Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Speaking In Tongues (part 10)

Before Paul brings up Apollos, who is renowned for his eloquent speech and his ability to employ lofty speech in his presentation and defense of the Gospel (thereby explaining Paul’s making mention of Apollos), Paul defends this recognized deficiency in his own abilities.  Naturally, though he may see his abilities as being deficient, he believes that the message that he preaches, and the effects that it produces in those that hear it and live it, more than make up for his perceived failings. 

With a solid framework in place, it is now possible to better understand what Paul is getting at when he writes “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come with superior eloquence or wisdom as I proclaimed the testimony of God.  For I decided to be concerned about nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.  And I was with you in weakness and in fear and with much trembling.  My conversation and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not be based on human wisdom but on the power of God” (2:1-5). 

This very thing that he did not want to see, which is faith based on human wisdom (with this being tied to the honor competition rather than this being a knock on the mental pursuit of the appropriate understanding and application of facts, not to mention that the message of the cross as the place of actual honor for Jesus and those that would follow Him, when the world saw it as the place of the greatest shame), is what was happening among those that were inclined to identify themselves with Apollos, in alignment with the prevailing principles of honor and shame.  This also illuminates Paul’s asking them “are you not merely human?”  Again, Paul takes no issue with Apollos.  Indeed, Paul may have desired to possess Apollos’ abilities.  At the same time, what he saw in Corinth, as the people were perhaps reacting to Apollos more based on his abilities rather than on the message that he faithfully delivered to the best of his abilities, served as a tremendous example to Paul. 

In the end, he would rather see that the message of the Gospel (Jesus as Lord of all) and its cross (humiliation, suffering, weakness, cursing, shame) carry the day, for then there would be no doubt as to wherein lied the mysterious efficacy of the message against all reasonable expectations (the whole thing being absurd prima facie).  It was Paul’s underlying hope that if honor was to be accrued and assigned, that it would not be assigned to the one that delivered the message, but to the one of whom the message spoke, and it would hopefully spark imitation of the supreme honoree along cross-shaped lines.

This must be approached carefully, especially if one finds himself in the midst of a Christian culture that decries deep learning as being somehow antithetical to the spirit of the Gospel.  Paul does not take issue with learning and the ability to speak persuasively.  He is taking issue with the response of the people in accordance with social norms that valued power and persuasion and the individual pursuit of honor at all costs as the dominant ethic of society, rather than the embrace of suffering and shame if need be as the dominant ethic of the society of the followers of Jesus as they turned the world on its head. 

Failing in this area would mean that they were continuing to value the standards of the kingdoms of man rather than the standards of the kingdom of the Creator God as demonstrated by Jesus, as those standards were outlined in the what they have would known about Jesus through the traditions that were being orally transmitted about Him (in word and deed), and as displayed through His cross. 


Monday, September 15, 2014

Speaking In Tongues (part 9)

Now it is possible to read through Paul’s Corinthian correspondence against the appropriate backdrop of the prizing of rhetorical skill and the honor competition and assignment associated with public speech acts.  In this, one gets the distinct impression that Paul did not quite measure up in this area.  It appears that some of the Corinthian believers derided Paul, going so far as to question his apostolic credentials, simply because, in his speeches before the assembled church community, he failed to employ the rhetoric and rhetorical skill that was so-highly-valued.  At the same time however, Paul had no difficulty whatsoever in deploying his rhetorical arsenal in his written communications. 

One can see evidence of this attitude towards Paul in the second Corinthian letter, when reading “For they say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak and his speeches of no account.’” (10:10)  It seems that they were uncomfortable with the idea that the person to whom they pointed as the presumptive founder of their community was not able to command respect through his public speaking.  Thus, because Paul was unable to accrue honor for himself through his rhetorical abilities, the community was also going to be unable to accrue honor.   

This goes a long way towards understanding the divisiveness in the Corinthian church that Paul references in the third chapter of the first letter.  Paul writes “For whenever someone says, ‘I am with Paul,’ or ‘I am with Apollos,’ are you not merely human?  What is Apollos really?  Or what is Paul?  Servants through whom you came to believe, and each of us in the ministry the Lord gave us.  I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused it to grow” (3:4-6).  Apollos, according to the eighteenth chapter of Acts, “was an eloquent speaker, well-versed in the Scriptures.  He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and with great enthusiasm he spoke and taught accurately the facts about Jesus, although he knew only the baptism of John.  He began to speak out fearlessly in the synagogue” (18:24b-26a).  Chapter nineteen commences with mention of Apollos in Corinth, while Paul is in Ephesus. 

