Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Bible is a Text. So???

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. -John 1:1 NSRV

     To consider what I mean when I say that the Bible is a text, let us start with a time before the illustration above, which is a fairly late example of hieroglyphic writing in the Near East. Pre-literate cultures, that is, societies without the availability or awareness of any writing or textual system, are rather hard for contemporary people to imagine. To introduce us to the pre-literate person, let me tell a story (again? Yup, I'm afraid I'm more storyteller guy than non-fiction guy).
     My story begins with my transfer to the staff of the admiral commanding U.S. naval forces in Japan. Normally, anyone—military, dependent, or civilian--arriving at the Fleet Activities base in Yokosuka, Japan, attended a week-long class in the basics of living, traveling, shopping and generally gaining a degree of comfort in this strange, new, exciting country. For some reason, however, the admiral's new staffers' orientation consisted of checking into the barracks and being issued a map of the base. So, with the assistance of a shipmate, the first thing I learned was how to navigate the bright red cars of the Kehein Kyūkō railway, which served the Miura Peninsula, our local area, and which, unlike the cars of the Japan National Railway, had no Latin alphabet signage (known as the 'Rōmaji' writing system)1. I also found the Stars and Stripes bookstore on base and bought a little Berlitz phrasebook with which, aided by my best friendly, American, aw-shucks grin and frequent (bad) imitations of Japanese bows, I braved the shops and cafes of Yokosuka, Yokohama and even Tokyo. Then I passed the written test (prepared in rather clumsy and often impenetrable English) for a Japanese driving license, bought a used Toyota Hiace minivan, and, armed with a hand-drawn map (“turn left at big blue building, go past KFC restaurant...”), set about locating the prefectural vehicle registration office in Yokohama.
     I've had easier days navigating my way in pitch dark, moonless mountain forest with a Silva compass and a Geodetic Survey map. The Kanto plain (the general Tokyo-Yokohama area) is solid metropolitan city, and its roads were laid out in the days of carts and human-carried palanquins. Highway 16, the main route from Yokosuka to Yokohama, is portrayed on Google Maps by a wide, yellow line, apparently indicating status as a major road. In the real world, it is a twisty, colorful, narrow street clogged with cars, small trucks, delivery mopeds and bicycles. And, as I found out a few blocks beyond the safe confines of the Fleet Activities area, the unsuspecting gaijin (literally “outside person;” not always meant in a neutral way) behind the wheel of an automobile for the first time on Highway 16 is a good candidate for what the medicos now call a 'cardiac event.'
     The problem, I soon realized, was that I was confronted with a surfeit of sensory input. Even though the speed limit was a bit over 25 mph, and traffic seldom moved that fast, I was anxiously watching every car, motor scooter, bike and pedestrian in sight, figuring out what they were doing or planning to do, and reacting, or trying to. And then there were traffic signs. International signage for things like stop, turn/do not turn, and so on were no problem, but the rest of the stuff, well, the Japanese use several different alphabets and writing systems, and I only understood the numbers, the tiny handful of Romaji letters used on signs, and three Kanji, or Japanese ideographs: the ones for Tokyo, Yokohama, and Kanagawa.
     Within a week, of course, I was rollicking along (or crawling, at times) Highway 16, singing along with the American Forces Radio (Far East Network, Tokyo; 810 on your AM dial) morning and evening drive shows without a care in the world. It was only later, in grad school, that I learned to describe what had happened.
     Psycholinguists and cognitive researchers describe something they call 'schema' theory.2 The easiest way to describe schema is to recall the old saying that “If it looks like a duck, waddles like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck.” In other words, when we encounter new things, we tend to interpret them by comparing them to things we already know. So, if we see a feathered thing walking on webbed feet and quacking, we search our memory for similar items, and bingo(!), it must be a duck. This allows us to identify and react to things around us without having to use a lot of what computer folks would call 'processing' and 'memory'. On the other hand, if we encounter things that don't easily match other, similar things, we have to focus more attention—more time and 'processing power'--to try and figure out what's going on. So, when I encountered Japan from a whole new viewpoint that required me, as a vehicle operator, to respond appropriately and (more importantly) quickly, I was in a continuous state of near-panic, unable to rely on the fast, seemingly instinctive interpretations ingrained by years of safe driving.
     Reading is much the same. We depend on a long history of learned responses to master 'new' texts. Imagine a world with no texts, no history of writing, with communication and language only available through speech, gesture, and the occasional primitive technological aids, such as leaving a pile of rocks to mark a trail. But even in such a 'primitive' society, it does not take much for its members to develop and assign a meaning. For example, in 1994, the Navy returned the small Hawaiian island of Kahoolawe to the state of Hawaii after decades of use a naval gunnery range. I spent a couple of days on the island leading a combat camera team documenting Navy specialists removing and destroying unexploded ordnance on the island, and filming a few of the more than 500 traditional religious and shrine sites. An expert on island sites showed us these sites by stopping and pointing to various locations, which seemed to us to be normal-looking parts of local vegetation. Obviously, what the early Polynesians saw there was not what we saw, even when it was pointed out to us.
     Many pre-literate societies believe in the power of spoken (or chanted) words—mostly nouns, or names of things—to deliver power over the thing named to the person who uses, or 'owns,' the name.3 Thus a hunter might sing or chant a 'power' song to attract his prey before setting out on a hunt. Presumably, something like this may have been involved when early artists began drawing pictures on cave walls or rock prominences.4 Such paintings were arguably the inspiration for the invention of writing. In hieroglyphics, for example, we clearly recognize many 'signs' as representations of real animals, people or things.
     What is obvious about my experiences in Kanagawa, as well as the gradual procession of pre-literate societies from painting and drawings to a technology that could transfer denotation from oral speech to a visual representation of it, is the constant concern with something that we call 'meaning.' Meanings in an oral society are significantly different than meanings in a literate one. In the former, once grasped, meanings are temporary, fleeting, and easily changeable. To maintain a meaning means relying on memory (which can itself change quickly and radically) and constant repetition in conversation, discussion and talk. One can see, then, how creating a picture or drawing of something could serve as what Plato called “a tool for remembering.”5 Or, as we might put it today—and which non-literate people cannot do--'look it up.' When non-literate people finally encounter literacy, there is a bumpy and lengthy road between the pre-literate society and the literate one.

