Biblical Museum

The Museum of the Bible has never successfully steered itself away from controversy.  Just a couple weeks back a story on NPR reported that federal authorities have determined that one of the MOB’s tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh is a stolen artifact and it must go back to Iraq.  While I don’t question the decision, I was a bit surprised that the Feds knew or cared anything about cuneiform documents.  My academic specialization was Ugaritic, which is a language that was written in cuneiform.  I quickly learned after my doctorate that no jobs exist for Ugaritologists, so you have to style yourself as a biblical scholar.  The Museum of the Bible seems quite aware of the connection, but don’t go there looking for tablets.  They belong elsewhere.

There is a public fascination with cuneiform, it seems.  That doesn’t translate into jobs for those who know how to read wedge-writing since universities have become places of business.  Their product—what they sell—is called “education” but in reality it is accreditation.  Anyone who’s really driven can get a fairly decent bit of knowledge from the internet, if it’s used wisely.  The most reputable sources are behind pay walls of course.  What kind of civilization would give away knowledge for free?  Anything can be commodified, even the knack for reading dead languages.  One of the perks you pick up by studying this stuff officially is that artifacts really belong where they were found.  Unprovenanced pieces are now routinely ignored by specialists because they’re so easily faked.  That doesn’t stop those who can afford to from buying them.  Right, Mr. Green?  You’ve got to beware of the seller, though.

A few years back many of us watched with horror as extremists destroyed ancient artifacts kept in Syria’s museums.  These were objects we’d spent years of our lives studying, and which cannot be replaced.  They were “at home” where they belonged, but where some, at least, clearly didn’t appreciate them.  Those of us who’ve studied ancient history recognized such behavior, I’m afraid.  We’d read about it in documents as ancient as the artifacts being sledgehammered right there on the internet.  Or you can buy such documents illegally sold and put them in a museum dedicated to a book that says somewhere that “thou shalt not bear false witness.”  Such are the ironies of history.  But then, as its provenance shows, that sentiment is apparently a museum piece as well.

Photo credit: Chaos, via Wikimedia Commons

Shipping Good News

Some say the infrastructure of this country is crumbling. It’s something I try not to think much about when I’m on the Helix or in the Lincoln Tunnel, but the concrete of those aging piers doesn’t look too healthy to me. So when I see a truck with a religious message, I guess I’m supposed to take comfort. On a recent drive along interstate 80, the great New York to San Francisco highway, we passed a Sam Kholi truck. You can tell a Sam Kholi truck because they declare “Jesus Christ is Lord, not a swear word” in bold letters on the side. The back has just the first part of the aphorism followed by “Almighty God the First and the Last.” A little research revealed that Sam Kholi is from Syria and now lives in San Diego. Many Americans, in these days of Trump, don’t realize that many “middle easterners” are indeed Christian. I got my start in publishing from a Syrian Christian. Prejudging is seldom a good idea.

Sam Kholi is combining his faith with his practice—something that harkens back to more ancient forms of religion. Lived religion used to be the only kind of religion. Once it was systematized, it became an academic pursuit. Knowing precisely what you believed became more important than what you did with it. Today’s religion, at least in these hallowed states, seems to be purely a matter of what you believe. Whether you live morally, treat others justly, or even pay attention to what the Bible says about caring for those in need, none of this matters as long as you believe the right thing. The result is people suffer. No matter, orthodoxy is secure.

Since our actions are more vocal than our words, I’m amazed and perplexed by what many evangelicals say. They are the ones who claim for themselves the literal truth of Jesus’ words. How they can deny the rights and needs of others based on race, gender, or sexual orientation is a mystery given the many passages in the Bible concerning forgiveness and love. When it comes to religion as how you live, apparently it is one size fits all. Driving, it seems to me, is one of the places where lived religion is put to its harshest test. Religion is how we live with others, and driving is how we show what we really believe. It takes a tremendous amount of faith to paint your belief on the side of a truck.

