Monday, December 16, 2013

Reading the Apocrypha

Part of a series on Reading the Whole Bible
Orthodox priest studying his Bible, which contains the Apocrypha
So take to the streets with your apocalypse strain,
Your devotion has the look of a lunatic's gaze.
—"Apocalypse Song," St. Vincent

 A couple months ago I finished the Hebrew Bible and started work on the Apocrypha, a group of books that form the middle section of my NRSV Bible. The books in this section weigh in at a relatively svelte 350 pages or so in my Bible, compared to the great and honking mass that is the Hebrew Bible at 1300 pages.

The Apocrypha are not a separate section in Catholic or Orthodox Bibles; you will find the books that are gathered under that name in my NRSV scattered throughout a Catholic or Orthodox volume. And a typical Protestant Bible will exclude them altogether: as a Protestant myself, no Bible I ever saw in church growing up had these books, and it wasn't until my parents thoughtfully gave me a New Interpreter's Study Bible* for my college graduation present (yes, I was then and am still a Bible nerd) that I finally came to own a Bible that included them. To understand why this is so, we need to dig into a little history.

A Short History of the Apocrypha:

In the three centuries before Jesus' life on earth, the Jews lived not only in their homeland of Palestine but also in communities scattered around the ancient Near East, especially in Alexandria, Egypt. They were a part of the first Jewish diaspora into the larger ancient world. The language of their daily lives ceased to be Hebrew, in favor of the Greek that their neighbors spoke. (This was especially true of Jews living outside of Palestine. In Palestine, on the other hand, many Jews, including Jesus, came to speak Aramaic as their primary language.**)

The Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek for the benefit of this diaspora community. (The most popular ancient Greek translation was called the Septuagint, though there were others.) Meanwhile, religious books were still being composed by Jews in these last three centuries BCE; they were sometimes composed in Hebrew, sometimes in Greek, but were usually translated and circulated in Greek if they hadn't been written in it, and most copies of the book in existence at any given time would have been in Greek. The most popular of these books took on as much significance as the older books of the Hebrew Bible for many ancient Jews, and the distinction between these newer books and their older counterparts might not have been as clear as one might think. To quote my Bible's notes on the subject, "For a Greek-speaking Jew living in Egypt, it would have been far from clear that (for example) Proverbs, which he or she would know in its Greek version, was Holy Scripture, whereas the (rather similar) Wisdom of Solomon, which was originally composed in Greek, was not" (Access Bible, pg. 32).

This means that, in Jesus' day, there was a sort of unofficial Jewish canon of scripture that included both the older books that we now know as the Hebrew Bible, and some newer books either written Greek in or primarily known in their Greek translations. When Christianity formed, it inherited this larger canon of Jewish scripture. Later, as modern Judaism began to form under the rabbis who led the Jewish community after the destruction of the Temple, Jews began to consider only the books in Hebrew as canonical.

So, somewhat ironically, Christians ended up preserving quite a number of ancient Jewish writings that would likely have been lost otherwise. There was some dissent about these books among Christians in ancient times, who noticed that the Jews had a smaller canon that only included the older Hebrew works, but for the most part, other Christians paid little attention to this dissent. But all this doesn't quite explain how I, a Protestant, ended up never getting around to reading the Apocrypha until this year. For that, we need to jump forward to the Reformation.

Depiction of St. Jerome, ancient translator who objected to the Apocrypha

In the sixteenth century, a number of religious thinkers and leaders called for changes in the Roman Catholic Church, were denounced and expelled as heretics, and ended up forming their own church movements as a result. This period is called the Protestant Reformation (which has always struck me as slightly odd, since the people who protested and left the Catholic Church did not really succeed in reforming it, though the Catholics eventually got around to making some of the changes the Protestant Reformers suggested anyway, in a movement amusingly titled the Counter-Reformation). One of the most important ideas of the Reformation was something called sola scriptura, which is a doctrine that the Bible contains everything you need to know in order to be saved from sin and hell, and therefore that only ideas that are directly stated in the Bible (or that can be logically derived from statements in the Bible) should be considered doctrines of the church.

In enunciating the rallying cry of sola scriptura, the Reformers began to examine the contents and extent of said scriptura in more detail than was common at the time. They ended up agreeing with the earlier Christian thinkers who had wanted to remove the books from the canon. While early Protestant translations of the Bible, including the still-widely-loved King James Version, kept the books as a separate section between the Old and New Testaments, the Apocrypha quickly fell out of favor (from what I can tell, many Protestants considered them "too Catholic," but I can also see how it might be annoying and weird to have some books in your Bible that aren't, you know, scripture), and most Protestant Bibles that are produced today, KJVs included, do not include the Apocrypha. Protestants working on new translations have generally not even bothered to translate them.

Title page from a Counter-Reformation Bible

Thankfully, the good folks who created the (somewhat redundant-sounding) New Revised Standard Version did bother to translate the Apocryphal books, and they are included in both of the NRSV volumes that I own. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, most NRSVs used by Protestant churches do not include the Apocrypha. There's also a Catholic NRSV edition that includes the books in the order they appear in in Catholic Bibles.) The NRSV Apocrypha section includes not only the books that appear in Catholic Bibles, but also some that appear only in Orthodox Bibles.

Reading the Apocrypha:

As I've remarked before, I have way more love for Biblical narrative than for other Biblical genres; I'm especially bad at enjoying or understanding Biblical poetry, at least at any length. Unfortunately for me, two of the longest books in the Apocrypha, the Wisdom of Solomon and the book of Sirach, are books of poetry. Wisdom was pretty good; it's the shorter of the two, and I enjoyed its message of the importance of pursuing goodness and righteousness, even in the face of opposition. Sirach was a doozy though; not only is it the longest Apocryphal book by far (51 chapters and 87 pages in my Bible, while no other book in the section gets much beyond 50 pages), it's also not very fun or interesting, and it's littered with the most entrenched patriarchy/misogyny I've seen pretty much anywhere in the Bible, which is not the most forward-thinking, when it comes to gender, on a good day. Take this gem, Sirach 42:12: Better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good; it is woman who brings shame and disgrace. "The severity of this statement," my Bible commentary notes, "is unparalleled in Biblical literature." Blerg.

Much of the other material in this section is a lot better than this, though, and in fact one book, Judith, is practically a proto-feminist text. The main character of this short novel is Judith, a strong, independent widow who saves her town from an invading army by tricking her way into the general's quarters and beheading him. I love its positive vision of service to God and people, although I suppose its violent resolution is not necessarily my favorite thing in the world. It's quite well written, however, doing a great job of building suspense and creating a sense of danger for the heroine before she completes her grisly mission.

And boy, is it grisly

I once read somewhere that ancient authors thought it was important to avoid creating suspense because it distracted the audience from the point of the story. If this is true, then whoever wrote the book of Tobit must have subscribed to this ancient literary theory. Tobit is a really fun, edifying, and satisfying story, but the funniest moment in it for me is when, about three chapters in, the author steps aside from narrating the story itself to assure the reader that everything is going to turn out okay for the main characters. (Second funniest moment: Tobit 6:3, which says, "Suddenly a large fish leaped up from the water and tried to swallow the young man’s foot, and he cried out." Hee hee.) The book is the story of a man, Tobit, and his son, Tobias. Tobit is a pretty cool guy, but early in the story becomes blind and impoverished, and God sends an angel to help Tobias on a journey to retrieve some money for his dad. Along the way, Tobias saves a woman from a demon that's been keeping her from getting married, and then marries her (the woman, not the demon). The book places a weirdly strong emphasis on the importance of properly burying the dead, and I found it mildly unsettling that the angel in the story feels the need to repeatedly lie to conceal the fact that he's an angel, but these are both things that actually added to the fun for me in discovering this new book. 

Other fun stuff in the Apocrypha included the various books called "Maccabees;" 1 and 2 Maccabees, for example, are actually two different authors' perspectives on the same period in history. I have next to no exposure to said time period, the era when the Jews rebelled against their Greek overlords and set up an independent state of Israel (which lasted for over a century, until it was conquered and incorporated as a Roman province; sigh). "Maccabees" is the nickname for the family that led this rebellion, and of one member, Judas Maccabeus (or "Judah Maccabee"), in particular; the nickname probably has something to do with the Aramaic word for "hammer," though apparently there are other theories.

Judah Maccabee leading his army

Amusingly, neither 3 Maccabees nor 4 Maccabees has anyone from Judah Maccabee's family in it, though they both involve roughly the same period in Jewish history as 1 and 2 Maccabees. 3 Maccabees is delightful mostly for the deliciously weird irony of its premise. At the start of the book, the king of Egypt, Ptolemy, is saved from death by a Jew. To show his gratitude, the king offers a sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem; once there, however, he is enraged to discover that he is absolutely forbidden to enter the Holy of Holies, where even the high priest is allowed only once a year, and so the king resolves to kill all the Jews in Egypt out of spite. Much hilarity ensues, including several (failed) attempts to trample the Jews to death with elephants, and the king ends up blaming the idea for the whole episode on his advisers when he finally repents in the face of an angelic intervention. 4 Maccabees is a philosophical treatise that sets out to prove that reason can govern the emotions, but it is taken up in very large part with an unnecessarily detailed account of King Antiochus torturing seven Jewish brothers and their mother to death (an event which 2 Maccabees records with slightly more decorum as part of a general campaign by the King Antiochus to snuff out the Jewish way of life, which eventually led to the Maccabean revolt). Neither 3 nor 4 Maccabees can be found in Catholic Bibles, and 4 Maccabees is scarcely in any Orthodox ones either, but I was certainly happy the NRSV translators included them, especially 3 Maccabees, which is a riot.

Several books of the Hebrew Bible appeared in expanded form when translated into Greek; these Greek additions are listed among the Apocrypha, but are mostly too short to give much attention to on their own, though one addition to Daniel, Bel and the Dragon, is kind of cool because it has a dragon. The Letter of Jeremiah is an addition to the Hebrew Bible book of Jeremiah, and it's pretty much dedicated entirely to the questionable Biblical argument that idols should not be worshiped because they are man-made. This made it a lovely example when I needed to wrap up a post about idolatry a few weeks ago.

My favorite book in the Apocrypha was 2 Esdras, which only appears in the Slavonic Bible (one of the Bibles of the Orthodox churches), and Jerome's Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate (where it appears as an appendix). The Wikipedia entry on 2 Esdras calls it "one of the gems of Jewish apocalyptic literature," which I think sums it up rather nicely. The book is a collection of several authors' viewpoints on the chaotic and troubling goings-on of the early centuries CE, but my favorite is the middle section, which depicts a dialog between the main character, Ezra, and the angel Uriel, who God sends to comfort Ezra in his distress and answer his questions about the end of the world and the life to come. In particular, I identify with Ezra's questions about the nature of the afterlife, especially his outraged inquiry, repeated throughout the book: why is it that most people who live will not go to heaven, but will suffer in the afterlife? Ezra several times rejects the angel Uriel's too-pat answers to this very important question, and while Ezra eventually comes round to Uriel's way of thinking, a number of unanswered questions remain, which is how I like my Biblical books. 2 Esdras reminds me of nothing else in the Bible so much as Abraham's argument with God, in which he attempts to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of the few righteous people who live there. This argument between God and Abraham is one of the pivotal moments in the book of Genesis and in Jewish thought on the nature of God, and 2 Esdras expands on it and plays with it and many other Biblical scenes and tropes, to good effect. I'm glad I have a Bible with this book in it, and the others I've talked about; I hope to revisit them again sometime soon.

*The NISB is a great book, and I've been using it to supplement my reading, especially when I'm reading at home in the evenings. It's not very portable, though; thankfully, as I mention briefly in the first post in this series, my father was kind enough to get me a copy of the more obscure but quite good Access Bible, which has provided enough commentary to keep me engaged and make sure I'm understanding what's going on in some of the more obscure places. It has significantly less commentary than the NISB, though, and it's a paperback to boot, so I can take it with me from place to place without totally hulking out and frightening passersby with my unbridled physical prowess.
**Aramaic is a language related to Hebrew; it was the language of the Babylonians, who destroyed the ancient nation of Judah and carried many Jews into exile in Babylon. This is roughly how it replaced Hebrew for the Jews in Palestine: not only would the Jews in exile have used Aramaic in their daily lives, and would have brought it with them when they returned to their ancestral home a generation later, but also the people who stayed behind in Palestine became part of the Babylonian Empire, an Aramaic-speaking empire, and would have needed Aramaic for administrative and other purposes.
†These included St. Jerome, who learned enough Hebrew from his Jewish friends to translate the Bible into Latin (in what became known as the Vulgate, which is still in use by the Catholic Church). In doing so, he found out that they had a smaller canon and objected to the inclusion of the books that the Jews had not included in their Bibles into his Old Testament, even going so far as to get into a debate with St. Augustine on the subject. He ended up translating them in spite of his objections.
‡The Reformers had varying views of the works in the Apocrypha; Luther thought that, though they were not to be considered scripture, the Apocryphal books were still good and valuable, and he said wanted them to be read and taught by Christians. Calvin had a much more pessimistic view, though even he was not entirely consistent on the matter. From what I can tell, the Anabaptist Reformers generally thought of these books quite positively and may even have thought of them as authoritative scripture, though like other Protestant movements, modern Anabaptist churches have generally excluded them from their Bibles.

Photo sources:,_Tek_Teklay,_Ethiopia_%288070187014%29.jpg,_the_elder_-_Saint_Jerome_in_His_Study_-_Walters_37256.jpg

Monday, December 9, 2013

In Defense of Boring Movies: The Dark Crystal "Director's Cut"

Part of a series of essays In Defense of Boring Movies.

(Turn and face the strange)
Don't want to be a richer man
(Turn and face the strange)
Just gonna have to be a different man
Time may change me
But I can't trace time

—"Changes," David Bowie

(Note: I've embedded the film being discussed here at the bottom of the post, so skip down if you want to get straight to the action!)

Something exciting happened to fans of Jim Henson's 1982 cult classic The Dark Crystal over the weekend: they got to see what it could have been.

The Dark Crystal is a weird film, but it was especially weird for moviegoers of 1982, who were mostly familiar with Henson's work on lighter, all-ages entertainment like The Muppet Show and Sesame Street, and were not necessarily prepared for an unsettling journey through an alien fantasy land full of monsters, danger, and death. Which is what they got when they sat down to see The Dark Crystal.

