NRSV):
Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
On the left side of the sculpture (left to right), we can see the barren fig tree, the gardener, and the man (with his left arm raised) who says "Cut it down" (those words are carved below the image). 

The right side of the carving depicts the actions after the parable where the gardener continues to take care of the plant. He is holding a shovel in his left hand (the blade is shown on the ground between the gardener's legs). He is either watering the plant (less likely) or pouring manure/fertilizer on it (more likely) with a vessel in his right hand. 

Many depictions of the parables, since they can function as "sermons," depict different "stages" of the narration. Other sculptures in St. James the Less Church do this as well, as we will see with the sculpture of the parable of the Sower, for example. 

The earliest interpretations of this parable argue that the barren fig tree symbolizes Israel (see, for example, the Apocalypse of Peter 2), although Augustine and others interpreted it as symbolizing the whole human race. The gardener is often identified with Jesus, although this sculpture seems to identify the man who says "cut it down" with Jesus by placing a halo over his head (cf. Joachim Jeremias who notes that the gardener could signify Jesus but to the disciples the man calling for it to be cut down might indeed be Jesus; The Parables of Jesus [1972] 170-71).  

The next post will discuss my photos of the parable of the Sower sculpture. 

Models for Grant Wood's American Gothic

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