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