Test audiences for the film found it confusing and alienating. For these reasons, they did not like it very much. As a result, the final version of the film was changed significantly; to decrease audience confusion, voiceover narration and internal monologues were added—explaning background information and character motivations, respectively—and to decrease audience alienation, scenes where characters spoke in invented languages were dubbed over with English. The result is something even a child can understand, though whether they can enjoy it depends on their level of tolerance for the weird:

Original costume from The Dark Crystal

Much like another 1982 film, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, such changes significantly altered the film's overall feel and enjoyability, and a passionate fan base developed around both films because of their dark, weird, creative vision. Unlike Blade Runner, no version of The Dark Crystal as it was originally conceived has been made widely available to fans. Until now. 

You can read about it in more detail in the notes below, but this version consists mostly of restored audio from a VHS workprint of the film, synced with video from the DVD version, with scenes rearranged to match the order they appear in in the workprint, and with occasional VHS video from the workprint where no DVD version of the scenes exist. In short, it's the closest thing we currently have to a watchable "director's cut" cut of The Dark Crystal. And it's great.

This post is part of series of posts on "boring" movies, which I've defined up till now as movies that pose deep questions about life and then step back and give the viewer a headspace to examine these questions. This definition is a little too narrow to include The Dark Crystal, however; as far as I can tell, there are no deep questions on display in the film, and there's a little too much action for much of the movie to be considered "headspace." This cut of The Dark Crystal is a boring movie in a broader sense: it's boring because it requires significant energy to watch. This is actually a trait of many bad movies: if a movie is badly paced or confusingly cut, it can require extra energy that the audience should not have to spend in order to understand what is going on.

But if a movie deliberately sets out to challenge an audience, forcing viewers to make key connections and guess at backstory and character motivations, the result can be a much more entertaining and rewarding experience than that offered by a movie that spells everything out. In other words, movies that are willing to risk boring their viewers are often better for it. The Dark Crystal, like other movies in this series, is proof of this principle.

This cut of The Dark Crystal opens with a pair of unexplained deaths and the main character beginning a quest; he understands niether the goal of the quest nor how to accomplish it. Viewers are given no information that the characters do not have, and indeed less, as we have no idea who any of the characters we're meeting are, and information about them will only be delivered, piecemeal, later in the film. Engaged viewers will put in the energy needed to wonder about the missing information and look for it to appear later in the film, and they'll feel rewarded for their investment when they start to learn about what's kept mysterious earlier in the movie. The Dark Crystal's key enticement to convince the viewer to invest their energy this way is in its intensely imaginative and beautiful visual world, which is on display from the start and never really lets up. Check out, for exampe, this gorgeously imagined otherworldly swamp:

This cut of the movie is not without problems. The audio has been cleaned up from what was apparently a nearly unlistenable state, but it is still a VHS-quality sound, which can sometimes be jarring when paired with the crisp DVD-quality visuals, and which occasionally produces unintelligible dialog. The editor also had a few issues syncing audio and video, which results in a couple moments where the two do not quite match up. Also, some of the video is from the VHS workprint, and is of a much lower quality than the rest of the film. In this clip, you can hear some of the warbly VHS audio that the film occasionally features, and you can see some of the VHS-quality video that was salvaged from the workprint (in this case, in black and white, though some other VHS scenes are in color), providing a more complete transition between two scenes than is present in the final cut:

Lastly, one way in which this cut resembles neither the original vision of the film nor the final one is that it has long segments of untranslated dialog. The original idea was that one group of characters, the Skeksis, would speak in an invented language that would then be subtitled; this invented language appears in the director's cut, but there are no subtitles for it and the audience must guess from context what is being said. In this way, this cut feels more like another film in the In Defense of Boring Movies series, Dead Man, in which there are extended segments of untranslated Native American language dialog. (This comparison is moot if you happen to speak Cree or Blackfoot. Or Skeksis, for that matter.) While we were watching the part of the film in the clip below, I told my roommate that there was intentionally no translation or English dialog, and he said "Good, because I felt like I was going insane."

It would be nice to see an edition that both reflects the original vision of Jim Henson and that doesn't feel like a bootleg. But what we have here is still in many ways superior to the offical cut of the movie; it is a version that challenges viewers in a number of ways and more fully rewards the decision to sit down and watch The Dark Crystal. I think it's definitely worth a look, and not just for people who are already fans.

Link to an interview with the editor of this cut

Other notes from the editor:

Early versions of The Dark Crystal were a bit different than the version we see today. Jim Henson and Frank Oz originally sought to create a much darker story that relied more on the audience and less on voice-overs and inner monologues explaining the plot. In this version there's no narrator, Jen's inner monologues are gone, and the Skeksis hardly ever say anything in English (Aughra speaks some Skeksis too!). This version is much more modern and a little darker with this original audio and the slightly different score. Some of the scenes are moved around too, which adds to the surreal feel of the original film. Some test audiences were more casual moviegoers and responded negatively to this version so the Henson team redubbed the ENTIRE film to help explain the plot to the audience up front and make things more obvious.

Sadly this beautiful version was mostly lost with a few rough-looking (yet still redubbed at times) scenes making it to the DVD and Blu-Ray versions. Demonoid user Aikousha saw this early test version when he was a kid and took it upon himself to track down this little bit of film history. What he found was a very nasty black and white "workprint" copy (used by the Dark Crystal production team) on a VHS tape that was very grainy and was almost unlistenable due to tape compression and SEVERE hiss and noise. But the important thing was that it was a mostly intact version of the beautiful vision of Jim Henson, Brian Froud, and Frank Oz. The Dark Crystal, as originally intended!

Workprints are used by the production crew and this one has all the trappings of one. Grease marks on the film, rough cuts, tape slowdown, and unfinished special effects among other things. Now, this workprint is still out floating around on the internet but it's really painful to watch and the sound is atrocious so I took it upon myself to clean up the audio, sync it to a clean treatment of the video, include some scenes that were unavailable anywhere else, and recut a watchable version that played out like the workprint.

Disclaimer: It's still a little rough. My computer had lots of slowdown since I was syncing to a HQ vid and some of the missteps in editing weren't noticeable until the 5 hour render was complete! They're minor and not frequent so it might only take you out of the moment briefly.

Black and white scenes were included from the workprint occasionally since they're not available elsewhere. They include: A matte painting of landscape in front of Skeksis castle that pans down to the 'lost' Jen swimming scene, an extended clip of 'Trial By Stone', an extended scene in Aughra's home, with a little extra at the end.

Deleted funeral scenes from the DVD are restored to their proper place.

There is also some beautiful alternate music composed by Vangelis here and there

Credit goes to Demonoid user Aikousha for finding the workprint and making it available. All reassembly was done by me scoodidabop (aka Christopher Orgeron/Creedo). If anyone wishes to attempt restoring the black and white scenes I'll gladly include them in a new edit of the film. For the record I attempted to contact the Henson company earlier this year when I had about half of the edit complete to ask about sharing this on youtube but they never responded to my inquiry. Also, I just found out today (Dec 2nd) that someone else attempted this same idea and called it "The Darker Crystal" and released it in September. This is NOT his version. I haven't seen his version but I'm sure mine is similar to his.

