Thursday, December 30, 2010

Matthew 2: Have a Very Bloody Christmas!

So I held off on my Christmas post until after Christmas this year, because frankly, it's not very nice. I didn't want to mar your holiday--full of presents and nogs and carols and midnight masses--with a less savory, but no less pertinent, Christmastime image:

Dead babies.

Now hold on: don't click your browser's "back" button yet. I'm not trying to be unnecessarily provocative here.

I'm just telling you that if you want to think seriously--and Biblically--about the story of Jesus's birth, you may consider wandering wise men, singing angels, flabbergasted shepherds, and virgin births. But you must also ponder their cost: the death of every infant in and around Bethlehem.

I'm always struck by the stark differences that separate Luke's Christmas story from Matthew's. (Remember that John and Mark don't even mention Jesus's birth; both gospels begin instead with Christ's baptism.)

Luke's account of the nativity is the one most frequently read at Christmas Eve services, and it's easy to see why: the gospel gives us, in measured narrative detail, the census that draws Joseph to Bethlehem, the manger birth, the angel choristers singing "Glory to God," and the shepherds' adoration. And it ends so peacefully, with a new mother's quiet reflection: "Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart" (Luke 2:19).

Not so with Matthew, for whom the delivery of the Christ child happens abruptly, in a dependent clause attached to a sentence addressing Mary and Joseph's sexless relationship: "he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son." And Matthew adds, almost as an afterthought, "and he named him Jesus" (Matthew 1: 24-25).

Matthew's one lasting contribution to the popular, synthesized version of the nativity story is the wise men (Greek: magi), who astrologically predict the Messiah's birth and then follow a star to Bethlehem to find him. However, on the way, they make a fateful misstep that will turn Matthew's nativity story into a bloody tragedy.

In the beginning of the second chapter, the magi stop by King Herod's palace to confirm their findings. They ask the testy monarch, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage" (2:2).

In considering their approach, it's always hard for me to understand how such "wise" men could be so daft. You don't go to the king of the Jews and ask, "Hey, can you tell us where we can find the king of the Jews?" That's almost as stupid as bringing embalming fluid to a baby shower. (Oh wait ... they do that too.)

Not surprisingly, Herod is threatened; he is king, and a Messiah would mean an end to his reign--and likely his life. Thus, he tries to turn these not-so-wise men into spies--a recon crew for a band of assassins to follow. And while a pair of divine dreams--one for the magi, one for Joseph--save Jesus's life and send the holy family fleeing to Egypt, the damage has already been done.

If Herod cannot use a scalpel to remove this tumorous young king, he will use a machete: "When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men" (2:16).

Thus in Matthew, one very special baby's life is spared, but countless others are lost. And the second chapter of this gospel delivers not singing and peace, but slaughter and flight.

For at least two twentieth-century authors--Albert Camus in The Fall and Jose Saramago in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ--the massacre of infants in Matthew is the salient fact of the Christmas story. No amount of straw and swaddling can cover this miniature genocide.

Camus's Jesus lives knowing that not even he is truly blameless; this spotless lamb has some blood on his hands, even if those hands kill no one. And Saramago's Jesus is forever tortured by a guilty conscience that will not let him forget these innocent dead. For both men, Jesus will carry the memory of these small ones--who died for him--all the way to the cross.

So as you sit to dine this Christmas week, bow your heads not only for Jesus, the proverbial reason for the season, but for the babies of Bethlehem who died in his stead.
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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Stephen Colbert on the Baby Jesus

It's Christmas week, and I have yet to buy all my presents, brew my own egg nog, or fashion a yule log from real yule. So serious contemplation on Biblical topics--or whatever it is I do here on a weekly basis--will have to go by the wayside for the holiday season.

But I'm pleased to say that on the last episode before his own holiday break, Stephen Colbert delivered the best Christmas sermon I've heard in years. So I pass it along to you, with warmest season's greetings.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Jesus Is a Liberal Democrat
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire Blog</a>March to Keep Fear Alive
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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Little Plastic Crosses, or, Religion and the Politics of Censorship

In 1515, in the central panel of his Isenheim altarpiece triptych, the German painter Matthias Grunevald created the most macabre artistic depiction of Jesus's crucifixion ever put on canvas. No other artwork I can think of so effectively preserves the raw horror of this violent execution.

In Grunevald's painting, the Savior's body is muscled, but emaciated and contorted. His skin is pulled taut over bone and sinew, like cellophane over rancid meat. His flesh is a sickly pallor--a jaundiced yellow--and covered in scrapes and sores. A patchy beard surrounds bluish lips drained of blood, and the crown of thorns that sits atop his head is more properly a full turban of brambles tearing at Jesus's scalp.

But worst of all are the nails that pierce Christ's hands and feet. The spikes pull and distort his skin, ripping open wounds that release blood thick as candle wax. Grunewald's coup de grace is Jesus's hands, menacingly curled into stiff claws that scream the pain racking the messiah's body.

Fittingly, Mary faints, stage right.

I thought of Grunewald's painting while I read coverage, this past weekend, of the National Portrait Gallery's removal of a video by David Wojnarowicz from an exhibit entitled "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture." (Wojnarowicz produced the brief piece, called "A Fire in My Belly," after losing his long-time partner to AIDS.)

In pulling the film, the Gallery was bowing to pressure from Catholic League President Bill Donahue and, later, Republican Congressman Eric Cantor, who threatened the museum's funding. (Apparently, it made no difference that "Hide/Seek" was entirely financed by private donors.)

Donahue and Cantor disapproved of a dozen-second clip, buried deep in the film, of what appears to be a small, plastic crucifix overrun by ants. According to the Times, Cantor called the film an "outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season." Donahue echoed, "I’m not going to buy the argument that this is some statement about some poor guy dying of AIDS. Was this supposed to be a Christmas present to Catholics?" (Over the weekend, Frank Rich argued that the video's censorship had less to do with religion than with sexuality, and labeled Donahue's crusade "gay bashing.")

I find the video enigmatic, eerie, and surprisingly moving--not offensive. But don't take my word for it--or Mr. Donahue's. The video follows in its entirety, though I note that it contains a masturbation scene that may not be suitable for younger viewers:

Now, you may find this video objectionable. You may find it gross, or irreligious, or tasteless. You may believe, with Cantor and Donahue, that it should not be part of a national exhibition. And perhaps someday, we can have a cup of coffee and discuss whether or not the government has the right to censor art that you think is degenerate.

But Donahue, Cantor, and the rest of their supporters seem to miss a crucial point in banning the film for its putative obscenity: by comparison, the crucifixion itself is unbearably more obscene! It is violent, provocative, disturbing--an unconscionable execution. It is cruel and unusual punishment. It is torture. It is all that Grunewald paints and more.

And, unbelievably, it is the central symbol of Christianity.

Further, its thorough provocation must swallow the "offense" that may or may not be induced by Wojnarowicz's little film. The vertiginous affront of Christ on the cross dwarfs politicians' mock outrage at insects on vinyl. To know the crucifixion is to know that we can only strive to tame its unruly semantic power--its offensiveness. We cannot add to it.

Which is why I keep returning to Grunewald and the Isenheim altarpiece when thinking over "A Fire in My Belly." This painting reminds us of the crucifixion's insuperable, disgusting force. For me, "Fire" looks small by comparison. And Cantor and Donahue look smaller still. Click here for more

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Noah's Ark Theme Park?

When I was a kid, I used to go to Noah's Ark, a sweet-ass water park in the Dells region of central Wisconsin. The best slide was "The Plunge," a head-first, straight-down shot that dropped riders 1240 feet in 0.5 seconds. (My source for these numbers is an eight year-old version of myself.)

What did Noah's Ark--the water park--have to do with the "real" Noah's Ark described in the opening chapters of Genesis? Absolutely nothing. Except for, um, lots of water.