Apparently, Apollos put his skills to use in service of the church at Corinth, with his eloquent speech causing some to see him in a more positive light than Paul (read: more honorable).  One should not immediately surmise that Apollos was somehow in competition with Paul, but with some understanding of the honor and shame culture, it is not difficult to figure out that his rhetorical abilities caused him to be assigned honor in a way to which Paul apparently did not have the same access.  Thus, again, because Apollos could accrue honor through the use of his rhetorical skills, so too could a community that he led accrue honor.


Paul, without condemning or criticizing Apollos, his speaking, his eloquence, or his learning, refocuses the Corinthian believers by criticizing them and their continued introduction of societal (old age) values into the church as they elevated and assigned honor to one based on accepted custom.  Paul attempted to make sure that they understood that both he and Apollos were nothing more than servants (diakonoi in Greek, those who were assigned to “wait on tables” in Acts 6), and that honor was to be assigned to the one that they served (both the believers and the Creator God).  Paul stresses the unity and equality between he and Apollos in their role of servants, disavowing the attempts at elevation and emphasizing the need for the same amongst the congregation of believers, writing “The one who plants and the one who waters work as one, but each will receive his reward according to his work.  We are coworkers belonging to God.  You are God’s field, God’s building” (3:8-9). 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Speaking In Tongues (part 8)

Given the high value placed on public opinion, one can understand the high value placed on the use of rhetoric in the ancient world, as skilled speakers could do much to shape consensus, dragging public opinion concerning that which should be understood to be truly honorable in the direction desired by those that wished to either gain in status or cement their positions.  It is the importance of the orator in this regard, as not only would the orator have his own honor while also being employed in ways that would gain honor for others, that stands in the background and informs Paul’s words about eloquence and wisdom and status and identification with certain individuals in his first letter to Corinth. 

Eloquence, which was associated with wisdom, was also associated with honor.  A highly effective public speaker would be viewed with much honor and could be employed to achieve the same for others by either “singing their praises” or shaping the consciousness of the community in such a way that they found themselves wishing to bestow honor in accordance with the actions of the one being so praised.  One cannot pass this by without acknowledging Paul’s focus on eloquent speech, understanding its function within the culture.  An observer must also acknowledge that glossolalia is a speech act as well.  This particular type of speech act, which was intimately associated with the gods, when performed publicly, was yet another means by which honor would be accrued. 

Paying attention to the value of the orator, it is worth perusing a papyrus fragment dating from 110 A.D., roughly fifty years beyond the time of the writing of Paul’s letter.  That fragment reads “Pay to Licinius the rhetor,” rhetor being a specific type of orator (short for rhetorician---one specifically skilled in the art of rhetoric, which was a foundational component of the education system of the day and a valued tool for the shaping of opinion well employed by Paul), “the amount due him for the speeches in which Aurelius… was honored… in the gymnasium in the Great Serapeion, four hundred drachmas of silver.”  According to the first century Roman historian by the name of Tacitus, the amount of money that was paid to Licinius exceeded the wages paid to a Roman soldier for a year’s worth of service.  This serves to demonstrate the high value that was then placed on this skill.  

Accordingly, as there was much money to be made, especially because the skill was put to use in connection with the pursuit of honor (or the conferring of shame---it served a dual role), training in such speech and writing was central to the education provided in the institutions of the day.  Indeed, the mastery of rhetorical speech was a potentially lucrative enterprise, serving to assist in the accrual of both wealth and public honor. 


Again, the gaining of position in society, and by extension within the institutions and associations of that society whatever those may be, is connected to public speech acts.  Those that were more charismatic, outgoing, engaging, and comfortable with public speech were able to serve themselves quite well.  Because of this, rhetorical speech was prized almost universally in the ancient world.  Romans, Greeks, and Jews, rich and poor alike, slaves and free, men and women, all enjoyed listening to the presentation of an eloquent speech riddled with lofty rhetoric.  In this way, the people in Corinth and in the church in Corinth were no different (and there is nothing wrong with that).

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Speaking In Tongues (part 7)

Now, many (most) that are reading this may not live in societies that are shaped by honor and shame in a manner similar to the ancient world, but all are certainly able to understand the high value that is placed on the “court of public opinion.”  Politicians, first and foremost, live and die through rightly understanding the court of public opinion, attempting to craft their positions to reflect the wider sentiment, or if given the opportunity, reshape that sentiment in a way that is more to their liking.  Even in this construct, which is broad and encompasses a wide swath of the public, some people’s opinions and positions are given more weight than others.

In Paul’s world, which included the influential and wealthy city of Corinth, as it was governed by concerns with honor and shame, the court of public opinion was a formidable entity.  This was the unofficial, shifting, and partially undefined body of people within society which determined a person’s social standing.  Naturally, the determinations were made by those that were already understood to be possessive of honor, thus their opinions were not exactly unbiased or altruistic, as they would not want to jeopardize their own status by approving and assigning honor to that which might run contrary to that which has brought them their own honor. 

