WHITE NOISE, BHOPAL, AND THE HYPERREAL FEAR OF DEATH

It is better to go to a funeral than a feast.

For death is the destiny of every person,

and the living should take this to heart.[1]

Don DeLillo’s White Noise, “a paradigm of postmodern literature,”[2] yields the kind of cognitive dissonance that makes you wonder whether the author simply missed the mark, or if you are only confused because you suffer from the postmodern condition which DeLillo adroitly analyzes. I agree with Pico Iyer when he evaluates DeLillo as “that rarest of birds, a novelist on fire with ideas – and an outlaw epistemologist to boot – he uses his fictional excursions as occasions to think aloud in shadowed sentences, speak in modern tongues, plumb mysteries, fathom depths.”[3]

One such depth is the fear of death, echoing throughout the pages of White Noise in the perennial question: who will die first?

In this essay, I endeavor to analyze the Baudrillardian concept of hyperreality as it pertains to the human fear of death, using DeLillo’s White Noise and the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India as literary and factual signposts.

White Noise

White Noise by Don DeLillo.Jack Gladney, the novel’s protagonist, is the chairman of the department of Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill in a nondescript anytown called Blacksmith. He and his wife, Babette, are the heads of a hodgepodge family filled with an assortment of children from various marriages. After these core details, however, it gets difficult to summarize the novel’s plot. According to Sol Yurick, this is because, “in a sense, White Noise doesn’t really have a plot: It is about the intrusion of a plot into life, a stringing-together of random events into some kind of meaningful schema.”[4] The first twenty chapters, taking up just over one hundred pages of text, bombard the reader with an assortment of episodes. From the home, to the car, to the supermarket, to the College-on-the-Hill, an assault of misinformation and profundity fades all signals to flat – from the ever-present voice of the television to random interpolations of intense emotion. We are left with white noise.

And yet, plot slowly invades. In Gladney’s own words: “All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots. Political plots, terrorist plots, lovers’ plots, narrative plots, plots that are part of children’s games. We edge nearer death every time we plot. It is like a contract that all must sign, the plotters as well as those who are the targets of the plot.”[5] Out of the static emerges one of the novel’s central themes: the fear of death.

According to Albert Mobilio, White Noise explores “the narcissist’s inevitable trap: a preoccupation with dying.”[6] And DeLillo explores this theme masterfully. “Writing of death,” Iyer notes, “Don DeLillo takes one’s breath away.”[7]The question “who will die first?” first appears in chapter four, as Jack wonders to himself whether this “thought itself is part of the nature of physical love, a reverse Darwinism that awards sadness and fear to the survivor.”[8] As the novel progresses, Gladney emerges as a narcissist on a quest for meaning in order to escape death, or rather his fear of it.[9] According to DeLillo, “[Gladney] feels that Hitler is not only bigger than life, as we say of many famous figures, but bigger than death. Our sense of fear – we avoid it because we feel it so deeply, so there is an intense conflict at work. I brought this conflict to the surface in the shape of Jack Gladney.”[10]In Derridean terms, Gladney’s search for center, whether in Babette’s stability, Wilder’s silence, or Hitler studies, is driven by his fear of death.

The same chapter closes with Jack’s admission that he is crafting an identity for himself in his Hitler studies endeavors. He wears dark lens glasses and renders his academic self J. A. K. Gladney, via the fabrication of an extra initial. By his own admission, Jack Gladney is “the false character that follows the name around.”[11]In the final chapter of the book’s first section, another confession emerges:

The truth is I don’t want to die first. Given a choice between loneliness and death, it would take me a fraction of a second to decide. But I don’t want to be alone either. Everything I say to Babette about holes and gaps is true. Her death would leave me scattered, talking to chairs and pillows. Don’t let us die, I want to cry out to that fifth century sky ablaze with mystery and spiral light. Let us both live forever, in sickness and in health, feebleminded, doddering, toothless, liver-spotted, dim-sighted, hallucinating. Who decides these things? What is out there? Who are you?[12]

Jack Gladney wants to be somebody, and he desperately does not want to die.

The second of three sections in White Noise is solely comprised of the twenty-first chapter. At fifty-four pages long, it is roughly the length of the first twelve chapters combined. This is because it is devoted to the “Airborne Toxic Event” (ATE), the novel’s main incident. In brief, a noxious cloud of a chemical known as Nyodene D gets released into the atmosphere, prompting an evacuation of Blacksmith. During the evacuation process, Jack is briefly exposed to the elements (and, presumably, to the Nyodene D) while refueling the family station wagon.

When Jack tries to ascertain if his exposure will cause any health risks, he has a poignant conversation with one of the evacuation officials:

“That’s quite an important armband you’ve got there. What does SIMUVAC mean? Sounds important.”

“Short for simulated evacuation. A new state program they’re still battling over funds for.”

“But this evacuation isn’t simulated. It’s real.”

“We know that. But we thought we could use it as a model.”

“A form of practice? Are you saying you saw a chance to use the real event in order to rehearse the simulation?”[13]

The answer is yes. Unfortunately for Gladney, though, his exposure to the Nyodene D was (presumably) real enough. As his fear of death increases as a result of this news, even a specific death sentence eludes him. Just as science is quickly outpacing humanity’s control (as shown by the ATE and the toxin-eating bacteria used to eat the cloud), Jack’s fear of death outpaces death itself.

The final section of the book is devoted to the experimental drug Dylar, which was designed to treat the fear of death. Babette eventually comes clean to Jack and admits that her intense fear of death drove her to have sex with a compromised pharmaceutical agent in order to be admitted to an unofficial Dylar study. Jack is forced to come to terms with the real Babette, who is considerably less stable than he had previously believed. At first, this seems to bother him even more than the adultery. His center destabilized, his thoughts turn to Dylar, despite Babette’s insistence that the drug does not work
. The fear of death has morphed into an intense thanatophobia,[14] even more ubiquitous and intense than first thought.

