by Adi Erlich
ASOR February 2018
Few Jewish sites in Israel are as renowned as Beit She’arim, which today receives many thousands of visitors a year. But while best known for its catacombs and tombs, Beit She’arim was much more than a cemetery. New excavations are bringing that living dimension into focus for the first time, and refining our understanding of the Jewish Galilee as a whole.
After the Roman period there is no mention of the site. Beth She’arim declined in the Byzantine period and later was reoccupied in the 13th century and again in the Ottoman period, when the Sheikh Abreik tomb was erected and a small village occupied the hill. In the early 20th century the Jewish National Fund bought the land and archaeological excavations commenced in 1936.
During the 1930s and 1950s pioneering archaeologists Benjamin Mazar and Nachman Avigad excavated the site for the Israel Exploration Society. Their soundings concentrated mostly in the cemetery on the slopes of the Sheikh Abreik hill, revealing decorated caves and catacombs filled with inscriptions in Hebrew and Greek.
But the town on the hill was hardly explored. Only a few buildings were excavated – a synagogue, some houses, an olive press and a basilica, and the results have never been fully published. Today the site is occupied by the Beth She’arim National Park and by a small village named Beit Zaid.
In 2014 I renewed excavations on the Sheikh Abreik hill in the Beth She’arim National Park on behalf of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa. The project is funded by the Israel Science Foundation, and carried out by our staff, students and volunteers. We are grateful for the support and cooperation of the National Parks Authority, the Beth She’arim National Park, our friends in the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Jezre’el Valley municipality, and residents of Beit Zaid.
Seven areas were excavated on the northern slope and on the eastern edge of Sheikh Abreik. Area A, situated near the basilica, revealed domestic structures of the Roman period (2nd-4th centuries). Different water installations were also found, including a cistern, an underground installation with a staircase leading to a mikveh (ritual bath), and a plastered pool with an arch to support the ceiling.
This building was destroyed in the mid-4th century and a new one with poorer masonry was built in the second half of the 4th century, using and altering the old structure. The early Byzantine building was destroyed, possibly by an earthquake, in the first half of the 5th century CE . A special find from this phase is a rare pottery object, perhaps a lantern, engraved with human figures and architectural motives. Many finds of the 13th century CE have also been excavated, including a hoard of weapons, along with scant Ottoman remains.
The Roman and early Byzantine phases are well attested also in Area D, mostly as water installations like channels, a plastered vault and two cisterns connected at their bottom. The concentration of water collection installations in Area D is due to its location on the lower part of the hill, where water naturally drains. Area C on the east of the hill has two buildings flanking a street whose drainage survived. These buildings were erected in the 3rd century and were then abandoned and collapsed in the early 5th century. A hoard of 21 coins found on one of the floors attest to the date of its destruction.
Area B, close to the summit, was used during the Ottoman period as a garbage dump and for debris burning pits, which created a large fills for us to remove. These fills covered and preserved ancient remains but also cut through and robbed them. The earliest remains in this area are small Hellenistic pits quarried in the soft bedrock and some walls, and Hellenistic pottery typical of Southern Phoenicia. During the early Roman period (1st century CE), a building was constructed over the pits, followed by another in the 2nd – 3rd century CE, with stone-paved floors.
Area Z is situated beside the road leading to the national park. There we discovered an Early Byzantine building, which was built on an earlier mikveh. The Roman mikveh was vaulted, hewn in the rock and plastered, with a staircase leading downward. When the 2017 season ended and the first rains came, we could witness how it is being filled with water again after some 1800 years.
Outside and north of the gate we uncovered a round pottery kiln that produced pottery dated to the 4th century CE, mostly storage jars, and above it the remains of a glass workshop. The industries seem to postdate the nearby gate. Vast amount of pottery, mostly storage jars, was recovered in the kiln.
The story of Beth She’arim that is emerging from our excavations starts in the Iron Age II period, of which only sporadic sherds of pottery survived. From the Hellenistic/Hasmonean period (3rd-1st centuries BCE) there are buildings, quarried pits, and small finds. The Early Roman period (1st century CE), the era of Queen Berenice’s estate on the hill, are represented by impressive walls in area B, possibly belonging to that estate, and small finds.
The heyday of Beth She’arim (2nd-4th centuries CE), the days of the Jewish Sages and the cemetery, are well attested in buildings, streets and alleys, cisterns, quarried installations, and many small finds. The town was well planned, perhaps fortified, and the dwellings and public buildings indicate the high socio-economic status of the residents. Various installations for collecting water were constructed. The Jewish character of the inhabitants is attested by ritual baths and the use of stone vessels, typical of Jewish households. The town was destroyed in the mid-4th century CE, perhaps by the 363 CE earthquake.
The town recovered for a short time (ca. 380 to 420 CE), but was ruined again, probably by another earthquake. The pottery and glass industries north of the gate belong to that period. There are also some Late Byzantine finds (5th-6th centuries CE), but only little architecture and it seems that the town declined in the mid-5th century. The almost lack of Byzantine coins is striking in this regard. A building with mosaics excavated by Fanny Vitto, dated to the 6th century CE, is probably part of the small settlement in the late Byzantine period, perhaps a small farm or monastery.
The origin and decline of the Jewish Galilee is the subject of considerable debate. Some scholars see a period of decline in the mid-4th century CE (whether the 351 Gallus revolt or the 363 earthquake), while others maintain there was no crisis and that it continued to flourish throughout the Byzantine period. The story emerging at Beth She’arim offers a middle way; the settlement recovered for a short time, but no longer flourished after the mid-5th century, and probably was small and insignificant in the Late Byzantine period. The cemetery was probably still in use, but the town no longer existed.
But Beth She’arim also stands out in the Jewish Galilee with its large public buildings decorated with marble slabs and well-planned town, atypical for Galilean towns. The large gate we have discovered, probably the town’s main gate, is also unique in Roman Galilee, attesting to the high status of Beth She’arim. Other features are unique to Beth She’arim, such as the double cisterns and large reservoirs. The special place of Beth She’arim as a living Jewish town, the home of Rabbi Judah and the Sanhedrin, is now coming into better focus.
New York Times Feb 21, 2018
|There’s a hard truth about identity that is laced throughout, though never quite stated in, the new film “Black Panther” as well as the bounty of smart commentary it’s elicited.|
|That hard truth is that identity, in basically all forms, is to some significant extent a fiction. Confronting this can be awkward, controversial and even painful but, in the long run, we believe, can make life better and the world’s problems more manageable.|
|That might sound like a rebuke to the film’s celebration of pan-African and African diaspora identities. But it’s quite the opposite. What makes the film powerful and important, we think, is its implicit acknowledgement that identity is made up by deconstructing old, colonially imposed identities so as to build a new, better set of identities.|
|“Africa—or, rather, ‘Africa’—is a creation of a white world and the literary, academic, cinematic, and political mechanisms that it used to give mythology the credibility of truth,” Jelani Cobb wrote in The New Yorker. The film’s fictitious African nation of Wakanda is, he says, “a redemptive counter-mythology” that is “no more or less imaginary than the Africa conjured by” colonists and their enablers.|
|All identities are, to some extent, invented. If one has been invented for you to justify your subjugation, displacement, murder or worse, why not invent a better one?|
|Racial identity is made up, forced into artificial but deeply consequential categories. That doesn’t mean it can’t feel real, or be a source of value or social place or harmful discrimination. It just means it’s artificial and therefore can be imposed or manipulated by outsiders — for instance, centuries of Westerners constructing a black identity that would justify slavery and colonialism.|
|We’ve been doing a lot of thinking about national identity and nationalism recently, and it’s clear that national identity can also feel like one of the most “real” things in many people’s lives, but it’s made up, too.|
|Often, national identity is engineered by governments to justify and exert their authority over territory within otherwise arbitrary borders. That identity is then dressed up in mythology and symbolism to make that territory’s unity feel eternal and inevitable.|
|Most European nations, for instance, began as mere collections of territory whose residents had little in common, including language or race. It’s only very recently that those countries have developed shared languages and cultures that make them feel like a unified whole — like a nation.|
|Consider this mind-blowing statistic from Eric Hobsbawm, a prominent scholar of nationalism: “The French language has been essential to the concept of ‘France,'” although in 1789” – the year of the French Revolution, the pinnacle of Frenchness — “50 percent of the French people did not speak it at all, and only 12 to 13 percent spoke it fairly well.”|
|Diaspora identities, such as Irish-American or Nigerian-British, are especially complicated because they incorporate both race and nationality, which they are meant to reconcile but in practice keep locked in tension with one another. Americans know this as the struggle of the hyphen.|
|“Black Panther” deals, Mr. Cobb writes, with the hyphen in “African-American,” a bit of punctuation fraught with so much history and “dissonance” it could be replaced, he argues, with an ellipses.|
|Part of the film’s triumph is in deconstructing what it means to be African or part of the African diaspora, building those identities back up into something — symbolized by the fictional, never–colonized nation of Wakanda — that is just as real, but designed to empower rather than subjugate.|
|And, perhaps more important, it’s an identity constructed by the people who hold it rather than ill-wishing outsiders. Mr. Cobb calls this “a kind of democracy of the imagination” and a “reclamation” of Africa and how it is conceived.|
|But that reclamation is possible only by acknowledging that identities are constructed, which means going against lifelong educations telling us that our race and nationality are rooted in some deep and immovable truth. That an identity made in a superhero movie is as good as, and maybe better than, one articulated over generations of real-world abuses.|
|The right to define oneself, either as an individual or a community, is fundamental. Edward W. Said, the Palestinian-American theorist, called this the “permission to narrate” one’s own experience, which he argued had been denied to Palestinians.|
|“Black Panther” is an act of defiant self-narration, and therefore a kind of liberation from being defined by others. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we are all, in some sense, trapped in identities that were made for us. Most were designed for subtler and less catastrophic ends than slavery and colonialism, if they were consciously designed at all, but all come with constraints and obligations we might not have chosen for ourselves.|
|“Black Panther” is a spectacular expression of liberation for a spectacular medium, but it’s a kind of breaking free that might have attraction for all of us.|
BRISTOL, Tenn., Feb. 16, 2017 –King University Chair of Philosophy and Religion Don Michael Hudson, Ph.D., and Brad Zockoll, Ph.D., upper school Bible teacher from Grace Christian Academy in Knoxville, collaborated on an adventure of a lifetime for Grace’s high school students. Along with the two group leaders, seven students and three chaperones traveled to Israel and Palestine to experience the Holy Land firsthand Oct. 7-16, 2017.
“Dr. Hudson put together one of the most intensive, instructive, emotional and impactful trips I’ve ever taken,” said Zockoll. “It’s as if he had been leading a private classroom for us at each stop. It’s been an eye-opener at every new venue.”
“I have wanted to host a trip for high school students for years now. The problem was finding the right co-leader and working with a really good school,” said Hudson. “Once I found Dr. Zockoll (actually an old college buddy) and Grace Academy I knew we were in for a great trip. I particularly wanted to take young people who are interested in understanding their faith and Scriptures in much deeper ways.
“I want to take younger folks over to Israel and Palestine to challenge their American way of thinking and introduce them to a much better knowledge of the Christian Scriptures,” added Hudson. “Many modern Christians believe the Bible, but few actually know the Bible. I meet so many who will defend the Bible to the death, but they never read it. So let’s go see the places where the events occurred and the narratives were constructed. This vision is a revolution in their thinking.”
Upon arriving in the Holy Land, the group began their journey in Taybeh, which was first called Ephraim during the time of Jesus. The Palestinian village is located in the West Bank and is the only known Christian village left in Israel and Palestine.
The group packed in as many sites as possible in the short time they were in the Holy Land. Locations they visited included: the Qumran Caves, the Dead Sea, Jordan River, Masada, Gethsemane, the Mount of Olives, the Damascus Gate (one of the entrances to the Old City of Jerusalem), Bethlehem, Hezekiah’s Tunnel, Ein Gedi, Capernaum at the Sea of Galilee, Nazareth, Magdala, the Mount of Beatitudes, Haifa, Akko, Megiddo, Caesarea Matimah, and Jaffa.
“The Israel trip was one of the most incredible experiences of my life,” said Junior Brooke Hilemon. “I have grown very much in my spiritual relationship with God. I’m so thankful for the opportunity, and I wouldn’t trade the memories for anything. If I could, I would go back in a heartbeat.”
For Linda Reedy, a teacher at Concord Christian School and trip chaperone, this was her second trip. “I learned so much more on this trip [than the first]. Not being hindered by a large tour group moving quickly through each site, we were able to spend quality time learning about the different places through Dr. Hudson. Magdala was one of my favorites—walking through a village Jesus and the disciples would have traveled through.”
Junior Christian Luttrell commented, “The trip to Israel was an experience I will never forget. I was amazed seeing Biblical places I have read about come to life as Dr. Hudson led us around and explained the different sites. Junior Stacy Koger added, “The Israel trip was beyond amazing. From Taybeh to Jerusalem, and everywhere in between. This trip was a journey that I feel benefits the spirit just as much as the mind.”
The King Philosophy and Religion Department’s next Israel/Palestine excursion led by Dr. Hudson will take place during Spring Break March 2-11. King University students will have an opportunity similar to that of Grace Christian Academy: to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.
If you are interested in King’s Department of Philosophy and Religion or the Israel/Palestine trip, contact Dr. Don Hudson at email@example.com.
