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    PloughCast 67: David Bentley Hart and the Worship of Mammon

    Money, Part 7

    By David Bentley Hart, Susannah Black Roberts and Timothy J. Keiderling

    August 15, 2023
    • Gary Looper

      As a subscriber, I've been reading Plough for several years now and often find much to ponder and put into practice. However, I was disturbed by Hart's apparent take on the "Sermon on the Mount" as a Socialist Manifesto. That, to me, is as wrongheaded as those who "spiritualize" the content and don't hear practical applications for rich Americans. Hart's insistence that a true reading of it in the Greek makes his interpretation inevitable strikes me as arrogant and mistaken. For example, ho poneros occurs many times in Matthew and has more than one possible meaning, depending on the context. As a reader of Greek myself, I do not agree that it is clearly referring (only) to rich oppressors, here. I don't believe that Jesus was speaking "literally" when asking his followers to give both their outer and inner garments, which would have left them naked in public, something that was a social taboo. Nor did he mean for us to literally pluck out eyes that cause us to sin. (I notice that Mr. Hart apparently has both of his eyes intact.) I continue to find Plough's prescriptive interpretations of Jesus's words to his disciples troubling. He called them to (literally) leave their homes and jobs to follow him. He called a rich man to sell everything and give to the poor and others to leave family obligations like funerals. Clearly the urgency of his call to follow remains, but the specific, practical requirements of that time are not necessarily to be repeated, now. I think we have a serious disagreement on that point. Nonetheless, let us love one another and continue Jesus's work of establishing the kingdom of God on earth.

    • Michael Nacrelli

      I can understand believing that supporting Donald Trump is beyond the pale, but I can't fathom deciding that the stridently pro-sexual anarchy and pro-abortion Democratic Party is somehow a lesser evil.

    About This Episode

    The PloughCast team talks with a philosopher and cultural commentator about money.

    David Bentley Hart reflects on how his experience translating the New Testament impacted his understanding of Jesus’ teaching on mammon. How are we supposed to live out these extreme and demanding teachings? What is the role of Proverbs-style Old Testament prudence in the life of a New Testament disciple?

    They also discuss why joining a community like the Bruderhof is not enough, and why the separation between private piety and political economy makes no sense. In a world where we are still waiting for the kingdom to finally come, how can we pursue living in that kingdom?

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Susannah Black Roberts: Welcome back to the PloughCast! I’m Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at Plough. Today, Bruderhof member Timothy Keiderling and I will be speaking with David Bentley Hart.

    Dr. Hart is an Eastern Orthodox writer, philosopher and scholar.

    Do not be the one who holds out his hand to take but shuts it when it comes to giving. If your labor has brought you earnings, pay a ransom for your sins. Do not hesitate to give and do not give with a bad grace for you will discover who he is that pays you back a reward with a good grace. Do not turn your back on the needy, but share everything with your brother and call nothing your own. For if you have what is eternal in common, how much more should you have what is transient?

    That was a reading from the Didache, I believe it was … was it around the year AD 100, year 90, or somewhere like that?

    David Bentley Hart: Well, it is indeed an extremely early Christian treatise, we don’t know the exact date. Most would say first century though, late first century.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Right. I wanted to start with that just because obviously, one of the things that Jesus talks about most frequently and that gets brought up most frequently in the New Testament documents is money. And as Christians, we can tend to have little mental, I guess moats I would say, around each of the pericopes or each of the mentions of money that we get in the New Testament where we have little explanation about why it’s not as radical as it sounds, or we have little things that our brains do to divert ourselves from being confronted. And the thing that the Didache reading does, I think is just to… It sounds like the New Testament, but it’s not the New Testament, and it is a document that is instructions for Christian living and we don’t really have any defenses against it.

