You Call That Working?

A recent post of mine on the United Methodist Church got a lot of response (for me, anyway) on other social media.  As I pondered this—I’ve written about the topic many times before—it occurred to me that most people probably have no idea what biblical scholars do all day.  (That is, besides write books that only other biblical scholars read, and teach their classes, or, very occasionally, edit books.)  Biblical studies is arguably one of the oldest academic pursuits in the world and what it boils down to in a word is “contexts.”  We try to understand the multiple contexts of the biblical texts.  Think about this a second: when you pick up a book, newspaper, magazine, or their electronic equivalents, what is the first, if often unconscious, thought you have?  Isn’t it something like “what kind of book, newspaper, etc., is this?”  Is it fiction or non?  Is it reputable or not?  Who wrote it and when?  These are all contexts.

The Bible was written about two millennia ago.  Very little of that original context still remains.  In fact, none of the original manuscripts even still exist.  It was a book written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.  The vast majority of people in the western world do not read these languages, and so the Bible comes to us in mediated form—translation.  Translation, as any writer knows, is a form of interpretation.  It is not, and can never be, the original.  To figure out what the Bible “means” it has to be interpreted—even just reading it is a form of interpretation.  Biblical scholars want to be able to interpret it in informed ways.  We learn about its various contexts and use them to help us understand.

What did people think like thousands of years ago?  Can you even remember what it was like to look up a distant location without the internet?  Writing letters or dialing a rotary phone to get information on it?  Going to triple A to get maps?  And all of that was only two decades ago.  Life in biblical times was very different than life today.  The people then didn’t understand science the way that we do.  The writers of the Good Book didn’t have any idea that what they were scribbling would one day be considered holy scripture.  They had completely different contexts.  Whether the contexts are historical, literary, or social scientific (we still haven’t figured out an elegant way of saying the latter) biblical scholars use a variety of methods to get to those contexts.  We can’t go in with the answers already in our heads—if we did we’d only find what we were looking for.  At the end we have an answer, not “the” answer.  And so biblical studies continues.

Common Tyrants

“Common tyrants, and public oppressors, are not intitled to obedience from their subjects.”  The words aren’t mine, nor are they from this century.  That, however, makes them no less true.  Jonathan Mayhew was an eighteenth-century clergyman arguing that Bible’s admonition to obey government officials did not apply to those who abused power.  In reading these words I felt a sense of loss in a very basic way.  No, I’m not a fan of turning back the clock—it can’t really be done anyway—but when the word of a single book was not disputed those tempted to follow tyrants could be made to justify it with a Good Book that could also be used to refute it.  We no longer have a common frame of reference, but tyrants still exist.

Shouting matches have been substituted for discussions because those who support tyrants can’t see how they are also being oppressed.  It’s one of the ironies of history.  This internet age has only found a way of magnifying people’s differences on the political scale, even as it has brought us to the common marketplace of culture.  Who doesn’t use Amazon?  Tyranny, by definition, is the arbitrary use of power.  One might think of, oh, declaring a national emergency when none exists just to get what one wants.  One might think of surrounding oneself with criminals against the nation just to get what one wants.  One might think of business practices meant to ruin others just to get what one wants.  There seems to be a common theme here and it’s one on which the Bible has a great deal to say.  The only Scripture that gets quoted is that which supports tyranny, eh, Mayhew?

When the debate was about the Good Book we were largely all on the same page.  Not all colonials wanted to break with King George III.  Some profited from the connection.  Others thought Holy Writ prevented revolutions rather than inspiring them.  Tyrants have always been with us.  You’d think that with all the media we have these days that we’d be able to spot one fairly easily.  The camera, however, has a way of giving the lie to the Good Book.  Anyone can say they read it.  Or claim they obey it.  Its own test seems to be “by their fruits you will know them.”  The words aren’t mine.  They’re from a distant century past.  But it seems the fruit is dying on the tree, even as spring begins.

Culpability Defined

What seems to be lacking in the United States government is any realization that actions have consequences.  While in Christchurch, New Zealand at least 49 people have been murdered only for being Muslim, Trump feels that tweeting “heartfelt” condolences somehow exculpates him from fostering an atmosphere of hatred.  Indeed, the main shooter in that travesty cited Trump as an inspiration.  The sickening lack of awareness that deeds have consequences has once again led to a body count.  Meanwhile in these states the Republican Party refuses to condemn the daily and consistent message of racism coming from an edifice that is more and more appropriately called the “White House.”  Do you have to pull the trigger to be guilty?  History will decide.  