As his efforts to obtain Dylar fail, however, Gladney’s anger at Babette’s adultery slowly grows. He cannot stop thinking about her and the unknown “Mr. Gray” getting intimate in a motel room. A watershed moment for Jack comes in his lengthy conversation with Murray in chapter thirty-seven. After discussing the fear of death, hypothetical ways to transcend it (putting faith in technology, studying the afterlife, surviving a horrific accident), and Jack’s actual attempts at finding center in Hitler and even Wilder (the “noble savage” who does not know he’s going to die), the myth of redemptive violence emerges – a dangerous catalyst for Jack’s festering anger and thanatophobia. Consider Murray’s words:

I believe, Jack, there are two kinds of people in the world. Killers and diers. Most of us are diers. We don’t have the disposition, the rage or whatever it takes to be a killer. We let death happen. We lie down and die. But think what it’s like to be a killer. Think how exciting it is, in theory, to kill a person in direct confrontation. If he dies, you cannot. To kill him is to gain life-credit. The more people you kill, the more credit you store up. It explains any number of massacres, wars, executions.[15]

Although Murray claims this is a purely theoretical conversation and Jack feigns incredulity, the idea is too tempting for Gladney to resist.

The second-to-last chapter of White Noise recounts Jack’s failed attempt to murder “Mr. Gray,” who turns out to be Willie Mink, a disgraced pharmaceutical agent whose addiction to Dylar has rendered him more or less insane – exposed to the white noise. Gladney tracks Mink down and shoots him twice in the gut before placing the gun in Mink’s hands in a laughable attempt to make it look like a suicide. However, the dying Mink shoots Jack in the wrist.  The myth of redemptive violence instantly fades into a parody of redemptive virtue: Gladney decides to try and save Mink’s life. He takes him to a hospital run by German nuns.

At the hospital, Jack’s conversation with one of the nuns brings the chapter to a poignant, jarring close. She explains:

Our pretense is a dedication. Someone must appear to believe. Our lives are no less serious than if we professed real faith, real belief. As belief shrinks from the world, people find it more necessary than ever that someone believe. Wild-eyed men in caves. Nuns in black. Monks who do not speak. We are left to believe. Fools, children. Those who have abandoned belief must still believe in us. They are sure they are right not to believe but they know belief must not fade completely. Hell is when no one believes. There must always be believers. Fools, idiots, those who hear voices, those who speak in tongues. We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. You are sure that you are right but you don’t want everyone to think as you do. There is no truth without fools. We are your fools, your madwomen, rising at dawn to pray, lighting candles, asking statues for good health, long life.[16]

In the world of White Noise, even belief is simulated. Gladney returns home, his mind racing, to watch his children sleep. Similarly, the reader (whose mind is presumably racing as well), is left to watch the novel end.

The fortieth and final chapter of White Noise is dominated by a strange event in which Wilder – the “noble savage,” not yet aware of his own death – rides his tricycle across the expressway and miraculously survives. The novel then closes in characteristic rapid fire. The Gladneys watch the stunning sunsets over Blacksmith, whose beauty just might be the result of toxins in the atmosphere. Scientists still comb the area, “gathering their terrible data.”[17] Jack is taking no calls. He fears his doctor and the medical technology which are “eager to see how [his] death is progressing.”[18] The final scene is devoted to the supermarket, the transcendental temple of the postmodern age, “where we wait together, regardless of age, our carts stocked with brightly colored goods.”[19] Appropriately, the signals fade to flat as the reader is left with the image of the supermarket tabloid racks – containing “the cults of the famous and the dead.”

Fame and death. Searching for center, gripped by thanatophobia. White noise.

The Bhopal Disaster[20]

White Noise was first published in January 1985, not long after a disastrous chemical leak in Bhopal, central India. On the evening of December 3, 1984, a storage tank of methyl isocyanate (MIC, used to produce pesticide) ruptured at the Union Carbide plant, releasing toxic fumes which northwestern winds blew into the shantytowns of Bhopal. The white fumes wreaked havoc on the populace, littering the streets with corpses or vomiting, defecating individuals about to die. “As many as 200,000 people ran through the city streets, coughing, screaming and calling out to each other.”[21] Adding insult to injury, the factory siren went off at around 2:00am, causing many to think that a fire had started. Hundreds rushed toward the plant in order to help – unknowingly entering the path of the lethal gas. Unlike White Noise, there was no SIMUVAC.

Bhopal-Union Carbide 1 crop memorial.jpgBhopal was rendered a city of corpses. The unimaginable chaos left rescue workers searching for the dead three days after the incident. Orphans wandered the streets. The death toll rose to over 2,500, with as many as 100,000 permanently-disabled survivors – suffering from “blindness, sterility, kidney and liver infections, tuberculosis and brain damage.”[22] Muslims were placed into hurriedly-dug graves. As many as seventy Hindu funeral pyres lit the night. The district had to ship in more wood just to feed the crematory fires.

Much like White Noise, rumors and fear spread quickly in the aftermath of the tragedy. Authorities had to reassure the people that an early-morning fog was not a new leak, that their milk and vegetables had not been contaminated. Furthermore, the real-life Nyodene D, MIC, was every bit as unstable and unknown – no antidote, no treatment. The physical effects of low-level exposure were predicted to fade with time. However, the same could not be said for those who survived heavier exposure. Their suffering would be indefinite.

Bhopal briefly shocked the American public (some of them, anyway) into an uncomfortable awareness of the danger of the ubiquitous chemicals that surrounded them – in factories, on wheels, and in products. Some demanded to know just how dangerous these chemicals were, in the interests of public safety. Others, like the Reagan administration, defended companies’ rights to trade secrets, in the interests of the free market.

Who will die first? Average Americans, or the denizens of the developing world? Savage nobles, or noble savages? Incidents like the fictional Airborne Toxic Event and the actual Bhopal disaster, along with our reactions to such tragedies, are telling. The former beg us to come to grips with our mortality, with the rate at which technology outpaces our efforts to control it. As Murray put it: “[technology] creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other. Technology is lust removed from nature.”[23] As Newsweek put it: “Experts elsewhere said that many of the victims in India would not
have been alive at all if not for chemicals that increased food supplies, reduced the incidence of malaria and improved sanitation. Judged against such benefits, the risks of chemical accidents seem more acceptable.”[24]

BLACKSMITH. BHOPAL. BENGAY. BRILLO.