So even though public opinion is malleable, it is often monolithic.  Given the absence of mass-media, public opinion could not be shifted on a whim.  Given these things, social standing, whether honorable or dishonorable, is determined in accordance with society’s values.  One’s honor did not come from how one viewed oneself, but from how one was viewed by the public at large and by those already considered honorable more specifically.    

Archaeology has uncovered an abundance of inscriptions in the city of Corinth that attest to the importance of the honor and shame system and the court of public opinion.  These inscriptions are honorific in nature, as would be expected, and serve to demonstrate what seems to be a near obsession with public honor.  Such inscriptions, obviously, would be encouraged by those being honored as it would cause the honorees to be viewed in the most positive light imaginable and by the widest possible cross-section of the populace (with this standing in for mass media/social media). 


These inscriptions would run the gamut, extolling individuals for being loyal and generous, excelling in virtues while shunning vices, gracious in tending to the affairs of others as much as he would his own, and living a life free from strife.  These things served to adequately demonstrate the types of things that could lead, along with actions of public benefaction, to the accrual of honor.  A person feted in such ways would be accorded much honor in accordance with the value system of society, as confirmed by the ever-changing court of public opinion.  Conversely, disloyal behavior, stinginess, an excess of vice-like behavior, a selfish pre-occupation with one’s own affairs, and the production of strife were actions that would lead to the accrual of shame.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Speaking In Tongues (part 6)

Having set the stage for a basic presentation of the honor and shame culture and how it might relate to the church in general and the Corinthian church in particular in connection to the action of speaking in tongues, it is very much worth taking some space to provide a basic outline of the functionality of honor and shame in the world in which both Jesus and the early church arose.   

An important first century Roman Stoic philosopher by the name of Seneca, in writing about honor from within an active and functioning honor and shame system, had this to say: “All our arguments start from this settled point, that honor is pursued for no other reason except because it is honor.”  This says much about the value system of the Greco-Roman world, though those that live within the confines of western civilization cannot readily relate to such a sentiment, primarily because the pursuit of honor has been primarily replaced by the pursuit of material possessions and wealth. 

Though it can certainly be the case that wealth and material possessions were attendant to honor in Paul’s world, this would not necessarily be the case.  Even if modern perceptions of honor and shame has been skewed, one can still peruse the wider world in order to find the systems of honor and shame still in operation much like it was operating in Corinth.  Christians throughout the world still live within cultures in which one’s true status is largely determined by the values of honor and shame, and are in the enviable position of being able to more easily identify with and understand the situation with which Paul deals in his first letter to Corinth.  In a world so governed, the primary motivation for performing a good deed (public benefaction) or for living a life marked by virtue, was the attainment of honor. 

The opposite end of the spectrum from honor, of course, was shame.  As was alluded to earlier talk about Jesus, a person might seek to increase his honor by publicly shaming a rival through insults, reproach, physical abuse, confiscation of property, and even public execution.  Mention of Jesus in connection with this leads to a helpful aside, in that Jesus’ insistence that His disciples turn the other cheek, go the second mile, bless when cursed, and offer the undergarment when sued for the outer garment, gain substantial meaning when understood alongside concerns of honor and shame.  Everything that Jesus suggests be done essentially as part of a mission statement, which He then lives out through His passion, would be immediately viewed as honor-disavowing and shame-accruing. 


So how exactly was it determined who was possessive of honor and who leaned towards the shameful end of the spectrum?  There was no formal system by which honor was assigned.  There were no checklists to follow.  Rather, public consensus, which is always shifting, plays the most important role.  The shifting sands of public consensus meant that one would always have to be on guard, not only performing according to wider public opinion, but also doing one’s level best to shape public opinion and drive the public debate concerning what is honorable and what is dishonorable/shameful.  This can be loosely referred to as a governing construct known as the “court of public opinion.”  

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Speaking In Tongues (part 5)

As a denizen of the first century Greco-Roman world and as a popular teacher that would have been increasingly viewed through messianic lenses, Jesus would have been quite conscientious of the way that He was perceived by the public.  That said, He appears to be almost completely unconcerned with the honor and shame system.  It almost seems as if He viewed it as being quite backwards, with actions seen as most honorable by the wider public, perceived by Jesus as being shameful, and vice versa. 

At times, Jesus accepts the honors being afforded to Him, but generally He only accepts honoring or honorific statements when they come from those that do not possess any public honor (tax collectors, lepers, those that have been possessed by demons, unclean women, etc…).  When the rich or the rulers attempt to honor Him (and thus flatter themselves and attempt to accrue honor by their own association with Him), perhaps by calling Him “good,” He disavows the approbation.  He routinely speaks of the first being last and the last being first.  He interacts with tax collectors, who may have money and a measure of power, but who are not looked upon as being honorable in the least.  He touches lepers.  He allows dishonorable women to touch Him.

