Archive for the ‘Scripture’ Category

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Apocalypse. That’s what you’re supposed to do during Advent, right? Think about the four last things, death judgment heaven and hell, and about the end of everything. The Daily Office readings for the past two weeks have encouraged this line of thought: from the Old Testament, the fierce denunciations of Amos, promising retribution to a self-indulgent society that exploits the poor for its own pleasures; from the New Testament, the letters to the seven churches that open John’s Revelations; and from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’s predictions of the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem.

The Scriptures are pretty clear and consistent in teaching that God is going to manifest his will for creation in a decisive way that involves cleaning up messes, putting things to rights, permanently dethroning those who have abused power, and getting everything the way he wants it. This decisive action, which may look pretty violent, is going to be the end of the world we know, but also the beginning of something very new. I don’t see how one can be a Christian and not take this teaching seriously.

But the doctrine of the Apocalypse, the unveiling of God’s will for creation, the end of the old broken world and the beginning of a new one, is kind of out of favor right now. On the one hand, there are large segments of the Church, particularly in American Evangelical Christianity, that are obsessed with it, to the exclusion of everything but abortion and homosexuality (which are apparently going to bring about the Apocalypse). On the other hand, I think there are large segments of the Church that are embarrassed by their brethren’s over-emphasis on the doctrine and prefer not to talk about it. Apocalypse? what’s that? That’s just something from a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode; averting the Apocalypse is what Buffy and her friends did on a weekly basis.

In his 2012 book Apocalypse Not, pagan and occultist John Michael Greer makes the case that the Apocalypse meme, as he calls it, derives from the Persian priest Zoroaster, who looked at the myths of cosmic regime change represented by the precession of the equinoxes and decided there would be a final, decisive cosmic change, in which the good god of light would prevail over the evil god of darkness and there would be no change. Greer sees the Apocalypse meme as an inherently punitive one; the believer in Apocalypse looks at the world and anticipates the day when everyone who doesn’t think, believe, feel, act like him will be punished, dramatically. He also points out that if Jesus was, as many scholars think, predicting the end of Jerusalem and the Temple in his apocalyptic prophecies, then he is in the very small group of seers whose predictions have verifiably come true.

My understanding of the Apocalypse, and of the four last things, does not require me to gloat over the torments of people who come out on the wrong side of the final battle. What has helped me lately to sort out my thinking on the end of the world is some works of fiction: The Last Battle, the final Narnia book by C.S. Lewis, and the Young Wizards series by Diane Duane.

The Last Battle is Lewis’s Narnian Apocalypse. In the previous book, The Magician’s Nephew, we saw Narnia created; now we see it destroyed. There is corruption and abuse of power; there is personal and social evil which must be resisted, even opposed with force of arms. But there is also the sense that Narnia’s time has simply run out. It was not meant to last forever. And in a sense, it will last forever as part of Aslan’s Country, the heaven into which the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve enter through their experience of Narnia. Narnia is a region in heaven just as England is, a dimension of God’s love and knowledge of creation.

Duane’s Young Wizards series comes at the issue of beginnings and endings from a partly mythic, partly scientific point of view. In Duane’s universe, the central moral issue is entropy. The universe does not contain enough energy to last forever; every action, every reaction, every transaction causes a loss of energy to the total system. Some things, however, cause a greater loss of energy than others, and thus further entropy. Cruelty, greed, indifference speed up the eventual heat-death of the universe. Kindness, compassion, helping slow it down and put it off.

Duane’s wizards are specialists in slowing down entropy by helping others. Their magic works with the actual physics of the universe and consists, to a great extent, of formal and informal persuasion, often of entities that ordinary people assume are insentient (such as locks on doors, old automobiles, and electronics made in Japan). But their work brings them into direct, often deadly conflict with the being who invented entropy in the first place, the one they call the Lone Power.  The Lone Power (who bears a remarkable resemblance to Benedict Cumberbatch in physical manifestation) is the angelic being who introduced death and entropy into the cosmos, and he continues to peddle his inventions like a sort of travelling salesman, showing up whenever a species achieves the threshold of moral choice.