    I’d like to welcome to the podcast Dr. David Bentley Hart, whose writing has meant an enormous amount to me in just my own spiritual journey and my own Christianity. And I can think of at least two people who his writing has actually brought back from shipwrecks of their faith. I think if anyone who’s listening doesn’t know his work, I would highly recommend it. And Dr. Hart, thank you so much for being with us and taking the time to talk about all this stuff.

    David Bentley Hart: Well, thanks for having me on.

    Susannah Black Roberts: You have a piece that you wrote for us for our Beyond Capitalism issue, which was back in the before times before Covid, that I wanted to …

    David Bentley Hart: I remember those days. Yes.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I vaguely remember that time.

    David Bentley Hart: I was young and full of hope.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I know.

    David Bentley Hart: The world seemed an endless vista of possibilities.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. That was beautiful, but we can still cast our minds back to those times and be nostalgic for them. We will link to that piece. Dr. Hart has also written an enormous amount elsewhere about similar questions. What is the relationship between Christianity and money? What are the teachings of Jesus out of the early church that we guard ourselves against? How do we understand those in relationship to the apocalyptic nature of Christian teaching in general? One of the things that I was reminded of in rereading or reading your Commonweal piece that you wrote about this was that you’ve often said that it was your translation of the New Testament that really opened your eyes to Jesus’ radical teachings about money and how seriously the early church took those teachings. Can you talk about that?

    David Bentley Hart: Well, I can’t say that it came as a surprise. What did come as a surprise was how pervasive it was once one set aside certain traditions of translation, and of course, theological habit, and also familiarity… . I have to say, there’s something about going to the text itself and becoming responsible for rendering it directly from Greek into English that makes it hard for you not to notice the things that your mind otherwise has gotten in the habit of skating over. We recite the Magnificat in church regularly, and yet the actual content seems somehow to elude our notice, which is basically the hymn of a revolutionary, the exalting in the overthrow of the mighty and the wealthy, and the elevation of the poor and the downcast and the forgotten. There are moments, actually … and it’s not just in the New Testament. I’ve encountered them over the years in the church fathers, there are statements that if read literally, and one has to think that they were spoken literally, make Bakunin seem like a tepid conservative by comparison.

    Yeah. I think for instance, translating the Sermon on the Mount, I was made to realize how much of it really just consists in very practical advice for the poor, only for the poor over against the wealthy who because they’re wealthy, are already characterized as more or less wicked. The way in which there’s a figure who appears in the Sermon on the Mount, who’s the wicked man, the evil man, ho poneros, whose presence is almost effaced by normal translations because two of the three times he’s mentioned as ho poneros, the wicked one, many of the standard translations transformed that into evil in the abstract and in the other case, make it sound as if Jesus is talking about the devil, but actually in the Greek, it’s clear that that’s not what’s going on.

    He’s talking specifically about those who exploit the poor for profit and who use a corrupt legal system to do so and is giving advice to those he’s preaching to, not at a level of spiritual exhortation, but very much at the level of just practical community organizer advice on how to deal with the man regarding staying out of debt, not getting trapped in an unjust legal system, and not being reduced to penury or slavery.

    What’d he say? Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Anything more extravagant than this is something that comes from a rogue, from a conman, from somebody who’s trying to cheat you.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Huh.

    David Bentley Hart: Be aware that these grand and seemingly spontaneous oaths meant to give you a sense of a person’s honesty and integrity and calling upon the holy city and upon the throne of God or the footstool of God is simply a way of cheating you. All right?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Mm-hmm.

    David Bentley Hart: The ho poneros, this evil one occurs also. It says, the translation we get often is resist not evil. But again, if that’s all Christ is saying, that’s so vague, it’s meaningless. It can be taken in the right way. It could be taken in the direction of a radical pacifism, but it could be taken in no direction at all. It could just mean try to be equitable of temper. What he’s actually saying though if you look at it carefully, when you’re struck in the face, do not try to contend these demons, do not contend by force with the wicked man. And there’s a reason for that. As the sermon goes on, it’s clear because the wicked man has all the power on his side. He can drag you into court. He can hand you over to the magistrate, who hands you over to the bailiff, who throws you into prison.

