Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Martin Luther and the Parables (bio)

Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Luther, who became the leader of the Protestant Reformation in Germany (Zwingli had been active earlier in Switzerland), was born in 1483 in Eisleben, Saxony. His father, Hans Luther, was a miner, and he wanted his son to become a lawyer, and Martin earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Erfurt University. On his way back to Erfurt in 1505 during a life-threatening thunderstorm, the frightened Luther made a vow to become a monk. He abandoned his studies, became a monk at the Augustinian Monastery at Erfurt, and was ordained as a priest in 1507. 

His assignment after his ordination was to return to university, this time in Wittenberg, to study theology, and he earned a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies in 1509 and received a doctorate in theology in 1512. He then was appointed professor of biblical exegesis at in the theology faculty of Wittenberg University, where he would stay for the rest of his career.

During Luther’s early career, including a disappointing trip to Rome in 1510 but especially during exegetical study of the Bible—most notably Romans 1:17—Luther developed a theology of justification by faith, that human beings could not become righteous through their own efforts; it only came about because of the grace of God: Righteousness is God’s free gift to sinners through the righteousness imputed by Jesus that is not merited but given through faith (and faith alone).

The decisive event that inaugurated the Lutheran Reformation occurred on October 31, 1517, when, as later documents claim, Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses on the door of the castle church of Wittenberg. The immediate catalyst for the 95 Theses was the preaching of Johann Tetzel about indulgences, the practice of the Roman Catholic Church to remit the penalty for sins—past present and future—for the payment of money, in this case, the indulgences were on behalf of Pope Leo X (and Albert of Mainz) for the restoration of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Tetzel declared, for example, that payment of indulgences resulted in souls being immediately released from purgatory. Luther’s 95 Theses denounced this practice and other practices of the Church, including the authority of the pope. Scripture alone (sola scriptura) is the true authority, not the pope or church councils or the church itself (e.g., Luther points to Abraham’s words to the rich man in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus; Luke 16:29-31; LW 1955 52:172). The 95 Theses created a firestorm throughout Germany, and, in 1520, Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther.

Luther refused to recant (e.g., at the Diet of Worms), but he survived because Frederick the Wise of Saxony (and others) protected him. Luther then embarked upon an ambitious number of writings that served as the foundation for a reform of the theology and practice of the church in Germany, including a translation of the Bible in German (the New Testament in 1522, and the Hebrew Bible in 1534) and such calls for reform as in the treatises On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, and On Christian Freedom, all three of which were written in 1520, the same year Luther was excommunicated. Luther continued to write prolifically, and his works included treatises, catechisms, hymns (e.g., A Might Fortress is Our God), sermons, commentaries on the Bible, and other works.

The next post will discuss Luther’s fascinating journey from allegorical interpretation of Scripture to (primarily) non-allegorical.

A personal note: Today would have been my brother Gary’s 61st birthday. This post is in his honor/memory. Gary would have enjoyed a Stammtisch and theological discussion with Martin Luther!   

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Next up: Martin Luther and the Parables

Martin Luther

I think I will begin the new year with discussions of Martin Luther and the parables.

In case anyone is interested, some of the information about Martin Luther's famous and not so famous views on the Epistle of James that is found in my James Through the Centuries commentary is publicly available, either here (at academia.edu) or here (Wiley-Blackwell; click on the "Read and excerpt" link just under the photo of the book cover). Since Wiley-Blackwell has made Chapter 1 publicly available, I also placed it on academia.edu (although the start of the discussion is found in the Introduction, which is not available online for free).

At this stage for the book on the reception history of the parables, I have written sections on both Martin Luther and John Calvin for Chapter 3. That may change, because I am already over the word count for Chapter 3 and have only written about six people (I need to limit the chapter to about 20,000 words and have written 26,000 already). The Luther, Calvin, Shakespeare, and (especially) Bunyan sections are way too long. The sections on Rembrandt and Anna Jansz are about the right length.