The universe of the Young Wizards is one very, very like our own, with the same sort of problems, the same sort of moral choices. And it’s a universe that’s slowly running down, like a wind-up toy–and so is ours. While the job of a wizard is to put off that final decay as long as possible, there’s also a glimpse of what will happen when the universe finally dies: The One, and the Powers That Be, and the wizards who have worked with them, will make a new universe without entropy, in which death, pain, suffering, decay, and loss are no longer an integral part of the scheme.

The universe is running out of energy. Our individual lives are running out of time. I won’t live forever, you won’t live forever, and the universe won’t last forever. What happens then? The vacuum of no time, no space, no being, where once was an entropic cosmos? Or the glory which is Heaven, Timeheart, Aslan’s Country? I believe in the Apocalypse because I believe in the latter option. I believe that God will start things over with a new story.

I don’t believe, though, that the end of the world as we know it will necessarily involve God finally strong-arming the human race into believing, submitting, and accepting due punishment. I don’t think the Apocalypse will look like we expect it to any more than the first coming of the Lord looked like it was expected to. And I don’t think the God who entered into a cluster of cells in a girl’s womb, was born in poverty and obscurity, and submitted to public execution is going to turn out to be a merciless bully when the veil is pulled back and his intentions are carried out. It wiil be the end of the world as we don’t know it and never imagined it, what eye hath not seen and ear hath not heard.

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Do I choose the stories I retell, or do they choose me?

I frequently see lists of favorite books online, or of formatively important books, or of great classic books you ought to have read, so bold the ones you did read and feel ashamed for all the ones you didn’t. (Usually when that list goes around, the only classic I’ve read is The Lord of the Rings.)

I’ve listed and written about some of those favorite or formative books–In This House of Brede, The Spiral Dance–and could easily name others–LOTR, the Chronicles of Narnia, Original Blessing–but instead, I’d like to talk about stories. Irrespective of authorship, certain stories have obsessed me and nourished me over the years, and I’ve repeatedly come back to their original texts and to writers’ variations on them.

The first story I have to name is The Star Trek Story. A story I watched came before any story I heard or any story I read. To some people, Star Trek is the story of a future that will never come true, of an onward march of progress that is unrealistic and unsustainable, and of a certain kind of U.S. liberal politics writ large upon the cosmos. To me, Star Trek is the story of people who went out with seeking eyes and open hands to meet new people and new kinds of people and to bring home new knowledge about the universe. It is the story of people who are different, sometimes vastly different, learning to live together as neighbors and even as friends. If you think that Kirk breaking the speed of light and the Prime Directive equally often is all that Trek is about, I urge you to read Kendra James’ tribute to Deep Space Nine’s Captain Ben Sisko on Racialicious.

Next after The Star Trek Story comes the Mabinogion. I think that Lloyd Alexander’s five-part series of the Chronicles of Prydain was really my first exposure to the world of the Mabinogion. The Chronicles of Prydain are original fiction for children, not a retelling of any specific story, but the names, characters, themes, and atmosphere are drawn from the Four Branches, the Romances, and the “Hanes Taliesin”. There is Taran, the protagonist, an orphan boy-of-all-work and Assistant Pig Keeper of Hen Wen, the oracular white pig; great names like Gwydion, Math, Arawn, and Achren figure in his adventures. And there is Flewddur Flam, the king who would be bard, and his somewhat unreliable harp, which tends to snap a string if he embellishes a tale too much; Gurgi, a mysterious shaggy person who seems to be neither man nor beast; and the talkative princess Eilonwy, who is not as scatter-brained as she seems.

