A Short Reflection on Dostoyevky’s “The Idiot”

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After three months of struggling to remember the exorbitant amount of deeply developed characters with foreign names and dense dialogue, I’ve finally finished Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, my second experience of his full-length novels. A few years ago, I read his final book and magnum opus The Brothers Karamazov in about the same amount of time, and while I can’t totally ascribe the same significance or genius to The Idiot, which was written not on a Russian deathbed but in the depths of a gambling addiction to roulette in Europe, my mind has been once again indelibly marked by this 19th century Russian.

 

*Spoiler Alert: if you are worried about me giving away the ending of a famous 150 year-old classic novel then you’ll want to just skip to the last paragraph.

 

The protagonist is a twenty-something prince of noble lineage but with little to no family or money to show for it. After spending much of his life in a Swiss sanatorium that he increasingly became unable to afford, he ventures home to Russia and inherits a small fortune while falling in with a group of exceptionally eccentric friends. Having come of age largely outside the auspices of conventional social interaction and education, the prince is largely looked upon as an idiot. He trusts everyone, he always tells the truth, he blindly allows others to take advantage of him and quickly offers them forgiveness afterward. Every character in the entire novel is baffled by the prince’s paradoxical purity, marked by his ostensible absent-mindedness while regularly astounded by his insight and thoughtfulness. As a literary expression, this prince is Dostoyevsky’s attempt to imagine profound and perfect beauty in the form of a human being; he is the Christ-figure of the novel, Dostoyevsky’s Don Quixote; a down-to-the-bone idealist. His convictions are honorable and unbreakable; and thoroughly rupture his social circle filled with comically extremist maniacs on the verge of self-destruction. The prince is ultimately incapable of saving his loved ones from themselves and ends up back in the care of the Swiss doctor. Blissfully unconscious of the events that led him there and unable to recognize his friends’ faces because of his precarious psychological condition, the prince’s story comes to a close.

 

Dostoyevsky’s criticism of modern society shines throughout the novel as the prince’s virtue threatens again and again to subvert the world of his fellow characters, like an epileptic Socrates whose very presence is a question mark to all social and intellectual norms and conventions. I cannot help but remember the chronically misunderstood prophetic Jesus of Mark’s gospel, who demonstrates profound power through weakness and suffering on behalf of others. I’m also reminded of a well-known chiasmus of Thoreau’s in Civil Disobedience:

 

“Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”

 

While Thoreau isn’t a person I typically look to for political thought, such a quote is difficult to sit with for long, especially on a week when the foul evils of white supremacy rear its pointy white privilege in such a public fashion, when the hopes and plans for a better future for thousands of immigrants are threatened, and so on. It sounds just like a quote from the back of my Barnes & Noble Classics version of the book (which might be what called HDT to remembrance):

 

“…in a world obsessed with money, power and sexual conquest, a sanatorium is the only place for a saint.”

 

I’m inclined to agree. In social environments that are fueled by the existence of economic injustice, it is costly to be true to one’s ideals of beauty. It certainly cost Socrates, Jesus, and our prince (and countless other heroes, prophets and truth-tellers), that’s how the story always goes. The Idiot leaves us with the unanswered question of the disjunctions and fractures between our confessed ideals of perfection and beauty and the way in which those are impossible to realize within the context of (especially modern) society.

 

If you haven’t read Dostoyevsky and want to, I’d recommend starting with one of his shorter works (Notes from the Underground, The Double, etc.) to familiarize yourself with his style before moving onto his 600+ page monsters! The Brothers Karamazov remains my favorite work of literature, it’s always soliciting, like a needy neighbor (Lk. 11:5), always insisting on having influence on the way I think. The Idiot is absolutely stunning in its portrayal of the existential and psychological condition of humans as modern social beings, anticipating sparks of figures like Nietzsche and Freud. From Ippolit, the terminally-ill 18 year-old driven to an aggressive, Hamlet-esque (“To be or not to be…”) bout with the philosophical question of suicide, to Lebedev, the acute but inelegant critic of western “progress”—and his best friend, the alcoholic and pathological liar, General Ivolgin—Dostoyevsky’s characters are impressively dynamic and full.

Protesting Evil: On God’s Attentiveness and the Persistence of Job

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The King James Version of the Bible has become infamous for its misleading translations in recent history and ironically, the New Testament book bearing the same name of the protestant monarch is no exception to this modern notion. A mistranslation of the Greek term ὑπομονὴν led to the popular phrase, “the patience of Job.”

Now, the word patience denotes the ability to tolerate something unpleasant without getting upset; without protest. A better translation of ὑπομονὴν, which literally means “under-remaining,” is persistence, which is certainly a more apt depiction of Job’s demeanor, as it does not preclude Job’s freedom to protest his exceedingly unpleasant predicament. Without a doubt, the Book of Job has been commonly thought to be a work of theodicy, however I suggest that this is perhaps not the intention of the author at all.

