Monday, January 27, 2014

Collaboration and Resistance: Half-Life 2 and the Xenogensis Trilogy

Please come in peace, we beseech you,
Only a landing will teach them.
Our earth may never survive,
So do come, we beg you.
Please interstellar policemen,
Won't you give us a sign?
Give us a sign that we've reached you.
—"Calling Occupants of Interstellar Craft," Klaatu

Before I go anywhere here, know this post will assume that videogames are art. I don't have strong opinions about what, exactly, art is, or what it is for, but I believe that videogames require the same level of skill, patience, and creativity to make that other art forms do, and that videogames can reward close scrutiny and intellectual engagement in the same way that art does. So for my purposes today, they are art. If you think I'm wrong, maybe go read some Tom Bissel.

~   ~   ~

Octavia Butler at a book signing.

Octavia E. Butler was a science fiction writer, working from the 70s to the 00s; she was the first black female sci-fi author to rise to any kind of prominence, and I've recently found I can't get enough of her work. I just finished reading what one of my sources calls her "masterpiece," the Xenogenesis trilogy,* which begins with the main character's introduction to an alien race:  
The Oankali, a nomadic alien species, have engineered themselves into genetic dead ends. They have refreshed themselves many times in the past through cross-planetary interbreeding. Now they are looking to take the best traits from humans by combining our genetic material with theirs, using an advanced race of tentacled breeder-beings called "ooloi."...From the Oankali point of view, humans, taken alone, are disastrously hierarchical and domineering; the new blend will be less fierce and less individualistic. When they arrive on Earth, humans have barely survived mutual destruction. (From Octavia Butler, the outsider who changed science fiction)
The central problem of the trilogy is this: the Oankali have come to Earth to trade. Their trade is not in goods but in genes, and they intend to create a new species by mixing their genes with humans', as the summary above mentions. No one is forced to breed with the aliens; however, given that the Oankali view humans as  a danger to themselves, they will not allow any humans to breed on their own. Humanity as we know it, then, is doomed to extinction, while an alien/human hybrid will succeed us. Understandably, much of humanity is pretty furious about this. The "resisters," as the angered reactionaries come to be called, see anyone who collaborates or breeds with the Oankali as an enemy, which includes the main character of the first book, Lilith Iyapo:
The Oankali manipulate her into training the first group of humans to re-colonize Earth. Lilith is a natural leader, but leading 40 angry, confused, and captive humans is no easy task. Her loyalties are divided: On one hand she wants human freedom; on the other, she comes to respect and perhaps even love some of the Oankali...Certainly the humans react to the Oankali with xenophobia and violence...The humans are none too keen on having a leader who appears to have allied herself with the enemy. The men are particularly threatened by Lilith’s strength and confidence. They beat her and call her a whore...They respond to Lilith’s Chinese-American boyfriend Joe with bigotry and homophobia. (From Sleeping With the Enemy: Octavia Butler's Dawn)
The humans' negative reaction to their situation and to the collaborator Lilith is the dark side of the resistance mentality, a mentality that is presented quite positively in the videogame I just finished, Half-Life 2.

In Half-Life 2, the main character is Dr. Gordon Freeman, a physicist who re-eappears on Earth mysteriously a number of years after an apocalypse event and alien invasion, and who joins the resistance against the aliens. In the opening sequence, he (and the player controlling him) is introduced to Earth as it is now, with humans living under an alien occupation and police state:

As he steps off the train and enters City 17, Dr. Freeman is confronted by the white-bearded face of Dr. Wallace Breen, Earth's Administrator. He welcomes visitors in a recorded message: "You have chosen, or been chosen, to relocate to one of our finest remaining urban centers. I thought so much of City 17 that I elected to establish my Administration here, in the citadel so thoughtfully provided by our Benefactors." The player at once begins to identify Dr. Breen as the smiling face pasted over the ugly situation that is the world of Half-Life 2, and his message is immediately followed by scenes of that ugliness: police brutality, separation of loved ones, intimidation, and hopelessness.