Later, I encountered Evangeline Walton’s retellings of the Four Branches: Prince of Annwn, The Children of Llyr, The Song of Rhiannon, and The Island of the Mighty. These were fantasy works for adults, occasionally slightly racy for a ten-year-old, and deeply influenced by nineteenth-century anthropology and esotericism. Walton pitted the New Tribes, patriarchal warriors epitomised by the clueless Pwyll, against the Old Tribes, matriarchal magicians who recognized the Mother as the source of all life, epitomised by the shrewd and reserved Manawyddan. Both Pwyll and Manawyddan marry the unforgettable Rhiannon, the beautiful sharp-tongued faery woman who may actually be the goddess herself.

Closely related to the Mabinogion, of course, is the Matter of Britain, the great Arthurian corpus. I’m sure I read Sidney Lanier’s adaptation, and some of Pyle’s, along with his Robin Hood (which I liked better than his Arthurian books); Rosemary Sutcliffe’s trilogy on the legends, The Sword and the Circle, The Light beyond the Forest, and The Road to Camlann, plus Song for a Dark Queen, her take on Boudicca; and then, of course, The Mists of Avalon and all of its sequels, and most recently the excellent series by Gerald Morris, The Squire’s Tales. I even devoured Meg Cabot’s Avalon High when I discovered it in Kindle format.

The D’Aulaires’ beautiful volume was my introduction to Norse mythology, closely followed by Padraic Colum’s The Children of Odin with its marvelous Art Nouveau line drawings by Willi Pogany. No one who has seen it could forget Pogany’s image of Loki, his long hair swirling out about his bitter, pointed face, eating the burnt heart of Gullveig the witch. I was about equally in love with Greek mythology, yet there is no one book that stands out in my memory; I know I read a good deal of Bulfinch as well as quite a few children’s retellings.

Unpagan as it may seem, the stories of the Bible are always going to be part of my personal canon and a source of meaning for me. The great advantage that the canonical Gospels have over all the noncanonical materials, fascinating though the latter may be, is that they are stories, stories of an interesting person who has interesting things to say. The Maeve Chronicles by Elizabeth Cunningham are to the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles what The Mists of Avalon is to Malory’s Morte D’Arthur: A retelling from the point of view of a female character that stands the whole story on its head (and shakes out its pockets and forces it to make some sense). They are also both comedic and comic, unlike the Avalon books: Hilariously funny and hell-bent on a happy ending.

The stories of the Old Testament, of the Torah and historical writings, also continue to interest me. I actually wrote a short fanfic based on Saul’s encounter with the witch of Endor, “Hearing Voices”, for an online festival of transformative works based on the Hebrew Scriptures. A few years ago The Red Tent, a novel about Jacob and the women in his life, became a best-seller. Madeleine L’Engle wrote a trilogy of books reflecting on the patriarchs of the book of Genesis, and I hear there was a miniseries based on the narratives of Saul and David, which is something I’ve always wanted to see. How a story as full of sex, violence, politics, intrigue, sex, adventure, homoerotic subtext, and did I mention SEX? as the books of Samuel and Kings could become a miniseries and get cancelled is beyond my understanding. Alas.

Finally, I must mention a series of books that debuted when I was a teenager and have remained important to me, though I have grown far older than the characters: The Young Wizards series by Diane Duane. Long before anyone had heard of that English boy whose mean relatives made him live in a cupboard under the stairs, Nita Callahan and her partner Kit Rodriguez were fighting the heat-death of the universe with heroism, courage, poetic words, and an array of unlikely-looking allies. This review will give you a good idea of the series, though it’s focused on the first book.

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Since I quoted Fred Clark’s Contemporary American Version of a story from the Gospel of Luke, I feel I should also share his comments on the New Revised Standard Version translation and what it says about some very current issues:

Let me quote the actual words of Luke 8:40-48, this time from the New Revised Standard Version:

As he went, the crowds pressed in on him.

Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians, no one could cure her. She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her hemorrhage stopped.

Then Jesus asked, “Who touched me?”

When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the crowds surround you and press in on you.”

But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me.”

When the woman saw that she could not remain hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before him, she declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed.

He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”

The Gospel of the Lord.

This is a story from the Bible about a woman.

This is a story from the Bible about a woman who could not afford health care.

