Last month (November), I was fortunate to be able to attend the nerdstravaganza that is the Society of Biblical Literature/American Academy of Religion annual conferences in Boston. Both during and after the conferences, I fielded a number of requests from friends and colleagues asking for recaps of specific sessions or of the overall experience.
I’ll do my best to summarize the main arguments of each presenter, then add a brief reaction/commentary (and the world holds its breath…). Though this will be multi-part, I don’t intend to summarize every session or encounter; just those that I found most intriguing or particularly thought-provoking. Let’s add “decipherable” to that list too…as sometimes the presentations are simply in-decipherable. I’d welcome interaction or feedback through the comments, or (as seems by far to be the favourite method of my faithful readers despite the lengthy hiatus) private message through the Contact Form or email. Hope you enjoy these snippets.
“Preaching the Sermon on the Mount as Resistance Literature: Seven Thoughts in 20 Minutes.” Presented by Warren Carter, Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University. Session: SBL Homiletics and Biblical Studies.
Carter begins by asserting that “a marginal social location is necessary for a subversive reading of the Sermon on the Mount”. As Matthew’s Gospel records the Sermon (SM), it is a text which contradicts established social power structures – this was true in Jesus’ Roman occupied setting, but has also been true through Christian history as it became the church itself that was in a place of social power.
The presentation categorizes the SM in Matthew’s account as demonstrating “life in the empire,” meaning God’s empire. In God’s empire, there are physical healings; in God’s empire, there are social implications for those upon the margins of the previously established order. The SM envisions a communal reform – the poor are blessed rather than despised. In effect, the SM is “contesting dominant cultural practices and advocating alternative communal practices and structures of justice” – hence its genre as “resistance literature”.
Further, says Carter, the SM is not meant to convey internal personal character virtues of the individual, as it is commonly preached and taught. Rather, it is a communal and socio-political document, and as such it takes its own genre seriously.
Nor is the SM monolithic via its means and methods. It is not advocating a simple, naive, passive acceptance of established power structures (“Blessed are the meek” etc.). Rather, the established Roman and Jewish political/social structures are dealt with utilizing multivalent and simultaneous means. For example, these structures are at times directly challenged within Matthew’s text, yet the same power structures are also subject to subtle imitation and mimicry to provide contrast with God’s power structures. This is seen in phrases such as “Father in the Heavens” (Matt 6:9) as the good gifts of God are contrasted with the supposed “good gifts” of the Roman “Father Emperor”.
Ultimately, concluded Carter, the Sermon on the Mount illustrates a life shaped by “God’s Empire” as a contrast to a life on the margins shaped by the empires of this world. The SM is illustrative, but not comprehensive, in scope. It gives us direction, but is not demandingly directive. It provides vignettes of the social realities of a life under God’s rule and providence.
This was the first presentation in the Homiletics session, and as I was rushing out immediately afterwards to catch dinner with friends, the only presentation which I was able to attend. Warren Carter was true to his word, slamming the audience with 20 minutes of wisdom and leaving me stunned and spent on the walk out of the venue.
While I am not yet firmly convinced of Carter’s point that the Sermon on the Mount is unapplicable to personal character virtues, his point regarding the genre of the SM as a communal and socio-political document fits so much of the New Testament’s genre and purpose outside of Matthew.
What struck me most was the introduction of Carter’s presentation (or should it have been more aptly titled a homily?). He wondered aloud why there always seem to be so many sick people around Jesus in Matthew’s gospel. Carter’s answer? Well, empires tend to make one sick. Yet, Jesus ushers in God’s empire – his healings expel the sickness of worldly imperial power structures.
See what I mean? Stunned and spent.