Doing a taught Masters that is more like a research Masters means I don't get to attend many lectures, but in the last two days I've been able to go to two events of high quality. The first was part of the Religious Studies Research Forum, and featured Laurence Kirkpatrick speaking about the Presbyterian mission to Connaught in the 19th century. This was a boom and bust period for Presbyterianism of the Wesht, with one of its lasting legacies being, perhaps ironically, a helping hand in the maintenance of the Irish language. This was the result of the new Presbyterian determination to be "culturally sensitive," and so learning the Irish language became part of the training required for Presbyterian missionaries travelling west, who would preach and teach from an Irish Bible. How many pastors in Ireland could do that today?
Speaking of Irish Bible, the second event was hosted by the Irish Biblical Association, and featured papers from Fr Wilfrid Harrington and Dr Gordon Campbell on the topic of the book of Revelation. Harrington's paper was especially stimulating, and quite provocative in places. For example, he made a passing remark about Revelation and its implicit advocacy of universal salvation, and he also went into Bultmann-mode by speaking of "myth". In short, Revelation gives us mythical expressions akin to the mythical expressions of Genesis and Exodus - flood, plagues - in order to paint a picture of crisis. Harrington of course isn't saying anything novel here. In the opening pages of The Experience of God David Bentley Hart uses something like the category of myth to describe the story of the flood. That the Bible contains cryptic myths in search of interpretation is an age-old exegetical insight, though today more than ever it leaves people deeply uncomfortable, for good reasons and for not-so-good reasons. But that's a topic for another time.
I had a question that I wanted to ask Wilfrid Harrington, but we ran out of time. He said in his paper that while the imagery of Revelation is violent, the message is non-violent. Indeed his whole paper was soaked through with the theme of non-violence, and how the victim is the victor. But I wonder if we can so easily separate the medium from the message, so to speak, or the form from the content? Is violent rhetoric not itself a form of violence that negates any effort to be non-violent? I think of some of the early Christians - perhaps Tertullian, if I am not mistaken - who were more than willing to be killed rather than to kill yet who wrote of laughing from heaven while they watched their former persecutors burn in the fire of hell. Such violent rhetoric hardly seems fitting for non-violent people. Indeed, it would seem to negate the whole ethos of non-violence, which is surely more than mere expedience - i.e. we're non-violent now, but only because that's what it takes to enter into eternal life with Christ. Once we're in, we'll unleash our sadistic side!
Anyway, I'm glad I got the chance to hear these papers. There will be more from the RSRF in a couple of weeks and an IBA conference on the Bible and History in February which I hope to attend.