Friday, February 29, 2008

Luke University

Luke chapter 20 could be subtitled "Christ among the academics," especially religious academics. Like anyone claiming religious truth today, the accusation from the worldly wise - as from the Sophistichristians - is, "Who is it that gave you this authority" (20:2)? In other words, "How dare you traffic in metanarratives?"

Realizing that the perpetual questioning of authority is itself a uniquely oppressive authority (Chesterton's reply to Nietzsche's "Question authority" was "Say's who?"), Christ throws in a wrench to stall the scribal gears. Lacking the metaphysical guts to answer a simple question - whether John's baptism was from God or man - the religious academics give up. Christ thereby proves to the crowd that their chief teachers, by virtue of their supreme sophistication, have become incapable of making any pronouncements at all. We imagine Christ smiling as he says, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things" (20:8). How can you have a conversation with someone who is unable to speak?

Example: Are you a believer or not M. Derrida? Sorry, I'm far too sophisticated to answer that, and anyone who can is "naive." (Hear it in his own words here.)

Luke 20 continues. After an infuriating parable, the academics send in their big guns, "spies who pretended to be honest" (20:20). Here are those who claim to honor the "richness of the faith heritage" for its narrative value, the ones for whom aesthetics trump truth. Christ, however, knows their hearts. The spies' attempt at entrapment leads to that most brilliant answer, "Render unto Caesar...", but no matter. In Luke 23:2, they'll simply lie about what he said anyway to get him killed.

Next, the Sadducees pipe in with a logical circus trick intended to show literal belief in the resurrection to be ridiculous. "What about the legend of the septupletly wedded wife?" These are the materialists, who will always be with us. Christ dismantles the threat only to show that yes, he actually believes in real resurrections (20:34-38). Everyone's impressed, but the show goes on.

Christ fires back with his own question, leaving them hanging for an answer. "What do you make of Psalm 110:1?" I too, Christ seems to be suggesting, am familiar with the baffling complexity of Scripture, but it doesn't lead me to worship the goddess of ambiguity, and her consort, the lord of liquidity. Familiarity with the complexities of Scripture does not leave one without an answer: They're looking at the answer.

Christ closes his speech to the religious academics - who are too sophisticated for simple belief, who know so many options that they can't pick one - with yet another possibility that they're unprepared to take seriously: Outright condemnation (20:45-7).

Today, one never quite know where the Sophistichristians will arise. Who would have expected them in self-professedly Evangelical circles and publications, but there they so frequently appear. And lo, in a frankly feminist medieval history text, one finds this from historian Barbara Newman:
Finally, and most controversially, I believe that religious experience reveals the traces, however opaquely filtered, of a real and transcendent object. This is not to exclude the possibilities of self-deception and deliberate fraud, both common in medieval Christendom as in all societies where religion is a hegemonic force... Nevertheless, I assert this conviction to clarify my theoretical stance and to overthrow the last bastion of reductionism. To leave a space for transcendence means to allow for the possibility that, when historical subjects assert religious belief or experience as the motive of their actions, they may at times be telling the truth.... It was not because of their commitment to feminism, self-empowerment, subversion, sexuality, or "the body" that [medieval woman] struggled and won their voices; it was because of their commitment to God.
While the Sophistichristians can't afford such transparency, a secular historian - no doubt at significant personal cost - can? I suppose such clarity of prose makes Newman, at least for M. Derrida, a bit dense. To the Christ of Luke, I imagine it would make her luminous. "I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel" (Luke 7:9)!

From Virile Woman to WomanChrist (pp. 16-17, and 246).