Thursday, September 30, 2010

Mellon Seminar Reflection 5: Who are the cannibals?

This week we spent reading classic anthropological ethnographic studies on death. I was assigned Consuming Grief by Beth Conklin. It is about the Amazonian Wari' and their pre-contact funerary rituals which centered around eating the body of the deceased. Conklin wanted to know why they practiced funerary cannibalism and so she spent years among the Wari' recording family histories of all of them. Since funerary cannibalism is no longer practiced, she had to rely on memories of the Wari'. Apparently this is a 'no-no' in anthropological method, because she was not able to observe the ceremonies directly herself, so she wasn't able to draw her own conclusions from those observations.

This made me laugh aloud since all I do is work from secondary materials, having no direct contact with any early Christian (and I am completely jealous of Conklin who could talk to people who were there!). What disturbs me about the anthropological method is the fact that anthropologists seem to think that their own observations and interpretations of the materials are in some way superior to what the people they study remember and tell them. Conklin was trying to swim upstream, making the very fundamental argument that we have to start listening to the people we study. Maybe they know what they are talking about. She finds it essential to take seriously what the Wari' themselves say about their cannibalism. She writes: "The problem with limiting analysis to the level of ideas and symbols, as many anthropological studies have tended to do, is that this leaves out the very aspects that Wari' themselves emphasize: cannibalism's relation to subjective experiences of grief and social processes of mourning."

Why did the Wari' cannibalize their deceased? Because it helped the deceased transition into the spirit world to join the realm of the animal spirits who dwelled there, and it aided the grieving family disassociate from the deceased and forget them. It was part of the blotting out of their memory that also involved burning the home and property of the deceased, and never using their name again. One of the elders said to her, "Why are you always asking about eating the ones who died? You talk about me eating; Denise [Merieles, a Brazilian ethnographer] came here and asked me about eating. The missionaries and the priests always used to say, 'Why did you eat people? Why did you eat? Eating, eating eating! Eating was not all that we did! We cried, we sang, we burned the house, we burned all their things. Write about all of this, not just the eating!" (p. xxii).

I won't spoil the book for those of you who want to read it, but I want to end this post with an observation. Since the 1960s after contact with outsiders, the Wari' no longer cannibalize their dead. With contact brought infectious diseases that decimated their population. The missionaries, desperate to get them to alter their funerary ritual, told them that if they continued to eat the dead bodies, they would become infected with the disease. So the Wari' began to bury their dead as the missionaries wanted them to, even though they considered the ground to be filthy and polluted and cold, and still complain about their loved ones having to rot in the cold earth.

But all of this has me thinking about Christianity and those missionaries and us today whose central religious ritual is the killing and cannibalization of Jesus' body on an altar. The ancient Romans, in fact, accused the early Christians of just this crime. For Catholics, the bread and wine are transmuted into the body and blood of Jesus and are shared and ingested communally. For Protestants, the cannibalization is more symbolic, but nonetheless present.

Are we dealing with a matter of perspective? Who are the cannibals?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

In Memory of Esther de Boer

I have just learned of the untimely death of Esther de Boer, at the age of 51. According to the information I received, she died on July 6th, 2010. So I write this with sadness, still in shock that Esther has passed on. But I write to remember her and to recall what we have learned from her work, work which will survive her death.

She was a well-respected Dutch scholar who devoted herself to understanding and writing about Mary Magdalene. Her books include The Gospel of Mary Listening to the Beloved Disciple (1980). Mary Magdalene Beyond the Myth (1997 English translation) and Mary Magdalene Cover-Up: The Sources Behind the Myth (2007).

