Thursday, September 24, 2009

Book Note: Valentinian Ethics and Paraenetic Discourse (Philip L. Tite)

I am trying to unbury myself from the mound of books that is piled up in my office. My students will be smiling by now reading this. Literally, I have three mountains piled on my desk (I have a big u-shaped desk).

One book that I have been intending to mention because it is another new book out on Valentinianism is by Philip Tite, Valentinian Ethics and Paraenetic Discourse: Determining the Social Function of Moral Exhortation in Valentinian Christianity. It is another Brill publication, so it may be a library check out book rather than a purchase.

The subject that Tite covers is the moral instruction given within Valentinian Christianity. He uses a form of socio-rhetorical criticism that he develops from the work of social psychologists and literary critics. He does not map out particular early Christian communities or factions within these communities, but views how the texts "use social re-presentation, through narrative articulation, in order to persuade the audience or recipient to identify with the social idealization of the author as a shared worldview. In this sense, both our texts 'create social identities'; this does not open the texts to historical reconstructions of actual social groups, but rather the elucidation of group formation processes as sets of joint actions. The communicative situation of each text, therefore, can be seen as an attempt to construct identities for persuasive purposes" (p. 314).

I agreed that the texts we are examining are all about the power of persuasion. But I would go farther and point out that the persuading the text is doing is the persuading the author is doing in a real social situation. It is his side of a dialogue. And with the Valentinian material, we have the other side of the dialogue in the heresiologists and their attempt to implode Valentinian ethics. So history is lurking behind the Valentinian ethical persuasion found in their texts, and no matter how "idealistic" the representation of our authors may appear, their point of view represents an historical point of view of the person who wrote it and the people he associated with. It was the ideal which they hoped would be lived (or was being lived) in their community.

Tite spends 56 pages mapping out his methodology and it requires careful reading. Throughout these pages, he is critical of Vernon Robbins' approach because of what Tite calls Robbins' "omission" of a bridge between text and social reality: "Indeed, the movement from the level of the text to the level of the occasion behind the text is not only impossible with this method, there is furthermore no corrective agent in place for the errors that emerge when one moves from one level to the other without such a bridge" (p. 33).

I wonder about this. I have never personally read Robbins' that way, nor has this ever come across in the many private conversations I have had with Robbins about his socio-rhetorical method. I don't think that Robbins' approach omits this bridge. I have always understood that it was built on it. Robbins' approach has always been about real authors and real worlds of the authors and how, by examining the various textures in the text, that the social discourse as the author presents it can be recovered. Robbins understands texts (=implied author) to be extension of the real authors themselves and the social world they are engaged in (cf. p. 21 Tapestry) (and I agree).

The book is well-documented and refreshing in that it presents Valentinian moral exhortation as a Christian moral discourse which was used to shape their social identity. Thankfully, Tite leaves behind the old heresiological categories and point of view. I am glad that this book is now part of the discussion about second-century Christianity.

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