Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Friday, May 31, 2013

THUCYDIDES: The Peloponnesian War (History and Justice)

We just finished reading the Gospel of Mark and considered the trial of Jesus. But trials in law courts are really just a subset of the larger over-arching question: what is justice? In the Gospel of Mark we considered if there were really two types of justice; one type of justice according to Jewish law and another type of justice under Roman law. This time we read the Greek historian Thucydides and face a similar question regarding justice. Does justice stay the same throughout the ages or does it change with the times?

Our attitude regarding the nature of justice depends on our view of history. Is the purpose of history (a) to find out the TRUTH about the past, or (b) to find out the MEANING of the past? If (a) is our answer we should pursue history the same way we pursue science. There’s a truth to the past and we can know that truth. So we look for factual data and draw conclusions based on reason and observation. But if (b) is our answer then we need to use a different method. If we’re searching for meaning to history; meaning that speaks directly to us right now, in our current times, then we need to use language that will share our own historical vision and show its meaning. Under Method A we discover truth in history. Under Method B we give meaning to history. The History of the Peloponnesian War is an example of Method A. The Book of Exodus is an example of Method B.

Thucydides displays Method A when he says: “In investigating past history, and in forming the conclusions which I have formed, it must be admitted that one cannot rely on every detail which has come down to us by way of tradition. People are inclined to accept all stories of ancient times in an uncritical way… However, I do not think that one will be far wrong in accepting the conclusions I have reached from the evidence which I have put forward.” This is a search for truth. Thucydides sees history as a cause-and-effect relationship. So he uses factual evidence as his historical material. Moses (in the Book of Exodus) displays Method B when he says: “I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God. And the Lord said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows; and I am come down to deliver them out of the hands of the Egyptians…” This is a search for meaning. Moses sees history as a glove ultimately moved by the hand of God. So Moses uses revelation as historical material to find the meaning behind the action.

Now we go back to our original question: does justice stay the same or does it change?  Let’s put the question in concrete terms. Is justice the same in modern America as it was in ancient Athens? Thucydides lived 2500 years ago. Was justice the same in ancient Athens as in ancient Egypt? Moses lived 1000 years before Thucydides. Is it even possible to get a firm grasp on history going that far back? Moses and Thucydides give a clear answer. They wrote for people far down the road of history. They didn’t know about a country far in the future called the United States of America. But they hoped they were writing for folks like themselves. Thucydides said, “My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever.” Moses said, “I AM hath sent me unto you.” Not “I was.” But “I Am.” As if to say, history will always be with you; the problem of justice will too. So every generation must reconsider what history is and what justice is. This task is much easier if we stand on the shoulders of men like Moses and Thucydides.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

BIBLE: Gospel of Mark (The Trial of Jesus)

Jesus was in an impossible situation. Many folks thought he was being too religious. Others thought he wasn’t religious enough. Many people wanted him to get more involved in politics. Others wanted him to stay out. You can’t please all of the people all of the time. But it seems like Jesus wasn’t pleasing much of anyone. Even his closest disciples had trouble understanding what he was talking about. So it should come as no surprise that Jesus ends up getting into trouble with the authorities. John the Baptist was executed for doing far less than Jesus had done.

The religious authorities were the first ones to put Jesus on trial. Mark tells us that “the chief priests and all the council sought for witness against Jesus to put him to death; and found none.” The Jewish chief priests weren’t messing around. To them Jesus was a blasphemer. And that was a capital crime in ancient Jerusalem. Apparently at that time the accused weren’t represented by counsel. Jesus didn’t have a lawyer. He spoke for himself. A good defense lawyer might have advised him to take the Fifth Amendment (if there had been one back then). Because the crucial point in the trial came when “the high priest asked him, and said unto him, Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed? And Jesus said, I am…” That was enough. The Jewish trial was over. “Then the high priest rent his clothes, and saith, What need we any further witnesses? Ye have heard the blasphemy: what think ye? And they all condemned him to be guilty of death.”

Jesus was guilty under Jewish law. But Romans were in charge. Only the Roman governor could approve the death penalty. The Jewish courts weren’t allowed to carry out capital punishment. So the chief priests had to take Jesus to the Roman governor, Pilate, for a second trial. They had to convince Pilate that Jesus was guilty of a crime worthy of death. So when Jesus came before Pilate, “Pilate asked him, Art thou the King of the Jews?” And he answering said unto him, Thou sayest it.” This trial didn’t get off to a good start for Jesus either. “And the chief priests accused him of many things: but he answered nothing. And Pilate asked him again, saying, Answerest thou nothing? behold how many things they witness against thee. But Jesus yet answered nothing; so that Pilate marvelled.”