I have included both Luther and Calvin in the book, because Luther is a better representative (it seems to me) of the strong move against allegorical interpretations of the parables—although he does interpret some allegorically to a certain extent—and Calvin better represents detailed expositions of the parables in a non-allegorical sense. 

I made the sections on Luther and Calvin distinctive, because the section on Luther focuses almost exclusively on his sermons (after a discussion of his change of heart about allegorical interpretation), and the section on Calvin focuses almost exclusively on his Commentary on the Harmony of the Three Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, and Luke (1555).

I may have time to do an initial blog post about Luther before the New Year. We'll see. I found these sections especially interesting to write, but I still need to edit them extensively.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Reprise: The Ram Bearer

The ram bearer (right);
he broken-foot bearer (left)
Photo: Corinth, Greece (2007)
The best Christmas present of all is to spend Christmas with these two guys--who re-enacted the Ram Bearer (later Good Shepherd) for me over seven years ago in Corinth--their mother, and other members of our family.

Posting on the blog will continue to be a bit sparse through the holidays, but I shall return when I can.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Update on the book

Abraham Bloemaert, The Parable of the Tares (1604) Hermitage

Finals are over; grades are in. I still have a few Pierce Institute things to do, but now I can also turn back to the book. Here is what I am doing:

I was working on Octavia Butler's Parable series, but I had to stop when my laptop stopped working. Unfortunately, I had not saved my work on Butler in Dropbox or anywhere else other than my laptop yet (note to self . . . ). Fortunately, the laptop came back safe and sound today from the Apple repair center with the work on Butler still there (I saved the work to Dropbox before I left the Apple store!).

In the meantime, while I waited on my laptop to be fixed, I started working on the story of the Anabaptist Anna Jansz of Rotterdam, who was martyred in 1539. I finished with an analysis of the 18th Hymn in the Ausbund which tells her story and gives a poetic version of her testament to her young son Isaiah as she prepared for her execution.

I also started work on Juan Maldonado (John Maldonatus) and his Commentaries on the Gospels. In addition to the quality and approach of his exegesis, his Counter-Reformation response to such Reformation figures as Luther and Calvin is extremely significant. 

I also started researching Domenico Fetti and his parable paintings. That leaves work to be done on George Herbert and Roger Williams for Chapter 3.

So, here is what Chapter 3 (~1500-1700) would contain after I finish these sections:

Already completed first draft on:
  • Rembrandt
  • Luther
  • Calvin
  • Shakespeare
  • Bunyan
  • Anna Jansz (very rough)
Working on:
  • Maldonatus (I wanted to do Bartolom√© de las Casas, but I could not find enough material on the parables from him)
Next up:
  • Herbert
  • Fetti
  • Williams
I doubt if I will have room to add anyone else to this chapter, and I have a huge amount of cutting to do on what I wrote (I'm looking at you, John Bunyan!).

Above is a photo of the Bloemaert's 1604 version of the parable of the Wheat and Tares that I mention in my December 12 (2014) post. It is found in The Hermitage in St. Petersburg. I had hoped to get to The Hermitage in 2014, but it will have to wait (although I did make it to Hermitage Amsterdam on my sabbatical).

Finally, best wishes to jdg, who celebrated his 21st birthday yesterday. It was great seeing you and helping you celebrate the special day. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (and best wishes to my Rel 348 class)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Parable of the Blind (1568)

In a post on December 5, I included a photo I took of Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Parable of the Sower (Timken Museum, San Diego) while I was at the SBL conference in November. Bruegel is another artist whose works on the parables I would like to include in the book but cannot. The above painting is especially interesting, for a number of reasons.

Luke calls this saying a parable (6:39), although most scholars categorize it as a proverb, and therefore it is missing from most studies of the parables of Jesus. As Mikeal Parson's forthcoming Paideia commentary on the Gospel of Luke notes, the question the Lukan Jesus asks, "Surely a blind person cannot lead another blind person, can he? Won't they both fall into a pit?" expects a negative answer to the first section (no, a blind person can't lead another) and a positive answer in the second part (yes, they both will fall into a pit). This proverb is found in a number of places (e.g., Plato, Philo, et al.).