Sadly, some businesspeople in rural Kentucky won't stand for figurative water-park titles, so they're are in the process of raising $150,000,000 for an actual Noah's Ark-themed adventure center, complete with--you guessed it--a Biblically inspired reconstruction of the big boat. The project has drawn some criticism, however, as Kentucky's governor has offered the group backing it--a conservative Christian ministry called "Answers in Genesis"--some very generous tax breaks.

Here's an artist' rendering, courtesy of "Ark Encounter":

In a story published today, The New York Times quotes one of the project planners on the rationale behind the recreation: "We want to show how Noah would have taken care of [the animals], taken care of waste management, taken care of water needs and food needs."

Well holy crap (literally). I've always wanted to visit a park devoted to recreating the "waste management" methods of mythical Mesopotamians.

So you can suck it, "The Plunge"! I'm going to the real Noah's Ark next summer! Click here for more

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Genesis 9: Rep. John Shimkus, the Flood, and Global Warming

A lot of American greens are getting very nervous that John Shimkus might nab the chair of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee--the group responsible for setting the U.S. House of Representatives' environmental agenda.

Why? Apparently, God told Shimkus that global warming isn't a real threat. Comforting, eh?

Speaking before a subcommittee meeting last March, Shimkus backed up his skepticism with Biblical evidence taken from Genesis and Matthew. Here's the Youtube clip, in all its grainy terrifying-ness:

To borrow a line from Tony Kushner, parsing this argument is like throwing darts at Jell-O; there are no satisfying hits. But let me see if I can try to break down the "theological" parts of this rambling mess.

Shimkus's first quote comes from Genesis 8, in the moments after Noah emerges from the ark onto the still-drying earth. Speaking to the head of the only family to survive the watery apocalypse, God calls a truce:

"I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.
As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,
summer and winter, day and night,
shall not cease" (8:21-22).

Shimkus's second text--and yes, it sounds like he's getting ready to preach a Protestant sermon --comes from Matthew: "And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other" (24:31).

He concludes this bizarre Bible minute with a quick exegesis: "The earth will end only when God declares its time is over. Man will not destroy this earth; earth will not be destroyed by a flood."

Apparently, Shimkus believes that God's promise in Genesis--that he won't wipe out mankind again--means that global warming is a myth, because God won't let us hurt ourselves. (I think?) And the Matthew passage confirms that God will only usher in total global catastrophe on his own timetable. (I've never quite understood why conservative Christians take such solace in the notion of apocalypse. Granted, they probably assume they're on the right side, but come on: it's still the end of the world, right?)

As Politico reported a couple weeks back, Shimkus still stands by these claims, and as a result, he is unlikely to push for meaningful climate legislation if named chair of Energy and Commerce. This is disturbing stuff, in no small part because we should start shaking in our collective tunics if our legislators have begun governing on literalist readings of the Bible.

But for what it's worth, Shimkus is playing fast and loose with scripture here--especially Genesis--and his Biblical logic is pretty far off.

To begin, it's worth noting that no environmentalist believes that global warming is tantamount to "the earth ending"; its results may be devastating, but it is not the apocalypse. But just for fun, let's assume that when Shimkus speaks of the end of the world, he's actually referring to significant environmental disaster.

His first assumption--that only God can or will bring along such disaster--falls by the wayside in the second half of Genesis, when earth-cracking drought imperils God's chosen (Jacob's family) and drives them to Egypt, where they will eventually be enslaved. There is no evidence in the text that God sends this deadly drought, and Jacob and company only survive it by the cunning of his black-sheep son, Joseph.

Shimkus's second assumption--that man will not bring environmental calamity on himself--is also incorrect by Biblical standards. In 2 Samuel 24, David angers the Lord, who threatens the nation of Israel with drought and famine once more. And though David ultimately receives a different punishment (pestilence, hooray!), the passage leaves open the possibility that God's people can invite meteorological cataclysm whether or not the eschatological timetable demands it.

Shimkus is on firmer ground with his third claim--that "earth will not be destroyed by a flood." However, he draws from the wrong passage for support. Indeed, God makes that promise not in Genesis 8, but in 9:15, which reads, "waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh." (Whether or not water may one day destroy some flesh remains to be seen, but I'll let Shimkus's hope stand for a moment.)

That being said, let me go on the record as saying that I wouldn't trust the post-diluvian God any farther than I could throw him. Why? Well, God's promise in Genesis 9--that he will not destroy humanity by "water"--is actually an attenuation of his oath in Genesis 8, where he swears he will not destroy humanity at all.

Many Bible scholars note this syntactical distinction and argue that God is hedging his bets. After all, it took all of a half-dozen chapters to get from Eden to Studio 54-style debauchery--and the deluge; who's to say that God won't want to fire away at a new set of heathen a few more verses down the line? (Sodom and Gomorrah, anyone?) Said differently, I'm not sure I even believe God in Genesis 9, so I sure wouldn't want to base federal energy policy on a fickle Lord's promises.

In summary, Shimkus shouldn't be legislating on the basis of his Biblical knowledge--first, because doing so violates the first amendment, but second, because his Biblical knowledge kinda sucks. Click here for more

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Psalm 65: Happy Thanksgiving!

It's Thanksgiving week, and I'm giving you a Thanksgiving post. I'm so cute and considerate--just like your great aunt, who sends you a card every year.

And when you're looking for a Thanksgiving Bible verse, there's no better place to turn than to the Psalms. Why?

Well, I've mentioned previously the work of Hermann Gunkel, the German scholar who first suggested that the Psalms fall into a variety of different generic categories: psalms of lament, hymns of praise, songs for the king, etc. Gunkel also argued that one of the most important minor genres includes thanksgiving psalms.

Makes my job easy, huh?

So this week, I give you my favorite, a passage from Psalm 65 in which the author praises God for the earth's bounty--indeed, in which the earth itself seems to break into joyous shouts. Here are verses 8 through 13, with my warmest Thanksgiving wishes:

"Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs;
you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.
You visit the earth and water it,
you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
you provide the people with grain,
for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly,
settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
and blessing its growth.
You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy." Click here for more

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Mark 5: On Exorcism

This past weekend, American bishops met in Baltimore to prepare themselves for a rite that many thought had gone the way of other now-defunct Roman Catholic practices ... like public berating of long-winded priests, or pantsing of the smallest monk, or nun-flying.

The ritual that just won't die? Exorcism.

The New York Times quotes Notre Dame's R. Scott Appleby in explaining the bishops' rationale: "It’s a strategy for saying: 'We are not the Federal Reserve, and we are not the World Council of Churches. We deal with angels and demons'." And I have to admit that every time I watch The Exorcist, I'm totally on board. Please, Catholics, please: train crack demon-hunters, and keep them at the ready! Regan scares the argyle socks off of me.

Conference organizer Thomas Paprocki hedges his bets, however, by pointing out that exorcism is necessary only in very special cases: “It’s only used in those cases where the Devil is involved in an extraordinary sort of way in terms of actually being in possession of the person."

Still, the notion that the Devil might "actually be in possession" of anyone raises eyebrows. Epilepsy might have looked very much like possession to a medieval scientist--and depressives may feel as if a devil sits on their chest--but today's physicians and psychologists have the diagnostic tools to banish demons from our collective lives. We are not possessed; we have seizures. We are not possessed; we are paranoid schizophrenics.

But make no mistake, if the Catholics are on shaky medical ground, they remain on sound scriptural ground. The Biblical record is clear: this world is infested with malevolent spirits who can and will possess.

I often suggest to students that the Gospel of Mark is so full of demons that it is best read as a horror story. (I'd love to see William Friedkin's film version.) But Mark is not alone in characterizing Jesus as a Highlander-type hero pitched in battle with diabolical forces. For Matthew and Luke, too, Christ is the first ghostbuster, and the gospels speak of his exorcisms no fewer than a dozen times.

For today, I think I'll just give you my favorite--and the most elaborate exorcism story in the Bible. It is Mark's story of the Gerasene demoniac, told in chapter 5, and it goes like this:

"They came to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ For he had said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’ He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, ‘Send us into the swine; let us enter them.’ So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned in the lake" (Mark 5:1-13).