A summary of her most recent book reads:
Mary Magdalene has always been the subject of both popular and scholarly intrigue. Was she the wife of Jesus, his complete initiate, a Goddess or a priestess? Did the Church dramatically alter her image to deny her importance? These questions have inspired representations of her in art, film and literature, from "Caravaggio" to "The Last Temptation of Christ" and "The Da Vinci Code". The "Mary Magdalene Cover-Up" is the first book to bring the original sources that have informed our current day view of Mary to a wider audience. Esther de Boer has brought together an impressive array of texts from the first century, when Mary Magdalene was alive, to the sixth century, when her image as a penitent sinner was invented. Each text is accompanied by an informed and lively commentary by the author placing it in its historical context. This combination of original texts and commentary enables the reader to draw their own conclusions about this most enigmatic of first-century women.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Mellon Seminar Reflection 4: Was Jung a Mystic?

In seminar this week we discussed Religion and Psychology, the Psychology of Religion, and Psychology in Dialogue with Religion. And of course Jung was prominent. One of the readings was his book Aion, which is an unbelievable ride through Jung's mind and ancient Gnostic sources (quoted from the original Latin and Greek patristic sources). Unlike Freud, Jung thought that the human psyche is by nature religious and that the journey of the transformation of the self (a process he calls individuation) is at the "mystical heart of all religions." He felt that life has a spiritual purpose, a meaning beyond material gain and goals. He writes, "Our main task is to discover and fulfill our deep innate potential, much as the acorn contains the potential to become the oak."

This transformative process involves the integration of the person's consciousness with the unconscious in order to stave off unhealthy psychic tendencies such as repression, projection, etc. Jung talked about this process in terms of the union of opposites, including the ego-personality with its shadow. He was particularly fond of the Gnostic mythology which proved to him the accuracy of his theories, for erupting in their mythology was the religious equivalent of his psychological descriptions. For instance, the Gnostic myth of a Father without quality of being who is unknowable, is the unconsciousness. He quotes Epiphanius: "In the beginning the Autopater contained in himself everything that is, in a state of unconsciousness." This manifests or becomes conscious through the generation of the Christ who represents for Jung the perfect human self.

The book reads as a set of psychological sermons filled with esoteric references from ancient sources. Although Jung tries again and again to suggest that "psychology is not metaphysics", it is hard to believe him when faced with a volume this saturated with Christian ideas that are attempting to explain a three-year period when Jung believed he encountered the unconsciousness and lived to tell about it.

I am not sure that psychological models are going to assist me in my own historical work, except that Jung may be a very interesting figure to investigate as a mystic in his own someone who took his personal experiences and the ancient Gnostic mythology and rewrote them as a modern psychological theory. Especially now that The Red Book is published.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Mellon Seminar Reflection 3: Is the author dead?

This week we studied some of the structuralists and post-structuralists. One of the effects of these 'movements' is the promotion of the claim that the author of the text is of little or no consequence. Roland Barthes called this "the death of the author." He and others located the meaning of the text in the audience or reader, and thought that the quest for authorial intent was at best secondary, but in fact useless.

Being the pragmatist that I am, and an author myself, I find this proposal (as 'sexy' as it is) to be untenable. There are authors, and authors have intent, they write for multiple reasons, and they each have very specific cultural and historical contexts which are all over the things they write. It is possible to retrieve this information, although it must be done critically and carefully.

That said, I also want to say that it is equally true that meaning becomes the possession of the possessor. The text, once 'published' takes on a life of its own, and interpretations develop that may or may not have anything to do with authorial intent. These ways of reconceiving the text over and over in historical time belong to communities of people, and their view of the text reflects their own culture, history, memory, and crises. They also reflect interactions with others who are using the same text, although with differences of opinion about what it might actually mean.

I also want to emphasize that there is not necessarily a disjuncture between authorial intent and the first interpretations of the text that might exist. For some reason we have assumed that there is, seeing the early interpretations of the text as 'late' when compared to the author, and therefore of no consequence to our understanding of the composition of the text itself. Being a writer myself, I really question this. When I write something it is being written as part of a conversation that already is in play. So I am not originating the discourse. I am participating in it and am hoping to influence it. So instead of assuming a complete rupture between what is written and the first interpretations of it, perhaps we need to explore the earliest conversation about the text and investigate how what is written fits into it?

