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Life Arts    H4'ed 12/8/16

How the Historical Jesus Became a Superhero (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Now, Albert B. Lord in comparative literature at Harvard University published his landmark study based on anthropological field work and recordings, The Singer of Tales (Harvard University Press, 1960). Ong reviewed Lord's book in Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts, volume 4, number 1 (Winter 1962): pages 74-78. Ong's review is reprinted in the 600-page anthology An Ong Reader: Challenges for Further Inquiry (Hampton Press, 2002, pages 301-306). Ong never tired of referring to Lord's landmark book. In effect, Lord details how the composing practices of non-literate singer of tales involve the use of commonplaces like the commonplaces used by orators and writers trained in rhetorical education.

The New Testament scholar Werner H. Kelber of Rice University in Houston, Texas, draws on various aspects of Ong's impressive body of scholarly work and on Lord's landmark book in the following books: The Oral and the Written Gospel: The Hermeneutics of Speaking and Writing in the Synoptic Tradition, Mark, Paul, and Q (Fortress Press, 1983) and Imprints, Voiceprints, and Footprints of Memory: Collected Essays of Werner H. Kelber (Society of Biblical Literature, 2013). As Ong points out, the art of memory was cultivated in ancient rhetorical education.

Now, in MacDonald's book Mythologizing Jesus, MacDonald refers to Lord's landmark book in the classified list of further reading at the end of the book (page 156). However, MacDonald gives no evidence of being familiar with Ong's impressive body of scholarly work.

Ong's impressive body of scholarly work in which he refers to Lord's landmark book includes the following books: The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for cultural and Religious History (Yale University Press, 1967), the expanded version of Ong's 1964 Terry Lectures at Yale University; Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology: Studies in the Interaction of Expression and Culture (Cornell University Press, 1971); Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture (Cornell University Press, 1977), and Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (Methuen, 1982).

Ong's book Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness (Cornell University Press, 1981), the published version of Ong's 1979 Messenger Lectures at Cornell University, is relevant to MacDonald's theme of the spirit of rivalry involved in imitation in his book Mythologizing Jesus. As Ong explain, the Greek word agon means contest, struggle, and rivalry involves contest, struggle.

MacDonald's theme of the spirit of rivalry involved in imitation in his book Mythologizing Jesus is also relevant to Yale's literary critic Harold Bloom's book Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism (Oxford University Press, 1982).

The spirit rivalry in our Western literary tradition is central to the poet T. S. Eliot's famous essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919).

In Mythologizing Jesus, MacDonald likens the character portrayed as Jesus in the New Testament to a superhero. He says, "Hollywood did not invent superheroes; they are pre-historic" (page 1). Thus superheroes were also not invented by comic books. Because the Homeric epics were central to ancient rhetorical education as exemplars of style and expression, MacDonald concentrates on them as sources used for the New Testament portrayal of Jesus as a superhero. (MacDonald's focus on the Homeric epics as sources of motifs in the New Testament does not rule out the Hebrew Bible as another source.)

But according to MacDonald, the fictional stories in the New Testament "are fictions advocating a higher ethical standard than superheroes in Homer -- or Hollywood" -- or the comics (page 11).

Incidentally, as a young literary scholar, Ong took the comics seriously enough to comment on them -- for example, in his article "The Comics and the Super State: Glimpses Down the Back Alleys of the Mind" in the Arizona Quarterly, volume 1, number 3 (Autumn 1945): pages 34-48, which was written up in Time Magazine (on October 22, 1945, pages 67-68 and again on November 5, 1945, page 23).

Even though I admire MacDonald for likening the portrayal of Jesus in the New Testament to superheroes in Hollywood movies and comic books, I think that his theorizing of his methodology known as Mimesis Criticism could be strengthened by also taking into account Ong's work related to Lord's landmark book and the rhetorical tradition.

No doubt the portrayal of Jesus as a superhero in the New Testament has dominated the Christian imagination and Christian identity over the centuries down to the present time, just as the Hebrew Bible has dominated the Jewish imagination and Jewish identity over the centuries down to the present time. Both of these religious traditions are still living traditions that influence the identities of Christians and Jews today.

By contrast, the Homeric epics rarely influence the identities of people today, even though they remain influential works of imaginative literature in the Western literary tradition -- influencing, for example, James Joyce's experimental novel Ulysses (1922). Of course both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament also remain influential works in the Western literary tradition.

But speaking of identities of people today, we have heard a lot about so-called "identity politics," which until the 2016 presidential election was associated with the Democratic Party. However, because of the substantial number of white people who voted for Donald J. Trump, the Republican Party's 2016 presidential candidate, we are now hearing references to white identity politics.

Taking a hint from the title of t. S. Eliot's famous essay, perhaps we Americans today should think of our Western cultural heritage, including of course our religious traditions, and our individual identities.

Even though I find MacDonald's thesis and supporting arguments cogent and compelling, I admit that many Christians may resist and reject his approach to analyzing New Testament texts. For example, according to exit polls, many culturally and politically conservative Christians voted for Trump. I suspect that many culturally and politically conservative Christians who voted for Trump would most likely resist and reject MacDonald's approach to analyzing New Testament texts.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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