Thursday, February 24, 2011

1 Corinthians 13: Krzysztof Kieślowski's "Blue"

It's cop-out time here at Eat the Bible.  I've got a great weekly-posting streak going, and I'd hate to break it, but I've been out of town, and I have to start grading tomorrow morning, so a more substantive post will have to wait.

Nonetheless, I've been wanting to give you a movie recommendation for a while now: it's the Polish director Kryzsztof Kieslowski's Blue--one third of his epic Trois Couleurs trilogy.  The enchanting Juliette Binoche--and how can a great French actress not be "enchanting"--stars as Julie, a woman grieving the loss of her husband and daughter in a car wreck that she survives.  Her husband, a composer, leaves behind the unfinished score for a choral work celebrating European unity.  The film follows, among other things, Julie's hesitant struggle bring the work to completion with the help of a younger composer.

Why do I bring the film up tonight?  Because I want to drop some culture on your philistine asses, that's why.

Oh yes, and the libretto for the chorale is St. Paul's hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13.  The film's closing scene marks my favorite moment of Biblical intertextuality in all of modern cinema.  Some other day, I'll offer my interpretation.  For now, I'll just give you the link to the last six minutes; the score is breathtaking. Paul's text follows below ...

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13) Click here for more

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Teaching the Bible in Public Schools? Totally Legal!

As I mentioned in a post last fall, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently conducted a survey intended to test Americans' religious literacy.  We didn't do very well, but Americans aren't test takers; we're visual learners.  If Hinduism would just start a YouTube channel ... 

Nonetheless, I was surprised to hear how many survey respondents--fully two-thirds--were unaware that it is legal to teach the Bible in a public school setting.  Granted, there are restrictions: teachers may lecture on the Bible--or on any other scripture, for that matter--as a literary or historical artifact, but they may not do so while promoting a particular religion. More simply, public school teachers may teach; they may not proselytize.

The development and distribution of objective religious curricula do not breach the wall that, we hope, separates church and state.

Two Supreme Court opinions in particular preserve public-school employees' right to teach the Bible.  The first, as Time's David Van Biema notes in a 2007 article, is Robert Jackson's concurring opinion in McCollum v. Board of Education (1948).  The relevant passage reads, "One can hardly respect the system of education that would leave the student wholly ignorant of the currents of religious thought that move the world society for ... which he is being prepared."  Clearly, concision is not one of Jackson's strong suits, but I digress ...

McCollum v. Board struck down an Illinois school system's "released time" program, which set aside space in public schools for religious instruction sponsored by local religious groups.  In banning "released time," the Court--through Jackson--nonetheless affirmed the importance of religious education.  (You can find the full text of the court's decision here.)

A second opinion, by Justice Thomas Clark in School District of Abington v. Schempp (1963), confirmed the exemption described by Jackson:

"It might be well said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.  The Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historical qualities.  Nothing we have said here indicates that such a study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistent with the First Amendment."

Ironically, this statement comes in the context of a Court decision asserting that "no state law or school board may require that passages from the Bible be read or that the Lord's Prayer be recited in the public schools of a State at the beginning of each school day."  (Again, here's the full decision.)

Simply, while the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the secular nature of the American public school system, it has consistently defended instructors' rights to teach religion--so long as that teaching is unbiased. 

Nonetheless, I wonder about my readers' opinions.  It is legal to teach scripture in public schools, but is it desirable?  Or in slightly different terms, would you approve of your child being taught the Bible in a public classroom?  Or the Bhagavad Gita?  Or, gasp, the Qur'an? Click here for more

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Open Questions: Can the Bible Help Fight Bigotry?

In a very helpful recent post for the CNN Religion Blog, BU Professor Jennifer Knust makes a concise argument that Biblical (and extra-Biblical) views on sexuality are significantly more complicated than some religious figures would let on.  Against more conservative commentators (I suppose), she provocatively argues:

--that the Bible's condemnation of homosexuality is neither as apparent, nor as unequivocal, as we might believe
--that both Paul and Jesus take rather dim views of marriage--and human sexuality as a whole
--that God may have established androgyny--not heterosexuality--as the human sexual ideal 

I've made similar points in this space (okay, not the androgyny one--that was a left-fielder for me), and I'm largely convinced by her claims. 

But her much-commented-upon essay has got me thinking: is she changing any minds, especially on the issue of homosexuality?  Or differently, is anyone who believes that the Bible fully supports heterosexual marriage and thoroughly condemns homosexual relations going to be persuaded by her hermeneutical exercise? 

I'm not sure they will.  So I ask an honest question.  Are you?  And do you think that hermeneutics--systematic Biblical interpretation--is an effective tool for battling bigotry?  Read her article and tell me what you think.  I'd love to hear your response ... Click here for more

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Isaiah 7: The Immanuel Prophecy in Context

Alright, quick ... to whom do the following Bible lines refer?

"Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel ['God is with us']." 

Did you say Jesus?  Oh great!  You were listening in Sunday school!  Gold star!  Problem is ...

You're wrong.

And you thought Sunday school would never lie, didn't you?  Don't worry.  It's still great for all sorts of other things--like matchstick-cross craft projects and learning the words to "Jesus Loves Me."  

