Author Archives: Mike Higton

Believing in providence

Mark makes the claim that what happened with Jesus took place ‘just as it was written’. What has happened in Jesus has enabled Jesus’ followers, they think, to see the truth of the scriptural texts. The texts were, as it were, set up beforehand with Jesus in mind. I don’t think we can get away from the fact that some such claim is being made in Mark’s text.

When reflecting on this a couple of years ago, I wrote the following:

I don’t really believe in such a providential ordering, not at the level of my deepest sensibility, not at the level of my basic stance towards the world – not in my gut. I’m reading (because it has been lent to us) Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, and have found it so packed with portent, each incident foreshadowed and wrapped with prophesied inevitability, that I cannot stomach it. καθὼς γέγραπται is not in my blood.

I find it difficult to sort out my options here. If I say that using these Old Testament texts Christologically is, in some sense, the right thing to do – what am I committing myself to?

Holding pattern

Sorry that there has been nothing posted here for a while. Several reasons:

(1) The Department of Lifelong Learning Theology Exam Board at the very end of July. A five-hour meeting with more paperwork before and afterwards than could be stuffed into an industrial shredder.

(2) The moving of the DLL Theology programme to its new home in the Department of Theology.

(3) My move from DLL to the Department of Theology, and handing over the reins of the part-time programme wholly to my colleague David Rhymer.

(4) Scrabbling to finish a couple of writing commitments that should have been dealt with a while ago: a review of three new undergraduate theology textbooks; the Grove booklet version of some lectures on Higher Education; and the editing of Serious Negotiations, a collection of Rowann William’s essays on various modern theologians.

(5) A quick holiday in Brentwood, house-swapping with Hester’s sister Ruth and her family – and visiting from there friends and family in the surrounding area.

(6) An absorbing e-mail conversation with my friend Susannah Ticciati about the metaphysics of the incarnation.

All in all, these things have distracted me from posting. There is more coming soon, though – I promise!

Just War

Chris’s discussion of justifications for war, and the John Quiggins’ discussion linked to in the comments, have prompted me to try and say clearly something that I’ve made a stab at a couple of times before.

Let us suppose – for the sake of argument only – that we believe a war to be justified. That will always mean that we regard it as the lesser of two evils, because war is always (and obviously) evil, even when justified. We may say, ‘This war is justified’, not ‘This war is good’.

Let me put this another way. To fight even a justified war is to do wrong, in a situation where there is no option available which does not involve doing wrong. To fight even a jusitified war is to sin.

Deciding to fight a war, therefore, whatever the justification (even if it is a straightforward war of self-defence), means accepting huge responsibilities towards those against whom one is being forced to sin.

We incur huge responsibilities to our own soldiers, who we must pervert by training them to fight and sending them into battle.
We incur huge responsibilities to innocent bystanders, who always get caught up in the crossfire.
We incur huge responsibilities to enemy combatants, who are seldom those who have initiated the fighting,
And so on.

To go to war is to take on these responsibilities: to make ourselves answerable for the welfare and flourishing of all these, as well as those we fight to defend. We take on the responsibility to do the least damage possible to all of them, and we take on the responsibility to do all we can to repair damage once the fighting is over. And the depth of the responsibility we incur is proportional to the horror of the fighting that we inflict – and that can hardly be overstated.

So here’s a strange way of regarding a justifiable war: it is an extraordinary and dangerous deepening and widening of our obligations to, our connectedness with, our responsibility for, our enemies and our friends. That’s a cost we must count in assessing the case for any war.


Over at Less Travelled, Ross has written an impressive post on the idolatrous virtue of authenticity – and his post has triggered the release of a rant that has been building up in me for some time. It’s a rant, by the way, which only partly aligns with Ross’s post, so you shouldn’t tar him with my brush.

Authenticity is a myth. That is, when we speak about authenticity, we are drawing upon a very powerful and very attractive picture of how things are. It is a picture which enables certain kinds of forms of life. But it is also a picture which has been invented. That is, it is a picture that has a history. Rather than being the way we have to see things, it is one evolving and questionable way of thinking about who we are and how life works.

Authenticity is a pathology. The authenticity meme – this myth that has evolved and spread until it has become pervasive – is ultimately a destructive one. It is deeply corrosive of social life, and so deeply corrosive of true personhood. Authenticity is a disease from which we need to be cured.