A few quick notes on this chilling tale ...

First, the famously laconic Mark flexes his descriptive muscles in explaining the demoniac's state: he lives among tombs; chains cannot hold him; his howls disturb the night landscape; he bruises himself with rocks. Mark might have added, "It was a dark and stormy night." Seldom in gospels--heck, seldom in the entire Bible!--do we get such narrative detail. The author knows the attractive power of a good ghost story.

Second, note that the possessed man seeks Jesus out--not the other way around. But note also that the sequence of events is jumbled. The man comes, he bows, and he screams his welcome. However, in the next verse, we find that the demoniac's first statement is actually in response to a comment that we don't hear at first: Jesus's command that the demon "come out of the man." We receive the dialogue in the wrong order; the sequence is messed up. Perhaps these destabilizing techniques are meant to mimick the tortured mindscape of the possessed man.

But note also that the demon knows exactly who Jesus is--"son of the most high God." That demons infallibly recognize the divinity of Jesus--and that his disciples almost uniformly do not--is one of the most uncomfortable truths of Mark.

Then the chilling core of the tale, when the demon introduces himself: "My name is Legion; for we are many." The pronoun slippage--from the singular "my" of the first clause to the plural "we" of the second--is a creepy grammatical effect. Many scholars also point out that the demon's name--Legion--clues us in that this story is an also a colonial allegory. Palestine, at the time, was also "possessed" by groups of Roman soldiers--legions.

And then the "denoument," if we dare call it that. For in this tale, evil cannot be wiped out: it can only be transferred. Jesus compels the demons to enter a flock of pigs, who immediately rush to their drowning death.

This is an unsettling conclusion for some. Jose Saramago, in his novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, wonders what happens to these pigs; he then proposes--in a fictional extrapolation--that they are scavenged and eaten by Gentiles--for whom pigs would not be unclean--who are then themselves possessed; they go on to wreak havoc on the Palestinian landscape in what I can only assume is an ancient Palestinian preview of Night of the Living Dead.

And indeed I wonder ... what happens to exorcised demons when they are cast out? I'll have to attend the next Catholic possession clinic and ask.
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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Matthew 25: Jesus, Youth Hockey, and Progressive Taxes

Last night as I was walking home from class in the drizzle, I was listening to Radio Lab, a snazzily produced NPR program that focuses on science topics. The title of the piece was "Secrets of Success." (You can hear the podcast here.)

In it, cohost Robert Krulwich asks author and New Yorker contributor Malcolm Gladwell why successful people thrive. (Gladwell answers this question at length in his recent book Outliers.) In responding, Gladwell brings up "the Matthew effect," a term coined in 1968 by the sociologist Robert K. Merton to describe the tendency of the rich to get richer--and vice versa.

The phrase derives from the last lines of Jesus's "parable of the talents," found in Matthew 25: "For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away" (Matthew 25:29).

Gladwell applies the Matthew effect to youth ice hockey in Canada. He suggests that when considering young hockey players, we find that talent is almost always directly related to age. Therefore, if Calgary selects its nine year-olds' all-star team, most of the players will be nine years and eleven months old; many players nine years and one month old will be left off the squad. Players on the team will receive more practice, more ice time, more coaching, and better equipment. And this trend will only snowball as time passes. Thus, a seemingly insignificant age advantage will eventually become a statistically significant talent advantage--the slightly rich get much, much richer.

Merton himself sees the Matthew effect in academic science departments, and argues that researchers with small advantages--specifically, posts at better universities--get disproportionally greater rewards than their more poorly placed colleagues. Said differently, a research scientist at the prestigious University of Wisconsin will win much greater renown--and more grant money, and better offices, and hotter research assistants--than a fellow researcher doing similar work at, say, the slightly less prestigious Kansas State. (No hate to Kansas State!)

As I got to thinking about it, I realized that we can also use the Matthew effect to rationalize progressive tax codes--whereby the rich are taxed at a higher rate than the poor.

Imagine two men residing in suburban Boston, where the cost of living for a single guy is around $50,000 a year. Imagine that both men earn that much money--$50,000--and both can make ends meet.

But then pretend that the second man also has a modest trust fund that pays out an extra $10,000 a year, bringing his total income to $60,000. The difference between the two salaries is small, but the second man's disposable income--$10,000--is infinitely larger than that of the first. If, over the course of a 30-year career, the second man puts that $10,000 a year in a standard individual retirement account, his modest investment will eventually pay out at over $1.4 million!

Small earnings advantages deliver significant income disparities over time. Just imagine, then, how larger advantages pay off. The progressive tax code softens Matthew effect disparities by taking more money from those with greater opportunities.

(And I know that I'm swimming out of my depth here--I'm not a tax lawyer. But I did find at least one tax guy who agrees with me.)

So check it out. Jesus can help you figure out tax policy. Or choose your tenure-track science position. Or pick a youth hockey team. Or write a hugely popular piece of popular sociology. You're welcome, Mr. Gladwell. Click here for more

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Isaiah 41: Deanna Favre's Hope

As a lifelong Green Bay Packer fan, I spent the better part of the past two decades squaring the Trinity with a fourth member: God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and Brett Favre. I knew I was a heretic, but every time I tried to get my faith straight--"Brett Favre is not a God," I'd whisper, "You can't pray to him"--he'd do something like this:

However, things began to get fishy about five years ago. Favre started doing his diva's retirement dance at the end of each season. And while I forgave him every time, these maudlin performances started to wear after a while.

And then came 2008, when he took one sashay too many and danced himself right out of town. I was sad, but replacement QB Aaron Rodgers was good, and it's hard to hate the Jets. Besides, I told myself, Joe Montana ended his career in Kansas City, right?

Wrong. 2009 rolled around, and in a move that could only be read as a phlegm-wad in the face of all old fans, Favre signed with the Packers' most hated rival: the Minnesota Vikings. I wasn't so much angry as disillusioned. It didn't have to end this way. If he could have skipped all the ridiculous dithering, he could have played in Green Bay until he was 50. Instead, he's now throwing passes to Randy Moss. Randy Moss!

And finally, the coup de grace: a sexting scandal. You can go to for all the sordid allegations--and more grainy cell pics than you're likely to want--but here are the basics: While in New York, Favre took a liking to a pretty little thing in the Jets organization named Jenn Sterger. After she spurned his initial advances, he did what any red-blooded Mississippian would do (apparently): he sent her cell phone shots of his genitalia. Classy, huh?

Of course, what makes this affair all the classier is the fact that Favre is married to a gorgeous, uber-devoted cancer survivor named Deanna--and has been since 1996. Deanna stuck with Brett through excessive partying, bouts of alcoholism, a Vicodin addiction, the premature death of Favre's father, and who knows how many other bumps in the road.

And now Deanna has to deal with Brett's iPhone camera. I don't know how she does it.

This week, USA Today reports that Deanna has found some solace in the Bible; since the storm hit, she's posted a passage from Isaiah 41 on her refrigerator:

"'I have chosen you and not cast you off'; do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand. Yes, all who are incensed against you shall be ashamed and distracted; those who strive against you shall be as nothing and shall perish. You shall seek those who contend with you, but you shall not find them; those who war against you shall be as nothing at all. For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, 'Do not fear, I will help you'" (41: 10-13).

I hope these verses are of help to Deanna through what must be heart-wrenching times. The Isaiah text reminds the devout that the Lord will not abandon those who call His name. But frankly, I've got a better advice for Deanna. Pray later. Right now, call a divorce lawyer and get your Elin Woods on.

For me, I'll keep watching youtube clips from the 90's while trying to pretend that Favre never left the Green and Gold. Click here for more

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Philemon 1: What Does Paul Want?

You don't tug on Superman's cape. You do not tell Dirty Harry that you're feeling lucky. You don't challenge Biff to a fight ... at least not until the second half of Back to the Future. And you most certainly don't mess around with Paul, the epistolary genius of first-century Christianity.