New York Times, Feb 14, 2018
|Two notable things happened in Israel this week and, while only one made the front page, the stories, in tandem, reveal something important about the country and its future.|
|On Tuesday, the Israeli police recommended that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust. This is a big deal; it could topple his premiership.|
|It’s worth considering that alongside a less-discussed event from the day before, when Ayelet Shaked, Israel’s justice minister, advocated for a so-called nationality bill, which would officially enshrine Israel as a Jewish nation. Ms. Shaked, a right-wing nationalist known for provocations, said, to some controversy, “There is place to maintain a Jewish majority even at the price of violation of rights.”|
|Together, these two events tell us something meaningful about the health of Israeli democracy, whose future is subject to growing debate.|
|A disclaimer: there are two partially overlapping “fate of Israeli democracy” conversations. One is about whether Israel can call itself a democracy as long as it maintains its forcible occupation of the West Bank, whose Palestinian residents lack basic rights. The other conversation, the one gaining urgency in recent years, is whether democracy within Israel proper could recede, or is already doing so.|
|Now to this week’s news. You could draw seemingly contradictory conclusions about Israeli democracy from the two events.|
|On the one hand, the Israeli police are, at least so far, showing every sign of political independence on the Netanyahu case. Recommending charges against the prime minister is a big deal. Mr. Netanyahu has also not outwardly meddled in the case, suggesting he, his party and his supporters are all constrained by norms of police independence.|
|It’s hard to get excited about the absence of something, but the absence of political meddling in Israel’s police and justice systems, at least over this case, is an important sign of democratic health.|
|Contrast that with, oh, we don’t know, the United States of America, where the president is openly pressuring senior F.B.I. and Justice Department officials to drop an investigation into the election that could implicate him personally.|
|This gets to something important. The political scientists Daniel Ziblatt and Steve Levitsky write in their new book, “How Democracies Die,” that, in order for a democracy to persist, its leaders must exercise what the authors call “forbearance.” This means that leaders restrain themselves from politicizing democratic institutions — say, law enforcement or the courts — even when it would be legal to do so.|
|If leaders stop practicing forbearance, the authors write, democracy can backslide. That may already be happening in the United States, they warn. But, in Israel, the Netanyahu case is at least one datapoint in favor of forbearance persisting. It’s also a datapoint in favor of institutional independence and rule of law, also essential democratic foundations.|
|Now consider Ms. Shaked’s speech in defense of the nationality law. Her comments, to be clear, are not particularly new for her. Still, it is striking to hear a senior government official say that some rights abuses are acceptable costs for preserving her country’s Jewish identity.|
|This hits at the contradiction at the heart of Israeli democracy. The country’s all-but-official identity is the oft-repeated phrase “Jewish and democratic.” But can a country enshrine democratic principles like equality under the law and one-person-one-vote if it also officially privileges one demographic group above all others?|
|Many countries face versions of this contradiction. France defines itself as democratic and French, an adjective that describes the French nationality as well the French ethnicity and French language. And France, like Israel, is struggling with what it means to balance national identity with a democratic duty to incorporate an increasingly diverse population. It’s not an easy task for any country.|
|What makes Israel different is its occupation of the West Bank and embargo on Gaza (many Gazans consider this a continuation of the Israeli occupation, which otherwise ended with a 2005 withdrawal). The country cannot fully separate its occupation of Palestinians outside its borders from its struggle over how or whether to democratically incorporate the Arab minority within its borders.|
|They are not the same issue, but they connect in so many ways that they cannot be addressed separately, either. And they feed into one another. When violence related to the conflict with the Palestinians spikes, so does Israeli skepticism toward pluralism and democracy.|
|Exposure to terrorism tends to increase support for extreme politics in a number of ways, according to a 2015 study led by Daphna Canetti-Nisim, a political psychologist at the University of Maryland.|
|For one, it increases hostility toward minorities. People who endure terrorism “feel threatened and vulnerable,” the study found. This “psychological distress” makes them more likely to retreat to familiar in-groups and view outsiders as threats. This in turn is associated with declining support for democratic norms.|
|This is how debates over the nationality law take on such high stakes that Ms. Shaked, though she argues Israel can be both Jewish and democracy, advocates policies that would privilege the former at the expense of the latter.|
|You see the effect in polls showing that Israelis increasingly believe they will have to choose between an Israeli or Jewish national identity. And you see it in Israeli institutions, which have been gradually re-engineered to service the occupation. The needs of maintaining that occupation are “seriously hampering, if not reversing” the “process of self-democratization of the state,” according to a 2012 study by the Israeli researchers Tamir Magal, Neta Oren, Daniel Bar-Tal, and Eran Halperin.|
|All of which helps to explain this chart:|
“Six miles from Urfa, an ancient city in southeastern Turkey, Klaus Schmidt has made one of the most startling archaeological discoveries of our time: massive carved stones about 11,000 years old, crafted and arranged by prehistoric people who had not yet developed metal tools or even pottery. The megaliths predate Stonehenge by some 6,000 years. The place is called Gobekli Tepe, and Schmidt, a German archaeologist who has been working here more than a decade, is convinced it’s the site of the world’s oldest temple.”
Read more: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/gobekli-tepe-the-worlds-first-temple-83613665/#CCtatfSmd8lJTTGW.99
“Our contention that the local material culture at Dor in the early Iron Age is a single cultural sequence and that the essential process it marks is a gradual transition from Late Bronze ‘Canaanite’ to Iron Age ‘Phoenician’ is clear.” Sharon and Gilboa
Martin Luther changed the world and humanity.
To paraphrase the title of a William Manchester book on the Middle Ages, in a world lit only by fire, Luther provided a light by which the individual could see and think for themselves.
This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. As ignited by religious and societal revolutionary theologian Martin Luther, the world as we know it would most certainly not be the same had Luther never stepped forth in opposition of the era’s Roman Catholic Church leadership.
Born on Nov. 10, 1483, in Germany, Luther evolved into becoming a radical. He equated to Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma to Montgomery, Rosa Parks on the bus, George Washington on the front lines, the Allies encountering Hitler. But, one could make a sound argument that Luther surpassed them all as history’s most radical of radicals.
“Luther said, ‘Open your eyes, open your mind. Don’t be a sheep. Think for yourself,’” Hudson said. “Some people take umbrage with it being called the Dark Ages. Well, it was. Europe was shrouded in darkness.”
Light shed upon Luther and his era comes via a smattering of yearlong acknowledgements locally, nationally and worldwide. For instance, a showing of the PBS documentary, “Martin Luther: The Idea That Changed the World,” will screen on Monday, Oct. 30, at Cinemark Tinseltown in Bristol, Virginia. Tickets must be purchased beforehand and online via the link listed below.
Two days earlier, Concordia Lutheran Church in Kingsport will host an event of relevant music. They will present Songs of the Reformation on Saturday, Oct. 28, which will highlight the singing of hymns written by Luther.
“Luther said that after God’s love, music is the greatest thing,” said Rev. Paul Becker, pastor of Concordia Lutheran Church. “We want to help people see the beauty of the good news. Even stuff that’s 500 years old is fresh enough that it could have been written yesterday.”
Take Luther’s “Salvation Unto Us Has Come”:
“Salvation unto us has come
By God’s free grace and favor;
Good works cannot avert our doom,
They help and save us never.
Faith looks to Jesus Christ alone,
Who did for all the world atone;
He is our one redeemer.”
Luther’s “good works cannot avert our doom” line directly contradicted the Catholic Church. However, “Luther was an ardent Catholic …,” wrote author William Manchester in “A World Lit Only By Fire.”
Indeed, Luther was an academic as well as an Augustinian friar and then a Catholic priest. He translated the Bible into New High German, “a language he virtually created …,” Manchester wrote.
Luther served as a devout man of the cloth, a Catholic for whom God meant everything. Perhaps his most famous hymn bears that out in its title: “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
“In his early years, Luther’s loyalty to the Vatican was total; when he first glimpsed the Eternal City in 1511,” Manchester wrote, “he fell to his knees crying, ‘Hail to thee, O Holy Rome!’”
Meanwhile, ocean waves of turmoil, long churning throughout Europe regarding the church’s controversial sale of indulgences, spread with the gradual passage of time. All was not calm either within Luther or ultimately the papacy or the Roman Catholic Church at large.
“To Luther, the selling of indulgences was a big scam,” Hudson said. “That really set him off. It was a racket.”
Corruption infected vast hallways within the fractured house of the Roman Catholic Church before, during and after Luther. Licentiousness, criminality and general boorishness spread like a communicable disease for which there seemed no cure. Such behavior reached clear to and indeed enveloped the papacy.
“At one point you had three popes on the throne at the same time,” Hudson said. “There was a system dealing with all of the illegitimate children of the pope and priests. They had no checks and balances. They used their own traditions for their own purposes, and if you disagreed, you were burned at the stake.”
Luther, as had Czech priest Jan Hus 100 years earlier, sought reform of the church. Hus directly challenged the church’s sale of indulgences. For his affront, Hus was tried as a heretic and burned at the stake in 1415.
Voices such as Hus’ presented problems for the church. Widespread illiteracy and the lack of a printing press prevented the public from reading scripture for themselves. They depended on the clergy for their spiritual meals. Firebrands such as Hus gave them accurate readings of the Bible in concert with sharp rebukes of church leadership that did not.
“The Catholic Church used the Bible to squash the individual for their own purposes,” Hudson said. “To question the pope was not only to face the fear of fire in this life, but the fire of hell in the next life.”
One hundred and two years later, Luther penned “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.”
Better known as Luther’s “95 Theses,” the priest posted them on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, on Oct. 31, 1517. That he posted them on the door of the church wasn’t so revolutionary; the church door equated to a community bulletin board.
Luther’s words, however, proved contemporarily and historically earthquaking.
“He wrote that one cannot achieve salvation through indulgences,” Becker said. “Faith in Christ as the savior is the only way.”
Luther simply penned the truth.
“That will always upset people,” Becker said.
Coupled with Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the mid-1400s, seeds of what became known as the Protestant Reformation grew exponentially in the aftermath of Luther’s “95 Theses.”
The Reformation led to far more than just a split in the Roman Catholic Church and the advent of Protestantism. For one, it stands as monumental within the entire history of the world.
“Oh man, I’d put it in the top three,” Hudson said. “It unleashed the modern world. It was the seeds of the Enlightenment. It changed our whole world. One of the reasons why our government has checks and balances is because of the Reformation.”
Luther and the subsequent Protestant Reformation rocked the world on its axis.
Ultimately, Luther neither critiqued God nor the Bible nor Catholicism. He repudiated its purveyors who bastardized the word of God.
“The Reformation was one of the major shifts, changes in human history,” Hudson said. “We’re still living full-blown in that shift.”
College of Adults
Thursdays, 2:00 PM Main Auditorium
Long Version: William R Polk, Atlantic Magazine
College of Adults
Thursdays, 2:00 PM Main Auditorium
ASOR July 2017
“A few kilometres northeast of modern Şanlıurfa in south-eastern Turkey, the tell of Göbekli Tepe is situated on the highest point of the otherwise barren Germuş mountain range. Rising 15 metres and with an area of about 9 hectares, the completely man-made mound covers the earliest known monumental cult architecture in the ancient Near East. Constructed by hunter-gatherers right after the end of the last Ice Age, they also intentionally buried it about 10,000 years ago.”
This is an important report and update from the team working on/at Göbekli Tepe. I visited this site a little over two years ago. The site reaches back to over 11,000 years ago and challenges our view of PP Neolithic life, agriculture, and possibly religion. I do, however, disagree with a few of the authors’ interpretations. I think it is too early to be arguing GT as a site for “feasting.” Admittedly, the authors argue that their conclusions are based on “ethnologic and historic analogies,” not archaeology in situ. So we must be cautious for now. But a very nice article nonetheless.
And here are some of my photos from March 2015:
And here is the site for their excellent blog roll:
It is March 10, 2018 and this is your view of the Mediterranean.
From the rooftop of the old Turkish mansion where you are staying.
You have hiked up to Masada to see Herod’s palace.
You have seen the Dead Sea scrolls.
You have floated in the Dead Sea.
You have prayed at the Western Wall.
You have been on the Temple Mount.
You have spent glorious days around the Sea of Galilee.
You have been to Caesarea Maritima.
You have looked over the Elah Valley.
You have seen the Palestinian-Israeli situation firsthand.
You read the Bible like never before.
Join us. Israel-Palestine, Spring Break 2018
March 2-11, 2018
Cost: $3250 all-inclusive
Contact: Don Hudson firstname.lastname@example.org 423.652.4154
Don Michael Hudson/ Mars Hill Review 1994: Premier Issue
“It is only the story… that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is our escort. Without it we are blind.”
–Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah.
I have very few rituals in my chaotic life. One ritual, though, that I hold to religiously is the ritual I practice before going to sleep at night. I crawl in bed at least one hour prior to sleeping armed with an arsenal of books, magazines, and catalogues. First, I read “lighter” material like the latest fly-fishing catalog or Gun Dog magazine. Next, I turn my attention to an article or two from a Christian journal or periodical. Then, I will read part of the novel I am currently engrossed in. And finally, I will read the stories of the Old Testament or the Gospels until my wife threatens to burn all my books in some unholy bonfire if I don’t turn out the light. This is my nightly ritual of inducing sleep and my wife’s ritual of losing sleep.
One night something I read disturbed my sleep. Between dreaming of purchasing a new Orvis PM-10 lightweight rod with the “faster action” and Flannery O’Conner’s novel, Wise Blood, I read a seemingly innocuous article in a Christian quarterly. Simply put, the writer of the article presented a pastor struggling to find time for his “daily devotions.” This problem, of course, is a common problem for pastors and parishioners alike. What disturbed me though was the common solution offered for the problem. We have heard this before. First, discipline yourself to sit down and read the Word whether you feel like it or not. Then, develop a system that will help you discipline yourself and keep you consistent. As an aid to the preoccupied pastor, the article displayed a system for consistency that looked like an overworked Day-Timer. According to this author, neglecting the Bible is a problem of discipline.