God is not portrayed as being interested in defending God’s justice to anyone.

Theologians, ministers, philosophers and poets alike have praised the book of Job for centuries as a poetic masterpiece and the most important piece of Wisdom Literature in the Bible. Curiously, the book is canonically situated among works influenced by the Deuteronomistic Historians’ theological worldview: God exclusively blesses the righteous and exclusively curses the wicked.

Even more curiously, the book is not even a little concerned with the nation of Israel and the protagonist is not an Israelite, which, along with the book of Jonah, incurs implications regarding the prevailing Jewish paradigm of rewards and punishments, as well as the salvific universality of God. However, I must limit my concentration in this post to Job’s archetypal plight in relation to God’s disposition regarding suffering and evil.

Assuming the rabbinical hermeneutic that Job was not a historical person, I approach Job as fictional parable, which in its final form interweaves both prose and poetry. God’s character in this lengthy parable is depicted as being remarkably attentive yet not omniscient; sovereignly permissive yet not formally omnipotent; allowing the pernicious satan character to manipulate God into allowing the horrifically meaningless suffering of the blameless Job.

After Job loses everything valuable to him, his trinity of friends begin a dialogue. They espouse the Deuteronomistic “orthodoxy” in asserting, initially very gently, that Job must’ve sinned to incur such curses from God, however Job remains convinced of his innocence. As a righteous man, Job knows the only proper response to evil and suffering is protest. Job laments the pervasive misery of human existence in imperfect relation to God and wishes for death because of his experiential nihilism.

Job’s friends treat him as a dangerous heretic suggesting upsetting notions about the God-human relationship that threaten their theological and existential security. The writer of Job portrays these antagonistic friends to be even worse off than Job, the sufferer himself, because of their stubborn clinginess to their system of belief. Ultimately, God responds to Job’s protest but does not justify God’s actions (or inactions) or even answer Job’s questions but rather, God questions Job!

The great Baptist theologian, E. Frank Tupper, once posited, “Life is arbitrary. God is not.” I believe this to be an excellent hermeneutic lens by which we should interpret the existence of evil and suffering in light of God’s characteristic goodness. God created a free universe, in which the horrible is equally as possible as the good and we continue to exist in a yet unrealized perfect relationship to God. Thus, God is categorically enigmatic and we need not assume that God is the cause or apathetic bystander of suffering and existential evil but ultimately, that God reacts to suffering in a similar fashion as the righteous Job; as a protest.

It is not that God causes suffering or even allows it because God wishes to manipulate it to be a formatively redemptive and sanctifying experience but rather God is a fellow-sufferer who reacts to the existence of evil and suffering by creatively flourishing good and beauty as a protest against evil and suffering in God’s creation.

God and the Gallows: On the Hope of Esther

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The book of Esther has a very interesting history. It was probably composed in the late fourth century BCE by a Jew living in the Persian Diaspora. As a Jew in exile, the author seems to be vying for his or her ability to live a full Jewish life in Persia. Uniquely, the original text of Esther makes no mention of God at all and most protestant versions of the Bible emulate this version, thanks to our ad fontis forefathers. However, later in the Hellenistic period, the translators of the Septuagint (translation of the Bible for Greek-speaking Jews, c. 245 BCE) included 107 verses and extra phrases not in the original to make it more religious. The KJV Bible includes these additions and most editions of the NRSV have them as an appendix. Esther had a difficult time getting into the canon, only fully being canonized by the late third century CE. Its canonization has often been criticized, perhaps most notably by Martin Luther, who wished it had never been written. Nonetheless, Esther persists to be a part of our beloved scriptures.

There are many wonderful things about the book of Esther. Historically, it serves as a Jewish legitimation of the festival of Purim, originally a Babylonian or Persian holiday adopted by Jews living in Persia as part of the Diaspora community. The festival of Purim is characterized by celebratory feasting and the dramatization of the Esther tale, usually done by children. This tale is primarily concerned with the splitting of the world into good and evil. The protagonists are Esther and her uncle Mordecai with the antagonist being Haman, an official of the King of Persia. A fuller treatment of the background and plot of Esther can be found over at John Holbert’s blog. However, we shall hit a few highlights:

