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Monday, October 14, 2013

Anarnistic, Or Whatever She Said…

Maybe it was petty of me, but I enjoyed watching professor Candida Moss take Fox commentator Bill O’Reilly to school in her recent appearance on his show.  And I was particularly amused and astounded by O’Reilly’s admission that he didn’t know what the word “anachronism” means.  (Hopefully he’s consulted a dictionary since that interview).  I cannot understand how someone can write books about history (as O’Reilly does) without understanding the concept of an anachronism.  It’s kinda’ a big deal.[i]

An anachronism is something out ‘place’ in time – whether something old that is preserved into the present, or something modern retrojected into the past - as Harry Tuttledove did in his alternate history novel The Guns of the South in which the confederate army wins the civil war with AK-47s.  Turtledove uses this anachronism both to create a great story, and to help us to understand what was really going on during the American Civil War.  Anachronisms can be entertaining and helpful, but they can also be problematic.

Calling Jesus a “socialist” – though anachronistic (not anarnistic…) can be helpful in that it highlights Jesus’ very clear emphasis on helping the poor and the giving away of one’s possessions.  Talking about a “socialist” Jesus can be helpful in stripping away the “free-market capitalist” Jesus (also anarnistic, or whatever she said) that seems so prevalent among many American Christians.

But he wasn’t really a “socialist” – not as we understand that term, as a political ideology, a completely modern invention.  To talk about Jesus as a socialist can be distracting in that it is a retrojection of modern political ideas backwards in time. It’s also distracting to talk about Jesus as a socialist because doing so causes an immediate leap to the brutality and evil associated in many people’s minds with modern socialists like Stalin.[ii]

In my preaching over the past several years, I have been purposefully trying to avoid these kinds of anachronisms, at least as much as I can. When I become aware of them creeping into my writings, I try to eliminate them.   But it hasn’t always been this way.  I wasn’t always quite this cautious.  And on at least one occasion I purposefully tried to exploit some anachronisms in my writing.

About five years ago I was asked to write a Christmas Pageant for our congregation, and I wrote this – The Dawning Light of Hope. I freely admit that it was an anachronistic bit of writing. 1) I retrojected the political climate and the zealots of the latter half of the first century back into the story of Jesus' birth.  2) I merged the two birth stories of Matthew and Luke with an utter disregard for historicity. And 3) I worked the words of Oscar Romero into one of the speeches.  I hoped that I could exploit these anachronisms to write a typical kids-in-daddy’s-bathrobe Christmas pageant that could subvert the typical kids-in-daddy’s-bathrobe Christmas pageant. I’ll leave it to you to decide if I was successful in anyway. Even with its anachronisms (or maybe because of them) I still like it. 

But the authors of the New Testament used anachronisms also – and like the “socialist” Jesus, these biblical anachronisms can be both enlightening and blinding at the same time.

The Gospel of John, it is often said, has taken the divisive situation that had developed within the synagogues of the late first or early second century between “the Jews” and the “Christians” and projected that animosity backwards in time to describe Jesus’ interaction with “the Jews.”  This is helpful in that it gives Jesus a contrasting opponent.  The description of their conflicts in the Gospel of John (which were actually the conflicts of his later followers) allows Jesus to be seen in sharp relief against “the Jews.”

But it’s problematic as well.  This hyperbolic and anachronistic tension between Jesus and “the Jews” has led many incautious interpreters through the centuries to see all Jews as despicable “Christ killers” and to justify murderous pogroms. 

Anachronisms can be helpful; they can help us to see old things in a new way. Or they can be very problematic – when we fail to recognize them as anachronisms (when we don’t even know the meaning of the world) then our interpretations are going to be woefully warped. 

[i] Part of me wonders if he wasn’t just feigning ignorance in order to portray her as one of those ‘intellectual elitists’ and himself as the man of the people…
[ii] Even if the reports of how many people Stalin killed may have been grossly exaggerated

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