Saturday, December 31, 2016

Flannery O'Connor: Savannah childhood home and the backward-walking chicken

I was in Savannah for a wedding and stopped by Flannery O'Connor's childhood home (photo above). 

Her home was just a block away from the church where the wedding was held--the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist--the church she attended as a child (her school was two blocks away).

My favorite story about her childhood was when she taught a chicken to walk backwards, and she and the chicken were featured in a news reel that was seen around the U.S. Unfortunately, I had to cut the anecdote from the book (because of length), but here is a description of it:
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). 
As I wrote in an earlier blog post, 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.

The section on O'Connor in the book still engages with a lot of fascinating material in O'Connor's work, especially her use of the parable of the Sower in her second and final novel: The Violent Bear it Away (the title is a quote from Matthew 11:12). 

A friend and colleague of mine, Molly McGehee, found the newsreel of O'Connor and her backward-walking chicken and sent it to me.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

On the back cover of this week's Christian Century . . . .

Hint: It's the one at the bottom of the page (with a nice blurb from Chris Rowland, University of Oxford):

Thursday, December 22, 2016

I forgot the blog's third year anniversary! (part 2)

Again, in honor of the third anniversary of this blog (on December 9), I am posting the description and the Table of Contents of The Parables After Jesus as listed on the Baker Academic website:


Jesus's enigmatic and compelling parables have fascinated their hearers since he first uttered them, and during the intervening centuries these parables have produced a multitude of interpretations. This accessibly written book explores the varying interpretations of Jesus's parables across two millennia to demonstrate how powerfully they continue to challenge people's hearts, minds, and imaginations.

The Parables after Jesus covers more than fifty imaginative receptions from different eras, perspectives, and media, including visual art, music, literature, science fiction novels, plays, poetry, sermons, politics, theologians, biblical scholars, and other modes of interpretation, including perspectives from other religious traditions. The book shows how the use of Jesus's parables affects society and culture and offers a richer appreciation for Jesus's most striking teachings. Readers will begin to understand how contemporary interpretations of the parables stand on the shoulders of centuries of conversations and that our interpretations are never independent of the readings and responses that have preceded us. The Parables after Jesus will serve as an excellent supplemental text for a variety of courses.



1. The Afterlives of Jesus's Parables in Antiquity (to ca. 550 CE)
The Gospel of Philip
Clement of Alexandria
John Chrysostom
Macrina the Younger
Ephrem the Syrian
The Good Shepherd in Early Christian Art
Oil Lamp
Roman Catacombs
Dura-Europos House Church
Illuminations from the Rossano Gospels
Byzantine Mosaics, Christ Separating Sheep from Goats, Sant'Apollinare Nuovo (Ravenna, Italy)
Romanos the Melodist

2. The Afterlives of Jesus's Parables in the Middle Ages (ca. 550-1500 CE)
Gregory the Great
Sahih al-BukhariWazo of Liège
The Golden Gospels of Echternach
The Laborers in the Vineyard
The Wicked Tenants
The Great Dinner
The Rich Man and Lazarus
Hildegard of Bingen
Chartres Cathedral
Thomas Aquinas
John Gower
Antonia Pulci
Albrecht Dürer

3. The Afterlives of Jesus's Parables in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries
Martin Luther
Anna Jansz of Rotterdam
John Calvin
John Maldonatus
William Shakespeare
Domenico Fetti
George Herbert
Roger Williams
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn
John Bunyan

4. The Afterlives of Jesus's Parables in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
William Blake
Søren Kierkegaard
Frederick Douglass
Fanny Crosby
Leo Tolstoy
John Everett Millais
Emily Dickinson
Charles Haddon Spurgeon
Adolf Jülicher

5. The Afterlives of Jesus's Parables in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries
Thomas Hart Benton
Parables and the Blues: Rev. Robert Wilkins
Flannery O'Connor
Martin Luther King Jr.
Latin American Receptions
The Peasants of Solentiname
Elsa Tamez
David Flusser
Octavia Butler
Thich Nhat Hanh

Conclusion: What Do Parables Want?

Appendix: Descriptions of the Parables Cited in the Interpretations


Wednesday, December 21, 2016

I forgot the blog's third year anniversary! The first post was December 9, 2013.