From orality to literacy.6
     Oral literature, with no technology available for remembering, uses various strategies for preserving knowledge, many of which are present in the Hebrew scriptures. One of them is a reliance on condensed, easy-to-remember bits of wisdom, particularly proverbs. Another is the use of stock characters and stylized individuals. Some of the narrative strategies present in textual writings, such as suspense, simply do not appear in oral narratives, which tend to be straightforward, and which keep details to a minimum; or, more properly, unless details themselves constitute a separate but equally important bit of cultural knowledge or narrative.7 There are almost no details, for example, in the dramatic story of Abraham and Isaac's near-sacrifice except those absolutely necessary to the plot.8 Poetic devices, such as rhyme, meter, parallelism or alliteration, often appear in oral literature in order to facilitate composition and memorization.
     Above all, oral literature remains dependent upon frequent repetition, discussion and supplementation within the community; it, in a sense, survives by continuing to be alive in oral discourse. For century after century, oral literature remains, for most people, the primary method of developing and passing on individual and communal understanding. Text, while it is later often known to and available to select members of the community, is a technology, and like all technologies, its use depends on demand. For a relatively simple community, particularly an agrarian one, there is little or no demand for writing. Knowledge is passed on person-to-person, entertainment or ritual is likewise a social activity that requires no script; indeed, serious rites may be protected and kept private through transmissions only between trusted insiders.
     The spread of literacy depends, like the spread of any technology, depends on demand. In the ancient world, the primary source of demand was empire and trade. In the book of Esther, for example, we see that the written promulgation of imperial decrees has become so critical to the empire that once written, a decree cannot be altered, even by the emperor himself. a fact that is critical to the story's plot 9 The feast of Purim becomes a festival established not by tribal custom, but by a text. (9:32, “and it was fixed in writing.” Similarly, the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah takes place not by their membership in a priestly caste or a tribal leadership position, but by virtue of their position as imperial scribes, graduates of the imperial scribal school. It is their reading of the texts of the Torah (texts that the scribes themselves edited and recorded) that returns the post-exilic remnant to their historic worship of God and observance of the Levitical and Deuteronomic regulations.
     It behooves us, then, to be aware of the role of orality and the often tenuous nature of the transitional status of older biblical texts as they pass from their original form into their modern one. It is also important to note dual roles of text and orality in the post-resurrection texts, as their authors work in a society reliant on the heavily textual Greco-Roman tradition. For example, Peter, a Galilean fisherman/businessman who grew up learning sufficient marketplace Greek to sell his fish on the King's Highway (probably as a third or fourth language) and polished it ministering to new Christians, took advantage of a scribe to put his words into a literate form in 1 Peter.10 This is a typical role for a scribe in societies with multiple languages and textual forms in use,11 but later, without the faithful Sylvanus, he is forced to use his own best—but not as polished—efforts in 2 Peter, with the result that modern scholars of Koine Greek remain divided about the authorship of the book.

1To encourage rapid rebuilding after WW2, the Japanese government promoted the development of private railways connecting to the government-built JNR system.
2Piaget, Jean. Construction of Reality in the Child (London, Routledge; 1957); Vygotsky, Lev S. Thought and Language, Revised Edition (Cambridge, MA; Harvard UP, 1986).
3A common 'leftover' of such beliefs can be seen in societies, such as the Vietnamese, where people use personal nicknames in dealing with non-family members.
4Giamattista Vico and Ferdinand de Saussure both commented on the symbolic and/or mystical possibilities of neolithic and paleolithic art; more recently, South African scientist D.J. Lewis-Williams' work, including The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art (Port Melbourne, Aus., Thames and Hudson; 2004) treats the shamanistic nature of cave art.
5Plato. Phaedrus. (Https://classics/mit.edu.Plato/phaedrus.html)
6For this section, I draw heavily on Ong, Walter J, SJ. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London, Methuen; 1982); Havelock, Eric A. Preface to Plato (Cambridge, MA, Belknap P of Harvard UP; 1963); and Lord, Albert B. The Singer of Tales (Harvard Studies in Comparative Literature #24; Cambridge, MA, Harvard UP, 1960).
7Odysseus' Scar, in Auerbach, Eric. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, Princeton UP, 1968), pp. 1-23/
8Genesis 22:1-19. See also ch. 3, Whom to Give to (Knowing Not to Know), in Derrida, Jacques .The Gift of Death. Trans. David Wills. (Chicago, U of Chicago P, 2008), pp. 54-81.
9e.g. “...for an edict written in the name of the king and sealed with the king's ring cannot be revoked.' Esther8:8 (NSRV).
10He credits Sylvanus (5:12).

11For a fictional, but accurate look at this activity, see Kim's use of the scribe in India after he is sent off to school in Kipling's famous novel of the same name.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Birth is pain, death is Jokanji1or
How It Was That Her Karma Ran Over Their Dogma...

Pit door at Jokanji Temple, Arakama, Tokyo2

     Jokanji Temple is a tiny edifice at 2-Chome 1-12 Minamisenju, Arakawa, Tokyo. Arakama was known as Yoshiwara during the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1868), and was the licensed red light district. Girls were enslaved in the district as prostitutes from their early teenage years until the age of 22, though most died by 17; it is estimated that 20,000-25.000 of them are buried here. It's an unprepossessing area today, full of typical Japanese “Love Hotels” (Radu Hoteru), or short-stay—a few hours, mostly—hotels. That's not to mention illegal brothels, as well. In the late evening mists it seems that ghosts float east from the nearby Sumida River and hover over the old cemetery, popularly known as Naga Kome Dera (“Throw-Away Temple”). “Throw-away” obviously does not refer to old ramen bowls or broken chopsticks. Memories of my visit there—as well one to a similar district in Yokohama—led to the following:
     Mom was mom, choral director, senior university administrator and general organizer par excellence. She ruled her realms with strength, compassion and smarts. She was also underpaid, under-promoted and underrated by her male counterparts. Perhaps her greatest talent was the ability to completely ignore the aforementioned masculine nonsense. (Well, most of the time. She could put them in their place when most needed.)
     Mom, however, isn't the 'her' of my title. She is also an inspiration, but my blog entry focuses on one of the more interesting juxtapositions in the Christian Bible—the book of Ruth, followed a bit later by those of Ezra and Nehemiah. Ruth was a farmer's daughter, a Moabite widow of a Hebrew. Her Hebrew mother-in-law had been displaced earlier by famine and settled in Moab, where her sons took local wives and then died.
     I can relate. Mom and dad were displaced by something called the “Dust Bowl,” mom from South Dakota and dad from Kansas. An Indian immigrant

Farm Equipment buried in Dallas, SD in 19363

once asked mom why she didn't retire 'back home' in South Dakota instead of the little burg of Stanwood, WA. She looked at him long and hard, and then answered, “The wind. It just blow and blows,” and turned back to her supper. Indeed, it blew and blew, bringing billowing, dark clouds of day obscuring dust that forced its way into everything. No farmhouse was secure enough to keep it out, and it destroyed crops, equipment, and people. In my dad's case, the last straw was an accompanying plague—a great cloud of grasshoppers, who settled over his cornfield one evening and lifted off in the morning, leaving nothing behind but dirt.
     I grew up on stories of the Dust Bowl and the years of reinvention of self and my extended “Okie” family on the West Coast, broken up from Fairbanks, Alaska to Phoenix, Arizona, including my birth in my parents' new home community in Los Angeles' Arroyo Seco4. When I read about Ruth and Naomi, I often think of mom, trekking out to Seattle to finish her education and discovering her 'new' family of non-relatives, who nevertheless became aunt, uncle and grandma to me5. (Not to mention George, the 'family' English sheepdog and Axel (pronounced 'ahk-zell'), the dachshund.)
     The book of Ruth is generally described as a biblical love story, played out in the pre-kingdom days of the judges and demonstrating such qualities as love, loyalty and compassion. It is all of that. But what is it doing in the Bible, stuck between the tales of the Judges and the beginning of the Davidic stories of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles? Outside of brief mentions (such as Eve or Delilah), the Old Testament contains only four females given their own detailed protagonistic story: Deborah, the prophet who kicks Barak in the fundament and puts him to work defending against Canaan6; Esther, the exilic heroine; Susanna, who is saved from false accusations by Daniel; and Ruth, which is as much the story of her mother Naomi as it is of Ruth.
     What Ruth is doing there is more complicated than it seems. First, most scholars agree that inasmuch as it tells a story set in the pre-kingdom days with a closing section on the genealogy of the house of David,7 it was written in kingdom days. However, some point out that there are are traces of Aramaic in it, which would point to an exilic or early post-exilic origin—a date involving Persian influence. That theory would suggest that our version is an updated copy, done at a time when Hebrew scribal activity was focused on editing and preserving older scrolls, similar to the prose framework added to the book of Job.8
     Deborah and Esther probably earn their place in a male-dominated book because of their key roles in preserving the Hebrew nation and community. Their men could not have succeeded without them. Susanna, on the other hand, has been the subject of canonical debate since the beginning of the canon process following the end of the apostolic church. Her story is included in the Catholic canon9, but not in the Protestant, largely because there is no existing Hebrew version of the story. (Nor is it in the Tanakh.) It has been often dismissed as a 'mere story,' with no direct canonical worth save as a morally instructive fable.
     Ruth, however, is a different kind of story. Where Susanna's story depends on the presence of a rigid application of Levitical justice for its drama, with Daniel as the Spirit-inspired hand of God intervening to rescue one of His people from injustice, Ruth and Naomi are people finding ways to survive and prosper against the background of severe difficulties created by their environment and community poverty. Instead of the machinations of evil elders, they find their final deliverance because of and within a holy community.
     The story begins with famine. In many areas of the 'land of milk and honey' this was not an unusual occurrence. Largely pastoralists with small herds of goats and sheep in the rocky Judean hills around Bethlehem, settlers around the late Bronze and early Iron age were also engaged in scraping out small terraced fields for limited agriculture. Even a little population growth would have been difficult to support. Naomi and her husband, starving, move to Moab seeking a better life. It is possible that they took the short route over the north end of the Dead Sea where the tribes of Benjamin, Gad and Reuben's territories met, then south through Reuben to one of the river valleys in Moab, or conversely south through the hill country of Judah and up the east coast of the Dead Sea. Either way, Moab, though fertile, was not friendly territory for Hebrews. Nevertheless, Naomi and her husband seem to prosper, their two sons marrying local Moabite women.
     A decade after Naomi is widowed, her sons-in-law also die. Hearing that her Judean homeland is doing better, she instructs her daughters-in-law to remain in Moab, their home, and look for new husbands, while she returns home to Judah. Given that she is now a stranger, a Hebrew alone in Moab, another risky trip home where she is more likely to find assistance seems advisable. Naomi is nothing if not practical. Without a husband or sons, she can neither contribute to the community nor claim support from it. The Hebrew community at least has, under its laws and customs, some provision for supporting widows.
     One of her daughters-in-law, however, refuses to leave her side. Ruth, even though she is not Hebrew, begs to accompany her, and Naomi agrees. Back in Bethlehem, Ruth goes into the barley fields belonging to one of Naomi's former husband's relatives and begins gathering 'gleanings,' the bits and pieces of grain ears left behind the harvesters, which customarily are left there for the poor to gather. This is hot, difficult work, which returns a relatively small reward for a lot of effort. (In my childhood in Oregon's Chehalem Valley, and later in Washington's Skagit Valley, I discovered just how hard agricultural stoop labor like this is.) Nevertheless, with Naomi's advice, she displays qualities that attract the attention of Boaz, the wealthy owner. She is hard-working, she is loyal, she is attractive, and she is aggressively happy to be available. Boaz now follows the customs necessary to clear his way to marry her, and does so, thus ensuring the both her and Naomi's future.
     The most famous line in the book is Ruth's plea to accompany Naomi:

Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God. Ruth 1:16 (NRSV)

Movers,” which is the classic derogatory American epithet for folks like Naomi and Ruth, inevitably have one or both of two motives: to escape something, or to get something. My birthplace, Los Angeles, is famously known as the place people go to reinvent themselves. However, my experiences teaching in L.A. taught me that there is an equally large population of Angelenos—including, of course, my own family—who came to escape poverty, hunger, oppression, civil anarchy, and even genocide.
     It's not clear just why Ruth decided to move. It may have been her affection for and sense of duty to her mother-in-law, the possibility of being rejected by her fellow Moabites as the widow of a Hebrew, or just a desire for adventure or a society she sees as preferable to Moab. As a woman at first traveling, and then living in a strange community, she is and will be extraordinarily vulnerable. Ordinary women, whether traveling or simply seen as strangers, were open to exploitation or violence, with no practical recourse, as witness the Genesis stories of Sarai and Dinah10. Even within their own communities, as Susanna's story shows, they had to worry about their safety in ways that most men would not. Ruth shows a clear recognition of her vulnerability when she eagerly seeks out, with Naomi's advice, the affection and protection of the wealthy Boaz.
     Ruth seems to be welcomed for two reasons; one is that she has agreed (see quote above) to convert to Judaism, and the other is that she is female. A woman would be much easier to integrate into the community, since she would likely marry or become available as a servant (read slave). That she achieves the former status is, at best, only partly attributable to her innate qualities of character and diligence. As a woman, she is not, after all, a threat.
     Things haven't changed much: as a career sailor, I observed a number of marriages between sailors and foreign women. The degree of acceptance the wives experienced outside the immediate naval base families depended largely on how much the women managed to adapt to and adopt the language, manners and acculturation of America. Accompanying this, at least among Pacific Fleet sailors, was the legend of the sexual availability of Filipina wives outside marriage. Ruth, in fact, might end up gang raped, as Boaz prudently realizes and prevents.
     When the Hebrew exiles return to Jerusalem, there is a significant contrast. Ezra and Nehemiah, leading the post-exilic community back to Jerusalem, take great pains to 'purify' people who had been living, many comfortably, in a foreign land. They read out and interpret the Hebrew law and custom and ruthlessly cull out the non-Hebrews, especially non-converts11i.
     Living in exile, the returnees have grown used to living easily among gentiles, often intermarrying, learning new languages and customs. To their leaders, the Hebrew scribes appointed by the foreign ruler, this small group, living and rebuilding a tiny portion of the old, large Jerusalem are engaged not only in building anew, but recapturing a culture and religion many of them have forgotten or never known. In light of Ruth's story, it is notable that Moabites are specially selected for approbation, based on their long-ago actions against the Egyptian refugees.
     Both Ezra and Nehemiah, trained in scribal schools to be recordkeepers, and more importantly, to administer the written rules and decrees of the empire, go about restoring Hebrew culture and religion by reading aloud and interpreting the Torah. In it, they find strict and uncompromising instructions about membership in the tribe, which requires immediately turning away non-Hebrews, even to the point of separating families and married couples who do not meet the requirements of religious conversion and ethnicity.
     In many ways, the stories of Ruth and the post-exilic leaders exemplify the conflict between the Pharisees and Sadducees of later Jerusalem, one (Pharisees) the party of the common people, but a minority in the Sanhedrin, and the other the party of wealth and power, who insist on strict observance of the law, with no place for spirituality. Similarly, Ruth and Naomi both enter cultures as strangers and find acceptance based on what they have to offer, while the returned exiles find themselves confronted by the requirement to revert to an older and possibly outdated custom based on the scribes' interpretations of the law12.
     Comparisons and analogies can be stretched only so far, but it is still interesting to think about the difference between the early, pre-kingdom stories preserved and edited by post-exilic scribes, and their scribal interpretation of the Torah. Despite the Torah, early Judah was primarily an oral society13, where meanings were derived from face-to-face tellings, retellings and discussions. (It has been said contemporarily--by Jews themselves--that in a room with three Jews, there will be a least five opinions.) Later on, in imperial and urban settings, the combination of commerce and governance privileges the authority of text, and thus those who wield that authority by dint of being its owners and interpreters.
     Ruth's Judah is a personal, subjective community; Ezra and Nehemiah's Jerusalem is based on broad, objective and impersonal requirements—the only kind that can be broken into strict, legalistic, textual categories. It is notable that Christianity is essentially a personal faith, brought to us by a Christ who becomes human and calls us first to a close, rather than categorical, relationship. That this has something to say about institutional, rather than communal, Christian communities need not be pointed out. (Although I am doing that, of course. Mea culpa.)