    You have no hope of … again, you will simply fall prey to these people. And remember also, this is why he says on the way to court, “Make peace with the plaintiff, the person who has a complaint against you.” Well, again, we tend to read that in a very spiritual way as a recommendation of universal amity. But again, if you look at the context, what he says quite explicitly is once he gets you in the courtroom all of the way, everything is rigged against you, you’ll end up in jail and you’ll have everything stolen from you. So if you can, settle out of court. As I say, this is ridiculously practical. And then, of course, the Lord’s Prayer, the last half of it, that’s very much a prayer for poor people.

    There too, the evil man appears at the end, but what does it actually say the latter half of the prayer? Well, it says, “Give us today bread epiousion.” Give us today the bread that is sufficient to maintain life for the day. And epiousion doesn’t mean simply as we eat every day, it means literally sufficient to sustain life. Keep me alive another day, oh Lord. And this is really one of the great crimes of the history of translation. “Do not bring us to the trial.” It was talking about the Peirasmos. It can mean trials and tribulations, but it clearly also means the Peirasmos of being questioned before a tribunal, being tried in a court, being again at the mercy of corrupt judges in tandem with the wealthy men whose interests they serve. And deliver us from the evil man again, this wicked man who swears elaborate oaths to cheat you, whom you cannot defeat by force, who would have you robbed of everything you own in the courts if he could.

    Well, as I say, I’m taking a long time to say this, but it suddenly dawns on you when you’re translating this from the Greek that what we’ve become so accustomed to reading as a catalog of edifying, but ultimately somewhat vague spiritual councils is nothing of the sort. It is a condemnation of an entire social and economic system and a series of practical counsels to the poor on their behalf, over against their enemies, these devouring lions, that is. There we go, bring the devil into it. Who are the wealthy and the powerful and the enfranchised and those who sit on the high courts.

    Timothy Keiderling: Dr. Hart, it’s nice to meet you. As I’m hearing, if I’m hearing you correctly, you’ve described the teachings of Jesus as eminently practical, especially in regard to his teaching about money. Yet we’re used to understanding the idea of the kingdom of God or the rulership of God as something spiritual or having spiritual overtones, almost an abstract idea. My question is, how do the two relate? Does Jesus’ teachings about money, which as you’ve been describing, are eminently practical and grounded in realities of life here in Galilee in the first century, how does that relate to the kingdom of God?

    David Bentley Hart: Well, I think our habit of separating spiritual from practical concerns would’ve been unintelligible in the first century, just as it would’ve been unintelligible to separate civil society from religious culture or personal obligation from social obligation in the context of Judaism or in the days of Christ. In fact, I always find it funny when persons of a more libertarian bent within the church argue that we should separate Christ’s words about caring for the poor from our political commitments, our notions of social policy, because he was talking about private charity, which is good for the soul, not about the structures of social justice. Of course, this is a distinction that to a first-century Jew would’ve been absolutely meaningless. There’s no such thing as that sphere of private moral concern separated entirely from the embodied communal life of people of Israel. And the same, I think you could say something similar about the notion that the kingdom is a spiritual reality but it’s also a practical and a political reality and a social reality.

    And though in the end, it comes in the twinkling of an eye, if you like, or it comes in God’s good time, it nonetheless is the kingdom to which Christians belong, whose rules they have to follow, whose laws they have to abide by, and whose ethos they have to submit themselves to. All those practical counsels and all those concerns are not simply preparatory to the life to come, and certainly not merely matters of private prudence or discretion. They are very much what it is to be a Christian.

    If you are a very, very wealthy person who keeps your money to yourself for yourself and believes that you have done right by your baptism in giving occasionally to charity, but on the whole, that you can live now trusting in the grace of Christ, but not according to the form of life that the kingdom is, that is where the widows, the orphans, the poor, the oppressed, the leper who dies at your gate are the exalted and are children of God, then you’re deceiving yourself.