The more I thought of the article the more angry I became. I could not finish my ritual-I never made it to the Gospel stories that night. Instead, I turned off the light and stewed in a tangle of sheets flopping from side to side rehearsing the “honest” conversation I would love to have with my errant brother. Unbeknownst to him, we fenced with one another until the wee hours of the morning and as usual when I have a conversation with myself, I always win.
Now, am I against daily devotions and the godly virtues of discipline, consistency, and systematization? Of course not. But let me invite you to wrestle with the questions that kept me up that night and were also the final plunges into my opponent’s heart. I would guess that they are also questions you have asked somewhere along your spiritual journey. Why is the Bible so hard to read? Why are there seasons in my life that I would rather do anything but read my Bible? In other words, if the Bible really is the story of God, why must I treat myself like some prisoner in a labor camp who must discipline himself to do the dreaded duty of reading his Bible again? If you were an outsider hearing most Christians talk about reading their Bibles, you would think they were speaking of root canals or tax audits.
A New Thought on an Old Problem
I went to Bible school with a deep passion in my heart. Since I was eleven years old, I believe that God called me for some type of teaching ministry. Even as a sophomore in high school I would sneak up to a small Bible college in my area and take night classes with college students. This may sound strange to you, but taking first year Greek and a class on the Pauline Epistles was a semester of ecstasy for me. At last I could study the Bible professionally, and this was one of the happiest moments of my teenage years. So when I tell you that I felt that I had died and gone to heaven when I entered Bible college it is no exaggeration.
Bible college was everything and more than I expected: Old Testament, New Testament, Theology, Greek Exegesis and Syntax, Church History, History of Doctrine, and Bible Exposition. In all honesty I think I received one of the best educations one could receive in that day. Seminary was a fascinating continuation and deepening of those things I learned in college. I turned my attention to the Old Testament and ancient languages. At the same time, I taught Greek as an assistant professor and ministered in a local church as an assistant pastor. All my dreams were coming true. But there was one trouble. Each passing year of college and seminary brought a gradually decreasing interest in the Bible. The iridescent, passionate flames that I entered college with were cooling to a few glowing embers.
I think though that my interest was waning because as much as I knew, my knowledge never touched me where I lived. I was wrestling with a few significant problems in my life and the Bible was dead. I studied the Bible but it did not speak to me. Secretly, I turned to Hemingway, Faulkner, Sartre, Kierkegaard, Jung, and Dostoevsky because they spoke to me more powerfully than the Bible did. I studied the Bible but it did not speak to me. A dilemma intruded into my life. My Bible was irrelevant and my world was significant. When I was 28 years old I graduated with a Th. M. in Old Testament. I had received an M. Div., and M. A. in Bible. I had preached for fourteen years and taught as a professor for five years. I had received one of the best Bible educations in the world. And yet, I was in a quandary because I was going out to invite people to read a book that bored me and to listen to a book that did not speak to me. No matter how much I disciplined myself I could not bring myself to enjoy the Bible. I am ashamed to admit that for the first year out of seminary I rarely read the Bible.
My memories haunted me though. Like old friends who would not let me slip away with my despair, they reminded me that things were not always this way. I recalled the consuming desire I had in high school to know the Scriptures, how I had found comfort in the psalms, encouragement in the stories, and rebuke in the epistles. I remembered those impossible days when I held to the smallest thread of truth. The quietest, most insistent whisper though summoned me to remember my boyhood love for the Bible stories. My mother read those stories to me and when I grew old enough to read for myself, I devoured the same stories. This was the memory I could not evade. Memory was my storyteller, and she recalled the story of how I loved the stories.
It was the stories of my boyhood that compelled me to love the Bible. From a world that was terrifying, lonely, and mundane they invited me to a world that was, at times, too unbelievable to bear. They wooed my reluctant heart. Who was this strange God who violently divided the Red Sea, called upon a prostitute to help level the walls of Jericho, whispered to Elijah hiding in a cave, and delivered Daniel from the gaping jaws of ravenous lions? Who were these strange heroes of Judges? Gideon and his fleece. Jephthah and his daughter. Samson and Delilah. Who was this one they called Christ? I thought him to be an odd man. But he healed people. I wanted to be healed. He gave sight to the blind. I wanted to see. He took little children into his arms. Would he take me into his arms? The people he loved the most crucified him. Why didn’t he call ten thousand angels, you know, just like the song we sang in church? I wanted to be Zacheus, Peter, Mary, John. I could see myself in the Bible stories. I wanted to be everyone in those stories. After six years of seminary, it was the passionate stories of my boyhood that drew my heart back to the Bible. It dawned on me one day that it was the mystery, passion, and wonder of the story that I had somehow squandered in my youthful idealism. I thought I had outgrown the stories.
There still remained a flicker in some corner of my darkened heart. Maybe my problem of reading the Bible was more than just a problem of discipline. How quickly do we forget Paul’s admonition that the law, discipline that is, is a schoolmaster who leads the student to the truth. God does not view us as machines who need to be programmed but as people who need to be called to something greater.
As I said previously, discipline is important, but making discipline our bottom line in this matter denies the passion and desire inherent to us all. In other words, is there not something undeniable about me that hungers for God? Discipline assumes that something outside of me draws me to the Bible. Story assumes that something inside of me draws me to listen to the Bible. What I find to my comfort and amazement is that a candle of desire is already lit in my heart. Some arsonist lit that candle a long time before I was aware of it. Yes, I am a self-centered, self-obsessed man. There are numerous days that I would like to be left alone to live my life as I choose. However, and I believe I speak for most Christians, there is something deep inside of me that wants to know God. My desire is not always present, but I do enjoy reading my Bible.
So what happened to this desire of mine in seminary? What killed my passion and what kills the passion of so many Christians? This is the major question of the essay. Maybe the way we are taught to read the Bible is wrong. Perhaps the way we read the Bible disciplines our passion rather than liberates our passion. I believe the way I was taught to read the Bible was one of cursing the darkness rather than lighting a candle. Seminary had somehow stripped the wonder and importance of stories from my life. Seminary taught me two things that almost suffocated my reading of the Bible: First, reading the Bible properly was comprised of following the right rules, the right method-reading the Bible was a science. If we could get the rules of interpretation right then our reading would be right and good. So I focused on getting all the rules and steps down just as a diesel mechanic would learn the proper way to rebuild an engine.
Second, I was discouraged from bringing my story to the Bible. We must separate ourselves from the Bible so we can understand it. Most pastors are taught that their reading of the Bible should be rational, logical, and objective so they must distance themselves from the text they are reading. To bring their lives to the story is to sully the story. Do you see how important these two points are? Do you see how destructive these points are? We as pastors and laymen are taught to be scientists rather than artists. A scientist stands “over and against” the Bible to understand it. To be a scientist means that I act on the Bible. A scientist sees a problem in reading the Bible and turns to behavior modification much like B. F. Skinner would. An artist is personally involved and stands under and within the Bible to understand it. To be an artist means that the Bible acts on me. An artist sees a problem in reading the Bible and turns to the romantic story of God.
Let me introduce you to a different way of reading the Bible. A way of reading that will hopefully draw you back to the passionate story of God. First, I acknowledge that the Bible is a story-not a list of prohibitions, or commandments, or proverbs, or steps-but a story. I do not read the Bible as a story because I happen to enjoy that way of reading. I read the Bible as a story because that’s the way the Bible presents itself. God has spoken to us in story and we will do well to listen the way that God has spoken. And, in my opinion, if we read the Bible as anything but story, we are fundamentally unbiblical. It is important to remember that the ten commandments are embedded in the middle of the story of the Penteteuch and not vice versa. The Psalms are a passionate expression of and personal response to God’s stories. The Proverbs are stories encapsulated in short, pithy statements. The Prophets are an interpretation, a re-reading of the stories of Israel. In the book of Romans, Paul makes a pointed statement about stories much like Christ and the prophets who preceded him. The church in Rome did not understand the gospel because it did not understand the stories of the Hebrew Bible. To explain salient points of the gospel, Paul returned to the stories of the Bible and reinterpreted them. For example, to elucidate justification by faith he returned to the story of Abraham’s justification. To clarify God’s strange way of salvation, he re-reads the story of Jacob and Esau. If I understand what Paul is accomplishing in the book of Romans, he is saying to the Romans that they would understand the gospel if they would comprehend the ancient stories of Israel.
What terrifies me about my generation is that we have lost the importance of seeing the Bible as it was written-a story. We have reduced the Bible to a few significant prooftexts, a few commandments, a few steps to secure the good life. We see the Bible just as we see the average self-help book in the bookstore-not a mysterious, intriguing, beguiling story to be caught up in, but a list of principles that will remove the mystery and suffering of our lives.
Second, I read other stories to help me understand the stories of the Bible. If all of us are truly made in the image of God then every story has traces of God in it. I am not suggesting that any story is as authoritative as the Bible stories. But every story has some level of authority because it arises out of the individual and his or her community. The image of God is undeniable and inescapable. And so every human reflects the image of God in his or her artistry. The more we read the better readers of the Bible we will be.
This is true for at least two reasons: 1) Every story expands our inner worlds, changes our inner worlds. Repeatedly I have said to my students, “Who you are is how you read.” The more you know about life the more you will bring to the stories of God to understand them and apply them. The world is my classroom and humanity is my teacher. 2) Certain stories are very similar to certain stories in the Bible. For example, I am going to ask you to read two stories in the next section of this essay: the fairy tale, The Handless Maiden, and then Jephthah’s daughter from Judges 11. If you cannot recall Jephthah’s daughter it might be wise to read that first and then come back to the fairy tale. As you read The Handless Maiden ask yourself these questions. What are the similarities to Jephthah’s daughter? I think you will be shocked to see the amazing comparisons. What similar truths are these two stories addressing? Once again the teaching of these stories is very similar. Also, ask yourself if the fairy tale can help you understand the strange story of Jephthah’s daughter. What does it mean to read in community? It means to read things that are like us and very different than us. One of my mentors, Peter Miscall says “No text is an island.” This means that we are all connected intimately to all the stories of the world. Every story we read will aid us in understanding ourselves and our world.
And lastly, I bring my story to the stories of the Bible. The ancient story of Jephthah’s daughter has something to say to me today. As I read Jephthah’s daughter I see myself and my tendency to sacrifice others out of my own cowardice. I see how easy it is to be oblivious to everyone and everything around me. I see how easy it is to sacrifice relationship in the name of a rash vow. The more I bring my life, the lives of my clients, the lives of my acquaintances to this story, the better I understand it. We are not as different as Jephthah as we want to believe. If I understand Jephthah then maybe I will not destroy others around me like he did. So I read the Bible as a story, I bring other stories to my life, and I bring my life to the stories.
Let’s turn now to the exciting stories of The Handless Maiden and Jephthah’s daughter.
The Handless Maiden
A long, long time ago a miller had fallen upon hard times. All he had left to his name was his mill and a big apple tree behind it. One day he went to the forest to chop wood when an old man approached him. “Why do you exhaust yourself by chopping this wood?” he asked the miller.
“I will make you a very rich man if you give me what is standing behind your mill.” The miller thought to himself, “The only thing standing behind my mill is that old apple tree.” The miller agreed to the bargain, and the old man promised to return in three years and claim what was his.
The miller returned home and found abundant riches waiting for him. “Where did all this treasure come from?” asked the miller’s wife. The miller answered smugly, “I met an old man in the forest and he promised to make me exceedingly rich if I in turn would give him what was standing behind the mill. I can afford to lose the apple tree for all this, don’t you think?” “Oh you foolish husband,” scolded his wife, “that old man was the devil. Your daughter was standing behind the mill, sweeping the yard.”
The miller’s daughter was a beautiful and godly woman. After three years, when the devil was to come for her, she bathed herself and drew a circle around herself with chalk. The devil appeared to claim his prize but immediately grew angry because he could not approach her. “Do not let her near water,” he commanded the miller. The miller obeyed because he was fearful of the devil. The evil one appeared the next day, but this time she had shed tears on her hands, and so they were clean. The devil was enraged, “Chop her hands off so I can have power over her.” The miller was aghast with horror. “I cannot chop off my own daughter’s hands,” cried the miller. “If you do not do as I command, you will be mine, and I will take you away,” sneered the devil. The miller agreed to the devil’s demands. He went to his daughter and said, “My daughter, I must chop off your hands because the devil will take me away if I do not. Please help me in my dilemma and forgive me for what I am about to do.” “You are my father, do as you wish,” replied the daughter. She held out her hands and the miller chopped them off. The devil returned again, but she had wept on the stumps of her arms cleansing them. So the devil gave up and let the daughter go.
Then the miller came to his daughter and said, “Thanks to you we are abundantly rich. I will always care for you.” But she replied, “No, I must go away. There will be kindhearted people who will care for me.”
The next morning she set out for her journey. She traveled all day until she came to the king’s orchard at sunset. She was hungry and wanted some of the fruit but a moat surrounded the orchard. She kneeled and prayed to God. Suddenly an angel appeared and made a place for her to cross. She entered the orchard with the angel and ate from a pear tree. Unbeknownst to her, the gardener was watching but he was afraid to show himself for he feared her to be a spirit. The next morning the king entered the orchard to count his pears. He noticed that one pear was missing and asked the gardener what happened to it. The gardener recounted the whole incident to the king. “I did not question them because I was afraid,” explained the gardener. The king said, “If what you say is true, then I will stay and watch tonight.”
