New(ish) Blog

Dear Friends,

Quite some time ago, I stopped using my wordpress blog and, instead, began writing in a new location: http://rebekahmdevine.wix.com/blog.  Since no one really read my blog except my mother-in-law, I didn’t even bother to make note of the change on my wordpress blog.  Recently, however, some have commented on my wordpress blog or started following me, so I just wanted to let you know about my new location. 

Cheers,

Rebekah

Fools For Learning: an essay on love and education

They bother me to this day: the words spoken by a young man whose name I do not know, but whose tone of voice and expression I remember as vividly as if I were still standing in that lecture hall, my hands frozen to the lectern, cheeks flushed with a combination of nerves, embarrassment and — dare I say it? — more than a touch of anger.  I saw in that moment the horrors of education without love and vowed that I would never use my expertise in a field as a weapon of power to tear others down.

I was, at that time, a lowly master’s student trying to present a paper in the same field as my undergraduate major, even though I’d gone into a somewhat different discipline for my master’s.  I’d been studying my particular topic for two months — and there I was at an academic conference, surrounded by PhD candidates who were presenting on subjects they’d been immersed in for two years or so.  I was nervous as all get-out.

Why was I presenting on a topic in which I had very little background?  In a word: love.

Soon after I’d begun working on my master’s degree, I realized that it was in a subject which I did not love.  I remembered the joy of studying my undergraduate subject, and working on the paper for this conference had been a delight — a relief, really, from the drudgery of trying to pursue a course of study in which I found little pleasure.  Naturally, I was nervous.  But I was also in love.

My presentation of the paper went well.  It was not a particularly impressive paper, but (I thought) interesting enough, and I read it with verve and clarity.

Then it happened.

I’ve always been nervous in front of people and, for this reason, prefer doing theatre or preaching (this way, I can plan out what I say or memorize and then deliver) than extemporaneous speaking.  When I don’t know exactly what I intend to say or do and all eyes are on me, my brain freezes and I can’t think or speak straight.

Another student asked me a question — a good, honest question that, when I thought about it more deeply later, I could have answered if I hadn’t been caught off guard.  But even if I hadn’t known the answer to the question, I could have made some excuse about how it was “beyond the scope of my research” or something like that — that is, if I hadn’t been so nervous.  But I was nervous and I froze.  All I could manage was: “Well, I think that…um…uh…I, um…yes…” the ghastly fillers kept spilling out of my mouth for an extraordinary length of time until I finally gave up and apologized, “I’m sorry, I’m very nervous right now.”

A kindly academic (who happened to know about my limited background in the subject at hand) suggested, “Would it be helpful to you if he repeated the question?”

“No, um, thank you, I think…uh…I’m having difficulty finding my thoughts,” I said (or something to that effect).

Then another kind professor and his teaching assistant helped me to get back on my feet, so to speak, by picking up the conversation where I had so unceremoniously dropped it.  They knew my paper was based in much of the material we’d been discussing in a seminar led by said professor, so they had some idea of how to address the question that had been raised.  I was grateful for the help and tried to be involved in the conversation a little — but I was still so nervous and eager to get out of the room that I found myself nodding and giving verbal ascent to the majority of what the professor was saying.

I knew, of course, that in a conference or seminar given in this post-Enlightenment era, this is exactly what you aren’t suppose to do: agree.  As a critical scholar, you are expected to think for yourself, to challenge the interpreters and come up with your own reading (not a wildly different reading — just different enough to be mildly impressive without threatening the status quo).  And so I might have done if I had been writing a paper alone in my room or discussing a topic around a table with other scholars devoted to giving constructive criticism.  But I was shaking in my boots, my thoughts were gone, and I did not have the leisure to think critically at that moment.

Then he spoke up — that PhD candidate who’d presented on a pseudepigraphical text I hadn’t even known existed.  He delivered his question with an upward tilt of the chin and a taunting smile, “Tell me, Rebekah, do you always agree with Prof _________?”

I said nothing.  I took a deep breath and I think — at least, I hope — that I raised my eyebrows with an aloof and dignified expression that communicated how pedantic I thought his question.  I hope this is what I did.  I remember very little of what happened immediately after that.  Somehow I finished.  I remember as we were all gathering our belongings to go have some tea, the PhD candidate came to me and made some trite remark about how he was only kidding or teasing me — it certainly wasn’t an apology.  The professor’s kind teaching assistant whispered to me that I shouldn’t mind what he says.

Sometimes, I imagine the scene again, but this time I make a congenial but pointed comeback.  “Kick a man when he’s down, why don’t you?” I say, laughing of course, to diffuse the tension and make him feel genuine shame (as opposed to caustic annoyance or anger).  I don’t really regret the lack of witty comebacks, but I do wish that I’d  had enough presence of mind to be straight with him and say something like: “No, don’t try to excuse it.  That wasn’t edifying; it was destructive.  It wasn’t kindly meant or done. And you hurt me, whether or not you care.”

I am not ashamed to say that I cried after that — I cried very hard.  Everyone else went off to have tea before the next lecture, but my husband and I found a quiet spot and he held me as I cried out all my nerves and sorrow and hatred.  All year, I’d been doubting my abilities as a scholar because of how little joy I found in learning.  This conference in the field I loved had been my temple; the little paper my two-mite offering.  And then to have one of its priests scorn the offering for being so small: “Your academic offerings will never be enough.  You don’t have what it takes to be a real, critical scholar.  If you want to be a follower, go back and be one of the masses.  There’s no place for you here.”  That’s what I heard.

