"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Monday, December 11, 2017

Matthew Monday: Juan Diego

For the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, our parish had some of the kids dress up in Mexican folk attire.  The girls dressed up as our Blessed Mother (under her Virgin of Guadalupe title) and the boys as Juan Diego, the indigenous man who was the recipient of the 16th century apparitions near Mexico City.

Here is Matthew dressed as Juan Diego.

I’m not going to relate the entire story (you can read it here), but suffice it to say that the image on the poncho was a result of Juan gathering roses in December (a miracle in itself) and when he opened the poncho in front of his local bishop, an image of the Blessed Mother had been impressed from the roses on the poncho.  That poncho is still on display and I believe the analysis of the image supports a stain rather than a painted on by human hands.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Faith Filled Friday: The Feast of the Immaculate Conception

Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a holy day of obligation.  You will need to attend Mass if you are Catholic.  And if you’re not Catholic, you may be wondering what the Immaculate Conception is?  No it does not refer to the conception of Jesus, but to the conception of His blessed mother, the Virgin Mary.

This is one of the harder Catholic doctrines to understand, and I admit at one time, despite being a cradle Catholic, I had problems with it too.  I always just accepted it.  Yes, I can understand Mary being without sin—she is “full of Grace.”  But why immaculately conceived?  The explanation that put me over the top was given by Mother Miriam of the Lamb of God, O.S.B.  Mother Miriam was born Jewish, converted to Evangelical Protestant, and then over to Catholicism, where she took religious orders.  Here’s her explanation.

That put me over the top, and now I embrace the Immaculate Conception.

So let me clarify that.  There is the typology (something in the Old Testament prefigures something in the New) of the Tabernacle (the holy place where God resides on earth) now being the Virgin’s womb where Jesus will reside for nine months.  How could God reside in any place not holy?  Mother Miriam draws the comparison in language of the Old Testament where God comes into the Tabernacle (Exodus 40: 34-38) and where God comes into Mary’s womb (Luke 1:35).  Compare, first from Exodus:

And now from Luke:

30Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.31 Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.32 He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,* and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,33 and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”34But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”*35And the angel said to her in reply, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.

So if the Christ child was to reside in the womb and actually develop through the stages of fetal development off of Mary’s body, then she too would need to be of pristine stuff.  She is a creature, but she is a special creature.  So when you see the Tabernacle in a Catholic Church, that box where the hosts reside, think of that, as I do, as Mary’s womb!

By the way, patron saint of the United States is Mary under the title of The Immaculate Conception. I knew that but never knew why. You can read about why here

Monday, December 4, 2017

The Gospel of Mark: Comments and Observations, Part III

This is a continuation of my comments and observations on the Gospel of Mark in a discussion at the Goodreads book club, Catholic Thought. 

Part I can be found here.  
Part II can be found here. 

Part I focused on the primacy of Mark’s or Matthew’s Gsopels.  Part II focused on modern scholarship and the dating of the Gospels.  Part III takes up all the other comments and observations.

⁑ On the Importance of the Sea in Mark ⁑

I found chapter 4 particularly striking for a few reasons.

First, I love it that Jesus climbs into a boat and preaches. Matthew has the sermon on the mount off a hill or mountainside, and Luke has him preach on the plains, I think. But Mark has Him preach off a boat! Herman Melville in Moby Dick has a famous sermon in a church with the pulpit shaped in the shape of a ship's bow. I think Melville is alluding to this scene in chapter 4.

It seems that Mark has Jesus by the sea more than the other Gospels. But that's an impression on my part. I haven't compared.

The other ting that strikes me about chapter 4 is that so much of the chapter is dedicated to the related sower and mustard seed parables. If you look at most of Mark's chapters, at least the early ones, they have about four or five short scenes, one leading to the next, sometimes in an unconnected fashion. (That's why I get the feeling that Mark is summarizing Matthew or something else in those short scenes.) Except for the calming of the sea at the end of the chapter, this is a very unified and focused chapter. And even the calming of the sea brings the chapter back to the beginning where Jesus is on a boat by the sea.

⁑ On Chapter 5 in Mark ⁑

I love chapter five. I think that is Mark at his best constructing a chapter. First you have the demoniac scene, led to Jairus coming to Jesus to save his sick daughter, and while on the way to the sick daughter, the woman with the continuous hemorrhage gets healed, which during the delay, the death of the Jairus’ daughter is announced, upon which Jesus goes to her and raises her from the dead.

That Gerasene Demonic scene has loaded and, in some cases, strange language. In line 2 the demon is referred to as “an unclean spirit,” singular but later we find out it multiple demons, maybe two thousand if there is at least one spirit to a swine. Isn’t it strange that when the spirit sees Jesus, he runs over and worships him (line 6)? Why would an unclean spirit worship Jesus? And the spirit in the next line cries out “What have you to do with me…” “Me” again being singular, but then we find out it’s not a single spirit but many. A Roman legion by the way consisted of anywhere from three to five thousand men. Isn’t it interesting that the two thousand spirits that went into the swine drowned? Spirits are not immortal? They can die? Also it’s fitting that unclean spirits enter swine, which would be unclean animals in Judaism.