At dusk the king returned to the orchard with a priest to speak to the spirit. The three men sat down under a tree and waited for the spirit to reappear. Sure enough, the girl stepped out of the thicket and took another pear. The priest approached her and the angel and asked: “Are you from God or from another world?” She replied, “Oh no, I am a girl forsaken by everyone but God.” The king said to her, “Though everyone has forsaken you, I will not forsake you.” He took her into his royal palace, made silver hands for her, and took her as his wife.
One year later the king went to war. He placed his wife into his mother’s care. “If she gives birth, take good care of her, and write me at once,” he said to his mother. Soon she gave birth to a fine boy. The king’s mother wrote a letter to her son. But the messenger stopped to rest by a brook and fell asleep. Then once again the devil appeared to harm the queen. He changed the letter for another, announcing that the queen had given birth to a changeling. The king was horrified. He wrote back that they should graciously care for the queen until he returns. On his return to the palace, the messenger stopped to rest at the same brook and fell asleep. Again the devil exchanged the letter, commanding that the queen and child be killed. The king’s mother could not believe what the king had commanded. She wrote another letter but the answer always came back the same. The last letter explained that they should keep the queen’s tongue and eyes as proof of their obedience.
The old mother was horrified. She could not bear to follow the dictates of the king. One night she sent for a doe and cut out its eyes and tongue to keep. Then she demanded that the queen leave with her young son. “I cannot obey my wicked son, but you must leave and never return.” The queen and her son left the royal palace and entered the forest. In the forest she fell on her knees and prayed to God. The angel of the Lord appeared to her and took her to a small house. Over the door read this sign, “All are welcome.” A snow-white maiden came out of the house and said, “Welcome to my home, Your Majesty.” The snow-white maiden explained that she was an angel sent from God to care for the queen and her son. So they lived there for seven years and because God had pity on the queen her hands grew again.
Finally the king returned from his many wars. His greatest wish was to see his wife and young son. His old mother wept bitterly at his sight. “You wicked son,” she said. “How could you murder you own wife and son?” She showed him the letters and told him she had obeyed his commands. At this the king wept uncontrollably. When the old mother saw this she pitied her son and told him the truth. “Do not cry. She is alive. These eyes and tongue are from a doe I secretly killed. I sent her away and told her to never return.”
The king vowed to find his wife and son and so wandered for seven years. He did not take anything with him but God took care of him. At last he came to the forest and found the house with the sign, “All are welcome.” The snow-white maiden came out and invited him in. “Welcome, your Majesty, please come in.” He explained to her that he had spent seven years looking for his wife and child. The maiden offered him food and drink but he refused, asking only to rest for a while. He lay down and covered his face with a handkerchief.
The angel went into another room and got the woman and the young son she now called “Sorrowful.” “Bring your child; your husband is here.” She took them to the sleeping man and slipped the handkerchief from his face. The king awoke at their words and the queen said to the king, “This is your son Sorrowful.” He saw her hands and said, “But my wife had silver hands.” She replied that God had restored her hands. The angel went into the bedchamber and brought out the silver hands. Then the king knew for sure that this was his wife and son. He kissed them both and told them how glad he was to find them. They left the forest and returned to the palace where there was great rejoicing and the king and queen lived happily ever after.
AND NOW, Jephthah’s Daughter
Now Jephthah the Gileadite was the son of a prostitute but he was also a mighty warrior. Gilead was the father of Jephthah. And Gilead’s wife (Jephthah’s step-mother) bore him many sons. When his step-brothers grew to be older they cast Jephthah out of the family. They said to him, “You will never inherit anything from our father nor will you be a part of this family because you are the son of a prostitute.” At these words Jephthah fled from his family and his land to live in the land of Good. Jephthah the outcast gathered outlaws around him and they went on raiding parties together.
After awhile, the Ammonites warred against the Israelites. When the Ammonites came against Israel, the leaders of Gilead sent for Jephthah in the land of Good. They begged Jephthah to command the battle against the Ammonites. But this made Jephtthah curious and so he asked them, “Are you not the very ones who cast me out of my father’s house because of my mother? Why are you coming to me now in your moment of trouble?” The elders of Gilead agreed but they pressed Jephthah to be their leader nevertheless. Jephthah spoke to the elders, “If you will allow me to come home to fight, and if the Lord gives me victory, I will be your leader.” And the elders of Gilead promised Jephthah saying, “The Lord is our witness between us. We will certainly do as you say.” Jephthah departed with them and became their leader in battle.
Then Jephthah sent messengers to the king of the Ammonites saying, “What do you have against us that you come to fight us?” The king answered, “Because your fathers, on their way from Egypt, took our land from us. Now please return our land in peace and we will not bother you.” This time Jephthah sent messengers back to the king telling him that he was surely mistaken. The messengers relayed the entire story of the exodus to the king of the Ammonites. They told him how two other kings acted toward Israel in that day. They finished their message by saying this to the king: “We are not the ones who have sinned against you, but you have wronged us in coming to battle us. The Lord will decide who is right in this matter.” But the king of the Ammonites would not listen to the messengers.
After hearing this the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he went out to the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord. “If you will give me victory over the Ammonites then whatever comes out of the doors of my house to greet me shall be the Lord’s. If I am victorious I will offer that up to the Lord as a holocaust [burnt offering]”. So Jephthah went out against the Ammonites, and the Lord gave Jephthah a great victory.
Then Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah. As he approached his house, his only child, his daughter came out of the house to meet him with timbrels and dancing. When he saw his daughter come out of the house he was horrified beyond measure. He tore his clothes and blamed his daughter. “My daughter, you have brought me down. You are the reason for my great trouble today! I have vowed to the Lord and I cannot go back on my vow!” She said to him, “My father, do to me as you wish because you have opened your mouth to the Lord.” And she spoke to her father, “Let this thing happen to me. But give me two months to wander in the mountains and grieve my virginity.” So she departed with her companions and grieved her virginity in the mountains. When two months were up she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. After this it was customary in Israel that the daughters of Israel would mourn the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite every year for four days.
Reading Jephthah’s Daughter
Two stories-one a fairy tale; one a Bible story. Each story tells of a father who sacrifices his daughter. An insecure father who uses his daughter to compensate for his fear and shame. An insecure father who asks his daughter to perform the unique duty of a father. The miller, in his greed for riches and security, sacrificed his daughter through his oblivion and cowardice. Jephthah, in his fury to remove his shame, sacrificed his daughter through his rashness.
Insecure men are the most dangerous men in the world. The father of the handless maiden was tired of grappling with the frustrations of life, and so he jumped at the first opportunity to get rich quick. There was one problem with his get-rich-quick scheme though-something he failed to see. Like so many men, his vision for riches or just plain comfort (no more exhausting work) blinded him to the obvious wiles of the devil. He was not aware that he was bargaining with the devil. But his wife knew. Strangely, she knew without seeing the devil disguised as the old man or even hearing the conversation. Similar to so many women of the Bible, she saw better than her husband but was helpless to remedy her husband’s blindness. Because her husband was foolish to the schemes of the devil she had to suffer the awful consequences. The father could have been suspect of this old stranger so familiar to us all. He could have been suspicious of any bargain that promised to banish the chaos of life and remove the suffering of our existence.
But there is something more tragic than the father’s bargain with the devil. The fact that he cooperated with the bargain is mystifying. Remember in the story the daughter wards off the devil first by drawing a circle around herself and then by washing herself. Finally, the devil is rebuffed a third time and chooses to leave the maiden for the time being. Was it not possible for the father to slight the devil also? Or was he afraid of losing his riches? Or was he afraid of what the devil might do to him? When the father drew back from chopping his daughter’s hands off the devil threatened him, “If you do not do as I command, you will be mine, and I will take you away.” We have already seen that the daughter through her sorrow could renounce the terms of the bargain. Why didn’t the father? Maybe he was afraid to do what only a father can do for his children-that is give his life for his daughter.
In this story it is the women who are discerning and nurturing. The maiden discerns that Satan can be thwarted, and foolish bargains are just that-foolish. The mother of the handless maiden discerns the true nature of Satan. Both the mother and daughter see through the illusion of evil. In the end, the miller did not keep his bargain but the devil was left powerless anyway so his power really was illusory. The mother of the king was not a literalist. In other words, she was horrified at the seeming demands of the king so she did not obey him. Satan used cunning to attempt to destroy the maiden and her son. The king’s mother used cunning to preserve the live of the maiden and her son. Both angels were messengers of God who ministered tenderly to the maiden. For some reason Satan seeks to destroy this beautiful and godly woman. He is obsessed with obliterating the feminine.
In this story, it is the men who are absent. They are greedy, oblivious, fearful, distant, and sleeping. This story answers the question of what happens to a society, a family, a woman when the men disappear, when the masculine abdicates. In the way of the Old Testament, when the men disappear the women are forced to wander as aliens and the children become orphans. The Handless Maiden teaches us that the devil does his best work when men are fearful, absent, or asleep. The father harms his daughter through his cowardice; the king harms his wife through his absence; and the messenger harms his queen in his stupor.
The story of Jephthah’s daughter is not unlike The Handless Maiden. Jephthah was born in shame. His nameless mother was a prostitute. As we begin the story of Jephthah’s daughter we find another absent father. Gilead, the father, has relations with a woman outside of marriage. From the point of conception Gilead disinherits his son. Like so many men, Gilead probably thought that his tryst did not matter. He was oblivious to the eternal ramifications of his moment of illicit pleasure. When the legitimate sons of Gilead cast Jephthah out of the family, Gilead was silent. And his silence disinherited his son and like the father in The Handless Maiden, caused his child to wander as an outlaw among outlaws. Jephthah’s was a double shame-no family, no inheritance. Thus he must have been an empty, insecure man.
Jephthah’s story takes a turn for the good though. His brothers seek him to be the mighty warrior for them. Jephthah makes a strange request in return for battling the Ammonites. He doesn’t ask for his inheritance-he asks to be their leader. This is significant in the book of Judges because most of the men are reluctant to be leaders (Barak, Samson, Gideon) or they are obsessed with leadership (Jephthah, Abimelech). Just like our present day, the men of Judges do great damage through their silence or violence.
Now, notice what happens before the battle. Jephthah makes his vow after the Spirit of the Lord came upon him. Why did he make this foolish vow after the Spirit visited him? Was he, like Gideon, afraid to battle without manipulating God? Was he, like Barak, afraid to battle unless he invoked the feminine? Or was he, like Manoah, oblivious to the presence of God?
Whatever the reason, Jephthah made a foolish vow. What did he expect to come out of his house? Just like the father of the handless maiden, he made a vow, a bargain without being aware of the consequences. His shame and insecurity led to the death of his daughter. What is more horrifying though is that he did not put an end to his devilish vow. As with the father of the handless maiden, he assumed the reality of the vow to be more than the reality of relationship. Both fathers disinherited their daughters. Both fathers sacrificed their daughters out of greed and shame. Jephthah perpetuates the cycle of abuse that damaged him.
These two stories teach us one important truth: insecure men are the most dangerous men in the world. And I am one of those men. I can see myself in both stories. I feel insecure, disinherited, and I am already weary from the battle of life. When I act on these feelings I use people, or I neglect my family so that I will be successful, or I ask someone else to be courageous when I am fearful.
Reading The Handless Maiden helps us better understand Jephthah’s daughter because it gives us categories to think with and look for. It teaches similar truths. Both stories captivate me. I want to know how the story ends, how the conflicts are resolved, so I read on. Both stories expose me. Do I use people to fill my emptiness and remove my fear? Am I sacrificing the ones I love out of my own sense of inadequacy. Both stories encourage me. They give me insight into my own soul and the human condition so that I do not have to perpetuate the sins of the father. I can be different because stories change my life. Story is that eternal moment that reminds me of the past which gives me insight into my present relationships and thus a vision for the future. Maybe these two stories will prevent me from doubting God and thereby prevent me from damaging my children.
Story is about people and God and how people and God come together. The Bible story is a beautiful romance in which God beckons our wayward hearts to join him. It’s about being little children, embracing mystery, seeing the unseen, and growing old with delight, not despair. It’s about where I came from and who I am and thus who my children and grandchildren will be. And I suppose it’s also about faith, hope, and love. Faith that remembers, love that connects, and hope that tells me I’m going to be okay.
But story is God’s quiet intrusion into our frantic lives; it is the small, still voice that whispers in the caverns of our darkness. God has intruded into my world through story. And so it is the story of God that gives me comfort and brings change to my life.
When do we, like Jacob, see that our demand to know the name of God is our feeble, but arrogant attempt to master God? When do we walk away from Scripture with a distinctive limp because we came as one person but left as another? It is the mystery of the story of God that draws us in to peak behind the curtain of the tabernacle, but it is also the story of God that breaks us and redeems us into someone we would never be without that story. So come, bring your story to a good story that is true and speaks to our lives in meaningful ways.
ASOR June 2017
“What do video games have to do with archaeology? The worlds of Grand Theft Auto, Super Mario Bros., or Tetris seem a far cry from anything archaeologists usually work on. But both involve imagining and visualizing worlds populated by humans, with human behavior and culture (and sometimes with mutated humans, aliens, the undead, and giant gorillas throwing barrels). VALUE (Videogames and Archaeology at Leiden University) began two and a half years ago. One of our many goals is to show the great potential video games have for archaeology in terms of public outreach, heritage preservation, and education, but also for actual research.”