This is a story from the Bible about a woman who could not afford reproductive health care.

This is a story from the Bible about a woman who broke religious rules because she could not afford reproductive health care.

This is a story from the Bible that tells us how Jesus responds to a woman who broke religious rules because she could not afford reproductive health care.

The Gospel of the Lord.

So if some Christian official, authority, scholar, author, activist, advocate, politico, pundit, pastor, priest, bishop, cardinal or pope tries to tell you that religious rules trump women’s need for reproductive health care, ask them about this story. Remind them of it.

Remind them that Jesus rather explicitly showed us otherwise.

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I want to poke some more at something I quoted a couple of days ago: Leslie Keeney’s wise and funny statement that the Bible is more like The Lord of the Rings than The Collected Sayings of Gandalf. Evangelicals, she says, have a lot of trouble with that. Having been raised Anglican and not Evangelical, I don’t have trouble with it. It’s just the way things are.

Christianity inherited a body of texts from Judaism. The two religions soon distinguished themselves from one another by what texts they considered authoritative; Protestants later distinguished themselves from Catholics by rejecting some of the texts that had been accepted as authoritative for over a thousand years. The texts that Christians call the Old Testament and Jews call the Tanakh include prose and poetry. The Psalms, the Proverbs, and much of the writings of the Prophets is poetry, along with that little erotic poem that somehow sneaked in, the Song of Songs. Ecclesiastes is a pessimistic prose reflection on the brevity of life and the futility of human endeavor. Pretty much all the rest of those texts, from Genesis through Chronicles, then the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, of Ruth and Esther and Jonah, are narrative.

They are stories.

The four Gospels of the New Testament are stories. So is the Acts of the Apostles. So is the book of Revelation, albeit a rather trippy story. The remainder of the New Testament consists of letters, many of them written by one identifiable person (that guy Paul) to identifiable communities in different locations around the Mediterranean world. While Paul probably did not write everything that has his name on it, he did write quite a few of those letters, in each one addressing a different, specific congregation of believers.

We have these stories.

The closest the Bible comes to ethical precept is Ecclesiastes and the book of Proverbs. Those two books, known as wisdom literature because their main thrust is “Do what is wise” more than “Do what is right” have much in common with the wisdom literature of Egypt, Canaan, ancient Sumer, and other cultures contemporary with ancient Israel. The closest the Bible gets to a how-to manual of behavior is the book of Leviticus, which is about ninety percent directions on ritual, ritual propriety, ritual purity, how to build a portable sanctuary in a tent and how it is to be attended, and what to do if mold or mildew appears in your home. It is full of instructions that Christians have routinely ignored at least since the debates recorded in the Acts of the Apostles: don’t wear clothes of blended wool and linen, don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk (or eat meat and dairy products together, as the laws of kosher still proscribe), don’t eat shellfish, men get circumcised, women take ritual baths after their menses.

The rest of it is stories.

I grew up with a religion of stories. The stories of Jesus and his disciples, of Paul and his journeys, of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, of Ruth and Naomi, Esther and the king, Daniel and the lions, David and Goliath. Alongside the Bible stories, there were stories of Christian writers like C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle, Dorothy Sayers. And there were stories about other gods, gods of Egypt and Greece, of the Norse and the Celts. As I read about other religions and other gods, I had no inclination to think they were evil or demonic or even untrue; they just weren’t mine. People used to worship Odin and Thor, Zeus and Apollo and Athena (I loved Athena), and now they didn’t. People in India still worshipped Shiva and Vishnu, but somehow that was okay.  It was my own tradition’s sacred stories that taught me to pay attention to all story; a story was worth paying attention to no matter where it came from.

Along with the stories came the poetry. Not just the Psalms but the hymns we sang in church were poetry (not always good poetry, but poetry). I still remember finding the Song of Songs in the Bible and poring over it furtively with exactly the same frisson I later got from my father’s badly hidden copy of Anais Nin‘s Delta of Venus; even as a precocious nine-year-old, I knew it was a poem about sex. What was it doing in the Bible? What were breasts doing in the Bible?