Classic Fiction

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the ancient documents still widely recognized, at least by name. Many introductions to literature, or the western canon, refer to it. It is, in some senses of the phrase, the world’s first classic. I’ve read Gilgamesh enough times not to know how many times it’s been. During my doctoral days I was focusing on the literature of neighboring Syria (long before it was called “Syria”). As an aside, Syria seems to have gotten its name from the fact that non-semitic visitors had trouble saying “Assyria” (which was the empire that ruled Syria at the time). Leaving off the initial vowel (which was actually a consonant in Semitic languages) they gave us the name of a country that never existed. In as far as Syria was a “country” it was known as “Aram” by the locals. Back to the topic at hand:

Although the story of Gilgamesh may be timeless, translations continue to appear. It won’t surprise my regular readers that I’m a few behind. I finally got around to Maureen Gallery Kovacs’ translation, titled simply The Epic of Gilgamesh. Updating myself where matters stood in the late 1980s, it was nevertheless good to come back to the tale. For those of you whose Lit 101 could use a little refreshing, Gilgamesh was a Mesopotamian king who oppressed his people. (And this was well before 2017.) The gods sent a wild man named Enkidu as a kind of distraction from his naughty behaviors. In an early example of a bromance, the two go off to kill monsters together, bonding as only heroes can. They do, however, offend the gods since hubris seems to be the lot of human rulers, and Enkidu must die. Forlorn about seeing a maggot fall out of his dead friend’s nose, Gilgamesh goes to find the survivor of the flood, Utnapishtim, to find out how to live forever. He learns he can’t and the epic concludes with a sadder but wiser king.

The fear of death is ancient and is perhaps the greatest curse of consciousness. When people sat down to start writing, one of the first topics they addressed was precisely this. Gilgamesh is still missing some bits (that may have improved since the last millennium, of course) but enough remains to see that it was and is a story that means something to mere mortals. Ancient stories, as we discovered beginning the century before mine, had long been addressing the existential crises of being human. Thus it was, and so it remains. No wonder Gilgamesh is called the first classic. If only all rulers would seek the truth so ardently.

Criticism Is Not Attack

Each administration of George W. Bush was marked by a major disaster. 9-11 was followed four years later by Hurricane Katrina. The United States had received a one-two punch. I recently read Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. This is a book that should be read by every American, and it wouldn’t hurt others to read it too. This account follows the lives of a New Orleans family through the aftermath of Katrina. The main character, a tradesman named Abdulrahman Zeitoun, is a permanent resident of the United States from Syria. His wife Kathy, a convert to Islam, was American. When Katrina bore down on New Orleans, Kathy took their kids to safety with friends while Abdulrahman (known by many as Zeitoun) stayed in the city to look after the properties they owned. When the flooding had engulfed entire sections of the city, Zeitoun paddled about in a canoe, rescuing those he could, and even feeding abandoned dogs. Family and friends urged him to evacuate, but he felt he was doing good. Until he was arrested on his own property and imprisoned for being Syrian.

In a wrenching account based on interviews with Zeitoun and Kathy, Eggers describes how the US government quickly set up Guantanamo Bay-style prisons rather than attempting to rescue those stranded in their homes. Zeitoun was arrested and never informed of the charges, although he heard paramilitary guards armed with machine guns uttering “Taliban” and “al-Qaeda” at him. He watched as a mentally disabled man was pepper-sprayed by soldiers when he clearly couldn’t understand what they were commanding him to do. Despite having government issued ID and good standing as a business owner in New Orleans, Zeitoun was presumed guilty because of his profile: “Arabic” and Muslim. As Eggers reminds us, Homeland Security is now the administrative head of FEMA, and those that Homeland Security distrusts (all of us) are potential terrorists rather than citizens in need of help during times of disaster.

I grew up in a rather monochromatic part of the country, but as I traveled I met and befriended those of differing nationalities, including Syrians. Those considered “the others” by xenophobic bureaucrats are just as kind, loving, and good as those of us born under the sign of the cross with “white” skin. Zeitoun stands as an indictment of the jingoism that has come to be recognized as the only legitimate American citizenship. Zeitoun spent nearly a month in maximum security prison before being released after a makeshift trial, when no evidence existed that he’d done anything wrong. What has happened to the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free? They’ve become the enemies of the state. I know, Katrina engendered extraordinary circumstances. Extraordinary circumstances, from a “Christian” view, however, demand extraordinary sympathy. Do the nation a favor. Before November, read Zeitoun.

Unorthodox Accreditation

While going about my editorial duties, I found myself directed to the webpage of the Antioch School of Church Planting in Ames, Iowa. Okay, I’ll admit that the fact that I spent the holidays in Ames may have been what actually motivated me to look. Over the past twenty-some years I’ve spent many holidays in Ames, but I never knew of this particular institution. I had been checking up on somebody’s status when I found the Distance Education and Training Council. The DETC is an accrediting body. In a world where we can’t take anyone’s word for it—especially not a bunch of academics’ many words for anything—we have invented accrediting bodies. These watchdog groups maintain the high academic standards that we like to mix well with our beer and football to make the American college experience. The DETC, however, scopes out remote education programs. Often these schools have no campus. The ASCP is accredited by the DETC.