Which death should we fear?

The Hyperreal Fear of Death

WikipediaBaudrillard20040612-cropped.pngAccording to Jean Baudrillard, hyperreality is “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality.”[25] When our simulations of reality become indistinguishable from the reality itself, we have entered into the realm of the hyperreal. Not only is it difficult (some would say impossible) to reach beyond the simulations, but we often prefer the simulations to reality itself. Examples of this abound throughout White Noise. Consider “the most photographed barn in America,” which has been so thoroughly eclipsed by its own simulacra that it remains impossible to be seen. In Murray’s words: “they are taking pictures of taking pictures.”[26] Mentioned above, Jack’s search for center in Hitler studies and the SIMUVAC procedure are further significant examples of the hyperreal in White Noise.

Not even (the fear of) death escapes the influences of hyperreality. Although at first glance death seems a weighty enough subject to break through the simulacra and connect humanity with reality, under closer examination, death evades our grasp. Central to the complex dynamics of the hyperreal fear of death are the simulacra of death, often weightier than the thing itself. Consider how Gladney’s fear of death is more intense than death itself. It is the nebulous ambiguity of his Nyodene D death sentence which threatens to undo him, much more than the chemical itself. In a vicious cycle, the various fear-driven ways in which we react to death make our fear of death that much more complicated. That is, it can get quite confusing to discern whether or not we are afraid of actual death, or merely our various representations of it.

After all, death itself can only be experienced once.[27] Until the end, we spend a lifetime fearing that which we have not experienced. The first strategy is avoidance, distancing ourselves from the terrifying and uncomfortable. Consider the euphemism. People do not just “die,” they “pass away,” “move on,” “kick the bucket,” “hang up their tennis shoes” (Spanish), and “fall asleep” (Koine Greek). 

The second strategy is embrace, subversively trying to strip death of its fear by exploring the macabre. Consider horror movies. Sure, they rely on the fear of death, but they also attempt to treat it – giving the audience the strength to say “I’ve seen worse” when it comes to their own (probably) mediocre deaths.  These first two approaches are often combined. The hero attempts to transcend death through valor, to embrace death through battle-hardened courage. Jack Gladney attempts to avoid and embrace death through Hitler, who was “larger than death.”[28]

A third strategy is examination. This is best illustrated within White Noise by Murray, whose quote to Jack during the ATE merits quotation at length:

“This is the nature of modern death,” Murray said. “It has a life independent of us. It is growing in prestige and dimension. It has a sweep it never had before. We study it objectively. We can predict its appearance, trace its path in the body. We can take cross-section pictures of it, tape its tremors and waves. We’ve never been so close to it, so familiar with its habits and attitudes. We know it intimately. But it continues to grow, to acquire breadth and scope, new outlets, new passages and means. The more we learn, the more it grows. Is this some law of physics? Every advance in knowledge and technique is matched by a new kind of death, a new strain. Death adapts, like a viral agent.”[29]

If we embrace death to strip it of fear, we examine death and attempt to fight it in order to strip it of mystery. However, this is an unsuccessful endeavor. Death eludes our grasp and overpowers our assaults.

On a personal note, this was poignantly illustrated by my wife – a nursing student. A baby boy was transferred into the hospital, severely wounded by what appeared to be abuse –broken bones, cigarette burns and bruises, ostentatiously and haphazardly concealed with makeup. Although the doctors had managed to restart his heart and place him on life support, the first brain scan revealed no activity. During the mandatory twelve-hour wait until the second test, my wife took care of the boy. After the second scan revealed no activity, he was taken off life support and allowed to die. However, as my wife tearfully recounted the story to me that night, she wondered when the boy had actually died. Had she, in any meaningful sense, been taking care of a living patient simply because his heart was beating? Or was he dead the entire time?

When do we die? When our heart stops beating? Our lungs stop breathing? Or when our brains stop making waves? More importantly, whose death do we fear?

It is my contention that we cannot really fear our own deaths. Like Jack Gladney, we are limited to fearing and interacting with death’s simulacra. We might long to die like Leonidas in The 300, but not like a contestant in the “games” of SAW. If we have not yet experienced the death of a close family member, we might imagine the event through the lens of Marshall’s father dying in How I Met Your Mother. Even when we have had a family member, or even a patient die, we never fully experience death without dying ourselves.

We are surrounded by death, in Dylar ingredient lists and Union Carbide storage tanks, in the skies above Blacksmith and the alleys of Bhopal.

And yet we are insulated from it by euphemism and fiction, by news anchor and liquid-crystal display

– by the idiosyncrasies of our continuously temporal existence.

We are familiar with death, but we know it not.

====================

WORKS CONSULTED

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra.” In A Postmodern Reader, edited by Joseph Natoli and Linda Hutcheon, 342-353. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1993.

DeLillo, Don. White Noise: Text and Criticism. Viking Critical Library. Edited by Mark Osteen. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

Iyer, Pico. “A Connoisseur of Fear.” In White Noise: Text and Criticism, by Don DeLillo, edited by Mark Osteen, 379-384. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

Johnson, Diane. “Conspirators.” In White Noise: Text and Criticism, by Don DeLillo, edited by Mark Osteen, 374-8. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

Mobilio, Albert. “Death by Inches.” In White Noise: Text and Criticism, by Don DeLillo, edited by Mark Osteen, 370-3. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

Newsweek, Inc. “Stories on the toxic leak at the Union Ca
rbide plant in Bhopal, India.” In White Noise: Text and Criticism, by Don DeLillo, 353-362. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

Yurick, Sol. “Fleeing Death in a World of Hyper-Babble.” In White Noise: Text and Criticism, by Don DeLillo, edited by Mark Osteen, 365-9. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

===================

[1] Ecclesiastes 7:2, New English Translation (NET).