And sometimes, that’s what I still hear.  The words still cut into me and I wonder if I’m skilled enough, thoughtful enough — or if I’m too enthralled by my subject to be a good critical scholar.  Then I remember the words of another scholar with the opposite philosophy: “You can’t really read anything unless you trust it.”  In its context, the phrase isn’t a call to read uncritically, but to remember that you must first trust a text — listen to it, believe in it, love it, stand within it — before you try to step back and look critically at it.

But we’re still daughters and sons of the Enlightenment, willing to admit our inability to stand fully outside a text — but still somewhat embarrassed by this handicap.  We wish we could be unbiased.  We still write as if we long to be unbiased — apologizing at the beginning of our theses that we can’t be objective observers, bemoaning our subjective perspective.  Of course, I’ll be the first to admit that (especially in an academic setting) it can be very good and important to acknowledge bias and be aware of presuppositions.  But sometimes we take this too far and begin to pursue an ideal that we were never meant to attain: to be observers who stand outside the inhabited earth and gaze at it objectively.

Sometimes, this unobjectivity becomes so unbearable that we make a point of disagreeing with each other, as if to say, “No one’s got it fully, so I can’t follow anyone wholly except myself.”  Of course, this doesn’t quite work because if we follow ourselves, we’re still following someone who hasn’t “got it fully.”  We’re still afraid to throw in our lot with someone (even for a brief span of time) because we’re afraid they’ll turn out to be wrong — and then we’ll be found to be fools.

Fools for believing in something that wasn’t true.  Fools for neglecting to know what we should’ve known.  Fools for being ignorant.

Fools for learning what we didn’t know before.

When Christians Idolize Virginity: A Gnostic Heresy

This week, Rachel Held Evans published a provocative blog post with quotes from posts by Sarah Bessey and Elizabeth Esther on some of the problems that ensue when Christians idolize virginity.  Please see those posts for the context of this post.

To be fair to my mother: my adolescent aversion to knowledge about sex did not come from her.  As a teen, I knew my mother was willing to talk with  me about anything — sex included.  When she discovered how little her sixteen-year-old daughter knew about male and female reproductive organs, she offered to enlighten me with diagrams.

But I wasn’t interested.

“Don’t you want to know your own body?” she asked.

No thank you.

“Don’t you want to be able to introduce your husband to you body if you get married?”

No, I didn’t.  My husband could introduce himself.  My body was uncharted territory and I was not interested in being a cartographer.  My husband could do that when the time was right.  I didn’t want to know my body.

In retrospect, I realize that I was practicing a kind of Gnosticism, believing that the body didn’t matter much and that Things Intellectual were far more important than Things Physical.  My Creation theology was weak, and I did not then know that the hope promised in Christian scripture is not a future of disembodied existence in heaven, but the hope that God’s people will be be resurrected to live in a re-created, restored earth.  I didn’t know that when God became human in the person of Jesus, it meant he would live as a human body for keeps — not as a divine spirit inside a human body waiting to be freed from the chains of physicality.  No one told me that when God vested himself in human flesh, it was the embodiment of his promise to the physical world he created that he would fix it, renew it, resurrect it.

I didn’t know that the body mattered.  That my body mattered.

Of course, I had my own, subconscious reasons for embracing Gnosticsm.  I knew other girls who were obsessed with their weight, hair and makeup.  I didn’t want to be like them.

Or did I?

The truth was, I did care about the idea of my body, but didn’t want to believe that I did.  I didn’t want to acknowledge that I had fallen prey to belief that the media ideal of beauty was better than the reality of my own body.  Deep down inside (in a place I dared not look), I knew that even if I had that unique-extra-special-beauty-that-is-mine-alone (as, we are told, everyone does), I would never fit the easy, stereotypical kind of beauty the media set before me. If my body mattered, I had to deal with my perceived physical inadequacies.  If my body mattered, I had to face the fact that physical reality was incongruous with the media ideal in which I secretly believed.

Either way, I was a failure.  If the media ideal was the standard, I was a physical failure.  If embracing the reality of my body was the standard, I was an intellectual failure because I did not meet my ideal of the perfect-Gnostic-woman-who-is-not-vain-enough-to-think-about-the-body (I’m sure there’s a single word for this in German).

Without realizing it, I had exchanged one (false) ideal for another.  I didn’t like way the media portrayed women as disembodied images instead of real people, so I swapped it for a pseudo-Christian ideal of a disembodied, asexual human being.  Rather than seeking knowledge of my own body, I wanted to put it away — to pretend that it didn’t matter, to quash the longing that I felt for the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.  If the body mattered, I had to face the fact that the life of the body here and now is in awkward, painful tension with the body of the world to come.  If the body mattered, I had to face the fact that it was broken.  If the body mattered, I had to ask how I should live now as the body-that-I-am in light of the body-I-will-be.

I was sure that the one thing that wasn’t broken was my body — that as long as I did not have sex before marriage, I was fine.  The life in the body didn’t have to be messy or confusing or difficult as long as I stayed within the prescribed parameters.  The problem was, the parameters that were set in place had nothing to do with a person — only an idealized image of what I thought sexuality should be.  My idea of sexual purity was relation-less — at its root, not all that different from the airbrushed images I saw in the media.

But as soon as you introduce a person into the mix, things get messy.  Two imperfect people — imperfect bodies — coming together and sharing the life of the body.  When I met my husband, gone were the days of refusing to know myself.  I couldn’t refuse to be a cartographer if this whole thing was going to be mutual.  And it wasn’t a matter of him charting my body and me charting his.  We were one now — two different plots in one promised land and together we had to cultivate and keep all of it.  And the promised land was wild and waste; broken and awaiting resurrection.  But the reality was better and richer and  heartier than the false ideals I’d created.

***

As Elizabeth Esther pointed out in her blog post, it is understandable that Christians are alarmed by a sexually permissive society and, as a response to this, emphasize abstinence.  But insodoing, Esther claims, we’ve created a culture that idolizes virginity (particularly in women) and implies that a woman’s worth is defined by this.  She writes: “Ultimately, we implied that a woman’s inherent worth and dignity could be measured by whether or not a man has touched her.”  Esther refers to this as reverse objectivization.

Similarly, Sarah Bessey points out that the emphasis placed on abstinence by Christians too often gives the impression that those who have had sexual experience prior to marriage are irreparably damaged (and, conversely, that those who abstain from sex before marriage are automatically destined to have an ideal sexual relationship within marriage).

Here’s where these two blogs intersect: Gnosticism.  At first blush, it might not seem like these posts are about aversion to the body, but they are.  Elizabeth Esther’s post is about the dangers of valuing the idea of virginity rather than a real, flesh-and-blood human person.  Sarah Bessey’s is about how we stilt the message of the Gospel when we give the impression that what we have done in the body (or what has been done to us) are unredeemable.  In Christ, we are not damaged goods.  As Sarah puts it, speaking to those convinced they are lesser people because of their sexual past: “Darling, young one burning with shame and hiding in the silence, listen now: Don’t believe that lie. You never were, you never will be, damaged goods.”

In one sense, I agree with Sarah — but since she’s already put it so well in one way, I’d like to put it in reverse.  The fact is: we’re all ‘damaged goods’.  Ignoring our damaged bodies in exchange for an idealized, oversimplified image of our bodies will not change this.  Sometimes we are damaged because of things we’ve chosen to do in the body, and other times we’re damaged because of things others have done to us in the body.  Living in this present body means that we’re in that messy in-between where we sometimes experience victory and sometimes failure.  We vacillate between truth and falsehood, being and non-being, presence and absence.  We experience damage.  But we also experience healing.

The body matters and we can’t cast it aside and pretend that it doesn’t.  A robust Christology (which is, from a Christian perspective, a robust ‘New Creation’ theology) demands that we believe in the redemption of the body as both a present reality and future hope — to affirm the tension of this ‘already-not-yet’ body in which we live.  To tell a Christian that (s)he is technically forgiven but destined to remain forever broken is a tragic, truncated version of the Gospel.  To preach a Gospel of forgiveness without healing is a Gnostic version of the Gospel.

Our bodies die — it’s true.  We become old and incontinent.  We lose our sexual desire.  We lose the ones we love to illness.  All this matters.  We know that the body matters because God became human flesh and his body suffered with us. God loved human flesh enough to enter it and become damaged goods.  His damaged body died with us.

But God’s body was also raised from the dead.  And as the Apostle Paul wrote to the churches in first century Rome, if we are united with Christ in death — united with this God embodied — we will also be united with him in resurrection.

Why I Am Not A Blogger: and other essays on technology and violence

As a creative writer who surely (if slowly) works toward writing publishable fiction and poetry, I am often disappointed that I can’t seem to make myself blog more frequently.  The internet has changed the face of publishing, making it easier for writers to make their work available to a wider audience, so I feel as if I should be using this to my advantage.  I am especially envious of bloggers like Sarah Bessey and Rachel Held Evans who are able to keep up a regular blog while working on their other writings.

I don’t feel guilty — I have a lot on my plate. I am working full-time to put food on the table, taking a Hebrew class and (with what little time remains) trying to do reading and gather materials for applications to PhD programs.  But I do feel disappointed — mainly because I realize that the voice I would like to have in the blogosphere is stilted by the medium itself.  I can’t tell you how many times I have begun a blog post and failed to finish it simply because the things I am passionate about are controversial (what isn’t these days?).

I don’t have a problem (in theory) with starting controversy.  When well-approached, controversy can be an avenue of learning.  But controversy is emotionally taxing and when played out on the internet, the repercussions are multiplied.  If I blogged on controversial issues (and people actually read my blog), the ‘dialogue’ which would follow might be very difficult to handle.  Face-to-face dialogue is hard enough.  When an opinion is posted on the internet, anyone can weigh in (some people feel like they must do so) and many are unthoughtful about the way in which they dialogue on the internet.

If I had the internet voice that I desired, I would not have the time or energy to moderate comments and respond to them. I would be exhausted by Jimmy Joe’s quickly-typed, abrasive respond to my post on the psychology of gender roles.  I would be irked by Jane Smith’s skewed question about my post on higher criticism.  Turn off the comment option, you say?  Maybe I’m just not in tune with the blogosphere, but I’ve never seen a popular blog without a comment section.  And of course people can still post a link on their facebook and comment there, and write their own blog response.  The nature of internet technology makes it easy to remain faceless.  While facelessness doesn’t necessarily have to lead to verbal violence, it makes it much easier for people to commit acts of verbal violence without thinking.