You wanna know what a badass Paul is? He's so money, they put one of his kitchen table notes in the Bible. It's the book of Philemon. Look it up.

Philemon is a Bible-blogger's dream. (That might be the first time anyone has uttered that sentence.) At just 25 verses, it's quick and digestible. If I want to blog about Psalms, I might have to slog through 150 chapters. With Philemon, I'm done in five minutes.

Philemon is the shortest of the genuine Pauline letters. The apostle writes it from prison, and it takes its name from its recipient. The subject of the letter is one Onesimus, a slave of Philemon's who has found his way into Paul's company. Paul is sending Onesimus back home, and his note is an "appeal" to Philemon regarding his slave: "I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment" (v. 10).

But the funny thing about the letter is that in it, Paul never explains the nature of his "appeal." This is some extremely vague prose--so vague, indeed, that I can paraphrase it in 25 words: "Hey Philemon. Paul. Yup, still in prison. You remember that thing I asked you to do with Onesimus? Can you do that? You're the best."

It's a quick note. It's a hasty email. It's a Twitter post. But it's also in the Bible. Do your grocery lists become scripture? Didn't think so.

Because Philemon is so laconic, scholars have spent a lot of time trying to reconstruct both its message and its historical context. Many argue that its appeal is simple: Paul requests that Philemon free Onesimus. But the letter's language is never so explicit, so the mystery of Paul's request remains.

For me, however, there is a more interesting question: why did Philemon make it into the New Testament? Here, we can only speculate. Clearly, this brief message had great meaning for the early church. Perhaps it was canonized because it was associated with Paul--a Christian leader whose charisma rivaled that of Jesus. Or perhaps Onesimus himself went on to become a significant figure, and Philemon marks the beginning of his ministry. Or maybe we're way off; Philemon may commemorate an unknown event that is lost to us--and whose nature may be indecipherable from the narrative content of the letter.

But there's one thing we do know. Don't challenge Paul to a writing contest. He'll kick your ass. His imprisoned jottings get turned into holy writ.
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Monday, October 11, 2010

2 Kings 5: Biblical "Taqiyya," or Lying about Faith

About a year ago, Mamoun Fandy used the opinion page of the Christian Science Monitor to propose a new reason why Americans cannot trust Iran in nuclear negotiations. (Apparently, the fact that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a Holocaust-denying megalomaniac is not enough.)

Iranian Shi'ites, Fandy argues, practice taqiyya, a "doctrine of deceit" that encourages Muslims to lie when discussing "political or worldly affairs." For Fandy, then, American politicians cannot believe a word that Iranian officials say.

Since Fandy and others raised the issue, some Islamophobic bloggers have gotten their claws on taqiyya and argued that no Muslim can ever be trusted because all are under religious orders to lie. Such specious reasoning has added fuel to the Obama-is-Muslim fire; here's one crazy youtube video:

But such broad slanders simply aren't true, because taqiyya is not "lying." The term more closely translates as "fear" or "caution," and it's a minor or nonexistent part of most Muslims' religious practice. Etan Kohlberg narrowly defines taqiyya as "precautionary dissimulation" and suggests that it arose as a defensive practice for persecuted Muslims.

Said differently, Muhammad does not encourage his followers to lie; he allows them to hide their faith if doing so will save them from violence. (Boston University Professor Kecia Ali noted at a recent roundtable that the strategy has been used most frequently by Shi'ites to save themselves from harassment by Sunni Muslims.)

But while it is wrong to hastily broaden the definition of taqiyya in mischaracterizing Islam, it is also wrong to cast "precautionary dissimulation" as a uniquely Muslim practice. There's at least one instance in the Bible in which a prophet of God--Elisha--allows a new convert to lie about his faith, to practice a Biblically sanctioned form of taqiyya.

In 2 Kings 5, we hear the story of Naaman. Naaman is warrior of Aram--a nation-state that battles Israel frequently in the Hebrew Bible. However, this "heathen" warrior is special because he is blessed by God: "by him the Lord had given victory to Aram" (5:1). (God often empowers rivals as punishment for the Israelites' sins.)

But Naaman is also cursed; "though a mighty warrior" (5:1), he suffers from leprosy. His white skin flakes off, and his limbs are vulnerable branches on a withering tree. (Why the Aramaeans let a leper lead them, I don't know. Is Naaman so "mighty" because he can distract enemies by throwing fingers at them?)

One day, an Israelite captive suggests that Naaman consult the prophet Elisha so that he may be healed. Naaman does, and offers the prophet a significant offering, but Elisha--an early proponent of single-payer insurance reform--does the job for free, replying, "As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!" No copay? I have no idea how this man keeps up his summer home in the Keys.

Naaman is impressed--so impressed, indeed, that he converts, swearing to worship no god other than Elisha's. But the healed commander is still an Aramaean, and must return to his idolater-king. Hence, he begs Elisha to pierce a loophole in his new-found faith: "When my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow down in the house of Rimmon, when I do bow down in the house of Rimmon, may the Lord pardon your servant on this one count" (5:18). Rimmon is the god of the Aramaeans, and Naaman asks forgiveness in advance for faking the Rimmon-ese religion when worshiping with his leader.

Elisha responds, "Go in peace" (5:19). The prophet gives Naaman permission to practice taqiyya, to lie about his allegiance to God and avoid persecution. The takeaway? Both Muhammad and the Bible offer similar advice to believers facing peril: you may hide your belief.

So perhaps we should stop worrying that Obama is a Muslim and start hoping that Ahmadinejad is actually a stealthy Christian.
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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Ezra 4: The Original Settlement Freeze

Another presidency, another failing attempt to negotiate a lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

A month back, President Obama got leaders from both camps in the same room for the umpteenth time to try to hash out a deal. And this week--also for the umpteenth time--the talks are in danger of falling apart. Why? The expiration of the so-called "settlement freeze."

For talks to begin, Palestinian leaders asked that Israeli P.M. Benjamin Netanyahu call for a temporary stop to Israeli construction in Palestinian territories. He did, setting a ten-month moratorium. However, the freeze ended last week, and Palestinian leaders are threatening to leave the negotiating table. (Here's the Times's latest update on the story.)

All this talk of settlement freezes got me thinking about the Biblical book of Ezra, in which King Artaxerxes issues a very different kind of building moratorium--one that stops construction of the holiest structure in Israel.

In the Hebrew Bible, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are one; as a composite, they tell the story of the Israelites' return to the Holy Land after the Babylonian exile. Roughly speaking, Ezra narrates the reconstruction of the Temple, and Nehemiah deals with the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem.

But much like the book of Judges--in which the Hebrews' entry into Israel is a bloody, complicated slog--Ezra-Nehemiah describes the Return as a difficult process.

It all begins well. Ezra 1 gives the text of an edict released by King Cyrus of Persia, who decrees that the Israelites may go home and rebuild their holy places. He even releases the contents of the Temple treasury, which had apparently been moldering in a really big Babylonian safety deposit box for the last fifty years.

Tens of thousands of exiled Israelites heed the decree and head back to Jerusalem to start building. However, no sooner do they lay the foundations for the new Temple than the locals start getting restless: "the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah, and made them afraid to build, and they bribed officials to frustrate their plan throughout the reign of King Cyrus of Persia until the reign of King Darius of Persia" (Ezra 4:4-5).

This "discouragement" reaches a peak in 4:7 and following, when the other residents of the land send a letter to the sitting king, Artaxerxes, asking him to revoke the Israelites' building permit. In their letter--the entirety of which is reproduced in chapter 4--they argue that the Hebrews are are a rebellious people, and that the Temple is merely the first step in a new revolt: "They are rebuilding that rebellious and wicked city; they are finishing the walls and repairing the foundations. Now may it be known to the king that, if this city is rebuilt and the walls finished, they will not pay tribute, custom, or toll, and the royal revenue will be reduced" (4:12-13).