Politics has always been a crooked game, but until 2016 most elected to the highest office—God help us, even George W. Bush—realized that the office had responsibility associated with it.  It wasn’t a place you could play loose and easy and tweet from the hip and think it was your right as “just another citizen.”  Muslims have been part of American culture from very nearly the beginning of this experiment in colonialism.  Freedom of religion was one of the pillars of democracy that Trump has been chopping down like a cherry tree while tweeting “No I didn’t.”  The GOP applauds.  Here’s how to instill one religion as the norm, not considering the consequences.  Massacres in the name of Christ don’t make you Christian.  Not cutting history class should be a requirement to run for elected office.  Or at least taking basic civics.  Instead we have a government that refuses to recognize that it can inspire murderers around the globe and then offer heartfelt condolences with no apologies.

Where is the condemnation of racism?  Where is the line between black and white?  Where is the sense of any culpability for creating and sustaining the warm, moist environment where the bacteria of hatred thrives?  When you awake to the news that yet another white supremacist has taken inspiration from an angry white man who has nothing to be angry about and has consecrated murder as patriotism how can you look the world in the eye?  Hiding behind a tweet does not bring back the dead.  How do we get the message through?  Millions of us have repeatedly marched in protest.  We flipped one house of congress and we daily sign petitions until our fingers bleed but no response comes from those who won by a mere technicality.  If there are indeed ghosts in this world there will be mass immigration and it shall be richly deserved.

If It Itches

The problem, or rather a problem, of growing up Fundamentalist is taking things literally.  I suppose we’re all born naive realists, learning only later that things aren’t what they seem.  One of the dynamics of finding something new to say about demons involves an unconventional method of research.  Richard Beck’s Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted is a case in point.  Being part of a series called “Theology for the People,” this book is not an exploration of literal demons or the Devil.  Well, it kinda is and kinda isn’t.  It is an engaging and often insightful treatment of the question of evil and what to do about it.  Evil is a question, but most of us, at least pre-Trump, could recognize it when we saw it.

Beck is a professor of psychology.  This meant that at several points I found myself pausing to consider some of the points he was making.  Some parts didn’t work for me—welcome to the world of reading—but others were eye-opening.  One thing that all books about the Devil seem to have in common is the observation that evil is clearly present in our world.  Governments, and Beck uses Rome as an example, easily become oppressive and harmful to the weak and powerless.  As a volunteer in a prison ministry, Beck knows whereof he speaks.  When governments are run by the unstable (think of the one with a toothbrush mustache or any other who declare themselves geniuses) oppression follows.  Evil not only bobs in the wake of oppression, it is oppression.  Beck has a Christian anchoring—call it theology—behind this, but it clearly works even without that.

Getting over my literalism, I know that academic books about demons or the Devil come with more serious titles and more hefty price-tags.  The value of a book, however, has to do with more than the cash you shell out for it.  Beck does a service by offering a theology that isn’t too theological.  I’ve known many candidates for the ministry who lost their compassion by getting tangled in the weeds of theology.  Even to the point of making sarcastic remarks to someone who wanted to help them when they fell on the ice.  I know myself, and I have to learn to trust those who practice theology in ways that I do not.  This may not be conventional research, but it is important reading.  Old Scratch, after all, is not just in the details.

Checkmate

March has been designated as Women’s History Month.  Since history has been written, well, historically by males, women have frequently been excluded.  History as a serious attempt to describe “what actually happened” is a fairly recent phenomenon.  Yes, men (mostly) have been writing their views of what events meant from the days of the Bible and the Classics on.  A few females had made their way into the narratives, but reading history often makes it seem like males were the only people of consequence.  I was thinking about this the other day after I read a reference to the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll.  Chess, I realized, is a game with a message.  Now I don’t often have time for games, but this felt important.

I’m not a good chess player, but I know that if you lose your queen you’ve got to be far better than I am at it to win the game.  In fact, the queen is the most powerful piece on the board.  Now if you plan to come back with something like “using the bishop, knight, and rook you can surpass the power of the queen” it suggests two things.  One, you’re better than me at chess, and two, you’re missing the point.  The queen can move in both perpendicular and diagonal lines.  She can land on either color.  The range of her motion is limited only by the size of the board.  The bishop is limited to one color square only and the rook takes two moves to equal the queen’s diagonal skills.  

Think about the king—he moves one space at a time, and mostly only to avoid capture.  The queen is out there defending the realm.  Even as a kid learning to play chess, it was obvious that the queen did far more than a bishop limited to his ecclesiastical domain, or the rook with his brute force.  The knight makes a move the queen cannot, but his range in limited.  If a player retained only a queen the opponent’s king could still be captured, in my mind.  Chess should be a queen’s game.  