By ‘the authenticity meme’, I mean that picture of the self which suggests that what is real, what is true, what is most properly me, is what goes on inside, behind closed doors, away from the distorting, inauthentic traffic of social life. I mean that picture of the self which suggests that my task is to work on the deceitful surface of my life – all the faces that I present in interactions with others, in groups, in institutions, in society – until it becomes transparent to the authentic depths of who I am. I mean that picture of the self which suggests that you have not met me – not the real me – until I have become authentic with you.

In the face of this corrosive myth, I offer a counter-myth.

I claim that I become who I am only with and through others – and that I discover who I am only in company. Who I am. That is: what I can contribute, what my real strengths and weaknesses are, what I need, what I want, what I can give, how responsive I can be. All these are not sitting there quietly inside me, waiting only upon sufficient introspection, a sufficient effort of honesty, to become clear to me and so expressible to others. Rather, they will emerge (both in the sense of becoming visible and in the sense of coming into being) as I enter seriously into conversation with others, experimenting, exploring, trying out, working – and so finding what resistances and what possibilities emerge over the course of those conversations. And the self I find in the process will be, and can only be, something that both discovered and made in the process. That is, the self I find would have been different had my conversation partners been different, and would have been different had it been someone else engaging with these same conversation partners – but there is in principle and in practice no sorting out what I have brought to this self from what others have brought to it.

Any inner dialogue I have, in which I tell myself my own story behind closed doors, is an imitation (and perhaps a pale and distorting imitation) of the dialogues I have with real others. It is one particular conversation partner, and not necessarily a very good one. It may lie about who I am far more persistently and persuasively than any of my other conversation partners. If it has any insight, any true ability to see and communicate who I am, it will be because it has learnt it from real others over time. The inner voice, after all, grows – it can be taught new things, be given new words. It can be mistaken, and can learn. If I think my job is to go into conversation with others armed with the purity, the inviolability, of this inner voice, then I will simply be binding myself to immaturity.

None of this means, of course, that conversation with others is unproblematic. A conversation partner can impose upon me, can force me into a mould into which I do not fit. A conversation partner can deny me, colonise me, overwrite me. And that’s because a so-called conversation partner can be inattentive, can take shortcuts, can disregard the possibilities and resistances that emerge. A so-called conversation partner can be so taken up with the story he wants to tell that he refuses to allow me anything other than the role he has written for me. But the problem there is not that he is not listening to my authentic self, but rather that he is not letting me become or discover who I am in conversation with him: he is preventing me from becoming a self, not preventing me from expressing an already-formed selfhood. And that distinction is important, because without it we may fail to notice that one of the areas which can be colonised, distorted, imposed upon by others is precisely our inwardness. It may well be that it is my own deep sense of who I am that has been most deeply broken in my encounter with others – that my inner voice, that tells the authentic story of who I am, peddles lies it has learnt from an oppressor.

What we need is not authenticity – the stripping away of constraints until we can be outwardly who we now are inwardly – but love.

Inevitable questions

One quick thought about ‘Son of God’. I claimed in an earlier post, there was a shift from functional to ontological interpretations of that phrase as biblical texts that used it moved into a more thoroughly Hellenized context. It would be easy simply to write that off as a slide into misinterpretation, but to do so would miss the force, the inevitability of the ontological questions in the new context.

Consider a parallel. It is now impossible for us to read the Gospels and not see them as depicting power, its manipulation, and its critique. In fact, it is more-or-less impossible for us not to see that the Gospels are about power, to some significant degree. To step back from questions about power because they impose a foreign framework onto the text would seem to many of us to be an evasion – an irresponsible reading. Power questions are, for us, inevitable.

That does not mean, of course, that a power-focused reading and an ontological reading of the Gospels are ‘equally valid’ in some banal, each-to-his-own-culture sense. But it should disrupt any too-easy picture of the move to ontological questions as a simple betrayal of an original functional purity.

Quoting the prophets 2

Time to return to Mark 1:2-3. In an earlier post, I gave a speculative reconstruction of the process by which these quotes from the prophets might have been included here. I now want to take that further, moving away from the game of speculative reconstruction, and towards the use of this text by a believing community.

(1) As should be clear from my speculative reconstruction, and my comments on authorial intention, I’m not sure there’s any way we can clearly establish quite how much Mark meant by the inclusion of these texts. Of course, I’m not denying that the process which led to this inclusion involved connections being made between the nature of Jesus’ mission and interpretations of these (and other) OT texts. But quite what connections, and quite what interpretations, is very much more difficult to say – and the answer might be considerably more limited than we would like.