[2] Unless, of course, Dr. David Mills lied to us in the instructions for this essay.

[3] Iyer, 379.                                 

[4] Yurick, 368.

[5] DeLillo, 26.

[6] Mobilio, 371.

[7] Iyer, 379.

[8] DeLillo, 15.

[9] This condition is also known as humanity.

[10] DeLillo, 330. From an interview with Anthony DeCurtis which appeared in Rolling Stone’s November 17, 1988 issue.

[11] DeLillo, 17. See the discussion on hyperreality below.

[12] DeLillo, 103.

[13] DeLillo, 139.

[14] I make a quantitative distinction between the fear of death, experienced by all, and thanatophobia, experienced by people like Jack Gladney and Babette. That is, thanatophobia is the acute, pervasive fear of death…more like a disease than a general condition.

[15] DeLillo, 290.

[16] DeLillo, 319.

[17] DeLillo, 325.

[18] DeLillo, 325.

[19] DeLillo, 325.

[20] Unless otherwise noted, the information in this section comes from Newsweek, Inc., “Stories on the toxic leak at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India,” in White Noise: Text and Criticism, by Don DeLillo, 353-362. (New York: Penguin Books, 1998).

[21] Newsweek, Inc., 354.

[22] Newsweek, Inc., 354.

[23] DeLillo, 285.

[24]Newsweek, Inc., 362.

[25] Baudrillard, 343.

[26] DeLillo, 13.

[27] If a White Paper on the doctrine of Hell comes out, please insert fundagellically orthodox views on Hell here.

[28]DeLillo, 287.

[29]Emphasis added. DeLillo, 150. 

My Sermon: Our Help

Hey internet: I was recently given the chance to preach at my church, St. Peter’s Anglican, on the Second Sunday of Lent. The sermon audio is now online. If you’ve got 23 minutes to spare, give it a listen

First, here are the passages

  • Psalm 121
  • Genesis 12:1-4
  • Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
  • John 3:1-17

Then, make sure to ignore my two seconds of speech from 16:35-16:37 in the audio, I departed from my notes — which ended at “Nicodemus then fades from the narrative,” (which he does in the passage at hand) — and said that Nicodemus apparently never gets it and never shows up again. As I was quickly reminded after the service, he does appear twice more in John’s Gospel. Oops! Next time I’ll stick to my notes and not make any extemporaneous comments about minor characters without thinking through the context first. 

Grace and Peace

~Josh

My 2014 Regional ETS Paper: Reconciliation and the Lack Thereof

If you’re interested, here’s the latest version of the Regional ETS paper I will present today at 5:00pm at Beeson Divinity School, room S009.

If you’re able to attend the presentation, that’s great! If not, feel free to give my paper a read and get back to me with any questions, comments, or suggestions. Atonement theology and the unity of the Church are two things about which I am very passionate, and intend to devote further study to these areas in the future.

Thanks

~Josh

Ok, Maybe a Bit More on Cedarville…

You’ll notice that the previous post on Cedarville ends with a link to the Course Schedule:

Image

“Class Limited to Women” … I know, ludicrous. Especially considering Joy Fagan’s previous track record of making the first class, Scriptural Interpretation of Gender Issues (or SIGI), a truly excellent course by all accounts from former students, male and female.

Equally ludicrous? The textbook choices! Are you ready for what CU students will be reading to form an even-handed perspective of what the Bible has to say on gender? Maybe some Miroslav Volf? “Junia is Not Alone” by Scot McKnight? NOPE.

Countering the Claims of Evangelical Feminism: Biblical Responses to the Key Questions, by Wayne Grudem

The Feminist Mistake: The Radical Impact of Feminism on Church and Culture, by Mary A. Kassian

Words fail.

Cedarville, get your act together. Prospective students, stay far away until the institution recovers it’s broad evangelical vision (the one carried forward by Bill Brown and Carl Ruby, for example). Unfortunately, it appears that vision has been thoroughly squashed in the conservative takeover.

Concerning Romans

Well, judging by my blog stats for the past 48 hours — as compared with the past few months — I’d get many more views on this post if it concerned the chaos at Cedarville University!

However, my schedule and blood pressure won’t allow me to devote any more time to my shameful alma mater at the moment. I’ve got a presentation at the 2014 Southeast Regional Meeting of ETS tomorrow (see my previous post, and come to my presentation at 5:00pm in room S009!), and even though Beeson Divinity School’s Spring Break is right around the corner, I’ve still got a fair share of reading to get done. 

Nevertheless, given the current discussion in my New Testament Theology — two classes on Romans — I thought I might re-post two of my previous works: 

  1. Romans. Revisited. (or “The Argument-Story of Romans”): my final write-up for Dr. Chris Miller’s course on Romans and Galatians at Cedarville University. We were due to have an oral exam on the last day of class, in which we talked-through the logic of the epistle. I wrote this summary the night before the exam, and was given the opportunity to present it to the class. I now present it to you! Feel free to give me some push-back! 
  2. Romans 13:1-7 — A Contextually-Appropriate Reading: a paper I wrote for the same course as mentioned above, in which I defend the following thesis: “Far from being a comprehensive condensation of the apostle’s beliefs regarding any and all governments past and present, [Romans 13:1-7] is a specific and historically-conditioned pastoral address to the Roman believers, discouraging them from political unrest, disobedience, and rebellion in order to protect their testimony and the effectiveness of the Roman church in the gospel mission.”

That’s all for now. Grace and Peace. 

~Josh

Cedarville…

I wish I could say I was proud of my alma mater…

Despite my Lenten Facebook fast, I was made aware of the following post by my friend Marlena Graves. I thought I’d share it, just in case anyone is considering Cedarville as a choice for college. I’d still strongly recommend you attend another institution, where you can trust the administration. My previous thoughts on these matters still stand.