The letter is persuasive, and Artaxerxes issues his own moratorium. Construction on the new Temple is stopped, not to begin again until the reign of a later king, Darius. (This "second Temple" will be completed in 515 B.C.E.)

For me, Ezra 4 provides two insights that might help us understand the current negotiating impasse in Israel.

First off, the chapter explains some Israelis' rationale for opposing a settlement freeze. It goes something like this: "The Persians (read: Iranians) told us we couldn't build in the Holy Land 2500 years ago. Who are you to stop us now?"

But there's another passage in Ezra 4 that is equally relevant to this discussion. Before the "people of the land" begin agitating against the Israelites, they offer an olive branch: "When the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple to the Lord, the God of Israel, they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of the families and said to them, 'Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him'" (4:1-2).

There's nothing in the text to suggest that these adversaries' request is not sincere; nonetheless, the Israelites reject it: "You shall have no part with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the Lord, the God of Israel" (4:3).

This exclusivist language--"our God"--is telling. The Israelites believe that they have a unique claim to the land, and to the construction of their temple. They don't want to share their building--or their God.

Here's hoping that today's Israelites are more flexible. After all, the "adversaries" are at the table, willing to talk.
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Friday, October 1, 2010

The Bible and the Iranian Computer Worm

Dude ... the Bible can even help you crack cases involving international cyber-espionage! Seriously! I have to grade papers today, so I'll let the New York Times do the heavy lifting here. Click here for more

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Pew Survey: Religious Illiteracy or Willful Ignorance?

A new survey recently administered by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life proves what all of us already knew: Americans know frightfully little about religion. As the Times reports, the survey tests respondents' knowledge of a variety of religion-related topics, from the Bible to Christianity to world religions to the relationship between church and state in America. The average score is a dismal 50%.

I didn't take the poll, but the questions I've seen seem pretty easy. Of course, I have a Ph.D. in Religious Studies, so I'm contractually obligated to think the survey is beneath me. But you can see for yourself: here's a link to some sample questions.

Progressive news outlets like MSNBC and the Huffington Post have been trumpeting the fact that atheists and agnostics score best on the quiz. (Though even these groups shouldn't be too proud: they average only slightly better than 60%.)

The Times quotes Dave Silverman, president of the advocacy group American Atheists, on non-believers' above-average performance: "'I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people', Mr. Silverman said. 'Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists'.” Translation? Believers are dumb. They don't even read their own texts. If they did, they'd be atheists too.

But this explanation--repeatedly raised by Keith Olbermann and Lawrence O'Donnell last evening--is facile and, frankly, uninformed. I would wager that most Christian believers know their own scriptures very well; most of my religious friends do.

But I wonder if there isn't a more nefarious reason for believers' relative ignorance. Perhaps they score poorly on a survey testing broad-based religious knowledge because some of them want to remain in the dark.

As I mentioned earlier this month, the would-be Qur'an-burner Terry Jones claims to have never read Islam's holy book. And one of the scariest banners floating around the protests against the Park51 community center in Lower Manhattan reads, "I learned everything I need to know about Islam on 9/11." Maybe some believers fare poorly on the Pew test not because they are stupid, but because they choose to remain ignorant of other traditions.

This theory holds water for me, because despite atheists' claims to superiority, they are not substantially smarter than their religious neighbors. But non-believers may have an edge because they allow themselves to be exposed to other faiths.

Frankly, though, I hope I'm wrong. Click here for more

Friday, September 24, 2010

Exodus 14: The Red Sea Parted, But Who Cares?

Early in the week a group of scientists in Boulder released a report arguing that Moses's parting of the Red Sea--described in Exodus 14--could have actually happened. The Christian Science Monitor explains:

"A team at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo., has identified what it argues is a plausible physical explanation for a parting of the waters. At the right spot – a sharp bend where a shallow river meets a coastal lagoon – and with the right contours of a waterway's bottom, wind moving across the bend could in effect push water both upstream and downstream, exposing the bottom. When the sustained winds finally die down, water returns from both directions to cover the muddy land bridge. The phenomenon is known as wind setdown."

Wind setdown, eh? I can respond to this fascinating advance in Biblical atmospherics in only one way: utter disinterest. Who cares?

The problem with this and other forms of religious pseudoscience--no matter how valid the research that backs them--is that they entirely miss the point of that Tanakh. The Exodus isn't one man's weather log; it's an account of one people's encounter with the transcendent divine. With God! It doesn't primarily engage the rational, the natural, or the analytical--it wrestles with the supernatural.

So when science steps in to join the fray, lab techs can only sound ridiculous as they turn a lasting symbol of slavery and divine liberation into a weather anomaly. God's miraculous freeing of the people Israel is reduced to an after-effect of el nino. And you all remember what el nino means in English, right? The nino.

So why do scientists do it? Or said differently, whom does this new theory--wind setdown--serve?

Certainly not the devout. Christians and Jews who take Exodus as "true" believe that God--not a unique wind pattern--parted the Red Sea. To suggest that such a parting could have happened naturally is to rob chapter 14 of its spiritual pith.

Perhaps atheists and skeptics get off on wind setdown; now, they can argue that God didn't "really" part a sea for Moses 3000 years ago. However, as I've mentioned before, if one scientific explanation of one Biblical miracle is your best argument against faith, you've never thought seriously about the complexities of belief.

But this theory is extremely unhelpful to me, and readers like me, many of whom are progressive believers. Setting theology aside for a moment, it's worth saying that we do wrong to treat ancient texts--not only the Bible--primarily as pieces of historical or scientific literature.

Most of the time, we know to avoid such folly: no one has looked into whether Agamemnon's sacrifice of Iphigenia actually caused the winds to pick up and send his fleet to Troy. And no one will ever try to prove that Xerxes actually commanded his troops to lash the Hellespont. These are old stories about insights more timeless than "wind setdown."

But the Bible makes people a little crazy--even upstanding scientists. Perhaps because literalists have ruled the day for so long, too many of us attend to the Bible's truths--little "t"--while losing track of its Truths--big "T."

So let me repeat one of the basic theses of this blog: the Bible uses figurative language to describe the experience of the numinous. To take that language as "real" and then to prove or disprove its historical or scientific veracity is to fight literalists on their own shaky ground. To do so is to reduce world-breaking scripture to an Excel spreadsheet of air velocities and water levels.

If intelligent discussion about religion and religious texts is ever to advance, we need to begin treating scripture as polysemantic literature capable of creating many meanings, the most important of which are never "scientific." Click here for more

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Christian Google, or Raising Your Turtle-Woman Hybrid

The Atlantic Monthly's Andrew Sullivan blogged yesterday about the minor but real proliferation of, shall we say, "orthodox" competitors to Google: search engines that deliver results filtered according to their compatibility with various faith systems.

Hence, there is for Muslims, for Jews, and for Christians.

Not surprisingly, all three are works in progress. Jewogle seems devoted only to providing information on famous Jews. An enigmatic line on its homepage simply reads, "Did you know that ________ is Jewish?" However, that space remains blank no matter how you click on it--I tried all sorts of creative tactics. And I can't quite figure out how the site will help me if I don't already know any famous Jews. Am I supposed to fill in the blank with my own wishful thinking? "Did you know that Pat Robertson is Jewish?" Or am I supposed to be provocative? "Did you know that Jesus is Jewish?"

I'mhalal, by contrast, is properly devoted to providing "Islamic" searches, but it doesn't significantly alter the results. An I'mhalal search for "jihad" turned out sources similar to those produced by Google. (Notably missing from's list is a link to, an increasingly popular--and alarmist--web site devoted to "bringing public attention to the role that jihad theology and ideology play in the modern world.") Links on the side of the results page send you to a Qur'an search or to Al Jazeera's web site.

But if you're looking for a kooky at-work diversion, seekfind definitely takes the cake. Seekfind promises "to provide God-honoring, biblically based, and theologically sound Christian search engine results." However, it significantly filters results, and it produces site lists with an obviously ideological bent. NPR's Habiba Nosheen notes that a search for "gay marriage" sends you to sites devoted to abolishing it. Further, if you search "Democratic Party, you will be sent to sites on Marxism. (Really, That's a Christian belief?)