(2) If, however, we ask what this inclusion makes possible, things look rather different. The inclusion of these texts allows for the continuation of (and marks the existence of) a process of ongoing interpretation: exploring OT prophecy and other texts to do with the coming of God, and asking whether and to what extent they enable us to make sense of Jesus? The inclusion of these texts here is one of the ways in which Christians are provided with a canon.

(3) We need to be wary here of too simplistic a fact-interpretation disjunction. Jesus emerges against a background of such texts as this, a background of uses of such texts; who he is and what he does is in part constituted by his relation to such texts and uses – by what he does with this background, how it is reshaped in him. The difference he makes is similarly in part constituted by these texts and their uses. In asking what is ‘made possible’ for a believing community, we are asking about how a community forms around the impact of this text-ridden Jesus, how a community struggles to find ways of living appropriately in the text-wrapped space he has opened up. The community so struggling is given these prophetic texts, given the already running process of interpretation, of sense-making, right from the start.

(4) I suppose it is possible to imagine a community being formed in such a way as to regard this interpretive question as closed. One could imagine a Saviour, perhaps, who attempted to bequeathe a fixed and final interpertation of the prophetic texts. “This is that, this means that; end of story.” This does not seem to be the case with the Jesus movement, which seems to be from the beginning involved in a fluid, unfinished, exploratory reading of the Hebrew Scriptures. (And my earlier speculative reconstruction was intended to suggest concrete ways in which the interpretation of these particular texts might have been ‘in progress’ at the time of the writing of Mark.)

(5) Christian identity (the identity of the community struggling to make appropriate sense of Jesus) is therefore in part constituted by the attempt to make sense of Jesus in the light of the Hebrew Scriptures, and vice versa. Christians are, as I have already said, hereby given a canon. Yet being given a canon like this means being given worries about the misappropriation of this canon (and note the misattribution, and the misquotation, already involved in these brief quotations) . Accepting this canon is a dangerous strategy, because it means accepting a source that to some extent stands over against one – a source of potential challenge to one’s interpretation. And that means that Christian identity is marked in two ways:
(i) As I’ve stressed already, this means that Christian identity is going to be inherently dialogical and argumentative – simply because there is (and can be) no single, univocal way of making sense like this.
(ii) This also means that Christian identity is inherently bound up with dialogue/argument with Judaism (if by ‘Judaism’ we mean those strands of first-Century Judaism who make sense of themselves by making sense of the same Hebrew Scriptures, but who do not feel captivated by the possibility of making this sense in the light of Jesus of Nazareth).

(6) And all this means that I could not possibly hope to set down anything like a complete interpretation of these two verses in this blog. I can’t step in and say, “Here is what is meant by the inclusion of these prophetic texts.” I can only hope to dip into the ongoing stream of interpretation – give one particular view of how to make sense of Jesus by making sense of these texts.

I know I’m labouring this like crazy. I’m simply trying to get my thoughts clear, and can only do that by trying to set them out in some kind of ordered way. Apologies to anyone who is still reading…

Hermeneutical Flurry

(1) An academic proposing a meaning for some element in the text (e.g., saying ‘Part of what lies behind Mark’s use of ‘Son of God’ is a reference to Old Testament images of God as Father of Israel’s King) is proposing a programme of further work: an attempt to see what further evidence (from this text and from other texts) can be drawn in to the picture. Successful suggestions will be those that allow a wide range of connections to be made (e.g., drawing in a wide range of OT texts about Kingship; drawing in other examples from the Ancient Near East; allowing connections to anthropological discussions about relationships between the language of cult, kingship, and household…). Successful suggestions will also allow refinements and revisions of the original proposal to be made – they will become the bases of conferences, articles, books…

(2) In principle, an academic might well champion multiple meanings (e.g., championing both the OT background of ‘Son of God’, and connections with Hellenistic usages); in practice it is probably inevitable – and may even be necessary, given the sheer labour involved – that individual academics will latch on to particular meanings and run with them. In which case, a well-rounded interpretation of the text will only be found in the argument between multiple academics (not in the success of any one individual or group). The proper form in which the results of academic historical criticism can be presented will be a dialogue.

