Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Lil Wayne on the Bible: "It Was Deep!"

What's poppin'?

You guys know you can count on Eat the Bible for all the latest news and jams from your favorite hip-hop, trip-hop, R&B, and rap artists, right?

Okay.  You can't.  And I don't know what trip-hop is.  However, it sounds like it's at least three times as cool as hip-hop.

But I was reading the New York Daily News this morning--like I do every Wednesday morning--and I stumbled across this scripture tidbit from the music scene.  (I'd imagine that real rap bloggers never use the word "tidbit.")  Rap star Lil Wayne--recently released from a 242-day stint at Rikers Island--claims to have read the entire Bible during his incarceration. 

Reflecting on the Gospels, he noted, deeply, "It was deep!"  To which I can only respond ... no, Lil, you're deep!  I wish everyone would read the whole Bible. The Daily News reports that he also plowed through Confucius, along with biographies of Jimi Hendrix and Vince Lombardi. 

Myself, I need more Lil Wayne Bible commentary, so I have contacted his press people to see if I can set up an interview.  (I'm not kidding.)  I'm sure I won't hear back, but if I do, I'll get the interview up ASAP, and Eat the Bible will become about six thousand times cooler than before.  In the meantime, here's a little Lil for your Wednesday morning.  Much love ...

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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Job 30: President Obama on Tucson, Evil, and Hope

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I chime in tonight to comment on President Obama's moving, scripture-laced speech (copied above) at the memorial for the victims of the Tucson shootings. The president devoted much of the talk's opening movement to poignant eulogies for each of the six slain; he then issued a call for national unity and serious conversation in the wake of the tragedy.

But near the midpoint of his speech, the president tried to address the utter horror of our national loss by paraphrasing a passage from one of the Bible's direst books, Job:

"Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, 'When I looked for light, then came darkness'. Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath." (ABC News has posted the entire transcript here.)

Defying those who would too quickly attribute the tragedy to violent political rhetoric, or permissive gun laws, or breakdowns in our mental health-care system, Obama instead acknowledged that some of this world's evils spring from a blackness that remains maddeningly inexplicable.

Of course, that is the story of Job, a man beset by seemingly source-less ills, bereft of property, servants, and family for reasons he cannot discern. In the opening pages of the book that bears his name, Job loses his wealth, his household, and every one of his ten children. The three-dozen-odd chapters of poetry that follow feature Job's laments--his soul-wrenching cry, "Why?"

Job 30--from which President Obama read tonight--gives us the man near the utter depths of his despair:

But when I looked for good, evil came;
and when I waited for light, darkness came.
My inward parts are in turmoil, and are never still;
days of affliction come to meet me.
I go about in sunless gloom;
I stand up in the assembly and cry for help. (30: 26-28)

Expecting, yearning after, craving for the sun, Job receives terror and loss ... and is afflicted.

As are we, after Tucson. And though God speaks to Job in the book's final chapters, delivering a terrifying testament to God's own sublimity, he refrains from "explaining" Job's devastation. Job, as we, are left without easy answers.

Nonetheless, God finally praises Job's speech. Addressing him in 42:7, God claims that Job, even through his provocative lamentations, has "spoken of [God] what is right." To throw one's hands up in the face of indecipherable evil is, perhaps, "right" in God's eyes. For there are ills in this world that defy human explanation.

So I appreciate the president's allusion to Job in tonight's speech. It bespeaks humility and self-effacement in the aftermath of real, horrifying evil. And it lays the groundwork, I believe, for a future that ultimately awaits Job: restoration, reconciliation, and hope. Click here for more

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Haggai 2: God Will Make You Rich

How do you know that God loves you?

And don't punk out and say, "the Bible tells me so." Is it because you're happy? Is it because the work you do for your temple is fulfilling? Is it because you are content when you're at church? Is it because you just feel blessed?

Or is it because you're rich? This last answer--though it may feel blasphemous to many Jews and Christians--isn't so uncommon as you might think ...

Max Weber, the father of modern sociology, argued in his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that early American Christians measured God's love in terms of their own material wealth. Simply put, they knew God liked them because they had cash.

Having no other way to measure the divinity's response to their actions, American Protestants knew God was smiling on them when their bank accounts grew. (For Weber, this theory explains why Protestants are such good free-marketers--and why the predominantly Christian United States has generally enjoyed economic success.)

Weber's characterization of Protestantism finds a modern analogue in the "prosperity gospel" preached by some contemporary evangelicals, among them Atlanta's megachurch baron Eddie Long. The first title that appears in Long's online church bookstore is Think Like a Billionaire, Become a Billionaire.

Bishop Long drove a $350,000 Bentley and lived in a $1.1 million home. Or at least he did until he got caught up in a homosexual sex scandal late last year. But I digress ... according to Long and others like him, God wants to bless his faithful followers with money, with fast cars, with big houses, with cool stuff.

(Benjamin Anastas develops a fascinating critique of prosperity evangelists in a recent Harper's cover story.)

Now for many, Weber's Protestantism and the prosperity gospel are explicitly anti-religious. Jesus claims that it is easier for a camel to pass through a needle's eye than for the rich to enter God's grace (Matthew 19:24), and the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah frequently argue for a form of social justice that encourages charity--not hoarding.

However, a financial or material understanding of divine blessing is not without scriptural precedent. Indeed, the prosperity gospel may find a compelling proof text in an unlikely corner of the Hebrew Bible--Haggai.

