Monday, 24 March 2008

Kermode on Vermes on the Resurrection

In the current London Review of Books, just in time for Easter, the critic Frank Kermode reviews Geza Vermes' book "The Resurrection". Sadly, it's not in the publicly-accessible section, so if you're a non-subscriber you'll need to content yourself with snippets, or shell out for the full article. (Or maybe just subscribe: the LRB is an excellent read.) The article, and apparently the book, is an example of informed, reasonable scepticism concerning Christian claims: the sort of thing local author John Dickson was calling for in Friday's Herald.

Of course, one has always been able to find literate discussions in journals like the LRB ... but popular discourse lately has been dire. When I was an undergraduate, one ran into lots of on-campus criticism of Christianity that was complacently ignorant: rather like on-campus talk on some other subjects. One expects people to grow out of such posturing, but it seems some folk never did; and in recent years it has become acceptable, for whatever reason, to dismiss the Christian faith in ill-informed and wholesale terms.

By contrast to this, both Vermes and Kermode are concerned to take the New Testament seriously; this is not to say that they "agree" with it, or with Christianity more generally. Vermes, writes Kermode, is interested in
the inconsistencies, the flaws in testimony, the narrative faults, of the New Testament record, treated as evidence, however flawed, of something that happened. As he remarks, he feels his responsibility to be judicial in character; his main business will be to see whether the stories told by the witnesses stand up in court [... for the] Christian creeds emphasise the presence in their accounts of an undoubtedly historical character, Pontius Pilate [... whereas in] a different sort of narrative he might not have a proper name but be simply the Governor, the Procurator or the like, and we should not need to be told as much as we are about him ...
They go on to disagree on what to make of the Pilate material in John's Gospel, as well one might.

Christian scholarship and advocacy should likewise know what it is talking about, acknowledge other competent interpreters, and avoid claiming too much. For a Herald article, Dickson's piece was very good in this way, and was even willing to take some small swings at his own side. Too often in this town, there seems instead to be a "not in front of the children" attitude about public statements: an idea that one must avoid saying anything that might dismay or confuse the humble believer; an anxiety about always staying on-message. Statements and articles of this kind (some of which can be found on the Sydney Anglican website) either leave me cold, or leave me infuriated ... and since I'm conservative enough that I believe the Nicene Creed, it's not as though this is a question of orthodoxy.

So if Dickson's piece reflects a renewed willingness for conservative Christians here to talk on something other than our own, zealously guarded home turf --- a willingness to communicate --- then three cheers for it.

[Thanks to The Blogging Parson for pointing out the Dickson article.]


michael jensen said...

Thanks Bruce.

Kermode wrote a very interesting book on Mark's Gospel... it is a sad piece in a way (in his tone, I mean): he just couldn't get convinced about it.

Bruce Yabsley said...

Hey Michael. I guess you're referring to The genesis of secrecy. I've been meaning to read it for years, and actually picked up a second-hand copy a while back: I then got distracted by an urgent paper, or a conference, or some such. Maybe I should just read it now.

I've always had some sense of unfinished business with Mark's Gospel. It was the book I'd studied most closely before College (for leading studies at church); and then at College it was the medium by which I decided that reader response criticism was unprofitable. But there's a strangeness about Mark that (it seemed to me) our normal ways of reading tend to flatten away, including my own reading eighteen years ago (!). It's a commonplace now to acknowledge the book's sophistication, rather than patronise it for its surface plainness, but still I wonder if we know quite what to do with it.