1Engraved graffitti at Jokanji Temple.
2From http://ladentdeloeil.net/mizu-shobai-japan-tokyo-yoshiwara/
3By Sloan (?) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
4Ironically, it means “Dry Creek” in Spanish.
5My dad's mom died long before I was born, but I did have his widowed second wife, who was also 'grandma.'
6Kudos are also due Heber the Kenite, who slew Sisera with a tent peg after the battle.
7 Ruth is David's grandmother: Ruth 13:17-22.
8See especially Schniedewind, William M. How the Bible Became a Book (Cambridge, UK, Cambridge UP, 2004), p. 193
913th Chapter of Daniel. It is also included in the Orthodox and Coptic canons.
10Gen 10: 12-20; 34:2
11Ezra 23, Neh 13. 1-3, 23-30.
12There is an obvious parallel in the contemporary Holy Land's uneasiness involving Jews and Palestinian Arabs, and even between right wing Haredim and less orthodox or secular Israelites.
13Oral societies are not necessarily illiterate ones, but ones which privilege the authority and importance of oral, and often symbolic, communications over the textual.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

1 Corinthians 13 (Cont.)

     In 1966, the evangelical community closed ranks, built fortifications, and prepared to sally forth against the forces of the Great Satan, cleverly disguised as a feisty, opinionated Episcopal priest, Joseph Fletcher. It was perhaps the most unifying evangelical moment since the second Great Awakening. What he did was to write a best-seller, Situation Ethics1. Being a nosy and curious sort in those days, I took myself to the college bookstore and snatched up a copy to see what the fuss was about.
     I read quickly (English majors either learn to scan fast or switch to pre-med or something else easy), noted a handful of rather common sense notions, and abandoned the project as just another case of the stick-in-the-muds getting their undershorts in a bunch over nothing. Of course, I was a theological neophyte and not interested in going near the nonentities who populated our religion department, anyway. This was the background with which I dug out an ancient copy of Fletcher this week and took on the project of finding out whether his work belonged in the postmodern/postchristian arena as an early harbinger, a relevant contribution, or not at all.
     The answer, I found, was the latter. Like many moralists and theologians, Fletcher could not escape two beguilements. First, there is the temptation of closure. Since Augustine at least, and certainly since the advent of modernism, there is an accepted route through systematic Christian thinking, one that starts with foundation, proceeds to logic, and ends in conclusion, which is of course just another word for arrest, closure, finality. Conclusion becomes the present, extended into the future as alleged but impossible permanence, the final word, the authority; the immediate past disappears, a foggy quasi-memory, and if one must explain, one cites foundation as if there existed a direct, forgotten but unquestionable link from inception to finish.
     The second temptation to which Fletcher succumbs is a semantic one: confusing grammar with substance. This particular temptation goes back to the birth of Christianity, when theological writers tried, to our continuing confusion, to graft Greek philosophy onto the Christian root and, instead of producing an integral, monistic growth got a sort of divided stem in which the growth of neither half kept pace with the other, leaning it first to one side, and then to the other. I refer, of course, to the doubtful and dubitable fusion of the classical virtues prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice with the Christian “virtues” faith, hope, charity.
     The classical virtues have a certain semantic quality of direct involvement with action. We would have no problem identifying a prudent act, or an act of justice; such virtues clearly cannot be easily separated from the acts performed under their command, hence the classical Greek philosophers associated them with morality and the public good.

     Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. (Deut 6:4, NRSV)

     Then there's the Old Testament. Deuteronomy gives the Hebrews not only the Shema, the declaration of faith, but the accompanying commandment that is the greatest commandment for them. Later on, Christ will quote Deuteronomy similarly, and Paul will add faith, hope and charity, echoing his earlier description, love never ends.2  The apostolic church had to be content with those statements, but as the church grew and began to produce bishops and other experts, most of them educated in classical, neo-Platonist and Aristotelian mode, the active, moralistic concept of classical virtue led them to view the Christian commandment of faith, hope and love as partaking of the same moralistic and behavioral orientation.
     The main argument for theologians, in fact, has tended to be over whether love and faith are bestowed by God or available inherently in human beings. Gift or get? (If such a question ever bothered the original disciples the way, say, they argued over which one was the best at discipling,3 it is not recorded in the gospels.)
     The early Hebrews had a lot of things to say about organizing the public good (see Leviticus and Deuteronomy), many carrying dire consequences—stoning was a favorite—but love is pretty much left in the individual's own hands. God, they warn, is apt to punish folks for failing to show their love for Him, thus leaving the most important business to divine care.
     Kenneth Burke4, now considered one of the early 'prophets' of postmodern thought, speculated that actions might be analyzed through the “Dramatistic Pentad5,” a five-part analytical tool that requires identifying the Act, Scene, Agency (means by which it is done), Agent (who does it), and Purpose. For Purpose, as the title of his book implies, one can often substitute “Motive.” Purpose, to make the distinction clear, is more of a classical notion: its question is “What is the expected or hoped-for result?” Motive, on the other hand, is more subjective. Its question is simply “Why?” Not “What do you want to happen?”, but rather, before any act is performed, “What motivates you to want to do it?”
     This distinction, thanks to a few centuries of Western thought, escapes many, especially those who, like Burke, concede the alleged irretrievability of any link between thought and action.

     You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? (Matt 7:16, NRSV)

     Matthew is often misquoted. A quick look at Google shows, on the first page alone, a misquote from guardian.com, a book title from 1908, and an lds.org writer who correctly quotes Matthew but immediately (still in the Google entry) switches to “works,” possibly because good ole Joe Smith misquoted while inventing the Book of Moroni. Misquoting Matthew as “by their works,” rather than fruits, follows the general trend started by John Chrysostom (another scholar of Greek philosophy) of identifying 'fruits' as identical with behavior, or acts.
     Christ's words, quoted by his apostle, are on the other hand specifically organic. His extended metonymy suggests a visceral or biologic relationship. Theologian Joseph McLendon, whose Systematic Theology6 develops a postmodern Anabaptist approach, envisions a three-strand methodology involving the individual's identity in terms of a bodily existence, a social existence, and a Resurrectional existence. In the first strand, “All of us are aware of compelling drives, needs, and functions that we locate in our bodily or organic existence.7
     It is perhaps inevitable, given the history of the church, that we early on began to view 'bodily needs' as contrary to the demands of Christian obedience. For example, the monastic movement, of vital importance to society in the Middle Ages, ironically began as a way to provide an eremitic-like existence for the monks.
      Bodily existence, to the post-apostolic Christian church, was distinct from mind, and from such things as soul or spirit. This was not entirely in tune with Hebrew views of the holistic man, nor with the Greek, which used soma to describe the body, and two words, pneuma and psyche, to describe the soul and mind, but nevertheless gave to their Roman students the famous phrase mens sana in corpore sano.8 Paul, in Hebrews, uses the two Greek words in a trope to emphasize the unity of man before God.9 The church largely follows Paul's lead in considering the soul's relationship to God without worrying about the Gnostic heresy of division between soul and spirit10.
     Today, in fact, 'pneumatology' is a theological term of art describing the study of the Holy Spirit, while 'psychology' is both a distinct discipline in medical and academic study and a popular usage for mental processes other than 'rational' thinking. Such is the unity within man that contemporary medicine must seek among combinations of verbal, behavioral and chemical means not only in its efforts to mend mental illnesses, but in treating and preventing physical afflictions as well.
     In the end, man's actions are a result of decisions determined in the mind, either conscious or reflexive, and the former are guided, in the light of the Resurrectionist being, by the greatest motive, love. Love is something quite distinct and separate from the calculations of utilitarianism, as Fletcher ultimately reaches with his identification of love with justice11, or the fanaticism of blind credulousness.
     Agape, as the Greek has it, whether bestowed as a gift or product of the Holy Spirit's work within man, is God's motive, not ours. It transcends both human rationality and human emotion. Which is, after all, kind of what the whole Christian thing is all about.