Haggai is one of three significant post-exilic prophets whose works are included in the Hebrew Bible. The others are Malachi and Zechariah, and this trio prophesied to Israelites who returned to the Holy Land after the fall of the Babylonian empire.

Haggai was written in 520 B.C.E., eighteen years after Cyrus of Persia issued the edict allowing exiled Jews to return to Israel. Haggai's main goal in his brief book is to compel the Israelites to rebuild the temple, destroyed by Babylonian invaders with the rest of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.

The prophet's first efforts to persuade the Israelites to do so come in chapter 1. He writes, "Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?" (1:4) The Israelites have homes, Haggai exhorts, but God does not. The temple must be rebuilt so God, too, can have a "house" in the restored nation.

But the Israelites are slow to act. Some among them, it seems, remember the glory of the first temple--built in splendor by King Solomon--and know that "Temple, Part II: The Re-Templing" could only be a thin (and unworthy) reflection of its opulent predecessor (whose construction is described in detail in 1 Kings 5-6).

So Haggai eventually decides to hit the Israelites where it hurts: their stuff.

He channels God in Haggai 2: "Before a stone was placed upon a stone in the Lord’s temple, how did you fare? When one came to a heap of twenty measures, there were but ten; when one came to the wine vat to draw fifty measures, there were but twenty. I struck you and all the products of your toil with blight and mildew and hail; yet you did not return to me, says the Lord" (2:15-17).

Said differently, when the temple lies in ruins, God punishes his people by destroying their material possessions. This passage in chapter 2 reiterates a point made earlier in the book: when God is homeless, "you that earn wages earn wages to put them in a bag with holes" (Haggai 1:6).

If, by contrast, the people do their religious duty and rebuild the temple, God will allow them to prosper--to reap measures, to draw wine, and to earn and save money!

And Haggai, it seems, sees this ball get rolling; the Israelites eventually respond to his prophecy and begin their work, and the second temple will be finished by 515 B.C.E. When the building begins, God starts to reward his people anew: the Lord asks, rhetorically, "Do the vine, the fig tree, the pomegranate, and the olive tree still yield nothing?" (2:19). And the answer is "no." So God concludes, "From this day on, I will bless you" (2:19). With stuff.

And Bishop Long and early American Protestants as well, perhaps ...
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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Genesis 4: Cain's Sacrifice

In the beginning, as you all know, God creates the heavens and the earth. Over a brief seven days, the Lord of the universe builds the world and populates it with plants, animals, and, well, us. If only all of my weeks were so productive.

And God is pleased with his work. A humble but concise self-promoter, he deems his creation "very good" (1:31) upon finishing the job, and sits down for a nice foamy latte. With whole milk. He's earned it.

But it takes fewer than three chapters for this above-average planet to play host to the first murder, as the third earthling, Cain, kills the fourth, his brother Abel.

How does something so "very good" go so very wrong, so very quickly?

And what, in this fledgling utopia, could drive Cain to homicide with such startling speed? The answer to this question has something to do with sacrifice, but that answer is not so simple as some would have you believe.

The Genesis author introduces both brothers by their occupations: "Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground" (4:2). Simply, Abel is the meat guy and Cain handles the crops. Hosting dinners, they can deliver nutritious, low-carb meals. And they'll cater your wedding for a very reasonable price.

When it comes time to give gifts to the Lord, each brother delivers the products of his labor--Cain "an offering of the fruit of the ground" (4:3) and Abel "the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions" (4:4). The Bible does not explain why the brothers feel the need to bring gifts to God; indeed, no such command has been given. And I always want to give both men credit for their politeness.

But politeness aside, the Lord only looks with favor on one of these gifts: "And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard" (4:4-5). Now, God does not punish Cain for his "regardless" offering, but Cain is angry nonetheless, and this anger--most believe--drives him to murder his brother, alone in the field.

But why does God prefer "firstlings" to "fruit"? It's a real mystery, but a consensus interpretation suggests that the Lord's choice is related to the early Israelites' vocation.

The first Hebrews--or so the theory goes--were themselves pastoralists. They, like Abel, were "keepers of sheep." Hence, God's "regard" for Abel's gift not only confirms the rightness of the Israelites' own sacrifices, but it also sanctifies the very practice of herding.

For many years, this explanation has made sense to me. But over the holiday break, I've been reading Jon Levenson's The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son--an innovative, accessible account of Biblical sonship and sacrifice. Levenson argues, cogently, that this standard reading of the unacceptability of Cain's sacrifice is wrong.

The early chapters of Genesis, he argues, seem to show a preference for agriculturalists like Cain. Indeed, in chapter 2, God asks Adam to "till" and "keep" Eden, effectively making him the first farmer. And as I've suggested earlier, both Adam and Eve--and presumably Cain and Abel--are vegetarians. So God's preference for Abel's meat is a bit idiosyncratic given its narrative context.

But for Levenson, this idiosyncrasy is both inexplicable and totally beside the point. We, like Cain, are not supposed to dwell on God's motivations--which must necessarily remain beyond our understanding. We will never know--indeed, we cannot know--why God likes prime rib and not eggplant. We can only remember to prepare short ribs the next time Yahweh comes for dinner.

What we can worry about is the only thing we can control--our reactions to God's action. Said more simply, Cain's sin is not giving a second-rate sacrifice. Cain's sin is killing his brother. Heck, God says it better than I can, so maybe I'll let Him have the last word:

"Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it" (4:7).
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