Again the sea plays a role here in Mark that I don’t think plays in the other Gospels. Line 17 is another line that baffles me. After Jesus has cured the demoniac and killed the spirits, why do the townspeople “beg Jesus to depart from their neighborhood”? So Jesus gets into His boat and sails off to another harbor on the sea coast. That’s where He meets Jairus. Interesting that Jairus is one of the rulers of the synagogue. Jesus seems to be at odds with most of the Jewish rulers, but here Jairus begs him to cure his daughter.

The continuous hemorrhage on the woman is usually considered a non-stop menstrual problem, which like the spirits in the demoniac would make her unclean per the Jewish laws. There is a bathing ritual which Jewish women are supposed to go through after a menstrual cycle to become clean, but this woman has a continuous hemorrhage, which means she can never become clean. Her healing is along the lines of the demoniac who has been cleared of the uncleanliness.

It’s interesting also that young girl he raises from the dead is twelve, which probably makes her pre-menstrual but close in age to her first menstruation. And her being raised from the dead is the opposite of the unclean spirits and swine that go to their deaths.

Despite the questions I can’t answer, I find that a remarkable chapter.

⁑ On Chapter 10 in Mark ⁑

I love this little scene that Mark has in that 10th chapter:

13And people were bringing children to him that he might touch them, but the disciples rebuked them.
14When Jesus saw this he became indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.
15Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child* will not enter it.”
16Then he embraced them and blessed them, placing his hands on them.

That last sentence is so absolutely wonderful: "Then he embraced them and blessed them, placing his hands on them." It's such a short scene and it has such minimal theological value, and no narrative value, but it's a wonderful little portrait of Jesus the man. Someone who knows ancient literature correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't recall ever children being expressively loved that way, even in the Old Testament.

Also Jesus rebukes the disciples. How many times has He done that in this Gospel? Jesus seems to always be rebuking in Mark, just like He rebuked the storm in chapter five. I wonder if Mark uses the word "rebuke" more often. Does anyone have access to one of those Bible word frequency software?

⁑ On the Mention of Children in Mark ⁑

There’s one particular passage in Chapter 9 that has special meaning for me. First let me post it, Mark 9:36-37.

36Taking a child he placed it in their midst, and putting his arms around it he said to them,37“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.

As some who have been in this book club a while may remember, I’ve mentioned that my wife and I adopted a child, our only child. I can’t remember exactly if that passage was read during Mass just before we went off to Kazakhstan to meet the child or in between trips after we had met the child that would be ours (we had to travel out twice) but sometime before Matthew officially became our child that was a Gospel reading. Funny how the Holy Spirit connects you to things. It has always stuck with me that taking in a child was in effect taking in Christ, and coming with the responsibility that goes with it. In many ways I see Christ in my child.

Also, I didn’t quote the entire passage, but let me now add the preceding lines.

33They came to Capernaum and, once inside the house, he began to ask them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they remained silent. They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest.35Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.

Later in chapter ten as mentioned above, Jesus says that “whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.” So to enter heaven you have to be like a child, and to be first in heaven you have to accept children or you will be a servant in heaven. Well, as a parent, one does serve one’s child, and can be looked at as a “suffering servant.” So through care of your children is a means of salvation.

It also struck me that perhaps Mark makes use of children more so than the other Gospels. He recounts Jesus raising Tabitha and curing of demons more than one child. I don’t know if a concordance can add up the various children references. But it would be interesting to compare the uses of children between the Gospels.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Gospel of Mark: Comments and Observations, Part II

This is a continuation of my comments and observations on the Gospel of Mark in a discussion at the Goodreads book club, Catholic Thought.  Part I can be found here.  

Part I focused on the primacy of Mark’s or Matthew’s Gsopels.  Part II focuses on modern scholarship and the dating of the Gospels.

Irene wrote: "Many of them are Catholic scholars who are very faith filled, even priests and bishops. Let's not denigrate these modern scholars by calling their faith into question. WE need to keep this conversation..."

I'm not against anyone, believer or not, putting their opinions into the mix. But it can make a substantial difference in the way they read the texts. It comes down to the assumptions. A believer comes with different assumptions to the Gospels that a non-believer does.

Here's an example that happened to me while I was discussing that Canaanite Woman scene with someone who's forum nickname (this was not on Goodreads) is Manichean. I don't know if he's a believer or not, but the Manicheans were heretics, so we know his sympathies are not traditional. His claim was that Christ after calling the woman a dog and seeing her faith learned not to be prejudiced. Let me repeat that: Christ learned not to be a racist.

If you do not assume that Christ is God and all-knowing and sinless, then Manichean's reading is perfectly logical. Manichean's assumption is that Jesus is an ordinary man. But because we know that Christ knows how the woman will react and knows her heart and that Christ a priori cannot sin, then his reading is actually ludicrous.