1 (Westminster John Knox P, Louisville, Ky, 1966) Reissued 1997.
2Mark 12:28-31; 1 Cor 13:8a, 13.
3Mark 9:33.
4Burke (1897-1993), an Ohio U. and Columbia dropout, was an autodidact who nevertheless became a college lecturer and integral part of the NYC intellectual scene and deeply influenced the following generation of scholars.
5A Grammar of Motives (Berkeley, CA, U of Calif P, 1945). Reissued 1969.
6Vol 1: Ethics (Nashville, Abingdon P, 1986).
7Ibid, p. 78.
8Juvenal (c. 100 C.E.), Satire X (10.356-64). Full line: “orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano.” Tr. “pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body.”
9Heb 4:12.
10There remain some in the fundamentalist and dispensationalist communities who insist on the Gnostic version.

11i.e., “...the procedural principle of utilitarianism...and the normative principle of the commandment (“love your neighbor”) result in the greatest amount of agape for the great number of neighbors possible. That is justice....Love and justice are the same. [Moral Responsibility (Philadelphia, Westminster P, 1967), p. 56.]

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Christianity in the World

     At first, upon hearing about the tragedy of riot, conflict and death in Charlottesville, I opened my mental file on “crappy stuff in the world” and began the process of sifting the news reports to whatever degree I felt like; then stuffing it all back into that place in my mind wherein resides the residue of dérangements from Dealey Plaza to the Ambassador Hotel1, the '72 Tet Offensive to Heaven's Gate, Helter Skelter to 9/11, Watts '65 to Rodney King '92, the murder of Martin Luther King and likewise Edwin T. Pratt2, and other notable kerfuffles I either experienced from a distance, like the assassinations of RFK3 and JFK, or next door, like Heaven's Gate and Rodney King.
     A few days later, I was researching documents from Vatican II, the famous confab which Pope John XXIII called to drag the Roman Catholic Church into the Brave New World. Almost immediately, I discovered that I was smart (or lucky) to do so—the Second Ecumenical Council, in the early 60s, identified some of the very same individual and social issues I'd been hearing complaints about since I reached adulthood4. In Gaudium et pres, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, published in 1965, Pope Paul VI5 named several specific concerns, which I summarize below:
     The modern world is a scientific and technological one, in which, ironically [my description; gaudium et pres does not admit the ironic presence] a new humanism has focused attention not on the human ability to gain phenomenological knowledge and the many new fruits of this, but on the phenomenological conditions of human life. The widespread communications provided by technology creates widespread awareness of and demand for this better and fuller life. This, in turn, creates an awareness of a condition also created by the modern world: the disparity between the haves and the have-nots, both in the world generally and within particular societies and nations. It is an eloquent document, and I quote below a portion of the close of the “Introduction:”

Nevertheless, in the face of the modern development of the world, the number constantly swells of the people who raise the most basic questions or recognize them with a new sharpness: what is man? What is this sense of sorrow, of evil, of death, which continues to exist despite so much progress? What purpose have these victories purchased at so high a cost? What can man offer to society, what can he expect from it?...[T]he council wishes to speak to all men in order to shed light on the mystery of man and to cooperate in finding the solution to the outstanding problems of our time.

