Thursday, May 31, 2012

Wrestling with Job.

For those who use the Liturgia Horarum, the eighth week tempus per annum begins a two week reading of the Book of Job in the Roman breviary.  For these two weeks, I'll offer a series of reflections upon the office of readings. The use of Job in the liturgy is an ambitious undertaking, especially in the wake of historical critical studies. Job is a book that, on account of its theological difficulty, lends itself to a facile, and all too common in Christian exegesis, interpretation of the book as, ultimately, a typological reference to the sufferings of Christ. As we'll see in the course of analyzing the second lesson from the office of readings, such an interpretation has formed the basis for certain strains of Christian spirituality. Yet, we cannot ignore the theological difficulties of this text and typological readings scarcely suffice to to resolve the problems raised by the Book of Job. Job's theology screams at its audience to look beyond simple confessional affirmations and seriously consider the nature of life and God, it is a stark contrast to the "neat" theology inherited from a religious confession, be it Jewish or Christian, that refuses to be mollified and glossed over.

The difficulty begins in the book's opening scene. Yahweh and ha-satan essentially make a wager: how long can Job last before cursing God? The bet between Yahweh and ha-satan poses to theological dilemmas. Taking place as it does in Yahweh's heavenly court, is there an implication that human existence is comprised of a wager between the transcendent God and upstart inferiors attempting to prove him wrong? Is the scene designed to convey some sense of humor - that Yahweh could be challenged to begin with is itself absurd? What does this say of the character of Yahweh himself, willing to wager the physical health of a human person to prove a point? We cannot escape on the book's initial impressions: Job is in this situation on account of a gamble Yahweh makes in order to prove a point. This implication challenges God's justice; Job's suffering, a metaphor for all human suffering, occurs because God has decided it will be so. An additional piece of data that complicates out reading of the narrative is Job's innocence; Job has not sinned against Yahweh and yet Yahweh has willed gratuitous suffering. Use of the Book of Job in a liturgical context is, then, a gutsy move.

Today's reading from the book of Job (7:1-21) demonstrates how the various textual traditions of Scripture can, at times, produce substantial differences in theology in the most innocuous of places, in this case 7:20. The English text basically agrees with the Latin:

"Though I have sinned, what can I do to you, O watcher of men."

Peccavi, quid faciam tibi, o custos hominum?

The Italian text, however,  slightly follows the LXX:

Se ho peccato, che cosa ti ho fatto, o custode dell'uomo?

εἰ ἐγὼ ἥμαρτον τί δύναμαί σοι πρᾶξαι ἐπιστάμενος τὸν νοῦν τῶν ἀνθρώπων 

The Italian text agrees with the Greek in utilizing the conjunction to imply Job's guilt and subsequent merit for divine punishment is doubtful. Something as simple as this effects the degree of mysterium encountered in the text. Implying Job's innocence forces the reader to contend with a god who has presumably violated his own moral order. The point is not to necessarily blaspheme God as it is to force the reader to suspend his or her conceptualizations of what God is and what God should do. Such a seemingly minor change prepares the reader for the particular journey the Book of Job desires to take its readers on. Job will force us to confront seemingly irreconcilable paradox and suspend our intellect, until, in the midst of suffering, the encounter with God, master of life and death, begins.

The Latin text, keeping with the differences between Latin and Greek theology, lends itself to a more penitential interpretation. Job may be righteous, however, he is not necessarily innocent. While the extent of Job's suffering is still a cause for lament, the Latin text, at this juncture, does not permit a serious inquest into God's justice.

The differences between the Italian text and the Latin and English texts determine how one must interpret the patristic reading that follows, taken from that most Latin of Latin theologians, Augustine of Hippo and perhaps his most penitential of works, the Confessions., X.1.1-2.2, 5.7. This excerpt from Augustine's Confessions contains some of the most memorable lines from the work ("late have I loved you," "beauty ever ancient ever new"). Following the Latin or English text lends itself to emphasize the conclude third of the excerpt in which Augustine invokes God's mercy for his sins. The Italian text, averring from a penitential reading, compliments the first two thirds of the reading which focuses on knowledge of God or coming to know God, appropriate given that the Book Job at this point forces the reader to suspend what he or she thinks he knows or considers a given. Although, the Italian text of Job 7:20, more or less following the Greek tradition, does not easily reconcile itself with the excerpt from Augustine. The expression of a search for the divine does not easily approximate to a call to hold God into account.