Wow. Can't believe that I forgot to commemorate this blog's third year anniversary. I started the blog on December 9, 2013 after signing the book contract with Baker Academic. 

Three years later, and the book is almost out:

To commemorate the anniversary, here is the very first post (my next post will contain the list of all 62 people/items included in my analyses of various interpretations of 30+ parables of Jesus):

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.
The most difficult part of the book, as I have already discovered, is the 100,000-word limit. There are so many interpreters and so much material that should be included in such a book that it will be difficult to choose which ones should be included. Part of the reason for the creation of this blog, then, is to include interpretations that I cannot include in the book itself, simply because of space. I of course also will include in the blog insights about the interpreters that I do include in the book.
The blog, like the book, will cover not only written interpretations but visual and other interpretations. I intend not only to focus on theological or academic responses (the book will not concentrate on academic debates in modern scholarship that are adequately covered elsewhere, such as in my What Are They Saying About the Parables? with Paulist Press) but also on other types of responses including literature, the visual arts, music, social and political elements, and so forth. 
My goal is to include a number of diverse responses to the parables, to allow a wide variety of responses to be heard while attempting to balance depth and breadth, and to focus on important voices while being as comprehensive as possible. 
The manuscript is due by December 1, 2015, and I hope to update this blog regularly during the writing of the book and maybe beyond. 
The image below is a photo I took at the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam on October 20, 2013. It is a close up of the father and son in his Return of the Prodigal etching. More on that print later.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Rich Man and Lazarus (part 20): Bonaventure (ca. 1217/21-1274)


Giovanni di Fidanza (Bonaventure), in his biography of Saint Francis of Assisi, recounts how his commitment to Saint Francis began when as a young boy he was healed from a serious illness after his mother prayed to Francis. Giovanni took the name Bonaventure after he entered the Franciscan Order while a student at the University of Paris. He earned a doctor in theology degree, was elected as the leader (General Minister) of the Franciscan Order in 1257, and became Cardinal of Albano in 1274. He died just two months later on July 15, 1274, and was canonized as a saint in 1482.

Many of Bonaventure’s contributions to parable interpretations are found in his massive commentary on the Gospel of Luke. His exegeses include allegorical elements, since the Holy Spirit can lead interpreters to understand Scripture’s depth in “the multiplicity of its mystical understandings” beyond the literal words, but Bonaventure’s approach is significant because he also includes non-allegorical interpretations of parables (see Bonaventure 2001: xx-xxxii; 2003: x-xii; McKim 2007: 203).

Bonaventure’s interpretation of the Rich Man and Lazarus parable includes not only over one hundred twenty citations of Jewish Scriptures and over forty-five citations of the New Testament but also citations of over thirty earlier interpreters, such as John Chrysostom, Bede, Boethius, Gregory the Great, and Peter of Ravenna (Bonaventure 2001: 1516-51).

Augustine had argued that the rich man allegorically symbolizes those Jews who were filled with pride, Lazarus represents a poor tax collector or the Gentiles, the rich man’s purple and linen clothes represent the kingdom of heaven that will be taken away from the Jews, the banquets denote the Jews’ boasting about the Law, and so forth (see Wailes 1986: 255-6). Bonaventure, however, avoids all such allegorical interpretations: “this passage has more the character of an example than of a parable,” and it functions as an “exemplum of punishment for a lack of mercy” (Bonaventure 2001: 1516). Bonaventure also emphasizes the physical reality of what occurs in this “exemplum” to inform/warn his readers about the dangers of wealth, and Bonaventure finds three important lessons to learn (1516-1551):

First, the rich man lacked mercy because he loved himself and was filled with wicked desires: “For through its love for earthly things the spirit grows fat and is weighed down, so that it cannot travel into the higher realms of heaven.” The rich man also takes excessive pride in the glory of his “handsome and precious garments,” and his love of sumptuous banquets indicates his sin of gluttony.     

Second, this sinful lack of mercy results in a “merciless and impious” indifference toward his neighbor, Lazarus, who was sick, abandoned, and starving. In contrast, Bonaventure argues, Lazarus was holy and good. He shows patience, for example, in spite of the cruelty of the rich man, but the ultimate evidence of his piety is that he “was borne away by the angels into Abraham’s bosom.”