Now if you believe that Matthew took from the Mark initial Gospel writing, then how did he rewrite the stories with additional information? He either had different information or he lied. Can a Gospel writer lie? A non-believer would say that is open to that assumption, and therefore he might see Mark as the first Gospel. A believer would say that for Matthew to lie is impossible because he is being guided by the Holy Spirit.

My point is assumptions are different for a believer and non-believer and they can radically shape the reading.

By the way, I still maintain that none of the synoptic Gospel writers were aware of each other's texts and that overlapping scenes are from scraps of texts that floated around from which they happen come across if they had the story and didn't if they didn't come across. Now I'm no scholar and I've never heard anyone put out this theory, so take it with a grain of salt.

Yikes, there's a ton to respond to and I probably won't get to it all. Let me address this that Irene stated:

"What I was reacting to was the claim that most who believe that Mark is the first Gospel to be written were secular scholars, those outside the faith."

I don't think I said that and if I implied it, it was not my intention. I fully acknowledge that Mark having primacy is the consensus opinion among scholars today, both within Catholicism and without. I admit, I am arguing counter to the conventional opinion.

To Francis: Yes, apparently Bishop Barron supports the consensus opinion.

To Susan: Thank you for pointing out no one was being disrespectful. I don't see my comments or anyone else’s as disrespectful.

To Kerstin: I agree, the Synoptic problem will never be fully answered. There are holes in all the established theories, including the one I've been pointing out.

With that I want to remind everyone of Joseph's comment, #45. Joseph is a seminary student in college right now. Here's his entire quote:

"I'm just going to jump in that this is hotly debated among professional scripture scholars. There are representatives of both schools at the seminary where I study and we won't know for sure which theory is right until we can ask the Evangelists themselves "So which of you wrote first?"

That is to say that while Mark may be the consensus opinion, it is not absolute. Frankly consensus opinions about ancient texts, not just Christian texts, have the half-life of an gnat's lifespan. Mark may be the consensus now, but in fifty years it's quite possible, if not probable, the "scholars" will move on to another opinion, maybe even go back to the opinion the Catholic Church had for almost two thousand years.

I did a search for those who support Matthew as primacy and found Taylor Marshall does:

I don't know who Christopher Fischer is, but he goes through the history as to why the Catholic Church chose Matthew as first and why he believes it is the first. It's a great read, here:

Let me just conclude, the reason the Catholic Church has long held that Matthew was first was because several of the Church Fathers claimed it, and they further claim that Matthew originally wrote his Gospel in Hebrew and was later translated to Greek. Rhetorically it just seems to me that Mark is condensing Matthew, not Matthew elaborating on Mark.

Irene in her last comment above brought out the issue of dating the Gospels. Modern scholars have dated all the Gospels to be post destruction of the Temple which occurred in 70 AD. As far as I can see the sole reason is that Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple, and so the modernist assumption is that the Gospel writers had to wait until the destruction of the Temple in order to write in a prediction. Again this goes back to the assumptions. If Christ is truly God, then He should have been able to predict the future coming of the Temple's destruction.

In my research over this, I found the Catholic Church traditionally maintained that Matthew was written somewhere between 40-45 AD, not post Temple destruction, and that Matthew was originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic (I had never known this, and my next reading of Matthew in its entirety I'm going to look for echoes that have been pointed out) and that Mark followed Matthew, which completely jives with the rhetorical constructions I'm seeing in Mark during this current read. Catholic Answers has a great layout of the traditional Catholic understanding of when and how the Gospels were written. It really behooves a close reading of it, here:

I think everyone should ask themselves this: If you support the dating of the Gospels to post Temple destruction, why are you doing so? If you are accepting the reason that the Gospel writers could not have known of the Temple's destruction until it happened, then you are unconsciously supporting the secularization of Jesus Christ.

Thanks Irene. I'll have to look into those language and cultural nuances that could effect dating. Dating by the Temple destruction is certainly not nuanced and so it’s a vivid mile marker, but perhaps there are more subtle methods that have gone on. I guess I've been scarred by post-modernist scholars when it comes to literature. I have a masters in English Literature and my engaging with professors and articles during school was definitely forming. The scholarship across the university system is so biased against western tradition and religion I learned that once you probe their assumptions, most of their arguments start falling apart. This is especially true with the post-modernist critics who have it as a mission to deconstruct - and by implication destroy established western norms and traditions, whether by intent or by following "the consensus." I've learned that consensus in scholarship means little to me.