After King Ahasuerus (Xerxes I, probably) deposes his queen for refusing to parade her naked body around for his drunken friends at a party, he is convinced to hold a beauty pageant of sorts across the Persian Empire. The winner would be his new wife and queen. As the story goes, Esther, a Jewish girl living in Persia being raised by her uncle Mordecai, wins the contest and becomes queen of Persia. The king, who seems to be drunk throughout the entire narrative, promotes the pernicious Haman to a very distinguished position in his cabinet. Haman arrogantly demands all who cross his path bow down before him, except our hero Mordecai refuses. Hamas takes this very personal and decides that genocide of all the proximity Jews is a worthy punishment (sound familiar?). Haman easily persuades the blissfully unaware King Ahasuerus to issue an edict allowing Haman to carry out his genocidal plot. Esther, who is encouraged by her uncle’s famous words, “If you keep silence at such a time as this…,” takes matters into her own hands. In a dramatic scene, Esther exposes Haman’s plan to her husband. In a blind rage, the indecisive king splits the scene to go and think in the garden. Ironically, Haman, who is now alone with Queen Esther, begs for his life. He bows down at her feet, just like Mordecai refused to do for him. As the king returns to the scene, his eyes fall on the perpetrator, Haman, attempting physical contact with Esther, which is a cultural no-no that seals Haman’s fate.

Haman is hanged on the very gallows he prepared for Mordecai.

Justice is served. The Jews triumph over their enemies. All is right with the world. In this way it’s very easy to note the festive influence of Purim on the book of Esther.

But what happens when the narrative and the reality are shown to be radically different?

Esther is a historical novella; it is not history. Now, we can debate what history means but it is hardly deniable that Esther is a fictional story with fictional characters in an imagined historical narrative with little historical correspondence. The story is truly wonderful and I, unlike Luther, am thoroughly glad to have it as a part of the Christian canon.

In a very real way, the drama of Esther was played out for all the world to see in the 20th century. Jews dispersed all over the continent of Europe were evicted from their lives, over six million quite literally. We have eyewitness accounts from Shoah survivors and even former Nazi soldiers from concentration camps, who are still facing indictments, that testify to the horrors of the 1940s. (I know, I know, Godwin’s Law…)

How in the hell did God allow this? Some have asserted that the holocaust demonstrates  bygone Israelite exceptionalism…(ew, barf). For those of us who have had to take an extensive amount of Ancient Near Eastern history, we know that struggle has rarely been foreign to the Jewish people and their ancestors. In this way, Israel is a very appropriate name as it means “struggles with God.”

Elie Wiesel, a famous writer, holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate, wrote about gallows once. In Night, Wiesel recounts his experience as a prisoner in Auschwitz during WWII. It’s filled with the dark, shocking recollections of a boy who lost his father in a concentration camp. His father was sickly, making Elie his caretaker until the night a German soldier beat Elie’s father to death in his bunk. Wiesel was in the bunk above his father holding his breath; hoping to avoid being beaten like his father.

In what is surely the sharpest scene in Wiesel’s work, he narrates the execution of a young Jewish boy. The prisoners are forced to watch. He recalls the intensity of his hunger and the concave shape of his starving torso. He notes that the greatest joy he and his fellow prisoners have is when the Americans bomb the camp.

The boy is hung on the gallows in front of the entire camp. Usually, death by hanging is a quick process, however the starved, emaciated boy’s weight wasn’t enough to break his own neck. So his was a slow, excruciating death met only by the preposterous inquiries of a man in the crowd: where is God?

Wiesel is forced to walk briskly by the boy’s body and notes his pink tongue and clear eyes.

Behind me, I heard the same man asking: Where is God now?

And I heard a voice within me answer him:  … here he is; He is hanging here on these gallows

In Esther, the Jews are delivered from genocide. In WWII, they were not. There is a grave discrepancy between the narrative and the reality. The Shoah robbed Wiesel and countless others of the ability to believe in the God of Israel. Can you imagine?

Like Wiesel, I believe in a God who hangs on the gallows. And I believe that is the only answer to the age old question of suffering. We cannot say that suffering is for God’s greater plan. We cannot say that suffering is punishment. We cannot even say that suffering is meaningful.

What we can say is that God knows pain, suffering and even death.
Perhaps that is better.

Thank God for the Canon: On the Delusion of Lady Wisdom

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There is a clearly established system at work in the biblical book of Proverbs. For the writers and compilers of Proverbs, which is essentially a collection of short pithy insights meant to help its readers cope with life, God blesses the righteous and curses the unrighteous.

“The Lord’s curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the abode of the righteous,” Proverbs 3:33 says.

Simple enough.

In fact, several books of the Hebrew Bible function under this paradigm. It is the perspective of the Judean historians who composed Joshua—2 Kings; scholars refer to this as the Deuteronomistic History because it is based on the way the book of Deuteronomy interprets history.