I know. This is different, very different. It is different from the usual approach which has attempted to give meaning to the text as modern people read and impose that meaning, so we have ended up with mainstream accepted interpretations of Paul or Mark or John that are nothing more than reflections of post-reformation theology. And these are posited as the author's intent. And the ancient conversation about the text is ignored as secondary and irrelevant. What is backwards here?

Even though I don't agree that the author is dead or secondary in the field of meaning and interpretation, I close with a quotation from Barthes which impressed me as gorgeous in its acknowledgment of the reader's power, a fact we must integrate into our new historicism (for which I yet have no name).
"We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single 'theological' meaning...but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture...In this way is revealed the whole being of writing: a text consists of multiple writings, issuing from several cultures and entering into dialogue with each other, into parody, into contestation; but there is one place where this multiplicity is collected, united, and this place is not the author, as we have hitherto said it was, but the reader: the reader is the very space in which are inscribed, without being lost, all the citations a writing consists of; the unity of a text is not in its origin, it is in its destination; but this destination can no longer be personal: the reader is a person without history, without biography, without psychology; he is only the someone who holds gathered into a single field all the paths of which the text is constituted."

Monday, September 13, 2010

Early Christian Women

I am working on the research for my final main chapter of my book, Sex and the Serpent: Why the Gender Conflicts of the Early Church Still Matter. I ran across a very intriguing passage written by Tertullian that appears to reflect the social realities of Christian women in the late second century. I'm not sure what to completely make of it yet. At first glance, it appears that Christian women were not abiding by the traditional Roman societal roles. And this is confirmed by the accusations against them by the Romans, of lewdness and promiscuity. But then later on in the same text, Tertullian says that the Christian married couple do these things together. In other words, the marriage seems to allow the woman to operate in public because she is escorted by her husband. Is Tertullian using Christian marriage to curtail these accusations?

In Tertullian's treatise to his wife, he exhorts her to remain a widow if he dies first. Part of the treatise deals with the problem of remarriage to a pagan. Tertullian insists that it is impossible for her to serve two lords who have different values and standards of conduct: God and a pagan husband. Here is what he says about the pagan husband:
“Who (aka, what pagan) would allow his wife to run around the streets to the houses of strangers and even to the poorest hovels in order to visit the faithful? Who would willingly let his wife be taken from his side for nightly meetings, if it be necessary? Who, then, would tolerate without some anxiety her spending the entire night at the paschal solemnities? Who would have no suspicions about letting her attend the Lord's supper, when it has such a bad reputation? Who would endure her creeping into prison to kiss the chains of the martyrs? Or even to greet any of the brothers with a kiss? Or to wash the feet of the saints. To desire this? Even to think about it? If a Christian traveling on a journey should arrive, what hospitality will he find in the house of a stranger? If anyone needs assistance, the granary and pantry are closed” (4)...What a bond is this: two believers who share one hope, one desire, one discipline, the same service! The two are brother and sister, fellow servants...side by side, in the church of God and at the banquet of God, side by side in difficulties, in times of persecution, and in times of consolation...They freely visit the sick and sustain the needy. They give alms without anxiety, attend the sacrifice without scruple, perform their daily duties unobstructed..." (8).

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Mellon Seminar Reflection 2: Is there a connection between myth and ritual?

The topic for the second discussion in the mellon seminar was Ritual Theory. The readings were numerous, and it was fascinating for me to spend a week going over the history of the discussion of ritual and myth. I realized even more than I had before how much the question of the relationship of ritual and myth has defined the field of religious studies. I'm not so sure it ought to have, but we are stuck with the fact that it did. If you are looking for a very well-written detailed overview of the history of ritual theory, I recommend the first three chapters of Catherine Bell's book, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions.

