Dreadful Dander

When it first appeared, mash-up literature seemed strangely novel for such a derivative art form. I read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies with some amusement, but a nagging suspicion kept asking if I was being fair to the genius of Jane Austen. At the same time, I like zombies. A lot. I decided to give the genre another try with Coleridge Cook’s mash-up of Franz Kafka’s classic, The Metamorphosis. During a long, late-evening flight from Los Angeles to New York, I finished The Meowmorphosis with a sense of dread. Instead of seeming funny, the idea of trying to make light of Kafka’s profundity felt like a devaluation to the classics of existentialist writers. Nobody writes like Kafka, Camus, and Durrenmatt any more. These are writers who welcomed me to an adulthood that seldom makes sense, but which is often generous with pain and angst.

The story of The Metamorphosis is well known. In the Meowmorphosis, obviously, Gregor Samsa is transformed into a kitten and is thrown into the same dilemma. The book takes a detour into Kafka’s The Trial along the way, and my memory of The Castle is rusty enough that I may have missed if it was referenced as well. Kafka’s work passes over from the entertaining to the profound. Perhaps that is the mark of classic writers—they seldom make a career of their literary efforts, for most people who read do so for entertainment. The Metamorphosis is not easy going. Perhaps that’s why I reacted so viscerally to Kafka’s truly horrendous bug being presented as a fluffy kitten. The idea is funny, but Kafka seldom smiles.

My reaction shed some light on the concept of sacred writing. Historically, the first book to receive that accolade seems to have been the Bible. Specifically, the Torah. There are sacred writings older, I know, but the reception is what makes a book sacred, not its words. Anyone who has read the Bible knows that it is a mixed bag of profundity, tedious lists, and literary beauty. Even Fundamentalists seldom quote 1 Chronicles 1-9 with the same ardor as Genesis 1-11. It is our reception of texts that make them sacred. Perhaps Christianity was premature with its insistence on closing the canon. Some of the best literature, the most inspirational words ever to be penned, lay centuries in the future. Our world would likely be a better place if sacred texts continued to keep their borders open and would admit texts that had passed the test of time. In any honest Bible including the twentieth century, The Metamorphosis would find a place. What a world it could be.

Works and Fridays

In rereading Hesiod’s classic Works and Days in preparation for my mythology class, I found the similarities with the Bible to be intriguing. One of the most noteworthy features of biblical wisdom literature is its universality. In a way that many believers find difficult to swallow even today, the wisdom authors accept – perhaps extol – the wisdom of sagacious “heathens.” We live in a world where religions are frequently engaged in building walls the envy of Jericho itself, while parts of the Hebrew Bible invite outsiders to join the party without even converting. Hesiod might have been a grumpy guest, but many of his words would have struck a familiar note with old Ecclesiastes.

Be not deceived – life is hard – so Hesiod tells us. The Greek gods made humanity to fend for itself. Men first and then Pandora to cause endless trouble, like the figure of Lady Foolishness in Proverbs. The misogynistic authors wave their flag in surrender to their passions; life is hard indeed. Instead of complaining (excessively anyway), the writers of wisdom interpret this difficulty as the crowning achievement of the human spirit. The gods made us to struggle, and when we’re up against it, we’re at our best.

Both Hesiod and the Hebrew Bible remind us that gods make the rules and we must obey. The human lot in life acquires an attenuated glory through living by divine standards. We will never shine like them, but we may sometimes outshine them. In the meantime, we must live by their apparently arbitrary rules. Reading the Torah, some of the Bible’s rules seem less-than-necessary to live a decent, honest, and moral life. We are not, however, to question the will of the divine. So it is that Hesiod warns, “don’t piss standing up while facing the sun” (Stanley Lombardo’s translation). Common sense might have added “while facing into a head-wind.” Such is the difference between gods and men.