I began working on this over 2 years ago and finally finished it last week. Lots of work but it was worth it.


Monday, December 2, 2013

Scattered Thoughts on Advent

It's Advent, the second coolest time on the church calendar. Here are some things about it.

~  ~  ~

Advent Wreath

 As a child, Advent was mostly fine but also slightly irritating, because it was mainly celebrated by lighting Advent candles during the church service each Sunday. As a pastors' child, I was inevitably roped into this task at least once per Advent. I found this to be pretty embarrassing, though I can no longer articulate exactly why, since I was generally happy to participate in and help out with the service in other ways. 

The other major source of Advent embarrassment during my childhood was Christmas kettles. My parents are ministers for the Salvation Army, which meant that Advent was also Kettle Season, and our family was charged with filling in any gaps in the volunteer bell-ringing schedule, especially right at the end when people were busy doing their important Christmas Eve things. At such times, I was given a bell and told to smile and say happy holidays, but doing these things was nearly unbearable to me as a thoroughly introverted and quiet child. Once, as a teenager, I rang a bell at a kettle by myself, and was discovered by some high school friends on their way into the Walmart I was in front of, much to their amusement and my chagrin. 

As an adult, I have come to love these things. Advent candles are a nice ceremony that helps keep a sense of continuity among the various services I see as I travel around the country during the season; most churches I've been to during Advent have some version of the candle lighting. Kettles, meanwhile, became a lot more fun once I grew up enough to play Christmas carols on my tuba at the kettle, which I love.

Me & Tuba

 ~  ~  ~

Every year, my church puts out an Advent devotional, which has a short thought for each day of the season, with suggested Bible readings for each day. The devotional at my church is composed by members of the church, with a different person volunteering to write something each day. This year, I got to participate. Below is my entry:
12/14 - St. John of the Cross
Psalm 146:5-10
1 Samuel 2:1-8
Luke 3:1-18

In Luke 3, John the Baptist is preparing people for the arrival of the Christ, just as the Church prepares for Christ’s arrival during the season of Advent. John quotes Isaiah’s command to prepare a way for the Lord’s return to Jerusalem. In doing so, he draws on Isaiah’s message of hope for an end to exile and disempowerment and despair, which was still very pertinent in his day. As it is in our own.

How can we prepare for the Christ? “What should we do?” ask John’s listeners in Luke. He tells them: Share with those in need. Take no more than you ought. Treat others with respect. John suggests that his listeners prepare themselves and their world for the coming of the Christ through acts of justice. May the Church take his words to heart in our own time.
~  ~  ~

Growing up in the Salvation Army, Advent was the time Christmas carols were sung in church. So when, during my college years, I was invited to play my guitar for the Advent hymn sing at a Lutheran church, I brought some printouts of Christmas carols with the appropriate chords to strum. When we sat down to sing, people started to request songs that I'd never heard of before. I looked them up in the hymnal and tried to piece together what I should play on the fly from looking at the four-part harmonies under the words, a challenging task for a mediocre guitar player. 

Lutheran Rose

"Why don't we sing some of these songs I've prepared?" I asked, motioning towards my printouts. "Oh, no, those are Christmas carols. You can't sing those at Advent, because it's the season of preparation for Jesus to come. These are all songs about Jesus already being here!" This was my first introduction to the liturgical intricacies that are engrained in Lutheranism and other churches. Thankfully, the Lutherans put up graciously with my less-than-robust gutarmanship, and I learned some lovely new hymns as a result. 

Photo sources:
Photo 2: Me

Monday, November 25, 2013

Memory Is Weird

 My mind has a mind of its own.
—"The Future, Wouldn't That Be Nice?" The Books  

I've never known anyone else who does this—no one who's admitted to it, anyway: occasionally, I'll be walking down the street, just people-watching on my way to wherever, and I'll catch sight of a particularly interesting face, and think to myself, "Wow, no matter how hard I try, sometime very soon, I am not going to be able to remember that person's face. It's weird that I have so little control over that."

Sometimes, I try anyway.

On these occasions, I spend the rest of my walk doing everything I can to commit the face to memory: re-running over and over in my head the shape of the jaw, the line of the nose, the color of the hair or the lack of hair, the placement of the eyes, the presence and physicality and nuance of the face as a whole. It never works. I can recall having done this dozens of times without being able to remember a single face, the way a father might remember having attended numerous middle school band performances without any idea what his kids played on a given night (though with a dead certainty that he's heard "Hot Cross Buns" enough for several lifetimes).

I find memory upsetting because of how little control I have over it. I don't get to choose what I remember and what I don't. There are other examples. If I try and reach back into my memories of childhood, I find that, rather than the important events of my life—the things I'd choose to remember if I could—the most accessible memories are of silly, piddly things without consequence: the time my sister told me she'd dreamt about Barney the Dinosaur spitting on plants to make them grow, me telling my mom that boogers tasted great, and so forth. Memory seems to choose at random what to keep and what to lose, like an underpaid secretary tossing out files willy-nilly to make room for new documents. I end up losing mental images of old friends and retaining addresses for houses I've long since moved out of.

My fiancée likens memory to an iceberg covered in penguins. Whenever you learn something new, you get a new penguin. Eventually the iceberg is full of penguins. For every new penguin after that, one of the penguins already on the iceberg has to jump off. And you don't get to choose which penguin that is.

But neither of these metaphors actually captures very well what memory really is, and what makes it truly unsettling. A memory, it turns out, is not a stable thing. It's not a file that you reach into the filing cabinet to pull out. It's not a penguin that you can tap on the shoulder that will squawk back at you what you once knew.

No, a memory is more like an old story, a folk tale, or a joke: each time you go back and think of it again, you recreate, or re-imagine, the memory. When you remember something, you are in essence retelling the story of that memory, and just like a folk story or a joke, memories change in the retelling.

In the first segment of this podcast episode on memory and forgetting, there's an example of this that bears repeating:
The act of remembering is an act of creation...Every time you remember something, you're changing the memory a little bit...You think you remember something that took place 30 years ago. Actually what you're remembering is that memory reinterpreted in the light of today, in the light of now. The more you remember something, the less accurate it becomes...
Imagine a couple in love and it's their first kiss. He kisses her, and she kisses him. She remembers the kiss, of course, and he remembers the kiss. As they go through the rest of the romance and the next 36 years together, the kiss will essentially become replaced by two independently re-embroidered and increasingly dishonest kisses. Assuming they think about the kiss enough, that's what [this] implies...
Let's do it a different way. Let's suppose "Bob" and "Joan" kiss, and then they part...and they never think about it again...30 years later, Bob is in a railroad station, Joan comes out of the train, their eyes meet. Bob sees Joan, sees her eyes, and remembers, suddenly, that kiss. That memory is more honest than if he'd been thinking about the kiss every day of his life since. ("Memory and Forgetting," 17:30-20:00, emphasis added)
~  ~  ~
I really enjoyed college; it was full of fun experiences and activities and friends and outings. But when I was done, I was disturbed by how little I really remembered about it all. Knowing how hard it was to remember the details of my life, both the sublime and the mundane, with any certainty, I began journaling. My journals weren't about recording profound thoughts or cataloguing adventures for future retelling. They weren't even for cathartic or therapeutic purposes. My journals were nothing less than an attempt to stem the flow of memories constantly streaming out of my brain, to stuff them back in, or at least have a place to find them if I really wanted them. They were, if you will, extra icebergs for my memory penguins to stand on.

I wrote in Moleskines because I thought it was classy.

But writing in a journal doesn't make memory any more like penguins than anything else could. Even if I went back and read through my journals (I never do), I would still have to go through the process of re-creating, re-imagining the events in order to remember them, and in the process create a memory that is in some sense a fiction.

Having realized this, I've lost most of my drive for journaling. And that's okay, I think. I'm starting to come to terms with how different memory is from what I once assumed it was. I think it's okay that memory is a creative process. The fact that we are essentially making our memories up as best we can reflects the weird, unsettling, but ultimately beautiful fact that we're really making up our whole lives as we go, endlessly inventing and reinventing our stories, our understandings, even our very selves, on the fly.

Photo sources:
Photo 1:
Photo 2:
Photo 3: Me

Monday, November 18, 2013

1 & 2 Samuel: The Hebrew Bible's Best Novel

David's Grief over Absalom, Illustration from a Bible Card

And I should have known that my son so bold,
He'd bear my sword, he'd take my sword,
He'd take my sword to his grave.

—"Absalom," Families

Yesterday, my fiancée and I were asked to present our favorite scriptures to a Sunday school class we were participating in. After a little thought, she had come up with several lovely bits from the book of Matthew, things like "can any of you by worrying add a single hour to his life?" and "ask and it shall be given to you." I, meanwhile, was having much more trouble thinking of something to present. Not because I don't have favorite scriptures, but because I tend to think of them in terms of whole books, rather than individual verses from those books.

For the purposes of the Sunday school lesson, this was about as helpful as being asked my favorite movie quote and responding by acting out the entirety of Children of Men. I at least knew what my favorite book of the Bible was, though, so I had a decent starting place to start thinking on the question.

1 and 2 Samuel is my favorite book in the Bible. (In Bibles today, it's divided up into two books, 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel, but that's because when it was translated from Hebrew to Greek in ancient times, the Greek text was too long to fit on a single scroll, so it was split up into two scrolls. It's all one book, though!*) Broadly speaking, it's the story of how the ancient people of Israel went from being a hodgepodge of tribes with local rulers, often oppressed and attacked by neighboring tribes and peoples, to a unified nation under a single ruler, strong enough to defend itself adequately and play a role on the world stage of its era. But really, 1 and 2 Samuel is the story of one man: King David.

Samuel is interesting for a lot of reasons, but to me, it's the story of the ruthless rise to power and gradual aging and decline of King David that's the most fascinating. (There are other people's stories in it, including the story of the prophet Samuel, who the book is named for. These stories serve as a sort of lead-in to the main narrative about David.) Not just the story, though: while the plot of 1 and 2 Samuel is quite intriguing, it's the way the author** uses the literary tools at his disposal to portray that story that's truly compelling. Not only does the author present the history of David's life in a compelling way, he also uses the story to grapple with and explore big questions and problems in the human condition, on topics as diverse as aging, death, necessary evils, fame, political machinations, lust, avarice, treachery, murder, and, uh, hemorrhoids.

David and Goliath (Caravaggio) maybe the most famous image of David where he's not naked

Take this for an example: one of the basic tools the authors of the Hebrew Bible used to quickly define their characters was to make the first words a character says a key to understanding him or her. In 1 Samuel, David's first line of dialog takes place during the story of Goliath, a giant Philistine who has challenged the Israelite army to send a champion to fight him, and insulted them and their God when they do not immediately send someone. When David hears Goliath's challenge, he speaks for the first time:
"What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine, and takes away the reproach from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?" (1 Samuel 17:26, NRSV)
The first thing David ever says in 1 and 2 Samuel (1) looks very pointedly for (political) gain—the answer to "What shall be done for the man...?" turns out to be "You get to marry the king's daughter!"—and (2) either balances out or, more likely, covers up this grab for personal profit with some pious, patriotic rhetoric. This ends up being key to the author's portrayal of David, a character who uses whatever means necessary to gain and consolidate political power, and then either makes up for it or covers it up (depending on how charitable you want to be as a reader) with expressions of piety and political necessity.

Combat between Soldiers of Ish-Bosheth and David (Gustave Doré)

I'd like to take an aside to defend the use of the word "novel" to describe1 and 2 Samuel. The author of 1 and 2 Samuel has a clear interest in depicting historical events; unlike, say, Job or Jonah, 1 and 2 Samuel does not appear to have been made up out of whole cloth for purposes other than communicating historical events. (Whether David and the other characters of the book are real historical figures has been debated, but 1 and 2 Samuel lacks characteristics one would expect of a portrait of a legendary figure, and it is certainly no fable or morality play.) Even though 1 and 2 Samuel is interested in history, it is not just a book of history; the author feels free to incorporate folk tales and legends into the work, as well as other fictional elements. Literary critic and Bible translator Robert Alter describes it this way:
This narrative...has many signs of what we would call fictional shaping—interior monologues, dialogues between the historical personages in circumstances where there could have been no witnesses to what was said, pointed allusions in the turns of dialogue as well as in the narrative details to Genesis, Joshua, and Judges. What we have in this great not merely a report of history but an imagining of history that is analogous to what Shakespeare did with historical figures and events in his history plays. That is, the known general contours of the historical events and of the principal players are not tampered with, but the writer brings to bear the resources of his literary art in order to imagine deeply, and critically, the concrete moral and emotional predicaments of living in history, in the political realm. To this end, the writer feels free to invent an inner language for the characters, to give their dialogues revelatory shape, to weave together episodes and characters with a fine mesh of recurrent motifs and phrases and analogies of incident, and to define the meaning of the events through metaphor, allusion, and symbol. The writer does all this not to fabricate history but in order to understand it. (The David Story, pgs. xvii-xviii, emphasis added)
Taking historical facts and weaving them together with imagined events, thoughts, and speech in order to wrestle with both the history itself and the themes it represents seems less like history to me than a historical novel. There are other other novels in the Hebrew Bible, stories that follow the arc of a few characters through a plot, not straying far into straight history or poetry or other genres; Jonah is one, and Esther and Ruth. For my money, though, 1 and 2 Samuel is the Hebrew Bible's finest novel, for no other Biblical book can match it for artistry, depth, and sheer enjoyability.

Study of King David (Julia Margaret Cameron)

When it came time on Sunday for me to share my favorite scriptures with the Sunday school class, I chose my favorite moment in 1 and 2 Samuel. It's a little dark, but bear with me:
The Lord struck the child that Uriah's wife bore to David, and it became very ill. David therefore pleaded with God for the child; David fasted, and went in and lay all night on the ground. The elders of his house stood beside him, urging him to rise from the ground; but he would not, nor did he eat food with them. On the seventh day the child died. And the servants of David were afraid to tell him that the child was dead; for they said, "While the child was still alive, we spoke to him, and he did not listen to us; how then can we tell him the child is dead? He may do himself some harm." But when David saw that his servants were whispering together, he perceived that the child was dead; and David said to his servants, "Is the child dead?" They said, "He is dead."
Then David rose from the ground, washed, anointed himself, and changed his clothes. He went into the house of the Lord, and worshiped; he then went to his own house; and when he asked, they set food before him and he ate. Then his servants said to him, "What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while it was alive; but when the child died, you rose and ate food." He said, "While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, 'Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me, and the child may live.' But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me." (2 Samuel 12:15b-24, NRSV)
This story, particularly David's line at the end, is a turning point for his character. Before this incident, David is almost constantly gaining and consolidating political power, and nearly everything he says can be construed as having a secondary, political motive behind it. The heartfelt, wrenching line "Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me" is the first time David feels completely real to the reader; his heart is laid bare.

After this point, David begins to turn into the old man he will be at the end of the book, shivering in bed and scarcely aware of what is going on in his kingdom. Along the way, he starts losing track of what is going on in his own household; his children end up violating and murdering each other, and one of them, Absalom, starts a rebellion against David, only to eventually be killed when David takes back the throne, much to David's sorrow.

1 and 2 Samuel is many things, but it is not least a moving portrait of an individual human life, conveyed with profound artistry and richness. I recommend it to any reader looking for such a portrait. For the general reader, it's hard to go wrong with Robert Alter's translation, The David Story, which I quoted earlier. It includes enough helpful commentary to both understand the ancient context and appreciate the artistry of the book without overwhelming the reader, and I highly recommend it.

*It's actually slightly more complicated than this: the end of the book, in which David is on his deathbed and giving his last instructions to Solomon, was later cut off and added to the book of 1 Kings, in order to serve as an introduction to 1 Kings' stories about Solomon. Thus, in modern Bibles, the story of 1 and 2 Samuel really goes all the way through 1 Kings chapter 2.
**The author is anonymous, like most of the authors of the Bible, especially outside the prophetic books, which tend to have been written by the people they're named for, with a number of exceptions. Given the time and place in which 1 and 2 Samuel was written, the author was almost certainly male.

Photo sources:
Photo 1:
Photo 2:
Photo 3:
Photo 4:,_by_Julia_Margaret_Cameron.jpg

Monday, November 11, 2013

From Ironic to Irenic: Changing How I Disagree on the Internet

Well, I ain't a bad guy once you get to know me,
I just thought, there ain't no harm—

     Hey, just try minding your own business, bud!
     Who asked you to annoy me with your sad repartee?
     Besides, I never talk to strangers anyway.

—"I Never Talk To Strangers Anyway," Tom Waits and Bette Midler

Empathy, empathy!
Put yourself in the place of me!
—"Empathy Song," Adventure Time

I learned a new word a little while ago in a conversation with my dad: irenic. We were talking about how to interact with people we disagree with, especially interacting over the internet, and he mentioned that he tried to be as irenic as possible in such situations. "You mean 'ironic,' Dad?" was my reply. No, he explained: irenic is something quite different; in fact, it means "promoting peace."*

I've written before about the difficulty of persuading people with strongly held opinions to change their minds. Basically, it boils down to this: you can't really do it. Not reliably, not often, and certainly not by just having the better argument.

While it seems that more and more we are surrounding ourselves physically with likeminded people, I think most folks I know still regularly encounter people online that they strongly disagree with, whether through social media, reading articles and opinion pieces, or other means. Given that changing someone's strongly held opinion is next to impossible, should we even bother trying—particularly online, where we have, probably, even more abysmal chances of success? I don't think so, not most of the time anyway.

What are the alternatives, then? I think the easiest alternative is dismissal, refusing to engage with the other side on any level. It's easiest because I waste almost no emotional energy; all I need to do is calm whatever anger or annoyance I may feel at seeing something I regard as foolish or wrong. (Dismissal is my typical reaction to things like Facebook memes insisting that I need to repost them if I love Jesus. Though, uh, not in the case of that post that I wrote about it.) The next easiest is hostility, which can take the form of straightforward insults or, perhaps worse, displays of verbal irony, AKA sarcasm. This is easier than persuading someone, because I can vent my feelings without spending energy on persuasion, and I take no major risks, since no one can prove me wrong. The worst that can happen is someone insults me back, and if I'm already angry, that isn't a big deal. (I can't think of a time when I've ever insulted someone on the internet, but I can definitely remember delivering a witheringly ironic response to someone I debated on Reddit who suggested I check out a link that turned out to be the Wikipedia entry on "correlation does not imply causation." I was not amused.)

Not actually my angry face, but close enough.

These approaches are a lot easier than persuasion. But easier isn't necessarily better, and in fact, both of these have pretty obvious problems. The isolation and anonymity of interaction on the internet seems to lend itself to such conflict-generating responses, but I think it's worth looking for more "peace promoting" approaches. Instead of dismissal, hostility, or ironic detatchment, I really think the best approach to this issue is something I'm going to call creative empathy. I'll give an example.

When I drive with my fiancée, we often have cars pass us at ludicrously high speeds and tiny car-to-car distances. While I grumble about how utterly insane and dangerous this is, she typically has a more positive remark: "When I see people like that, I just imagine they've got a woman in labor in the back seat." This is creative empathy. And I think it's the most irenic way to approach this kind of thing.

Or, you know, maybe they're just on Ecstasy right now.

Empathy, "putting yourself in someone's shoes," is of course an incredibly important tool for getting along with people. Recently, my roommate caught up with an old friend who I also know; I'll call this friend "Marcus." I talked with my roommate afterward, and he said that hanging out with Marcus had been pretty good, except for the fact that Marcus had been spouted off noxious Men's Rights rhetoric here and there throughout the night. Given that my roommate and I are both feminists** we were naturally a bit mortified and even angry, but I immediately started wondering how Marcus could have arrived at such a different viewpoint from me. And I realized after a moment that there was a big incident in college in which he had suffered a quite a bit, and I knew Marcus felt he had reason to blame both a specific woman and, more generally, women's "privilege" for his suffering. I still disagreed completely with Marcus's point of view on gender issues, but I stopped being angry about it. When I myself caught up with Marcus a few weeks later, that really made all the difference in my interactions with him.
When we see people suffering or having a bad day, most of us can and sometimes do put ourselves in their shoes emotionally and feel what they feel for a moment, which can help us treat them with more kindness. It's easy enough to do this when we can see what is behind someone's actions, but on the internet, it's usually a whole different ballgame. Often all we have is a name and some words, and much of the time, the name's not even real!

To empathize effectively with such a person, then, creativity is required. These days, when I see something online coming from an opposing point of view, something that makes me angry because of how wrong it is, I try to stop and tell myself a story that this point of view fits into. I think of an experience that could have led to it, or (if I want to be extra anthropological) a culture and a set of values that could produce it (looking at maps like this one has triggered such thinking lately for me). This is especially helpful if I'm actually going to try to talk to the other person, because it changes the goal from "tell this person they're wrong" to "find out where this is really coming from." And that's an irenic goal if there ever was one.

(This post was inspired in part by this piece on how Christians can better relate to each other across the progressive/conservative divide.)

*He went on to explain that it comes from the Greek word for peace, ειρηνη (eirēnē in Latin characters), because he is my dad.
**Which is to say, we think women are people, and are weirded out that large portions of society don't seem to get that.