Melville: Imagine someone who, finally, takes up the sword or the harpoon to begin a combat with God himself.
Hawthorne: One must not believe— Melville: In who?—
Hawthorne: In God.
Melville: On the contrary, for then what would be the merit? Hawthorne: Or the madness.
Melville: Or the madness if you like. No I think on the contrary of someone who saw God as clearly as the nose in the middle of a face, as the saying goes, as clearly as the white whale above the water, and who, precisely, seeing him in all his glory, knowing him in all his mysteries, knowing how far the delirium of his force may go, but not forgetting—ever—the wounds inflicted on him by this God, nevertheless launches himself at him and throws the harpoon. I believe you are writing a fine book, said Hawthorne, after a silence. . .
We want God to make sense, to be reasonable, to act according to how we think God should act. This kind of thinking, though, is not far from where we live today. If I give money to the church, then God will bless me financially. If I have my “quiet time” in scripture, then God will bless my day. If I raise my children right, then surely they will turn out right. In themselves these actions are good and right; however, we have to ask ourselves, “Do our motives emerge from the desire to give a place to the mystery of faith, or, rather, to conquer mystery?”
I am troubled by a movement very common in Christian circles today called “Raising Kids God’s Way.” Even the title smacks of modernist arrogance—that the method I use to raise my children would be God’s way. It is tragic enough that the authors of this training method use scripture in egregious ways, encourage dubious medical practices, and promote the deadening of passion and imagination in our children. But more sadly, they are teaching the quintessential promise of modernism: If I do A, then God will do B.
Terrified, bewildered parents want a guarantee. I know this passion for a guarantee by personal experience. I want something in my life that will guarantee me that if I do this, then God is obligated to do such-and-so. Thank God, though, for our five year olds whose unrestrained passions remind us that God is whimsical and untamed. Thank God for our “foolish” teenagers who drive the foolishness out of our hesitant, fearful hearts. If you want a good picture of postmodernism, then think of the five year old who disrupts the best laid plans of the family or the teenager who begins to question a parent’s faith. This is why the postmodern moment is so terrify- ing to us. It is a reminder that we are out of control, and a place where we are invited to trust a God who is beyond our comprehension. We want guarantees, and conveniently for Christians, we can “invent” a God who gives such a guarantee. In other words, Christians can use the methods and the thinking of modernism to project an image of a God who removes questions and doubts. Modernism, then, becomes a way of think- ing which attempts to tame and reduce God to logical categories so that our worlds will be predictable. It is the quest for the absolute presence of God—we can use our minds, our reason, to prove the existence of God. Modernism at its extreme is the belief that the human mind can comprehend reality whether it be something as lofty as God or as mundane as weather patterns. Referring back to Melville’s quote at the beginning of this essay, just as Captain Ahab madly hunted the great, mysterious white whale, modernism has been the furious pursuit of God in order to conquer the ultimate mystery.
If we can say that modernism is the delirious launch and thrust of the harpoon at the God who has been sighted, that frenzied quest to pierce and capture the incomprehensible God, then perhaps we can say that postmodernism is the appalling, haunting moment when the harpoon misses the target, we have launched ourselves into the howling maelstrom, and the sighted God has disappeared into the deep blue sea. Thus, we no longer live in a culture which promotes this naïve assumption of modernism: that we can actually comprehend God. Most likely, modernist arrogance reached its height, the top of Babel, in the thought of Hegel, the German philosopher. Incredibly, Hegel actually believed that his philosophy had finally solved the mystery of the trinity. Listen to the words of Gadamer, a more contemporary German philosopher: “Hegelian philosophy claimed above all to have comprehended the truth of the Christian message in conceptual form. This included even the deepest mystery of Christian doctrine, the mystery of the trinity.” Hegel could actually believe in his idealistic, but naïve, philosophy because he was a child of the nineteenth century. Little could he have known what lay in store for the twentieth century. Little did he know that his positive philosophy would be a major force that would lead to the Holocaust.
As we approach the twenty-first century, our postmodern culture asks a very different question than our modernist ancestors of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: We are asking, “Where is God?” You promised that God would be there. Auschwitz. Hiroshima. My Lai. You said we could prove God’s existence. Mao Tse-tung. Pinochet. Pol Pot. You said that God made sense. The Cultural Revolution in China. The Red Terror in Ukraine. Stalin’s bloody purges in Russia. You said that God has spoken in history. Prague 1968. Chiapas 1996. Laramie 1998. You said that we were getting better and better, that “even God could not sink this ship!” The finality of the German gas chamber. The isolation of the American prison cell. The horror of the Chilean torture chamber. “Where is God?” Indeed. “Man of sorrows, disappearing into the crowd.”
But there is another disappearance here at the end of modernism, one just as insidious as these physical manifestations mentioned in the previous paragraph. This other disappearance is the loss of meaning. We are deluged with data. Never in the history of humanity have there been more words, more images, more sensory data than in our time. Everywhere we turn, we are assaulted by images without substance, advertisements without ethics, and words with- out meaning. How does the church speak about the tragedy of the twentieth century? How does the church speak to this postmodern world?
We are at the end of the modernist experiment, and we have forfeited, we are missing, truth and goodness. Only beauty remains, but beauty appears to be dislocated and homeless, because, to borrow from Gertrude Stein, “there is no there there” anymore. How do we reconcile beauty and Auschwitz; how do we reconcile beauty and vacuous Madison Avenue? We have launched out into the deep and cast our harpoon, but we have missed, we are missing God. We miss God: we have missed in our attempt to grasp the incomprehensible, and thus we are missing, we are yearning and are pining for God. If modernism was the confident demand for the presence of God, the building of Babel, then postmodernism can be the passion to sift through the ruins of the twentieth century, the rubble of Babel, in a search for the absent God. It is no secret that our culture is experiencing a profound sense of alienation. We are alienated from ourselves, from others and from God. This is what I mean by the absence of God—not that God has abandoned us, but that we are estranged from God and others.
Simply put, the question is this. How, then, does one talk about this search for the absence of God? How do we represent the Deus absconditus, the hidden God, who in Flannery O’Connor’s terms is the ragged figure who runs from tree to tree in our minds? How do we represent the God who got away? What place does modernist thought give to the person of God much less the hiddenness of God? We must ask and attempt to answer the question: how does the absence of God play out in our theology and in our culture?
Enter postmodernism. Postmodern thought comes upon the scene to remind us that faith is the dance of presence and absence, grace and tragedy, assurance and doubt. Perhaps the postmodern moment is the most effective way to reveal the hidden God. In this issue we want to argue that postmodern thought critiques the arrogance of modernism, and in so doing, offers the church one of its greatest opportunities to present the gospel. In other words, postmodern thought does have something to offer the church. Unfortunately though, there is a quite a bit of confusion going on in evangelical circles around the word “postmodern.” If the “new age movement” was the heresy that bedeviled the evangelical church in the eighties, then postmodernism is supposedly that new heresy creeping into the church as we move into the twenty-first century. Within the last two years I have heard and read many of the standard evangelical responses to postmodernism, and quite frankly, I have been shocked not only by the strident, reactionary tone but, more so, the obvious superficial misreadings and misunderstandings of what postmodernism is all about. When most evangelicals speak of postmodernism they use all-encompassing words such as “relativistic,” “nihilistic,” or the “death of truth” (as if truth could really die). But we must examine this issue carefully.
More times than not, we do not expend the energy to carefully, thoughtfully understand and explore views with which we disagree, i.e. postmodernism. As a result, whether implicitly or explicitly, we end up rejecting opposing views out of cozy ignorance rather than costly study. More tragically though, the theology of the church can inadvertently reflect worldly thinking rather than solid, scriptural thinking. Evangelical seminaries emphasize rationalist, analytical methodology over relationship; the Religious Right pushes morality rather than holiness; the church is in the business of recruiting more soldiers to defend the truth rather than sending believers out into the world to love and care for those who cannot care for themselves; mission organizations send out missionaries to save the pagans with the implicit message that the ones who are being saved must be delivered not only from their sins but their culture; some parachurch organizations present the gospel to others in a way that seeks to convince unbelievers of the truth of Christ rather than inviting them to a significant relationship with Christ.
Quite frankly I am concerned that certain pockets of evangelical Christianity have uncritically cast their lots with modernist think- ing. I recall the first time I attended a class in what many evangelicals would call a liberal seminary. This particular seminary was reputed to be an “open” institution, but I was astounded by the arrogance and intolerance of both the instructors and a number of the students. What terrified me the most, though, was the shock I felt when I began to realize that I was back in a “fundamentalist” institution. At different times in the class, I thought I had come upon a more dangerous fundamentalism—the tyranny of seeing through the eyes of tolerance. Same hermeneutic as fundamental- ism, just different theology. Years previously I had left a fundamentalist institution for the purpose of finding teaching that would not place God in a box, an institution whose sole purpose was not to build fences around the untamed God.
One of the basic problems with the postmodern debate is this: more times than not, some evangelicals are viewing postmodernism from within a modernist worldview. Postmodernism begins, though, by questioning the entire modernist enterprise while at the same time bringing forth new ways of thinking and inviting new voices to the discussion of faith. It is important to understand that my intent is not to throw out the advances of modernism and turn wholeheartedly toward postmodernism. In the end, both are human philosophies which emphasize certain aspects of truth while at the same time harboring serious errors. I would be the first to agree that postmodernism must be critiqued, but we have much to learn from the postmodern spectacle. As we begin, let me venture forth my very simple definition as long as we understand that my definition is not all-encompassing: postmodernism is a reversal in rationalist thinking which opens the door to mystery.
The Postmodern Spectacle
It would be impossible to even begin to present a comprehensive view of postmodernism, so allow me to mention a few integral elements to postmodern thinking. I will discuss four categories: the postmodern moment is a turn, a downturn, a re-turn, and a ride in the rumble seat.
In the first place, postmodernism is a turn in language. The Italian author Umberto Eco, claims that postmodernism is “a way of operating” or simply, an entirely different way of thinking about language and reading. Essentially, postmodern thought would argue that God cannot be encircled, surrounded, or encompassed with language. As humans this side of Paradise, we can never know God perfectly; thus we never have an unadulterated, privileged view of God. Luther said a long time ago that there is a problem with the interpreter—we are blind to truth (John 9:41: “If you were blind, you would not have sin; but since you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”). Yes, the postmodernist would say, but there is also a problem with language. Language communicates, but language also confuses and thus invites interpretation at every reading. Language is mysterious and calls for a profound humility on the part of the reader.
Modernism, and I must add, evangelical seminaries, have taught that the right methodology will correct wrong readings of the Bible. But most postmodern thinkers would argue that the strong arm of methodology merely sets up the reader to exit the text just as he or she entered the text. In other words, methodology does not critique the interpreter—the reader’s prejudices and arrogance. As the German philosopher, Schleiermacher, said a century ago: “You can have all the right tools and right beliefs and still miss the meaning of the text.” Postmodern thinkers would merely say that the process of reading is not as innocent or as unbiased as modernist thinkers have contended.
Let me turn to one place in the Bible that has been consistently misread with modernist prejudices. Judges has been and continues to be a very difficult text in the Bible. There is one place in particular that frustrates the reader. Judges 1:8 states that Jerusalem was destroyed by the tribe of Judah and Judges 1:21 tells us that Jerusalem was not destroyed by the Benjamites but in fact, “the Jebusites have lived in Jerusalem among the Benjamites to this day.” What are we to do with these contradictory statements? Must we agree with the modernist historical critic that what we have here is an editorial discrepancy of the first order? Evangelicals, in defense of the text, have joined the interpretive fray but have done so with a similar modernist, historical methodology in the attempt to explain away the problem. Modernism (evangelical or liberal) states that contradictions like this cannot exist in the Bible or in a “good” story. In doing so, both interpretive schools, under the influence of modernist presuppositions, have missed the meaning that this troubling gap is signifying.
A postmodern reading would ask instead, “Why is the text presenting two contradictory views within the same chapter?” “What message does this gap signify and how does this same thing happen somewhere else within the Bible?” Modernism, whether liberal or evangelical, asks the question, “How can I resolve this discrepancy?” In other words, the text is illogical or seemingly inaccurate so I must somehow make the text work. If I’m evangelical, I assume that God would only use that which is logical to reveal truth. Thus I would turn to history or archeology in my attempt to resolve this discrepancy. Furthermore, as an evangelical, I assume that God writes stories that are linear and logical. Postmodernist thought, however, asks this question to the evangelical: “What if the way I read the Bible is more modernist than biblical?” Postmodernism would say that there’s a fox in the hen house and that fox could be the evangelical’s uncritical modern way of thinking. Perhaps God reveals himself in mysterious ways that I could never imagine. When I read the Bible, I need to think how God would write the story more than how I think God should write the story.
Furthermore, postmodernism asks the question: “Are there other places in art and literature where the same thing is happening?” In other words, maybe the same thing appears in other stories and art forms outside of the Bible. These other places can inform my understanding of the scriptures. It may be that the narrator of Judges desired to present two disparate views simultaneously much the same way that Picasso painted. Picasso, in order to present a new view of reality, used Braque’s concept of simultaneity to reveal multiple meanings within the one text. Thus, his painting, Woman Seated, displays the profile of a woman and a frontal view of a woman. The two overlapping images of the women in reality represent one and the same woman. Picasso wanted to portray multiple perspectives of this woman so that we as the readers/viewers may see a fuller picture of this woman. Thus, in the book of Judges, the success of Judah in 1:8 and the defeat of Benjamin in 1:21 reflects a profound tension in the rest of the book: Judah will be successful; Benjamin will be passed over. In 1 Samuel there is this same ten- sion: David from the tribe of Judah will rule Israel; Saul from the tribe of Benjamin will not. Here in the same chapter are two perspectives of Jerusalem that provide a fuller picture of God’s work in Israel.