So I poked around Antioch for a while. The name is taken from the ancient Syrian city where the early Christians first earned their title. It became clear in a fraction of a second that this accredited program is an ultra-conservative answer to seminary education. How to get what looks like a regular degree to improve your indoctrination. Instead of being bemused (one seemingly appropriate response), I was actually a little bit disturbed. Education occurs every day in non-structured ways. I can get a whole life lesson just walking across Times Square. When we want standards of comparison, however, we rely on tried and tested schools to offer us degrees. When a program that supports opinions that run counter to the educational system’s standards gets accreditation, we all need to watch out. Somebody call the Bureau of Weights and Measures!

The distrust of academia often does not apply to such self-promoting schools. Americans tend to love self-made doyens who bring education down-home. As far as I could tell from the website, the Antioch School is an extension of a local Bible Church that is intended to provide future clergy with home-baked degrees. That in itself isn’t a problem, of course, but when the wider public doesn’t know the inner workings of higher education, and generally distrusts it, who’s to say whether any degree is valid or not? Aren’t all bachelors created equal? Not really. Accrediting doesn’t prevent abuses from slipping through the system—I’ve seen it happen firsthand, right under accrediting teams’ noses. It is a game we play. You can earn a master’s degree or a doctorate in planting churches. And if you ask me, that’s the same thing as getting a degree in planting corn, only much less scientific.

No way through this maze.

Freedom or Religion

Reform seems to be in the air. Its effectiveness varies from location to location, but what remains constant is the impact on religion. Or religions’ impacts on those dissatisfied with its application. As Syria begins to follow Egypt and Libya, a sense that the authoritarianism imposed by religious ideals is somehow flawed is sublimated in the news, yet clearly present. Regimes, be they Islamic, Christian, Hindu, or any other belief system, count on unquestioned authority to maintain control. Even the Catholic Church has been toying with reform – quietly, slowly – for any admission of change calls into question the authoritarian roots of power. Once that basis begins to crack, freedom has a chance to emerge.

In American society where freedom has perhaps blossomed most fully, there should be no surprise that a religious backlash is underway. In many ways liberty and religion stand at odds with each other. Religions make universal claims, drawing authority from none other than the One who started it all. Freedom begins at the ground and works its way up. Humans are natural followers, flock animals. Remember, Jesus said he was like a shepherd. When the shepherds apply the crook a little too liberally, even the sheep begin to plot. In many nations of the Middle East, the faithful have been kept in poverty and subservience. The Berlin Wall, however, was in the minds of the intimidated.

The United States has even backed the cause of the oppressed overseas, attempting to break up dictatorships that began before I was old enough to remember. And yet in our own backyard the Religious Right continues to make America like a western version of Syria or Libya. A nation of people under the rule of legislated morality that certain distorted versions of the Christian gospel advocate. Prevent equal rights to women and minorities by keeping the seat of power within the WASP community, although you may have to bring in some Catholics and Mormons to assist with the cause. The eyes of the world are on the Middle East, for any whiff of freedom, however faint, is cause for hope.

Be Kind to Your Canaanites

You can never find a Canaanite when you need one. This has been the bane of scholars of the Ancient Near East for many years. While teaching my class on Ancient Near Eastern Religions the question frequently arises: who are the Canaanites? Problem is, nobody really knows.

The Canaanites have prominence in the ancient world due to the Bible. The people already occupying the land that would one day become Israel are called Canaanites. They appear to have been culturally contiguous with Aramaeans in what is now Syria, the Phoenicians in what is now Lebanon, and even with the Israelites. While there are references to the Canaanites in antiquity, we have yet to discover a people who call themselves Canaanites (unless the Phoenician inscription from Brazil is legitimate!). Canaanite, at this point in time, is only attested as a name used for somebody else. “They are Canaanites,” not “we are Canaanites.”

An Egyptian version of a Canaanite

In this we have a useful paradigm. Today religions continue the “us versus them” mentality. In the Hebrew Bible it is often open season on Canaanites since they worship other gods. Today this fear and distrust continues with members of some religions declaring war on those in other traditions. Sometimes it is even within a single religion: Catholic versus Protestant, Baptist versus Catholic, or everyone versus Unitarians.

Religion is, however, always taken on faith. No technique exists to determine, empirically, which is the “true religion” or whether they are all paths up the same mountain. Religions are not fact, they are belief. And religions evolve. It would be the greatest evolutionary leap forward for religions to accept each other, to do away with the ersatz Canaanites. Not that Canaanites should be decimated or eradicated, but they should be accepted for who they are. Who are the Canaanites? They are anyone who practices a religion different from your own.