As to theology, I've found this fantastic article on Crux, a Catholic online magazine, about how a current crop Catholic theologians - Scott Hahn, Brad Pitre, others - who are now "correcting" (I would have used the word, revising) the modernist scholars of this century. Like I said, "consensus" in ancient texts has a half-life of a gnat's life. Definitely another excellent read:

By the way, Brad Pitre is excellent. I read his Jewish Roots of the Eucharist and it's a wonderful read. Highly recommend it. Also, his new book "The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ" is on sale at Kindle for $1.99. I just bought it yesterday. It got a great write-up somewhere. I don't know how long it will stay at that price. Here:

Here's the concluding paragraph in the Crux article:

"Put simply, the skepticism of Bultmann, Borg, Crossan and Ehrman is out of date. New discoveries have pushed scholarship beyond their fanciful theories and dubious conclusions. The new wave of New Testament scholars readily accept the positive findings of a century’s worth of research, but in the spirit of true scholarship, they have also learned how to be critical of the critics."

So just because I'm in a minority voice, don't think that what I'm arguing is far afield. It's just not with the consensus.

Let me counter with two points. (1) The Catholic Church has always considered both Matthew to be first and Mark to have learned at the feet of Peter. There is nothing mutually exclusive about that. (2) We have all been formed by the modern scholar's timeline of the Gospel's all being post fall of the Temple. As far as I know the only reason for that is that Jesus predicts the fall of the Temple, and so the Gospels have to be after that. Well that's bogus if Christ is God because obviously God can know the future. (Irene above has argued it is more than just the fall of the Temple dating, but until I read that and am convinced, I'm sticking to the modern scholar's lack of faith in Christ.) Historically the Catholic Church argued that Matthew was written in in the early 40's, which would leave a good 25 years for Mark to then work with Peter to write his Gospel.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Gospel of Mark: Comments and Observations, Part I

Back in October our Catholic Thought book club at Goodreads read the entire Gospel of Mark as a short read.  Short reads are defined as one to three week reads in between regular reads while we nominate, vote, and acquire our next book.  Kerstin, my co-moderator, picked the Gospel of Mark since we are heading into the “B” liturgical year where the Gospel of Mark is the primary source of the Gospel readings.  She thought it would be helpful to have read it in one stretch as a precursor.  I think her idea was brilliant.

One gets a different perspective reading the Gospel in one breath rather than the fragmentary excerpts one gets from Mass.  Both have their places, and this certainly wasn’t the first time I have read the Gospel comprehensively.  The fragmentary allows for deeper insight into a moment, sort of like in lectio divina.  Reading the entire Gospel at a stretch allows more for the reader to grasp the author’s intent.  For instance, we see in the curing of the paralytic at the beginning of Mark’s chapter 2.  We pay attention to the details of the scene, for instance the opening of the roof to lower the paralytic down, a very strange detail.  In the fragmentary reading we can focus on the detail, since the reading is only ten lines, and we can draw different conclusions from it.  Reading the Gospel through, one focuses on the bigger picture.  The bigger picture for all four Gospels is arriving at the conclusion of who was this man Jesus Christ, and that conclusion is that He was the Messiah prophesied, and the nature of that Messiah is that He is the divine son of God.  So there is a place for both fragmentary and comprehensive readings of the Gospels.

I’m providing my comments to the discussion, which will take up three posts, but in some cases I will include another person comments if my comment is in reply.  The total number of comments ran to 122, which was quite a conversation for a two week read.  We don’t always get that many for a six week read of a long work.  But the conversation got testy.  I brought up the notion that I no longer accepted the current scholarly notion that Mark is the first Gospel, and that proved controversial and drove a good part of the conversation.  But you can read the entire conversation here.  By the way, I hope this entices you to join our book club.  It costs nothing and members usually pick and choose which reads they participate in.

I’m dividing these posts in to three, organized with the first regarding the primacy of Matthew’s Gospel, the second regarding the dating of the Gospels, which resulted as part of which Gospel came first, and the third on all the other comments and observations I made.  So these are not necessarily in chronological order.  I also cleaned up some of the grammar in places and I put spacers between shifts in conversation.  So here is Part 1. 

The Catholic Church has historically believed that Matthew's Gospel was the first of the Gospels written - and so it's listed first - and the Gospel of Mark followed, but somewhere in 20th century I think scholars have been convinced that Mark was the first Gospel and that Matthew and Luke used Mark and some other now lost texts as a basis for their Gospels.

It’s a little surprising that the NAB right up front endorses the scholar’s position. I don’t think the Catholic Church has officially endorsed it, though I have heard Bishops and priests endorse it as well in offhand comments. It’s kind of become a universal position.

I have to admit I was convinced too. Many years ago in college I studied the nature of folklore and how folkloric texts evolve. Now the texts are not folkloric – they are not oral, they are written, but you can think each Gospel as a snapshot of the oral transmission. Folklore, by the way, doesn’t mean the stories aren’t true. They can be true or fiction. It deals with the transmission of orally derived stories.