As the game unfolds, the player finds out more about Dr. Breen: he is the person who arranged the surrender of Earth to the Combine—the alien force that has come to the planet with some largely unspoken, yet undeniably sinister purpose—after a short and one-sided conflict. But he has high hopes for the future: humanity can profit from its association (however involuntary) with the Combine, if only we can collaborate:
It has come to my attention that some have lately called me a "collaborator," as if such a term were shameful. I ask you, what greater endeavor is there than collaboration? In our current, unparalleled enterprise, refusal to collaborate is simply a refusal to grow—an insistence on suicide, if you will. Did the lungfish refuse to breathe air? It did not. It crept forth boldly while its brethren remained in the blackest ocean abyss, with lidless eyes forever staring at the dark, ignorant and doomed despite their eternal vigilance. Would we model ourselves on the trilobite? Are all the accomplishments of humanity fated to be nothing more than a layer of faded, broken, plastic shards, thinly strewn across a fossil bed, sandwiched between the Burgess Shale and an eon's worth of mud?

In order to be true to our nature, and our destiny, we must aspire to greater things. We have outgrown our cradle! It is futile to cry for mother's milk, when our true sustenance awaits us among the stars. And only the Universal Union, that small minds call the "Combine," can carry us there! Therefore I say, yes, I am a collaborator! We must all collaborate, willingly, eagerly, if we expect to reap the benefits of unification. And reap we shall! (Source)
However valid Breen's hope of a brighter future may be, the player is given very little chance to see his point of view. The game's narrative quickly thrusts the player-as-Gordon-Freeman into cahoots with the resistance movement against the Combine and its human collaborators; the resistance befriends him, shelters him, and asks for his help in rescuing imprisoned members and ultimately in bringing down their oppressors. And the Combine respond by trying to kill or capture him. All the while, in the background of the game, Dr. Breen issues public messages upbraiding the resistors and admonishing humanity to come to its senses and cooperate peacefully with their "Benefactors," the occupying alien force. Breen seems, in essence, another Lilith Iyapo, seen from the perspective of one of her human enemies in Xenogenesis.

Just how apt this comparison is not quite clear; it takes a fair deal of reading between the lines to generate a sympathetic portrait of Dr. Breen, whom Half-Life 2 sets up as the final enemy to be defeated at the close of the game's narrative.** And even if the player is able to come to terms with Breen's worldview, and accept that he's only doing what he thinks is right, the player can never know for sure that the Combine's promise for humanity's glorious future is not simply a lie. At best, Breen comes off as a well-meaning man forced by circumstance to go along with and even occasionally instigate oppression; but this is a pretty strained reading, given that Breen is also certainly also a bully and kind of a jerk.

Lilith, on the other hand, is a more complex figure, dealing with more morally complex circumstances. In the Xenogenesis universe, neither humanity nor aliens are completely in the right, and she manages to choose one side over the other without sacrificing her moral authority:
The humans start a war with their alien captors. The Oankali are peaceful, environmentally responsible and relatively egalitarian. They’re just trying to save humanity, right? And look at the thanks they get. Yet Butler isn’t interested in simple characterizations: Oankali good, humans bad. The Oankali don’t have a utopian society. They berate the humans for their deadly combination of intelligence and hierarchical thinking. Yet they constantly violate the rights of their captives...

Lilith is coerced and manipulated, and her choices are extremely limited (interbreed, death, or a solitary life aboard the ship). But she’s an intelligent, creative, and strong-willed woman, and she does what Butler’s heroines do well: She negotiates between poor options. She reluctantly acts as the mediator between the humans and the Oankali. She isn’t willing to be an Oankali pet or a guinea pig, but she isn’t willing to revert to caveman society with the humans either. Throughout the novel she demands respect from the Oankali, and works to forge a more equal partnership between the two groups. (From Sleeping With the Enemy: Octavia Butler's Dawn again)
Videogames are a young art form, and one thing videogame creators are still grappling with is how best to deliver narratives to the player. Half-Life 2 has an incredible narrative delivery mechanism: all narrative elements are delivered within the gameplay itself; there are no cutscenes (in which the player must put down the controller and watch a short movie) and no dialog boxes (where the action stops and the player goes through a list of possible questions and answers with a non-player character), only seamless gameplay. Creating this kind of narrative is incredibly demanding, as it requires timing events correctly and placing them in the right space so the player will not miss them and thus a crucial part of the story.

