Lily White

The funny thing about being “white” (I’m more of an anemic pink myself) is that my race seems to think all the gods share our ethnic traits. I’ve seen Thor, so I know. The Daily Kos ran an article recently about Crystal Valentine, a black poet, and how she responded to Megyn Kelly’s 2013 statement that Jesus is a white man. I won’t say what Valentine’s apt response is, but I will say I feel a lot better knowing that I’m not the only one who’s a couple years behind the news. I remember 2013 well. It was a year of transition, some would say enforced exile. If you could pull that trick off 2500 years ago, you’d have no end of books written about you. Just check out the offerings on The Exile and you’ll see what I mean. But I digress. Is Jesus white?

Historically all we can say is that Jesus was Jewish. We don’t have any Jewish men from two millennia ago to ask about their skin tone. One of the problems of having an only child, especially for a deity, is that you have to decide on the race (and gender; perhaps twins would be better?). Other religions sometimes make similar claims, but the problem persists. Especially when one race claiming God’s ethnicity develops an industrialized military economy. Who’s going to argue with that? So if Jesus is white, it stands to reason that his dad is too, right? If you listen to the sidewalks of Manhattan you’ll have your answer. Or the question.

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All of this makes me wonder about the image of God. Theologians like to make it sound academic by calling it imago dei. If you can read Latin then you obviously know the truth. With monotheism and imago dei, you’re gonna run into problems. Nobody likes to be told they’re adopted. Since this theological construct has caused no end of pain and misery, I have to wonder if we’re better off thinking that we’ve not had a case of mistaken identity after all. We all evolved out of Africa. We should, it seems to me, treat our parents with more respect. And that, dear reader, is straight from the Bible.

Eating Your Prophets

Ezekiel was an odd character, even for a prophet. He’s become a kind of patron saint to ancient astronaut theorists, and his name in fiction often denotes someone slightly off balance. In his defense, he believed that God was demanding his many strange actions. A priest in a period of exile from the “one true temple,” Ezekiel lived an existence as a captive in a foreign land and came to some radical conclusions about the nature of Israel’s god. His visions and actions were considered the original weird, even by his contemporaries. Since Ezekiel believed Babylon would conquer Jerusalem, the people there would have to go on starvation rations. In chapter 4 of his book, Yahweh tells the prophet to try to make a bread out of wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and spelt. This odd mixture is to be eaten in very meager portions to symbolize the coming privation for 390 days (during which time he is to lie on his left side). His bread is to be cooked on dung.

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I eat breakfast around 4 a.m. My bus to the City comes before 6:00 and there are no restrooms on NJ Transit buses. Many New Yorkers eat breakfast in the office, but I’m just too Episcopalian in sensitivity for that to really be an option. I don’t like really sweet cereals, but granolas are often quite sugary unless you want to pay top dollar (and most of my dollars are bottom dollars) for some organic, European blend. Then I spied Ezekiel 4:9. Knowing full well the context of the reference should’ve given me pause, but it was two dollars less a box than some of its competition—downright exilic prices—and my curiosity was roused. What would Ezekiel eat?, I asked myself.

Most people don’t realize that so many of us eat breakfast cereals due to the efforts of our Seventh-Day Adventist friends. Adventists, in addition to being literalistically inclined, advocate healthy living. Will Keith Kellogg, a faithful Adventist, believed that eating cereal for breakfast was healthy and widely promoted the idea through the company he founded to produce cereals. Kelloggs does not produce Ezekiel 4:9. Food for Life, an organic bakery, are the purveyors of this organic breakfast. Their religious convictions, if any, aren’t evident from their website. Just about the time I’m climbing aboard the bus, I know that even as Ezekiel saw the wheel, I’m in for a moving experience. Isaiah-os or Jeremiah Flakes may be difficult to imagine, but with Ezekiel nothing really surprises. Today’s Bible lesson may be as close as the larder shelf. I just skip the cooking on dung part.

Bible According to Batman

DarkKnightRises Biblical tropes are alive and well in popular culture. Many would choose the flight option rather than admit they enjoy a good Bible story. They may anyway, however, without realizing it. Although The Dark Knight Rises came out over a year ago, I only just had the chance to watch it. For a kid who grew up on the campy 1960’s television series, Christopher Nolan offers adult fare. Put the kiddie menu away and sit up straight at the table. I don’t read reviews, in general, before seeing movies because I don’t enjoy spoilers. I had no idea whether Batman would come out of this alive or not. I wasn’t really even sure who Bane was (even before The Dark Knight everyone knew who the Joker was, or thought they did). The Dark Knight Rises places the whole of Heilsgeschichte (sacred history) before the viewer with verbal cues. Unless you’re reading while watching, you’ll miss it though.

Bruce Wayne is clearly cast as the wounded healer in this final installment of the trilogy. Physically and psychologically crippled, he hobbles around in a combination of Jesus and Yoda figures, somehow supernatural yet fully human. Death and resurrection transpire twice for him in this film. When Bane breaks Batman’s back (an often fatal injury) even Catwoman thinks he might be dead. He is very much alive, however, in the prison only “Bane” escaped (resurrection one). Not only does he rise from the grave, he also ascends into heaven by escaping the well—anyone who’s read Jeremiah, or even Genesis, knows the origin of that motif. Risen, ascended, and glorified, Batman returns to beat the crap out of Bane. But the bomb is still on the loose and before Batman faces his nemesis he tells Commissioner Gordon to arrange “an exodus”—Joseph’s descendants must get out of Egypt. At the Red Sea (the Hudson River) the Pharaoh’s army blocks the exodus of the children of St. Swithun’s who, in response, bow their heads in prayer (am I the only one seeing this?)

Commissioner Gordon, found guilty of betraying the common man, receives the sentence of Exile (“death, by exile” to be precise). Again, those sensitive to Jeremiah know that exile is a kind of death, but death with a noble purpose. The Heilsgeschichte of Israel involves exodus and exile. The Christians added on death, resurrection, and ascension. Christopher Nolan put them together in one Dark Knight. But I mentioned two resurrections, no? Flying the bomb out of Gotham, Batman is definitively blown to smithereens—the blast radius was, after all, six miles. And yet, Alfred has a post-resurrection visitation, where no touching occurs (Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father) sees his savior. Was the Bat the Holy Spirit on autopilot? Is that Catwoman with him? Might I be so bold as to type Mary Magdalene? Well, I may be over a year late with my observations of The Dark Knight Rises, but as I think Christopher Nolan understands, the Bible has been lying around even longer. If the success of this movie is anything to go by, it will be around for a long time yet to come.

Mercurial Monotheism

A friend recently asked about Isaiah 45.7, “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” I remember as a college student how professors tended to translate the problem away. Perhaps I was too young to understand the truth of the Italian phrase, “Traduttore, tradittore”—if I may betray myself—“translators are traitors.” I eventually did come to learn that those who’d already decided what the Bible meant could translate troublesome passages according to their biases. In this case the connotations aren’t even necessary to raise hackles, for the denotations do so fine just by themselves. Let’s put Isaiah 45 in context first. This remarkable chapter is an oracle from the beginnings of the Persian period that show Yahweh doing things in unexpected ways. It begins by calling Cyrus the Lord’s anointed—yes, that is the Hebrew word for “messiah”—the people of Judah had been in exile a long while and Cyrus, king of Persia, was their deliverer.

Back then, as even today, some would’ve been scandalized at this turn of phrase. The Judahites were beginning to develop the idea that the messiah would be a mystical deliverer, someone who would free them from the sad lot of being deportees. Some thought the messiah might be a divine figure. Here Yahweh is declaring a non-Jew, a foreign king, as a messiah. You can be sure there was some questioning of the prophet’s words. Second Isaiah, however, throws a well-timed curve in verse 7: God can do this because God creates both good and evil. This is a consequence of emerging monotheism. In a polytheistic world, you could have a plethora of deities. Monotheism, however, quickly runs afoul of the question of evil. If there is one god, where does it come from? Deutero-Isaiah shows Yahweh is capable of surprising things. The verse’s plain sense is blatant. Bald. Obvious. Yahweh creates both good and evil. Otherwise monotheism would be making false claims.

In college professors tried to insist that “evil” here wasn’t that really bad kind of evil, but rather something milder—a filtered cigarette rather than a Cuban cigar. They were prevaricating, however, as I learned when I too took up Greek and Hebrew. Evangelicals like to read monotheism into the Bible from the beginning, but the Bible itself fights against them here. Monotheism, like everything else, evolved. By the time Isaiah 45.7 was being penned, it was necessary to show that Marduk, and Enlil, and Ishtar had nothing to do with Jerusalem’s destruction and the fate of the deportees. No, this was Yahweh’s doing. And there was no apology for it. Monotheism had come, but at the cost of Yahweh’s innocence. According to this part of the Bible, the origin of evil is no mystery—it is the same as the genesis of all good things.

Who's your messiah now?

Who’s your messiah now?