Thursday, February 07, 2008

Books in Review

I don't recall whether or not I had a specific textbook on the Historical Jesus Problem in Intro to the New Testament. I remember the professor's lecture on it (very clearly), and I remember some books I read on the topic in subsequent years.

But I can't remember whether we had a book in NT 18 that explained the debate.

If not, that's likely because Mark Allan Powell's Jesus As a Figure in History wasn't published yet.

This is a surprisingly good textbook for introducing seminary students, religion majors, and beginning biblical students to the field of Historical Jesus research. Powell is detailed, clear, thorough, and--what was perhaps the most surprising--unfailingly generous in his descriptions of scholars and their methods. It would be a useful addition to any introductory New Testament syllabus.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Books in Review

Joseph Amato's Victims and Values: A History and a Theory of Suffering has been a frustrating book to read.

It was frustrating primarily because I was desperately interested in an excellent treatment of his thesis: that the modern conception of and pursuit of justice is impoverished by its dependence on an inadequate understanding of the relationship between suffering and justice. Amato's treatment certainly raised issues, but without the sort of care and discretion that one must adopt when preparing to slaughter sacred cows.

Amato rightly (I believe) diagnoses certain problems with socio-political discourse in the US. The public discussion of justice, where it occurs, has become "a game of pick your victim," as Eugene Weber says in the intro to the book. Injustice and suffering--whether historical or actual, present or potential, rightly or wrongly perceived--are understood to create a debt which the public must honor. Indeed, virtually any kind of suffering is at least potentially the business of the state, whether as arbiter of competing claims to remediation (as in tort law), the administrator of whatever recompense is owed (as in welfare or medicaid), or the party ultimately responsible for inflicting suffering (as in our history of racial injustice).

Amato traces, with varying precision and insight, the historical development of this way of approaching the relationship between suffering and justice. At times, the story he is trying to tell gets lost in the details, but his point is primarily genealogical. It is not "natural" or inevitable to respond to reports of suffering the way we tend to do in the US today. We are the heirs of a philosophical sea-change that began, really, with Bacon, but since Amato is not particularly interested in medicine, he names other Enlightenment figures as the primary actors. Bentham is the obvious front-man: his articulation of utilitarian rationalism changed the way even non-utilitarians approach discussions of justice and suffering.

Unfortunately, when Amato moves from the historical to the contemporary, his argumentation fails. Or, rather, he fails to draw on the data in a way that would convince any that don't already agree with him. He relies on generalities and broadsides, abandoning his earlier practice of relying on texts.

(Reading society, as he purports to do in his final chapters, is both easier and more difficult than reading texts. One has fewer restraints on the interpretations one may advance; on the other hand, one's opponents are similarly unconstrained.)

Yet the questions he raises, particularly in chapter 8, are spot on. The relationship between suffering and recompense, dessert and justice, remuneration and retribution, is one that begs to be investigated. Public policy tends to act on too hazy an understanding of how suffering and justice are related generally and in a particular policy or law. How, for example, is Affirmative Action related to Jim Crow or slavery? More generally, what is the relationship between a people's historic suffering and an individual's demand for justice? What is justice, when the injustice has been so vast as to be irremediable and unforgivable?

These questions are urgent and immediate. Unfortunately, I doubt anyone given to rely on the modern understanding of suffering--that it gives me a claim to innocence, a moral vantage from which to demand something, a right to force others to attend to my perceived needs--is going to find Amato's book anything like persuasive.