(3) To an even greater extent, Christian individuals and groups are likely to pursue particular lines of interpretation – grasping hold of some roughly coherent way of taking the texts (and therefore prioritising some of the available meanings of individual elements), in ways which connect to the development of that individual or group’s life. (It might be, for instance, that Christian interpretations of Gospel language about Jesus as ‘Son of God’ get interpreted in the light of OT passages in such a way as to authorise and enable Christian mining of those OT passages – providing a route by which they can become part of the community’s self-identification in relation to the Israel of the OT, and part of its repertoire of ways of thinking about its relationship to contemporary Judaism.)

(4) Even more clearly than in the case of academic investigation, the proposal of particular meanings is a proposal of particular forms of life, particular ways forward. This is not now simply a matter of division of labour, nor simply of the psychology which leads individuals and groups to hold fast to ‘their’ meaning. It is, rather, because at any given time an individual or group can only to live the text by living some determinate subset of possible meanings. Living involves the making of decisions. ‘On the other hand…’ provides no way forward.

(5) In principle, therefore, recognition of the limitation, the arbitrariness, of such decisions, can’t lead to the proposal of a single form of life which interpeted the text ‘properly’ – i.e., interpreted it without such arbitratiness. Rather, the ‘proper’ form in which Christian interpretation of the text can be seen in the round will be in the dialogue between individuals and groups who have decided differently. The proper form of Christian interpretation of the Bible will take the form of ecumenism.

(6) Some of my language here is wrong, though. Individuals and groups end up pursuing particular meanings not (normally) because they select them deliberately, and with acknowledged arbitrariness, from a range of possibilities all seen as equally available – but because they find themselves chosen by those meanings – captivated by them, given them. Other meanings might still be regarded as possible in the abstract – but not as truly live options.

(7) I know that the straightforward ‘academic’ versus ‘believing community’ distinction is questionable, but let’s stick with it for now. For the academic, the interests within which particular meanings can come to the fore can be very broad: interest in the reconstruction of 1st Century Palestinian society; interest in 1st Century Judaism; interest in the development of Christian piety in the first four centuries, and so on. For the believing community, the interests within which particular meanings can come to the fore will be rather different. Formally, attention to a particular meaning is only going to flourish if it makes some contribution to the life of the community – though the ways in which that can happen are more diverse than we might imagine. Substantively – and here I am perhaps speaking more prescriptively than descriptively – the Gospel texts will be interesting primarily as witness to the identity and significance of Jesus of Nazareth.

(8) If we simply concentrated on the formal side – the ‘livability’ of the text – the dialogue of interpretations found in the Christian community might have quite tenuous and ambivalent connections to the conversations of the kind of historical criticism that focuses on the origins and ‘original meanings’ of these texts (though would perhaps retain stronger connections to the kind of historical criticism that looks at the reception history of the text). If, however, we concentrate on the texts as witness to Jesus, the connections to origins are going to remain unavoidably important.

(9) This means, I think, that the ‘conversation of interpretations’ in the Christian community is bound to take a different shape from, say, the Talmudic conversation of interpretations in the Jewish community. Questions of origin, as far as I can see, quite appropriately matter less in the latter case. Law is not the same as witness.

All this is, I know, intolerably abstract. It’s simply attempted as a summary of some thoughts buzzing round in my head at the moment.

Normal services

I’ve been away for a week, making sandcastles on Cornish beaches and not thinking about the Gospel of Mark. But I’ve come back with a headful of ideas which I want to stick down soon – the only problem being working out (1) how to fit them into blog-sized chunks, and (2) how to fit them around a flurry of work. More soon…

Authorial intention?

What I’ve said about the inclusion of the words of the prophets, about the phrase ‘Son of God’, and about the phrase ‘good news’, all point in a similar direction. They all point away from the idea that interpretation could be a matter of divining the one clear meaning that the author had in mind when he first put these words on parchment. And that’s without either starting on the question of whether it makes sense to think of there being a single author writing this stuff down at a single point, or declaring appeals to the author out of court from the start. Rather my discussions suggest both that the author will not be aware of all the ways in which a particular way of speaking seems to be ‘right’ or to ‘fit’, and that in speaking at all the author has to make use of words that are caught up in complex histories, and that therefore cannot be controlled.

It seems to me, in the light of this, that interpretation of this text can take two fundamental forms – with a deeply hazy border between the two. On the one hand, there is the excavation of the meanings ‘in play’ in the words the author used (and by that I don’t simply mean an analysis of words and phrases, but of larger forms and patterns all the way up to genre). On the other hand, there is the exploration of what the author made possible by putting these words together in this way.

Imagine a map, with time as one axis, on which the results of these two explorations are plotted. To the left, say, all the meanings that have been excavated in the phrase ‘Son of God’; to the right, all the meanings that this phrase goes on to acquire that are shaped by this text. The boundary between the two is hazy: this isn’t the kind of history where we can clearly identify the point at which our text was written. Identifying ‘authorial intention’ would not be a matter of picking the one correct meaning from this map: it would be more like speculatively drawing a rough circle on the map and saying that we guess that the author might have had these existing meanings and meanings-made-possible in mind, and then speculatively drawing a wider circle on the map, to suggest that these further existing meanings and meanings-made-possible might have unconsciously shaped the way the author wrote. Beyond those circles would lie on the left those things that, perhaps entirely unwittingly (at any level), the author brought into play by using words that were not simply his own possession, on thr right those things that, entirely unwittingly, the author made possible by putting his words together in this way.

Any and all of these meanings might be explored by the interpreter.

How much is this picture of interpretation affected if we acknowledge the entirely speculative nature of the circle-drawing involved – of the delimiting of what the author might have had consciously or unconsciously in mind?

And how much is it affected by the recognition that the map will always be drawn by a particular interpreter working from a particular location with particular interests?

Quoting the prophets

How did these texts end up being quoted here, and what purpose do they serve?

Purely speculatively, I imagine something like the following history.

(i) John the Baptist, out preaching in the wilderness, perhaps understands himself, and is perhaps understood, in terms which are partly drawn from texts such as these. Texts such as these provide part of the background which makes the way he goes about his ministry ‘make sense’ – whether he, his followers, or his hearers think about it explicitly or not. (And, of course, behind this there would have to stand patterns of usage of such texts as these in the years running up to John’s ministry that would have allowed them to become part of people’s mental furniture.)

(ii) My guess is that at some point before Jesus comes on the scene, these specific texts may have been used to interpret or represent John’s ministry. And in my speculative reconstruction, I see this as an irreducibly complex process. In part, it might simply have happened because there were some handy (if dubious) verbal hooks – like the ‘voice in the wilderness’ phrase – which could be grabbed hold of and wrapped around John. In part, there might have been a recognition that the message, ‘prepare for the coming of the King’, was actually a good fit for the kind of message John was actually proclaiming. And in part there might simply have been a making explicit of the implicit scriptural background to John’s activity and its reception.

(iii) If something like this process took place, I suspect that it would have begun having two effects. (1) It might have further shaped perceptions (perhaps including John’s own) of what his ministry was – selecting and highlighting from a range of possible interpretations one which made ‘prepare the way of the Lord’ a central slogan. (Think of it as an accidental rebranding exercise.) (2) It might have meant that people’s ideas of the coming day of the Lord, and of the relation in which they stood to it, started taking on colours from John’s ministry – the application of these texts providing a conduit by which the innovations in John’s message can infect the eschatological ideas people already have.

(iv) At some point, Jesus emerges against this background. (He may, of course, have been involved in any or all stages of it; I don’t know what scholarly thinking currently is on the early relationship between John and Jesus.) And so he emerges on a scene where people’s eschatological ideas have begun to be reshaped by John’s ministry, and where John’s ministry is understood in part through texts like these – and perhaps through these specific texts. That background provides some of the parameters by which people try to ‘place’ Jesus – to understand his significance. And perhaps – just perhaps – this set-up allows Jesus’ ministry to be thought of as playing some part in the eschatological coming of God for which John was now seen as the forerunner. Perhaps that becomes part of John’s understanding; perhaps of some of John’s followers; perhaps of Jesus himself; perhaps of Jesus’ followers. These texts, prepared as it were by the existing uses in John’s movement, become part of the internal and external identification of the Jesus movement.

(v) In the process, however, these texts become political: they become caught up in the relationship between John’s movement and Jesus’ movement – and are used by the latter to place John (and his followers) relative to Jesus (and his followers), as well as being used to say something about the role or significance of Jesus himself. And as time goes by, this becomes the primary role of these texts in the Christian movement. And once John and his movement have vanished, it is this role that remains for these texts. They become the leitmotiv by which we identify John the Baptist: they are the summary statements of his identity, his role in the drama. And the eschatological content, and any claims about the role of Jesus, are eventually more or less erased.

Where might Mark’s inclusion of these texts fit in this history? If something like it is true, where does it leave us as readers trying to interpret these verses in Mark?