Third, the punishment for the rich man’s merciless indifference to Lazarus was “being cast into the calamity of hell.” Even though the rich man saw Lazarus’s need, he does not have mercy. Agreeing with others such as Macrina the Younger (although he does not refer to her) that the soul is what is being tortured, Bonaventure says that the “flame was real, but the tongue was imagined.” Bonaventure thus focuses on the physical reality of sin/punishment and faith/blessing.

Bonaventure’s monumental commentary on Luke is a tremendous achievement, and one that creatively combines literal and allegorical interpretations of the biblical text as Bonaventure seeks to enlighten his readers with the depth of Scripture’s insights. The literal meaning is never abandoned, but the allegorical meaning yields deeper “mystical” understandings.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Christmas Message from Howard Thurman

The Mood of Christmas, by Howard Thurman

Rita and I received a Christmas card from our friends Chris and Catherine Rowland. The words on the card were especially meaningful to me, so I looked on the back to see the source/author of those words.

To my delight, the words were written by Howard Thurman, whose works on the parables hopefully will be the subject of my next book project (co-authored with Kipton Jensen of Morehouse College).

The words are from Thurman's "When the Song of the Angels Is Stilled" (from The Mood of Christmas) and here they are, repeated from above:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.

Can't think of a better Christmas greeting, thought, and never-ending mission.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Rich Man and Lazarus (part 19): The Golden Gospels of Echternach (ca. 1045-46)

The Golden Gospels of Echternach: The Rich Man and Lazarus 

The community of monks at Benedictine Abbey of Echternach (in modern Luxemborg) produced some of the finest illuminated manuscripts ever created. The most important of these manuscripts is known as the Golden Gospels of Echternach (Codex Aureus Epternacensis), because of the 23½ karat gold lettering that makes up most of the text. The metalwork and ivory on the front cover, which includes precious stones and pearls set into gold, come from an earlier manuscript and the 135 pages of the manuscript were apparently trimmed so they would fit into the current binding (Dodwell 1993:144).
This manuscript is distinctive for its use of color and comparatively rare depictions of the parables. The representations of the parables and other narrative illuminations appear on full pages in three panels, explanations of which are written in narrow gold strips. Each Gospel is preceded by such illuminated pages, with three scenes on each page, but the images are not connected to specific Gospels (e.g., unique scenes from the Gospels of Luke and John are included in the pages before the Gospel of Mark), which accents the idea that the four Gospels present a unified vision.

Four pages that precede the Gospel of Luke depict four parables from the Gospels (for details, see Metz 1957: plates 67, 68, 69, and 70): The Workers in the Vineyard; The Wicked Tenants; The Great Supper; The Rich Man and Lazarus:

The depiction of the rich man and Lazarus parable, like in other representations, consists of three panels. The top panel shows the rich man (dives) wearing red/purple clothes and feasting at a table, with a servant bringing more food. Just outside the door crouches Lazarus, with his arm raised in supplication. Sores cover his entire body, and two dogs lick his wounds. The second panel on the left shows Lazarus lying dead. His body lies alone and abandoned, but two angels are taking his soul, which comes out of the corpse’s mouth, and are wrapping the soul with a white cloth. The right side of the panel shows Lazarus sitting on Abraham’s lap, and twelve other souls—six on each side—look at them with their hands raised in a prayer-like fashion.

The left side of the lowest panel shows the rich man having died. His body lies in his expensive house, with friends/family looking on. This scene shows two demons—their bodies are black, their wings red, and they have fearsome claws—taking his soul out of his mouth. One demon in the middle of the panel carries him away. The right side of the panel shows the rich man in the “inferno,” looking up at Abraham and Lazarus, with both arms raised, begging Abraham to help him, but to no avail. Both Abraham and Lazarus look down at the rich man; their arms are raised, signifying that it was too late for anyone to help him. Luke’s allusion to Jesus’ resurrection might also be reflected in the twelve souls (symbolizing the apostles?) that flank Abraham and Lazarus in heaven. 