"How would you feel about committing genocide on behalf of a corporation?"
"What's in it for me?" (Knights of the Old Republic)

The only narrative that can readily be constructed with such delicate requirements of timing and placement is a rigidly linear one. On the other hand, the main tools that have been developed so far for creating moral complexity in videogame narratives require nonlinearity: games like Fable and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic allow the player to make choices that affect their own moral standing in the narrative, and which can even affect the actions and development of the non-player characters around them, creating branching narratives, the different limbs of which can only be seen by going back and playing the game again and making different choices. For now, such complex character development seems to require suspending any opportunity for the kind of seamless narrative experience offered by Half-Life 2, as the only videogame tools currently available for delivering it are the cutscenes and dialog boxes that Half-Life 2 deliberately avoids.

So the player cannot choose what will happen in the story, only how soon it will happen. There is no opportunity to explore other characters' motivations and internal worlds in greater depth; instead, the options are things like which tunnel to explore first, and whether to shoot the enemy or fling an exploding barrel at him.

You can also choose to shoot a chair at a gunship, though, so that's something

While the player of Half-Life 2 may try to look closely and find different readings of the character of Dr. Breen, ultimately the game is at pains to make him into an enemy for the player to overcome, and what moral complexity he might have accumulated in a more developed art form, like a novel, is here sacrificed for the needs of satisfying gameplay.

*Also known by the much less appealing name Lilith's Brood, for what it's worth. Seriously, Xenogenesis wasn't cool enough?
**The player is allowed to sit and listen patiently to Dr. Breen's broadcasts, but can often just as easily walk out of earshot or even pull the TV or other broadcasting device out of the wall, cutting off Breen's message with a satisfying electric pop before he's had the chance to make his case.

Photo sources:
1. & (Used here under what I believe to be fair use circumstances; the images are serving in the context of critical commentary on their respective works of art, and they contribute to readers' understanding of the material in a way that could not be practically achieved by words alone)
3. My gameplay

Monday, January 20, 2014

Where My Politics Come From (and Where They're Going)

There been times that I thought I couldn't last for long,
But now I think I'm able to carry on.
It's been a long, a long time coming,
But I know, change gonna come, oh yes it will.
—"Change is Gonna Come," Sam Cooke

In 2004, I voted for George W. Bush.

Or I would have, anyway, but since I was only 17 on Election Day, I could only make up my mind who I wanted to vote for. At the time, I wasn't very engaged in politics; the Iraq War was on everyone's lips, and on their minds, so that is the issue that I focused on when making the decision who to wish I could vote for. The notions that the war could be (1) excessively costly or lengthy, (2) successful only in damaging America's already tarnished reputation in the world, (3) waged on false pretenses, or (4) immoral and heinous in every way, were all foreign to me, as they were to many Americans.

At the time, removing a dictator with probable access to WMDs made sense to me. We were the world superpower, so it was our job to make sure the rest of the world was safe from such things. Besides, I knew little about John Kerry, aside from the fact that he was not George W. Bush, who seemed to be doing a pretty good job, as far as someone with my limited view of the world could tell. Why change?

This was pretty much the reverse of the logic I used in the mock elections we held in my fourth grade classroom in 1996. I voted for Bob Dole, because I thought the fairest thing would be for someone else to have a turn being president. If I had to let my sisters have their turn with the TV to watch Fiddler on the Roof, even though I really wanted to play Super Nintendo, why shouldn't Bill Clinton do the same with the presidency?

I don't recall being given a "Perot" option on my ballot.

While anyone who pressed me on the subject would have found that, before I went to college, I called myself politically conservative, the fact of the matter was that I was politically ignorant.

And in fact, I carried this ignorance with me well into college also. After the midterm elections in 2006, I admitted casually to a friend that I hadn't voted. I said that I hadn't had time to pay attention to the issues or the candidates on the ballot, and I felt it would have been wrong to vote under such circumstances. "Come on man, you should've voted anyway," he said, "after all, there's plenty of ignorant Republican voters out there, so you'd just be balancing them out."

This was, of course, an incredibly rude and presumptive thing to say. This friend is not a particularly rude or presumptive person, so I cut him some slack and didn't get in his face about it, but I sometimes still wish I'd thrown it back at him and said something like "Ha! You don't know me. I'm a Republican. And you're a dick." Of course, this wouldn't have been true; I was no Republican, I was just what I'd said I was: ignorant.

~   ~   ~

2009 GPD rates (brown countries in recession)

More than anything else, what finally made me pay attention to politics was the financial crash in 2008. I hadn't wanted to stick my nose into the presidential race before then; it seemed too messy, too upsetting. However, once I had an item on my agenda—namely, not graduating from college into a second Great Depression—the race became important to me personally. I voted for Obama on the strength of his economic plan; though by then I agreed more with the Democrats than Republicans on most social issues, I would probably have considered going the other way if McCain's reaction to the economic situation had made the most sense to me.