Photo sources:
Photo 1:
Photo 2: Me
Photo 3:

Monday, October 21, 2013

Read to Each Other

I can be anything;
Take a look,
It's in a book:
A Reading Rainbow.
—"Reading Rainbow Theme," Tina Fabrique

It's almost Halloween again, when kids go trick-or-treating, adults get drunk and go to costume parties (I assume?), and my friends and I gather to read aloud to each other. I've already written here about this odd household Halloween tradition of mine, so I thought instead that I would take some time to write about my more general experience with the joys of reading aloud.

I have been read aloud to* for as long as I can remember. Like any two-year-old with an ounce of sense, I was obsessed with Goodnight Moon and insisted that it be read to me on an extremely regular basis. I also loved Are You My Mother? with a burning passion and, if what you needed was to make three- to six-year-old me laugh till I couldn't breathe, all you needed to do was read me the climax in which the baby bird realizes that a steam shovel is not its mother.** And when my kindergarten teacher introduced the class to The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, I thought it was the most amazing thing on God's green earth.

But more than these early favorites, what really ignited my love of reading aloud was my father's practice of reading to me and my sister every night before bed, starting when we were in 4th or 5th grade or so. He began with the Chronicles of Narnia and then moved on to A Wrinkle in Time and The Hobbit. When his mother expressed concern that in reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone his children might become enamored of witchcraft and sorcery, Dad reassured her by saying that he would read it (and, as it turned out, its sequels) to us to make sure we didn't get any weird ideas. Dad was fantastic at this stuff; he created different voices and personas for the characters, adopting as many distinct accents and tones of voice as he could to create the impression that we were really encountering the different people in the pages of the books he read to us. (Dad's interpretation of Hagrid is still my preferred one.)

In college, I learned that it was, in fact, possible for adults to read things to other adults for fun, when a friend invited a group of us over for a reading of Faust during my first year of school. We read by candle light and delighted in the darkness of the story and the oddity of what we were doing. That night was born both the idea for the Library of Babel podcast that I created and ran thoughout college (named for the first story I read, for which this blog was also eventually named) and for the annual Halloween story nights I would start a year or two later. (I wanted to do a radio show on the college radio station, but they didn't have room for me until much later in my colege career; the podcast was created in the meantime as a balm for my frustrated soul.)

The greatest joy of creating the podcast was in learning to inhabit different characters and animate a story on my own, overlaying the more basic pleasure of having created a thing for its own sake, that is, not an assignment or requirement but a personal project, an accomplishment. It was a good thing. I may return to it someday.

Me, reading to an audience at Story Lab

The most recent project in this vein has been even better, though, in its way: learning to tell others my own stories. In truth, it has been a joy just to know I have some exciting and fun things to say, which is still a fairly new thing. I have not sought out adventure in my life often, so it's taken a while to build up a collection of things to tell others about. But more than that, it has been a joy to share, to try and delight and entertain and inform others with the facts of my life.

This communal element, this sharing, is the best reason for people to read to each other. Sometimes we run out of things to say, out of reasons to be together, out of ways of connecting. I think reading aloud, whether our own stories or someone else's, can help us fill in the gaps, strengthen the bonds, and enrich the spaces between us. I encourage you to give it a try sometime. Perhaps you can go, right now, find a friend, and read a short story or a poem together, maybe something by Roald Dahl (this, perhaps?). Or find a couple friends, and get together to read a book (how about The Giver? It's a classic, an easy read, and good for talking about afterward.) Or maybe sit down in front of a computer, record yourself reading something, and just send it to somebody. Read to each other, is what I'm trying to say. Read to each other.

*Side note: I once came across a contest to end a sentence as many prepositions as possible. The winning entry was a sentence in which a child asks his father why he brought the wrong book up to his bedroom: "What did you bring the book I didn't want to be read to out of up for?"
**Your other option was showing me a VHS of Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, particularly the part when Piglet is trying to fly a kite but nearly gets blown into the sky by the heavy winds. But I digress.

Photo sources:
3. Nate Irvine  

Monday, October 14, 2013

In Defense of Boring Movies: The New World

Part of a series of essays In Defense of Boring Movies.

A whole new world,
A new fantastic point of view,
No one to tell us no, 

or where to go,
Or say we're only dreaming.

—"A Whole New World," from Disney's Aladdin

Savages, savages!
Barely even human...

They're not like you and me
Which means they must be evil!
—"Savages," from Disney's Pocahontas

I think of myself as a Terrence Malick fan, even though I've only seen two of his movies. He hasn't even made that many movies—so far, he's been the writer/director on just seven in a four-decade career—so it's not like I couldn't get through his body of work in a week or two if I wanted to.

The thing about Terrence Malick is that his movies are the absolute height of what I've come to call the "boring" movie: movies that ask big questions and give the viewer space to think about them. They tend to have lots of long, dialogue-free shots that just let you think and see and feel, rather than propelling you quickly through a plot.

It takes some actual work to enjoy this style of movie, of which Terrence Malick is currently the king. His movies tend to stretch to 3+ hours, and from the first moments watching The New World, I was totally absorbed, and I stayed that way through the whole length. So even seeing just one of his films made me feel like I already knew him and his body of work well enough to know I was a fan. The second one was just gravy, really.

The plot of The New World is this: it's the story of John Smith and Pocahontas. You know that story? Good. Then you know the plot. Like with any boring movie, the plot in The New World is not really that important.

Terrence Malick is interested in the universe and nature and how people relate to 'em, these forces that are bigger and wilder than us. In The New World, he's specifically concerned with the way white people came to America and interacted with the vast array of nature on display here, as well as how they interacted with the Native Americans, who seemed to have a much different relationship with nature.

Boring movies ask big questions and give you space to think about them, but just what that space looks like is of course variable. Where Stalker and Dead Man are content to have the viewer watch the characters silently make their way through the wilderness, The New World lingers heavily over nature, to the extent that the filmmakers had an entire second film crew dedicated to filming wildlife scenes.

The big questions in The New World are these: America was a beautiful country once; how did we manage to muck it up so much, and why? What happened between the new settlers and the original inhabitants, and could it ever have been different?

The New World is a huge movie full of big ideas and questions and events, but it gives you so much room to breathe that watching it feels like a slow, gentle walk instead of a headlong dash through plot and pondering. The New World is a great example of a movie that's "boring" in all the right ways.

Photo Source: (fair use)
Clips are from the Extended Cut of this film. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Nostalgia For Things That Are Not Gone

Part of a series of Live Story Recordings.

Art by my friend Alex

This is a story that I told at some friends' apartment in Chicago last week. They host a monthly arts showcase event there called The Workshop. If you'd like to know more about it, email them at and ask. They host all kinds of art, from movies, to poetry, to dance, to whatever you care to share with a group of friendly people. It's really cool!

This story is about this feeling that I don't really know if anybody else really has, but basically, it's when you really miss something that you could have if you really wanted it, but it's pretty much not worth the effort required to track it down again. I'm calling this feeling "nostalgia for things that are not gone." When I shared the story on Friday, I hadn't come up with a title, but I think that works well enough.

Monday, September 30, 2013

I Just Finished Reading the Hebrew Bible

Part of a series on Reading the Whole Bible.

John Martin, "The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah." It's going to be that kind of post.