It's worth noting that a majority of seekfind's material seems to come from two sites: Probe Ministries, a conservative Christian news outlet, and This narrowness notwithstanding, I still wanted to see what else seekfind could turn up, besides slurs against progressives and homosexuals.

So I looked up "Marxism." Seekfind's first result was an essay called "Marxism and Science" that supposedly demonstrates Darwin's reliance on Marxist philosophy in developing his evolutionary theories. I knew that Darwin was a damn commie!

Then I searched "Bill Clinton," only to find a film review for the Tarentino film Kill Bill 2. Sneaky.

Then, to be edgy, I searched "bestiality." The fourth result was a piece called "Animal/Human Hybrids" that takes very seriously the possibility of mad goat-men roving the land. The author writes, "The formation of an entity that is both animal and human raises questions of personhood and challenges our definition of humanness. These beings will inevitably be met with challenges that go beyond identification with a minority group." To say the least!

If my sister produces a turtle-daughter after experiencing the love that really dare not speak its name, the least of my hybrid niece's problems will be minority group identification ... we'd have to be so careful that she didn't accidentally flip onto her back!

Seekfind's not-so-cleverly-hidden message dovetails nicely with an old saw of gay-bashers everywhere--the slippery slope argument. If we allow men to marry men, what's next? Men marrying snakes? Or dogs? And if we allow men to marry dogs, and the dogs have kids, what will we do with the hybrids?

These are weighty matters, but seekfind is here to help you out. Click here for more

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Eat the Qur'an, Too

In a post earlier this month, I outed myself as a supporter of all types of scriptural literacy--not just Biblical literacy. Basically, I'm excited if you're going to read the Bible more, but I'm also excited if you're going to read the Torah, or the Bhagavad Gita, or the Tao te Ching, or the Analects of Confucius, or hell, Dianetics!

Okay, maybe not Dianetics ... I guess my own willful ignorance begins with Scientology. Sorry, John Travolta.

But in this day and age, it is perhaps most crucial that we know the Qur'an better. And Islam, too. There is so much hatred, so much vitriol, so much mean-spirited bluster surrounding the ongoing discussion of that religion's place in America that we can't afford to be ignorant any longer. We need to know more, and we need to know better ...

Especially those of us who consider ourselves tolerant of Islam, who support Feisal Abdul Rauf and his vision of inter-religious dialogue, who condemn the Qur'an burners of the world, and who hope to rebuild an America devoted to the seminal--and Constitutional--religious freedoms guaranteed by our founding documents.

We need to learn more, start dialogue, and engage.

If you want to do so, you might start by reading two brief pieces that have inspired me in recent days. The first is an op-ed in USA Today written by a dear friend, Ismat Sarah Mangla. In it, Mangla argues:

"We need more dialogue, more reading of the Quran, both inside the Muslim community and out. After all, more than a billion Muslims in the world and 2.5 million in the United States are living quietly unsensational lives. These stories — of the silent majority of peaceful Muslims — are not headline-worthy. But they are nonetheless real."

She also points to passages in Muslim scripture that affirm those values that Americans hold most dear: truthfulness, justice, and freedom of worship.

The second is Valerie Kaur's "Shadow Generation," which appeared recently on the Huffington Post. Kaur issues a call to action to those youth who consider themselves tolerant and understanding, but who still seem to dwell in the shadows, ceding the stage to pundits and conservative blowhards. She writes:

"It is time for young people everywhere to emerge from the shadows. We know how to form common ground with people different from us, whether Muslims or Evangelicals, conservatives or progressives. We can draw upon these experiences to help overcome the fear driving hateful expression on both sides of the debate. We can invite opponents of Park51 to dialogue with Muslim Americans, so as not to conflate Islam with the acts of those who have committed violence in its name. And we can ask Muslim allies not to denigrate opponents of Park51 as ignorant or racist, and instead engage directly with the anxiety and misinformation driving Islamophobia. But only if we commit to action."

Kaur is a driving force behind the Common Ground Campaign, a "coalition of young people standing against hate speech and violence against Muslim Americans in the wake of the 'Ground Zero Mosque' controversy"--this from the campaign web site. How can you not sign her charter?

So read Mangla. Then read Kaur. Then crack open the Qur'an. Stop tolerating, and start getting involved. I'll do the same, even while I keep Bible-thumping here. Click here for more

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Matthew 5: Christine O'Donnell, the Bible, and Masturbation

Another Wednesday morning, another surprising primary upset for the Tea Party. Last night, insurgent candidate--and Sarah Palin endorsee--Christine O'Donnell pulled out a six-point win over establishment favorite Michael Castle in the race for an open Senate seat in Delaware. (That's her on the left, in a Washington Post photo.)

But The New York Times reports that many Republicans are glum at the news, because they believe O'Donnell's views are too extreme to appeal to the general electorate. Maybe they're right: O'Donnell's on the record as opposing masturbation, of all things!

CNN cites an old MTV interview in which O'Donnell comes out against sexual solitaire on Biblical grounds: "The Bible says that lust in your heart is committing adultery. [And] you can't masturbate without lust." And an interview appearing in today's Guardian suggests that she hasn't backed away from her position.

The candidate's engaging in some exegetical acrobatics here, but at least she's quoting a real text--Matthew 5:28, in which Jesus says, "everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart."

But context matters, and Jesus is not forbidding masturbation in this passage; he's warning people away from the thorny path to infidelity. Here's the full quote: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery'. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Jesus's point, I think, is that fantasies matter: if you're lusting after your neighbor's husband or wife, you're already on a slippery slope toward trying the trick.

So technically, I suppose O'Donnell could argue that Jesus is discouraging sexual fantasies here. But masturbation? Not explicitly, so far as I can tell ...

However, if O'Donnell really wants to campaign on the Bible's distaste for autoeroticism, she'd be better off going to the old classic: Genesis 38. In this chapter, God smites a man named Onan because he "spilled his semen on the ground" (38:9)--hence "onanism," a mostly arcane synonym for masturbation. (Most scholars now argue that Onan is killed because he refuses to impregnate his wife--not because he likes pleasuring himself. But I'll leave that quibble for a later date.)

But for now, I'm going to go ahead and advise O'Donnell to keep this plank--no pun intended--out of her platform. It's a non-starter on Biblical and political grounds. Polls suggest that 90% of men and 65% of women masturbate regularly. I wouldn't want to work against those types of majorities. Click here for more

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Ecclesiastes 12: Of Making Many Blogs, There Is No End ...

A miniature milestone has crept up on me as I've been working my way through this meandering Bible blog. Today is my hundredth post. Are you proud of me?

So I thought I'd celebrate by diving into one of my favorite Bible books, Ecclesiastes. I love the author's canny wit, his stark ironies, and his painfully honest sense of the real. The Ecclesiastes author pulls no punches.

But I find that my selection is ill-timed. Because I think that the Ecclesiastes author, if he came to my 100th-post party, would deliver a depressing message: Please stop writing your blog. Ouch.

Early rabbis believed that King Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes, along with the Song of Songs and Proverbs. They argued--sensibly if not correctly--that he composed the Song, an erotic love ballad, in his lusty youth; Proverbs, an collection of wisdom sayings, in his mature adulthood; and Ecclesiastes, a darker paean to human grasping, in his old age. ("Dark paean" may be an oxymoron.)

And Ecclesiastes is somber reading, indeed--grim nursing-home fodder. In it, "the Teacher"--the book's ostensible speaker--gives us such bright urgings as "those who increase knowledge increase sorrow" and "there is nothing new under the sun" and "dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a foul odour."

These are not hopeful messages, but the Ecclesiastes author could have had a great career as an ironic greeting card writer. "Happy graduation! But remember, 'the wise die just like fools'." (The world would be a better place if there really were ironic greeting card writers.)