======

“Dear friends, 

“Every. Single. Week. I am contacted by people who attend and work at CU who are just miserable. I pray about what to say and what not to say; my motives aren’t malicious. This morning I was reading about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and how he couldn’t believe that the Christians in Germany remained silent about Hitler or actively conspired with Hitler to get rid of the Jews. This situation at CU is no Germany. But faculty and staff at the school I loved are now forced into silence. They’re being oppressed. If they speak, they’ll lose their jobs. Their FB accounts and e-mails are monitored. A coup occurred at CU as it did at Southern Seminary, Southwestern Seminary, and Southeastern Seminary at the hands of Paige Patterson. Paige Patterson is now a trustee and mentor to the new president, Dr. White. Many who made decisions who fought to keep us and our friends (Bible profs/Carl Ruby and others) at the school told us that it was a coup. So the current administration doesn’t care about what fac/staff think. And students are there temporarily so….The chair of the board has said that he is willing to take the school down to 1200 to get their way. Shawn and I can afford to speak up because we didn’t sign a non-disclosure agreement. We are thriving and not bitter. But, I do get angry about how people are being treated. Thank God Shawn got a job right away and didn’t have to worry about providing for his family. Every single person who knows me will tell you I deliberate about my words. I am tired of the pain people are going through. And so I speak up because I can. I think this is the last chance for those currently there to give an outcry. Otherwise it’s over for them. They have moved to forbid egalitarians from teaching there, too. Next year, if you cannot say you are comp, you cannot work there. Only money and power can accomplish such a coup. I have no money or power. But, I have the freedom to speak up. So this below is just more evidence of what is going on. Students pray for your professors and staff. Many are suffering and can’t even tell you. Many of their jobs are on the line. They continue to clean house while silencing people. Pay attention to who is no longer there and from where they hire their new faculty. I’ve lost count of who is gone. People have to decide whether or not they’ll feed their families or speak up. So please, speak up on their behalf!

“Take a look at the fall course schedule. The new female Bible prof’s classes are limited to female students only:http://www.cedarville.edu/courses/schedule/2014fa_bi_beth.htm. Even under Dr. Dixon, that was never the case for Jean Fisher’s classes.”

========

Grace and Peace, 

~Josh

Peru 2014!

I’m happy to announce that Rachel and I will be completing my required Cross Cultural Ministry Practicum for Beeson Divinity School along with our good friends Kyle, Rebekah, and baby Luke DeBoer in Lima, Peru this summer!

Our goal is to assist the Stone families (Dave & Evelyn; Jonathan & Angela) in their various local ministries, including:

The goal of Beeson’s required Cross Cultural Ministry Practicum is to “expose students to issues related to cross-cultural ministry through first-hand experience in a cross-cultural ministry setting.” In addition to fulfilling this goal, we believe that this trip to Peru will be influential in determining the future involvement of both our families in global missions. God’s given each of us unique gifts — ranging from medicine to math, theology to linguistics. But He’s blessed us all with a heart for His global Gospel and his global Church.

Frankly, we realize that we have much more to learn than to offer! But we’re excited to learn valuable lessons in Lima. Would you please pray for us as we prepare for this trip? 

Finally, if you’re interested in partnering with us financially to make this trip a reality, please visit our YouCaring.Com page. 

Grace and Peace,

~Josh

My Regional ETS Presentation: Reconciliation and the Lack Thereof

If you’re in the Birmingham area from March 21-22, 2014, and you’re interested in evangelical theology, please consider attending the Evangelical Theological Society’s Southeastern Regional Meeting at Beeson Divinity School! This year’s theme is “the theological interpretation of Scripture,” and the plenary speaker is Wheaton’s Daniel J. Treier (incidentally, Dr. Treier and I are both alumni of Cedarville…go figure). 

Furthermore, if you’re free from 5:00-5:30pm on Friday, March 21, consider swinging by room S009 to hear me present “Reconciliation and the Lack Thereof: Atonement, Ecclesiology, and the Unity of God.” The atonement and the unity of the Church are topics that I’m passionate about, and I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to give my first ever conference paper. Here’s the abstract: 

This essay endeavors to demonstrate the theological and exegetical legitimacy of viewing the atonement as the act in which the one God fulfills his creative purposes by bringing his uniqueness and simplicity to bear on our sinful, divisive condition through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah in order to save a people to robust unity with himself, each other, and the entire creation. Given Adam Johnson’s thesis regarding God’s triune being-in-act, the fullness of the divine perfections, and the unity and diversity of Christ’s saving work, I draw upon the theology of Karl Barth and pertinent biblical data to frame a theory of the atonement based on the unity of God. Although the lack of ecclesiological unity is the impetus for my study, I choose primarily to emphasize the synthesis of God’s unity and the doctrine of reconciliation. That is, I focus on the theological explanations within the atonement of why the church is to be unified. However, after framing a unity-based theory of the atonement, I conclude this study by casting a vision for the ecclesiological implications of such a theory.

If you can’t make it to my presentation, but you’re interested in the topic, check out my previous series of posts and the undergraduate thesis paper from which this conference paper is drawn. Also, consider buying the new paperback edition of Adam J. Johnson’s God’s Being in Reconciliation: The Theological Basis of the Unity and Diversity of the Atonement in the Theology of Karl Barth (T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology). It’s much cheaper than the previous hardcover edition, and without his fresh insights into the doctrine of the atonement and Barthian theology, my paper would not have been possible. 

Finally, please attend the entire conference at Beeson if possible! Here’s the full schedule.

Grace and Peace

~Josh

 

The Perfect Translation

Over the break between semesters at Beeson Divinity School, I’m reviewing Bruce Waltke’s The Dance Between God and Humanity: Reading the Bible Today as the People of God and Philip Goodwin’s Translating the English Bible: From Relevance to Deconstruction for Liverpool Hope University’s Theological Book Review.

