Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Deep Melancholy of David Bentley Hart

Dr. Hart has recently completed his translation of the New Testament, and it is now for sale at a book store near you.  One naturally asks, “Why do we need another translation of the New Testament since so many translations already abound?”  One could understand someone wanting to have another crack at translating the Old Testament, since the verbal concision of the Hebrew tongue and the corruption of the text at a number of places offer opportunity for a number of different readings—to say nothing of the question of how to factor in the Septuagint readings in a modern English translation.  But the New Testament?  Surely the field has been worked over pretty thoroughly and no real puzzles remain?  And the versions offered by individuals have not always met with universal acclaim as worthy alternatives—versions such as those by William Barclay, J.B. Phillips, Ken Taylor, and Eugene Peterson.                                                                                           
Dr. Hart lets us know why he thinks we need yet another version of the New Testament—present translations are not sufficiently literal and serve to hide from their readers the radicality of what the texts actually say.  Reading them in the old versions such as the RSV, the King James Version, and the New American Standard Bible, leave us too cozily at ease in Zion, and we might imagine that we are like the Christians of the first century when in fact we are utterly different.  If we were to read the New Testament with the fresh and newly-opened eyes free from the bias foisted on us by centuries of tradition, we would see for ourselves how unlike the first Christians were from ourselves, and how utterly we fail to understand the New Testament’s radical message.  Indeed, we comfortable Christians would regard our first century compatriots as “fairly obnoxious:  civilly reprobate, ideologically unsound, economically destructive, politically irresponsible, socially discreditable, and really just a bit indecent”.  Hence Hart’s title for his explanatory essay of 2016, “Christ’s Rabble”.
Hart begins his broadside on the reliability of the Church’s Tradition (for that is what it is) with a bit of personal history, including the fact that he suffered an extended spell of ill health.  This, he said, forced him “to take an even more reflective and deliberate approach to the task”.  It forced him to think more deeply about the world of the early church, which in turn surprised him by leaving him with “a deeply melancholy, almost Kierkegaardian sense that most of us who go by the name of ‘Christian’ ought to give up the pretense of wanting to be Christian”.  By this he meant that if we truly understood what the New Testament meant by being Christian, we would reject it, for it would be too radical for us to accept.  We would find it, (in his words again) “fairly obnoxious”.  We misunderstand the New Testament that badly, but with the aid of his new New Testament, we can now at last see what the New Testament really says and what Christianity is really about.
Hart goes on to share that perhaps his melancholy at this discovery “was deepened by an accident of timing”—viz. his debate with Samuel Gregg over the intrinsic evils of capitalism.  Hart had denounced wealth as “an intrinsic evil”, where Gregg argued with him that it was not wealth itself that the New Testament condemned, but a spiritually unhealthy preoccupation with it.  I am not sure that the timing was as accidental as all that.  I wonder rather if Hart’s diatribe against later Christian culture and its understanding of the New Testament was not simply a part of his ongoing personal quarrel with Gregg.  Either way though, Hart’s arguments should be considered on their own merits.
Much of Hart’s broadside against the Church’s traditional reading of the New Testament focuses upon the teaching about wealth.  And here Hart is not all wrong:  there certainly exist happy and complacent capitalists who call themselves Christians who actually do pay insufficient heed to the New Testament’s warnings against the danger of wealth.  If we have great wealth and are not always at least a little uneasy about whether or not we are generous enough with it, we are in some danger.  But Hart overplays his hand, and in so doing misreads the New Testament.  I suggest that his view that wealth is intrinsically evil forms the lens through which he reads the text, resulting in a forced and distorted reading.
It is true that Christ had some immeasurably hard things to say about the rich and the dangers of wealth (Luke 6:24-25, 12:33-34, Matthew 6:19-24, 19:16-26).  But Hart seems to miss that Christ spoke similarly hard and radical things in all His ethical teaching—He warned that hellfire awaited those nurturing rage in their hearts (Matthew 5:21-22), that one should cut off one’s hand and gouge out one’s eye if these become occasions of sin, otherwise one would burn in unquenchable fire (Mark 9:43-48), that faith as small as a mustard seed was enough to uproot a mountain and hurl it into the sea (Matthew 21:21-22).  When one addressed Him flatteringly by calling Him, “Good Teacher”, He rounded on him and asked him how he could do that, since no one was good but God alone (Mark 10:17-18).  He counseled that if while in the middle of sacrificing in the Temple one remembered that someone had a grudge against him, that person should immediately stop what he was doing, leave the sacrificial animal there with the astonished priest, and run off to make peace. Only then could he return to finish what he was doing (Matthew 5:23-24).  As Chesterton once observed, Christ always spoke in a kind of divine hyperbole.  His aim thereby was not to instruct so much as to de-construct—to shake up His hearers and destroy their complacent presuppositions.  We have been put together wrongly and need to be taken apart so as to be re-assembled properly.  Christ’s hyperbolic style as intended to further this necessary and saving deconstruction and reassembly.  We misread Him if we understand Him as teaching ethics or giving lessons in behavior.  His intent was more radical than that.  In telling us to gouge out the offending eyeball, for example, He was targeting not simply a single organ, but an entire vision of life.
But how to go from this painful deconstruction to actual instruction for living?  That is the difference between Christ and His apostles.  He had the sword which struck down our fatal presuppositions; they had the actual precepts for life.  Or in Chesterton’s happy image, the Gospel was the riddle; the Church was the answer, and that answer may be found in length in the epistles.  And here we must take issue with Hart’s exegesis. Three examples must suffice.