Now I put I was convinced in past tense, but as I’m reading the Gospel of Mark now it strikes me differently. Part of the reason why scholars think Mark is first is because Mark consolidates the events where as Matthew and Luke seem to expand on them. For instance, there is no birth story in Mark. If Mark followed Matthew, then why wouldn’t he include a birth story? The thought here is that folklore tends to expands. But folklore doesn’t always expand. Many times folklore contracts and siphons off material. If Mark were solely focused on getting to the nature of Jesus, then I could see him not including the nativity. He starts the Gospel with the initiation of Jesus’ ministry at the Baptism. Look at that first chapter. Mark starts with John the Baptist preaching, then Jesus comes to John and gets baptized, then Jesus is goes into the desert for His temptations, then Jesus starts His ministry in Galilee after John is arrested, then Jesus attracts disciples, performs a number of cures, and then moves out to the neighboring towns. That’s a lot of scenes for one chapter. Each scene is only a handful of lines. Mark is a minimalist. Surely he could have elaborated on each of the scenes. My point is that Mark appears to me to pare down, and if so then the rationale that he must precede Matthew falls apart.

I'm beginning to think the Catholic Church was correct putting Matthew ahead.

My study of biblical exegesis, especially redaction criticism, has convinced me that the Gospel of Mark is most likely the first to be written down, sometime between 67 and 70 AD. That is what most contemporary Catholic and mainline Protestant biblical scholars think.

Yes, I know that's what most scholars think and I did too. I said that. But I'm getting a different intuition on it this reading. Like I said in my comment above, the ordering seems to depend on whether you see Matthew as an expansion of Mark or Mark as a condensation of Matthew, or if not Matthew some other text or oral history. Yes, that would be redaction criticism. Who is redacted who? For me right now in this reading it feels like Mark is summarizing and reducing. It feels like a Hemingway-esk intentional underwriting, and so Mark is quite possible reducing to mere essentials the larger story.

I am on the fence regarding the validity of Q (Q = Quelle, German word for source). Is there enough evidence for lost manuscripts or is it a cop-out? So far every time I've encountered it I haven't been fully persuaded.

Yes, if he were basing it on Matthew. He could be basing it elsewhere. There's no proof that Q ever existed. Personally I think what people consider the proto Gospels were randomly written texts - and note the plural there - the equivalent of scraps of paper today where parts were on one and not the other. My intuition tells me there wasn't one "Q" but something like a dozen parts of a "Q" and the different evangelists had different parts. There was no formal scribing system then. Each partial "Q" was taken from a different oral statement and passed around. I don't know if Q was ever a synthesized text. If it were it would have been treasured and preserved…. And Church history has Mark second. It's actually amazing how often the Church turns up right on historical disputes. They preserved the history quite well. They may be wrong on this one but there are reasons why they may be right.

"There is too much consistency between the "Q" material between Luke and Matthew for it to be coincidence in my humble opinion. The material Matthew and Luke have in common (which Mark does not have) is so similar that oral tradition alone does not seem to account for it. "

Oh I didn't say there wasn't proto material available. What i said was it was in numerous texts rather than a unified single text. That would explain why there is material in Matthew and not in Luke and vice versa. The scholars also claim there are "M' source for Matthew and an "L" source for Luke. What I'm saying is that there weren't such comprehensive texts but maybe a dozen fragments (scraps of texts) which Matthew had some, Luke had some and Mark had some, and that some overlapped and some didn't. That would explain why some texts are in one of the three, others in two of the three, and still others in all three. It would also explain why the Church believed Mark came after Matthew.

"But there are other reasons that I would find it easier to date Mark before Matthew, not just source criticism work. For example, Matthew has a far more developed ecclesiology than Mark. It implies greater time between Pentecost and its writing elapsed allowing for more church structure to develop. "

Unless Mark wasn't interested in it. He apparently wasn't interested in a nativity scene. Certainly if even he wrote his Gospel in 67 AD, the nativity of Christ was known by then. The scholars presuppose that Mark wrote everything he knew or found in the proto texts. As I'm reading I'm sensing he is very deliberate and curt. He's a minimalist.

I admit, my opinion is not the prevailing opinion of the day. I'm using my understanding writing and rhetoric to arrive at an intuitive position.

I hate to beat a dead horse, but now that I’ve read the seventh and eighth chapters in Mark, I want to present what I think is the strongest evidence for the primacy of Matthew’s Gospel over Mark. Both Gospels have the story of the Syrophoenician Woman who pleads with Jesus to save her daughter. A comparison of the two versions I think lends insight on who came first. Here’s Mark’s version:

24 From that place he went off to the district of Tyre. He entered a house and wanted no one to know about it, but he could not escape notice. 25Soon a woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him. She came and fell at his feet. 26The woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth, and she begged him to drive the demon out of her daughter. 27He said to her, “Let the children be fed first.* For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”28She replied and said to him, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.” 29Then he said to her, “For saying this, you may go. The demon has gone out of your daughter.” 30When the woman went home, she found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.

Now here’s Matthew’s version (Mat 15: 21-28):

21 Then Jesus went from that place and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.”23But he did not say a word in answer to her. His disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” 24 He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But the woman came and did him homage, saying, “Lord, help me.”26He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”27She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” 28 Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.