    You’re not actually living as a Christian at all. You’re living as a para-Christian phenomenon, a moral residue of a Christian vision in which you’re not participating.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It seems to me that one of the ways to think about this, obviously, we’re pretty influenced by Hauerwas over here, and although I think there are limitations in thinking about the idea of living as resident aliens, I do think that not as a way of privatizing faith, but as a way of taking appropriate rule over our own lives, it seems to me that what you’re describing is that we ought to be using political economy, we ought to be living in political economies that are appropriate to, that match the actual political economy of the kingdom of God so that we’ll become the people who will recognize and enjoy that.

    David Bentley Hart: Yeah. But I think that actually also means not acknowledging borders because, of course, the kingdom is a cosmic kingdom, and therefore it claims everything. To my mind, it doesn’t mean creating a separate and privileged sphere in which one acts out a communal life that nonetheless is embedded in the political and economic structures of the larger society and is preserved in an organic homeostasis against the entropy of the surrounding landscape by a controlled flow of energy. Instead it does most definitely involve real political and social action that one has to enter into the best. And recognizing, of course, the limitations and recognizing also that obliges you not to approach the world beyond your faith in the manner of a conqueror or an empire, but as one who comes bearing a witness to something.

    I do worry about sometimes … I love Stanley, and yes, living as sojourners or aliens, that’s obviously right there in the New Testament, but suffering outside the gate is one thing, not using what opportunities, what powers you have to come to the aid of those in need, if that involves systems that aren’t internal to the faith, is moral dereliction as well if you let it go too far.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yep. This actually relates to the piece that you wrote for our Beyond Capitalism issue. You basically described small semi-monastic communities like the Bruderhof as good, but they’re not enough. That as Christians, we should be seeking a broader political economy that does reflect the anarcho-communism of the kingdom in some way. You also said in that piece, you didn’t at the moment have any ideas about how to do that.

    David Bentley Hart: True.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Any further thoughts?

    David Bentley Hart: Yeah, no. Saying that this is what I think the moral imperative is, is very different from saying, I know what that entails in practical action. There are times when you’re moved, you can’t help but move towards certain kinds of prudent accommodation at times, for instance, if your conscience dictates it.

    I’m no great fan of either of our political parties, and I think they both belong to a military-industrial complex, and they both practice any number of injustices. But I think, for instance, the prospect of the reelection of Donald Trump was sufficiently hideous that it was morally defensible to vote Democrat last time. I would never say I would prescribe that for everyone, but I certainly did, even though I’m no great fan of the Democratic Party either. And so sometimes to my mind, this does mean making prudent choices with regard to what’s possible in the moment.

    The problem with that, of course, is it can become such a fixed habit that you think that prudent accommodations are all you should worry about, and there are times when obviously you have to be imprudent and impractical too and strive on the side even of what at present is practically impossible.

    I don’t really know. Obviously, if I could conjure into existence a totally just social order from which poverty had been eliminated, and we mostly spent our time looking after one another and playing baseball and reading good literature, I would do that. But I think that on the whole, you have to start by trying to cultivate in yourself the right … how can I put it? The right obstinacy, the refusal of the right things to refuse, and then the rest really is a matter of trying to discern practicality in the light of conscience.

    [Susannah Black Roberts: Just a little housekeeping – Don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes! We’ll be back with the rest of our conversation with David Bentley Hart after the break.]

    Susannah Black Roberts: What’s your read of the parable of the unjust steward, the guy who writes off everyone’s debts?

    David Bentley Hart: Well, first of all, it’s always funny when you’re dealing with the Gospel of Luke because you always feel that the social agenda there is front and center. I don’t know, I wouldn’t even call him the unjust servant. I would say that, remember that adikia can also just mean outside the law. Let’s say the law-bending steward. I think Luke takes a certain delight in him reducing the debts to his master and therefore depriving his rich master some of his own ill-gotten gain. But also, it’s a funny parable too, because, of course, it’s also translated “that you may have everlasting habitations.” I think there aionious just means for life, and it just means that in this lifetime, because you’ve made friends …

    Susannah Black Roberts: They’ll take care of you.