But once I finally stuck my nose into politics, I found I couldn't get enough of it. I started reading whatever I could get my eyeballs on, at least on the liberal side. I found that conservative publications had a tendency to make me angry; they seemed to hit below the belt more than I was comfortable with. I later realized this was an illusion—lots of the left-leaning stuff I was reading was happy to tear down the opposition with insults rather than objective statements about policy; I just found it easier to read because I usually agreed with liberal positions.

After graduating, I went to work for an AmeriCorps program, which sent me to schools in low-income neighborhoods on Chicago's south side. Working with my students—many of whom came from poor households—and observing the life and activity of the poorer areas of my city had an impact on my political thought that was at least as profound as my reading had been. I saw a lack of economic opportunities, a lack of access to nutritious food, and a lack of proper educational support for struggling students. But I also met a lot of good people, many of whom were working hard to breathe life back into their communities, to provide access to important services, and to care for each other as best they could. Seeing all this moved me politically to the left, as I began to care more about a strong social safety net, better distribution of wealth, and improved access to good education.

At the same time, I watched the political gridlock that developed in Washington with curiosity, then disgust. It frustrated me first when the Democrats seemed to push so little new legislation through when they had control of the legislature and presidency, and then even more when the conservative comeback shut things down in the capitol for good. I lost a good deal of my faith in President Obama, not just as someone who could get things done, but as someone who shared my values on things like war, education, and economic and social justice. I watched the Occupy movement with hope when it formed, and then despair as it was rejected and failed to accomplish change on a national level. With the rise of corporate influence and money in politics, the intransigence of the political right, and the general failures of the left, I started to despair of politics ever being a way of bringing about positive change in our society.

I think this is where a lot of my peers are right now: change, through politics anyway, is impossible. Why bother to try? Disengage from politics and turn toward other things. This is what conventional wisdom tells us is our present, and maybe our future.

Fortunately for me, I hooked in to something different. A progressive political movement is stirring, finally. Who knows how far it will go, or what power it will be able to exert, but it is out there, and I have seen it at work, and been a part of it. Yesterday, I attended "Hope in an Age of Crisis: Reclaiming Dr. King’s Radical Vision for Economic Equality;" it was a public meeting, held in a large Catholic church on Chicago's south side, where over 2000 members of progressive political advocacy groups gathered to publicly define specific policy goals, and to get real, live, on-stage commitments from political leaders to vote for and advance these goals. We talked about fighting mass incarceration of young men of color, creating and enforcing stricter regulations on fracking, expanding corporate tax transparency, and pressuring companies to pay their employees a living wage.

If you're a progressive person, but you're despairing like I was, then get excited instead: a train is coming, and you don't need a ticket to get on board. The people that gathered yesterday were part of the National People's Action, an umbrella group of local progressive organizations across the country that are advocating for change. They've got a strategy to take back economic power for the people, they're putting it into action, and they're here to stay.

I'm happy to be where I am politically. I can get engaged with specific agenda items that I care about, and help to bring about positive change in the world. I hope other people in my generation in this country are able to do the same.

Photo sources:

Monday, January 13, 2014


But you, you're a rock with a heart,
Like a socket I can plug into at will,
And will you guess when I come around next?
I hope your open sign is blinking still.

—"Marry Me," St. Vincent

My relationship with my fiancée, Anna, is characterized by a refusal to conform to social conventions we don't actually like. In fact, this is characteristic of us both individually; putting us together has simply allowed for mutual reinforcement on the matter. As a team, we can back each other up on, say, the decision to [gasp] not have wedding colors or [lolwut?] not change any names when we get married.

I know, I know, we're so hardcore. In a perfect world, of course, there would be no pressure to conform to such standards, but in our experience, there is no limit to people's ability to be offended about decisions that have no direct impact on them. C'est la vie.
~   ~   ~

From the very first, Anna was frank with me that she was not into (1) engagement rings or (2) elaborate public proposals at restaurants, basketball stadiums, monster truck rallies, etc. And I was frank with her that I was not into them either.

So when the time came to actually get engaged, it went like this instead:

First, understand that, in general, Anna and I are good about talking about our thoughts and feelings. But when it came time for some engaging, we had a sudden, unexpected, and unusual misunderstanding.