Verbal Violence: distancing the Other

In his book on the psychology of killing in warfare (On Killing), Lt Col. David Grossman provides a curious conclusion: humans (and other animals) find it very difficult to kill their own species.  This may come as a surprise because this often not how violence is portrayed in the media.  Whether the violence we see is perpetrated  by detectives or cold-blooded killers, we see humans shooting other humans with ease and little guilt.  (Of course there are exceptions to this.  In the British television series Wallander, for example, the main character is distinctive for his reticence to shoot even murderers; he has a remarkably visceral reaction to his first kill.)

Grossman claims that, for the most part, humans must be trained to kill and that killing is made easier by dehumanizing the other: objectifying the other person until the killer sees not a human face but an enemy, an ethnicity, a cause, an idea, an animal.  Grossman discusses technological advancements in warfare and relates the physical distance between the killer and killed with the ease of killing: it may be easier emotionally for a pilot to drop a bomb on an entire city of people than to kill a single person in hand-to-hand combat.  He claims Alexander the Great was militarily successful, in part, because of the phalanx method of killing in which long spears were used.  The enemy was far away and thus easier to kill.

The human face, in particular, appears to be a factor in the human reticence to kill.  Grossman cites an example where many in an army could not kill until the opposing army was on the run and had turned their backs.  Because the first army could not see the faces of the people they were killing, it was easier to kill them.

Of course, killing is by no means the only kind of physical violence and even violence in general is not always physical.  An act of verbal violence is in many ways easier to commit than physical violence because it is more abstract (and consequently more difficult to identify concretely as violence).  Grossman connects the ease of killing with the physical distance between the killer and killed.  Distance creates a relational separation which makes it easier for a person to vilify/dehumanize the other.

In light of this, it is not surprising that the internet as a medium conduces verbal violence.  On the internet, we can be nameless and faceless if we wish.  We can write a blog post with a polemical tone – or we can comment polemically on a blog post without thinking that there is another person on the other side of the screen.  We can put up memes that oversimplify complex issues and make fun of people holding a different opinion.  We can post short, provocative status updates on Facebook which not only state our opinion in a nutshell, but portray those who disagree with us as ignorant or unthinking.

This kind of ‘dialogue’ is really anti-dialogue because the point is not thoughtful, peaceful engagement bent on pursuing understanding and truth.  Its purpose is to capitalize on the distance of ‘the screen’ by creating a further wedge between ‘us’ and ‘them’ or ‘I’ and ‘Thou.’  Re-imagining another human being (or group of people) as hostile or ignorant inhibits us from seeing the other as a person, a flesh-and-blood living being.  Verbal violence validates our own sense of identity because it forces us to take our stand in relation to the other in such a way that we are defined by our hostility toward the other (or by perceived hostility from the other).  We not only end up objectifying the other, but objectify our own selves because we do not take our stand in a person, but in an idea or emotion.

This is not to say that ideas or opinions do not matter or that everyone must ignore differences of belief for the sake of peace.  It simply means that our primary thought, the primary word we should utter must be: “Thou!”  Our first thought should be: this being is a person created in the image of God (regardless of the extent to which s/he presently embodies that image).  And for this reason, we must cultivate a posture of respect towards others regardless of whether or not we think we will agree with their opinions.  This is the beginning of real dialogue.

Excerpt from “The Vanishing God”

I am in the midst of writing a novel (as always) and I wanted to share this draft of a chapter excerpt.  Dialogue is not one of my strong points, so if you have an helpful suggestions on how to make the dialogue more realistic, I welcome any comments.

From “The Vanishing God”

John Mason, the music director of Kingston University Chapel was a short, deep-chested man with a face so strong and well-defined that it resembled the many chiselled marble statues of saints that were scattered about the chapel.  He had brown, deep-set eyes and large brows that obscured them; brows that (some choir members used to say) were as instrumental in conducting the choir as were his hands.

John Mason had a habit of making brief quips about the theological art and architecture of the chapel during choir rehearsals.  The front west door of the chapel, for example, showed traditional tympanum imagery from the Book of Revelation: a figure of Christ surrounded by four beasts, the twenty-four elders also encircling Christ’s mandorla, the words of Revelation 5:2 written in Greek on a scroll held by Christ: “Who is worthy to open the scroll?”  Below this triumphant picture of Christ was the Kingston University seal which bore beneath it the Kingston motto in Latin: Dei sub numine viget (“Under God’s power she flourishes”).  “Kingston may flourish under God if she wishes,” John Mason used to say, “But this choir rises or falls under my watch, so it’s me you  have the fear if you fail to learn your parts.”

And learn them they did, whether from fear of God or John Mason.  The university choir had a reputation for excellence and they generally upheld it, whether they sang for a liturgical service or a commencement ceremony.  A place in the Kingston University choir was a coveted position for many reasons, but the most alluring was the opportunity to study under John Mason.  John was not merely a director or player of music, but also a composer.  He often wrote original music for the choir, setting liturgical texts to new and haunting melodies.  He had been raised in the church and trained as a church composer and had never deviated from that calling.

“The whole thing fascinates me,” he said one morning to his colleague, the Rev. Jenny Divers, as they breakfasted on hot buttered toast and coffee before a conference.

“What does?” asked the Reverend.

“The Church.  Christianity.  God.  How people can  believe in it.”

“It’s not so outlandish as you make it sound,” laughed Rev. Jenny, the Dean of Religious Life at the university.  “Most of the world is religious in some way, shape or form.  Lots of people believe in the spiritual or transcendent and practice their faith daily.”