I’ve just finished the latter, and hope to write my review in the next day or two. However, I’d like to share the following quotes on Deconstructive Literalism and The Perfect Translation, because I find the concepts intriguing as a student of Eugene Nida’s dynamic or functional equivalence (when it comes to both NT Greek and modern Spanish), and a newcomer to relevance theory, which Goodwin uses to provide a way forward in the shadow of the KJV tradition. More on that later. In the meantime: 

“What Aichele has noticed is that if the interpreter wants to ‘see’ the source text, he or she would prefer not to have another interpreter standing in the way. The problem with a dynamic equivalence translation, then, is that it does not permit deconstruction of the source text. The translation represents an ideological undertaking which itself can be readily deconstructed, but does not provide access to the source. (207-8).

[…]

“Now, of course Ryken and Collins, whilst advocating concordant translation on the one hand, also desire, on the other hand, to maintain the control over meaning to which Aichele refers, by implicitly linking concordance to thematics. In other words, concordance is seen as desirable because it reinforces the theme (‘the message’, again) of the text, to which it is seen as a servant. They leave unexamined the question of what to do when the phenomenon of concordance might be turned against thematics, to undermine it — to deconstruct it. One man’s exegesis is, however, another’s deconstruction. A concordant translation of a text might serve equally to reveal Aichele’s ‘defects and problems’ or Ryken’s ‘full exegetical potential’ — to reinforce its ‘intention’, or to undermine it. I will argue that it does both. (208).

[…] 

“The perfect translation is the one whose relationship to a source text is such that it permits both the construction of the releveant interpretation of that text, and its deconstruction.” (209). 

(Italics: original emphasis; Bold: added emphasis)

The Epistle to Philemon: Analysis and Application

 

As the briefest member of the Pauline corpus, the epistle to Philemon is a letter of recommendation for the sake of reconciliation in which the apostle Paul brings the gospel truth of mutual participation in the body of Christ to bear on an estranged relationship – making a delicate request of his friend Philemon to receive back a certain Onesimus into full fellowship as a brother in Christ.[1]

Comprehension of the passage’s contemporaneous Greco-Roman epistolary landscape facilitates a knowledgeable analysis of its constituent parts.[2] Subsequently, the interpretive insights yielded by this examination facilitate an application of the letter to the contemporary Christian church.

Greco-Roman Letters

Originally referring to “an oral communication sent by messenger,” the Hellenistic ἐπιστολή eventually encompassed a wide variety of documents – from commercial to legal, political to personal.[3] As Greidanus notes, the basic form of a Greco-Roman letter was tripartite, consisting of introduction/opening, body, and conclusion.[4]

The first section named the sender and addressee, often including a brief greeting and “a wish for good health.”[5] Most difficult to analyze formally, the body of Hellenistic letters was flexible enough to encompass content suited to each writing’s particular communicative act.[6] Finally, “greetings to persons other than the addressee, a final greeting or prayer sentence, and sometimes a date” comprised a typical conclusion to Greco-Roman epistles.[7]

In contrast to literary essays and official documents of the day, written to general audiences apart from any relational context, Paul’s letters are more private and personal – exhibiting his pastoral concern for those to whom he was a representative of Christ and an elder in the faith.[8] Nevertheless, the Pauline epistles arguably exceed their contemporaneous correspondence in length, structure, and didactic intent.[9]

Although Paul understandably followed the prevailing Greco-Roman form in his own letters, he nonetheless freely adapted the epistolary conventions of the day to suit his own purposes.

For example, as O’Brien notes, although “on occasion the more intimate letters of the Hellenistic period began with a thanksgiving to the gods for personal benefits received,” Paul expanded and developed the introductory thanksgiving/blessing section in his writings more often than any writer of his day, yielding a mix of Hellenistic form with Jewish and Christian content which is present in most of his letters.[10]

Similarly, Paul often modified the Greco-Roman form by including a concluding paranetic section of exhortation after the body of his letters.[11]

Analysis of Philemon

An appreciation of Pauline epistolary form in Greco-Roman context yields important interpretive insights relating to both the parts and whole of the letter to Philemon, in which Paul displays remarkable tact as he advances his request for reconciliation between Philemon and Onesimus.[12] 

Although lacking a definite section of paranesis, the epistle is composed of

  • an opening greeting (Philem 1-3),
  • thanksgiving/prayer (4-7),
  • body (8-22),
  • and closing (23-25).[13]

Opening Greeting

Of immediate note, Paul atypically refers to himself, in the midst of an otherwise standard greeting, not as an apostle (cf. Gal 1:1) or servant (cf. Rom 1:1; Phil 1:1), but as “a prisoner of Christ Jesus” (Philem 1; NRSV) – perhaps best explained by his desire throughout “to entreat rather than command” (cf. 8-9), but also to stress Onesimus’ usefulness to him in his captivity (cf. 11-13).[14]

Sender (“Paul…and Timothy”; Philem 1a), and addressee (“Philemon…Apphia…Archippus…and the church in your house”; 1b-2) thus identified, Paul’s signature greeting of χάρις καὶ εἰρήνη (3) functions as a benedictional transition to a section of thanksgiving and prayer (4-7), which – as elsewhere in the Pauline corpus – introduces the letter’s main themes.[15]

Thanksgiving/Prayer

As Bruce notes, “the ground of the thanksgiving and the substance of the prayer are closely related to the purpose of the letter.”[16] Paul gives thanks to God because of Philemon’s love, faith, and refreshment of “the hearts of the saints” (Philem 5, 7).

The content of Paul’s subsequent prayer, then, is that “the sharing of [Philemon’s] faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ” (6; ESV).