The Teacher's cheery aphorisms aside, the book's last chapter is the one that gives me pause. This epilogue, chapter 12, opens with a despair-inducing portrait of old age giving way to apocalypse: "Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain" (12:1-3). Such passages helped inspire Eliot to write "The Waste Land."

Now I'm not too old, so these verses don't sting much (yet) ... though the teens I teach make me dwell a little longer in the mirror over the darkening bags under my eyes. ("All is vanity," says the Teacher.)

But the last few verses of Ecclesiastes are especially painful to me. There, the author writes, "The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings that are given by one shepherd. Of anything beyond these, my child, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh" (12:11-12).

Can this blog, into which I have put time and effort and energy, be the mindless "book-making" the Teacher discourages? Is the "goading" wisdom of the Bible--or of Ecclesiastes--"all ye know on earth," to quote Keats, "and all ye need to know"? Should I simply take the word of the Teacher in verse 13--"Fear God, and keep his commandments"--and stop all this cyberspatial bloviating? Perhaps.

But I'm too invested in my sinking ship of a project. Studying is my job, and "making of many books" will get me tenure someday, perhaps. So my blog will continue past 100 posts. But it will do so, I think, in spite of the Teacher's wise advice.
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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

2 Samuel 15: "The Hearts of the People"

How do you win the hearts of the people?

As midterm elections creep nearer in the United States, politicians across the country--or at least, sadly, those up for re-election--are trying very hard to come up with an answer.

On the left, President Obama has proposed two ideas likely intended to win voters' favor as November draws nigh: a capital investment tax credit for small businesses and a $50 billion public works plan to spur job growth and update infrastructure. (There's also a research tax break floating around somewhere.)

On the right, candidates are proposing less and crowing more; many echo a chorus I heard yesterday on the Howie Carr Show: "Are you better off than you were two years ago?" Presumably, Republicans' answer is "no." (It's worth noting that the time frame--two years--has been halved since Reagan coined the phrase in his debates with Carter thirty years ago. I wonder how low politicians can go? "Are you better off than you were fifteen minutes ago? No? Then vote for Michele Bachmann! ... Yes? Did you eat a sandwich? Oh. That makes sense.")

But at least one politician in the Bible--and a nefarious one at that--knew something that Obama and the right seem to have forgotten in the sturm und drang of the midterm election season: that winning the hearts of the people has less to do with talking than it does with listening.

That "politician" is Absalom, the son of King David who, for a brief moment, usurps his father's throne. (Marc Chagall's depiction of Absalom's reconciliation with his father appears above.)

For some, Absalom is a classic villain. He is a conspiring murderer who gains power through deceit and subterfuge. But for others, he's a man looking to settle scores in the wake of a heinous wrong.

Absalom has a beautiful sister--for whom he cares deeply--named Tamar. However, he's also got a half-brother, Amnon, with a taste for half-incest. Amnon falls hard for Tamar, rapes her, and discards her. But when David hears of his son's disgusting sin, he fails to punish him; actually, he fails to do anything: "When King David heard of all these things, he became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn" (2 Samuel 13:21).

Understandably, Absalom is livid--at Amnon for his crime and at David for his blind eye. But Absalom is also the classic snake in the grass; diabolically, he waits two full years for his revenge, catching Amnon completely unawares and slaughtering him at a feast. (He intends to do in his father too, but David does not show.) David, however, is consistently soft on his princes gone wild, and he stands by as his homicidal son flees.

When Absalom returns, at his father's request, he still harbors a deep hatred for the king and plans his overthrow. But dethroning this particular monarch--the spectacularly popular David--is no small feat. So Absalom adopts a surprisingly simple strategy for winning the people to his side: he listens to them.

Here is the author of 2 Samuel to explain:

"Absalom used to rise early and stand beside the road into the gate; and when anyone brought a suit before the king for judgement, Absalom would call out and say, ‘From what city are you?’ When the person said, ‘Your servant is of such and such a tribe in Israel’, Absalom would say, ‘See, your claims are good and right; but there is no one deputed by the king to hear you.’ Absalom said moreover, ‘If only I were judge in the land! Then all who had a suit or cause might come to me, and I would give them justice.’ Whenever people came near to do obeisance to him, he would put out his hand and take hold of them, and kiss them. Thus Absalom did to every Israelite who came to the king for judgement; so Absalom stole the hearts of the people of Israel" (15: 2-6).

Note two things: first, Absalom asks the first question. He inquires of the supplicant, reversing the expected roles. (Usually, you address the prince; the prince does not address you--not so here.) Then, he sympathizes with the travelers, telling them that their cause is legitimate. I know from countless hours in graduate seminars that the words "You have a good point" are some of the most empowering in the language.

Second, when the person seeking "judgement" tries to bow to Absalom--to "do obeisance to him"--his immediate response is a kiss and an embrace.

The implicit message of these two movements is clear: I hear you, and I love you.

And the rest barely need be said: the king isn't available right now. Can you leave a message?

Notice that Absalom never actually resolves any of the cases brought before him. Indeed, we learn nothing of the complaints of the Israelites, and perhaps we know that Absalom doesn't care. But the mere act of bearing witness is enough to sate the people's appetite for a leader. And with it, "Absalom stole the hearts of the people of Israel."

This word "stole" is of course telling, and it reminds us that Absalom does not have the best interests of his people in mind. Nonetheless, his pantomime is enough to inspire a majority to join his de facto revolt.

So do you hear me, President Obama? John Boehner? And Reid and Angle and Feingold and McCain and the rest? Talking is pretty. But listening? That's power.
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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Moses "Restoring Honor": Glenn Beck Uses (and Misuses) Exodus

The mainstream media didn't know quite what to do with Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally, held last Saturday at the Lincoln Memorial. It was newsworthy--upwards of 100,000 people showed--but what was it? A Tea Party event wrapped in the mantle of religious rhetoric? More demagoguery by the bete noire of the progressive left? A pep rally for Albert Pujols, who accepted an award for "Hope." (I really need to get my hands on one of those "Hope" awards--I'm absolutely brimming with optimism. Or perhaps I should gun for an award in some other pithy ideal ... perhaps Trustworthiness, or Dyspepsia.)

Consensus opinion is that it wasn't overly political--despite Sarah Palin's headlining speech--but that it was extremely religious. If there were a thesis, it was simple: America should return to God. Here are some stray Beck quotes, pulled from's transcript of the event: "Look to God and make your choice." "Turn back to God." "Praise be to God." "We still have faith in God in America." "America is not just good because God has chosen her." "Oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh ... oh my God." (Okay, that last one was Usher, but the first five were all Beck.)

Lefties are seething at the conflation of religious sentiment and patriotism, but Beck's message--that America is holy, and that Americans should therefore be holy--is as old as the United States itself. Since the Puritans' arrival, prominent Americans have described our nation as a "Promised Land" and characterized the United States as a new Israel--a people selected by God for especial blessing. Conrad Cherry rounds up primary historical documents on this theme in a nice anthology, God's New Israel.

Beck made this America-as-Promised-Land link clear through the Biblical allusions in his keynote address. Here's the new Moses himself, courtesy again of, hearkening back to the old Moses:

"It occurs all through history: we fall asleep and then wake up, from time to time. It has from the burning bush: Moses, freedom, then they wander in the wilderness till they turn back to God. In Egypt, they prayed for deliverance and Jehovah sent Moses with a stick. Those bringing Freedom were just men—they were just like you! Coming across the plains they relied on God. America is not good just because God has chosen her — America is good and great because citizens are good and great.

The takeaway, as I see it, goes something like this: America is enslaved--"in Egypt"--and the "Restoring Honor" rally was Glenn ben Moshe's effort to train tens of thousands of new Moseses--"just like you"--to "bring Freedom" to the masses.

Okay, it's a cute allegory, but the progressive conspiracy theorist in me wants to finish the metaphor with the obvious subtext: the Egyptian taskmasters are Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, and their leader is that hard-hearted African pharaoh, Barack Hussein Obama! But Beck didn't go there Saturday, so I won't go there today.