“I don’t doubt that people experience some kind of transcendent feeling or that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  I know when I write a piece of music that it’s nothing great until it’s given life by its performers.  But then to take that feeling and attribute it to some obscure carpenter from Nazareth whose follower thought he was God, who may have risen from the dead and is now gobbled up by worshippers at the communion table – that is what I find difficult.”

The Reverend sighed and stirred her coffee.  “You know belief is more nuanced than that, John.  And historical, physical realities are not the only realities that exist.  When we say that Jesus rose from the dead, we don’t mean that he literally came to life again in the flesh.  It was a symbolic rising; a theological resurrection.  The resurrection of Jesus is a sign that humans can have reconciliation and peace with God.  This ‘new life’ enabled by Jesus is the ability to love one another – for the community to really come together, in spite of their differences, and build a better world.”

John took a bite of his chocolate croissant and shook his head.  “That won’t do, Jenny,” he said, swallowing.  “It doesn’t make sense to spin the resurrection as having ahistorical significance.  The whole theory collapses when you do that.  Jesus lived and died, but people still suffer and die and can’t stop warring with each other.  Without the physical resurrection, there’s no promise of a life beyond the grave.  There’s nothing Jesus has to offer that hasn’t been offered before.  We all believe in peace and trying our best to end suffering and war.”

“But Jesus promised to actually make that dream of peace a reality,” countered the Reverend.

“And how does he propose to do that if he’s dead?”

“By living in our hearts.  When we take the Eucharist, we honor his memory and are inspired to do good as he did.”

“That isn’t Jesus’ doing any more than Marxism is perpetuated by Karl Marx.  People keep the memory alive.  All you’ve got is still a dead carpenter whose life has been perpetually re-mythologized to inspire false hope in Christian worshippers.”

“I’d hardly call it ‘false hope’,” said Jenny.  “The promise of the scriptures is that God will enable us to (eventually) love one another and have ‘peace on earth, good will to humankind.’  It’s an eschatological hope.  We don’t expect it to come in all its fullness all at once.”

“But that hope is to be realized when Jesus returns.  How can he return if he’s dead?”

“I keep telling you: he’s ‘alive’ in a spiritual sense.”

“Ah, yes – swimming around in the communion cup.”

“Well, if you want to put it crassly, yes.  His spirit is in heaven and also in the Eucharist.  If you believe in a heaven (which I know you don’t) is it so outlandish to think that Jesus’ spirit is there even if his body is dead?”

“Forgive me if I sound blunt, but remind me: if a physical resurrection is so wildly fantastic and impossible to you, why is the idea of heaven and spirits so easy for you to embrace?”

“Because we know from experience that people don’t literally rise from the dead.  No one believes that they do (except misguided, over-literalists).  A physical resurrection would mean that God interfered with human corporeality in a way that contradicts the laws of nature.  Heaven, on the other hand, is a spiritual reality – it’s God’s domain.  And of course we can’t prove that it exists either, but that’s where faith comes in.  I would like to believe that God is love and wishes to give people a hope of new, spiritual redemption and life – a chance to make a clean slate of it in the world beyond.  When I look at the world, its beauty and suffering, I can’t believe that this world is all there is.  There must be something higher, something Other.”

“But the New Testament claims more than that for Jesus – that he was both wholly Other (divine) and one of us (human).  It claims he was God stepping into human skin and becoming one with it.”

“Those passages about divinity don’t have to be interpreted as Jesus being ‘God’ per se, necessarily.  If the ‘fullness of deity’ dwells in Christ, that may just mean that he was exceptionally filled with the spirit of God (which he was).”

“But the incarnation (God made flesh) is central to the Christian concept of God’s love – God stepping into our world and walking around in our shoes.”

The Reverend laughed.  “Look at the atheist trying to be a theologian!  Are you trying to evangelize me?”

“Of course not.  I’m merely trying to point out that your religion is rubbish without a physical resurrection and since the resurrection is rubbish, you haven’t got a leg to stand on.”

“Well, we will have to (as always) agree to disagree.  I still stand by my theology and you can stand by – well, whatever it is you stand by.”

“I stand by what I can see with my eyes (or hear with my ears).  What is it that you Christians say?  ‘Faith comes by hearing’?  I believe in music and its power to persuade people that there is a God, even if there isn’t.  It’s a drug – a fantastic, miraculous opiate – and I will use it as long as I live (and then no longer).  I will be the music while the music lasts and then when I’m rotting in the ground, someone else will live to be the music.”

The Reverend shook her head with the hint of a wry smile. “I like working with you John, but I do wonder how a complete pagan got the position of music director at a religious institution.  If your music weren’t so fantastic, you would be considered very draining on the soul.”

“That’s the point, isn’t it?  My music draws people to God even if he isn’t there.  It’s magic.

“I suppose it is,” said the Reverend, dryly.  “Nothing short of a miracle.”

TubeTestament Commentary Series

Introduction

Welcome to the launching of the TubeTestament Commentary Series.  Below is the first installment of what I hope to develop into a reading and commentary of the Book of Genesis.  The purpose of this series is straightforward: I want to encourage people to be engaged with the literature of the Bible and to discover the richness of its stories.  We often read the Bible in bits and pieces: as bite-sized verses or isolated stories removed from their context.  When we do this, we end up missing out on the richness of the whole, and the Bible is reduced to some sort of moral source book or ‘manual for life.’  And who wants to read a manual when you can read a story?