When had talked seriously about engagement for a while (like, we were circling around it and thinking about it and even starting to wonder aloud what a wedding might be like), but we had made no formal decision to get engaged, we had a conversation in which Anna was like "So we're practically engaged already," and I was like "Nuh-uh, we have to actually sit down in person and say we're engaged" and she was like "But that's just a formality, right?" and I was like "No, I'm pretty sure I want to think about it a little bit before we do it."

While this was a misunderstanding, most of the blame for it falls on me. It turns out, talking about a wedding with your significant other will, in fact, tend to lead them to believe that you are really interested in getting marriaged and that actual engagementing is just a formality. But how could I have known?! With my mind is how.

At all events, I did my last little bit of soul-searching, realized what I knew all along—that Anna totally ruled and that marrying her would seriously rule—and then I set to work crafting my combination apology/proposal.

The preparations were as follows:
Step 1: Set in motion a chain of events whereby, after the passage of a small amount of time, Anna would come to my apartment in Chicago.
Step 2: Sometime immediately before the arrival of said hopefully-soon-to-be-erstwhile-girlfriend, clean the apartment. This would, if done properly, cause her to experience feelings of happiness upon her arrival, both because cleanliness is a thing that she likes and because knowing that things have been cleaned in preparation of her arrival is a thing that she also likes.
Step 3: Acquire at the local Aldi a tub of Anna's favorite ice cream, mint chocolate chip, coincidentally also my favorite ice cream, but during said acquisition discover that they actually have mint chocolate chip moose tracks ice cream and purchase this superior ice cream variety instead.
Step 4: Return to the apartment and prepare a meal of pasta. Set the table.
Step 5: Wait.

When Anna arrived, she was indeed pleased at the cleanliness of my abode, and sat and ate with me the meal of pasta that I had provided. We moved to the couch, where I held her close, and asked if I could interest her in getting married sometime. She answered yes and started to cry happy, relieved tears.

I hugged her, and once she was ready, I went to the kitchen and returned with two bowls of mint chocolate chip moose tracks ice cream, which we ate together, newly fiancée and fiancé. We were both very happy together, and we remain so to this day.

This is our engagement photo, taken the next day by a friend.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The New Testament (in 48 hours)

This is the final entry in a series of posts on Reading the Whole Bible

I'll meet you at the Alamo mission
And we will say our prayers.
The Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mother
Will heal us, as we kneel there,
In the midnight moonlight,
Midnight moonlight, moonlight,
In the midnight, moonlight,
In the midnight moonlight, midnight.
—"Midnight Moonlight," The Be Good Tanyas

How It All Went Down:

At long last, I've come to the end of this project. As I mentioned in an entry this summer, I'd initially thought it would take me about three months to read my Bible, given that there were only 2000 pages or so, and with a good novel I can do 2000 pages in a couple of weeks. 2000 pages of Bible, I reasoned, shouldn't take much more than that. I ended up making quick progress until I hit the ~600 pages of poetry in the middle, which were so different and hard to plow through that I ended up taking a whole month off just to enjoy reading other things; I read much more slowly once I returned to them.

Perhaps surprisingly, I was expecting the same problem with the New Testament.

The New Testament is not my favorite part of the Bible; that designation is reserved for the beautiful narratives of the Hebrew Bible, especially 1 and 2 Samuel. Biblical narrative is what I crave; thankfully, there are five narrative books stacked right at the beginning of the NT: the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) which depict the life of Jesus from slightly different angles, and Acts, which describes the beginnings of the Christian church as it spread from Israel into the Roman Empire. While these books sometimes don't quite measure up to the sheer narrative artistry and literary pleasures of the Hebrew Bible's greatest moments, they are all still wonderful to read, and examining them in detail with commentary was something I looked forward to. These books were not my problem.

My problem with the New Testament has always been the second half, which consists almost entirely of epistles (a word which I was not able to distinguish from "apostles" until I was almost an adult) or letters. These letters were often sent from a church leader to a specific church in another city, but sometimes to a specific individual or a more general audience, the early Christians as a whole. These books, in other words, do not tell a story; rather, they lay out instructions and theology for the early church, often using the techniques of ancient Greek rhetoric to do so. To say the least, the prospect of ending the Bible project with a slog through ~200 pages of this epistolary material did not seem all that exciting.

To get around this, and the risk of dragging out the project over another month or two, I borrowed a technique I learned in college: set an arbitrary deadline and cram like heck to meet it!