For instance, the northern kingdom of Israel is wiped out by the Assyrians in c. 722 BCE. They are carried off into oblivion and the Deuteronomistic Historian informs us that this is because Israel is sinful. Now, it is critical to bear in mind that the Bible was written almost exclusively by Israelites from the southern kingdom, Judah. The two kingdoms split after the death of King Solomon in the late 10th century— think American Civil War—so it is not difficult to ascertain some political pandering that smacks of a certain Southern (Judean) bias. The northern kingdom is reported to have exactly zero good kings, while the southerners have a few. I suggest to you that the reason for this is not that Israel’s kings were wicked but rather because the historians were writing in retrospect from a religious point of view.

Now, our modern notion of history as objective, factually corresponding information about events often gets in the way for readers of the Bible. The biblical writers did not possess this notion, nor was their intention to merely relay facts. Instead, the Deuteronomistic Historian was writing the story of a people who saw their identity tied up with their national deity (YHWH) and seeking to explain YHWH’s rationale for allowing their national demise. Their worldview told them that they must have done something to deserve their destruction; they must have sinned and now have to face the punishment for that sin.

To fully show my hand, I must admit that I’m not exactly a big fan of the book of Proverbs. It’s exceedingly patriarchal, sexist and written by and for the privileged class. But don’t hear me wrongly, I think that its useful (2 Tim. 3:16) and I even think that it is largely correct in its advice about life and living in the world. Wisdom really does direct one’s life toward typically higher modes of living and being, surely this is largely agreeable. However…

shit happens.

It happens to good people and bad people and in-between people. It happens to wise people and foolish people and people who really don’t seem to deserve it. Educated people tend to have greater chances for upward mobility, financial security and are less likely to face systemic oppression. But cancer, natural disasters, miscarriages, car wrecks and fires aren’t all that picky. To paraphrase Jesus himself, the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. To suggest that wisdom guarantees a better experience of life across the board is simply unwise, naive even. It seems to me that anyone with life experience can attest to this.

Thankfully, this doesn’t mean we have to throw our Bibles in the trash. Our canon also includes books like Job, Ecclesiastes and the Psalms. Job tells the story of a righteous man whose life is brought to utter ruin for no essential reason. Ecclesiastes is the nihilistic rantings of a teacher who has lived a full life and concludes that everything is utterly meaningless. The Psalms are full of poems and songs that question why God allows good things to happen to bad people and bad things to happen to God’s favorite people. If any of these were left alone, we would not have the full story. It is only when we allow them to inform one another dialectically that we gain access to truly biblical conceptions about existence, even if it is often in the form of paradox.

My experience tells me that Proverbs is wrong sometimes; however, Proverbs also tells me to learn from others, to guard my heart and that laziness is a bad thing.

An Altered Translation of the Psalms

Robert Alter is probably my favorite Hebrew Bible scholar when it comes to narrative criticism. I highly recommend his book, The Art of Biblical Narrative to any readers of Hebrew Bible texts all the time. It is quite brilliant. However, Alter has also provided the world with a number of his own translations of biblical books, which I have come to find extremely helpful, as well as beautiful. I’ve found his translation of the Psalms incredibly stunning and his insightful commentary valuable.

Psalm 1

Happy the man who is not walked in the wicked’s counsel,
nor in the way of offenders has stood,
nor in the session of scoffers has sat.
But the LORD’s teaching is his desire,
and his teaching the murmurs day and night.

And he shall be like a tree planted by streams of water,
that bears its fruit in its season,
and it’s leaf does not wither—
and in all that he does he prospers.

Not so the wicked,
but like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in judgment,
nor offenders in the band of the righteous.
For the Lord embraces the way of the righteous,
and the way of the wicked is lost.

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Check it out here.

Savoring the Psalms in a Postmodern Context

Suffering-DavidGrowing up, I was taught to think that the Psalms were all written by King David and given to us as light devotional reading that we should perhaps begin or end our personal time of Bible study with. I was taught that God so inspired David to write these songs and poems that though they were immediately applicable to his unique circumstances, they’re also relevant to each individual reader now, thousands of years later.

The problem with this is that historical-critical studies of the Bible demonstrate this model to be simply unverifiable and at least partially untrue. In studying ancient religious texts, we must remember that hardly anything is cut and dried; almost everything is extremely nuanced. For instance, the Epic of Gilgamesh and The Deluge were ancient Near Eastern flood myths that came much earlier than the narrative of Noah in Genesis 6-9, which shows a heavy dependence on these texts. Similarly, laws and codes given in the Torah demonstrate a dependence on the form of Hittite legal contracts, the style of Proverbs was appropriated from older Egyptian documents and Paul used the Hellenistic form of letter composition to craft his epistles.

Dating the Psalms is very difficult and most scholars assume the range of composition to be extremely wide. Since extrabiblical material on the historical David is scarce, no hypothesis can truly be confirmed, however the notion that David wrote the Psalms is centered around a much later tradition and are largely considered pseudipigraphical. Interestingly, the reason many Psalms are essentially impossible to date with much certainty is precisely the reason why they made the canon in the first place. The compilers of the Tanak selected Psalms using a rubric of how dynamic they were. In other words, for Psalms to be included into the Bible, they must have the ability to be used in many different liturgical (worship), historical, cultural settings. This is not odd, in fact, it is strikingly similar to how the Christian New Testament was canonized.

Now, many Christians, especially conservatives, often choose not to engage in what is called higher biblical criticism, which seeks to determine the sources the biblical writers pulled from to create the canon. I understand this position quite well and frankly, it makes a lot of sense. Conservatives often consider the Bible above human criticism, as it is the infallible, inerrant, perfect Word of God. Thus, approaching the Bible with a hermeneutic of suspicion is disrespectful to the scriptures.

I honestly wish to be charitable to this position because I spent many years under its influence, but, as you might guess, I ardently disagree with it. I think it allows superstition to pervade scriptures, fossilizes vibrant narratives and ideas into dusty unreadable religious stuff, and most of all, forces its adherents to rigidly assume an all or nothing faith based on modern yet anti-intellectual presuppositions about history and science.

I mean honestly, so what if Moses didn’t write the first five books?

So what if David didn’t write the Psalms and Isaiah didn’t write much of Isaiah?

Perhaps these questions are hills to die on for you, but I’d rather follow where the evidence leads. After all, even if God did inspire the writing of the Bible, aren’t they still at least the words of humans? Would it not be poor stewardship and irresponsible scholarship for us to simply take a library of documents, written, compiled and edited by hundreds of brilliant minds, developed over millennia at face value without critical inquiries into where, why, how, when it came about?

I would suggest to you that the Bible has much more to teach us then it has been allowed to. What is there to be afraid of? E.Y. Mullins, (a Southern Baptist!) believed in firm faith and free research. If we let go of our rigid assumptions about the Bible, we might find that we enjoy reading it a hell of a lot more. I certainly do.

Now, the reason this is important in regards to the Psalms is this:

Around the exilic period (c. 586-539 BCE), the Psalms were arranged into the order we now find them in. They are organized into five books or sections, which symbolically correspond to the five books of Moses, which are also compiled during this time. To put it simply, the Psalter is essentially the liturgical partner for the Torah. The Psalms are relevant in a variety of settings because they were fashioned to be that way. Psalm 51, for example, has the superscript above it denoting that it was written by David concerning the Bathsheba situation (again, very unlikely), however the Psalm itself functions in an expansive variety of religious contexts. It is used by my Roman Catholic friends at every Ash Wednesday service, it has been adapted into countless songs and I often find myself praying for a new heart. This is all good.

So, all this to say, the Psalms were meant to be open. They were meant to be struggled with, questioned, appropriated. It is the hope of the Psalter to find relevance to each readers’ unique situation, in keeping with the rabbinic tradition of interpretive plasticity.

Violence in the Bible and the Ethos of God

violent-god 

It is by no means inaccurate to call the Bible a violent book. In fact, it would be an understatement.

For example, the biblical narrative of the Israelite conquest of Canaan in Joshua, the entire book of Judges, certain Psalms and much of the prophetic literature within the Bible center around very violent people and events. The book of Joshua describes God giving the Israelites authoritative victories in battle and has a terrifying, morally questionable caveat: they consistently receive the mandate from God to slaughter all men, women, children and often even the livestock. God grants victories so long as these mandates are upheld and seems to allow their defeat in times of lack of dependence on God. Psalm 137 talks about dashing the heads of their enemies’ babies against rocks! That’s pretty messed up, right? Throughout the Deuteronomistic History, we read stories of rape, murder, revenge, assassination and war. However, perhaps most troublesome, in the prophets we read of YHWH destroying the kingdoms of Israel by means of violent conquerors, who decimate the temple, enslave the Israelites and, in the case of the Northern Kingdom, drag them off into oblivion.

These violent passages inevitably raise questions about the ethics of God and rightly so because if we are to interpret these texts to be historically-or even theologically-true, God may seem less good and more tyrannical.

Now, Assuming that God is loving and good (and not just nominally as if to say that simply whatever God does is good, but rather that God has a consistent character of goodness), I believe that if we are to consider the ethos of God in these bloody passages within the context of systematically formed theological paradigms, we will probably find ourselves caught between three distinct patterns of thought.

First, the theology of Dispensationalism might be tempting to the inquirer. Dispensationalism is an extremely conservative system of theological thought that assumes that God adopts different administrative principles through different ages of time. For instance, in the book of Joshua, God’s goodness is not called into question but rather God utilized a different set of rules for approaching morality and used violence to bring about God’s promise to the Israelites, while also exterminating several wicked groups of people. If the inquirer wished to uphold historical inerrancy of the Bible, Dispensationalism can be quite appealing.

Secondly, contemporary Process Theology bases itself on the foundation of Whitehead’s panentheistic metaphysical philosophy that places God in an evolutionary position in relationship with the universe. This esoteric approach assumes that God grows, learns new things, evolves with the universe because of God’s relationship with the universe and is able to experience change. Though few, if any, Process Theologians concern themselves with the historicity of the Hebrew Bible, they are able to salvage the goodness of God by postulating that the God of the Hebrew Bible, especially the earlier books, was in the process of becoming and as everything is, will always be in that teleological process of progress.

Lastly, historical-critical approaches to the Bible freely assume that, say, the details in Joshua either did not happen, therefore rendering scripture historically inaccurate and that the later Jewish writers believed that God commanded them to commit such acts of (exaggerated or fictional) violence. This pattern of thought allows us to replace the morally questionable biblical narrative and interpretation of history with the notion of later Jewish revisionist history and the assumption that if God is good, God would not order nor reward genocidal practices. Though this is efficient at salvaging God’s monogamous commitment to goodness, for some, especially conservatives, it may come at too high of a price in regards to our theological inheritance from Judaism and from scripture. In a real sense, all history is revisionist history and the Bible is hardly an exception. The biblical writers did have an agenda after all, whether people like to admit that or not.

While all three of these paradigms have problems, another temptation is to chalk it up to mystery (“God’s ways are higher”, etc), which though prevalent and seemingly humble, is an answer I find to be a copout for the theologian. While mystery is a fundamental aspect of Christianity, there are many passages in scripture that require a profound wrestling match to extract truth and the Christian must engage in this activity in light of Christ, the Prince of Peace. While I must confess that I am very much still in this wrestling match and hope to always be, I maintain that we can construct a synthesis between the dialectical tension one meets when considering the questionable ethos of God in the Hebrew Bible. I suggest that while God Godself was not unevolved by the time of the setting of Joshua, the writers of Joshua might have had an evolving notion of God and, like other religious tribes, assumed that God blessed the genocidal activity in Joshua. However, there is no epigraphical or archaeological evidence for this conquest, which leads me to assume that it is part of the later developed legendary prose fiction in scripture. A tradition passed down through generations to explain how God delivered God’s promise in giving the land of Canaan over to the pre-Monarchic Israelites. Several of my other posts deal with historical hermeneutics and God’s involvement in history, thus I will simply conclude by suggesting to you that as a Christian, I believe God is most axiomatically and epistemologically revealed to us in the person of Jesus. Thus, our conceptions and constructions of God must first submit to the character of Christ in the scriptures.

Lastly, remember the scriptures, specifically the ones I have dealt with in this post, were developed and canonized thousands of years ago in pre-scientific, pre-Enlightenment communities, which means that their conception of history was much different than ours is now. In fact, our notion of history as record of factually corresponding events is a rather new idea. Most languages do not even distinguish history from story; like in French (histoire) and German (Geschichte) the two ideas are covered by the same word and have not always been distinct.

Nationalism and the Politics of God in the Minor Prophets

USAJESUS

In the more conservative regions of our country, you don’t have to drive very far down any given highway to come across a patriotic billboard that reads something along the lines of

“If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land. II Chronicles 7:14”

or “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord. Psalm 33:12.”

Given the almost universal western Christian disposition of the first European immigrants to North America, the subsequent Deistic Enlightenment atmosphere that pervaded the United States’ foundations and the historical standard of religious nationalism on the continent, it is little wonder that American exceptionalistic manifest destiny type ideas about God’s geopolitical favor developed.

Now, the theological paradigm presented in the Hebrew scriptures concerning God’s relationship with Israel is hardly ambiguous for the most part: if Israelites behave according to Law, God preserves and prospers them but if they do not keep their end of the deal, God brings harsh judgment on the entire nation in various forms (such as exile, destruction of the temple, death, plagues, enemy military victories, etc.) The ancient Jews interpreted these destructive events in the same manner they interpreted triumphant events like the Exodus, as perceivably God-caused. The prophets argue that God is behind the conquest and subjugation of Israel because of Israel’s sin. For these ancient holy men, if God is not monistically or unilaterally the cause of every event, then God must not be sovereign.

Many modern religious Americans still cling to this hermeneutical school, as demonstrated clearly by highway billboards and successful far right-wing politicians. However, events such as the 20th century Nazi holocaust highly problematize these theo-political notions. Jewish theologians like Peter Ochs have chosen to refer to what we often call “the Holocaust” as the Shoah, a medieval Jewish European term simply meaning “destruction,” rather than “Holocaust”(as holocaust implies that the genocide of six million Jews was a meaningful sacrifice God required, which sounds more Nazi than Jewish.) These two terms reflect profound theological perspectives and beg the question, did God use the Nazi regime to exterminate millions of European Jews or was God a fellow-sufferer protesting these actions? This dialectical tension of God’s relative action and inaction is seen throughout the Tanak, especially in books like Job and the prophets Habakkuk and Micah.

While first acknowledging human inadequacy and the dense mystery surrounding God’s general and/or specific administrative principles in attempting to answer such questions, I suggest that bad things happen to good people not as a consequence of God’s judgmental punitive activity or even because God wields suffering as a sanctification tool but rather because God created a cause and effect universe where both good and horrific events are possible. All of this to say, the supersessionistic belief that America is analogous to, or has even replaced, Israel is aided by the poor, uncritically egocentric interpretations of the Bible primarily concerned with the question, what is God trying to tell me in this verse or passage? While I do affirm that God actively communicates to individuals through scripture, this approach should not be the only, or even primary, hermeneutic lens by which we read sacred texts.

However, we might also explore the notion of judgement coming through world events. Catastrophic events sometimes serve as a means of judgement. Certainly, this is a biblical perspective but it is a very dangerous one (and please note two things: “sometimes” is key and I did not attach the word “God” to the sentence). God’s relationship to the universe (or multiverse, if you really want to get complicated) has been hotly debated for a very long time. Thus, I am slow and truly terrified to attach “God” to anything like genocide, cancer or even mosquito bites. I will further explore God’s relative involvement in catastrophes in an upcoming post on Job but for now, let’s assume three oversimplified possibilities: either God a) as prime mover, is the ultimate causation principle; b) permits all realized possibilities out of respect for and commitment to the radical freedom of Creation; or c) does not possess the power or ability to effect universal change because of either ontological vulnerability or self-limiting kenosis.

As a test case, let us observe the events of 9/11 (and hope it still isn’t too soon.) Growing up in an unfortunately hyper-fundamentalist tradition, I remember preachers calling out that 9/11 was God’s judgement on homosexuals within days of the occurrence. Let me be clear: this is absolute bullshit. The allusion to Sodom and Gomorrah is poorly informed at best and no Bible scholar worth his/her salt will tell you that the impetus of their destruction had much at all to do with homosexuality. Rather, I would suggest the possibility that 9/11 to occurred because of the United States’ treatment of Muslims in general, and more particularly, the unethical American involvement in the affairs of the Middle East over the few several decades, in which power, oil, and money were our primary motivations. “Radical” Middle-Easterners are not reactionary enemies of the U.S. because the U.S. is righteous or chosen, but because North Americans have created enemies by means of greedy and overtly ethnocentric intervention in Middle-Eastern affairs. Now, of course, flying airplanes into the WTC towers full of people is unjustifiable just like the oppression of Israel by the Assyrians is unjustifiable. Clearly, not okay. This is another side of the coin: sometimes “bad things happen to good people” and also, sometimes people reap what they sow. How might God be involved in this?

Similar to the imperative issued in the third article of the Decalogue, in which God commands Israel to not misuse God’s name, Christians must learn to become more cautious in declaring things to be “God’s will,” because surely any assertion of this label is highly speculative and often dangerously risks God’s characteristic goodness in the midst of ghastly events such as the Shoah, destruction of the Temple or even 9/11. In conclusion, though Israelite prophets interpreted all horrific tragedies as coming directly from the hand of God, we need not unearth, adopt and apply this primitive trend wholesale. We must recognize that God has not chosen the United States of America over other nations (lol) and that religious nationalism sacrifices both democratic fidelity and religious liberty; it yields only rotten, half-grown fruit.

 

Ezekiel’s Prophetic Political Theology

Ezekiel

Discussing the Bible as being political can be fairly troublesome at times. Certainly, it seems appropriate to remember Jesus’ words about being divisive in Matthew 10 as we find ourselves in all of the difficulties that go along with this 2016 POTUS election. Some pastors and theologians have asserted over the years that churches should keep politics out of the pulpit and even that the Bible is not political at all in its nature. I must confess that this compartmentalization sounds attractive to me in a lot of ways, especially when I think about Christians whose interpretation of scripture leads them to radically different conclusions from my own. However, a faithful reader of scripture cannot but conclude that there are political motivations and implications intrinsic to much of our Christian canon. The Bible is full of politicians, both corrupt and noble; competent and inept; godly and ungodly. In terms of genre, there are parts of the Bible that even legitimately qualify as political propaganda.

Now, I realize how that sounds… But if you read the book of Judges, you might notice the thematic repetition of “In those days there was no king in Israel…” This phrase, which is strategically peppered into the narrative of progressive moral decay of regional rulers, serves as an apologetic polemic in favor of the monarchical system Israel implements beginning with Saul. The writers of Judges were crafting an argument in favor of the hotly contested idea of a national monarchy, ergo, the content is fairly labelled as propagandist, even if that sounds disrespectful of scripture.

Ezekiel is a prime example of a biblical prophet with a political axe to grind.

In my last blog, I discussed the fall of the Kingdom of Judah in c. 586 BCE. Ezekiel, like Jeremiah, was active in this time and experienced exile as a Judean deported from his homeland. It was a time of political upheaval as Babylon conquered, destroyed and subjugated Judah and its capital of Jerusalem. It is important to keep in mind that it was contrary to the so-called royal theology that existed in pre-exilic thought that Judah could be destroyed. After all, hadn’t God promised that a descendant of David would always sit on the throne? So, as events like these inevitably do, the exile of the Judeans generated a whole collection of difficult theological questions about whether God had abandoned Jerusalem, whether the Israelites deserved their destruction, why such suffering had come upon the people, etc. It was this set of questions that set the stage for Ezekiel’s career as a prophet.

Ezekiel turned his eyes to the ruling class of Judah, whom he calls shepherds, and his answers to the questions surrounding Judah’s exile came through his criticism of the apparent political and economic inequality and oppression. Ezekiel records,

The word of the LORD came to me: ‘Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds: Thus says the LORD GOD: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep.’ (Ezekiel 34:1-3)

So why has God allowed Judah to be conquered? For Ezekiel, God judges the political leaders of Judah for their refusal to meet the needs of the needy and to liberate the oppressed. Because God is just, God cannot allow even God’s chosen nation to go on existing because of rampant political injustice. Ezekiel continues,

You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost but with force and harshness you have ruled them. (Ezekiel 34:4)

So, in the midst of a particularly contentious time in American politics, my question for us is this: How might Ezekiel’s radical message against wealth inequality and oppression of the less powerful impact our political ideologies as Christians? Perhaps there is more nuance to biblical politics than the Moral Majority would have us believe.

Spitting in the Wind: Reflections on Jeremiah’s Prophetic Future

jeremiah

The context in which Jeremiah existed is extremely bleak.

The rise of the Babylonian Empire in the 7th century spelled disaster for Judah, the Southern Kingdom of Israel in which Jeremiah was active. Contrary to much of Deuteronomistic history that would have us imagine a more grandiose picture of the Southern Kingdom, it appears by the vast majority of accounts, both biblical and extrabiblical, that Judah was never all that powerful of a political entity. Often, Judah is characterized as having been a vassal-type subsidiary state in relation to the Northern Kingdom. However, Judah was able to outlast the Northern Kingdom, which was sacked by the Assyrians c. 722 BCE, by almost a century and a half!

One of the most notable things about Jeremiah is certainly his calling. Initially, YHWH’s call to Jeremiah is inspiring and encouraging! God tells Jeremiah,

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you/ and before you were born, I consecrated you/ I appointed you a prophet to the nations.

I mean, that’s really nice, right?

Then Jeremiah responds fearfully, claiming his youthfulness as a handicap. Reminiscent of Moses, Jeremiah is also insecure of his speaking abilities. However, God affirms him again by saying,

Now I have put my words in your mouth.

Don’t you wish your mouth could be full of God’s words? Well, be careful what you wish for.

Now, Jeremiah preached in the last days of the Southern Kingdom. The first decade of the 6th century saw Babylonian siege on Jerusalem, destruction of the temple and deportations of many of the educated, important Judeans to Babylon. It was a time of horrific tragedy yet vast significance.

Jeremiah’s message, like the fate of his nation, was one of tragedy. God called Jeremiah to reveal the sins of Judah in light of Josiah’s revival. However, as if this wasn’t bad enough, God promised Jeremiah that no one would listen to him. God even commanded Jeremiah to stop praying for the people he was preaching to!

Jeremiah’s call was to spit in the wind.

His ministry was never affirmed by other people, he never won a convert, the other prophets that were popular during this period severely disliked him and he couldn’t even pray for his own people.

And yet…

Toward the end of the book of Jeremiah, a really strange thing happens. While Jeremiah is in prison (I told you, bleak), God instructs him to purchase a plot of land in Judah. Now, fiscally speaking this is downright terrible investment advice; Judah is about to be overtaken by Babylonians. In fact, John Holbert has a wonderful blog here on this land deal. But God does not tell Jeremiah to buy the land to show off his Dave Ramsey skills…

At a time when thinking about the future at all, let alone a bright one, seemed ridiculous. As Judeans have resorted to cannibalism because of hunger and the war-cries of Babylonians can be heard from in the city, Jeremiah buys a plot of land. WHY?

As a promise.

A promise of restoration. A promise of a future.

Though God’s people would have to walk through the fires of their own destruction, in a prophetic act, Jeremiah’s little plot of land is a testament to God’s holistic future in which the people of God would once again take up residence in a land of their own.