Deferred legitimacy: From Paul to Dante

I have a tendency to read the New Testament, and especially Paul, against the later Christian tradition — for instance, in my post yesterday distinguishing between the Protestant Paul and the “real” Paul. My teaching this semester, though, has me thinking more seriously about historical continuities than about betrayals, or at least about the necessary betrayals that are tied up in any long-standing tradition. And due to the vagaries of my syllabus, I’m thinking primarily in terms of Paul’s legacy for Augustine and Dante.

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The wrath of God in America

Today we discussed Romans in class, and I described the traditional reading somewhat uncharitably: there’s something wrong with us such that it’s impossible for us to do the right thing, but if we believe in a certain story, then it’s alright. I know I should be more respectful, but no one seemed very disturbed by it. Perhaps I can get away with it because it’s obvious that I know a lot about the Bible and it means something to me (albeit in some kind of weird way). And in fact, that’s what motivates my dismissal of the traditional reading — it renders Romans (and the Bible more broadly) meaningless.

The traditional narrative of salvation, especially in its Protestant inflection, is one that never made much sense to me. I struggled mightily with it, growing up in a particularly evangelical/fundamentalist corner of the Church of the Nazarene. I could never figure out why I as a Gentile ever needed to be released from the burden of the Jewish Law, why “works righteousness” was such an appalling thing, why getting baptized or going to the altar to ask forgiveness wasn’t a “work,” etc., etc. Ultimately I tried to square the circle by joining the Catholic Church, which at least seemed to offer me some objectivity.

That objectivity no longer appeals to me in the same way, but I still can’t get my mind around the Protestant problematic of faith and works and justification. On a practical level, raising children within the Protestant problematic seems like a recipe for neurosis at best (me and all my closest friends) and moral nihilism at worst (all the evangelical Trump supporters, the most prominent of which are precisely the sons of the first wave of leaders).

The reading of Romans I find in Ted Jennings, Neil Elliott, and others presents me with problems that make sense. What do we do when law seems impotent to produce the justice it aims for? How can we maintain integrity while living in a corrupt system that coerces us into complicity with injustice? What would it mean if we really didn’t have to be afraid of death anymore? I find it hard to believe in the resurrection of the dead, but it at least means something in a way that finagling your immortal soul into heaven simply does not in my view.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but I am sure that the wrath of God is revealed against the American Empire, as sure as Paul was that the wrath of God was revealed against the Rome of Caligula and Nero. We are living in Romans 1 every time we turn on the TV news. It doesn’t take divine revelation to know that things can’t go on like this forever. But we go along with it, for the most part, because we’re afraid — more and more afraid as we become more and more precarious. All our politics, our collective life has to offer us is fear.

The resurrection may be a fantasy, but it’s a fantasy that does something, that opens up a space for transformation and hope. A man was subjected to torture and a shameful, painful death, but through some divine power he was able to overcome literally the worst the world could dish out to him — and so we don’t need to be afraid anymore. He is starting a team that we can join so that we don’t have to be afraid. And when we look at the style of thought that something like the resurrection might make possible, then we can look for other things that might fulfill a similar role. Could we arrange a society where we didn’t need to coerce each other with the threat of death, exclusion, starvation, and shame? What would have to happen to make that possible?

Why would Agamben deny that Paul is an apocalyptic thinker?

In The Time That Remains and elsewhere, Agamben flatly dismisses the idea that Paul is an apocalyptic thinker. This is strange to me, because Paul obviously is an apocalyptic thinker. It’s even more puzzling because Agamben gives basically no explicit reasons for this assessment.

What would be wrong with apocalyptic from Agamben’s perspective? Is it simply too “mythological” to be appropriable in the way he takes a “messianic” Paul to be? Does he think that all apocalyptic roads lead to Schmitt? Any ideas?

Totally called it

In my forthcoming book on Agamben co-authored with Colby Dickinson, I include an essay that indirectly discusses The Use of Bodies, arguing that rereading The Time That Remains in light of the entire extant Homo Sacer series could be a good substitute for the book itself while everyone waits for me to finish translating it.

At the time I wrote that essay, and at the time that I compiled the collection with Colby, the actual epilogue to The Use of Bodies had not been finalized. Now that I’m translating the last few pages of the final text, I feel compelled to declare: I totally called it. Mere pages from the end, Agamben recapitulates his arguments from The Time That Remains about inoperativity and the “as not.” In fact, at the risk of overdoing it, it is arguably the most extended discussion of any single thinker in the epilogue — even the segment on Benjamin is shorter.