It so happened that by the end of 2013, I had only finished about one and a half gospels, and so had over 300 pages left to finish in the NT before I was done with the Bible. Since I'd made no plans for New Year's Eve, I decided I would try my best to finish before midnight. After I got home from work, I sat down with some snacks and a couple of Bibles for cross-referencing and went to town. I ended up making it about halfway through the remaining 300 pages before midnight, going to sleep, waking up early, and finishing the rest over the course of the next day, finishing just before midnight on New Year's Day, 2014. So if the Whole Bible Project had really been a college assignment, I would have lost a letter grade for turning it in a day late. Still: the arbitrary deadline worked! 300 pages in 2 days was by far the best speed I'd managed to accomplish over the course of the project. The real question was: at that pace, would I get anything meaningful out of it?

What I Got Out of It:

Dude, of course I did. The Bible is awesome; pretty much no matter how fast you read it, you can learn something. As the New Testament book of Hebrews puts it, "the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword."

Except, of course, that when you read that verse in context, it's clear that it means nothing of the kind:
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account. (Hebrews 4:12-13, NRSV)
In Hebrews, the verse is clearly referring not to the liveliness and potency of scripture, but to God's ability to speak to and judge the human heart. Yet I have never heard this verse quoted by a Christian except as a way of talking about the Bible, "God's word," as we have come to call it, never mind that the Bible as we know it, for obvious reasons, simply did not exist when the anonymous author of Hebrews was writing.

One of the most interesting parts of reading through the whole NT, then, was putting back into context verses that I'd heard quoted time again in church as prooftexts for some idea or other, discovering in the process that they meant something completely different than I'd been taught. Here's another one, Romans 8:28: "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God" (NRSV). For some reason, this is often quoted as proof that God wills all things, good or bad, and that the bad things he wills are secretly going to work out for the better, which has always struck me as insane. The notion that rapes and murders and catastrophes and wars are God's will is fine, if you don't believe that God is good, but the people who say this stuff do believe that. In context, or heck, even out of context, it seems pretty clear to me that this verse means something radically different; as my commentary so helpfully put it, "[Romans 8:28] does not say that God wills all things, but that God works in all things for the good of those who love God" (New Interpreter's Study Bible, pg. 2022, emphasis mine). It was nice not only to read it as part of a larger whole, but to have the commentary on it confirm my suspicion that it is being misinterpreted.

The slightly disturbing thing about the project was that, even as I was gleefully reading well-known verses and discovering their original meanings, I also watched the Biblical authors do the exact opposite.

The funny thing about the Bible is how self-referential it is. The Biblical authors were constantly quoting, alluding to, or retelling each other's stories and ideas:

Map of all the cross-references in the Bible; color corresponds to textual distance between the points of reference
As the earlier books of the Bible aged, they took on a new character for the Jews (and later Christians) who read them. The most important conclusion that later readers came to was that these books were not just texts written for the specific time and audience of their authors' day, but as universal divine messages to people, and especially messages that were relevant for their own time as later readers. One important result of this was that the books of the Bible that had already been written came to be seen as a kind of vast code, any part of which might be extracted and connected with something else to make a new meaning.

For example: the author of Hebrews, the very book I've already complained about people extracting a single verse from and giving it a whole new meaning, felt extremely free to quote from and allude to the Hebrew Bible throughout his own book; my commentary counts 30 direct citations and 70 allusions. These citations and allusions are not serving the purpose of elucidating what their original authors wanted to say to their own audience; rather, the author of Hebrews is governed by "the conviction that Christ is the ultimate meaning and goal of the [Hebrew Bible] and thus that the [Hebrew Bible] constantly points to him" (NISB, pg. 2152; the original text has "OT," that is "Old Testament," where I've put "Hebrew Bible," but OT is not a term I've been using in writing this series). In keeping with this conviction, the author of Hebrews disregards the original meanings of his texts and read them as if they referred to Christ. 