All of the demons in hell are dark brown, with purple hair and fire coming out of their mouths. Four demons face the rich man with their arms and menacing claws stretched out toward him. A fifth demon, larger than all the rest, lies helplessly bound with a rope around his neck, hands, and feet, perhaps signifying the day when the angels will bind Satan (Rev. 20:2?). The faces of two other demons appear on the other side of the rich man, and they are flanked by seven other human figures—three on the left and four on the right—who also appear in supplication. The illumination thus offers a concise and terrifying portrait of what awaits those who act as the rich man did and the future comfort offered to the Lazaruses of the world.

Next up: Bonaventure's interpretation of the parable.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Rich Man and Lazarus (part 18): Pope Gregory the Great (part 2)

Pope Gregory the Great

So, now to discuss Pope Gregory's interpretation of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus:

Gregory's first move might surprise modern readers, since he allegorizes the parable: The rich man represents the Jewish people, “who made a cult of exterior things” (i.e., the Law). Lazarus—covered with sores—denotes the Gentiles, who are not afraid to confess the “open sores” of their sins. Lazarus longed to eat from the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table, but the rich man/Jewish people would not share the knowledge of the law (i.e., the food in the parable) with Lazarus/the Gentiles. The dogs that come to lick Lazarus’s wounds symbolize preachers of the Gospel—since Scripture sometimes uses dog to denote a preacher (Gregory cites Psalm 67:24). The dogs help cure the sores by licking them, just as “when the holy doctors instruct us in the confession of our sins . . . they touch the ulcer of our mind with their tongue” (146). Lazarus, symbolizing Gentile believers, receives his reward in heaven. The rich man, however, is punished in hell, which depicts the punishment of the Jewish people who do not believe Moses, his words about Jesus (John 5:46), and, therefore, in Jesus (149).

After this discussion of the “hidden significance of the allegory,” Gregory devotes a significant amount of the homily to the moral of the parable. The rich man is condemned not for overt evil deeds but for failing to help Lazarus and for “being attached” to his possessions (149). He used his possessions only for his own pleasure “in the service of his pride,” and “he did not attempt to redeem his sins” through a just use of his abundant riches. He has no excuse: Lazarus lay at his gate, and the rich man “passed before him daily”; he thus knew about Lazarus’s dire situation yet did nothing to help.

Gregory also observes that it is striking, since the names of the rich are usually more widely known than those of the poor, that the parable only gives Lazarus’s name. This detail tells us that God “knows and approves of the humble.” Just as the rich man denied Lazarus even a morsel of food, now God denies the rich man even a drop of water to cool his tongue. Gregory also argues that the tongue of the rich man is highlighted because, even though Jesus never mentions it, the man must have sinned through “loquacity” or “verbosity” (i.e., those who feast frequently also usually talk too much) and thus “justly suffered a special torment in his tongue” (153-4).

In addition, the rich man suffering in hell after receiving good things during his life “is sufficient in itself to inspire terror”: Christians should beware of being perverted by riches and also should be forgiving of the poor, even when they sin, since they, like Lazarus, may be “purified by poverty” (155). Gregory then exhorts his congregation:

My dear brethren, now that you know the glory of Lazarus and the punishment of the rich man, act with extreme caution; seek out the poor, that in the day of judgment they may be your intercessors and advocates. You have many brothers of Lazarus lying at your doors, in want of those crumbs which fall daily from your table when you have well satisfied your appetite. The words we have been reading should teach us to fulfill the law of mercy. Every minute we find a Lazarus if we seek him, and every day without seeking we find one at our door. Now beggars besiege us, imploring alms; later they will be our advocates. Rather it is we who should beg, and yet we are besought. Ask yourselves whether we should refuse what we are asked, when those who ask us are our patrons.
Therefore do not lose the opportunity of doing works of mercy; do not store unused the good things you possess (158).

Gregory concludes by urging his congregation to despise the transient honors of earth and to seek eternal glory. A key element is respecting the poor and sharing your riches with them. Like Jesus said in Matthew 25, everything you give to someone in need on earth, you are giving to Jesus in heaven (see Wailes 1986: 197-8).

Next up: the depiction of the parable in The Golden Gospels of Echternach (ca. 1045-46).

"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...