Pilate “marvelled” but Jesus remained silent. Pilate doesn’t seem to be a cruel or vindictive governor. He just wants to keep the peace in Jerusalem for the emperor Octavius Caesar (Augustus) back in Rome. But in this particular case Pilate wants to release Jesus. He doesn’t think Jesus is guilty of any crime, much less blasphemy, which isn’t a crime under Roman law. He tells the Jewish crowd this. “And they cried out again, Crucify him. Then Pilate said unto them, Why, what evil hath he done? And they cried out the more exceedingly, Crucify him.” The rest of this story gets pretty ugly. Lies win out over truth. Mob rule wins out over justice. The bad guys win out over the good guys. They took Jesus “unto the place Golgotha, which is, being interpreted, The place of a skull.” And there they put him to an excruciating death on a wooden cross. What happened next changed the whole course of history. Three women came back after three days to take care of the body of Jesus, but it wasn’t there. What happened to his body is controversial. Some folks say he rose from the dead and lives in heaven and will come back to earth someday. Other folks say that’s just sheer nonsense. Jesus was extremely controversial in his own time. Why should our own age be any different? Mark tells a great story and lets the reader decide.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Gospel of Mark (Enemies)

...the Pharisees and the Herodians tried to catch him in his words.

Jesus came preaching that “the kingdom of God is at hand.” This was not good news for everyone. Before long, Jesus found himself caught between Romans and Jews and even between the Jews themselves. It seems like he was always in the crosshairs of class struggle, culture wars, political battles, and bitter religious conflict. How can one man make so many people so mad so many ways? It’s hard for mild-mannered Americans to understand the religious fervor of the Middle East. It was hard for the Romans too. It was unreasonable. It was dangerous. Flash mobs could materialize in a moment’s notice. This was the world Jesus lived in every day.

To help put this perilous situation into a modern perspective here’s a short quote from Out of the Whirlwind: A Reader of Holocaust Literature. Yossel Rakover’s Appeal to God: “God of Israel… You have done everything to make me stop believing in You. Now lest it seem to You that You will succeed by these tribulations to drive me from the right path, I notify You, my God and the God of my father, that it will not avail You in the least! You may insult me, You may castigate me, You may take from me all that I cherish and hold dear in the world, You may torture me to death. I shall believe in You, I shall love You no matter what You do to test me. And these are my last words to You, my wrathful God: nothing will avail you in the least. You have done everything to make me renounce You, to make me lose my faith in You, but I die exactly as I lived, a believer… Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Into your hands, O Lord, I consign my soul.”

Does that sound like the kind of man you can sit down with and hammer out a compromise? John the Baptist wasn’t looking for a compromise and neither were the powerful men he was up against. Something had to give. So John ended up in prison and was later executed. With Jesus they use a different strategy. The Pharisees ask him: “Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” If he says yes, then zealous Jews will be out to get him. If he says no, the Romans will be after him. It’s a clever trap. And it seems like Jesus will lose either way. But Jesus has a better idea. He tells them “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” This answer not only avoids getting him into trouble with either Jews or the Romans. It actually pleases both sides. Because in both cases it sounds like Jesus is on their side. The Romans aren’t interested in Jewish religious matters. They just want their money. And for the Jew everything belongs to God. Caesar may think he rules the world but God is master of all. Jesus answered amazingly well. Mark says “they marvelled at him.”

So Jesus makes it safely through that trap. But then the Sadducees come after him. The Pharisees believe in life after death. The Sadducees (Herodians) don’t. The Herodians set up a hypothetical situation about a woman marrying several different men. They all die and finally the woman dies too. Then they ask him: “In the resurrection therefore, when they shall rise, whose wife shall she be of them?” This seems like another impossible problem with no solution. But Jesus tells them: “Do ye not therefore err, because ye know not the scriptures, neither the power of God? For when they shall rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage; but are as the angels which are in heaven… He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living: ye therefore do greatly err.” Basically Jesus is telling them: you don’t know your Bible; you don’t know your God. It’s another good answer. But time is running out for Jesus.

Monday, May 13, 2013

BIBLE: The Gospel of Mark (The Apostles)

And he taught them many things by parables… Gospel of Mark 4:2

Here’s a Great Books question. Would Jesus have chosen Hamlet to be one of his original twelve followers? It’s risky to guess what Jesus might or might not have done. But if we had to guess, the answer would be no. It’s true that Hamlet was a man and all twelve Apostles were men. However, they were all Jewish men and Hamlet wasn’t Jewish. Furthermore, Hamlet was a prince and the first Apostles weren’t exactly drawn from the upper crust of society. These reasons alone would have disqualified Hamlet from consideration. But even if he had been born a poor Jewish fisherman (like Simon Peter), Hamlet still would not have made the cut. Why not? Because Jesus had one clear mission. To proclaim the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel. It’s a simple message and he needed simple messengers to deliver it. Hamlet wasn’t simple; he was basically a philosopher. And Jesus wasn’t looking for philosophers. He needed folks who would believe the gospel and pass it on to others. Hamlet would probably have responded “to believe or not to believe, that is the question.” A questioning mind is a good quality for a philosopher. Not so much for an Apostle.