The format of this series is simple.  I will read through Genesis perhaps 10-15 verses at a time and then try to draw the viewer’s attention to some of the literary and theological themes.  Many of these stories were transmitted orally before they were written down, and then later read aloud in an assembly, so often you’ll find (especially at the beginning of Genesis) that there is a lot of repetition or verbal cues that help the hearers connect one bit of a story to another.  These cues are more apparent in the Hebrew than in our English Bibles and so I have chosen to read from a translation that tries to render these nuances in English.  For example: the name ‘Adam’ just means ‘Human’ — so the translator either translates the word as ‘human’ or ‘the human,’ or places the word ‘human’ alongside the word ‘Adam.’

Reading: Genesis 1:1-13

Genesis 1:1-13: Commentary

As a child, I thought of these first descriptions of the days of creation as the boring bits before the exciting parts of the story like the creation of human beings and their later temptation by the crafty serpent.  This part was a laborious list of what God made by sort of snapping his fingers and causing things appear: “Let’s get some lights in here!  Oh, and we’ll need some land and sea and maybe some sprouts…”

But pause for a moment and imagine the earth before God begins to create.  Imagine the world is a vast room: an empty room sapped of light, drained of sound.  Or think of the deepest part of the ocean that’s so large and black you can’t see anything else.  Imagine being locked away in an infinite chasm of nothingness.

The phrase used to describe the earth prior to creation is tohu wa-bohu, ‘wild and waste’ or, as some translations have it, ‘formless and void.’  The word tohu is used elsewhere in the Bible to describe situations where a people has turned away from God and subsequently their land has become tohu, a devastated wasteland.  It is also used to describe the futility of idols or idol worship, and may be glossed as ‘purposeless,’ ‘nothingness,’ ‘chaos,’ and ‘vapor’ (just to name a few).  And the text says that darkness was over the face of tehom (often translated ‘deep’) and here it is rendered as ‘Ocean,’ which tries to convey this idea of primordial waters.  The Septuagint, a later Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible renders this word as abyssos, which can be translated as ‘abyss’ or even ‘place of the dead.’  That doesn’t mean that this is exactly what’s meant in the Hebrew text, but it does give us a sense for how later interpreters might of understood the word.

But the spirit of God is rushing, churning, breathing over the surface of the primordial waters, until suddenly — a voice!: “Let there be light!”  And there is light.  God sees the light: that it is good.  This is a pattern set throughout the text.  When God says, “Let there be X…” he is using the kind of regal language a king in the ancient Near East might use to issue an edict.  He is summoning the various parts of the creation, naming them and (as we’ll see in the next installment) giving them various tasks or areas over which to rule, giving them purpose.

And God ‘sees’ each part of his creation, that it is ‘good.’  This is a phrase that comes up repeatedly and it’s important for a number of reasons.  First, there is a ‘seeing’ motif in the first three chapters of Genesis.  As we’ll see later on in the series, when Eve is tempted by the serpent to eat the forbidden fruit (3:6), the text says (italics mine):

The woman saw that the tree was good for eating and that it was a delight to the eyes, and the tree was desirable to contemplate.

Eve’s vision of the fruit that she is not supposed to eat serves as an ironic contrast between God’s vision of what is ‘good.’  But we’ll unpack that motif more later.

What does ‘good’ mean in this context?  We often think of ‘good’ as being used in a moral sense.  The word may have moral connotations, but it may also mean simply ‘pleasant,’ ‘advantageous,’ ‘profitable,’ ‘excellent of its kind,’ or similar adjectives.

We see God summoning light and separating it from the darkness, giving them the respective names ‘Day’ and ‘Night.’  He creates an expanse or ‘dome’ in the waters and causes land to appear in the waters and then summons the earth to produce vegetation.

What’s shown on the screen in this video is one artist’s rendering of how the earth was conceived in the ancient Near East.  As you can see, the waters below are the sea from which dry land emerges and above it is the dome of the heavens (or simply ‘sky’), and there are also waters above the dome (or ‘firmament’).  Above that is the highest heaven where God lives – but we’ll dig more into that later.

We’ve gone through the first three days of creation.  In order to find out what happens next, you’ll have to wait for the next installment — or go read Genesis for yourself.

Sexuality in an Age of Distraction

Sex Without Fear. It was a dog-eared, dilapidated book with an inconspicuous, brown paper cover obscuring the title. I spotted it at a used book sale and, hoping the brown paper might be hiding a classic or little-known literary delight, thumbed it open to the first page.  There was a black and white photograph, circa 1950s, of a young bride-to-be sitting at the edge of her quilted bed, looking apprehensive and serious-eyed.  Her mother, calm and pragmatic, was leaning across the bed motioning the young woman to come closer, as if to say, “Come here, my child. Let me tell you the facts of life. There is nothing to fear.  Sex is an unhappy reality we all must face during our transitory existence beneath the sun.”

My purpose in bringing up this book is not to critique or even discuss the book itself, but to draw attention to how the title and covert cover art express a belief typical of many Americans in the 1950s: sex is primarily for men, and women have minimal or no interest in sex.  This belief is perpetuated today by many popular evangelical books on dating, marriage and sex.  The mother in the photograph wishes to give her daughter a sex education so that her daughter will not be afraid to have sex. So far, so good – education is important.  Yet compare this message with another book on sex written by two Christian medical professionals: Intended for Pleasure: Sex Technique and Sexual Fulfillment in Christian Marriage.  The implication in the title of the former book is that the primary purpose of giving a woman a sex education is so that she will not be afraid.  In contrast, the title of the latter book implies that the goal is pleasure and sexual fulfillment, presumably for both women and men.

