Outside In

Work duties necessitate my attendance at the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting, starting Friday, in Denver.  Given the state of the pandemic I can’t say that I’m thrilled to be attending, but work is work.  What really prompts this post, however, is the travel arrangements.  The agency I used is based overseas.  They customarily send a fact sheet about the country to which you’re traveling—in this case, my own.  It was fascinating to read how the rest of the world rates the United States.  Overall we receive a pretty good score, but there are a few items of concern.  One is that mass shootings are not uncommon.  The guide laconically states “Due to the wide availability and proliferation of arms across the United States, high-profile shootings occur.”  This is not wrong.

It goes on to note that if you can avoid being shot, crime rates are overall low in the US.  Disease, apart from Covid-19, is well under control.  While organized crime and gang problems are mentioned, it notes that open conflict between states does not exist.  It seems that, despite the rhetoric of certain politicians who like to use hatred to get their way, we do tend to cooperate pretty well.  We have plenty of micro-cultures here, and I know that I’m only comfortable living in a northern one.  I like four distinct seasons, and I don’t mind shoveling snow, but I’m getting away from my guide.  Hurricanes are a risk on the east coast through November and wildfires are possible in the west, also largely through November.  Earthquakes are localized and infrequent.  We live with a heightened risk of terrorism, but our medical care is good.  If expensive.  We have good dental.  

While I didn’t really learn anything about the United States per se, I did learn a little about how others view us.  We are a nation with tremendous resources and great potential.  Our melting pot nature is, I believe, the source of our cooperative strength.  We are still, after two centuries, suffering growing pains because there are some who want things the way they used to be in spite of the incessant, almost daily, changes that take place.  There is no turning back.  After the apple has been eaten you can’t unlearn that knowledge.  The recent elections spoke pretty clearly: we believe in democracy and we support women’s rights.  That’s how we see ourselves.  How the world sees us, however, may be quite a different interpretation.

Latin Goddesses

Armed with her shield and trident, as if blending those ancient rivals Athena and Poseidon, Britannia sits proudly atop buildings and plinths of the United Kingdom. She is an hypostasis of the island itself, and as Britain catapulted toward empire status, the goddess was adopted as her protector. She even appears on the coin of the realm. Literally. Across the Atlantic Ocean, those coming into New York City via boat (and occasionally jet) see the familiar green lady standing in the harbor. Generally called the Statue of Liberty, the woman is actually Libertas, another Latin goddess, the personification of freedom. She too has appeared on the coinage of her adoptive nation, although she has been replaced mostly by the more human heads of state and symbols of civil religion. In Great Britain, Charles Darwin appears on the reverse of the ten-pound note.

I’m sure that Britain and the United States are not the only nations to honor goddesses in their national mythology. Whenever nations want to display what is truly noble and to symbolize their highest aspirations, they choose goddesses. Ironically, some of the nations to do so hold a stringently Christian view of themselves, as if Yahweh were battling it out with an old, divorced spouse. Civil religion, however, should not be confused with doctrinal belief systems and dogma. These insidious agitators have forged the weapons with which religions daily clash. Masculine religions brook no rivals.

As Britannia sits in my pocket, and Libertas reigns in my head, I think of the nations run with male agendas and their goddess consorts. The temples to Britannia and Libertas are in the Square Mile and on Wall Street, for lucre always assumes the superior position in any relationship. I fondly recall the days when goddesses had actual power. Of course, the skies have always been empty, with the exception of our imaginations, but once the belief that protective goddesses were there gave humans cause for hope. Maybe they grew a little ambitious now and then, but the Latin goddesses always had the best interest of their patrons in mind. Have we outlived our need for goddesses? That will only happen when mothers and nature’s best protectors are no longer necessary. The Latin goddesses will long outlive our civilization.

The Chosen Peoples

My thanks go to Simon & Schuster for sending me a review copy of Todd Gitlin and Liel Leibovitz’s new book, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election (2010). Briefly, the book traces the origins of the concept of being a chosen people in both Israel and the United States. This concept is then shown in relief with those who are “unchosen.” The authors conclude by highlighting the national sense of mutual goodwill between Israel and the United States. The full text of this review is on the Full Essays page of this blog.

I read this book wearing multiple hats. Since the first chapter traces Israel’s sense of chosenness from Biblical times to the present, I began by wearing my Biblical Scholar hat. Many of the questions asked and raised about the Bible reveal a naivety about traditional claims of biblical authorship. Although certainty cannot be achieved, biblical scholars have applied textual and literary techniques to the text for well over a century now, and many of the claims simply accepted by Gitlin and Leibovitz simply do not stand up. This may seem a minor flaw, but since Abraham is foundational to this outlook, it is essential to at least consider his lack of historical attestation. Gitlin and Leibovitz assume that Genesis, with its stories of Abraham, predates the books that follow. This is not a safe assumption to make, and using this background as a foundation for further analysis might well lead to structural problems with the argument later on.

Wearing the hat of an historian, I noticed how much of the force of the argument of the book is interwoven with the idea that God has actually chosen Israel. I have told my students for many years now that historians do not make claims on God or God’s alleged activities. Texts that narrate God’s actions tend to be classified as myths rather than history. The concept of chosenness, which Gitlin and Leibovitz are reluctant to relinquish, is based on the premise that God has indeed done the choosing. An historian would be extremely reticent to make such a claim. Having noted this concern, the authors do a fine job of providing a brief, readable history of the founding of modern Israel without recourse to what God was doing in the twentieth century. When the authority of the Bible is needed, it is quoted here in King James English, hardly the most accurate translation available.

Gitlin and Leibovitz suggest that chosenness is more a curse, at times, than a blessing. The reasoning seems to be that the concept of chosenness leads inexorably to Zionism. The ideas interact on a much more subtle level than that, although certainly the Zionist movement has owed and continues to owe quite a heavy debt to the concept. The generalizations here are a bit broad – political motivations may not receive their full due. Toward the end of the chapter the ideology of messianism is engaged and brought into the discussion. It is not clear that messianism is the same as chosenness; the two ideas both emerge in Judaism, but do not always overlap. When the authors state that Zionism has always been messianic at heart (p. 57), that may be correct, but it does not necessarily reflect chosenness. Gitlin and Leibovitz are very good at pointing out the inconsistent application of the idea of messianism in the formative stages of the modern state of Israel.

Please see the Full Essays page for the remainder of this review.