    David Bentley Hart: They’ll take care of you. What I see that parable as is just a very subversive parable is this is the mammon of injustice, to begin with. Don’t hesitate to use it for better ends. You can establish a community with those debtors that you let off the hook and they can look after you. I just see it as being magnificently irresponsible, as a lack of a wonderful irreverence towards the economic and social system that was in place. But it’s a wonderfully mysterious parable too. Why? What do you make of it?

    Susannah Black Roberts: I thought that it might have something to do with how are we supposed to live in the world essentially using the resources that we have access to in slightly finagling ways to create community because the community that we create is more important.

    David Bentley Hart: I think that’s a perfectly valid way of interpreting it. It’s not as if the figure of Jesus in the New Testament is an idealist committed to values higher than himself. This is one of the peculiar things about him. As a moral figure, one of the reasons he stands apart in human history, and people found him even in his own time or in the centuries, in the early centuries of the Christian movement, strange and hard to interpret, is that he’s always depicted as speaking with an authority that goes beyond the authority of mere moral intelligence. He’s not telling you things based on his commitment to high ideals. He’s giving you commands based on his power to command and excuse and to determine the boundaries of the behavior that he chooses to allow or to forbid.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. And he’s also presenting himself and his kingdom as this package deal where this is the new most valuable thing. It’s as though the economy were suddenly flooded with gold. It throws everything economically into disarray because all the pros and cons and sensible investments that you might make in the face of this overwhelmingly valuable thing become like – this is the only sensible investment.

    David Bentley Hart: Well, in America, in which not only Protestant culture, but a good deal of Christian culture at large has somehow gotten into its mind that the virtues of the good businessman and the virtues of Christ have some affinity with one another. That parable does stand out as a rebuke that says, “No, actually he was subversive not only in preferring the poor but also subversive of the very structures of the society that oppressed them.”

    Susannah Black Roberts: But it’s not that he’s imprudent, it’s that there’s a new reality. There’s a new actual kingdom that’s a real kingdom and that he is really the king of and there’s a new … .and the value of that is so huge that you would definitely be a dummy and a bad investor to not throw all your money into it by giving it to the Lord.

    David Bentley Hart: It also works by a radically different set of moral priorities. It just does. This is why Jesus can quote the law and the prophets in a way, while at the same time obviously giving such a radically different spin on what he’s quoting, that it doesn’t annul it, but it just moves it all into a framework of radical trans valuation.

    Susannah Black Roberts: My husband is a biblical theologian. He talks about basically Jesus fulfilling the law as in it’s not just that you don’t murder, it’s that you do the thing that murder is the opposite of, you love your brother.

    David Bentley Hart: Sure.

    Timothy Keiderling: After hearing your fascinating explanation of the parable of the steward outside the law, I like that, what’s your take on passages like Luke 14:33 that seem to proclaim a pretty radical attitude towards not just money but possessions. As you’ve rendered it, “so, therefore, no one of you who does not bid farewell to all his own possessions can be my disciple.” I guess I have two specific questions. Your rendering – “does not bid farewell.” Is that more one’s attitude or is that actually giving up possessions? And then my second question would be …

    David Bentley Hart: A pretty lousy attitude, actually, if it didn’t involve any giving up.

    Timothy Keiderling: Right. But then my second question would be, is that a call to a specific group or is there something more? Are we all somehow called to this attitude, or to this giving up?

    David Bentley Hart: It is hard to say in a scholarly sense because the word disciples, mathetes does generally literally mean the people who are learning at his feet as their rabbi. But then again, if he’s told to make disciples of all peoples, does that mean find disciples among all peoples or make everybody a disciple? It’s very hard to say. And also you have to understand, we talk about the ktema, the possessions a person has. Quite often that word is going to mean vested wealth, what you hold back to yourself. It doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to say, “Oh, those are my sandals.”