As a teenager I discovered not only Anais Nin’s erotica, but the poetry of John Donne, about equally obsessed with sex and with God; the Divine Comedy of Dante, about equally obsessed with God, romantic love, and politics; and Julian of Norwich, and T.S. Eliot, and a lot of other things that the poetry of the liturgy and the Bible had somehow prepared me for. If I wanted to write about God (and sex, romantic love, and creativity), I had models to follow.

Religion, for me, was never about ideas, or propositions. Even the great doctrines like Creation, Incarnation, the Trinity were not abstract concepts, but rather abstracts in the literary sense, shorthand summaries of longer descriptions, references to stories. That God created humans, gave us the divine power to name, and then actually became human and lived with us, was, and is, the most fascinating story I could imagine.

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Christianity’s authoritative document—the document that God intended us to have—looks more like The Lord of the Rings than The Collected Sayings of Gandalf. It is what it is—and what it is is a narrative.

Why Are People Afraid to Admit that the Bible Is A Story?

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Morning Psalm

1      O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you; *
my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you,
as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.

2      Therefore I have gazed upon you in your holy place, *
that I might behold your power and your glory.

3      For your loving-kindness is better than life itself; *
my lips shall give you praise.

Psalm 63

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In late Advent I returned to one of my core spiritual practices: Saying the Daily Office from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The Office of Morning and Evening Prayer involves repeated exposure to Scripture; each day there are psalms, canticles, and readings appointed, a reading from the Old Testament, another from the Gospels, and a third from the rest of the New Testament, in a two-year cycle.

This week, the first Sunday after Epiphany, the lectionary begins reading the book of Genesis, the Gospel of John, and the letter to the Hebrews. It will continue to read these books at least until the beginning of Lent. This is by no means the first time I have read these texts with the lectionary, but it’s been a few years since I opened either Hebrews or Genesis.

The book of Genesis is where it all begins, literally. The Hebrew title of the book, Berishith, literally means “beginnings”. It’s a book about the beginnings of the world as the ancient Hebrews understood it, about the beginnings of human culture in their part of the world, about the beginnings of their identity and history as a people. Right now Genesis is one of the two most contended books of the Bible, the other being Revelations. Stories of beginnings, stories of endings, how they should be interpreted, what they are meant to tell us–these are things the Christians are arguing about amongst themselves and with non-Christians, particularly scientists.

The last time I read all the way through Genesis, I noticed something interesting. It’s not just about the beginning of the world or the universe, not just about the beginning of the Jewish story–it’s about the beginning of storytelling. Through the course of the narrative, the narrator learns how to tell a story, in prose, with skill and artistry.

Genesis begins, of course, with the magnificent poem of the seven days of creation. This is the first reading at every Easter Vigil, the signal that as we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection, everything begins anew. It is a narrative, but it is distinctly a poem, with its strong parallel structures and its repetition of certain key lines: “… and God saw that it was good…. And it was evening and it was morning, a third day.”

The early chapters of Genesis of full of what a writer might call “plot holes”, those gaps in the narrative that skeptical readers love to exploit: If Adam and Eve are the first humans and they have three children, Cain, Abel, and later Seth, then who does Cain marry? How long did the flood last, and did Noah take two of every animal, or seven of the “clean” animals and two of the “unclean”? Did he send out a raven or a dove or both? Scholars explain this as the result of multiple versions of a story being combined (clumsily) into a single tale.

The narrative hits its stride with the introduction of Abraham. The peripatetic Abraham, his wife Sarah, his kinsman Lot, and their children and dependents will occupy the rest of the book, culminating in the saga of Joseph. By the time Jacob’s other sons, desperate and hungry, meet the Egyptian official who is, unbeknownst to them, the brother they tried to get rid of decades ago, the narrator has achieved mastery of his art. He’s able to portray Joseph thinking one thing while saying another, using the Egyptian language in front of his brothers and employing an interpreter without giving away that he understands what they’re saying, and playing on the advantage that he recognizes them, but they don’t recognize him. All the techniques of storytelling are in place, and the story of Joseph might just be the most sophisticated storytelling in the Tanakh.