What Jesus needed was a small group of men willing to spend time with him learning about the kingdom of God. Then they themselves would go out and preach this message to others. They would also have power to heal the sick and (get ready for this) cast out devils. This is a tall order. How did Jesus go about teaching simple men to do these things? By the same method he apparently used to teach large crowds. He taught by parables. What’s a parable? A parable is basically a short story which teaches a lesson. It’s kind of like the stories we find in Aesop’s Fables; except fables use animals and parables use human characters. It’s interesting that Jesus used this method. He didn’t write a book or use a twelve-step plan or develop an eightfold path. He told stories. And maybe that’s the best way to teach people who aren’t so smart. But it also may turn out to be the best way to teach budding philosophers too. In the Great Books tradition Western philosophy begins with Plato. And Plato used the dialogue format, which is essentially a kind of short story. Then for more than two thousand years Western philosophy relied almost entirely on non-fiction methods. These were written as instruction manuals for the mind. They were intended to appeal to the rational sphere. Only in recent times have philosophers gone back to using stories again. Friedrich Nietzsche and Soren Kierkegaard are examples of using a story-method that appeals to the imagination. But one of the dangers of using parables is that people just won’t get it. In this week’s reading, for example, Jesus tells a parable about a farmer who went out to sew seed. Some of the ground is good and some of it isn’t. Even Jesus’ hand-picked followers don’t understand what he’s talking about. And if they can’t understand simple parables like this one, how are they possibly going to understand what the kingdom of God is like? And this brings us back to Hamlet.

Maybe Jesus chose these Apostles precisely because of their simplicity. They simply would not give up. Eleven of them followed Jesus to the end. When faced with Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” question, all except Judas Iscariot chose “to be” as the correct response. Everybody makes mistakes. But here’s the difference. When Peter messed up, he came back. He repented; Judas didn’t. Judas carried the same vision as Hamlet: the world’s a dark place and the kingdom of God seems far away. The Apostles vision is different: repent ye, and believe the gospel.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

BIBLE: The Gospel of Mark (John the Baptist)

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand… -Jesus

The Gospel of Mark is our selection for this week. And it may seem like an odd selection following up Shakespeare’s story of Hamlet. But there are several connections between the story of Hamlet and the story of Jesus. They’re both biographies, in a certain sense. They tell the essential life stories of two remarkable men facing remarkable circumstances. The two stories are also both tragedies (in a way) because their stories seem so unfair. Hamlet dies of poisoning after an unfair duel and Jesus is executed on a cross after an unfair trial. Hamlet and Jesus are also both sons of hard fathers who ask much of them, even to give up their lives if necessary. And they both encounter ghosts. Hamlet encounters the ghost of his father. Jesus encounters the Holy Ghost. Finally, both these stories jump right in and get straight to the action. The ghost of Hamlet’s father appears in Act 1, Scene One of the play. And John the Baptist comes onto the scene in the Gospel of Mark with no fanfare, no introduction of who he is, where he’s from or what he’s doing there.

Hamlet is a work of literature. The Gospel of Mark is… what? Biography? Literature? History? The word of God? How do we classify a Gospel story? We can safely say that Hamlet is a play about a troubled young man facing the problems of life. And through all five acts Hamlet wrestles with what he should do. Should I kill my uncle, or not? Should I kill him now, or do it later? Should I kill myself, or should I keep on living? In many ways John the Baptist is the anti-Hamlet. He’s not the kind of man who sits around pondering whether it’s better to be or not to be. His message is like a great solid fork in the intellectual road of the Great Books. Unlike Hamlet’s caution about how to proceed, John is in the Great Books for just one reason: to point out the road to Jesus by preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. How do other Great Books respond?

Taking one fork in the road are men like Nietzsche and Freud. They view John the Baptist as being weak and foolish and probably crazy too. Nietzsche would say: “sins? What sins? My man (Zarathustra) has no need to repent of anything, much less sins. He has no need of your puny rules. He creates his own rules.” And Freud would think that John the Baptist is mentally ill. “Just look at the way he dresses; and the things he eats. And he talks about ghosts. He thinks he’s making straight the path of the Lord, of all things. Does this sound like a sane man to you? In my opinion this is a case of serious delusion.”

Dante would respond: “men who talk like that end up in hell. John the Baptist is a holy man. Your Zarathustra is not a heroic creator of anything. He’s just an evil man.” This is the other fork speaking, the supporters of John the Baptist. St. Augustine would agree with Dante and support John the Baptist: “There are basically two approaches to life, the City of God and the City of Man. Mr. Nietzsche and Dr. Freud have rejected the City of God. They believe they can re-build civilization on theories made up in their own heads. We shall see.” In the final analysis is John the Baptist a holy man or is he just a crazy crank? Many people thought Hamlet was crazy. He brooded on things like sex and death and revenge and he thought about suicide a lot. There’s nothing wrong with thinking but eventually the clock runs out. Jesus once said “…the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand.” This is the basic message of John the Baptist: thinking time is over; choose your path.