By the way, I include the above information with permission. I am fortunate to have a pre-publication copy of the manuscript from Baker Academic (I am writing a blurb for it), and Parsons's work, as always, is brilliant and innovative, as well as informative and accessible. When the book comes out this spring, I highly recommend buying it. 

Back to Pieter Bruegel the Elder's painting. Bruegel includes not two but six blind men, and the dramatic result is one dominated by realism. Some viewers find it painted with objectivity; others find humor in the depiction; others detect empathy, while still others detect some condemnation of "sinners" who are being punished. The blind man farthest to the right has already fallen into the pit/pond, and the man right behind him is starting to fall as well. The state of the six men varies in stages from the man on the left being totally unaware of the situation and walking normally (but with assistance from the man in front of him) to the man on the far right being (completely?) incapacitated by his fall (the foreshortening of his body and his body's position might even seem to bring to mind a helpless turtle being placed on its back/shell). 

The other five men seem destined to repeat the fate of the first man, as the proverb suggests. Note the church in the background, with its vertical spire contrasting to the diagonal procession of the men. The cows and the cowherd in the background are unaware/unconcerned about the men's fate. Life goes on.

Bruegel included blind individuals in a number of his paintings (e.g., The Fight between Carnival and Lent and The Sermon of St. John the Baptist). Some scholars argue that his depiction of the blind men in this painting is so accurate that physicians can even diagnose which disorders of the eye afflict some of them. As one site argues: "the man third from the left is suffering from leucoma of the cornea, while the man in front of him has amaurosis."

I find Bruegel's work fascinating, like the work of Hieronymus Bosch before him (I was mesmerized by Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights at the Prado in Madrid, his Death and the Miser at the National Gallery in DC, and some other works I have seen), and want to learn even more about them when I can. But first there is a book on the reception history of the parables that needs to be finished . . . .

Right now, as I write this blog post, my Religion 348 students (New Testament) are finishing their final exam. By midweek (after I finish my grading), I hope to restart work on the book. I have to say, though, that the students in this class were outstanding, and the class (from my perspective, at least!) was great. I am extremely fortunate to have such great students/people, and it was a joy to walk in the classroom this semester, both in this class and in my Hebrew Bible class. It would be difficult if not impossible to find a place more dedicated to teaching/learning than Oxford College of Emory University. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Abraham Bloemaert's The Parable of the Wheat and Tares (and best wishes to my Rel 205 students)

Abraham Bloemaert, The Parable of the Wheat and Tares
I know I have said this many times, but one of the more difficult aspects of writing the book is not being able to include some things that I would really love to include. Sometimes the reasons for excluding things are mundane, but other times there are more serious considerations. For example, after my paper presentation at the SBL meeting in November (2014), I was asked why I focused on Thomas Hart Benton's lithograph of The Prodigal Son instead of the more colorful painting that he made a couple years later. The mundane reason I gave was that I was able to take a photograph of the lithograph and thus could use it in the book without paying a fee. The serious reason was that, for a number of reasons which I will detail in later posts sometime, that I found the lithograph more moving, powerful, and, indeed, haunting.

Likewise, in Chapter 3 of the book, I only have about ten examples of the reception of the parables to discuss from the 1500-1700 era. Two of them will be works of art. Since I already included a Rembrandt work--the (in)famous etching of the Samaritan bringing the wounded man to the inn with the dog in the foreground demonstrating why Diogenes was called the "cynic" centuries before--I could not really include another example from art from Northern Europe. I will write on Domenico Fetti instead. Fetti has several brilliant works on the parables from which I will choose one or two to discuss.

So I will not be able to include such works as the one above by Abraham Bloemaert. I also would have liked to include other works, such as a couple by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Since I can't include them, I will write some short blog entries about such works from time to time, but I will not give them as much depth as some other things that I will include in the book. 