However, the phrase ἡ κοινωνία τῆς πίστεώς σου is better translated as “the mutual belonging which is proper to your faith,” referring to, as Wright puts it, “the mutuality of the Christian life which, springing from common participation in the body of Christ, extends beyond mere common concern into actual exchange” – a mutual belonging which lies at the heart of Paul’s argument and requests throughout the epistle.[17]

In addition to introducing the key themes of love/heart (cf. ἀγάπη, 4,7,9; σπλάγχνα, 7,12,20) and mutual participation (cf. κοινωνόν, 17), the thanksgiving/prayer rhetorically establishes mutual goodwill as an exordium in which Paul emphasizes characteristics of Philemon to which he can then appeal.[18]

Body

The main request of the letter’s body – of noteworthy length in its Greco-Roman context – is that Philemon should receive Onesimus just as he would receive Paul (17b).[19]

Although Paul makes use of every persuasive tactic at his disposal – including concession of apostolic authority (8; 19b), emotional appeal (9, 12), pun (11), and appeal to honor (14) – the main thrust of the argument depends on the “mutual belonging” (6) between Philemon and Onesimus now that the latter has become a Christian during Paul’s captivity (10).[20]

Regardless of the exact nature of the past estrangement (about which Paul remains virtually silent), Philemon is urged to interpret the seemingly unfortunate state of affairs as an opportunity for eternal reconciliation (15-16), transferring any debts that Onesimus had incurred to Paul’s own account instead (18). In receiving back Onesimus, Paul’s “very heart” (12b), as “a beloved brother” (16), Philemon would continue his refreshment of the saints’ hearts (7) by refreshing Paul’s heart (20).[21]

Here, then, is an analogous microcosm of the gospel itself – a fulfillment of Paul’s prayer for κοινωνία (6) and of the cruciform “ministry of reconciliation” of 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 and Colossians 1:24-29.[22]

As Wright notes, just as in Christ God reconciles the entire world to himself (2 Cor 5:19), “God is in Paul reconciling Philemon and Onesimus” – who both owed a debt, so to speak, to the apostle for their conversion (Philem 10, 19b).[23]

Confident of Philemon’s compliance with his reconciliatory request (21), Paul makes an additional request for lodging based on Paul’s hope for release from imprisonment and subsequent travel to Colossae to be present with his audience (22) – an epistolary structure known as the “apostolic parousia,” revealing Paul’s consideration of his writings as substitutes for his physical presence.[24]

Closing

Finally, Paul reports the greetings of his gospel co-workers to Philemon (23-24), before reverting to the plural to include the other addressees (2) in his concluding benediction.[25]

Application

If the consensus interpretation that Onesimus is Philemon’s runaway slave is correct, then Deuteronomy 23:15-16 would seem to mandate that Paul not return the fugitive to his estranged master. [26]

However, the reality of their mutual belonging in Christ compelled the apostle to facilitate the reconciliation now possible due to the Messiah’s death, burial, and resurrection (cf. 2 Cor 5:16-21).

Nevertheless, Lightfoot reveals a potential hurdle for modern readers of this ancient text when he notes that, though “the word ‘emancipation’ seems to be trembling on [Paul’s] lips…he does not once utter it.”[27]

The first step in resolving this frustration involves the clear delineation between the context of slavery in which Onesimus lived, the transatlantic slave trade of the 16th through 19th centuries, and the modern day slavery of human trafficking and forced labor – for it is far too easy to conflate the three in indignation at Paul’s failure to request Onesimus’ freedom.[28]

Then, once the anachronism of expecting Paul to be a modern abolitionist is noted, it can be clearly seen that, as Bruce observes, though the epistle to Philemon “throws little light on Paul’s attitude to the institution of slavery,” it brings “the institution into an atmosphere where it could only wilt and die.[29]

After all, the same κοινωνία that enabled Philemon and Onesimus to be reconciled could not help but destroy the dynamics of slavery within the kingdom of God and body of Christ – where “there is no longer slave or free,” but all are “one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

According to the world, Onesimus belonged to Philemon as a slave. According to Christ, they belonged to one another as brothers.

Although here in Philemon, as elsewhere (cf. Col 3:22-4:1), Paul stops short of prohibiting slavery, it is clear that he understood the gospel of Jesus Christ inescapably to transform the divisive condition of humanity into a restored, eternal unity which transcended all temporal divisions (cf. 1 Cor 7:17-24; Col 3:11).

Paul’s tactful requests reveal that the bond between Philemon and Onesimus as brothers in the Lord (Philem 16) was far stronger than the social expectations of master and slave.

Transcending the issue of slavery – yet simultaneously striking at its very core – Paul’s masterfully crafted epistle to Philemon reminds Christians in every age to apply consistently the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ to their relationships, in spite of individualism’s siren song, which might tempt them to manipulate and dominate instead of to mutually belong to one another in κοινωνία.

Furthermore, readers of Paul’s letter to Philemon should follow his peace-making example by seeking to be ministers of reconciliation in their respective contexts – no matter how discordant or seemingly insignificant.

This brief letter thus coheres with the biblical theme of unity. Because God is one, his people are called to be one as well – a community of forgiven women and men, Jews and Gentiles, even slaves and masters who forgive each other’s debts and refresh each other’s hearts in the κοινωνία of their faith in Jesus their Messiah.[30]


[1] Philemon is categorized as a letter of recommendation by D. Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987) 211-2 and W.W. Klein, C.L. Blomberg and R.L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Rev. Ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004) 431. This paper assumes the “consensus view” of the epistle’s provenance: namely, that the apostle Paul is addressing Philemon of Colossae regarding the estranged slave and now convert, Onesimus. The creative reconstruction of J. Knox, in which the extant epistle to Philemon is the “letter from Laodicea” (Col 4:16) which was written by Paul to Archippus (Philem 2), master of Onesimus, is here ignored; cf. J. Knox, Philemon Among the Letters of Paul (New York: Abingdon, 1959). For critical responses to Knox’s claims from the consensus view, see F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984) 198-202; G.B. Caird, Paul’s Letters from Prison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987) 217; and N.T. Wright, The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon, TNTC (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1986; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989) 164-6.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, “Greco-Roman” and “Hellenistic” are used synonymously.

[3] P.T. O’Brien, “Letters, Letter Forms,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. G.R. Hawthorne and R.P. Martin; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993) 550.

[4] S. Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 315; cf. W.G. Doty, Letters in Primitive Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1973) 27; O’Brien, “Letters,” 551.

[5] Greidanus, Modern Preacher, 315.

[6] Doty, Letters, 34-5.

[7] Greidanus, Modern Preacher, 315.