     “What can man offer to society?” Committed Christians are, sadly, rare. A sizeable number of Americans consider themselves religious, according to opinion polls, but their tendency to consider religion a private and individual affair leads to both a reluctance to join themselves to participation in a wider life in the body of Christ, in which faith could be examined, celebrated, strengthened and directed, and a tendency to ignore the ways in which faith could inform their actions in the social world. “Being religious” really means paying lip service to some institutional aspects of the church, such as marital and funerary rites, while largely ignoring the rest.
     Soon after Charlottesville, the city of Houston was hit by a hurricane, with widespread flooding. Even as I write this, millions of dollars are being raised by institutions such as the Red Cross and individuals such as NFL star JJ Watt; hundreds of people are in Houston with boats and trucks to help rescue stranded residents (and pets). Those things, while laudable, are comparatively easy for Christians to do when seeking a way to respond to the world and its difficulties. But what can we offer to societies in which hate, fear, pride, brutishness and feckless violence produce a Charlottesville, or for that matter an ISIS or Central African genocide?
     Faith. It is easy to see the work of evil in our world. What to do about evil is not so simple. My dad, born and raised a Quaker, faced the issue in early 1942. He accepted the draft, went to artillery school, told the colonel of his background and said he'd prefer non-combatant work, but would serve wherever he was assigned. He was sent to assist the battalion dentist. His battalion was, however, one of the new anti-aircraft units, outfitted with fast-moving halftracks mounting four M2 .50 caliber machine guns, designed to intercept attacks on mobile artillery batteries. In other words they were, in the words of my Navy shipmates, built to “go into harm's way.” Dad did; from an emergency medical bunker dug into the bloody sands of Utah Beach, to fleeing through the narrow streets of a Belgian town ahead of Nazi tanks on the first morning of the Battle of the Bulge, to joining Patton's tanks as they turned back the Bulge offensive, he made his way to top sergeant and lived to tell the tale. After the war, he was chosen to serve on the Selective Service Board in Oregon.6
     Today, several theologians and writers who haven't worn the uniform tend to believe in pacificism as a proper response to war. In a way, I almost envy the kind of faith that can accept death rather than resist evildoers. Almost. I happen to believe that the issue is rather more complex than the simplicity of a single, absolute stand against all violence, but that is a belief that I also believe is open to dialogue (as do the Friends, by the way). That difference can also arise in the question of confronting the rioters of Charlottesville or the ruthless killers of ISIS. Must we meet evil in kind, and if so, when and where? There is certainly no shortage of evil to face. It may take the form of casual, deliberate intrusion on our property, psyche or physical selves here, or rape, murder and kidnapping in Rwanda or southern Somalia; it may be present in individuals in our neighborhoods, or rioting mobs in an inner city or suburban ville.7 However and wherever it occurs, there are some ideas that Christians should keep in mind in forming opinions or taking action.
    In Vatican II, the Roman Catholic church for the first time stepped away from its traditional Augustinian assumption that the world was an inherently sinful place and found instead that there were good things and people in the world, and that Christians should look for and support the good. Among other things, it had a strong impact on church missions, adding official support to the sort of practical solutions already present in many 'third world' missions. Vatican II also asserted that the idea of missionology was seriously skewed in that it was seen as a process of the 'Christian' part of the world reaching out to 'save' the rest. Instead, facing the decreasing primacy of Christianity in the previously Constantinian west, the church described 'mission' as an integral part of all Christians' presence in the world, not a role only assigned to specific 'missionaries' or 'evangelists'.89
     The post-Vatican II generation of Catholic leadership still has a large number of people who would rather that the church return to its last-ditch stand against modernism—something that the church at least thinks it knows how to do—rather than embrace notions smacking of the postmodern of the post-1960s, but it must be admitted that this is not an unusual stance among us Protestants, as well. So, how do Christians witness their faith in the face of evil? One 'solution' to this question is something I briefly experienced in college. In 2001, Time magazine writer David Van Biema's called it “Amway” gospel.10 Like historian Mark Noll11, I found Bill Bright's evangelology myopic and superficial, its supporters' campus meetings closely resembling the guilting and cheerleading of a used car salesmens' morning colloquy.
     A more realistic approach to the occasion of evil might well focus on a range of actions that would be both available and meaningful to the individual Christian, as well as the Christian community.

The broad Christian answer is that each follower of the Way is now commissioned as a witness, in but not of his or her world. Witnessing requires a new sociality, a revised engagement with those still fixed in the culture of origin. Pentecost has recurred; the pentecostal celebrants, sharers of the new that comes in Christ, must explicitly impart that new or be at risk of implicitly denying it.12

