Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Triumphalism at any cost?

In that terrific tale of the passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that the author of all things (in some unthinkable way) went not only through agony, but through doubt. ...When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross; the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionist choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will only find one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.
--G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
Žižek makes a big deal of quoting Chesterton, including this somewhat overstated passage (mythology does record other rebel gods), in a Hegelian key, in a way that more or less scans as an attempt to read the death of Christ as the death of God, and unpacking a chastened dialectics from an cosmosoteriological myth. I think that knife cuts both ways, but I am going to keep this post nice and simple and leave Hegel out of it.

Christianity Today has an article by Al Hsu, asserting that the cry from the cross, eloi eloi lama sabachthani, is not a cry of despondency but of a kind of triumph. It's a citation of the whole of Psalm 22, the author avers, not just the first line. This is on its face an admissible argument (albeit not a new one); to this day in the Latin, the Psalms are each denoted by their first lines, just as in Hebrew the books of the Torah are called by their opening phrases. So, Hsu continues, since Psalm 22 as a whole goes on to say, "I will declare thy Name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee," and "I will declare to a people yet unborn the saving deeds that He has done," its occurrence among Jesus' last words must also include these resonances. Hence, the cry is not one of abandonment, but one of exultation! QED.

I was referred to the article in question by Kevin Davis of After Existentialism, Light, who takes a dim view of the article:
He completely undermines the significance of Jesus’ cry — neutralizing the impact it does and should have on all readers.
I should clarify that Davis disclaims any attempt to do the full critique he thinks is called for. After all, one may not care for the writing (Davis finds it "meandering all over the place," whereas I think Hsu is just trying to situate his article for the sake of what is known as "relevance"; and anyway, I like to meander myself.) One may recoil from the conclusions the article reaches (or at least its possible triumphalist implications). But a refutation of the argument must go beyond "but that would mean-- [something I don't like]!"

Davis restricts himself to the observation,
I really do not want to see the author handle the garden at Gethsemane scene in the previous chapter of Mark: “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (14.34) and “remove this cup from me” (14.36). Maybe these also mean the exact opposite of what they say.
The claim that quotation of the opening of the psalm intends to refer listeners to its entirety is an old one, and not in itself implausible. That said, one must go deeper by far than Hsu goes, and I share Davis' suspicion of any interpretation of the cross-cry that conjures away the despondency. I don't think much of the views he takes himself to be refuting ("God can't stand sin, so He turned away from Jesus"--please), but why such views should need a "refutation"--and what it would take to make them feel vulnerable to refutation--is beyond me.

Hsu's way of putting it leaves something to be desired--
Is Jesus saying "I have been forsaken by God"? No. He's declaring, "Psalm 22!"
The whole thing reminds me of a joke about jokes:
On his first night in prison, a new convict is lying in his bunk after lights out. Suddenly someone in another cell calls out "Thirty-four!" The whole cell block erupts in laughter. A bit later another voice calls "Fifty-nine!" and again everyone laughs. The guy whispers to his cellmate, "What's going on? What're these numbers?"

"Some of us have been here so long, we know all the jokes by now," comes the answer. "We've compiled a big book of them-- it's in the prison library. We've memorized all the jokes. So if anybody wants to tell one, they just call out the number."

The guy spends the next day studying the joke book in the prison library, noting the numbers of the best ones. That night, sure enough, someone shouts "Nineteen!" to raucous laughter. Someone else responds "Sixty-one!" and the prisoners all guffaw. Then there's a lull, so the new guy, remembering his favorite, calls out "Thirty-seven!" Silence. So he tries again, "Forty-eight!" But no one laughs.

"What's going on?" the guy asks. "Why isn't anyone laughing?"

And his cell mate sighs, "Well, man, some people can tell 'em, and some can't."
It must be conceded that it is absurd to think Jesus would cite the beginning of the psalm--or that Matthew or mark would attribute this to him--without knowing where it came from. Indeed,attributing this to Matthew or Mark is worse, because one has to ignore all the other details of the text which the writers clearly intended to resonate with the Psalm:
they cast lots for my clothing,
or again,
All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out their lips, and shake their head, saying, “He trusted in God that he would deliver him: let Him deliver him, if He delights in him.”
These issues are entirely distinct from whether these are Jesus' own words or not; they refer to the meaning intended by the evangelists.