Notice how much more Matthew’s version has than Mark’s. Matthew tells us the situation happened in “Tyre and Sidon” not just in Tyre as Mark. (I don’t think there’s any relevance to Mark caller her Syrophoenician and Matthew calling her Canaanite.) Matthew has her beg in actual words while Mark has what’s called a narrative summary. Matthew has the disciples tell Jesus to “send her away,” while Mark doesn’t even mention the disciples. Both versions have Jesus use that derogatory phrase about the non-Jews being dogs and both versions have Jesus cure the daughter after the woman’s persistence, but Matthew has Jesus spell out that the woman’s faith was great while in Mark it’s rather ambiguous on what Jesus finds so admirable. In Mark’s version it seems like it’s the woman’s humility and not her faith that Jesus finds admirable.

So which version relied on the other? If Matthew relied on Mark as the current scholars claim, then where did Matthew get all that extra detail? Tyre and Sidon are two separate places, though contiguous. If Mark came first, why did Matthew add Sidon? Did he make it up? As a believer in the honesty of the Gospel writers, that would be a non-starter. If Matthew relied on Mark, why did he add the disciples trying to shoo her away and have her say “Lord help me?” Now flip that around and ponder if Mark relied on Matthew as the Church historically has claimed. Isn’t it more likely that Mark would drop what he considered extraneous detail if he were looking to consolidate? The key for me is that Mark jumps into narrative summary, which is a method of simplifying narrative. If Mark didn’t consider Matthew’s details of the addition of Sidon to the itinerary or the disciples’ reaction to the woman and the extra words the woman spoke important, then it seems natural for him to drop the details.

And then in chapter 8, there is the event of the blind man of Bethsaida. Here Mark is quite elaborate in his use of detail because he evidently finds this event very important. The town brought the blind man to Jesus to be cured and Jesus takes the blind man by the hand and leads him out of town. Now that is quite dramatic. To take him by the hand and walk out of town must have been at least an hour’s walk, if not much more. My father was blind by the way and I know firsthand it’s not the smoothest walk leading a blind man, especially if they don’t know each other’s walk habits. And once out of town Jesus puts spittle on the blind man’s eyes and he half sees and then touches the blind man again and he has vision. What a dramatic little scene.

Now this scene is not found in either Matthew or Luke. If Mark came first, and the other two relied on Mark, why would they leave out this dramatic scene? It really does not follow. The Mark primacy has a lot of holes in it.

Susan, I am glad you mentioned all that. I didn't know how much I should mention it myself. One of the reasons I've seen why Mark is so curt on various scenes is that he is not interested in providing a biography of Jesus. He leaves out all that biographical detail (notice no birth narrative) so that he can focus on the one question and this is the overriding question of the Gospel, Who is Jesus? So even the resurrection is not all that important, but the Messiah who cleans away the sins of the world through His sacrifice is the answer. Therefore we see the roughly put together last chapter. It comes across as a fill in afterwards. Now that doesn't mean Mark didn't write it. My theory on that last chapter is he wrote it after he had finished it as an add on.

Mark supposedly has a reputation as a bad writer. Supposedly he has grammatical errors in his Greek and it's supposedly of an inexperienced writer. Now that may be, I can't read ancient Greek, and because of that he was not thought of as a skilled craftsman of writing. Scholars have come to appreciate his story telling abilities, such as the triple scenes laid out side by side in a chapter. Chapter five as I went through in some detail up above is a perfect example of how skilled he can craft narrative. Mark's narrative doesn't necessarily move in a chronological manner, but in a thematic manner. Now only does he lay things out in triple scenes but he also repeats in doublets: two feeding of the thousands scene, two curing of blind men, two demoniac possessed people cured. The triplets and doublets are a fascinating way to tell a story.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Short Story Analysis: “Barn Burning” by William Faulkner

I have to say that probably my favorite writer of the modern era is WilliamFaulkner.  He is a masterful storyteller, possesses a deep understanding of human nature and psychology, is breathtakingly innovative in form and style, and captures the sounds and rhythms of American English, albeit in the southern style.  I need to make a point to read at least a story or two every year from his Collected Stories.  So I’m going to go through them like I do with Hemingway, starting now.  Quotes are taken from the Collected Stories edition.

First up may be his finest of his short stories, “Barn Burning.”  You can also read the story online if you wish too, at William Faulkner Books site, which happens to include “Barn Burning” in its entirety, here.  

Several of Faulkner’s works center on groups of families in recurring works set in a fictional county in northern Mississippi which is a stand in for his home county.  “Barn Burning” brings in the Snopes family, and as Wikipedia entry says, this short story is a prequel to the Snopes family trilogy of novels.    

“Barn Burning” is a story about a young boy, Sarty, trying to understand his Civil War veteran and arsonist father, Abner Snopes, through the final events of Abner’s life, the events that led him to be shot and killed.  Here is the great opening paragraph:

The store in which the Justice of the Peace's court was sitting smelled of cheese. The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read, not from the lettering which meant nothing to his mind but from the scarlet devils and the silver curve of fish-this, the cheese which he knew he smelled and the hermetic meat which his intestines believed he smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentary and brief between the other constant one, the smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood. He could not see the table where the Justice sat and before which his father and his father's enemy (our enemy he thought in that despair; ourn! mine and hisn both! He's my father!) stood, but he could hear them, the two of them that is, because his father had said no word yet:

"But what proof have you, Mr. Harris?"