     There is good and bad in our world, and faith, as McLendon says above, requires seeing our entire life as a witness. The actions we take or refuse to take are either of our faith, or we deny that faith.
     One of the latterly-recognized heroes of the 18th century Friends in America, as Smithsonian magazine belatedly pointed out this month,13 was Benjamin Lay, a dwarf and former sailor14 who repeatedly confronted his fellow Quakers in their meeting houses over the issue of slavery. He wrote a powerfully worded book decrying slavery, made vociferous objections to it during meetings and even conducted personal demonstrations outside the meeting houses after he was ejected from them throughout the Philadelphia area. Buried in an unmarked grave, Lay was largely forgotten (outside the Friends) by the historians of abolition, even dismissed by them as 'crazy.' Not the first believer to suffer that fate, nor the last, but what a glorious witness!
     Hope. If faith is the foundation of the abiding witness of Christianity, then hope is the second story.15 Acting out of faith, as Lay's story demonstrates, does not always mean achieving something immediate, visible, tangible or immediate. It may mean encountering criticism or even ridicule. The price of faith is sometimes paid in bitter coin, but the purse that accepts that coin is hope.
     I was once a Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy, which is a rank officially equivalent to a Gunnery Sergeant in the Marine Corps or a Sergeant First Class in the Army. In the Navy, however, its historic and traditional significance is somewhat distinctive. For starters, chief petty officers wear uniforms identical to those of commissioned officers, rather than those of lower ranking sailors, are afforded privileges such as separate berthing and mess (eating and/or socializing) facilities and are given, both formally and informally, responsibilities beyond those one would expect to accompany a single grade of rank above other enlisteds. Two chiefs, neither previously known to the other, connecting on a phone line can produce results than even admirals might envy (often heard, from a senior officer: “Chief, can ya....”).
     Serving as one of three division chiefs in the Pacific Fleet Combat Camera Group, I was ordered by the commanding officer of our parent command to conduct an investigation of an alleged violation of security regulations by a young photographer who had been sent to work temporarily with an aviation intelligence unit. This is a formal process, carried out under directives laid out in a Naval Instruction somewhat ominously called 'The Manual for Courts-Martial.' In passing on my assignment, the CO's Administrative Officer directed that I was not to interview the officers in the unit the sailor had been working for. Unfortunately, the manual ordered that as the investigating officer, I was to interview anyone who might have relevant information.
     Here were the relevant facts of my particular situation; one, it was clearly evident that the photographer had violated procedures for the handling of classified material; two, it was equally evident that my parent command's CO intended to punish the sailor pour encourager les autres; three, that there were extenuating circumstances in that the procedures used within intelligence units did not always follow the strict interpretation of security directives, and thus might have influenced the sailor's actions; finally, that only the officers for whom he had worked could address this issue in a credible manner.
     Basically, I was faced with the decision to follow the manual's procedures, which carry the authority of a direct order or follow the CO's order to ignore the manual. Complicating this was an additional fact: that ignoring a commanding officer's orders, even if it meant following orders from a higher authority (the manual), was politically unsound—it would mean, at the least, incurring his permanent dislike, and at most, facing legal action myself.
     Essentially, I saw the question as one of integrity. If I were to honor the duties and requirements of my position—Chief Petty Officer—I had no choice but to interview the officers of the intelligence unit and let the chips fall. I also saw the question as one of faith. As a servant of a higher authority I was obligated to act honestly, and that meant in the event of a conflict in orders, to obey that order given by the higher command (the manual) and to use my best analysis of the situation, as the manual required.
     Hope is what you have when everything else is out of your hands. Once I turned in my report, things in the short term were in the hands of an officer I fully expected to formally charge me with disobeying his order (he did, the next day), but in the long term, they were in the hands of someone considerably higher on the totem pole, so to speak. (In all honesty, I wasn't worried about being charged. I, like any savvy chief, had an ace in the hole. Nevertheless, it left me vulnerable to a highly upset senior officer, with considerable power to act in other ways—and he did. Shades of Mr. Roberts!)16
     Christians often face situations in which acting in accordance with faith has potential—and sometimes realized—consequences, but we are also, as Zechariah wrote, prisoners of hope,17 compelled—not simply encouraged—to act in accordance with our faith.
     Charity. Charity? The Septuagint, being in Greek, used agape (love), but later English translators sometimes chose to use charity. In the famous verse of 1 Corinthians 13:13, the Authorized Version of 1611 used charity in order to complete the noun series “faith, hope and charity.” The translators were versed in rhetorical devices, or tropes, and had learned rules for setting up such series, which made the series more mellifluous if it ended with a multi-syllabic word.18 As someone who grew up reading Shakespeare and the 1611 (KJV), I also prefer the old word, rather than the modern 'love.'
     Love is a passive word, implying a feeling, a sort of 'warm puppy,' in an old greeting card simile. Charity, on the other hand, is an active word, implying that something must be or is being done. Charity is meaningless unless accompanied with direct action. If one doesn't feed and water a warm puppy, it doesn't stay warm very long.
     Charity involves a sense of responsibility—to ourselves, to our immediate society, and, ultimately, to what postmodern thinkers call the other. The essence of the other is that the other is not us. It is the people we've not encountered who nevertheless are connected to us by common humanity, by participating in and thus co-creating the larger society of which we are a part.     Although they are to us unknown in any direct or interpersonal way, we still bear a responsibility to them as creatures of God, who is herself the great unknown other, the one unknown to us in any phenomenological way but to whom we connect through faith and hope. Our responsibility to God is total, even to what philosopher Jacques Derrida called the 'gift of death' (donner la mort)19. Death is that moment when we move beyond the limits of humanity and enter the place where God awaits and becomes directly known.
     Derrida points out how Abraham fulfilled his ultimate responsibility to God by ignoring his familial and ethical responsibilities to inform his wife and family, and especially his son Isaac, of the events to which God summoned him, instead concentrating solely on obeying God, and finally moving virtually to the point of killing his son before God halted him. It is a long moment both terrifying—remember how often the Bible refers to fear and trembling before God—and powerful as Abraham throws aside the lesser forms of love and ethicality to stand alone before God.
     Charity isn't for the timid. It is for those who recognize the need for charity to those unknown and the evil known, for the disgusting and the unlikeable, even for those who renounce our charity and disparage our efforts. It is our responsibility, even to welcome the gift of death in accomplishing it.

1The longtime L.A. landmark and home of the famous Cocoanut Grove is now (since 2005) a small green park in Koreatown (North side of the 3400 block of Wilshire Blvd.).
2Pratt, Executive Director of the Seattle Urban League, was shotgunned outside his home in January 1969—a tragic coda to the momentous year of 1968 in the Emerald City.
3I was the volunteer staff photographer at the evangelical Mt. Hermon Conference Center in Santa Cruz, CA when RFK was shot down in L.A. Knowing that I was possibly the only Democrat on staff, my boss offered me the day off. I regret not taking it, and the time to mourn properly. Big tough guy?—well.....crap.
4I was old enough to fight and die for my country early in my freshman year of college, although not to vote until my senior year. By that time, I already had high school classmates who'd died in Vietnam.
5John XXIII died during Vatican II. He was declared a saint in 2013.
6Otherwise known as “The Draft.” My draft lottery number was 17, which guaranteed selection.
7One of my best childhood friends murdered a young neighbor girl in a garage across the alley from my house, and then burned down the garage in an effort to hide the crime. He is serving a no-parole life sentence in the Washington state prison system. Writing this entry is causing me to face the fact that I've turned my back on him for most of my life, and consider what I must do about that.
9Sivalon, John C., MM. God's Mission and Postmodern Culture: The Gift of Uncertainty (Maryknoll, NY, Orbis, 2012), esp. pp 35-6.
11Noll, Mark A. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans, 1994).
12McLendon, James Wm., Jr. Witness: Systematic Theology Vol. 3 (Nashville, Abingdon, 2000), p.21.
13Smithsonian, Vol. 48, No. 4 (September 2017) p. 34ff.
14Former sailors are cool.
15Yeah, I'm channeling 1 Cor, 13:13.
16In the end, the young sailor was found not guilty of the charges, thanks to the testimony of the intelligence officers.
17Zec 9:12.
18In one graduate seminar, Prof. Donald Freeman developed an excellent description of the phonetic reasons behind that old rhetorical “rule.” which I still use in my own writing. Remember that in the early 17th century, writers were far more influenced by the effects of reading aloud than today.

19The Gift of Death and Literature in Secret, trans by David Wills (Chicago, U of Chicago P, 1999, 2nd Ed.). This is a play on the French word “donner” which means “to give” (hence “donate” in English), but which also has the idiomatic sense of “to put to death.”