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Is Muhammad the better Paul?

In Romans 9-11, Paul lays out what he believes to be God’s plan for Paul’s work as the apostle to the Gentiles. Though the rejection of Jesus as messiah by the vast majority of Jews seems to be a huge defeat, God is actually using it as an opportunity to achieve something even greater: extending his promises to all nations. By Paul’s reckoning, once the Jews see the Gentiles enjoying the messianic life opened up by Jesus’s death and resurrection, they will be so jealous that they will ultimately embrace Jesus. From a contemporary perspective, this view is appealing because it radically relativizes actual-existing Gentile Christianity — it is just a detour, an elaborate ploy in God’s bank-shot attempt to win over the Jews, who remain his real priority. And yet from a contemporary perspective, we must also admit that the plan does not seem to have worked out.

Yesterday I was reviewing some material from ibn Ishaq’s biography of Muhammad. Reading the whole of this vast and unwieldy document is not possible in the context of my course, so I selected portions on the religious and political background of the Arabian penninsula, Muhammad’s early life and ministry in Mecca, his work in Medina, and the events leading up to his triumph over the authorities in Mecca. One issue that will surely arise in this context is the question of “Islam and violence,” because it’s impossible to give a fair or comprehensible account of Muhammad’s life and the rise of Islam without taking into account such key events as the Battle of Badr. If commenters have any ideas for how I might address it in class discussion, I’d be eager to hear it (though I also expect that Shimer students will by and large be bending over backwards to be as fair-minded as possible and to avoid cliches about Islam, so perhaps it won’t be an issue).

One thing that struck me, amid all the undeniable brutality, is how often Muhammad chose not to press his advantage. Read the rest of this entry »

Islam course idea

As I work on my Islam course for the fall, it occurs to me that I’ll likely have more material than I can use in one course. Hence, I’m pondering the idea of proposing another Islam-related elective for the spring semester as well, which would have the added benefit of helping me solidify my own preliminary grasp on Islamic thought. I’ve thought especially about something like the Qur’an and the Bible, and more recently about something comparing St. Paul and Muhammed. What do you think, readers? Does any of this sound plausible, particularly that last idea?

“He who will not work shall not eat”: An explanation

This quotation from 2 Thessalonians 3:10 is often trotted out to make the case against government benefits for the poor. What I’d like to do in this post is to clarify the context of this quotation to show that it cannot be construed to contradict the overriding biblical theme of concern for the poor.

Scholars believe that Paul came to Thessalonica fleeing persecution and fell in with a group of laborers (most likely leatherworkers, which is presented as Paul’s profession elsewhere in the New Testament). They formed a close bond, and Paul was able to win them over for the gospel. The occasion for the first letter to the Thessalonians arose when one of the leatherworkers apparently died. The remaining members were concerned that this person would miss out on the Second Coming because he had died slightly too soon — but Paul clarifies in the letter that actually the dead will be raised first, and then “we” will be taken up to join them. Obviously the situation envisioned here is that the End will be coming sooner rather than later, certainly within the readers’ lifetime. This letter is one of Paul’s most deeply felt writings — it is palpable that he really loves these guys and doesn’t want them worrying.

Shifting the scene to 2 Thessalonians, the tone has shifted dramatically. Instead of the tender consoler, Paul here is playing the role of the taskmaster. This shift, along with apparent contradictions in content, has led some scholars to conclude that this letter is actually a pseudonymous “correction” of the first letter, attempting to tone down some of the apocalyptic enthusiasm. I agree with this assessment, but for the purposes of this post it doesn’t really matter whether it was the real Paul who wrote 2 Thessalonians or not. Apparently some of the laborers have decided to quit their jobs in anticipation of the End, and the author clarifies that the End is not coming quite that soon — in the meantime, everyone should continue contributing to the community.

Two points stand out to me. First, this letter is almost certainly addressing a community of able-bodied men with a set profession. Second, it is responding to a scenario where people are voluntarily refraining from work out of what the author (whether Paul or someone else) believes to be a misguided apocalyptic enthusiasm. Given these facts, it seems deeply questionable to extract this verse as a general principle for public policy, much less to cite it as somehow overriding the clear priority of helping the poor that is pervasively attested throughout the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.