Friday, October 9, 2015

Specificity, Divinity & Vampire Weekend

Thursday’s class got me thinking about one of my favorite bands. The description: texts making many references, some from the Old Testament and others from relatively more modern texts as well as current cultural trends, could describe the works of Proclus, Nestorius and Cyril; but it could also be applied to the songs of Vampire Weekend. The band utilizes Old Testament imagery and sometimes even direct quotes in their music along with plenty of modern references. However, despite making allusions that are laden with meaning, Vampire Weekend has said that there is no correct interpretation for their songs, religious or otherwise. Imagine if the writers of the Old Testament had said that.

The Old Testament has no such disclaimer, leading men like those we read on Thursday to argue about ancient traditions, translations and texts in order to support or refute different interpretations. As Professor Brown stated, some of the Old Testament texts are intentionally vague so as to allow there to be mystery and wonder in the divine. However, each of Thursday’s scholars believes he is writing from an ancient and correct understanding of these same often-imprecise words.

The paradox of a divine man creates problems for Cyril. Isaiah 7.14 states: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Cyril cites a variation of this quote as well as the words of Gabriel (17-18) to illustrate that Mary “bore Emmanuel according to flesh.” However, neither text specifically upholds Cyril’s claim that Jesus is both God and man. Jesus could have been born of the flesh from a virgin mother, been God on Earth and also had another, distinct personage who is the godhead. This is the struggle of the paradoxical nature of Jesus’ own words. He sometimes says that he is “one with the Father” but also refers to God as a separate person entirely. The tension is evident in Cyril’s writing: “Christ is not dual, even though he be considered to be from two distinct realities” (15). A theological paradox, Old Testament and New Testament discussion of Christ’s humanity and divinity offers few specifics and raises many questions about exactly who he was and who God intended him to be. With no Vampire Weekend-like disclaimer for multiple interpretations, Cyril labors to find certainty in the opaque.

Nestorius struggles with the same problems as Cyril but could have made a more compelling case using historical sources. Nestorius argues that Holy Scripture “speaks of the birth and suffering not of the godhead but of the humanity of Christ, so that the holy virgin is more accurately termed mother of Christ than mother of God” (6). As we discussed in class, the fact the Jesus’ suffering was human does not necessarily exclude the possibility that he is both God and man. Notably, one historical argument would support Nestorius’ ideology: Gabriel’s quote – “He shall be called the Son of Most High” -- is actually exactly the same as Yahweh’s old title in the ancient Hebraic tradition (Barker 94). The Davidic kings were “transformed by their anointing and enthronement into sons of God, into the human presence of Yahweh” (93), so Gabriel’s quote would support the idea that Christ was the human counter-part of the Son of God. If Nestorius could make the case that Jesus was the last human Yahweh, the ultimate Son of Most High, I believe it would offer a more compelling argument than a discussion of Christ’s human characteristics. Furthermore, Jesus himself seems to reference the tradition of Davidic Kings when he says, “The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand” which Nestorius interprets to mean that Jesus is “indeed son of David according to the flesh, but his Lord according to his godhead” (Nestorius 6). Tying Jesus directly to the Davidic tradition, in body and divinity, offers a clearer and more compelling argument for Nestorius.

