Baker Academic

Friday, September 13, 2013

Jesus, Perception, and the Apocalyptic Imagination - Le Donne

I am no expert in prayer and I am no scientist.  So I really don’t know what to think about “neurotheology” or attempts to study brain activity during religious experience.  I guess I would rather think of prayer as a necessary absurd (HT Kierkegaard) or as a mystery yet to be revealed (HT X-files).  But when my sister posted this NPR story on facebook recently, I was struck by this summary by UPenn neuroscientist, Andrew Newberg:
"The more you focus on something — whether that's math or auto racing or football or God — the more that becomes your reality, the more it becomes written into the neural connections of your brain."

This, it will come as no surprise, is taken for granted by many scientists who study memory.  Memory is encoded in typical patterns (and therefore evolves and distills in typical patterns).  In my Historical Jesus, I introduce a few different ways to think about memory, but I do very little with neuroscience (for good reason!).  I do, however, work toward resetting a few default assumptions about human perception in this book.  Building from analytic philosophy, sociology, and memory theory, I argue that perception is shot through with interpretive filters from the very start. I write:

But, as the parental example suggests, the honing of perception is much more common than we generally think.  I offer several examples throughout the book that suggest that our perceptions of the external are constantly being filtered and appropriated in typical ways.

In the same way that a geologist must look at a mountain differently than us novices, the ancient perceivers of Jesus (those who filtered his words and deeds through the lenses of first-century culture[s]) must have looked on him differently than we moderns. I must admit that I will never be able to see the world in apocalyptic categories like Jesus and his contemporaries did.

I have often wondered if we moderns are simply ill-equipped to measure how the apocalyptic mind would have made sense of Jesus' teaching about and/or actions in the Jerusalem Temple.  The best that I can do as an historian is to immerse myself in the literature of Jewish apocalyptic and project my historical imagination with care.

The danger in describing this scene in overly literary terms is that my own interpretive filters are at work.  I have immersed myself in literature, so I am bound to see literary motifs, themes, types, etc.  I also must acknowledge that Jesus' first audiences had an altogether different (deeper, wider, more complete) relationship to the apocalyptic categories by which Jesus was framed.  In short, they saw Jesus differently than I (an alien to their culture[s]) would have seen Jesus had my eyes, memories, language filters, etc. been present.  My perception of reality is shaped differently in ways that I can only begin to imagine.




  1. Terrific post, Anthony. This is already a link in MY next post.

  2. Further to the complexity of perception.

    Your first viewing of this clip might be dramatically different than your second viewing (having the benefit of memory).

  3. Please find a reference which is very much about this topic, and which also addresses the topic of neuro-"theology" referring to the work of Andrew Newberg.
    Plus an essay which describes the narcissistic nature of most/ALL of what is now promoted as religion in todays world.

  4. Anthony,
    This was a part of your book I really appreciated. The idea of the "honing" of one's malleable perception is an important consideration if one is going to recognize the cultural distance between "us" historians and the worlds from out of which the texts we study emerge.

    I'm reminded of Pieter Craffert's illustration of the "Cycle of Meaning" in his Galilean Shaman book (p.174), especially the way one's experiences of the world are first catalyzed by mythic expressions (ritual, stories, memory[!], performance), and subsequently interpreted in a way that both reifies and (re)constructs the world(view) that, in turn, evokes the mythic expressions - and so on. A cycle of honing perception so that one's worldview constituted by "angels and demons" is constituted that way because one experiences such beings.

    Your readers may enjoy Bruce Grindall's captivating (and downright creepy!) ethnography in the Journal of Anthropological Research (39.1, 1983) "Into the Heart of Sisala Experience." In it, Grindall describes the "honing of his perception" over a length of time that culminated in his experience of a dead man coming back to life. The experience was so unnerving for Grindall that he wasn't able to write about it for many years after he experienced it.


    1. Thank you Jack. I have been interested in Craffert's work on this for some time now. I'll have to pick it up. And thank you for the recommend on Grindall. Does Craffert cite Grindall?


    2. To my recollection, Craffert doesn't cite Grindall in the book - at least it isn't listed in the Bibliography. Funny thing happened this past Lent when I was teaching a series on the NT from the Native's point of view at a Presbyterian church in Jacksonville, Florida - I brought up the Grindall article at one of the sessions. Afterward, during "coffee hour," a fellow who was present in the class introduced himself as one of Grindall's colleagues when they both taught together at Florida State in the ANT department. Small world. Grindall passed away a few years ago.


  5. Very insightful post.