Bloemaert (ca. 1566-1651) was a leading artist in Utrecht (e.g., along with Gerard van Honthorst). The above painting is a 1624 representation of the parable, and it is the last of three times that Bloemaert interpreted the parable. He first painted the parable in 1604, a version that is found in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. There is a young person sleeping in the foreground, with a cow that is gazing at the viewer, and others are sleeping on the left, a little farther back. In the background, Satan sows the tares while they sleep. Bloemaert's second version of the parable was another landscape, and this one was engraved and published by Jacob Matham. This one has three people sleeping (and a farm building is included again), and the landscape is dominated by impressive trees.

The third rendition is the most beautiful and impressive. Once again, a farmhouse appears on the left. We also see a number of farm implements, plants, a dovecote, a basket of food in the foreground. 

The focus is on the four people sleeping--four males and two females. Only two of them are fully visible, and the striking (and unusual) aspect of the painting is that those two people--one male and one female--are nude. In the background, the devil--with horns and a tail--sows the seeds of the tares in the wheat field.  

Some scholars argue that the painting links the fall of Adam and Eve with the Wheat and Tares parable--hence the two nude figures. That is unclear but possible. What is clear, however, is that Bloemaert here is condemning sloth, one of the Seven Deadly Sins. The laziness of the sleeping figures allows Satan the opportunity to sow the tares.

The dovecote can even imply sloth, since it is a birdhouse designed to trap birds for food (unlike the work needed to raise chickens, etc.) that is a common motif. As the Walters Museum website notes, the dovecote is often associated "with the morally lazy who take the easy way." 

The depiction of the goat is ominous as well. It looks straight at the viewer of the work, and serves as an illustration of lust, self-indulgence, and damnation (cf. the parable of the Sheep and Goats in Matt 25). The museum's website also notes that the peacock symbolizes pride, but that interpretation can be challenged. This peacock is barely visible (middle left), and peacocks (and horses) were common features in Bloemaert's representations of farmhouses. 

For more details, see Marcel Roethlisberger, Abraham Bloemaert and his Sons (1993).

All in all, it is a beautiful work, rich in color and meaning. If you are ever in Baltimore, it is worth the trip to The Walters Art Gallery to see it and their other works.

One final note: Best wishes to my Rel 205 (Hebrew Bible) students, who, as I wrote this post, are taking their final exam. I really enjoyed the semester with these wonderful students--not only are they great academically, but they are also wonderful human beings. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

One Year Anniversary!

The most popular blog entry of the first year was about
Rembrandt and his The Rich Fool

The first post on this blog (December 9, 2013) started with these words:
I just signed a contract (November 2013) with Baker Academic (Baker Publishing Group) to write a textbook on the reception history of the parables. I have been working with James Ernest of Baker, and the topic is an exciting but daunting one: examining how the parables in the NT Gospels have been interpreted over the centuries.
This blog will document the process of writing that book, and it will include works that I find and insights I have gained through my research for the book.
It's one year (and 126 posts) later. Not sure whether I should say happy anniversary or happy birthday!

I want to thank those people who have become readers of this blog. The blog obviously--for several reasons, including the small "niche" that it occupies even within the small niche of biblical studies called reception history--was never meant to be a blog that had a wide readership, but I hope it has been helpful if not sometimes enlightening for those who have stumbled upon it. I had never read biblioblogs before, so I really didn't know what I was doing at first--and maybe still don't--so I am grateful to people like James McGrath who would drop hints from time to time about what I needed to do to make the blog better and more readable.

I also want to thank three people (in the book, I will thank a number of other people), who have helped me on this reception history journey. First, Chris Rowland, now freshly retired from the University of Oxford, who first extended the invitation for me to write a reception history commentary for the Blackwell series (I should add Judith Kovacs to this thanks as well). Second, Christine Joynes, also of the University of Oxford, has become a much-valued colleague in reception history. She is doing fantastic work in her own research and at the Centre for Reception History at the University of Oxford. I can't wait to see her reception history commentary on Mark. Third, I want to thank James Ernest, my editor at Baker Academic. He was the one who made me realize that this book needed to be written before the one I had originally intended to write, and he has been a delight with whom to work.