History is a way of looking at things.  Although it involves facts—and this is where the government narrative goes off the rails; the denial of facts is an autocrat’s game—it’s not the same as facts.  History is an interpretation of facts.  The fact is that male history of the world just could not have been possible without women.  It’s time not just to acknowledge it, but to celebrate it.

Mostly Clear

“Chiasm” is a literary technique based on the name of the Greek letter chi, shaped like a latinate X.  The idea is fairly simple and generally resembles a sideways V more often than an actual X.  It goes like this: a poem, or story, begin at a large, or wide premise, narrows down in steps to a center, and then, by corresponding steps, again out toward a larger, or wider resolution.  Another way to think of it is a set of Matryoshka dolls; first you take them apart, and then you put them back together.  David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a chiastic story.  Starting on a cross-ocean voyage at an indeterminate time in the recent past centuries, it moves on to a Briton on the continent in about the turn of the last century, then a mid-twentieth-century American investigative journalist, a late twentieth-century or present-day rogue publisher in Britain, a clone in future Korea, and finally, to a planet of the apes-like Hawaii of the distant future.  Not really finally, though, since after the center of the X, it moves back outward through the nesting stories to bring us back to the beginning.

I’m not going to attempt to retell the story here, so don’t worry—it doesn’t get any more complicated.  There are, however, a couple of remarkable things about the tale.  In the brutish, nasty, post-collapse future that marks the center of the narrative, religion is central.  Some of the Hawaiians have come to believe the protagonist of the nesting story, the clone mentioned above, was a god.  To find her story, however, you’ll need to read the book.  Suffice it to say, that origin myth is part of the overall complex structure.  The second of the remarkable features, and one that makes this book very salient, is that in all the ages the issue of accepting those who are different is central.

In the outside framing story, the initial and terminal points of the chi, one of the characters is a missionary.  He’s trying to “improve” he life of Polynesians by making them into slaves, whereby they benefit from the largess of Christianity.  Quite a bit of the narrative draws its energy from the eventually faltering sense of superiority of the AngloSaxon “race.”  In that sense it’s definitely a parable for our time.  A story that deserves to be read.  Defying easy genre identification, Cloud Atlas is a thought-provoking novel that doesn’t fear religion and its larger implications.  A couple of the nesting stories have exquisite twist endings worthy of the Twilight Zone.  This book will make some demands on your time, but its message makes it a sound investment in a world rapidly heading toward a future that reveals just how troubled our species is.

Time Saving

As we suffer through another pointless Daylight Saving Time, I’m thinking of rituals that have lost their meaning.  Life is full of them.  We do things because we’ve always done them this way and even when they become harmful because of the way lifestyles change (auto accidents, for example, increase after shorting people of an hour’s sleep) we can’t seem to let go.  DST alone should’ve been enough to convince those who claimed religion would simply go away when science kicked in that they are wrong.  This is one reason that I’ve always found the origins of ideas fascinating.  Why did people believe this?  Why did they do this?  What started this whole process?  (Just to be clear, I’m not asking this about DST; I’ve written about that before.)

We can’t know the ultimate origins of religion.  I’ve suggested in the past that what we would term religious behavior has clear origins in the behavior of animals.  A somewhat fully developed consciousness provides incentive to rationalize such behavior.  The earliest organized religion of which we know involved state functionaries (priests) supporting, probably for sincerely believed reasons, the “secular” government.  Kings and priests needed each other and people quickly conformed.  Even when those on the inside came to realize that they were merely pretending, they kept on doing so.  It was too late (or if DST, too early) to change anything, so the mascarade continued.  Tracing the history of religious ideas reveals perhaps more than we want to know.  And human beings are natural actors.

Once, while in a restaurant, I sat near the kitchen.  The smiling servers, as they neared that portal lost their smiles and harried looks came to their faces as they told frantic cooks what the couple at table eight wanted.  Yet they continued to pretend they were happy when at table-side.  Or think of work with its “public facing” information that is inevitably different from what is known by those on the inside of the company.  Actors.  We’re all actors.  Perhaps it’s the price to pay for living in a civilization.  If we stopped to think about why we’re doing something as inane as pretending five o’clock is now six o’clock, or even that all people are the same and should be at work between nine and five, society could not stand the scrutiny.  Anarchy would erupt in the streets.  We should be thankful that people don’t think about these things too deeply.  Or, then again, maybe I didn’t get enough sleep last night.