[8] O’Brien cites the intensely personal letter to the Galatians and Paul’s emphasis on apostleship at Gal 1:1, 15, 16; 5:2. O’Brien “Letters,” 551.

[9] Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 426.

[10] Although notably absent from the epistle to the Galatians. P.T. O’Brien, “Benediction, Blessing, Doxology, Thanksgiving,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. G.R. Hawthorne and R.P. Martin; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993) 69; O’Brien, “Letters,” 551-2; Cf. 1 Cor 1:4-9; 2 Cor 1:3-4; Rom 1:8-10; Eph 1:3-14; Phil 1:3-11; Col 1:3-14; 1 Thess 1:2-3:13; 2 Thess 1:2-12; 2:13-14; Philem 4-7.

[11] Greidanus, Modern Preacher, 316; cf. 1 Cor 16:13-18; Rom 15:14-32; Doty, Letters, 27; pace Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, who include thanksgiving and paranesis in “the fairly typical [Greco-Roman] structure,” claiming that NT thanksgiving sections “performed what all writers considered a common courtesy.” Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 430. While a definitive stance is impossible sans a comprehensive study of Hellenistic epistolary literature, it seems best to emphasize the distinctiveness of Pauline thanksgiving and paranesis.

[12] See A. Patzia, “Philemon,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. G.R. Hawthorne and R.P. Martin; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993) 706. As a letter of recommendation, the passages closest extant parallel is perhaps a letter from Pliny the Younger to a certain Sabinianus, requesting that he mercifully receive a penitent freedman. Pliny, Letter, 9.21; cited by Aune, New Testament, 211 and J.B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973) 318-9.

[13] Pace Doty’s suggestion that Philem 21 contains the formulaic paranesis. For robust examples of Pauline paranesis, see Rom 12:1-15:13; Gal 5:13-6:10; 1 Thess 4:1-12, 5:1-22, the other examples cited by Doty, Letters, 43.

[14] Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon, 333; cf. Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 205; Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 172. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations come from the New Revised Standard Version [NRSV].

[15]  “Grace and peace” is a modification of the Hellenistic greeting χαίρειν, designed both to affirm the grace and peace of God which his readers already possessed and to pray that they might enjoy/embody such blessings more fully; O’Brien, “Letters,” 551. On the epistolary function of Pauline thanksgivings, see O’Brien, “Benediction,” 70.

[16] Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 208.

[17] Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 175-6; cf. 2 Cor 1:6-7; 4:10-15; Col 1:24; T.G. Gombis, Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: T&T Clark, 2010) 40; pace suggestions of κοινωνία here as evangelism (so NIV, Philem 6) or vague generosity (so Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 208-9; and Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon, 335). The concept of Christian mutual belonging can be seen to have its roots in the “fellow Israelite” laws of the Pentateuch – the example par excellence being Leviticus 19:18’s injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

[18] Aune, New Testament, 211. The theme of mutual belonging is also expressed in the use of fellowship terminology in the epistle’s opening and conclusion: ἀδελφὸς (1), συνεργῷ (1), ἀδελφῇ (2), συστρατιώτῃ (2), συναιχμάλωτός (23), and συνεργοί (24).

[19] Doty, Letters, 35.

[20] Although Patzia rightly acknowledges the “continuing questions of interpretation” relating to the location of Paul’s imprisonment (Rome, Ephesus, or Caesarea) and the timing/nature of Onesimus’ conversion, neither issue is central to the discussion at hand of mutual belonging in Christ; Patzia, Philemon, 705. Rhetorical arguments noted by Aune, New Testament, 211. As Patzia notes, per rhetorical criticism the epistle can be structured into exordium (4-7), proof (8-16), and peroration (17-22). Patzia, “Philemon,” 704.

[21] Aune, New Testament, 211-2.

[22] By “the gospel,” I am primarily referring to the atonement as the act in which God fulfills his creative purposes by bringing his attributes to bear on our sinful condition through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah in order to save a people to robust unity with himself, each other, and the entire creation. See A.J. Johnson, God’s Being in Reconciliation: The Theological Basis of the Unity and Diversity of the Atonement in the Theology of Karl Barth. (New York: T&T Clark, 2012).

[23] Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 181, 186-7; cf. Paul’s use of sonship as a metaphor regarding conversion: 1 Cor 4:14-15; 2 Cor 6:13; Gal 4:19; Phil 2:22.

[24] Doty, Letters, 36; O’Brien, “Letters,” 552.

[25] Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 224-5; Caird, Paul’s Letters from Prison, 223. The list of names at Philem 23-24 mirrors that found at Col 4:10-17, except for the omission of Jesus Justus (Col 4:11). Of note, though impossible to explain fully, is Epaphras’ designation as Paul’s “fellow prisoner” instead of a “fellow worker” as the others. However, Bruce notes that, as “the evangelist of the Lycus valley” in which Colossae was located (cf. Col 1:7; 4:12), Epaphras “would be personally known to Philemon,” and thus merit distinct mention. Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 213-4. The concluding benediction of Philem 25 closely resembles Gal 6:18 and Phil 4:23.

[26] Bruce, Caird, Lightfoot, and Wright all adopt the consensus view. Deuteronomy passage cited by Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 197, fn. 19.

[27] Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon, 323.

[28] Although an analysis of first century slavery far exceeds the scope of this essay, a potential aid in differentiating between ancient and modern slavery when it comes to Philemon is Gombis’ critique of the consensus view’s failure to acknowledge Paul’s language of ἀδελφὸν…ἐν σαρκὶ at Philem 16. It is likely that Philemon and Onesimus’ relationship was different than that between a normal master and slave. See T.G. Gombis, “Philemon and Onesimus: ‘Brothers in the Flesh’” (paper presented at the International Meeting of the SBL, St. Andrews, Scotland, 11 July, 2013).

[29] Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 197-8. Similarly, Wright notes that, although “inveighing against slavery per se [at the time] would have been totally ineffective,” Paul’s subtler message mimics Christ’s approach to cosmic change from the bottom up, from the inside out. Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 168-9.

[30] Cf. Deut 6:4; John 17:20-23; Eph 4:1-6.