As I have mentioned several times over the past year, the blog has been helpful to me. Even though it has added to my workload and used up a fair amount of time, the blog has helped me stay focused on the audience for whom I am writing the book. I have and will continue to revise sections of the book based on what I have done on the blog to make the topics more clear, readable, understandable, and interesting.

The due date for the manuscript to Baker Academic is a year from now, and I have the first draft about 3/5 completed. I want to complete the manuscript in time so that I have plenty of opportunity to revise the manuscript many times. 

I still have three "openings" for the 1500-1700 era, but the most of the work on the book remains for the final two chapters (~1700-1900; 1900-the present). 

I also hope that my honors seminar next semester (on the Reception History of the Parables) will give me an opportunity to make the book an even better one for students. I have some great students enrolled in that class, and I am really looking forward to our explorations and dialogues.

I also have started thinking about how to continue/develop/change this blog after the book comes out, but more on that later. 

Thanks again for reading.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Needed: More Voices in the "Chorus" (for James and the Parables)

I got a pleasant surprise this week: A very positive review of my reception history commentary on James: James Through the Centuries. More on why this review is important for my parables reception history project in a moment.

The review was written by Mariam Kamell (Assistant Professor of New Testament, Regent College, Vancouver, CA), who co-authored a commentary on James with Craig Blomberg (published by Zondervan).

Kamell's review has (for me) an auspicious beginning: "I have rarely read a commentary with such pleasure." 

She also writes a number of other complimentary things about the commentary. I will only quote the conclusion, but you can see the entire review here, if you would like:
Overall, however, this book does a remarkable job of bringing to light interpretations that have long been sidelined. Gowler retains his own voice throughout, but also opens worlds of art, theatre, and poetry that have intersected with this little book, revealing that perhaps the history of the reception of James has not been as neglectful as some of us fear. Gowler writes in an engaging manner, drawing us into the lives and work of those who have wrestled with the text of James, and the reader leaves this book refreshed intellectually to deal with the challenges James presents us, but also confronted pastorally with the relevance of this practical text. This book should be on the shelves of academics and pastors, and used regularly by both.
Two other James scholars, John Kloppenborg and Alicia Batten, have also said very positive things about the commentary (both graciously wrote blurbs for the back of the volume), and it is gratifying to have Mariam Kamell also write such a positive review. I am grateful for her thoughtful critique.

So, what does this review of my James commentary have to do with my present project on the reception history of the parables? One important thing that Dr. Kamell observes is that although the commentary goes to great lengths to highlight voices that often have been "sidelined" (e.g., African American, feminist, liberation theology, etc.), the book would have been stronger if it contained more African and Asian voices. That is true.

In this book on the reception history of the parables, I already have a few African and Asian contributions on which I plan to write, such as the Son of Man film from South Africa (and Augustine is from Africa as well) and He Qi, but Kamell's review reminds me that I need to be on the lookout for more. The problem is that I only have about 50 "slots" for the entire book. There are so many brilliant examples of responses to the parables that the hardest part of writing the book is picking "voices" to serve as representative examples. But more African and Asian voices certainly need to be included.

Thank you, Dr. Kamell, for reminding me of that.

Friday, December 5, 2014

What's next for the book? Science fiction!

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Parable of the Sower, 1557
Timken Museum, San Diego (my photo)

I have not been able to work (directly) on the book since the first week of October, for a number of reasons. My SBL paper, however, will allow me to refine the section of the book that I had written on Thomas Hart Benton's lithograph, The Prodigal Son, one of my favorite representations of any parable. Researching the paper also yielded some additional insights into some possible interpretations of the image, based on some other work Benton did the same year as he created the lithograph. More on that in a later post.

On the flight home from San Diego, though, I started reading Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler. This book and another book by Butler, Parable of the Talents, were recommended to me by my colleague at Oxford, Dr. Adriane Ivey, one of whose areas of expertise is Biblical allusion and Christian mythology by African American women novelists.