Reading, then, should be the radical expansion of the interpreter’s horizon, not the modernist limiting of the horizon. What postmodernism calls for is a new way of thinking about biblical theology, a postmodern biblical theology that emerges from the shift in language that this new turn in language brings. Modernism encourages us to come to the text as a blank slate. Postmodern biblical theology encourages the interpreter to bring his or her life (world) to the text because the interpreter brings a wealth of culture that will aid our understanding of the Bible. Every voice is important as the church reads the Bible. Postmodernism invites us to listen to the voice of the other, the ones we have historically exiled because of our selfish prejudices—women, African-Americans, Asians, the poor. . . . Are we not truly the relativists and the nihilists when we refuse someone else’s readings, when we refuse to listen to the voice of the other? Postmodern reading occurs in the community of others not just in the confines of my safe, narrow world. Wittgenstein has warned us that the limits of our language will be the limits of our own worlds.
Secondly, postmodern thinking is a downturn, an overturning of the way we see, a radical disruption of the way we think. This is the mission statement of a postmodern biblical theology: “Thus says the LORD, ‘My ways are not your ways’.” As humans, we are finite in our thinking, and there is no possible way that we can have a “total” view of reality. I will never forget a lecture by one of my favorite professors, Dick Averbeck. He was teaching a class of semi- nary students and began to list his rules for reading the Bible. “Number one,” he began. With pen in hand I was eagerly waiting to hear the first principle of interpretation. “I am wrong,” he said. We all sat there in class staring blankly at him. I was thinking to myself, “OK, get on with it, let us hear the first principle.” He repeated his statement, “I am wrong.” Then he proceeded to remind us of our human limitations and our propensity to sin so, of course, when I come to the Bible, “I am wrong.” Dick went on to explain that we are also right because we are redeemed and have the Spirit working within, but I have never quite recovered from Rule #1. He was inviting us to live in the tension of being right and wrong in the same moment. What, though, places us on this path of humility? I would argue partly that tragedy, disruption, and the discovery that I have been blind are the first steps to relation- ship with God. The postmodern moment can usher in a critique or crisis to the modernist promise that correct doctrine alone will lead to salvation. I would be the first to say that correct doctrine is essential to the Christian life, but I would also remind us that cor- rect doctrine (thinking) begins not with the assurance that I am right, but with the humility that I am wrong, or perhaps better put, there are many things in life and faith that remain a mystery to me. The German poet Rilke told the young poet to “love the questions.” Time and again, I have seen Christians use logic, or the rule of noncontradiction, or “evidences” in the attempt to prove the truth of Christianity. The postmodernist would say that all these “proofs” are merely subjective projections of the way I believe the world should work. Further, the postmodernist would point out that my supposed “objective” interpretation is, in the end, just another example of circular reasoning. I see what I want to see. I create God in my own image.
Most importantly though, the postmodernist would say that this modernist way of thinking puts an end to mystery by bringing closure to the questions—ending the story. In the end, the extreme of modernism teaches me to hate and take flight from my questions. Once again, our Lord said it best. “If we think we see, then we are blind. If we know that we are blind, then we see.” There is an infinite paradox here in these words. True sight does not begin in sight. True sight, the sighting of truth, begins with the acknowledgment that I am blind.
Therefore, this crisis of vision should not end in nihilism, but instead, lead to the yearning for more, a revelation of the presence of God. Out of the absence of God emerges the yearning for the appearance of God. Disruption should lead to change. Tragedy is a doorway to redemption, and judgment is a prelude to salvation. My questions, rather than resulting in idleness and despair, should lead me to an intense relationship with God and passionate care for others. These words recall Jeremiah’s central purpose of his prophetic calling, “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jer. 1:10). The day-to-day work of postmodernism is to overthrow the arrogance and narcissism of the self. This newfound humility will compel me to not only search for truth but also to seek the face of God. Our postmodern generation easily recognizes the tragedy and emptiness of the twentieth century. But if the American evangelical church remains squarely within a modernist theology, essentially turning a blind eye to tragedy because we offer glib answers to deep and disturbing questions, then for the first time in the history of the church we might find ourselves entirely irrelevant.
Thirdly, postmodernism is a re-turn to the past. Postmodernist thinking does not throw off the past but returns to the past for the purpose of finding meaning for today. This is what Umberto Eco says in the postscript to his brilliant postmodern novel, The Name of the Rose: “But the moment comes when the avant-garde (the modern) can go no further. . . .The postmodern reply to the modern consists of recognizing that the past, since it cannot really be destroyed, because its destruction leads to silence, must be revisited: but with irony, not innocently.”
This is one of the great ironies of modernism, that at its most extreme, it ushers us down the exhausting path of subjectivism and nihilism because its critique of the past throws out the past. Simply put, we must abandon the past (tradition) to live well in the pre- sent. As we have seen, postmodernism welcomes other viewpoints to approach the interpretive table even when those views and texts hail from the past. The past is not to be thrown off as something which has no meaning for today, but rather, something that is evoked and reinterpreted for the purpose of discovering meaning in the present. This means, then, that tradition is not to be thrown off, nor is it to be accepted slavishly without careful thought and criticism.
Finally, a ride in the rumble seat. Postmodernism is play and the postmodern moment invites us to play with the text and to dance with God. Postmodernism is “irony, metalinguistic play, enunciation squared. Thus, with the modern, anyone who does not under- stand the game can only reject it, but with the postmodern, it is possible not to understand the game and yet take it seriously.” Umberto Eco’s words here are full of insight. In the end, the modernist enterprise is a failure to laugh—the refusal to play. Has the modernist agenda taken away our ability to play with the text and to take great pleasure in our readings? Have we as evangelicals surreptitiously rejected the game because we cannot admit that at the end of the day we, like the moderns, really don’t understand the game? In our obsession for truth we have lost the delightful quest for meaning. Postmodernism recognizes that mystery is not the death of truth but the playground where truth can swing. Again, lis- ten to Eco’s words, “Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth.” It was our Lord who said it best: “Truth shall set you free.” Free to read with questions and imagination. Free to reach out to others in love and compassion rather than attempting to prove that we are right. Evangelicals are defending truth more than they are dancing with truth. We already believe in truth. Then let truth compel us to God and then propel us into the world. We cannot comprehend God. Then let us dance with God. We do not under- stand the other. Then let us dance with the other because our truth has set us free. I think Norman Maclean’s father said it best: “You can love completely without complete understanding. That I have known and preached.”
Truth in Motion
In conclusion, allow me to call us back to the Old Testament. The people of the ancient Near East (including Israel) wanted a king who would banish all the chaos of the world. They wanted a modernist king. But, in the Old Testament, God had a different idea. The godly king will not be one who rules by worldly wisdom or sheer strength, but the king who cares for the widows, orphans, and aliens by the pouring out of his broken, crushed body (a foreshadowing of Christ). In Judges 9 the good king is the vine, the olive, and the fig. The bad king is the thorn bush. The good king will give life by being crushed (grape, olive) or broken open (the fig). The bad king will refuse to be broken and thus rule by terror and bloody violence. In the Old Testament, the “power” of the king or the queen was not to be used to expand the boundaries of his or her own kingdom, but instead, as a force to guard the boundaries of others.
What if the evangelical church reflected this postmodern king of the Old Testament? It is encouraging to see that a few churches are seek- ing racial reconciliation and therefore recognizing the value of hear- ing “other” voices from other cultures such as African-American, Asian, Hispanic, etc. Some in the church are beginning to take women seriously, to let them speak, and the results are quite refresh- ing. For the first time in the history of the church, because women are gaining a voice, we have a chance to see the full image of God (male and female) work out salvation. Postmodernist thinking critiques the modernist tendency of limiting the voice of God to one voice and instead calls us to listen to the ensemble of many voices. Modernist thinking attempts to remove difference; it uses the thorn to oppress others into obedience. Postmodernist thought emphasizes difference by recognizing that many perspectives give us a better view of God even though this cacophony of voices decreases my power and infuses my community with unruly chaos.
Many of our evangelical churches and seminaries today are experiencing the crisis of irrelevance and at the same time our postmodern culture is forcing us to rethink the educational model of the last century. In the past, seminary has focused on training the mind to think well, and in so doing learn to read the Bible well. The overarching goal in seminaries has been one of intellectual assent and comprehension. In other words, if you can demonstrate the right knowledge (proper doctrine), then you are ready to enter the field of ministry. But there is an alternative. Seminaries that embrace some aspects of postmodern thought encourage both knowledge and relationship, for they understand that truth without relationship is irrelevance, and irrelevance is the most insidious error of all. We are beginning to see a few new seminaries that understand the importance of training the mind and the soul.
If modernism at its extreme can result in the triumph of reason over ignorance at best, but at worst the triumph of reason over mystery and faith, then postmodernism can be the invitation to mystery alongside reason and thus the fresh opportunity for faith. Absence compels presence. Sometimes what we think is death, the end, therein lies life–deeper and more meaningful, In that appalling, haunting moment of God’s absence comes the long- ing for the presence of God without the illusion that we will ever comprehend the glory of the Lord.
By Don Michael Hudson, PhD
He who is satisfied has never truly craved. And he who craves for the light of God neglects his ease for ardor.
— Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel
“What have you done with the Holocaust?” I asked.
The man sitting across from me resided squarely within the traditional evangelical attitude toward pain and suffering. Forty-five
minutes earlier, I had invited him to tell me his life story. And he did—he told me of a very painful, tragic story. But there was something unsettling about the way he spoke of his life. Simply put, this man’s mood and manner did not match the suffering in his life. His eyes glazed over as he methodically recounted some very tragic scenes. His words were as vacant as his eyes, and he laced his stories with occasional hollow clichés and platitudes. “But as you well know, ‘all things work together for good.’” “God is good, but he’s not safe,” he would say. With every incident I heard from his life, I felt a connection to this man and was drawn to him with a deeply felt empathy. Yet each “Christian” cliché brought the conversation to a grinding halt and pushed me away from any connection with this fellow human being.
Every time he came to great tension in his story, he would relieve the moment by using some phrase to dismiss the tension. It was as if his soul were a balloon: as the tragedy would well within him, just at the right moment he would take the pin of Christian cliché and let the air out. “But what was meant for evil, God meant for good.” “The Lord has healed me from those memories now.”
I have seen those same eyes many times before and listened to the same soul-deadening words. It’s not that I differ with the words that this man used to make sense of his life; but I strongly disagree with the way this man used his words. His demeanor—and thus his words—disturbed me for this reason: there was something inhuman in his response. I use the word “inhuman” because there was nothing that engaged me or gripped me about what he told me. He wasn’t even a good reporter. At least a reporter has the instincts to make you feel something in the story reported. As I listened to this man, it was obvious that he was asking me to feel nothing. He was speaking in a way that asked me to join him in his distance.
In so many ways, this man cannot tell a true story because he has never truly engaged the conflicts and questions of his life. Christianity has become for him a system of dismissing doubt rather than embracing paradox. Like many modern Christians, he uses “truth” to deaden his emotions, dispel his questions, and distance himself from anything vaguely human. A good and true life story, however, never dismisses conflict but invites it, even welcomes it. Any story worth its salt does not begin until tragedy steals in.
A Terrible Beauty Is Born
Compare the story of the Bible. If we as Christians are to model our lives on the very fabric of the Bible story, then let’s see how God tells a story. Would God tell a story the way the man sitting before me did?
First, the story that God tells begins in an innocent world, i.e., the Garden of Eden. In the beginning, the Almighty God confronts the chaos of nothingness and fiercely imagines a paradise. Adam and Eve live within this paradise totally unconscious of guilt or suffering. They do not know good from evil, and they stand before one another and God unaware of themselves. “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2: 25, NRSV). In the garden, man and woman are present with God, but I would argue that their presence is unaware of God’s world, just as infants would be of their parents’ world. For centuries the church has taught that the Garden of Eden was perfection, with no sin, no tragedy, no disillusionment. True enough. Yet existence in Eden was much more than perfection; life was also innocent. In other words, perfection had its glory—communion with God’s person—and perfection had its price—ignorance of God’s world.
So far so good. Up to this point in scriptures, the story that God tells is very similar to the story that the man sitting across from me recounts. Both begin in the innocence of Eden. But then we see a subtle difference. God’s story moves out of innocence; the Christian man’s story returns to innocence again and again. “But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’” (3: 4-5, NRSV).
Now think of the rest of the Bible story. Do we see innocence or tragedy? For years I have thought it quite strange that only two chapters in the Bible are devoted to Eden, that innocent land. It is extremely important to note that the Bible story, from Genesis to Revelation, is framed by Eden and heaven. The first two chapters are devoted to life in Eden, and the last two chapters to life in heaven. What then is the rest of the Bible—everything else in between? The rest of the Bible is tragedy. Tragedy and redemption. Redemption of tragedy, but tragedy nonetheless. If the Christian life is a sojourn, which I believe it is, then the pilgrim on the way (Homo Viatoris) is moving from the innocence of Eden to the joy of heaven while trying to make sense of a tragic, suffering world.
It should be obvious to even the most casual or disinterested reader of the Bible that one tragedy follows closely on the heels of another. Indeed, beginning with Genesis 3, tragedy seems to waylay every traveler in the journey of faith, hope, and love. Tragedy intrudes into the lives of the Bible characters as easily as it does in our own lives today. Adam and Eve lose their first son at the hands of their other son. Noah trusts God wildly, and God delivers him, but soon thereafter gets drunk and indirectly curses his own grandson, Canaan. Moses, the great prophet, is not allowed to enter the promised land because he petulantly strikes the rock in rage. The kings of Israel lead the Israelites into great success one season and into utter failure the next.
