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 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Chain Letters and Social Media

And if you don't love me now,
You will never love me again.
I can still hear you saying 

you would never break the chain.
—"The Chain," Fleetwood Mac

I am grateful to have a lifestyle that lets me get on social media a lot. When I wake up, I browse Twitter on my phone and see what my friends and favorite comedians are joking about; whenever I have a break at work or at home, I get on Facebook to post, read, chat, or debate; heck, I even check Google+ from time to time to, uh, see if there's anything there.

I love social media. It helps me feel connected to people, lets me start conversations on topics I think are important, makes me laugh, gives me something to do when I'm bored, and even serves as an outlet for my life's most intense emotions on occasion.

But social media can also be profoundly annoying and even upsetting. I sometimes disagree strongly with my friends' opinions or feel left out of the fun things I see others enjoying. Few things on social media irritate me more than things like the following, however, which was taken directly from my Facebook feed today:
"Not something I would normally do ... but I am curious. Please continue to read. It occurs to me that for each and every one of you on my friends list, I catch myself looking at your pictures, sharing jokes and news, as well as support during good and bad times. I am happy to have you among my friends. We will see who will take the time to read this message until the end. If you appreciate your friends from all over the world, go ahead and copy this into your status too, even if it's just for a minute. I'm going to be watching to see who takes care of the friendship, just like me. Thank you all for being a part of my life. Copy and paste please, don't share. If no one reads my wall, this should be a short experiment.

This is a Facebook game to see who reads and who just scrolls. So, if you read this, leave one word on how we met. Only one word, then copy this to your wall so I can leave a word for you. Please don't add your word and forget or neglect to copy. Thanks."
This post is irritating for several reasons. The primary reason I'll get to in a moment, but the secondary one is broader, so I'll address it first: it's a chain letter. A chain letter is essentially a thought virus, a message with a built-in agenda to manipulate the reader into spreading it to others. Originally, chain letters were actual, physical letters people sent in the mail (with messages like "You must send this on 3 hours after reading the letter to 10 different people. If you do this, you will receive unbeleavably good luck in love...If you do not, bad luck will rear it's head at you. THIS IS NOT A JOKE!"). These days, a chain letter is more likely to be an email (encouraging the reader to let others know, say, that the President is the Antichrist), a message on Twitter (it might start with "retweet if you agree"), or even an image macro posted on Facebook:

Jesus. Christ.

I hate feeling manipulated, so I flipping hate chain letters. I assume that most people also hate them, but I suppose that, for at least some people, the irritation that one feels at being manipulated gets overridden when they read a message that really appeals to them. Which I guess is just saying that the manipulation works sometimes.

The manipulation in any of these messages is essentially a threat to the reader; the threat can be that they'll have bad luck, that they'll let their friends down by not giving them valuable information, they'll fail to support the right cause, they'll show that they aren't really religious, or what have you. In the message I saw today on my feed, the threat is that people will think the reader doesn't care about the person who posted it ("I am happy to have you among my friends. We will see who will take the time to read this message until the end...This is a Facebook game to see who reads and who just scrolls.")

The threat that others will think you don't care or worse, that the person who posted it will think you don't care, is especially powerful and therefore especially awful. "I'm supposed to be your friend, aren't I?" it says; "If we're really friends, show me." In fact, this is nothing less than the social media equivalent of that old chestnut, uttered by abusive friends, family members, and lovers everywhere: "If you love me, you'll do what I want." It's hella. freaking. manipulative.

Good luck fighting Satan with Facebook, man.

Which is the primary reason I don't like this post in particular: it's a loyalty test. It's the worst sort of thought virus, because it spreads by encouraging people to separate their friends into categories of "real" and "fake," friends who supposedly genuinely care and friends who supposedly don't. Other kinds of chain letters are irritating. This kind can do real harm, both to your perception of your friends and to their perception of you.

There's actually a pretty skillful trick at work in this kind of post: once you see it and write a comment, you've already done half of what it asked, so you feel obliged do the other half too: you copy it and put it up for your own friends to see. Congratulations! You've just been tricked into either (a) shaming your friends into doing something or (b) getting them to like you less, depending on whether they go along with it or not. Possibly both, actually.

The point of all this is simple: don't spread this stuff. Social media has made it especially easy to get exposed to these thought viruses, but all it takes is a very small amount of critical thinking to recognize them and refuse to participate. When you come across them, don't post things that manipulate your emotions to get you to repost, don't forward emails that tell you to forward them, and never encourage your friends to share fond memories with you by making it a test of their true friendship. Because that, my friends, is sucky.  


