Wednesday, September 08, 2010


A Clean (almost) Slate

I sometimes give thanks that I came to my theological education with a tabula (relatively) rasa. I was duly baptized and confirmed in the good old C of E and the family was counted as “a sound supporter” of our strongly evangelical village church (they regularly held a ham supper on Good Friday!). My mother came near to hysterics when my sister announced that she was getting engaged to a doctor of Irish nationality and popish religion: even worse, my sister was to be received after instruction from – you guessed – a Jesuit. My father, a naval officer, was, I think, as I look back, an open-minded pantheist: by and large, he strongly opposed racist and ethnic prejudices, which were so prominent in the officer class of the early 20th century. There was, however, a striking exception. It arose, as he frequently told us, from his early experiences as a midshipman visiting S. America and Malta, an experience which produced a pronounced antipathy to everything “popish”; he regularly referred to Roman Catholic priests as “black crows”, for superstitious sailors a sign of ill luck.

The upshot of this family background for me was, firstly, a general, interest in what are grandly called ‘ultimate questions’; secondly, a profound distrust of religious, ethical and political absolutes: in my mid-teens, for example, I was attracted to the short-lived “Common Wealth” party (see an article in Wikipedia).
Thirdly, I read a lot of Penguin books on religion and social concerns. I was unduly influenced by the apologetic writings of C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, and it was not until my second or third year of studying history and theology that I managed to delete much of what had seemed witty and reasonable. The Chestertonian, “he was either a madman or God” argument seemed plausible to a fourteen year old.
How I ever came to the conclusion that I might seek ordination in the C of E is not at all obvious in the light of this record, but that is another narrative of a length beyond the scope of this little essay. Perhaps I may return to it at some future time.

Context & History in Biblical Study

Suffice it to say I that began the study of theology without any significant baggage labelled either Evangelical or Anglo Catholic. The Seminary (we called them “Theological Colleges") I attended was liturgically slightly on the high side of middle-of-the –road, but intellectually fairly radical. I recall a member of the Faculty some time in the very early 1950s heaping scorn on the arguments against women’s ordination on “theological” grounds.

It is not surprising, therefore, that I was never impressed by apologetic arguments that argued for a Chalcedonian Christology on the basis of Old Testament prophecies, and that the notion of an inerrant bible (whose contents had been for me somewhat sketchy) seemed absurd. The concept of inerrancy perhaps needs a little parsing. My notion that Fundamentalists were those who read the bible ‘literally’, was overturned in my second year when I read James Barr’s excellent book, Fundamentalism; he points out that, on the whole, Fundamentalist readings of the bible very often resort to “figures of speech” to avoid a literal reading. A very good example is the treatment of “days of creation” in Genesis 1. These, of course are not literal days, but “eras of history”. These shuffles and shifts are essential if the primary tenet of Fundamentalism, - the Bible is the authentic word of God and is totally without error – is to be maintained.
In the years since my student days, my continued study has deepened, and, I hope, refined my theological positions, but I remain committed to an historical, contextual and critical study and reading of biblical texts.

A Disconcerting Experience

Imagine, then, my complete disorientation when it suddenly seemed clear to me (I suppose in evangelical terms, I experienced a conversion moment) that the contemporary political situation in the U.S.A. is clearly foreshadowed in Scripture. I resisted this sudden conviction: apparently this is normal in the conversion process, though many evangelicals would maintain, that if conversion is not instantaneous and complete, it is not valid. But resist it I did. First of all, I had to be clear about the verse itself. And there it was II Peter, 2.22 (could such a row of ‘twos’ be without significance?), “For them the Proverb has proved true: ‘the dog returns to its own vomit’, and the sow after a wash rolls in the mud again’”.
In a sense, this seemed to have double strength: it is an Old Testament passage wrapped round and ratified by the New.

Text and Vocabulary

I tried the ploy of a textual variant somewhere in the verse; Manuscript scholars, it is well known, are enemies of the gospel who regularly demean the sacred King James Bible, suggesting that it descends from a “corrupt” family. On the other hand, their results can be used when necessary. But Nestle’s definitive edition of the Greek text, which has an extensive apparatus of variant readings, gives not a whiff of scribal emendation or homoiteleuton.

My last, desperate attempt to avoid the clear meaning of this verse was to look up the word ’εξεραμα (exerama, vomit). Arnt and Gingrich, Lexicon of the New Testament and Early Christian Literature, closed that last escape route. The interesting thing about the word is that this its only appearance in the New Testament, and it appears also in a medical treatise of the late first century C.E. by Dioscorides. Critical scholars use this example of what they call an hapax legomenon – a word that occurs only once in the whole bible - (together with dozens of words unique to 2 Peter) as an argument for a very late date for the letter, therefore discrediting its Petrine authorship. In fact (sic), the use of a very rare word may well point to divine dictation. So what does this verse foreshadow, perhaps, even, foretell?

Astounding Polls

Simply, the astounding poll result that 75% of the American electorate want to return to the policies of the Bush/Cheney years.

There the matter might have rested, leaving me dismayed, and amazed at this example of Democracy, ("Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." - Winston Churchill in a House of Commons speech on Nov. 11, 1947), awaiting only “the inevitable end”. But I could not stop worrying at the thing, like a dog with an old bone (to carry on the imagery).

Then, another bolt from the blue (divine message? Direct line to the celestial exchange?). A passage in the Old Testament, as it were, flashed up before me. It does not cancel out the message of 2 Peter, but it poses the question: “how valid are the data of the poll”? The75% number comes from a Gallup poll, and the lit-up message directed me to I Chronicles, 21.1-6 (N.E.B. translation). “Now Satan, setting himself against Israel, incited David to count the people”. Some of his advisors tried to dissuade him; Joab warned him that doing this “would only bring guilt on Israel”.
So here we have an unmistakable reference to a Gallup Poll, for what does Gallup do but “count the people”? Unhappily, those taking part in these exercises seem not to recognize that they are involved in Satanic activity.

Waking Up

As is so often the case in disturbing dreams, it took several seconds before a feeling of relief flooded in; I had not, after all, become a Fundamentalist. But as I reflected on the fragments of the dream that lingered on during the day, it occurred to me that both the author of the Book of Proverbs and the anonymous author of the Seond Letter (of) Peter, had hit on a truth of crowd psychology: a crowd, when fed enough inflammatory material, will not behave rationally, a situation exacerbated in our case by decades of a failing education system. The Proverb suggest that the dog is attracted back, but does not consider the consequences: that certainly seems to be the case of the 75%.

II Peter 2.21 certainly is not in any way prophetic; indeed the letter is a sad piece of work, and might have been best left out of the Canon, as it is in some third century lists, which often include the Letters of Clement of Rome, a much better bet.

It is, though, a good image for the possibility of a Republican return to power, and whether they regain power or not, the Old Testament passage stands as a warning about Polls: satanic or not, they need watching in more than one sense.


Anonymous said...

I'm very happy Mark Harris led me here. The imagery of dogs returning to their vomit cheers me no end after a day of listening to political forecasts,

Hal Whitmore

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well done, Simon. Well done.

R.J. Bailey said...

I'm very happy to have stumbled upon your blog. It's very interesting. I noticed your affiliation with All Saints in Rehoboth. My grandfather, Richard Bailey, was rector of All Saints until he retired sometime during the early 80's I think he would have greatly enjoyed your writing.