Perhaps because the scripture is so vague, Cyril does make a historical argument. He states, “you must surely know that almost all our fight for the faith arose in connection with our insistence that the holy virgin is the mother of God” (17). He is citing an older interpretation of Isaiah’s prophesied virgin and making the pragmatic claim that to backtrack on a foundation of the faith would open the Christians to scrutiny. Notably, the interpretation of “virgin” rather than “young woman” is itself a contentious one and partially based on the Christian belief that the specificity of “virgin” is more appropriate for a prophecy. Nestorius, too, worries about how the faith will be viewed, Professor Brown stated that he was concerned that the Greeks wouldn’t respect a God who was born, lived and died like a man. Proclus directly addresses this point, stating,
God has put on the form of a human being, even if the Greeks ridicule the wonder. For this reason, the mystery is a “scandal to the Jews” and “folly to the Greeks” because the miracle transcends reason. (139)
This ties directly with the intentional mystery of the Old Testament. The divine is by necessity a force that defies logic, if hopefully not the internal logic of its canon. However, historical arguments support the idea that Cyril, Nestorius and Proclus were either unsatisfied with pure scriptural arguments or felt that the public needed more persuading.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Proclus also attempts to implicitly tie Old Testament imagery to his arguments about Mary. In his exaltations of Mary, Proclus makes numerous Old Testament references, some of which seem clear-cut but may in fact be more contentious. Two examples are clouds and the burning bush. Proclus describes Mary as “the veritable swift cloud who carried in her body the one who rides upon the cherubim,” (137) citing Acts 1.9 which say Christ was “lifted up.” If clouds are associated with temples, as they have been in numerous previous readings, then this association makes perfect sense. However, Barker states
when [Isaiah] condemned the unfaithful people of Jerusalem, accusing them of being the children an adulterer and a harlot -- imagery often used for the second temple and restored city -- he also accused them of being children of a sorceress. In Hebrew, that is written the same way as ‘cloud’. (103)
Here, clouds appear to be negative maternal imagery rather than the positive we have seen before. Notably, they are still associated with a temple, if a bad one. There still remains some ambiguity though as to if clouds are a saintly or sinful maternal temple or both. Another example I felt needed clarifying was that of the burning bush, to which Mary is also compared. It is a conduit through which God spoke to Moses that remained unharmed, however, according to Barker; the burning bush “encoded the great purge” of the old ways of the patriarchs (105). Was this meaning intentionally applied to Mary as representing another dogmatic shift or did Proclus envision a different metaphor than Barker?

The tension between desire for specificity and the mystery of divinity raises many bumps and questions in the readings. Decoding specific meaning in remarkably and sometimes intentionally vague works can be mind-boggling. In the (likely) immortal words of Vampire Weekend:
But who could ever live that way?
(Ya Hey, Ya Hey)
Ut Deo, Ya Hey
Ut Deo, Deo



  1. I am particularly grateful for what a good case you make for Nestorius's reasoning--this, as we learned in our discussion, is difficult for those used to the Cyrillian (aka orthodox) tradition! The mystery of the cloud is yet another of those images that come from the Old Testament, here Isaiah 19:1: "Behold, the Lord will ascend upon a swift cloud." But what did this prophecy mean? As I said in class, I think Barker is right that the early Christians thought they were reading the scriptures correctly rather than inventing a wholly new tradition; the difficulty is in figuring out what that ancient tradition was when some of the texts no longer seem to say what the early Christians said they did. Mind-bogging, indeed! RLFB

  2. Very good observations throughout, I especially like that you gave Nestorius a sympathetic hearing. There's and interesting paradox in the case of Nestorius, his desire to present the faith in a manner more palpable to the Greek mind in actuality left him open to attack and eventual exclusion from the Greek world. It's also a good catch to notice how some our authors use certain references to the tradition in a way which appear matter of fact, but which are actually deeply controversial. These were all men very well trained in rhetoric, and it is useful to keep this in mind throughout.

    One note of caution, I'm not sure that our authors would agree that the divine "defies" logic. Instead, I think they would say that it "transcends" logic. The distinction may seem slight, but it's important. The truth of divine revelation is not contrary to logic, but above it, the apparent discontinuity between revelation and logic is not the consequence of a fundamental incompatibility but an insufficiency on our part. Logic and revelation are ultimately in agreement, but we are unable to see.

  3. I found the reference to Vampire Weekend particular interesting here in light of our later class discussions. As JLK rightly points out, these authors certain argue for the correctness of there assertions. I think the contrast between this sort of textual approach and the approach of Vampire Weekend highlights a key difference in how the older Marian tradition and more recent interpreters approach Mary (and, indeed the Christian religion as a whole). As we mentioned in later class discussion, much of Marian tradition deals with typologies. Only more recently has Marian tradition expanded beyond this and adopted a different approach to the Virgin. Only with modern and postmodern authors do we see Mary beginning to be seen as something new: a symbol. This switch explains one reason why Vampire Weekend may feel comfortable saying their work does not hold one single set interpretation. Making something a symbol offers it that flexibility of interpretation. The older authors we see here do not allow for the flexibility because the very manner in which they think about Mary and relate her to images is fundamentally different than how more modern scholars (and, I suppose, bands) think about Mary.