I want to take an extra few paragraphs and do a breakdown of the original post that inspired this tirade. I'll look at it in chunks and talk briefly about the rhetorical strategies at work:
"Not something I would normally do ... but I am curious. Please continue to read. It occurs to me that for each and every one of you on my friends list, I catch myself looking at your pictures, sharing jokes and news, as well as support during good and bad times. I am happy to have you among my friends."
The post starts with what is basically an apology. It lets us know that the poster is not really the sort of person that forwards chain letters, but that this is a special case. (Note that it also serves to make the idea of reposting more palatable: this chain letter has a built-in apology so people will know you're not the kind of person that forwards chain letters either when the time comes!) It then lures the reader in further, asking us to take the time to read the message, and then rewarding us by making us feel connected to the person who posted it.
"We will see who will take the time to read this message until the end. If you appreciate your friends from all over the world, go ahead and copy this into your status too, even if it's just for a minute. I'm going to be watching to see who takes care of the friendship, just like me. Thank you all for being a part of my life. Copy and paste please, don't share."
Here's where the manipulation really kicks into gear: the implication is that "we will all see who takes the time to read this and who does not; you'd better take the time, or else!" Then comes the first demand that the reader share the message, cleverly attached to a condition that no one would say no to: "If you appreciate your friends"—and who doesn't?—then you'll share this with them. Next, the most straightforwardly manipulative sentence in the whole thing: "I'll be watching" to see who is a real friend, "just like me." And right after is a nice sentiment to cover up the ugliness: thanks so much for being part of my life! I love you guys!
"If no one reads my wall, this should be a short experiment."
This is my favorite: it's so thoroughly passive-aggressive and icky. This sentence does two big things in just 12 words: it provides a hedge against failure if no one comments ("Ha ha, just an experiment guys, no big deal!") and it provides a massive extra heap of shame for the reader through false modesty and self-pity ("Oh no, if no one responds, it means no one reads their wall at all, that's terrible!") It's a real gem, this sentence.
"This is a Facebook game to see who reads and who just scrolls. So, if you read this, leave one word on how we met. Only one word, then copy this to your wall so I can leave a word for you. Please don't add your word and forget or neglect to copy. Thanks."
Lastly, we get a summary of what came before, and finally the actual thing the reader is supposed to do in response to all this, as well as a couple extra manipulations for good measure; the messages are: (1) this "game" is a test of true friendship, (2) please respond so I know you're my friend, (3) it won't be a big deal, just a moment of your time: one word, in fact! (3) if you respond to me, I'll respond to you, it'll be great! (4) definitely, definitely, spread this thought virus to other people, and lastly (5) Thanks!

It's quite an effectively composed message; the key themes are all there several times, the actual thing you're asked to do is presented as low effort (one word is all it takes!) and high profit (I'll know you're my friend and we'll both feel good!), and there are even several cop-outs to help you not feel bad for reposting. So if you fell for this one, don't feel too bad: it did its job well, is all. 

Photo 1 source:
Other photo sources: people who think chain letters are okay for some reason

Monday, September 9, 2013

Everyone Should Read Moby-Dick

Part of a series on Stuff You Might Not Know About.

This book totally rules. Just look at it: this is the plot, right here, in this picture. Click to enlarge.

The harpoon and the line fly through,
Very deep into the whale;
She split the timbers of the ship,
With a flurry of her tail.

—"The Humpback Whale," Traditional, arr. Nic Jones

Every year at the University of Chicago Scav Hunt, the team captains are required by the rules of the Hunt to dress up in certain garb: samurai gear, say, or ball gowns; it varies from year to year. A few years ago, the required costume was famous fictional captains: one team's captains all dressed as Captain Han Solo, for example, and another's dressed as Captain Ahab. On Scav Judgement Day, I visited the team with the Captain Ahabs and hung out for a bit, examining their coolest items and chatting with acquaintances on the team. And I noticed something very wrong: all the Captain Ahabs had wooden legs.

In Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab is indeed missing a leg, but his prosthesis is made out of whale bone, not wood. It's kind of a key image in the book: a whale bites Ahab's leg off, so he fashions a replacement from the jawbone of a whale and swears revenge on the whale that dared to maim him. It's pretty badass. I asked around, and it turned out that not only did none of the Scav team captains knew this, none of the members of their team did either. In short, none of these kids had actually read Moby-Dick.