The first church in Jerusalem did indeed have all things in common (Acts 2:44-45, 4:32-37).  But this paradigm was not regarded as necessary for all, and was in fact not followed by other churches.  This is no trace of such “communism” (Hart delights in the word for its shock value) in the other churches found in Luke’s narrative.  And Paul presupposes that the Christians of Corinth each had their own money, for he exhorts them to put aside a little of it each Sunday as each may have prospered during the week (1 Corinthians 16:2).  Such instructions would make no sense if all wealth had already been turned over to a common fund.  Luke offers the Jerusalem experiment in shared wealth as an extraordinary instance of their mutual love, not as a requirement demanded of all.  Christ never commanded such communal ownership or renunciation of private wealth, with the result that the Church throughout the Mediterranean in the first century never practiced it.
Hart also misinterprets James’ denunciation of the rich in James 5:1-6.  He dismisses the traditional view that it was “a dire warning issued only to wealthy persons who have acted unjustly toward their employees”, and says that this traditional view “inverts the text”, since James had previously denounced the rich simply because they were rich.  Hearkening back to James 1:9-10, Hart says that the rich “should rejoice in being ‘made low’ or impoverished, as otherwise he will wither and vanish away like a wildflower scorched by the sun”.  In Hart’s reading, unless the rich man gives away all his wealth, he will be doomed, for he “scarcely merits the name of ‘brother’”.  However, this is not what the text actually says. There is no hint in it that the rich scarcely merits the name “brother”.  The contrast is between the two types of brothers/ Christians.  Both the poor and the rich Christian are told to boast:  “Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation and the rich in his humiliation”.  Vanishing away like a wildflower is not mentioned as a threat which will overtake the rich if he refuses to give away his wealth, but as the reason for his boasting—he can boast of his inevitable humiliation and vanishing away because for him also his true wealth is in the Kingdom.  When James considers the man who says “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” (James 4:13-16), James does not rebuke his intention to make money, but the boastful arrogance accompanying it.  James does not counsel him to forego making a profit, but simply to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that” (v. 15).  There is no hint that the wealth gained in profit was intrinsically evil; only that presuming one would live to see tomorrow was arrogant folly.  Hart simply misunderstands the message of James.
He similarly misreads Paul.  In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, Paul accepts that rich men exist among the Christians, and he does not tell them to give all their money into a communal fund.  Rather, he tells them not to be haughty, but to trust in God rather than in their wealth, to do good, and to be generous and ready to share (1 Timothy 6:17-19).  Hart translates the word often rendered “ready to share” (Greek koinonikos) and renders it “communalist” (the word “communist” comes in a footnote), on the slender basis that a koinonikos property is one jointly owned.  It is clear from the entire passage that Paul is urging an attitude, not a change of financial state.  If Paul were telling the rich man simply to dump all his money into the common fund, what then would be the sense of telling him to “be rich in good works”?  For obviously after he had dumped his money he would be incapable of doing any private works of giving, since the money and the decisions of how to use it were no longer his.  Paul’s advice presupposes the man retains control of his money.  That Paul is urging personal generosity with private funds is apparent from how everyone else has translated koinonikos:  the King James renders it “ready to communicate”; the RSV renders it “generous”.  The English Standard Version and the New Revised Standard, “ready to share”; the New King James, “willing to share”; Young’s Literal Translation, “willing to communicate”; the Complete Jewish Bible, “ready to share”; Phillips, “to sympathize with those in distress”; the Living Bible, “always being ready to share with others whatever God has given them”; the New International Version, “willing to share”; the New English Translation, “sharing with others”; Douay-Rheims, “to communicate with others”; the Message, “to be extravagantly generous”.  Here it is Hart contra mundum, and my money is on the mundum.  As another bit of ancient wisdom has it:  securus judicat orbis terrarium—the whole world judges rightly.  Again, my money is on the orbis terrarium.

What is most troubling about Hart’s view of the New Testament is that he asserts that the Church from the early third century has consistently misread and misunderstood its own Scriptures (“Clement of Alexandria may have been the first”), so that the error thus has gone on “throughout Christian history”.  No wonder Hart was deeply melancholy. This is an astonishing charge for an Orthodox to make, and one that effectively sets at naught the reliability of the exegesis of the Fathers.  If Clement and others throughout Christian history “apply a reassuring gloss to the raw rhetoric of Scripture” so that (for example) not even Chrysostom’s counsel to his congregation may be received as a reliable guide, then the Fathers’ guidance about pretty much anything in the Bible is worthless.  If they can miss an obvious thing like the New Testament’s teaching that wealth is an intrinsic evil and Christians must therefore be communalists, why trust them about such complex matters as Christology?  Hart says that the only real Christians were the Desert Fathers, and yet these men never ever said that Christians living in the world with property were not real Christians.  That charge was left to Hart to make.  Hart therefore stands in a long line of people telling the Church that its doctrine and practice throughout the centuries were wrong, and that only now by listening to them could the Church get it right.  In the sixteenth century, such people were the radical Protestants.  Hart seems to be of one spirit with them.

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