However, for the sake of Biblical accuracy, it's worth noting that Beck is playing fast and loose with the Exodus myth here ... and not only because he calls Moses a guy "with a stick."

First of all, the Israelites themselves never "pray for deliverance" from the Egyptians. God merely hears "their cry" and knows "their sufferings" (Exodus 3:7-8)--and they're enslaved, so they probably cry and suffer a lot. To imagine the Israelites kneeling in Egypt, praying devoutly for the arrival of a divinely sanctioned savior is to thoroughly misunderstand their corporate character.

Indeed, the Israelites' first utterance as a liberated people paints a very different picture. Seeing the Pharaoh's army chasing them, they complain to Moses, "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? [...] It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness" (Exodus 14: 11-13). This rabble is not going to be given the "Faithfulness" award at Beck's next rally.

Such kvetching is of a piece with the Israelites' attitude throughout their time in the wilderness, and a pile of other instances suggest, contra Beck, that the chosen people did not simply "rely on God" during their wanderings. Further, from my perspective, they are not "good and great," as Beck calls his gathered chosen. If I had to choose adjectives to describe God's people wandering outside Egypt, I'd choose "short-sighted" and "bitchy." Sorry. It's true! Read Exodus again.

Further, the Bible's Moses doesn't hold mammoth, self-aggrandizing rallies in front of the Tutankhamen Memorial to win recruits. He fights God tooth and nail. When God calls Moses at the Burning Bush and asks him to liberate Israel, Moses comes up with no fewer than five distinct excuses as to why he can't do what God asks: 1. I'm nothing next to Pharaoh (3:11), 2. I don't know you (3:13), 3. They won't believe me (4:1), 4. I can't talk pretty (4:10), and 5. Why me? (4:13). Beck seems to salivate over the savior's role; Moses doesn't really want it at all. Only when God gets pissed does Moses relent and take the job.

Now, I don't want to suggest that Beck's casual treatment of the Bible is unique; his understanding of Exodus isn't too far removed from that of other Americans. But because most devout Christians and Jews don't understand their scriptures, paper tigers like Beck can use them as, dare I say it, propaganda. He can twist the Bible in such a way as to convince the masses that he is from God, and that they should be from God too.

However, in Exodus, just about no one turns to God, relies on God, or rejoices at being chosen by God. They turn from Him over and over again. And Beck is not a new Moses--he is a savior of his own creation, leading his flock we know not where.

Of course, Beck's rally at the Lincoln Memorial drew criticism because it took place on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's famous "I have a dream" speech, given at the same location. King, too, famously uses Exodus to frame his project, but he does so with better knowledge, and with a darker sense of nuance. He evokes Moses's death--outside Canaan--in another speech delivered shortly before his own assassination. This is the closing movement of his "I've been to the mountaintop" speech:

Watching King, I take a page from Beck and tear up.

But let's make one thing perfectly clear: I prefer King's Exodus. Click here for more

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Qur'an Burner Hasn't Read the Qur'an!

I was reading this morning about Terry Jones, the Gainesville, Florida pastor who has garnered national attention--and international disdain--for planning a Qur'an burning on the ninth anniversary of 9/11.

The New York Times reports that Jones is organizing the conflagration because he believes that the Qur'an is "full of lies." His claims, previously ignored, come at a particularly sensitive time, given the national debate over the Muslim community center set to be built in Lower Manhattan.

However, for me this story of mind-blowing bigotry morphed from tragedy to farce when I discovered one fact: Jones has never read the Qur'an! The Times quotes him, “I have no experience with it whatsoever. I only know what the Bible says.”

Pardon my French, but holy shit.

So let me step away from my usual harangue about reading the Bible and scream to Jones and anyone else who might be listening, READ THE QUR'AN TOO, especially if you're planning on ignorantly slandering it. One of my dirty little secrets is that I'm not just for Biblical literacy--despite the subject of this blog--but for all literacy. And that includes familiarity with the Qur'an--the other world-shattering scripture of the monotheistic West.

Maybe if Jones read the Qur'an, he'd learn that the Prophet Muhammad promulgated a religion of tolerance--one that promoted an unprecedented level of spiritual dialogue among Muslims and people of other faiths.

Indeed, Muslim scripture holds special regard for Jews and Christians, calling them "People of the Book," or Ahl al-Kitāb. In the first centuries of global Islam, Jews and Christians living in Muslim lands were granted special status as dhimmi. Dhimmi were offered protection and were allowed to practice their religions freely, without compulsion to convert.

Indeed, the Qur'an reads, in 2:256, "There is to be no compulsion in religion. True direction is in fact distinct from error: so whoever disbelieves in idols and believes in God has taken hold of the most reliable handle, which does not break." Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike "disbelieve in idols and believe in God," and Muhammad lauds all who join his crusade against idolatry.

(This translation is Thomas Cleary's, from his Essential Koran, a distillation of some of the most important passages from Muslim scripture. It's not a comprehensive volume, but it's great for those looking to get a foothold.)

If only Jones would take Muhammad's lead and treat American Muslims as dhimmi in his own land, we could stop talking about burning scriptures and start talking about reading them.
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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Evangelical Nerds Salivate as German Company Announces Massive Bible Video Game

When I was a little kid, I got my hands on a game for the original Nintendo Entertainment System called "Bible Adventures." The game featured modules based on three stories from scripture: "Noah's Ark," "Baby Moses," and "David and Goliath." I mainly remember the first one, a clunky side-scroller in which a rectangular Noah walks around a painfully 2-D jungle picking up animals and, with luck, lofting them into a menacing gray-brown cavern--presumably the ark, though it always looked to my adolescent mind like a big sinkhole.

I vaguely recall the Moses game too, but only because you can't kill the baby--it's a Christian game, after all. I spent most of my time lofting the infant savior of the Israelites like an over-ripe turnip, into bad guys and streams.

"Bible Adventures" was independently released by Wisdom Tree Games because Nintendo never officially approved it. It's hard to see why, though: they clearly passed up a goldmine. I mean, what kid wouldn't want to drop $35 on a NES title whose main objective is hoisting animals over your head, rushing around gunning for the best prize of all: Bible verses!

However, fans of "Bible Adventures" wet their pants earlier this week when German company FIAA GmbH--pronounced "fee-aah gim-buh" (kidding)--announced the release of a massive multiplayer online (MMO) Bible game appropriately titled "Bible Online." That's right, "World of Warcraft" meets "Word of God." In a fight to the death, who will win?

The first chapter is called "The Heroes" and is apparently based on stories from Genesis, or "the Genesis," as the slightly askew English translation of the press release reads. It continues, "As the leader of their tribe, players have to construct their villages, manage recources [sic] and the budget." God, I love the chapter when Isaac manages his budget--I'm so excited to see how Feyah Gimbah will do it!

After successfully managing a budget--if players can stand the excitement--they'll begin questing for the Promised Land in an effort to get Abraham to Canaan. But it's not all Abraham's show here, folks: "The game also offers role playing elements. The birth right system introduces Abraham's successors Isaac and Jacob. Side quests allow users to experience less known stories of the Genesis."

Now, I'm not sure what the "birth right system" is, but I know for a fact that God was just waiting for the day when someone would finally allow Jews and Christians to learn "the Genesis" through "side quests." I'm personally looking forward to one from Genesis 38, in which Judah sleeps with his daughter-in-law Tamar. It's probably going to be like a kinky Japanese anime video game.

There's no word yet on whether "Bible Online" will include other pieces of the Torah: the near-sacrifice of Isaac, Simeon and Levi's slaughter of Shechem, the creation of the world. (I always wanted to see what the universe would have looked like if God made light after he made humans--I picture lots of primeval heads bumping on doorposts.) I'm also hoping for a Wii-style power-pad race up Jacob's ladder.

Nonetheless, one thing's for certain: I want in on the beta testing ... it starts September 6.

Click here for more