It is absolutely amazing how Faulkner can go from third person point of view and shift to first on a dime.  There is so much packed in that little paragraph that I need to parse it almost sentence by sentence.  Mr. Harris is in court before a judge accusing Abner of burning down his barn.  We see the events through Sarty’s eyes.  The boy smells cheese and fish, a sensation that will be integrated into his memory and become associated with despair and grief.  That despair and grief is then called “the old fierce pull of blood,” and so through memory of family is memory of grief of which a blood bond enslaves the character.  The story starts with in court confrontational setting, Mr. Harris becomes the enemy, not for anything he did to Sarty, but for being enemy of his father, dramatically characterized through the boys parenthetical thoughts, “our enemy he thought in that despair; ourn! mine and hisn both! He's my father!”  

Let me provide the plot of the story briefly:
(1) In court over the Harris barn burning.  The judge can’t find the evidence against Snopes but tells him to leave town.

(2) Snopes packs his family up, moves to a new shack as a tenant farmer under a rich landlord.

(3) On his way to the landlord’s mansion, Snopes steps in horse dung and deliberately wipes his foot on the landlord’s carpet.

(4) The carpet is brought to the Snopes shack to be cleaned, and out of spite Snopes ruins the carpet and tosses it into the mansion parlor. 

(5) Snopes is back in court over the carpet and the judge rules he must pay for it.

(6) In retaliation, Snopes burns down the landlord’s barn.

(7) Snopes is killed at the scene of the barn burning.

What we get is a portrait of Abner Snopes in the course of three or four days events through the eyes of his son.  So what is it we learn of Abner Snopes? 

He was injured in the Civil War:

His father turned, and he followed the stiff black coat, the wiry figure walking a little stiffly from where a Confederate provost's man's musket ball had taken him in the heel on a stolen horse thirty years ago, (p.5)

He has a tenacious nature, perhaps even beyond tenacious to a relentlessness that bordered on psychologically distorted mania:

There was something about his wolflike independence and even courage, when the advantage was at least neutral, which impressed strangers, as if they got from his latent ravening ferocity not so much a sense of dependability as a feeling that his ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions would be of advantage to all whose interest lay with his.  (p. 7)

And then there is Abner’s fascination with fire:

The nights were still cool and they had a fire against it, of a rail lifted from a nearby fence and cut into lengths-a small fire, neat, niggard almost, a shrewd fire; such fires were his father's habit and custom always, even in freezing weather. Older, the boy might have remarked this and wondered why not a big one; why should not a man who had not only seen the waste and extravagance of war, but who had in his blood an inherent voracious prodigality with material not his own, have burned everything in sight?

Then he might have gone a step farther and thought that that was the reason: that niggard blaze was the living fruit of nights passed during those four years in the woods hiding from all men, blue or gray, with his strings of horses (captured horses, he called them). And older still, he might have divined the true reason: that the element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring of his father's being, as the element of steel or of powder spoke to other men, as the one weapon for the preservation of integrity, else breath were not worth the breathing, and hence to be regarded with respect and used with discretion.  (p. 7-8)

And when he’s fallen under a new landlord who owns an aristocratic looking mansion, we see Abner rebelling against the servitude.  He says, “I reckon I'll have a word with the man that aims to begin tomorrow owning me body and soul for the next eight months" (p. 9).  “Owning me body and soul” is the language of slaveholding, and he is clearly resisting what he sees as a violation to his dignity.  What we see is a nature who is in constantly combative due to the class consciousness of the southern culture.  Abner is repeatedly belligerent because he forever senses injustices to his honor.  It is no coincidence that two critical scenes in the story revolve around a justice’s decision.  He may be above a slave, but now that slavery has been abolished he is not even above that. 

Inside Abner is a combustible dysfunctionality.  He is pricked by his sense of lower class status to the point of outrage, and fire is a perfect symbol for his outrage and belligerence.  He retaliates through arson, as if that will reset the power struggle that has belittled him.  His being an arsonist is an outward expression of his inner combustible dysfunctionality.