In the New Testament, Paul and Barnabas are at each other’s throats so badly that they can not work together. Most enlightening, though, is the story of Christ, the journey of the gospel. Christ, in his first coming, does not intrude into our history to be triumphant but to be humiliated at the hands of his own creation. This is the scandal that his disciples just could not, would not grasp. In the eternal scope of the gospel, the crux of the cross is tragedy. For the love of the world, the omnipotent God takes on tragedy in the torture and death of the cross. God does not see tragedy as some cosmic Freudian slip but as essential to the story of the ages; he does not step into the history of this world to be victorious only, but to be crucified.
This truth is quite overwhelming to admit. The church—that is, Christianity—is suspended in tragedy. We live between Eden and heaven, the God who was and the God who will be. In the story that God is telling in our lives, he asks us to live in the stark reality of the cross while we sight the glimmer of the resurrection. Suffering calls attention to God’s silence and his absence. We do not know for certain that this life is more than tragic; we believe, we hope, we yearn, but we do not know without a doubt. Certainty destroys faith by distorting hope into presumption. And presumption subtly but obsessively seeks to eradicate suffering from our lives because it is suffering that ushers in the deepest questions of our existence. Suffering, like no other reality, demands that we live in the not yet. Indeed, we will not know until the end of the world whether or not tragedy or beauty wins in the end. We wait and yearn for the day that is not yet. “God is the beginning and the end. The middle of the day is ours.”
Christianity, then, in its very essence is a religion of the discontented. How can we be content with a century that includes the Jewish Holocaust? How can we be content with the modern century that has slaughtered more than 100 million people in the name of ideology? How can we be content when children in the world’s wealthiest nation are starving? How can we be content when AIDS is ravaging the gay community? How can we be content when nearly seven out of ten women in our culture are sexually abused as children? How can we be content when God is not content? Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes: “We Christians need not be ashamed of showing a little impatience, longing and discontent with an unnatural fate, nor with a considerable amount of longing for freedom, earthly happiness and opportunity for work.”1
Closing our eyes to the suffering of this world is choosing to live in an innocence that God does not live in. The serpent in the Garden knew all too well what he was inviting Adam and Eve to— tragedy and the suffering that ensues. Tragedy did as tragedy still does today: it wakes us up from our innocent stupor. The serpent promised Adam and Eve that if they ate of the fruit, they would know as God knows—that they would know sin and suffering. One of the most intriguing ironies of the fall is that we now know as God knows because we know sin and suffering. The serpent understood all too well that the fall would bring tragedy and death. But inherent within evil is one fatal blind spot: evil does not see that tragedy compels beauty and evokes repair (tikkun).
The intimate knowledge of suffering, which is a loss of innocence, constrains us to fiercely imagine truth, beauty, and goodness just as God did when he confronted the chaos in Genesis 1. God’s imagi- nation in the face of chaos resulted in the creation of heaven and earth. Acknowledging the suffering of this world places us every day in the image of our Creator—we can create beauty out of nothing or we can repeat suffering in an endless cycle of destruction. Confronting suffering in our world becomes the fulcrum between ultimate tragedy or redemption. So every Christian every day stands on the razor’s edge of destruction or redemption. The truth is quite simple: the one who is content does not love. The one who is discontent loves, and the one who loves attempts to eradicate suffering by entering it rather than denying it. To suffer as God suffers is to refuse to accept life as it is. But we must be careful here. There is a world of difference between being discontent and being malcontent. One who is malcontent refuses to hope in a world beyond this world and so lives out hatred, despair, and cynicism. A person who is malcontent heaps suffering upon suffering. The discontent hopes in this world because there is a world beyond and so he or she lives out faith, hope, and love in the lives of other people. The discontented person is not a whiner who fails to imagine, but one who sorrows unto joy.
A few years back when my son was just a few months old, he became increasingly sick. He was not eating well, and as a consequence he was losing weight rapidly. For one week my wife and I were sent back and forth from doctor to specialist in an attempt to find the cause of his sickness. Each time we visited these physicians, we heard more discouraging news. At the time I was commuting between Denver and Philadelphia, where I was studying at Westminster Seminary. At one point, I needed to fly to Philadelphia for one day to take an important mid-term. My wife and I debated whether or not I should go, but in the end we decided I needed to take the exam; I could do very little back in Denver until we found out what was wrong.
I planned to fly into Philadelphia in the morning, take my exam, and catch the 5:35 p.m. flight back in time to join my family for dinner. With ten minutes left on my exam, I saw someone enter the front of the classroom and give a note to my professor. My heart sank and then began to pound as he made his way back to me. The note stated matter-of-factly that I needed to call home because the doctors had to rush my son to surgery to repair an intestinal blockage. I left immediately and tried to call home, but I could not reach anyone, even at the hospital. To make matters worse, I missed the direct flight back to Denver, so I had to be routed through Chicago on a later flight. I have never had a longer flight in my life. Finally, when I reached Chicago, I was paged and told where to call my wife. The good news was that they did not have to operate. The bad news was that they thought they had found the problem: the doctors thought that my son had a rare disease that might require removing his colon. We were to report to Children’s Hospital the next morning for tests.
I was not prepared for what happened the next day in the hospital. After a battery of tests, we were told our son did not have the disease and probably had some kind of block that had worked itself out. Great news. But I will never forget the day for a very different reason: while waiting for his tests, we saw some very sick children—children who would not get well. The children had a deep sadness in their eyes, and their parents wore exhaustion and terror on their faces. Maybe out of weakness or maybe out of fear, I could no longer endure staying in that waiting room with those children. I left the room, found a hidden place, and burst into tears. For a few seconds I felt an inconsolable, desperate sadness. But within a very short time, my sadness turned to rage and rage toward God. How can you look down on those children and not do something?
Could you look down on the Holocaust of your chosen and their children? Why won’t you do something? I walked away from that day joyful that my son was well but deeply troubled over those children in the waiting room. Strangely, I also walked away thanking the God I doubted for the medical staff who had the courage to be discontented, to be present day after day in a starkly tragic world.
The Tragedy of Christianity
Northrop Frye says that tragedy in the Bible is “ironic,” which means that tragedy is never an end in itself but always leads to a subtler, unforeseen truth. Thus when I speak of tragedy, I do not speak of tragedy that is final, ultimate, or the only stage in life. Ultimate tragedy is the evil one’s story; redeemed tragedy is God’s. Our lives then, if they reflect the big picture of the Bible, journey though a tragic, suffering world while yearning for a perfect world. But then, this is the theological rub, isn’t it? We sit around waiting for a perfect world or we miss the city built without hands because we are so busy building it here on earth. Much of the way we think as Christians attempts to bring heaven to this earth right now and in every situation because we deny the very real tragedy of suffering.
How should we live in tragedy then? If you agree with my foundational premise that God invites us to live as he does-in the full reality that tragedy is everywhere and a necessary part of the story-then we must answer the question, “How do I live well in this life?” Most importantly, we are discontent because our world is not as it should be. As we have seen, this means that we do not accept life as it is. Living back in Eden or ahead in heaven is ultimately an unreal life that saps the passion from our lives. This theology makes us content and calls us to nothingness. A Christian who is discontent, on the other hand, desperately seeks to join God in redeeming a tragic world, not dismissing a tragic world. When we are content we are satisfied, and this satisfaction ultimately slips into despair and arrogance. We lose moments of passionate connection and creativity. God invites us to live the questions and to yearn for resolution without dismissing the questions. Someone once said, “You can easily recognize false teachers by the fact that they know the answers to all the questions.”
Let me offer a very simple statement: suffering is the gateway to heaven. And I mean by heaven more than we normally think of suffering heaven. If we cannot accept suffering and the grief that accompanies it, then we are saying that grief is greater than the gospel. Yes, I am taking up an age-old topic that seems to be quite manageable by any moderately well-read Christian. But I want to approach the issue of human suffering from a very different vantage point-one that we rarely think from. When we speak of suffering, most of the time we mean human suffering. I want to think of suffering in this essay from God’s view—quite a presumptuous, prodigious task, yet I believe our view of God’s suffering will ultimately determine and dictate our view of human suffering. Our view of tragedy in God’s purview will guide our own view of personal tragedy. The most pressing need here is to say that in the discussion of human suffering and tragedy we have invented a comfortable God who thinks of tragedy the way we do.
The problem is that most of us have a very skewed idea of how God looks at tragedy. We think of God very much the way the ancient Greeks did. He is the unmoved mover, the apathetic God. It is not that he does not care, but that he does not really care in his care. “Christian theology acquired Greek philosophy’s ways of thinking in the Hellenistic world; and since that time most theologians have simultaneously maintained the passion of Christ, God’s son, and the deity’s essential incapacity for suffering—even though it was at the price of having to talk paradoxically about ‘the sufferings of the God who cannot suffer.’”2 We think of God as supremely rational, but rarely do we think of him as emotional. Even more so, we believe in a God who is quite content. In our obsession to create God in our own likeness, we have fashioned him to be a God who looks down on us with glib contentment. Our theology of suffering is really a theology of nonsuffering.
Have we American Christians very subtly replaced the God of the Bible with the Aristotelian god, the unmoved mover, the dispassionate god, the god who does not suffer? If this is true, is it because we are scandalized by the God of the Bible, the God who suffers, the God who is moved by our passions? Is this not the truly ironic tragedy of the Bible—that we have a God who not only allows or brings suffering into the world but also brings suffering into his heaven? God as the passionate God, then, is very discontent and his suffering is inconsolable. He is the God who lowered himself to the depths of suffering.
So how is it that our God can look down on us with contentment? I do not believe in a God who merely observes our tragedies with a cold reserve. I believe instead that he is a God who participates in our sufferings while we participate in his suffering of the cross. Does heaven really cancel out the suffering of the moment? Should we use the future to remove us from the present, or should the future increase the yearning for the day of the Lord?
Far too often our “faith” has neutered us, stripped us of passion, turned us into white-fleshed, pallid Christians who blithely accept the future as determined beyond us. The secular world understands a neglected truth that we do not: the world is potential, not just obstacle. Is this not the great sin of the contented modern church? It is the reason why I do not enjoy most Christian fiction. Such fiction is unsatisfying because most Christian writers weave the story with a heavy hand. It’s the same feeling I get when I go to the movie theater and guess the plot in the first ten minutes. I know the ending, and immediately I am bored. Therefore conflict (which drives any good story) is hollow and fails to grip me. In the end, there is very little tragedy in American Christian fiction. Or perhaps there is tragedy, but the tragedy is resolved superficially.
This is one reason why I return to Dostoyevsky’s writings. He does not bring tragedy to a closed, naïve resolution which in the end shuts down the questions of and yearning for God. He knows that the more a Christian grows, the more he or she feels the suffering of the world, and the more he or she searches for God and anticipates the day that is to come. Until that day, we are discontent over suffering and our sorrow is inconsolable. It is at this very juncture in our faith that we participate with God and he participates with us. It is here that we incarnate Paul’s longing, “That I may know him and the fellowship of his sufferings.”
A Harmony Too Expensive
In Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan is the modern, rational atheist who rejects God because he rejects God’s world. Ivan’s atheism rises out of his constant struggle with God. He refuses to accept God but he cannot escape God. The spectacles of suffering and a God who would allow the suffering of children haunt him. He will not accept a harmony of life that justifies a child’s tear.
In the final analysis, I do not accept this God-made world and, although I know it exists, I absolutely refuse to admit its existence. I want you to understand that it is not God that I refuse to accept, but the world that He has created—what I do not accept and cannot accept is the God-created world. However, let me make it clear that like a babe, I trust that the wounds will heal, the scars will vanish, that the sorry and ridiculous spectacle of man’s disagreements and clashes will disappear like a pitiful mirage . . . at the moment universal harmony is achieved, something so magnificent will take place that it will satisfy every human heart . . . and enable everyone not only to forgive everything but also to justify everything that has happened to men. Well, that day may come; all this may come to pass—but I personally still do not accept this world. I refuse to accept it!
And while there is still time, I want to dissociate myself from it all; I have no wish to a be a part of [the] eternal harmony. It’s not worth one single tear of the martyred little girl who beat her breast with her tiny fist, shedding her innocent tears and praying to ‘sweet Jesus’ to rescue her in the stinking outhouse. . . . And those tears must be atoned for; otherwise there can be no harmony. But what could atone for those tears? How is it possible to atone for them?3
Worthy Is the Lamb
In the video interview, Facing Hate, Bill Moyers interacts with Elie Weisel about the age-old problems of evil and hate. Weisel, as you may know, is a survivor of the Jewish Holocaust. He was forced to the Nazi death camps in 1943 and was the only member of his family who survived. Probably his best-known work on the Holocaust is the small, harrowing volume called Night. Though I mention the Holocaust in this essay, I do not want to dwell on it for the simple reason that it has been seen as more of a media event than the horrifying tragedy that questions the very essence of humanity in the twentieth century. I encourage all Christians to grapple with the reality of the Holocaust in their own lives—and reading Night would be a great but distressing beginning.