If I have quoted almost nothing from Hsu's article here, it's because I don't find it's central thesis all that controversial or even interesting. I'm not interested much in his opponents, either--neither his "atheists" who, he says, dismiss Evangelical Christianity as a religion of "divine child abuse", nor his Evangelical readers who are the atheists' targets. These are welcome to each other. Hsu's argument seems to me to be offering Evangelicals a triumphalism at any cost, and an exegetical evasion of the Church's declaration made, and not just by Chesterton, that in Christ God assumed the whole of human nature--and all its temptations. One can stipulate, if one likes, that Jesus meant to refer to all thirty-one verses and not just the first. But the case for what Hsu thinks follows from this is not self-evident. One piece of Hsu's article that I think worth quoting is this:
Both Matthew and Mark record the cry, but neither unpacks the meaning. They just let it stand.
And that's what I'm going to do with this from Hsu as well.

The notion that Jesus was citing the whole of Psalm 22 is not absurd, and even has a scholarly case to be made for it. But the notion that he would cry out the first line as a kind of didactic address to his followers, meaning them to "call to mind" the psalm in question--this is absurd. If Jesus cried this out, he did so the way a devout Jew in extemis says the Psalms; as a prayer. The entire exercise of reading the cross-cry in this way is a grotesque anachronism. Jesus was not a 19th-century Fundamentalist provider of proof-texts. More to the point, the citation of the entire psalm leaves the attribution of despair to Jesus completely untouched. This is clear from the argument itself. The whole allegation that these words of Jesus' indicate exaltation and triumph rather than despair turns on the observation that the Psalm as a whole contains all of these. But if Psalm 22 itself includes both the exaltation and the despair, then so would Christ's cry of "Psalm 22"! There is a hope of deliverance in the psalm, but it comes out of the despondency and abandonment, not instead of it; and if Jesus meant the whole thing, he meant the whole thing. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" One may coherently claim that there is more than despair in this; I do not see how one can hold that there is less.


  1. Hsu's argument seems to me to be offering Evangelicals a triumphalism at any cost

    Yes! Triumphalism is exactly what came to mind when I first read the post. It's the evangelical version of a "theology of glory." Thus, as with the Roman Catholic variant, a theology of glory is overly concerned with apologetics; hence, Hsu opens with his musings on secular culture and the defense of the faith. That should have been my first clue that things will go horribly wrong...and they did.

  2. The expression "forsaken me" cannot, by any somersault of apologetic linguistic acrobatics, be construed as an expression of "triumph"! What an abuse of English to do so!

    That cry of despair was an expression of that man's near-death insight into the fact that he had labored under a delusion all his life, that his "Father", if he existed at all, couldn't wag even a little finger to save him from the torment of dying on the cross in the blazing Sun.

    This insight into the horrifying truth that there was no "Father" to save him from agony now, that he could only be saved from that agony by the actions of a human being like himself, e.g., taking him off the cross, is the only silver lining in this tragic and cruel conclusion to a life riddled with messianic delusions.

  3. Your joke about jokes is spot on. Frege's distinction between sense and reference comes to mind here as well: even if this cry carries an allusion or citation, that is not ALL it is. It feels hyper-Protestant to reduce Jesus' final cry to a citation, akin to reducing wine and bread in communion to a function of "meaning" or "standing for" rather than actually embodying something beyond mere representation....

  4. Shrewd move to invoke Use vs. Mention here. To paraphrase Flannery O'Connor, if it's just a citation, the Hell with it.

  5. thanks for this insightful post (which I read just now… apologies). It is strange that the innovative traits of Christianism (such as the Christus patiens, the humiliation of the cross, the avoidance of a final miracle, etc.) have often created problems to Christians themselves.

  6. Interesting stuff! I do think that the citation of the first line of the psalm creates the condition for a complex emotional response: one feels the despair and then, possibly, remembers the larger context of the psalm, in which despair is converted to praise. To deny either part of that would be a truncation of the richness of the text, here. But there's something else important, too: remember, the 22nd psalm includes the lines

    the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me:
    they pierced my hands and my feet.

    So I think that in the assembly of the gospels, the intended effect of the citation of the psalm wasn't just to give both the experience of alienated despair (and the implication of redemptive praise) -- it was also quite clearly one of many attempts to turn the Old Testament into a prefiguration of the new, to transform one kind of faith into another.

    The textual history of the gospel of Matthew is particularly murky, but whoever worked that allusion into it was quite clever and quite sensitive to nuance, don't you think?

  7. Robert,

    welcome and thank you. Yes, certainly the author / redactor of the Gospel has taken pains not only to weave an older strand into a new context but also to underline this. For we may rest assured that "Matthew" assumed his readers would know the whole psalm. This back-&-forth does not equate to a simplistic "fulfillment of prophecy." It is a dialogue with, and transmutation of, a tradition.

    Always gratifying to get a comment from an author of a blog I read.