He is more than happy to take the lowest place at a meal, eschewing the places of honor and instructing His followers to do the same.  He washes the feet of His disciples, which is the role of a slave and a reminder of the slave’s shameful place.  He allows children who, being children, do not have a place in the honor and shame pursuit (they do not have honor or shame accorded to them), to come to Him.  When they do, He tells those who are listening to Him that they must enter the kingdom of Israel’s God as little children---unconcerned with the pursuit of honor or the avoidance of shame (which has nothing to do with a “childlike faith”).  He ultimately ended up on a cross, which was the lowest and most shameful place of all, and He went there willingly as He embraced the role of Israel for the world. 

These things (the honor and shame culture along with Jesus’ treatment of this broad social construct) would have been well understood by Jesus’ followers and those that made up the believing communities that attempted to live out what it meant to be the renewed Israel that represented the rule of the Creator God through the remembrance of and reflection upon the orally transmitted Jesus tradition.  When Paul wrote his letters, especially what are considered to be the early letters, there were at that point no known and codified written record of the life of Jesus.  There were no Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as they exist in their present form.  Paul doesn’t have his own body of work or the letters from other apostles from which to draw, nor do the early believers.  What they had were the words of the apostles. 


Those apostles shared their stories of Jesus (a relatively unified story to be sure, though with different emphases, as is obvious from the variety of presentations of the life of Jesus that can be seen in the Gospels) so that those who threw in their lot with the crucified and resurrected King (the church) might do their best to model out the example that He provided, as the movement of the kingdom of the Creator God began to spread through the world via the instrument of the church, with this spread understood to have been motivated by the Spirit of God.  They too were to be motivated to eschew honor and embrace shame, especially if such brought glory to their King and to their God and extended the reach and rule of that Kingdom as they conscientiously strived to bring heaven to earth by mimicking the counter-cultural behavior of Jesus. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Speaking In Tongues (part 4)

Not only did the church not have to explain a new phenomenon, but they were simply able to employ a term already in use to describe a relatively widespread and known practice, with the term adequately conveying, for the Christians, the same information it would have conveyed on behalf of non-Christians---speaking in tongues while possessed by a god.  Glossolalia did not describe something new that originated with or in the church, but was merely adopted and adapted by Christians, as an accepted religious practice for many that was already full of meaning and richly symbolic.    

It is undeniable that what can be seen in the church today bears a heavy resemblance (identical?) to the occurrences of ecstatic tongues that took place in these ancient cults well before the day of Pentecost, to which is generally looked as the time of the outpouring of the Spirit that has, since then, enabled the ecstatic speech of Christians, though there are marked differences between both Christian, non-Christian, and pre-Christian speaking in tongues from what is recorded in the second chapter Acts. 

In all cases of speaking in tongues, based upon the facts of history, the one performing the action is said to be doing so under the influence of their god.  It cannot be said enough that speaking in tongues is not a uniquely Christian practice by any means.  A large number of studies have revealed the fact that speaking in tongues is present in non-Christian religions all around the world.  It is practiced quite distinct from the church in China, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Siberia, Arabia, and Burma, just to name a few locations.  Glossolalia can be heard among Eskimos, in Japanese séances on the island of Hokkaido, from the shamans of the Zar cult in Ethiopia, in Haitian Voodoo, and quite extensively in African tribal religions.  In each case it functions differently for the group, though it will generally sound the same.      

With an understanding that speaking in tongues was present in Paul’s world and elsewhere before Pentecost, attention can now be turned to one of the most important societal constructs in the world of Paul’s day, which is the construct of honor and shame.  It was the system of honor and shame that governed relationships in the ancient world.  One that was desirous of pursuing honor, while also being able to function at an honor-pursuit level within society (not a child, woman, slave, leper, etc…), would take great pains to perform public actions that would not be damaging to one’s accrued honor, while carefully avoiding activities or associations that would tend to bring shame.  Honor equaled prestige in the ancient world.  Honor was also considered to be a limited good, in that if one gained honor for themselves, it came at the expense of another person’s honor.  More honor for one equated to more shame (or simply less honor) for another, and one could certainly gain honor for self by shaming another person.  Speaking in tongues was certainly a component of this system.  


This system of social interaction and order can be seen to have been at work in the records of the life and ministry of Jesus.  When Jesus is challenged, in addition to these challenges being akin to rabbinic debates, they are also contests of honor and shame.  If His challengers can defeat Him through their questions, thereby asserting their superiority or demonstrating potential flaws in His reasoning or grasp of the law, then they will have shamed Him while gaining honor for themselves.  This shaming could very well have served to stem the tide of His kingdom movement.  However, Jesus, who attracted crowds and prestige, did not seek honor for Himself.  He as presented as one that accrued honor but did not seem to care for the workings of the system.  In fact, He is presented as being only concerned with His Father’s honor.