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I want to mark something, at least, before Easter morning (and so I'm going to just post a cobbled-together excerpt from some rambles I've been banging around), of my not-very-successful Lenten exercises, so, well, here we are.

Among other reasons, my Lenten homilies broke down because it became obvious to me that I am in way over my head as far as "interpreting" anything in the New Testament is concerned.

A basic problem that I have--that one has--in reading a lot of biblical texts--and that, in particular, I found made it very difficult to know what to do with some of the lectionary readings from Paul's epistles, and not knowing what to do with Paul makes it harder to know what to do with the gospels--might be described as the problem whether to read them as what I'll call, for the time being, mythology or as fantasy. (This problem has a strong bearing on what it means to treat biblical texts as "revelatory" in the sense(s) I was talking about in my last post ... on which more eventually.) By fantasy I mean (something like) stories in which things and people and events are (or were or will be) as you wish them to be in order to tell the story you want to tell. By mythology I mean (something like) stories that express insights into how things and people are (including how they may be but have not been, except potentially, yet--so some works in the "fantasy" genre are not fantasies in my sense here (and so these really may not be the best terms to make this distinction with, but I don't know what else is, so bear with me here)), and so are bound by general truths about how things and people actually are. This seems to be a way of describing the distinction Socrates makes in the Republic between stories that are simply false and stories that are only false "in words"--i.e., the things that they say happened did not happen, but they don't actually encourage you to believe anything false, and may encourage you to believe things that are true. (I don't think I want to be as hard as Socrates seems to be on stories that are simply false--on fantasy through and through--because fantasy recognized as such, besides its entertainment (or consolation or relief) value, could also, for instance, provide food for thought about why it is that it's fantastical.) Along these lines you could say that some stories are fantastical on the surface but are meant to be read mythologically, or should be read mythologically, or can be read mythologically. Obviously, e.g., the standard Greek myths are like that: they are mythology dressed up as fantasy. I would really like to see the biblical texts in the same way, but I'm not sure how well the texts can bear it, and then again I'm not sure what it means for the texts to be able to bear it or not--which gets back to the problem of the possible revelatory role(s) of the biblical texts in relation to philosophy.

Obviously there is miles of room for disagreement about what's merely fantastical and what's not. Obviously also millions of Christians regard the kind of stuff Paul says about the afterlife and so on as neither mythological nor fantastical but just the God's honest truth (which I might call reading the stories as history). And anyway the distinction between the fantastical and the mythological can't be black-and-white because fantastical stories have to be about people and/or things that we can at least recognize and relate to in some ways, and of course, given the open-endedness of human existence, there is plenty of room for disagreement about how it is at least possible for human beings to be.

This distinction between mythology and fantasy gets at something really important to me in reading fiction, or watching fiction on TV or in movies ... as I was just reminded, thinking about the two-part "Sniper" episode of Homicide that B. and I watched recently. In the end it all comes together awfully quickly and tidily in the interrogation room, as it often (but not always) does on Homicide. It seems like there's maybe too much fantasy going on there, as there often is on TV shows, which can really confuse people about what people are like and how the world works. A lot of what you learn about what people are like, you learn from fiction; chances are, more or less everything you learn about what people are like in police interrogations, on either side of the table, you learn from fiction--and what you learn there will help to shape your sense of what people are like in situations you (explicitly or not) take to be analogous. So it's really important whether or not a given piece of fiction you engage with is fantasy--and it's also really important whether, if it is fantasy, you take it to be fantasy. Fantastical portrayals of human behaviour are presuably less likely to be misleading if you believe them to be fantastical, although the lines are often fuzzy and wires get crossed in memory, particularly in the unconscious quasi-memories that shape our future responses to people.

Reading Paul's epistles, the problem of fantasy vs. mythology seems to be doubled--not only am I not sure whether to read some of what he says, particularly about the "afterlife" and Jesus's return and all that, as mythology or fantasy, I'm also not sure whether he "reads" the stories about Jesus as mythology or as fantasy. I'm inclined to be suspicious of him and assume that he's indulging in fantasy, but I have to keep wondering, especially as long as I haven't read enough of him, whether I shouldn't give him the benefit of the doubt and suppose he might be mythologizing.

A weird thing about reading Paul is that it's very easy--given that the gospels are placed first in the New Testament, and given that Paul converted after Jesus's death and presumably never met the man (uh, before the crucifixion, anyway) while the gospels claim to be first-hand accounts--to read him as responding to the gospels. It's very easy to think of the apparently anti-worldly theology of Paul as being a corruption of the gospels--but all the contemporary scholarship that isn't obviously in the grip of an ideology (which is to say, all the contemporary scholarship that isn't doctrinally bound to insist that the gospels were written by guys bearing the gospels' eponyms who actually hung out with Jesus) apparently agrees that the gospels were written after Paul's epistles. (According to Wikipedia, the current consensus is that the composition of the gospels most likely began with Mark's sometime around Paul's death and ended with John's being completed several decades later.)

A few years ago I told someone that I could never bring myself to be "a Christian" because I reject the strain of anti-worldliness (maybe not the best word--"anti-materiality" or something would be more precise) that seems to be essential to it. And yet over the last several years I have returned several times to the idea that what is absolutely central to Christianity is the incarnation. I guess I would say that my sense now is that the anti-worldly theology of Paul is diametrically at odds with (at least a possible reading of) the Christ-mythology in the gospels. I certainly don't think this is an original or even an unusual view; I suspect it or something much like it might even be the majority view among, well, I don't know, what you might call "liberal" readers of the New Testament or something. At any rate I formed the impression long ago that lots of people think it's an unfortunate accident that Paul made the cut into the canon. (And it has struck me before that there are different, maybe radically different, possible implied theologies in the gospels themselves, and I'm sure the scholars are all over all kinds of possible theological differences between the gospels.)

It struck me last week that I felt about Paul in relation to the gospels kind of how for a long time I felt about Aristotle in relation to Plato--that he messed everything up with his literal-minded blockheadedness. The last time I taught Aristotle--which was the first time I taught and read Aristotle with any real depth and breadth--I finally came around to appreciating his subtlety. So it struck me that maybe I might come around on Paul in the same way. Anyway, I will have to do a lot more reading to see about that. Maybe next year for Lent I'll give up not reading the New Testament from start to finish.

Currently at Havelock: 10.4, which is up 3.4 in the last 25 minutes. The very slow-moving, very sharp warm front that has been crossing southern Ontario all day is finally arriving. Got to Toronto 2-3 hours ago; got to Waterloo 11-12 hours ago. Everywhere from Peterborough west is around 20C.
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