    Timothy Keiderling: Sure.

    David Bentley Hart: Could you please not carry those off? The road is rocky. It doesn’t mean that it is simply necessary to walk around naked. But yeah, it’s hard to say. I think all these things have some application to all Christians in the sense that there is an ethos there being described – what makes it possible faithfully to follow Christ. At the same time, in the context, I cannot say with absolute certainty that that verse isn’t meant specifically to talk about those who had committed themselves to him right to the end in that moment when he was on the way to the cross.

    Susannah Black Roberts: We’ve been talking about money and possessions as though they were the same thing, but the idea about not serving God and mammon – that does, as I understand it at least, relate specifically to money as a commodity and also to the spiritual being, the spiritual power. And one of the refreshing things about you is that you’re just a thoroughgoing supernaturalist. How do we relate things like money that we can use as a commodity to actual demons or, I don’t know, the actual spiritual battle going on?

    David Bentley Hart: Spiritual agents, yeah. Well, the implication of that is that on the one hand, you have the practical statement that Philargyria, the love of silver, it leads to unhappiness and woe, but then you also definitely have this invocation of a god of wealth that you can’t serve alongside God. And everything is spiritual warfare shortly. It certainly was for the early Christians, they believed that in its currently imperfectly reconciled state, the cosmos is the habitation of all sorts of spiritual powers striving to create their own spheres of power. I think that you have to assume that’s meant fairly literally. It’s a sentence in a first-century text.

    Susannah Black Roberts: You had described the falling away from the first-generation approach of Acts Two and Four communism, and of basically, a full commitment of all your resources to the kingdom as, basically, the kingdom took a long time to arrive, and meanwhile we have families to raise.

    David Bentley Hart: Yeah.

    Susannah Black Roberts: How do we understand where we are now and how do we make sense of things like the Book of Proverbs and it’s more … it can have advice about money that sounds like your grandpa is giving it to you or your money-wise Uncle Joe or something, “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children,” that kind of thing. Do those Proverbs still apply to us?

    David Bentley Hart: Well, they do still fit within the sphere of natural virtues. The laws of the kingdom are not premised upon something called natural law, but that’s why natural law reasoning is so impotent to actually indicate anything other than the most minimal conditions for understanding the flourishing of human beings, people who make arguments from natural law are making bad arguments as a rule, at least when they try to extract imperatives from it. There’s nothing to condemn in those who honestly undertake the pursuit of those natural virtues surely. But it’s not the same thing as the radical commitments of the kingdom. And the truth is, as cynical as that sounded when I said it, I meant it. The kingdom, the early Christians were able to live in an interlude within time, an interregnum, or a time of exception outside of history because they honestly believed that history was coming to an end and it didn’t.

    Certainly, it was not possible, it was never going to be the case that Christianity was going to function as a cultural logic at large within the context of its time. Right? The question is could it actually be a cultural logic at large in any context, any historical context? Could there be such a thing as an economy based on gifts rather than debt, on the circulation of the gift rather than the retention of the debts of others? Because so much of the history of human civilization has been just this, ways of using debt to create flows of wealth, property, and social power. And I think an economy of the gift is a real possibility that we limit ourselves when we think that, when we say it’s unimaginable, and that therefore it is still worth actually undertaking this or believing in it as a real political, social, historical project, not just as something that will one day arrive. And until then, your kids want a swimming pool and there’s nothing wrong with that. Again, these are natural virtues. It’s healthy to want to provide for your children and provide for their education and give them good things without necessarily making them moral idiots by giving them more than you should.

    But again, practically speaking the lesson, at least of the dialectic of early Christian history, is that Christianity as a project, as a living social-economic vision of reality has always been to some very large degree of failure. Then you have to think, well, is a partial failure a complete failure? No, it’s not. It also created forms of justice, forms of community, forms of moral intuition that have survived and that can still bear fruit and they can still be nourished and brought back to life. But again, in any given context, you are, I’m afraid, going to have to rely to some degree on prudence practiced in light of conscience.