After I had formed this theory, that Genesis is as much about the beginning of storytelling as about the beginning of the world and of the Jewish people, I read a book about Genesis that confirmed my theory, since it was a scholarly author, an expert on the book of Genesis, saying the same thing. My memory tells me that this book was called The Genesis of Narrative and was by Robert Alter; however, neither my library’s catalogue nor Amazon.com can confirm for me that Robert Alter ever wrote such a book. He is the author of The Art of Biblical Narrative and of a translation of Genesis with commentary, but I’m not certain that either of them is the book I read. (I work in a library; I read or skim a lot of books that I don’t afterward buy.)

Some years later, I read John Michael Greer’s The Druidry Handbook, which was written as first-degree study material for the Ancient Order of Druids in America. Greer covers a good deal of material which came out of the Druid Revival of the eighteenth century and makes it accessible and meaningful, demonstrating that it’s not just an elaborate forgery with a lot of Welsh names thrown in. He begins his exposition of Druid lore, appropriately, with a creation story:

Einigen the Giant, the first of all beings, beheld three rays of light descending from the heavens. Those three rays were also a word of three syllables, the true name of the god Celi, the hidden spirit of life that creates all things. In them was all the knowledge that ever was or is or will be. Beholding the rays, Einigen took three staves of rowan and carved all knowledge upon them, in letters of straight and slanted lines. But when others saw the staves, they misunderstood and worshipped the staves as gods, rather than learning the knowledge written upon them. So great was Einigen’s grief and anger at this that he burst asunder and died. When a year and a day had passed after Einigen’s death, Menw son of Teirwaedd happened on the skull of Einigen, and saw that the three rowan staves had taken root inside it and were growing out of its mouth. Taking the staves, Menw learned to read the writing on them and became famous for his wisdom. From him, the lore of the rowan staves passed to the Gwyddoniaid—the ancient loremasters of the Celts—and ultimately from them to the Druids. Thus the knowledge that had once shone forth in three great rays of light, passed through many minds and hands, now forms the wisdom of the Druid tradition.

(Greer, John Michael (2006-02-20). The Druidry Handbook: Spiritual Practice Rooted in the Living Earth, pp. 50-51. RedWheelWeiser – A. Kindle Edition.)

Greer refers to this story, rightly, as “the origin myth of the Druid Revival”. That is, it’s not so much about the beginning of the world as about the beginning of a movement, of how a group of people who came to identify with (what they knew about) the ancient Druids began to look to nature for meaning and to interpret that meaning in story and poem. As I see it, it’s also a story about the origins of the creative process. Einigen sees a light which is also a word, something to be heard and said. He records his experience in an act of art and craft, the carving of newly invented letters on pieces of wood. The words he carved on wood emerge from his mouth as green shoots, new words that are seen and understood by Menw. Those who saw the letters and worshipped them without trying to understand them missed the point; the point was the transmission of meaning from rays of light to letters on wood to mind and mouth, through the creative process.

I think the creation story in Genesis is also a story about the origins of creativity. And like the Druid Revival, which was after all created by men who had been formed by Christianity and the Bible’s stories, the book of Genesis locates the origins of meaning, of creativity, and of story in words. Just as God creates everything by speaking it, naming it, telling a story about it, so the Jewish tradition, and the Christian tradition that inherited its stories, creates meaning by telling a story. The Talmud is the record of generations of argument, discussion, and debate of those stories, an Internet forum before there was an Internet. Jewish tradition also gives us midrash, stories about the stories of the Scriptures; one story can best be commented on by another.

The lector reading or the cantor intoning the Scriptures, the old guy talking about his youth, your grandmother’s stories of when your mother was little, and we bloggers pouring our words into this digital Talmud–we create and recreate the world.

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