After finishing The Parable of the Sower, I have decided to include Butler's two novels in the book. They are distinctive works of science fiction, and they will add much to the discussion of recent receptions of the parables of Jesus.

Once finals week is over, I will begin reading Parable of the Talents and hopefully will begin and finish writing the section of the book on Butler and her work before the spring semester begins. 

After Butler, I probably will turn to Leo Tolstoy, George Herbert, Abraham Bloemaert (I will probably include his The Parable of the Wheat and Tares, instead of the above painting by Bruegel), and Anna Jansz.  

I also have not yet found any receptions of the parables in music from 1500-1700 that I want to include. I need to begin the search for musical pieces from that period over the break as well. If you have any suggestions for music from that period to include, you can email me at dgowler@emory.edu

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Hildegard of Bingen and the Prodigal Son (final post on Hildegard)

Finally, let finish my discussion of Hildegard of Bingen and the parables with two of her homilies on the parable of the Prodigal Son.

Homily 26 constructs a moral allegory of virtue and vice with the parable of the Prodigal Son: God created humankind in God’s likeness (note Hildegard’s continuing focus on God as Creator) and gave them the ability to discern between good and evil. The elder son symbolizes the one who clings to “good knowledge,” whereas the younger son symbolizes the ones who incline toward evil. God bestows glory and honor on the former but allows the latter to depart, and “In the excess of vices [they] lost hope for life” (119). The son at last remembers his creator and returns to his father, thus turning from vice to virtue. The father responds “through heavenly inspiration” by saying to the servants to bring elements that represent virtues: the robe (the innocence that was lost by Adam in Paradise), ring (the comprehension of good works and renunciation of the devil), and shoes (so that he may walk uprightly).

Another interesting aspect of Hildegard’s allegorical reading is that she expands the thinking of the older son by having him compare himself more fully to his younger brother:

With measure and moderation I serve you through good things, and never have I gone against your command by denying it, as my brother did; evidently, it was not allowed that I, by my share of sins, would have so great a report with the virtues about my good actions as this brother of mine about his conversion . . . . in other words, the one who was created by you and by neglecting your commands rejected those works that were necessary for his soul, squandered them with the ravings of his folly, but made an upright journey, and you appointed him with the passion of your son in the abundance of life (121-2).

The father replies that it is necessary to rejoice when evil knowledge returns to the good and is alive again in the knowledge of God. He also uses the interesting metaphor of the warrior, one that is found repeatedly in Hildegard’s works. Here the image represents the ones who fell into vices but have been restored to virtue (see Isaiah 42:13; Kienzle 2009: 282-5):

Similarly, a warrior defeats an enemy, and the enemy, after being conquered, will later be his friend when compelled by necessity, because he will not be able to resist him; therefore, the one conquered should be praised for his service (122).
One wonders whether this interpretation that expands the role of the elder brother is directed specifically at those in Hildegard’s religious community to remind them to celebrate when others—who unlike them had indulged in great vices—returned to the family of God; hence the expanded role given to the voice of the elder brother. 

Homily 27 includes the distinctive element that the elder son in the field represents the angels (a theme of some Gnostics that is also found in Origen, from whom Hildegard may have received it; see Kienzle 2009: 88-9) who heard that the apostles who “were performing wonders and great signs among the people.” When the angels found out that God had sent God’s son to save humankind, they were jealous and angry, because they did not need the incarnation, suffering, and death of Jesus to receive salvation, but that sinful human beings had received that gift. God admonishes them and says that they will always be God’s messengers to humankind but that it was necessary for Jesus to bring humankind the eternal life of salvation.

In case anyone is interested, here is the text I used for the homilies: Hildegard of Bingen, Homilies on the Gospels. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical (Cistercian Studies), 2011.

"The Work of Christmas," by Howard Thurman

"The Work of Christmas," by Howard Thurman   Howard Thurman’s poem, “The Work of Christmas” is my favorite Christmas poem, and I p...