    We know what the excesses are. We know that you just gorging yourself on material wealth and ignoring the poor is evil. Does that mean that Christians are prohibited from getting a car … or let’s not say car because that brings up environmental issues, but buying a house with more space for the kids? And if one plays the absolutist, I think that one is being just as bad as the worst of the Pharisees. At some point, you have to say, well, “Pray about it.” And we just don’t have a rule book full of strict instructions on every contingency that life throws up. And the early church in a sense didn’t even think it needed one because they were like, “Provide for my grandchildren? The kingdom is coming next week. Jesus will provide for my grandchildren.”

    Susannah Black Roberts: Returning again to your comments about how really doing the translation of the New Testament opened your mind more fully to the impact of those passages. What else are we not getting? What else did you run into in that process of translation?

    David Bentley Hart: The thing is, was it a surprise or was it surprising to me how much I was making myself not pay attention to things I knew because I had a pretty good education about this and I knew late antiquity quite well. I had a good classical education and late antiquity was always one of my special fascinations. I think that … I don’t know, you called me a supernaturalist. What I am is someone who acknowledges the supernatural cosmos of the early church and who has no prejudices against it based on modern notions of what is and is not rational. And the simple fact is I do think that I was confronted, first of all, again, by the plurality of early Christians. It is simply that you cannot make all the texts of the New Testament conform totally to a single uniform understanding of who Christ was or what. You just can’t.

    You can pretend that it’s all seamlessly dogmatically uniform, but in fact, it wasn’t. Instead, what you have are the testimonies of those who’ve been seized by this experience, putting it into words and using concepts available to them to express something that clearly goes beyond what they could express. What you don’t have, you don’t have a Nicene Trinitarian theology or a Chalcedonian Christology in the New Testament, but what you have is an impetus towards a fuller articulation of something that’s been revealed. And that I think to some degree, not in a complete or absolute way, but to the degree that was possible is actually expressed in those early creeds.

    But when you realize how plural the early Christian world was and how much of our understanding of the early church is based on what we want it to have been, and generally that means trying to make it conform to a certain picture of what we think it should have been, the Hollywood picture in which Judaism and the Roman world are set against one another. Judaism is a uniform internal rabbinic tradition already, and everyone has an American accent while the Romans are all played by British actors and that’s how they’re sinister.

    Susannah Black Roberts: That’s not real.

    David Bentley Hart: That’s true. That is true. You would be shocked how many films there are where the Jews are the Americans and the Romans are British. It happens quite a lot. But the point I’m making is that the actual Judaism at the time and the actual early Christianity of the time and the actual Paganism of the time are nothing like what our simple pictures of them are. And I think the great task of the future for Christian thought should be, I don’t know if it will be, but it should be trying to recover, trying to remember properly what actually happened in those early centuries. Because if nothing else, it’s very hard to maintain sectarian bigotries in the present and antagonisms if you have a proper sense of just how genuinely diverse, diffuse, and gloriously indecisive a lot of the early Christian world was.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Well, with that, I think we should probably wrap up. Dr. Hart, thank you so much.

    David Bentley Hart: Goodbye and thanks for having me.

    Timothy Keiderling: Goodbye.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thanks for listening, be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast needs met, and share with your friends! For a lot more content like this, check out for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe: $36/year will get you the print magazine, or for $99/year you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits, from free books, to regular calls with the editors, to invitations to special events, and the occasional gift. Go to to learn more.

    Contributed By DavidBentleyHart David Bentley Hart

    David Bentley Hart is a philosopher, writer, translator, and cultural commentator.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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    Contributed By TimothyKeiderling Timothy J. Keiderling

    Timothy J. Keiderling is a PhD student and a member of the Bruderhof.

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