And you're not totally wrong--I got carried away.  (I really did love Sunday school.)  If you said that "Immanuel" is Jesus, you've got at least one really important ally: the author of Matthew, who absolutely agrees with you.  Problem is ... he's wrong too.

I'm dropping bombs today.  You should definitely read past the jump ...

So let me explain some things while I'm rocking your world.  Daddy's gonna try to make this nice and easy for you. 

Some of you are probably familiar with Matthew 1, in which the evangelist claims that the Immanuel prophecy cited above is fulfilled by Jesus.  That prophecy comes from the book of Isaiah, and Matthew's claim is thoroughly predictable, because he's always trying to prove that Jesus is the completion of Hebrew Biblical scripture.  Immediately before quoting the Isaiah line, Matthew writes that the circumstances surrounding Jesus's birth "took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet" (Matthew 1:22).  

But while centuries of recitation have had the effect of adding substance to Matthew's argument, it frankly doesn't hold up to close scrutiny, especially if you take into account ancient Israelite historical context.  So for all of you who don't want any divided-kingdom history this morning, I'll see you next week, when I discuss Biblical allusions in the new Katy Perry single, "Sexxxy Gurlz of Summer Toun."  But for those of you who want a little lesson, read on. 

Most scholars believe that Matthew cites the Immanuel prophecy more than 800 years after Isaiah writes it, in the middle of the eighth century, B.C.E., during a military conflict that comes to be known as the Syro-Ephraimite War.  This was essentially an instance of civil strife, during which Israel's northern territory--here known simply as Ephraim--teams up with the Syrians to attack the southern kingdom of Judah.

Why?  Well in Isaiah's time, the big imperial power on the block was Assyria, and as Assyria grew in strength, the nations on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean were shaking in their booties--or thong sandals, or whatever.  (So I don't know divided-kingdom footwear.  Sue me.  And then just try to find  You'll be back.)

So as Assyria blows up, the kings of Ephraim and Syria (Pekah and Rezin, respectively) get an idea: they'll band together and try a pre-emptive strike.  And they'll ask Judah's king Ahaz for help. But there's a little problem: Ahaz isn't buying.  So what do Ephraim and Syria do?  In a huge strategic blunder that more or less secures Ephraim's eventual destruction, they attack Judah. 

And here's where Ahaz is forced to make a deal with the devil.  Fearing the total annihilation of the Southern Kingdom, Ahaz enlists Assyria's help in repelling the Syro-Ephraimite forces.  His gambit succeeds, but at a high cost: Judah essentially becomes an Assyrian colony.  (Assyria will wipe the Northern Kingdom of Ephraim/Israel off the map just a few years later, in 722 B.C.E.)

It is this dire politico-military situation into which Isaiah--a Judean--is dropped as prophet.  His task?  To assure Ahaz that the Syro-Ephraimite War will not mean the end of Judah.  Obviously, doing so is no small task.  The wolves are totally at the door, and Ahaz is losing hope quickly.  Thus, Isaiah's first efforts to comfort the faltering king come to naught.  

So God and Isaiah must resort to drastic measures.  Says the Lord, through Isaiah, "Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven" (7:11).  But Ahaz refuses.  He will not, good Jew that he is, put the Lord to the test. So God pushes through a sign on his own: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel" (7:14).

So in context, this son Immanuel (which means "God is with us") likely isn't Jesus.  He can't be some far-off savior, set to arrive nearly a millennium later.  He is a sign Ahaz needs right now, STAT.  So does he come?

Well, yes.  Probably.

Many scholars believe that "Immanuel" is actually a son of Isaiah himself.  You see, God has a habit of sending prophetic signs through Isaiah's wife's birth canal.  She's a lucky one, isn't she?  Isaiah's eldest is named Shear-jashub, which in Hebrew means "A remnant shall return"--a hopeful name through which God promises that Israelite exiles may come back to the holy land.  And in Isaiah 8, Isaiah has another son, and God commands that the boy be named Maher-shalal-hashbaz.  This extremely cumbersome name means "The spoil speeds, the prey hastens," and the text promises that "before the child knows how to call 'My father' or 'My mother', the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away by the king of Assyria" (8:4). (Damascus is the capital of Syria, and Samaria is yet another name for Ephraim/Israel.)

So Immanuel is probably a third son, whose name promises divine comfort in a time of severe trial--comfrot that will arrive with the defeat of Syria and Ephraim.  (The editors of the Oxford Annotated Bible note an alternate tradition, by which "Immanuel" is Hezekiah, the son of King Ahaz born around this time.)

So frankly, Matthew is stretching--hard--when he claims that Isaiah is talking about Jesus.  So where does he get off?  And how does his long-shot interpretation take hold?  Well, most believe that he takes advantage of the shifty ambiguity of that phrase, "the young woman," and gets extra help from a secret cabal of third-century B.C.E. Alexandrian Jews.  Intrigued?  Me too.  But this is a long post, and you've gotta get back to filing DRM reports.

Let's just call this one a cliffhanger. I'll get to it later, I promise.
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