At one point in the video, Weisel tells the story of his release from the concentration camps. When certain Russians were released from the camp, they went into the nearest German town and waged a personal vengeance on the people there. Weisel states that he could not judge the Russians but retribution against the Germans was not his way. He instead gathered with fellow Jews and prayed the kaddish, the prayer for the dead. (Incidentally, they could not find the requisite ten people to pray the kaddish.) During their prayer, Weisel confesses that he had a question of God: “Is God worthy?” After the death and dismemberment of six million of God’s own children, is he worthy to hear the prayers of these survivors? To this day, I remember my thoughts of Weisel’s question. At first I winced and immediately said to myself, “You can’t say that! Of course he is worthy.” A few seconds later, though, a more troubling thought hovered around the edges of my mind. Deep down in my heart, I have asked this question many times. Weisel had the courage to ask it aloud and struggle with its implications. Is this not the question we all really ask: Is God worthy of our suffering?
My theology tells me, yes he is worthy—but what part of my theology tells me this? Is my answer to this question an effort to defend a God who does not defend himself from this question? My answer comes from a theology of suffering. The Father is worthy because he delivered his own son over to a world unworthy of his love. The Father did what in time past he had stopped Abraham from doing: he sacrificed his son for an undeserving people. But this is the story of the trinity. The Father gave himself by divesting himself of his son. He became destitute on our behalf. I have seen enough of the world and the people who inhabit it that I can answer quite candidly and forthrightly that the world is not worthy of my son. I have argued with a number of good people that had I been a father during the Vietnam War I would have begged my son to go to Canada—in fact, I would have sent him there. But this vigilant protection of the son was not the view of the Father. He gave over his own son to unjust war, a reprehensible cause, a civilization not worthy.
If in eternity one day is a thousand years, then God is still suffering the crucifixion of his son. Because we as humans live temporal lives now, we can forget and move on and not necessarily live in the moment if we choose not to. Not so for God, who lives in eternity. He must suffer every pain of humanity every moment of his existence, and yet he enjoys every moment of joy. We have believed that for centuries the crucifixion is over in God’s mind, and that the resurrection has canceled the cross. But this would mean that God lives very differently from the way he asks us to live. He asks us to live our lives taking up the cross while we rush toward the resurrection. He asks us to live as he does—with the suffering of the cross and the ecstasy of the resurrection in our hearts, not allowing the joy to resolve the sorrow or the sorrow to drown out the joy.
You needed his incarnation as much as I need it, though for an altogether different reason. You have always known man as he looks from the perspective of Godhead. But this does not give you the whole truth. It is suffering that teaches us to be human and from here we lead on to be godly. To be Christian means our godliness helps us come to a fuller expression of humanity—not to limit the image, the desiring, our inherent, inevitable humanity. From the cell on the other side of me a former judge tapped through the wall how he regrets all the prison sentences he has ever given. He passed sentence without knowing what it was to spend years in prison. You judged men without having lived and suffered and been tempted. You needed the experience of manhood. You were enriched by the experience of your Son becoming man.4
There will be remembrances in heaven. More importantly, there will be sorrow in heaven. The book of Revelation tells us that God will wipe away all tears in heaven, which means there must be tears there in the first place. All too often we project childish, naïve fantasies on heaven. We see heaven through the lens of Eden. Many of us want to return to Eden, when in truth God is calling us to heaven. With Eden there is no tragedy, no sorrow, no suffering. As a result, many Christians handle tragedy nobly but not with dignity, and we ask the same thing of our grieving brothers and sisters. With heaven there will be suffering, but it will be a suffering remembered and redeemed, never forgotten or denied.
This may be one of the most important distinctions between paganism and Christianity. A pagan mindset cannot handle a world full of guilt and suffering. The pagan must either deny it or revel in it. These philosophies are as old as Epicureanism and Stoicism, Isis and Osiris, Baal and Ashteroth. Thus every religion attempts in one form or another to return to the innocence of Eden again and again. Yes, Christianity began in Eden, but it ends in heaven. And heaven will not be innocence and naïveté. Heaven will be the fullest expression of truth up to this point in the journey of humanity—which now includes the knowledge of good and evil.
In conclusion, I return to Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan throughout the novel battles wits and soul with his brother, Alyosha, the mystical man of faith. As we have seen, Ivan very honestly reaches a terrifying conclusion in his discussions with Alyosha. He wants to believe in God, but how can he believe in a God who allows or creates such suffering in the world, especially the suffering of innocent children? Ivan, the nonbeliever, leads us into the right question: It is not “Where is God?” but “Who is this God?”
My own personal answer is multifaceted, and some days my questions overwhelm my answers. But in the midst of my questions, I do believe God s a suffering God and that his suffering is infinite as much as his joy is infinite. Therefore, he is a God who is discontent, and his suffering—at least for now—is inconsolable. Just like us, he too waits impatiently for the day that is coming. Perhaps as God participates in our lives, he refuses to be consoled until we are consoled. My image of God is as one who impatiently and dramatically paces back and forth as he longs for that day even more than we do. He is the Father who rises before daybreak and looks for the final return of his children. He will not sit still, he will look over the horizon again and again for the faint shadow of the returning one. In the meantime, even though he knows the scope of the human drama, he weeps with the Mary’s and the Martha’s of this world who weep over death. He does not let his knowledge of the big picture wipe his tears away.
But what do we do with our suffering in the meantime? Once more I return to Dostoyevsky’s Ivan. In the beginning of the novel, he does not accept a suffering world, nor merely waits for a future that would make sense of a hideous past. He wants to make sense of suffering in his lifetime; he wants to see the end now. “No, I want to see with my own eyes [italics mine] the lamb lie down with the lion and resurrected victim rise and embrace his murderer. I want to be here when everyone understands why the world has been arranged the way it is. It is on that craving for understanding that all human religions are founded. . . .”5 Tragically, this is where American Christianity and atheism join ideological hands. The problem, though, is that demanding to see with our eyes now breeds cynicism in the atheist and contentment in the Christian. The atheist uses nonbelief to build a naïve world and the Christian uses faith to inhabit a naïve world. In both cases we do not care for our fellow human beings; we are not intimately responsible for the other. Ivan, the “humanitarian,” would not step out of his way to help another human being. Ironically, Ivan had taken on the image of his own God—one who is apathetic and uncaring.
In the end of the novel, however, Ivan comes to some kind of terms with his rationalization of a strange God. After seeing his rationalism run its brutal, irrational course, on his way back to his house he stumbles over a beggar freezing to death in the snow. He does something very unlike his nature: he stops and picks up the beggar, and he takes him to the nearest house where pays a man to help him carry the beggar to an inn. Ivan goes so far as to pay any expenses the beggar would incur. This subtle but moving scene evokes the memory of the good Samaritan.
The agony of suffering is a razor’s edge. On the one hand, the profound mystery of suffering can lead to passivity arising out of cynicism or contentment. Or, it can make us mean-spirited in our attempt to force a more just world. In either case, we bring more destruction to a ruined world. We become the religious leader or the rationalist who passes by on the other side of the beggar. On the other hand, the mystery of suffering can lead to an active pouring out of ourselves. Is not this the madness of the gospel—that the destitute victim would be generous with other victims and even with enemies? Is this not God’s approach to suffering? Out of the crucible of suffering emerges beauty, truth, and goodness. “No one can answer the theodicy question in this world, and no one can get rid of it. Life in this world means living with this open question, and seeking the future in which the desire for God will be fulfilled, suffering will be overcome, and what has been lost will be restored.”6 But for now we fiercely imagine great art in the lives of others by binding the wounds of our neighbors and repairing the world around us.
And then one day . . . one day we will surge toward the Father with the loss of Eden, the ache of the all the ages, and the desperate yearning for home in our hearts. And he too will surge toward us with the loss of Eden, the ache of all the ages, and the desperate yearning for home in his heart. Blessed be his name.
This Essay is my memorial to one man who did not accept life as it is.
I miss you—
Y viveré esperándote, Esperanza.
And I shall live in hopes of you, Hope.
ASOR June 2017
“Reevaluating the social and political landscape of the Late Bronze Age Levant provides a fresh understanding of Israel’s origins and nature. Rather than a distinct ethnic group founded upon a unique set of social and political principles, some of its constituents emerged out of the sociopolitical milieu of the Late Bronze Age. It also sheds light on the process of centralization that occurred with the formation of the monarchy.”
This is huge–sorry to sound like Trump on this one. But Da’esh is not taking on Tehran in a big way. This is a Sunni attack on Shia at their very core.
Something very important happened this week in the “Sunni” Islam world. Qatar has been and continues to be a major problem. Interesting that the Sauds are “cracking down” on Qatar. Here is an excellent summary:
Please Note: Before you wig out and reach the stratosphere in a ranting screed, please read this. I am not making a statement pro or anti-Assad or Syria. It is well-known that I have been pro-Assad even to the point of visiting Syria with his protection. Here is ONE assessment with evidences. If we are going to understand this Middle East conflict then we must view all sides and examine all the evidence. Only the cold, hard truth will lead to resolution. I have been shocked that opinions on both sides have defended their positions without any evidence whatsoever.
Previously published as “Michelangelo’s Pietà,” Christianity and the Arts, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Fall 2001), p. 24.
It was the summer of ’84, the American dollar was strong, and this was my first venture to Europe. I found her and didn’t even know I was searching for her. Mysteriously she crossed my path one day in Rome. I should confess though–at this point in my life, I am an uneasy Protestant.
I have been warned about Mary; and yet, I am drawn to her. But I was different back then. Standing before Michelangelo’s sublime interpretation of the Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica–there she was. Until then, for me, Mary was a point of division between Protestant and Roman Catholic worship, a theological construct to propose or denounce. I was really there to see Michelangelo and his High Renaissance masterpiece. More secular than sacred, Michelangelo tempers his grand and majestic vision with a sensual grace. I was struck immediately, though, by the simple elegance of his vision. The folds and the flows of the garments articulate the irrepressible tragedy and rhapsody in a single, holy moment.
I noticed that this Pietà is not about the grand war between good and evil but rather the simplicity of human passion. She is not concept but rather flesh and blood. Flesh and blood crossing flesh and blood. Here before me was a mother and her son. For the first time in my life, I began to gain an intimate glimpse into the private saga of Mary and the incomprehensible death of her child. She tenderly bows her head with eyes closed, or at the least, eyes downcast. Is this a gesture of reverence? Of humility? Of grief? Does she bow her head to this moment or the God of this moment? Michelangelo’s rendering spurred my perennial question, “Where is God?” I began to understand that she is a trace of my answer. On the cross, God turned away from the suffering son, the crucified God. Mary, the mother of Jesus, with arms wide open, embraces her son of sorrows. Arms full of the death of God. Holding the rejected son–rejected by God and human alike, Mary holds her child not only with arms but also with the strength of her body.
And yet, her body slumps. If she is holding him up, who then is holding her?
On Mary we can see no tensely defined muscle–merely graceful folds. With Christ, we encounter a dissonant vision. His body, almost nude and fully exposed, ripples with muscular vitality. Who has truly died in this scene? Can child die and mother continue to live? There is complete acceptance of her misery, but then, her left hand stretches out to supplicate the Father who abandoned her son. She will now be the mediator; the human strand between the all-Powerful Father and every human loss. We look upon her as one who ascends, as one who rises above suffering. But she remains there in the darkest hour. And she embodies the presence of compassion. She is the only human to suffer the death of God and the loss of her son in the same moment. Perhaps her grief IS her faith and so faith can leave grief alone.
Who better than Mary to intercede on our behalf? That day in Rome I walked away a different man, a different son. Mary rounds out the picture of redemption for us–we can retain our deepest sorrows and still yearn toward the all-powerful Father.
“In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” Bertrand Russell
“Shmuly had known he wanted to go to college ever since he was sneak-reading $7 best sellers he found on the rack at Duane Reade. He loved the story “The Cop and the Anthem,” by O. Henry; he read the abridged version of “The Call of the Wild” over and over. But his school would not release his transcripts for college applications, and so he spent a year of intense study in the computer labs at Footsteps, starting with the English language and basic long division and ending with his G.E.D. He couldn’t learn enough about philosophy and art. He loved the 20th-century avant-garde, like secessionist art and Dadaism; he loved the tension between the old and new ideas of the art world, and how certain art was rejected as if it were corrupting or dangerous. He enrolled at Hunter College to study art history.”
“What the report argues is that Israel has pursued a policy of fragmenting the Palestinian people in order to maintain the domination of a Jewish state over these different categories of Palestinians, and has done so in a way that is systematically discriminatory and is responsible for deep suffering over a very long period of time, with no end in sight.”
“President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sought to build cooperation with Russian leader Vladimir Putin Friday over military operations in Syria, as Turkey attempts to create a border “safe zone” free of Daesh (ISIS) and the Kurdish YPG militia.”
“Turkey considers the YPG the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has been fighting an insurrection on Turkish soil for 30 years. Washington, like Ankara, considers the PKK a terrorist group, but it backs the YPG.”
“Asked by a reporter whether Moscow and Ankara shared the idea that Syria and Iraq should be preserved within current borders, Putin spoke of “the complex situation” and “contradictions” in the Syria peace talks.”
“The cooperation on Syria between Russia and Turkey marked a sharp turnaround for the two nations. The conflicting interests led to the downing of a Russian warplane by a Turkish jet at the Syrian border in November 2015, which led Moscow to bar the sales of package tours to Turkey and halting imports of agricultural products.”
“Dozens of Army troops, riding Stryker armored vehicles waving American flags, drove outside the Syrian town of Manbij in a mission aimed at keeping U.S. allies Turkey and Syrian Kurds from fighting each other and focused instead on the fight against Daesh.”
But the Americans are stepping into a crowded space in northern Syria, where U.S.-backed Kurdish groups, Turkish and Russian troops, Syrian government forces and Daesh militants are all within firing range of one another.