Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Christ Crossing Cultures

I have been recently reading a book, really a collection of essays, by Jonathan Z. Smith, Relating Religion. In the world of comparative religious studies, Smith is a giant. He teaches - still, I think - at the University of Chicago. In one of his essays on 1 Corinthians, he reminds us that an essential task of missionaries - to translate the message of their religious beliefs into another language and culture - doesn't always come out the way it is intended. Sometimes ancient cultural practices and beliefs simply make it impossible for the targeted converts to get the concept.

In Corinth, Paul encountered the practice of speaking in tongues. Or did he? Here is Smith:
I suspect that Paul himself is straining to understand the phenomenon that he encounters in Corinth as suggested by his (surprising?) appeal to the Delphic model of ecstatic speech interpreted by a prophet. Paul may well have misunderstood the practice. I am tempted to suggest that if the communication is with the spirits of the ancestral dead, and if the Corinthians are, at most, second-generation immigrants in Corinth, then perhaps the ancestral spirits are being addressed in their native, homeland language. Such language is frequently maintained for ceremonial and religious purposes by second-generation immigrants. If this be the case, Paul has taken xenoglossia (speaking a real, but not native language) to be glossalalia (speaking in tongues).

I raise these matters as having relevance to my assigned topic: Paul's Christ myth at Corinth. If what I have redescribed is at all plausible, then Paul is implausible...

It is this last issue (discourse on resurrection: 1 Cor. 15) that makes clear why a Christ myth would be, strictly speaking, meaningless to some Corinthian groups. If Christ, having died, is no longer dead, then this violates the fundamental presupposition that the ancestors and the dead remain dead, even though they are thoroughly interactive with their living descendants in an extended family comprising the living and the dead. For the ancestral dead, it is the fact of their
death, not its mode and significance... that establishes and sustains their power.
So, Paul thinks they are speaking in tongues but they are really speaking with their dead ancestors. I don't know if this understanding has any validity; it is the first I have encountered it, but Smith gives examples of cultures where the practice of speaking with the dead is common practice.

What is really interesting to me here is thinking about being in the catacombs in Rome and learning about the common Roman and then early Christian practice of going to the catacombs to have a picnic with the dead relatives, who were really dead but also really present. How does a religion whose central myth holds that Jesus was dead but then came back to life cross that divide. Did other early Christians have trouble with this myth? And of course, it wasn't the only way of understanding Jesus. But it was Paul's central message.


ProgressiveChurchlady said...

I have no scholarly background to engage in an exchange on that level--but to me, having picnics near the graves of dead relatives who were dead but still present with us, fits right in with the Resurrection Myth.

In the Gospels where the Ressurrection Myth is set forth, Jesus told people to have picnics to remember him after he was gone. It looks pretty similar to me.

Family gatherings with ceremonial food provide a feeling of closeness and comfort with those who are dead--but still with us. Whether that be in actuality, or in memory.

Note to Ministry team: Why don't we pose that question to all in the congregation by having a "Day of the Dead" (Dia de Muertos)/All Saints Day service the first Sunday in November and encorporate art/music? People could bring in photos of their dead family/friends for display. And maybe we could get away with having communion too?

ProgressiveChurchlady said...

Additional comment. I could certainly see how Paul could have made a cultural error in interpreting what was going on in Corinth. This is an interesting theory.

One of my favorite novels is Kingslover's The Poisonwood Bible about the African Congo and all the havoc wrecked by mistranslations of the Evangelical Missionary pastor.