Nevertheless, the Italians chose a bold move with this translation. Sadly, we don't have much documentation indicating the rationale behind the translation. It originates from the translation of the bible commissioned by the C.E.I. and was imported directly into the revised breviary.Whereas the Book of Job is itself a challenge to worship, the Italian text has the potential to challenge long standing themes in Roman Catholic exegesis and spirituality.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Book Review: Before the Normans - Southern Italy in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries

Southern Italian Christianity is, by most anyone's estimation, a unique phenomenon that, sadly, is largely understudied. In general, this stems from the very fact that Southern Italian Christianity is Southern Italian. Southern Italy is notoriously glossed over by many accounts of Italian history and in contemporary Italian culture itself. In some respects, this is a consequence of the region's history as Magna Grecia, niether quite Greek, nor Latin, nor Italian, but a distinct cultural and, very probably, multi-lingual entity in its own right. Before the Normans is one of a respectable handful of books released in recent history that attempts to clear away the historical obscurity of the region and attempt to construct a profile, however, Barbara Kreutz, while succeeding in some areas, adheres to a variety of the glosses that have hindered scholarship on the region as a whole.

Kreutz's study focuses upon the locations of Sicily, Naples and Salerno, although Sicily gets considerably more attention in my estimation, and the cultural consequences of the Arab incursions into the area between the ninth and tenth centuries. Calabria, and the Greek cultural influence therein, is largely down played by Kreutz, a currious move given the bulk of historical and linguistic scholarship argues for the substantial base Greek culture and language supplied to Calabria. However, this is in keeping with Kreutz's positions that Byzantine control of the region was negligable (a point she later seems to contradict) and that Greek language and ethnicity are not as formative of the region as earlier scholars had argued (a point she never really argues). Kreutz does not, as I alluded, often "stick" with her arguments. The historical data she provides would seem to require a revision of earlier statements in the book. When discussing the linguistic composition of Southern Italy, a very important part of the book, in my estimation, Kreutz argues in favor of the position that region was a multi-lingual region. The local populace probably knew Greek, Kreutz contends, and, very likely there was considerable bilingualism among them given the interaction between Lombards and Byzantines (p.177). However, there remains a mystery in the linguistic composition of Southern Italy: how did Southern Italians, whether "Latin" or "Greek" communicate with the Arabs? In a final contradiction with her earlier down play of Greek importance in the region, Kreutz posits the existence of some as of yet unidentified and probably Greek based dialect readily used throughout the Mediterranean. In some ways, one has to sympathize with the difficulty Kreutz encounters when treating of the linguistic composition of the region. The various strata of the Western Sicilian-Eastern Sicilian-Southern Calabrian-Northern Calabrian-Neapolitan languages vex even the most devoted of scholars. Southern Calabrian (or, simply Calabrian) is a fine example. Here we have a language closely related to Eastern Sicilian, however, it has is own notable traits. Calabrian has a considerable Greek base, including some grammar constructions, however, it is clearly a romance language, with a largely Latin lexicon and proximity to Latin grammar. Conversely, we don't know when Calabrian became a  romance language. Whether or not Calabrian's Latin lexicon dates back to the Roman domination of the period or after the Norman Conquest is a point of contention. The orthography of Calabrian is, at times, closer to Latin (be it examples of "vulgar" Latin from grammatical texts or the hypothetical constructions of vulgar Latin among linguists) and there is still the matter of how a probable Italian koine connects Calabrian to Tuscan. A good example of the linguistic proximity can be found when comparing the conjugation of essere with essiri where differences are, in large part, phonetic, resulting from the regional varieties of pronunciation.

Kreutz treats of the variety of Christianity in Southern Italy, although not with as much detail as is needed to fully grasp the dynamics in the region. Nevertheless, it is enough to offer the reader a tantalizing glimpse in the apparently common exchange of ideas between "Latins", "Greeks" and Arabic Muslims in the area of religious matters. It was not uncommon for Christian liturgical vessels, vestments, and churches themselves to be constructed with Arabic symbolism and the famous monastery of Monte Cassino itself was subject Greek influence. It is the presentation of information such as this that makes Kreutz's work relevant for the time being, as it indicates that the as yet cryptic history of Southern Italian Christianity still awaits decoding.