You’ve likely heard the slogan: “Girls give sex to get love and guys give love to get sex.” It’s not a phrase that was coined by evangelicals, but the basic philosophy is common amongst evangelicals, as is evidenced by the vast corpus of Christian advice books which present women as emotional, delicate creatures sapped of both intellectual and sexual desire.  In contrast, such books often portray men as savage beasts with insatiable sexual appetites which can only be held at bay by dutiful wives who respect (and seduce) them. This statement is crassly put and oversimplified, of course – but if you attend enough Christian dating/marriage conferences or home groups, you begin to realize that this is a Zeitgeist in many North American evangelical circles.  For example, when Christian colleges sponsor same-sex topical Bible studies, the topics are dolefully predictable.  Women are warned to “guard their hearts” and cover up their bodies and men are told to avoid pornography, masturbation and physical touch.

My aim is not to make light of the dangers of pornography or false emotion, but to draw attention to some potential problems which arise when we view the “battle” for appropriate sexuality as a primarily masculine issue.  It is no secret that the media today exploits women by presenting them as sex objects.  Pockets of evangelical culture have bought into a monogamous version of the same philosophy – sexual satisfaction is still viewed as being primarily for the man while the woman is the means to that end.  Conversely, the man is presented as the source of emotional satisfaction for the woman, reflecting the same sort of dichotomy between the physical and the metaphysical.  The woman is taught to distance herself from her own body, and the man is taught that he is an uncomplicated being with merely physical needs.  The marriage relationship is thus a well-oiled machine, each gear fulfilling a single, specific role – always moving yet never creating, never experiencing the dynamic mutuality of personal encounter.

This imbalanced view of sexuality and relationships is only one symptom of a far more expansive and serious problem: a dearth of both true self-knowledge and a rooted sense of identity.  Ultimately a lack of self-knowledge prompts us to divvy up the human being (and all of life) into neat little categories.  If we can say “men are this way” or “women are that way,” this relieves us of the responsibility of getting to know a person – we can function by holding fast to an idea which is far less complicated than encountering a person.

Sex is risky and frightening and potentially wonderful precisely because it is not an isolated body of knowledge – what goes on in the bedroom does not stay in the bedroom but flows out into the rest of life.  As A. G. Sertillanges emphasizes in his book, The Intellectual Life, no body of knowledge is isolated and one of the jobs of the intellectual is to seek out the connections between these seemingly separate spheres.  In order to do this, the intellectual must cultivate an inner quietness, a profound self-knowledge which prepares her or him to pay attention to the world and so become a diligent student of the world created by God.

In this sense, sexual knowledge is no different from any other kind of knowledge.  It requires focused attention and awareness of both the self and another human being. The life of the mind is intimately linked to the life of the body. Work, study, food, family, sex – these are all part of the real world and our job is to increase our understanding of the self and the world and see how everything coheres.

When we lack genuine awareness or a sense of who we are, our impulse is to hide behind a fabricated persona, whether it be our profession, a perceived gender role or some other kind of image.  Instead of finding our identity as followers of the Creator God and imitators of God’s own relational creativity, we segment the world and claim that a plumber can find no use for Plato and a poet traverses a separate sphere from a farmer.  We claim that women are raw emotion and men are pure physicality.

When we partition the world, we gradually become espoused to an idea instead of a person – a fabricated avatar instead of a real human being.  And there’s nothing more frightening and dissatisfying than knowing we have made love to a false image.

Is the dullest pencil better than the sharpest memory?

This morning, a colleague of mine (fond of puns and other forms of word play) said, “The dullest pencil is better than the sharpest memory.”  Plato would probably disagree.

In the Phaedrus, Socrates relates a myth about the Egyptian god Theuth and his discovery of – among other inventions – writing.  Theuth goes before Thamus (the king) explaining each art and its value.  Of writing, Theuth claims, “O King, here is something that, once learned, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memory; I have discovered a potion for memory and for wisdom.”

Thamus disagrees.  According to Thamus, writing will only give the appearance of wisdom because people will rely on writing (exterior to the self) instead of their (interior) memory:

O most expert Theuth, one man can give birth to the elements of an art, but only another can judge how they can benefit or harm those who will use them.  And now, since you are the father of writing, your affection for it has made you describe its effects as the opposite of what they really are.  In fact, it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is eternal and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own.  You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality.  You invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing.  And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.[1]

 Writing is thus good for reminding, but not for remembering.  When we write, we store a memory outside ourselves and the text (or, today, sometimes the photograph or youtube video) replaces memory.  But where does that leave us today?  We are used to relying on technologies external to the self (or the communal self).  We need writing.  We need it to remember.

 In Hebrew class, my professor’s introduction to the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible went (roughly) something like this:

Before the Masoretes came along, the text of the Hebrew Bible wasn’t pointed with vowels for vocalization.  The readers knew how to read the text aloud only because they learned it from their teachers, who had learned it from their teachers.  But once the text was pointed, as long as you knew how to read the system of vowels, you didn’t need the teachers for that any more.

In other words: if you can read the ink on a page and comprehend what it says, you don’t need anyone to pass on oral information that was heretofore stored in a human being.

For every technology there is an exchange, a gain and a loss.  If you can read and have a Bible, you can read the Bible on your own.  You can study it for yourself.  But then, you are also less likely to read it together with the faithful as you would have had to do before mass production of the written word.  If you forget the details of a passage, you can whip out your Bible and look — but, then, if you lived in a primarily oral culture, your memory might be a little sharper and you might not have forgotten the passage as easily (or, if you did, you would have to rely on the sharper memory of another human being).

