Saturday, July 7, 2012

Wonder and Pedagogy

I just finished reading Caroline Walker Bynum's Metamorphosis and Identity.  It is a good read--I finished it in a day.  It is a smart collection of essays. Although somewhat disparate (as is typical of collections of essays), she has some especially interesting historiographical reflections when delineating the problems surrounding the endurance of the self through different forms of change from quotidian aging and social changes to Ovidian metamorphosis, given primarily through the prism of werewolves.  Yes, werewolves!  Whatever one thinks of each individual essay, it is worth taking a look to see one of the better historians of the medieval period talk about werewolves to open up important insights into the 12th and 13th centuries.  Why werewolves?  The strange, the weird, and the awe-inducing are, in fact, important historiographical and, what is more, pedagogical tools that reveal and engage us and our students:
...we write the best history when the specificity, the novelty, the awe-fulness, of what our sources render up bowls us over with its complexity and its significance.  Our research is better when we move only cautiously to understanding, when fear that we may appropriate the "other" leads us not so much to writing about ourselves and our fears as to crafting our stories with attentive, wondering care.  At our best, we strive for the "strange view of things"--not least because, as Thomas Aquinas understood, admiratio has to with teaching....  But surely our job as teachings it to puzzle, confuse, and amaze.  We must rear a new generation of students who will gaze in wonder at texts and artifacts, quick to puzzle over a translation, slow to project or to appropriate, quick to assume there is a significance, slow to generalize about it.  Not only as scholars, then, but also as teachers, we must astonish and be astonished.  For the flat, generalizing, presentist view of the past encapsulates it and makes it boring, whereas amazement yearns toward an understanding, a significance, that is always just a little beyond both our theories and our fears.  (pp. 74-75)
How much more urgent is this message for those teaching a text that is as familiar and as strange and as complex as the Bible!  It is, in fact, a very weird collection.  If we forget, ignore, paper over, smooth out its weirdness, we lose it, flatten it, make it boring.  If we embrace its strangeness, then we can delve into its complexity.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Metamorphosis and Historiography

I just picked up the now-decade-old volume by the eminent medieval historian Caroline Walker Bynum called Metamorphosis and Identity.  It is a collection of somewhat disparate essays spun together by the Ovidian thread of metamorphosis in 12th and 13th century Europe.  She uses the resurgent medieval fascination with concepts of the perduring individual identity among changes and transformations (including the quotidian aging, social changes, etc., but also the Ovidian radical changes in werewolf stories, the Eucharist, and so forth).  She uses these stories that challenge social structures and established boundaries, these stories that suggest fluidity and chaos, as a means to discuss the historian's task.  In an interesting historiographical reflection, she writes:
The history we attempt to write is always metamorphosis--a flux to which we have access only through texts and objects that bear vestiges of past lives to us from across time.  To historians as to poets, shapes carry stories.  Potsherds, tympana, illuminated manuscripts, field patterns from long ago revealed by aerial photography, and the texts themselves--texts of romances, saints' lives, chronicles, land transfers, laws--bring stories to us, changing because they have traveled through time but conveying also important vestiges of what was there.  Yet we, if we succeed in writing that past, are hybrids, monstrous combinations of past and present, paradoxically asserting through common, ordinary words such as "change" or "identity" a then and a now that may be incompatible, unknowable, inexpressible in those common, ordinary terms....  the history we write is less a synthesis and reconciliation than an assertion of opposites.  The most profound evocations and analyses of the past tend, I think, to put us in contact with the contradictory aspirations of the past and to keep us ever aware of the contradiction inherent in the arrogant effort to understand something radically other than ourselves.  In this sense, all history writing is not only comparative history but even paradoxical history.  Perhaps, then, the best we can hope for as historians is to achieve what Bernard of Clairvaux called in another context a "marvelous mixture":  a simultaneous assertion of past and present, self and other.  (Carolyn Walker Bynum, Metamorphosis and Identity, 36)
 I miss teaching Ovid's Metamorphoses.

The Bible and Zombies

Well...sort least according to this Huffington Post article by Michael Gilmour.  Zombie imagery and resurrection imagery often do have quite an uncanny resemblance.  Here are three of my favorites from Gilmour's list:
2. The Book of Revelation: "the sea gave up the dead that were in it" (Revelation 20:13). John the Seer's creepy statement reminds me of a scene in George A. Romero's "Land of the Dead" (2005) that features slow-moving corpses walking out of the surf, and Max Brooks' "World War Z" with its account of the boy returning from a swim with a bite mark on his foot. He also describes the zombie hoards roaming the world's oceans: "They say there are still somewhere between twenty and thirty million of them, still washing up on beaches, or getting snagged in fisherman's nets."


5. The Gospel of Matthew: "The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After [Jesus'] resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many" (Matthew 27:52-53). Unwanted persistent life is a recurring image in biblical literature and so too is language referring to the impermanence of bodily death. The dead do not stay dead. The psalmist is confident he will not "see decay" (Psalm 16:10 New International Version; cf. Acts 2:27; 13:35). We read of the physical resurrections of specific individuals (e.g., 1 Kings 17:17-24; Luke 8:49-56; maybe Acts 20:7-12) and expected mass revivals (e.g., 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). Some of these accounts of un-dying involve reference to un-burying. Mary and Martha's brother Lazarus walks out of his tomb when "they took away the stone" (John 11:41). On Easter morning, mourners find "the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back" (Mark 16:4). A second century writer describes further the events preceding Jesus' emergence from the tomb: "That stone which had been laid against the entrance to the sepulchre started of itself to roll and gave way to the side, and the sepulchre was opened" (Gospel of Peter 9.35).


7. Zechariah: "their flesh shall rot while they are still on their feet; their eyes shall rot in their sockets, and their tongues shall rot in their mouths" (Zechariah 14:12). They seem to resemble extras in a George A. Romero film.
Is there anything to the resemblance?  Such as that modern zombie films perhaps present an inversion or subversion of the old resurrection ideas--much like modern vampire films and stories invert Christian myths?  Maybe, maybe not.  The super ancient (and pre-biblical) Mesopotamian Descent of Ishtar and the better-known Epic of Gilgamesh are credited with the most ancient zombie recounting.  Zombies are as old as civilization itself.  Perhaps the Valley of Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37), etc., and later resurrection imagery (especially people coming out of their graves, from below the ground, returning form the netherworld) has origins in the much more ancient zombie lore!

Monday, July 2, 2012

New Sampson Mosaic Found

It appears that Jodi Magness's team has unearthed a high-quality Mosaic of Sampson tying torches to foxes in a late-antique synagogue.

See the news article and some initial photos here and here.