My feeling of superiority, therefore, was severely undercut by the fact that the same principle I was objecting to seemed to have been applied throughout the very Bible I was trying to protect from it. Wrestling with questions of context and reinterpretation has been a big part of the fun of this project, though, which I've written a bit more about elsewhere

What Else: 

The best part of this two-day Bible smorgasbord was finally discovering some actual enjoyment in reading those dreaded epistles. When segments of the epistles are read in church, they often come off as didactic in tone and the kind of un-fun thing you wouldn't really want to dive into at length. When reading in a group at a Bible study, they seem confusing and sometimes even pointless. However, reading them on my own, quickly, with a commentary to guide me, I discovered a couple of delightful things:

The first was that, quite apart from any spiritual meaning I might someday extract from them as pieces of religious instruction, the letters actually double as a sort of sketch of the very early history of the church. These letters, after all, are the first Christian writings we possess, and they make for a sort of historical mystery or puzzle to solve, the prize for solving it being a vision of the structure community and life of the first people to believe in Jesus as we Christians, their spiritual descendants, still do today.

For example, the main thesis of the book of Galatians (so named because early Christian missionary Paul wrote it to a church in the city of Galatia), is that as Christians, we are justified, or known to be righteous, because of our faith in Christ, not because of obedience to religious laws. In articulating this message, though, Paul takes a moment to tell how he confronted the apostle Peter (here called by his Aramaic name, Cephas) when he saw him doing something he thought was wrong:
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews? (Galatians 2:11-14, NRSV)
The point of the story is that Paul is defending the right of Gentile Christians to not get circumcised (since they were justified by faith in Christ, not obedience to the Jewish religious laws, including the commandment that males must be circumcised). It supports his thesis in the book of Galatians: he has stood up for this idea in his own life, as the story demonstrates. But the result of him telling us the story is that we have this little glimpse of conflict in the early church, between two of its most key founding members: Peter, the most prominent disciple of Christ and a leader of the early church, and Paul, the formulator of much of the early church's theology and the person who most actively spread the faith to non-Jews. These kinds of clues are nearly always left out of church services, because while they are interesting if you're looking for this sideways glimpse of the early church I'm talking about, they tend to leave something to be desired in terms of teaching a religious idea or lesson.

The other delightful thing I discovered in the epistles was the radical, creative, odd beauty of the theology in the letters. When I read these letters, Christianity felt less like something a couple of millennia old, with tradition after tradition and interpretation after reinterpretation stacked against and on top of each other across the ages, and more like something completely fresh and weird, at once full of adventure and joy. Reading the books all in the course of 48 hours helped reinforce this feeling for me, since I was seeing the letters all together and watching the church grow and change and think and even argue with itself over the course of its first few decades. But I think all it really takes to get this feeling is to step away for a moment from the idea that these books are written primarily for you, the reader (an idea which I've found Christians, especially Protestants, seem to assume more often than is healthy) and to instead start by thinking about the original audience. To me, the fact that they are letters, often literally written to a specific, named audience of people, was also helpful in this regard.

At all events, I enjoyed thinking about ideas I'd heard countless times before being articulated for the first time, to the audiences for whom they were originally meant. The newness, the weirdness, the creativity came through powerfully and beautifully for me. As a demonstration, I'd like to return to the book I started this section with, the Letter to the Hebrews. The main point of the book is to articulate the idea that Jesus is the believers' very own High Priest, like the Jewish High Priest who made the atoning sacrifices in the Holy of Holies at the Temple at Jerusalem, only better:
For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. (Hebrews 9:24-25, NRSV, emphasis mine)
The notion that Jesus is a High Priest of some kind or another has been rattling around in my brain for a decade or two, mostly because I often sang this one song that mentions it briefly at the beginning. I've also been aware of the notion that Jesus' sacrifice atones for sins, in the abstract, for a long time. What's neat about this passage is how eloquently, and creatively, it articulates a completely new piece of theology: Jesus is the new High Priest, who made a sacrifice, not of an animal's blood, but of his own, and not for one time only, but for all people and for always.

For Christians today, this idea maybe isn't that big of a deal. But for the Jewish Christians who were the audience for this letter, who were concerned about the religion they'd chosen, facing rejection from their society and religion, and considering leaving the faith, this creative bit of theologizing might have made all the difference. It connected their faith with the faith of their forbears, and assured them that they had chosen the correct way, that they were still part of God's people.

The fact that the Biblical authors were able to draw together the different strands of their faith, different ideas from previous generations, into something new that spoke to their own day, gives me hope that I and my fellow Christians can do the same in our time. While I may sometimes worry about people forgetting the context for the verses they quote as proof to each other, in the end I am encouraged by the examples I found in the New Testament, especially in the epistles, and I believe that God can still speak to us through the fresh reading and application of these ancient texts.

Photo Sources: