Monday, August 13, 2012

Bolt being Bolt and biblical narrative

The last two weeks have seen our social calendar increase due to the London 2012 Olympic games.  Not having a television of our own, we've been imposing upon several households of Mthatha friends to satisfy the desires of our sport-obsessed children (not that their parents don't enjoy the games!).

All of this is a backdrop to say a few words inspired by Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, arguably the brightest star in a veritable sporting galaxy. Transcendent is not too strong a word to describe Bolt, an athlete so beyond his opponents that ESPN's Michael Wilbon claimed something of a victory for the United States' mens' 4x100 relay team for simply pushing Bolt "to run at full speed right through the finish line"--something he seemed not to do in his 100m victories in Beijing 2008 and London.  Yet what is wondrous about Usain is not simply his exploits on the track, but that he does what he does under the name of "Bolt".  He is a sprinter named lightning.  Not even that swimmer named Michael, the most decorated athlete in Olympic history, was blessed with a surname like "Fish".

Bolt's luster is unique indeed.  Or at least it carries something of biblical proportions.  This is not to say that Bolt is a god (a self-proclaimed "living legend" will do) but that the circumstances of his character are the stuff of biblical narrative.

Bolt being Bolt, for example, is akin to "Mahlon and Chilion", the destined-to-die-before-their-time sons of Naomi, being named, in their Hebrew meanings, "sickness" and "wasting" respectively (Ruth 1:2).  It is like, where sarcasm proves the point, the husbands of Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah, carrying names like "Protector" (Er) and "Vigorous" (Onan) though they failed to produce offspring for her (Gen 38:1-10).  It is like Elijah, "Yahweh is my God", being the only prophet left in Israel who did not bow the knee to Baal (1 Kgs 18:22; 19:10, 14). It is even like Jesus--though the narrative's own rationale is explicit--being named "the Lord saves" (Mt 1:21).  Apparently some names make the man.

Critical scholarship usually assumes that such details of biblical narrative were contrived for ideological import rather than recorded for historical accuracy.  Hence, the noted "historical Jesus" scholar John Dominic Crossan has argued that the passion narratives of the gospels are "prophecy historicized" rather than "history remembered."  In other words, because the disciples' experience of Jesus somehow reminded them of their holy scriptures, they reconstructed his story for the sake of fulfilling Old Testament prophecy rather than for preserving a "blow-by-blow", that is, factual, account of his life.

To be sure, it is one kind of error to reduce all theological truth--that which is true about God and God's activity in the world--to that which can be verified according to modern standards.  Indeed, if truth were no more than fact, then the biblical genres of prophecy, parable, proverb, psalm, and poetry would provide little interpretive value to the meaning of life, the opposite of which has been proven in the experience of the faithful throughout generations.  On the other hand, if the modern mindset requires that faith must work without history, then we are likely to miss the miracle of life when it passes before our eyes.

The wonder of Usain Bolt being Bolt, therefore, is that in it converges--in our games, in our time, in our world, before our eyes--the name and the reality, the word and the sign, the invisible and the visible, the spirit and the flesh.  Bolt being Bolt, and other exceptionally clear exhibitions, enable us to glimpse the unity of life in God's design.  In such moments, myth becomes reality, and reality myth; legend becomes history, and history legend.  Or, in the words of American author E.L. Doctorow, "There's no longer any such thing as fiction and non-fiction; there's only narrative."  It is in that same light, I contend, that we might appraise the biblical story.


I first encountered Crossan's terminology in his Who Killed Jesus: Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus.  San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

on dress and humility

Last week I attended a funeral for the mother of one of the members of our Bible School’s committee.  When I arrived, I was positioned front-and-center between two bishops in pope hats.  Sparkling attire has also been the major preoccupation of our committee as we prepare for the Bethany Bible School graduation in November.  Because we now have students who, upon testing, will have completed our curriculum, it seems right to reward their efforts with stoles at graduation.  For our students, however, even stoles are not enough; in spite of their limited resources, they are quite willing to open their pocketbooks for robes, mortarboards, and pins with the school logo affixed.  Though most of our students, hailing from African-Initiated Churches, already have church robes, something unique for the occasion is apparently in order. 

In the opposite direction, I spent significant time with a pastor in a quite different context in South Africa from the one in which we work who shuns all type of priestly identifiers because, in his view, they send the wrong message about the meaning of Christianity.  In our conversations he also raised serious questions about Christians who do dress up for church, insinuating that those who are concerned with dress betray a deficient spiritual state, these being convinced that proper dress or the right performance of rituals will get them into the kingdom of God.

Though I sympathize with the pastor’s concern for spiritual health, neither have I been able to avoid conforming, where conscience permits, to the mores around me.  Wearing a suit and tie to teach has been an important show of respect for my students’ culture and, at least initially, a factor by which I gained a hearing.  So too, I believe, was the move I made in 2009 to begin wearing a robe and my seminary hood for graduation.  It simply seemed like a step I needed to take in the direction of respect for the students, the Bible School, the occasion, and my role as teacher.

So while the recurring focus on dress sometimes—hopefully not too often—leads me to despair of a breakdown in the communication of my witness to the gospel, for the sake of Christ’s humility (Php 2:1-11) I continue to be led down paths not of my own choosing.