And blood
exploding fire
wailing blood
and bleeding
—"Dread Beat and Blood," Linton Kwesi Johnson

This week, I finished reading the Hebrew Bible (AKA The Old Testament—I will stick with the "Hebrew Bible" here and abbreviate it "HB" when I feel like it). And I'm here to tell you why it was scary, weird, surprising, and delightful. In that order.


You've probably heard this before; (heck, I've already mentioned it in the course of this project), but the God of the Hebrew Bible is often portrayed as a violent, seemingly capricious entity. I discovered, though, that there's another layer of scary unpleasantness in the HB, and that comes out of the incredible bitterness and anger that the Biblical authors felt in reaction to the destruction of their country.

There's a fair amount of material generated because of these feelings. Some of it is (in)famous, like the notorious baby-smashing impulse expressed by the Psalmist in Psalm 137, a lament over the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians.

But sometimes this material is the stuff of entire books, and obscure books at that. Obadiah, for example, is one long tirade against the nation of Edom for how they responded when Jerusalen was sacked (basically, they were total dicks about it). It's only a couple pages long, but they're a couple pages of condemnation and divine threats to a whole country of people. Nahum is a book entirely about gloating over the destruction of Nineveh, the capital Israel and Judah's longtime frenemy Assyria. To be fair, the Assyrians were also kind of a bunch of dicks—among other things, they destroyed Israel and took her people away into exile—but Nahum is just page after page of creepy happiness over the death and destruction of an enemy. Which was scary to find in my Bible.

The way I've been processing this strain of scary in the HB* has been to chalk it up to basic, human emotion. I'm sure if someone destroyed the place where I lived and took a bunch of people away, I'd be pretty irate too. I don't know if I'd be baby-smashing irate, but still. It's been easier to figure this stuff out than the whole violent, capricious God thing. On that score, I'm still befuddled and still sympathize more than I probably should with Marcion.


The Hebrew Bible is a product of an ancient and incredibly foreign culture. This isn't always obvious, because we can read it in our own language and because it's a familiar and even foundational document in our culture. But there are moments when the reader gets jarred out of a sense of familiarity by the appearance of totally alien cultural norms and activities in the Bible. My favorite of these is the symbolic prophetic act.

Raphael, "The Prophets Hosea and Jonah"
Many of the prophets felt called by God to deliver unpopular messages to God's people. And sometimes, they used symbolic, public actions to help them. In our culture, such symbolic acts might take the form of, say, chaining yourself to the White House's front gate, or speaking for 21 hours straight on the Senate floor. In a Biblical setting, things can get a lot weirder than that:
When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.”  So he went and took Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son. (Hosea 1:2-3, NRSV)
That's right, ladies and gentlemen: Hosea's symbolic act was literally marrying a prostitute. Which is insane.

More awesomely weird is my personal favorite symbolic prophetic act, from Jeremiah:
Thus said the Lord to me, “Go and buy yourself a linen loincloth, and put it on your loins, but do not dip it in water.” So I bought a loincloth according to the word of the Lord, and put it on my loins. And the word of the Lord came to me a second time, saying, “Take the loincloth that you bought and are wearing, and go now to the Euphrates, and hide it there in a cleft of the rock.” So I went, and hid it by the Euphrates, as the Lord commanded me. And after many days the Lord said to me, “Go now to the Euphrates, and take from there the loincloth that I commanded you to hide there.” Then I went to the Euphrates, and dug, and I took the loincloth from the place where I had hidden it. But now the loincloth was ruined; it was good for nothing.

Then the word of the Lord came to me:  Thus says the Lord: Just so I will ruin the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem. (Jeremiah 13:1-8, NRSV)
Jeremiah's symbolic act involves—yes, it's true!—his dirty, filthy underwear. It's a metaphor, sure, but it's a weird metaphor.

There's plenty of even weirder and crazier stuff in the HB; I won't tell you all about it here for the sake of space, but I just want to point out that the beginning of Ezekiel sounds suspiciously like a UFO sighting and that—and I cannot emphasize this enough—there are talking horses in Zechariah, in addition to a huge flying scroll and a woman sitting in a giant basket for no obvious reason. The Hebrew Bible is weird.


There are some real surprises and even delights in reading the Hebrew Bible, though. My biggest surprise came when reading the book of Amos; God shows Amos a vision of some fruit, which seems innocent enough, and then things take a sudden bewildering turn:
This is what the Lord God showed me—a basket of summer fruit. He said, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.”

Then the Lord said to me, “The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by. The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,” says the Lord God; “the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place. Be silent!” (Amos 8:1-3, NRSV)
I found this so jarring that I laughed aloud when I read it. "Hey, God," I thought, "it's just fruit. No need to get so worked up."

The Prophet Amos in a Russian Orthodox Icon
Turns out, there's a pun here: the words for "summer fruit" and "end" sound very similar, and God uses the odd vision of the summer fruit to introduce the idea that follows. Most folks are unaware that puns are a feature of the Hebrew Bible, but they are. It's rarely more obvious than this jarring passage, which simply does not work as a piece of coherent writing unless you know there's a pun. Most of the time, wordplay passes completely unremarked upon in English translations, because it's not central to a clear understanding of the text.

Nevertheless, puns and other wordplay are common tools for the Biblical authors, used for making meaningful connections between passages, carrying ideas forward, and even creating humor. It's too bad modern readers, myself included, are typically not in on the joke.


The truly great joy for me, of course, has been in discovering the connections between obscure parts of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament passages that I know well. It's a pleasure to watch the Biblical authors borrow from and build on each other.

Rafael, "The Prophet Isaiah"
I discovered, for example, that a line I'm used to seeing in hymns is actually not only Biblical but has a more involved history than I might have imagined. Paul uses an image in talking about spreading the gospel, "how beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news," which he appears to have borrowed from Isaiah, who was talking about the hope of Israel being delivered from her enemies. Isaiah, in turn, borrowed it from Nahum, who was talking about how totally rad it was that Judah wasn't going to have to deal with Assyria anymore. Isn't intertextuality fun?

The Hebrew Bible, for all its flaws, was the Bible of Jesus, so it's been worth examining as a Christian to gain insight into his thoughts and what he said and did. In the course of my study of the HB, for example, I read a great essay on Ezekiel and how it relates to the New Testament. I'd never heard of most of the connections between Ezekiel and the NT before, and it was fascinating to me.


Knowing and understanding the Hebrew Bible is essential for Christians, I think. Without its foundational stories, the New Testament can't happen. Without its prophetic messages, the dramatic foreshadowing of the New Testament isn't there. And without its poetic images, the vividness and deep meaning in the New Testament is sucked dry.

While many Christians, myself included, would be more comfortable ignoring the ugliness here in the Hebrew Bible, it is vital to the truth and wholeness of our faith that we find ways to acknowledge and set aside this ugliness and instead learn to seek out the beauty and the truth in it.

*This kind of scary stuff is mostly in the poetic books. The historical books of the Bible, which are clustered in the first third of the Christian Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible has a different order), generally deal with the pain of the destruction of Jerusalem and the subsequent exile by looking for reasons that they might have happened. The typical answer is simply "idolatry."

Photo Sources: 
Photo 1:
Photo 2: 
Photo 3:
Photo 4:,_profeta_isaia.jpg