I am not going to go into detail here about the history of ritual theory. What I am going to do is reflect on my own understanding of ritual. It is not an understanding that came out of studying ritual theory, nor trying to negotiate the Myth and Ritual School or the views of Durkheim or Freud. My reflections come straight from my work as an historian who has immersed herself in ancient texts for the last twenty-five years of my life. I have discovered that I tend to be very pragmatic in my approach.

1. Ritual and myth have a symbiotic relationship. There is a connection between the community's ritual and myth, although these connections are not stable. Both ritual and myth shift in their performance and narrative over time and for various reasons, some conscious and some not. It may not be possible to determine whether the ritual or the myth came first in the formation of the movement. For me this is not even the interesting question. The interesting question is how and why the ritual and myth shape and reshape each other in peculiar ways.

2. There is a community of real people involved in the ritual and the myth. The texts I study are about practices and ideas that involved real people in real life situations. The category "intertextuality" is something that was made up so that the problem of real communities and their shape or historical boundaries can be ignored.

3. Ritual and myth are culturally-determined and historically bound. We might be able to find some psychological or cognitive feature in humans that predisposes us to create rituals that involve stages of separation and reintegration, but the quest for 'a universal myth' or 'a universal ur-ritual' behind all myths and rituals is not tenable, at least from the perspective of a historian.

4. There are different types of rituals and myths, and therefore different functions. Rituals and myths of initiation may not have the same function as rituals and myths of matrimony, birth, or purging. While the main function of one ritual might be to foster social cohesion, another might be to relieve personal guilt or anxiety. So a careful mapping must be put into place and universalism avoided.

5. Rituals and myths build and support relationships of power within the community. They provide divine sanction and legitimacy for the dominance of some and the subordination of others.

6. When the ritual and myth of the dominant group does not answer all the questions or is contradictory, supplementary and alternative rituals and myths are developed, sometimes clandestinely. And here lies the origin of the concept of orthodoxy and heresy.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Mellon Seminar Reflection 1: What are T/traditions?

One of the goals of my Mellon Seminar this year is to develop further conceptual language to talk about T/traditions and how we critically understand them and their transmission. There has been a move in scholarship away from the discussion of T/tradition(s) in favor of the language of communities of discourse and discursive fields. These are defined by the conversations or communications among those of various identities. There are many reasons for this move, one being the distaste to speak about things "traditional," the association of the "traditional" with the normative (and therefore "orthodox"), and the (incorrect) view that traditions develop in a linear sense (which they don't).

I am not ready to give up the concept of the T/tradition. In fact, I find it necessary to maintain in order to do justice to historical memory. There are Traditions with a capital "T" that become normative and then norm. There are traditions with a little "t" that are not necessarily normative, or the property of the dominant communities that are norming. These traditions are often forgotten or lost or so marginalized that they become invisible to our histories. Yet they were there. Along the way, people began selecting some of these traditions as 'worthy' to remember while others not so much, even up to the modern day. These particular traditions become known as legitimate "sources" to reconstruct our past, while the others are ignored or framed as unimportant.

We can see this with the field of Christian Origins. The 'orthodox' traditions are understood to be the normative and their traces (the four NT gospels, certain letters of Paul, etc) are perceived to be legitimate sources for our reconstruction of early Christian history, while the rest of early Christian literature is relegated to 'interesting in its own right, but of no significant value to the study of early Christianity'. In fact, the normative materials are given a 'historical' pedigree that is not granted any other early Christian text.

Clearly this needs to be rethought in a major way. What if we choose to examine the traces of the traditions that have been ignored and delegitimized? What if they became sources for our understanding of the early history of Christianity and Christian thought? This is one of my BIG questions as a scholar. Being attuned to it means that I have opened myself up to see things differently.

So I think that T/tradition(s) are important to study, and that we need to maintain the word because it gets at the very problem of historical reconstructions, normation, and our process of selecting certain traces of Tradition to be our historical sources, while not recognizing traces of other traditions as worthy of such status.