Build-A-Bible

Winter Term is underway, and one of the first aspects of the Bible I discuss with students is the fact that the Bible was a book that was compiled instead of written. In our society we are used to the concept of the Bible as a document that is unified by divine authorship, often forgetting (or ignoring) that none of the authors was intending to write a book with the tremendous authority the Bible now enjoys. Students ask how the Bible came to be; it was a process of gathering material widely utilized in Judaism. No one knows the actual composition history of the Torah, but after the Pentateuch got the process rolling, scrolls were gathered in collections and added to the Bible en masse. By the end of the first century of the Common Era, we had a Hebrew Bible.

Sometimes this historical reconstruction is a hard-sell to members of a society where a divinely written book is accepted alongside sub-atomic particles and super novas. Despite the technological sophistication that accompanies growing up in our engineered world, students are often ill-equipped to accept the Bible as a product of human exploration. The writers, whoever they were, traveled this same path of discovery that we continue to tread. They wrote down their hypotheses, based on their experience, just like modern people continue to do. The difference is they did this a very long time ago.

Those books that were selected for inclusion in the Bible became the defining documents of western civilization. Even though there is now an international space station orbiting out of sight above our heads, and even though quarks, leptons, and bosons fly out of cyclotrons large enough to encircle most small towns, God still holds a quill pen. The fixation just after the age of cuneiform is a curious one. If only God had held out for the invention of the Internet, the compilation of the Bible would have taken a very different course, I suspect. Instead of beginning its title with the word “Holy” it would more likely have commenced with “Wiki.”

Whence Moses?

Podcast 21 follows on from podcast 19 concerning Moses. Specifically, the question addressed in this podcast is the origin of Moses. While not historically attested, Moses is nonetheless an important figure in both Judaism and Christianity. How do we explain Moses if he is not historical? This podcast attempts to suggest one plausible origin for Moses while admitting that we simply do not know where he really emerges in the religious imagination of antiquity.

I Can’t Ear You

I bought a box of Q-tips in the store the other day. I noticed that the package shows humans using the cotton swabs in a variety of ways: around the eyes, nose, eyebrows, even on a computer keyboard. Everywhere but an ear. The suggestive shape of the Q-tip, as well as the received wisdom of everything from the South African name “ear buds” to Mad magazine, indicates that they were invented for ears. We all share that somewhat unsavory habit of forming earwax, and doctors warn that using cotton swabs may impact the matter and lead to complications of hearing. Q-tips (originally “Baby Gays” – check out the Q-tips website) are no longer for ears. In the back of my mind I supposed that it was because of lawyers. All it takes is one litigious sophomore and companies run to their attorneys to show that the faulty application wasn’t their suggestion.

Laws run our lives. One of the most famous, but by no means the first, law-givers was Moses. I’m pretty sure Moses didn’t say anything about what to stick in your ears, but he did lay down the laws that Neo-Cons still argue should govern our lives just like the Quran governs the laws of Iran. The laws of the Torah, however, were only meant for the Israelites. Nevertheless, laws have become means of growing wealthy. If we can prove on a technicality that my dumb mistake was somebody else’s fault, why not have that person (or better yet, company) sued to within a millimeter of their lives claiming “damages”? The law has become a means to protect the special interests of those in power. As someone who has tried scrupulously to keep the law my entire life, I sometimes find that old Moses seems to have turned against me.

Laws are meant to protect the rights of people. When did laws shift to becoming instruments of entrapment and means of income? Just before leaving Wisconsin I was driving my family home from a movie. We were talking and laughing when I came to a speed-trap area of my local town where the speed limit drops from 45 to 25 m.p.h. within a matter of inches. Religiously I always complied. Today, in the spirit of the moment, I neglected my usual caution and was pulled over. A policeman young enough to be my son lectured me on unsafe driving (I began driving when he was still wearing diapers, and I had never been given a ticket before because I am not a speeder) before issuing me a citation. My wife couldn’t believe it – she knows that I never speed. One of my last memories of Wisconsin is being unfairly targeted by a law devised to bring money to the local police force. It has nothing to do with safety, since there were no houses or buildings for several hundred yards yet after the slow-down zone. Has the law come to free us or oppress us? Lawyers watch our backs, and law-makers watch their wallets. I want to ask Moses, but I’m afraid I won’t hear him. I seem to have a cotton swab stuck in my ear.