But we cannot become an oral society even if we wished to (and I am not suggesting that we should want to).  Where do we go from here?  We are swiftly becoming a culture which has moved on even from the technology of text to the technology of image, but this image is not the image of our ancestors.  This is not the cult image of a deity or a visual icon made for communal orientation toward the divine, or even a common ideal.  This image is the personal image, the image I can conjure at home on my computer or on the train with my iPhone whenever I want.  Because of mass production, each image gives the appearance of being the same image (I can view “the same” youtube video on my computer in PA as my sister can view in NJ).  But it is not the same image — it is a copy — and when I view it, it becomes my personal image.  If I experience any communion with my sister, it is not in viewing the image, but in later face-to-face dialogue about the image(s).

 Is the dullest pencil better than the sharpest memory?  Is the the ability to store more data in the palm of your hand than you can hold in your brain desirable? 

These are unrefined thoughts.  But of course, because of the medium, no one expects them to be refined.  Almost anyone in the world who owns a computer can read my blog, but because the internet is designed for quick, unthoughtful interaction, no one expects the highest quality of writing.  It is my text, my image, set up for everyone to see — copied, mass produced.  What would Thamus say?

[1] Plato, Phaedrus, trans. by Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1995), 78-80.

The Christian and Ambition

In light of Rachel Held Evans’ post on the Christian and ambition, I thought bits of a blog post I wrote nearly two years ago was worth posting.  My original post can be found here.

I am reading a commentary on the Book of Proverbs which postulates that the book was most likely written to young men from wealthy backgrounds who had servants, property and businesses as well as contact with the king.  Certainly the book is written to give knowledge and discretion to youth (Prov. 1:4), and viewing its primary audience as rich young men in positions of potential leadership would explain the book’s emphasis on justice (Putnam 8).

I am not a wealthy young man living in ancient Israel who has contact with the king.  But I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to draw a few principles from this text that would behoove me to dwell on.  What strikes me about Proverbs is that it is not only pro-wisdom, but pro-leadership and pro-greatness.  Greatness is something to be desired and sought after.  Ambition is good as long as it is guided by wisdom.  When some think of a monarch, ruler or leader, perhaps the image of a self-serving, money-hungry, fame-loving potentate is the first image that comes their mind.  This is not the sort of “leadership” described in Proverbs.  The young man in Proverbs is to love  justice and mercy and to rule humbly with wisdom, eschewing what is evil and clinging to what is good.

My point is that desiring greatness is good, if it is the kind of greatness described in Proverbs.   As Evangelicals, we often use the rhetoric of “desiring to serve the Lord” and I suppose this has some merit since we do desire to serve God.  However, I think what we are really expressing is a desire to be truly great.  Think about the language we use in Christian youth groups.  Despite the huge emphasis in many youth groups on the Gospel as a kind of “free gift, clean slate, no questions asked, you don’t have to do anything,” there’s still a pull to do something.  We say, “God has a plan for your life,” to inspire a sense of calling and impress upon them the necessity of human response.  And whether it involves “witnessing” to your friends at school or being a nice older sister, there is always the matter of decisive action.

Now, I could write an entire blog post on the subject of youth groups, but that’s not my purpose here.  I’m saying that there is biblical precedent for viewing ambition and the cultivation of leadership skills as a good and holy thing.  (Perhaps the problem we often come up against in youth groups is that we present greatness as something automatically endowed to the Christian by the Spirit instead of presenting the idea that greatness must be pursued and cultivated.  Solomon may have received his wisdom from God in a day, but if most others could have become wise in the same way, why did he arrange wise proverbs for their instruction?)

This is not to say that there is only one kind of greatness or that one must be an influential world leader or prolific bishop in order to be great.  There are many varieties of greatness and many different forms.  There is the greatness of the husband and wife quietly exercising justice and mercy in their home.  There are many great people who will never go down in history books.  The instructions in Proverbs are, I think, still applicable to those who will never govern a city or manage an estate or rule a country.  There is honor in doing all things well, not just those things which are noticed by the world.  At the same time, it is appropriate to pursue credibility with the world, to pursue just leadership in such a way that makes the world respect your Lord and Master, Jesus Christ.

The Good Days

At the beginning of class, our Hebrew professor encouraged us to do a little bit of Hebrew every day.  “If you really own this from the beginning,” he said, “you can look forward to hayamim hatovim — ‘the good days’ — when you can sit down (just you and that magic bible* they published in 2008) and read the scriptures in Hebrew.”

As I was struggling through a frustrating language exercise tonight — tired and achy from sitting at a desk and looking at a screen all day — I remembered that these days are hayamim hatovim.   The good days are still to come, of course (where would we be without that eschatological day?) — but we must remember that everything, as Rilke says, is gestation and bringing forth.  The inglorious toil of a dozen small, daily tasks — this is significant work that will bear fruit in time.  In this present day of gestation, we must remember to consecrate our work to God, for he will make it good and bring everything to its fullness.

At the end of the work day, I am tempted to neglect the exercise of remembrance: to forget that the day is a good gift from God to be returned with thanksgiving.  The days are hard.  I am tired.  I am tired of working full-time and trying to study and write with a headache.  Progress is slow.  But I am glad — glad for these days to learn the value of things and to love the days as they come.

We’re only a month and a half into Hebrew — but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen hayamim hatovim.

*A Reader’s Hebrew Bible

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