Sunday, March 12, 2006

Confused about Boasting (2nd Corinthians)

My sermon for last Shabbat focused on the difference between three types of sub-cultures. I put an overview chart online here. (I'm not quite sure how to make a good congregational web page out of this material.)

The sermon was about how we all participate in all of these types of subcultures, and the Good News applies to all of them but in different ways (although it always proclaims, "You need not work for what the culture primarily values, for God is freely giving this to you!").

For example, I grew up in a family that was very much an "individual responsibility" culture of innocence and guilt, am now living in a liberal city with the politics of a "greater good" culture of virtue, and work in an academic department that values my work based on an "esteem culture" of honor and shame.

(The last point might need some clarifying. In all academic departments I have known, including the math department at LCC, instructors receive very little peer review or oversight. I am valued by the department because of positive student feedback each term and because I participate intelligently in faculty discussion of pedagogy. In other words, people have heard I am good at what I do and yet I am still trying to improve. But how well I actually teach is not measured, either by virtue (do my students go on to be successful in more math?) or by guilt (do I actually cover 100% of the material I am responsible for teaching?). I trust I would measure well if I was measured in these ways, but it doesn't happen.)

As an example of a theological idea from the sermon that was new to most people, grace is actually technical term in the honor-shame suculture of the Roman Empire that included first-century Judaism. A ruler had "grace", which meant he was part of the family of the gods, and was thus above all normal human striving for honor; he should instead only focus on giving honor to others, and on helping the gods govern and care for people. There are clear parallels to all of these points in the Good News.

A point I did not make in the sermon was that boasting is also a technical thing in an honor-shame culture. It is the most gentle form of an honor challenge. People do not challenge someone who is socially inferior (that would be a shameful and bragging waste of time) or who is socially superior (that would be presumptuous and also shameful). So the smallest type of honor challenge -- the simplest way to try to gain honor -- is to boast to a peer.

As a contemporary example, if I said to another LCC math teacher, "All of my students who are failing are coming to my office hours," that could be an attempt to gain honor. (As an aside, it's not true, sadly. I have some math students who are failing but not seeking help!) My boast would be implying that I am so approachable and helpful that everyone who needs my help is seeking it out. The other teacher would then respond by either giving me honor ("That's great!") or by trying to match or exceed my boast ("Same here! And Bob's students come to my office hours too!").

Anyway, I just re-read Second Corinthians and that letter is full of stuff about boasting. Paul does not seem to be entirely self-consistent in his talk about how to boast properly and what he is boasting about. I'd like to understand it better in terms of the honor-shame dynamic, but need some help.

UPDATE: More here, including the idea that the Greek term is "glory", not "grace".