Lead us not into temptation...

Tackling the Tabernacle

Over the weekend a student question led me to think about the inconsistencies of ancient thoughts of holiness and how it fits into a naturalistic world. The question concerned the tabernacle as described in the Torah. The Levites were responsible for the grunt work of physically breaking down and carrying the holy furniture such as the menorah, table, incense altar, and ark of the covenant. One of the reasons for this was that the holiness on a sacred object clung to anything or anyone that touched it, causing a potentially catastrophic mix. At the same time, there were also prohibitions against touching the furniture or even seeing it. By the time the poles were inserted to avert the former danger, the latter prohibition would have already been violated. How did they do this?

Overall, the Israelites did not push ideas to logical extremes. In other words, the extension of holiness to other objects (and people), while it clearly happens, does not always follow a logical direction and culmination. If special ritual precautions were taken, the danger of approaching holy objects was removed or at least temporarily neutralized. Since there is not logical way out of this conundrum, the Bible itself simply doesn’t address the issue. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” also apparently applies to the holy. When describing set-up and take-down procedure for the tabernacle, the Bible simply ignores this puzzling issue.

Probably the most salient point of all concerning ancient texts is that concerning intent. If the Torah is describing literal, historical events then this is a scientific problem to be resolved. If, however, the tabernacle is a foreshadowing of the temple in the wilderness, a literary metaphor reflecting Israel’s history back into a non-historical setting, then the question becomes a literary one. No archaeological evidence exists for the exodus or wilderness wanderings of the Torah, causing many to suggest they were not so much historical events as they might have been theological explanations. They are “foundation stories” like those all nations have. These stories helped to explain why the monarchy failed to achieve perpetuity – the chosenness of the Israelites only lasted so long but not forever – according to those who are theologians.

I appreciated the question. It is only by thinking seriously about the implications of Bible stories that we are able to get a handle on what might have been originally in mind for those who gave us our religious heritage.

Gabriel L. Fink's tabernacle from WikiCommons

WWJWF?

On the way to work yesterday, my wife spotted an old billboard ad that read, “My birthday wish: Protect life from conception until natural death. Jesus.” Now, I realize that this is a belated birthday response (or perhaps premature – scholars of the Christian Scriptures tell me Jesus was likely born in April), but I felt compelled to exegete this wish. In the biblical world, which, by definition, includes Jesus, there was no such thing as conception as we know it. Ancient folk did not know about sperm and ova, and so “conception” was simply the act of carrying a child. When it began they did not know. The Bible is pretty clear that breath indicates life, so life begins at the moment of the first breath. Everyone in the first century knew that.

As a good Jewish believer, Jesus also knew that the Bible dictates scores of reasons that life would not end naturally. Many acts considered normal and healthy today were singled out in the Torah as offenses against the almighty, and many were worthy of the death penalty. If natural death is the divine will, well, father and son ought to have a heart-to-heart talk. I will go on the record as opposed to capital punishment. Heck, I’ll go on the record as a pacifist and a vegetarian too. I do so, however, fully aware that the Bible has a different view.

My concern with billboards like this is that they co-opt a figure who cannot correct the human errors of misreading emotion for righteousness. Anyone with money can make up a birthday wish for Jesus and, with a willing vendor, splay it out for all passing motorists to see. I respect the sanctity of life, but I don’t force my wishes into Jesus’ mouth. We have the Bible, we have brains. For those who want to know what Jesus really wished for, it is a simple a matter as reading a book.

Moses and the Problem of Torah

Podcast 19 concerns the dilemma of Moses as the bringer of Torah and how the historical record suggests Israel received the “law” from Ezra several centuries later.