But if arson is his outward expression, you would never sense it from his demeanor, which is always on the surface in control.  After the first court scene, after Sarty had been cross examined and everyone could sense that Sarty was going to contradict his father, Abner confronts his son at dinner besides the campfire:

He merely ate his supper beside it and was already half asleep over his iron plate when his father called him, and once more he followed the stiff back, the stiff and ruthless limp, up the slope and on to the starlit road where, turning, he could see his father against the stars but without face or depth-a shape black, flat, and bloodless as though cut from tin in the iron folds of the frockcoat which had not been made lot him, the voice harsh like tin and without heat like tin:

"You were fixing to tell them. You would have told him," He didn't answer. His father struck him with the flat of his hand on the side of the head, hard but without heat, exactly as he had struck the two mules at the store, exactly as he would strike either of them with any stick in order to kill a horse fly, his voice still without heat or anger: "You're getting to be a man. You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain't going to have any blood to stick to you. Do you think either of them, any man there this morning, would? Don't you know all they wanted was a chance to get at me because they knew I had them beat? Eh?" Later, twenty years later, he was to tell himself, " If I had said they wanted only truth, justice, he would have hit me again." But now he said nothing. He was not crying. He just stood there. "Answer me," his father said.

"Yes," he whispered. His father turned.

"Get on to bed. We'll be there tomorrow."  (p. 8)

“Without heat” is a descriptor in many of the scenes for Abner’s actions.  We can feel the intensity inside his breast, but he is outwardly in control, without showing the heat of anger.  That Abner repeatedly explodes “without heat” reveals a psychopathic nature to his actions.    

On the way to the new landlord’s mansion, the son observes his father’s stride and the apparently insignificant event that is at the root of his fate.

Watching him, the boy remarked the absolutely undeviating course which his father held and saw the stiff foot come squarely down in a pile of fresh droppings where a horse had stood in the drive and which his father could have avoided by a simple change of stride. But it ebbed only for a moment, though he could not have thought this into words either, walking on in the spell of the house, which he could ever want but without envy, without sorrow, certainly never with that ravening and jealous rage which unknown to him walked in the ironlike black coat before him; Maybe he will feel it too, Maybe it will even change him now from what maybe be couldn't help but be.  (p. 10)

Abner has stepped in horse feces and is stuck beneath his shoe.  Could he have avoided the dung?  It’s rather ambiguous if he noticed it.  I don’t think we know.  Also recall that Abner was shot in the foot during the Civil War and since has “walked a little stiffly” (p.5).  So his stride has been altered by the war, and, like many veterans of wars, his nature has been altered by the war.  So what was the genesis of his fate?  His altered nature?  His society that has placed him as equal to slaves?  The South’s loss in the Civil War that has lowered the dignity of southerners and pride in one’s culture?  Faulkner weaves all the elements together.

At the landlord’s mansion, we don’t see an event that can be attributed to powers beyond his control; we see a deliberate act of defiance.

His father had not spoken again. He did not speak again. He did not even look at her. He just stood stiff in the center of the rug, in his hat, the shaggy iron-gray brows twitching slightly above the pebble-colored eyes as he appeared to examine the house with brief deliberation. Then with the same deliberation he turned; the boy watched him pivot on the good leg and saw the stiff foot drag round the arc of the turning, leaving a final long and fading smear.  (p, 12)

It is that smear that leads to the court action forcing Abner to clean the carpet and Abner’s retaliation which leads to his death.  Finally because it is so well written I want to conclude with the moment Abner moves out to burn the landlord’s barn.  Father and two sons are in town where father decides they need to eat.

But not at home. Squatting beside his brother against the front wall, he watched his lather emerge from the store and produce from a paper sack a segment of cheese and divide it carefully and deliberately into three with his pocket knife and produce crackers from the same sack. They all three squatted on the gallery and ate, slowly, without talking; then in the store again, they drank from a tin dipper tepid water 'Melling of the cedar bucket an(.] of living beech trees. And still they did not go home. It was as a horse lot this time, a tall rail fence upon and along which men stood and sat and out of which one by one horses were led, to be walked and trotted and then cantered back and forth along the road while the slow swapping and buying went on and the sun began to slant westward, they-the three of them-watching and listening, the older brother with his Muddy eyes and his steady, inevitable tobacco, the father commenting now and then on certain of the animals, to no one in particular.

It was after sundown when they reached home. They ate supper by lamplight, then, sitting on the doorstep, the boy watched the night fully accomplish, listening to the whippoorwills and the frogs, when he heard his mother's voice: "Abner! No! No! 0h, God. 0h, God. Abner!" and he rose, whirled, and saw the altered light through the door where a candle stub now burned in a bottle neck on the table and his father, still in the hat and coat, at once formal and burlesque as though dressed carefully for some shabby and ceremonial violence, emptying the reservoir of the lamp back into the five-gallon kerosene can from which it had been filled, while the mother tugged at his arm until he shifted the lamp to the other hand and flung her back, not savagely or viciously, just hard, into the wall, her hands flung out against the wall for balance, her mouth open and in her face the same quality of hopeless despair as had been in her voice. Then his father saw him standing in the door. "Go to the barn and get that can of oil we were oiling the wagon with," he said. The boy did not move. Then he could speak.

"What . . ." he cried. "What are you

"Go get that oil," his father said. "Go,"  (p.20-21)

Notice how various motivic elements come back and coordinate: the cheese, the despair, the family bonds, the combustible intensity while outwardly deliberate, and the fire.  This is truly one of the greatest short stories in the American short story cannon.