I was sad, not because I was surprised, but because it confirmed a suspicion I'd had for a while: no one reads Moby-Dick. "If this gaggle of bright, inquisitive, creative, and intelligent young people hasn't read it," I thought, "who has?"

This is less elitist than it sounds. This is not about "kids these days blah blah no one reads the classics blah blah I'm so smart I know all the things and you don't." What bothers me isn't that people don't read the classics, or anything like that; instead, it's that Moby-Dick has this horrible reputation for being a total downer, a needlessly challenging slog through heavy-handed metaphors and hard-to-absorb 19th-century prose. The way people talk about it just makes it sound profoundly un-fun and hard to read.

Here's the thing: that reputation is bogus. Moby-Dick is a beautiful, weird, wicked, funny, thoughtful, and emotionally engaging book.

Moby-Dick is the story of one man's quest to get revenge on a whale that bit off his leg, but it is way, way more than that also. In addition to the plot, which is scary, weird, and awesome, there are asides on philosophy, theology, and most importantly, cetology: sometimes Melville will just take a chapter off from the plot and explain what he thinks about, say, whales and whale science; it's magical because, if you dig it, it's really fun, and if you don't, you can skip it with no consequences for your understanding of the novel's plot. Throughout the book there are playful moments and disturbing moments and plenty of stuff that is just plain strange. Moby-Dick contains so much that, if you read it, you will almost certainly find something you really like in it.

My favorite thing about Moby-Dick is probably the narrator's (that is, Ishmael's) little moral asides, his moments of minor philosophizing. They tend to be funny and to ring true, and they're also often somewhat progressive for a man of his day. For example, after Ishmael freaks the heck out when he finds out his bedmate for the night at the inn he's staying at is a "savage cannibal" from parts unknown (and not, in fact, a white person) this happens:
 "'You gettee in,' [Queequeg] added, motioning to me with his tomahawk, and throwing the [bed] clothes to one side. He really did this in not only a civil but a really kind and charitable way. I stood looking at him a moment. For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal. What's all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself- the man's a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian. (Chapter 3, emphasis mine)
Or check out this little bit, in which Ishmael defends his decision to go to sea as a sailor and get ordered around by some "old hunks" of a captain:
What of it, if some old hunks of a sea-captain orders me to get a broom and sweep down the decks? What does that indignity amount to, weighed, I mean, in the scales of the New Testament? Do you think the archangel Gabriel thinks anything the less of me, because I promptly and respectfully obey that old hunks in that particular instance? Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that. Well, then, however the old sea-captains may order me about- however they may thump and punch me about, I have the satisfaction of knowing that it is all right; that everybody else is one way or other served in much the same way- either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is; and so the universal thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each other’s shoulder-blades, and be content. (Chapter 1, emphasis mine)

There's lots more to be said in the book's favor, but I don't want this post to get too long; the last thing I'll says is that the book has some incredibly rich, beautiful language, which, if the reader slows down and really drinks it in, can provide moments of pure, readerly pleasure unlike almost any book I've ever known.* In this scene, for example, a boat caught in a storm is described with mesmerizing power:
The wind increased to a howl; the waves dashed their bucklers together; the whole squall roared, forked, and crackled around us like a white fire upon the prairie, in which unconsumed, we were burning; immortal in these jaws of death! In vain we hailed the other boats; as well roar to the live coals down the chimney of a flaming furnace as hail those boats in that storm. Meanwhile the driving scud, rack, and mist, grew darker with the shadows of night; no sign of the ship could be seen. The rising sea forbade all attempts to bale out the boat. The oars were useless as propellers, performing now the office of life-preservers. So, cutting the lashing of the waterproof match keg, after many failures Starbuck contrived to ignite the lamp in the lantern; then stretching it on a waif pole, handed it to Queequeg as the standard-bearer of this forlorn hope. There, then, he sat, holding up that imbecile candle in the heart of that almighty forlornness. There, then, he sat, the sign and symbol of a man without faith, hopelessly holding up hope in the midst of despair. (Chapter 48)
 I really think that everyone who can should read Moby-Dick. Folks might just love it as much as I did.

This post owes a large debt to Robert Alter's book The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age and especially to Walker Percy's short essay Herman Melville (check it out if you're on the fence).

*Note that reading Moby-Dick kind of ruined all other books for me for a few months after I finished it, because pretty much nothing on earth is as rich, beautiful, and strange. It can be hard to get back into paperback sci-fi after stewing your brain in Melville's language for a while. 

Photo Sources:
Photo 1:
Photo 2: