Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Beginning Hanson's Dawn of Apocalyptic

I started Paul Hanson's 1975 classic, The Dawn of Apocalyptic. I will start this post by quoting Hanson's definitions of prophetic eschatology and apocalyptic eschatology on pages 11-12:

"Prophetic eschatology we define as a religious perspective which focuses on the prophetic announcement to the nation of the divine plans for Israel and the world which the prophet has witnessed unfolding in the divine council and which he translates into the terms of plain history, real politics, and human instrumentality; that is, the prophet interprets for the king and the people how the plans of the divine council will be effected within the context of their nation's history and the history of the world.

"Apocalyptic eschatology we define as a religious perspective which focuses on the disclosure (usually esoteric in nature) to the elect of the cosmic vision of Yahweh's sovereignty---especially as it relates to his acting to deliver his faithful---which disclosure the visionaries have largely ceased to translate into the terms of plain history, real politics, and human instrumentality due to a pessimistic view of reality growing out of the bleak post-exilic conditions within which those associated with the visionaries found themselves. Those conditions seemed unsuitable to them as a context for the envisioned restoration of Yahweh's people."

Prophetic eschatology is about God working through history and human institutions, as when God uses Assyria or Babylon to punish Israel for her sins, and plans to rebuild Israel through a humanly-administered program that acknowledges her institutions, such as the monarchy and the priesthood. Apocalyptic eschatology, by contrast, desires God's direct intervention into world events as well as despairs about national institutions. The way that this plays out so far in Hanson's book is that there are a group of Mushites (Levites claiming Moses as their ancestor) who remained behind in the land of Israel after Babylon conquered the land. But these Mushites were displaced by Zadokites who were coming back to Israel from the exile, and the Zadokites had the advantage because they were backed by the Persians. The Mushites had no chance of gaining back their power, and so they awaited a dramatic intervention by God himself, in which God would punish the Zadokites and institute a new order. The Mushites attached themselves to the community that surrounded Second Isaiah, and my impression from Hanson's book is that the Mushites invoked the authority of Second Isaiah for their own agenda. The apocalyptic expectation was that God would replace the current system with one in which all of the Israelites were holy, reflecting Second Isaiah's vision of democratization. This vision is contained in Isaiah 60-66, where Hanson sees evidence of marginalization, a Mushite presence, a Palestinian provenance, and a desire for democratization. Ezekiel 40-48, by contrast, upheld the Zadokites.

This is my impression of what Hanson is arguing, and I welcome correction (as long as it's gentle!). Hanson's scenario coincides with other arguments that he makes in his book. Hanson disagrees with scholars who believe that apocalypticism originated as a result of foreign (primarily Persian) influence. He acknowledges that foreign elements were imported into apocalypticism at a later point in time, but he maintains that apocalypticism was descended from prophecy, and that apocalypticism literalized Canaanite myths that were long a part of Israel's heritage (i.e., the Divine Warrior, the divine defeat of chaos, etc.). For Hanson, apocalypticism emerged in post-exilic Israel because a community felt powerless against the establishment in Israel and desired God's vindication and intervention.

This is one take on apocalypticism, and I also checked out another book with an alternative viewpoint, Stephen L. Cook's Prophecy and Apocalypticism: The Postexilic Social Setting. The back cover of this book provocatively states: "Did Israelite Jewish apocalyptic literature originate among alienated or disenfranchised groups? In this overview of apocalypticism in the Hebrew Bible, Stephen L. Cook contends that such thinking and writing stems from priestly groups that held power." So Cook believes that apocalyptic was an establishment phenomenon, not a product of disenfranchised groups. I'll read Cook's argument, however, after I finish Hanson's book.

Eddie Reassuring Myra

On pages 83-102 of Stephen King’s IT, Eddie Kaspbrak gets a call from Mike Hanlon telling him that IT has returned and so Eddie has to return to Derry to help fight it. (I just realized that I’ve been misspelling Eddie’s last name in my posts. His last name is “Kaspbrak”, not “Kasprak”.) Eddie runs a successful limousine company, and he’s explaining to his wife, Myra, that she will have to drive Al Pacino. But Myra is afraid that she will do the task incorrectly (i.e., get lost) and that Al Pacino will yell at her. On page 94, Eddie tries to reassure Myra that the task is not that hard:

“Myra, it’s all as easy as one-two-three. One, you make the pick-up at the Saint Regis tomorrow at seven P.M. and take him over to the ABC Building. They’re retaping the last act of this play Pacino’s in—American Buffalo, I think it’s called. Two, you take him back to the Saint Regis around eleven. Three, you go back to the garage, turn in the car, and sign the greensheet…If it looks like he’s going to party all night, you can call Phil Thomas on the radio-phone after midnight. By then he’ll have a driver free to relieve you…You’ll be snug in your own bed by one in the morning, Marty—one in the morning at the very, very latest. I apple-solutely guarantee it.”

I can identify with Myra here: being afraid of making a mistake and humiliating myself, worse, being yelled at. But it’s good when somebody breaks the task down and presents it as manageable to me—better yet, encourages me that I can do it. And I do reassure myself that intimidating events will be over—that I’ll be in bed that night. That’s the way it was with my comprehensive exams, which appeared very intimidating to me. Unfortunately, though, there have been some bad events that have left scars.

While I’m on this section of the book, I really liked something Eddie thought on page 93. Eddie reassures Myra that Al Pacino is a nice and understanding man, and thus won’t yell at her. On page 93, Eddie thinks: “He had never driven Pacino before in his life, but contented himself with knowing that at least the law of averages was on the side of this lie—according to popular myth most celebrities were shitheels, but Eddie had driven enough of them to know it usually wasn’t true.”

But at least Eddie was comforting Myra! Hopefully, she did her task and Al Pacino did not yell at her. Unfortunately, the book does not tell us what happened in this incident.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Who Can Interpret the Bible?

I finished Mark Smith's Untold Stories: The Bible and Ugaritic Studies in the Twentieth Century. I'll start this post with something that Smith says on page 223:

"In the last two decades, historical criticism has hardly been the hegemonic enterprise that its critics have made it out to be. Few fields have been as open to nonspecialists and dissenting scholars as the biblical guild...Scholars of Ugaritic and Bible should continue to insist on a rigorous knowledge of primary sources even as the discipline engages recently developed methods. All who enter biblical studies should have their insights noted, appreciated, and refined, as the Bible is hardly the private domain of scholars. By the same token, the research of specialists or nonspecialists alike legitimately deserves criticism if it does not exhibit knowledge of primary sources. A field lacking basic professional standards is by definition not professional, and failure to invoke such standards surrenders its identity as an arena for rigorous research."

Who can comment on the Bible? Only scholars? Or can non-scholars---even non-scholars who are unaware of scholarship or scholarly criteria---arrive at legitimate insights about the Bible? I like how Smith handles this question: He says that everyone should have the opportunity to contribute insights about the Bible, but that all insights should be sifted according to a scholarly criteria, such as consistency with primary sources. I'm for this, on some level, but something that has been reinforced in my mind as I have read this book is how there are disputes among scholars, and scholarship changes. Just in today's reading, I encountered a debate about whether or not El is passive in Ugaritic sources, a period of scholarship in which Ugaritic studies declined because Mitchell Dahood went overboard with the language (in the eyes of many scholars), and questions about whether or not Ugaritic should be labeled a "Canaanite" language. In one humorous story, a student of Frank Moore Cross was writing on the board a vocalized text that was based on one of Cross' articles, and Cross said that the vocalization was wrong. So Cross was disagreeing with himself! And so what is a layperson to do? He or she should rely on the insights of biblical scholars, but which ones?

True Love

In Stephen King’s IT, Ben Hanscom has a crush on Beverly Marsh, but, while she likes Ben as a friend, she loves Bill Denbrough. After the Losers’ Club gives IT a temporary setback in an old house, Ben observes that Bill is starting to feel the same way about Beverly that she feels about him. Here are some of Ben’s thoughts on pages 875-876:

“Good luck, Big Bill…If that’s the way it is. But you’ll never love her the way I do. Never…I love you, Beverly…just let me have that. You can have Bill, or the world, or whatever you need. Just let me have that, let me go on loving you, and I guess it’ll be enough.”

The Losers are kids in that part of the book, but, when they become adults and reunite in Derry, Ben starts to feel the same jealousy when he notices that Beverly and Bill are gravitating towards each other. On page 902, Bill thinks the following:

“If he had been able to send Ben a thought, Bill would have sent this one: It doesn’t matter, Ben. The love is what matters, the caring…it’s always the desire, never the time. Maybe that’s all we get to take with us when we go out of the blue and into the black. Cold comfort, maybe, but better than no comfort at all.”

What Bill may mean is something like “It is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all”, only, here, Ben did not love and lose because he and Beverly were never a romantic couple. But Bill’s point is probably that Ben should find some degree of comfort (even if it is cold comfort) in loving Beverly, even if he never has the opportunity to have a romantic relationship with her. There are times when our love is what defines our character, even if we may not have an opportunity to act on that love.

What I admire about Ben is that he loves Beverly, even though he knows that she loves somebody else. I do not totally know on what basis he loves her. Part of the attraction is physical because he writes her that poem about her red hair, but he may also like her because she is a nice person, and she has courage and spirit. His love for her is more than lust because he is protective of her, which indicates true love. At some point in the book, Beverly thinks to herself that Ben would be willing to die for her, and she is probably right about that.

For some reason, I can identify with Ben, and I am not sure why. I have had a number of crushes over the course of my life, but I can’t say that I felt about any of them the way that Ben feels about Beverly Marsh—loving them, whether or not they loved me back in a romantic fashion. I cannot say that I am utterly self-absorbed, for I have rooted for the success of other people. But I also cannot say that my attitude towards women I like is similar to Patrick’s on the Little House on the Prairie episode, “Meet Me At the Fair”—Patrick crossed his fingers, hoping that Mary would win the quilting contest, even though she was not with him but with his dashing, charming boss. Maybe it’s good that I don’t get so attached. But Bill and Ben would say that the reward is actually in loving somebody else—in caring.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Albright, Jews, and Catholics; Literary Vs. Ritual

I'm continuing my way through Mark Smith's Untold Stories: The Bible and Ugaritic Studies in the Twentieth Century. I have two items from today's reading:

1. I'll actually start this first item with something from yesterday's reading. On pages 31-32, Smith states the following about Cyrus Gordon:

"...Gordon's background as a nonobservant Jew made him suspect in Jewish circles but perhaps 'too' Jewish in non-Jewish circles. (In a letter of recommendation to Sir Leonard Woolley, the director of the University Museum at Penn remarked that 'while he [Gordon] is of Hebraic origin, it is not too obvious.') Owing to his problems with Speiser and his Jewish background, Gordon thought that Albright would not push hard for his candidacy in most university."

This took me aback. Was W.F. Albright an anti-Semite? On pages 69-70, Smith documents that, while Johns Hopkins University indeed did try to restrict its number of Jewish students, Albright himself was quite friendly with Jews. As Smith states, "Few other programs of the postwar era would have had [Jew] Moshe Held and [Catholic] Joseph Fitzmyer together in a Ugaritic class." Albright also associated with Jewish scholars and Jewish institutions, such as Jewish Theological Seminary and Dropsie College (which was later absorbed into the University of Pennsylvania). And Smith notes that "Albright [in 1936] deplored American anti-Semitism even as he saw it gathering force in Germany."

Smith also talks about Albright's attitudes towards Catholicism on page 70. While Albright did have "anti-Catholic prejudices in his background", he became open to the religion. His wife converted to Catholicism, and he himself contemplated doing so because he was unhappy with the liberal direction that the Methodist church was going. Albright also taught at the Pontifical Biblical Institute for a while, and he had good relationships with Catholic scholars.

2. On page 94, Smith talks about the afterlife and whether or not Baal was a dying and rising god. Smith states that Ugaritic kings were believed to have an afterlife, which should add nuance to the scholarly claim I have heard that ancient Near Eastern cultures (apart from Egypt) lacked a rigorous conception of the afterlife. Regarding Baal, Smith points out on page 92 that "there are approximately seventy ritual texts from Ugarit, and not one of them clearly reflects the notion of Baal as a 'dying and rising god.'" But Smith then discusses a royal funerary text that presents Baal as dead, and then alive again (although the text does not specifically describe his return to life, but Baal is alive after a gap in the text). Smith does not see evidence that the death and resurrection of Baal were celebrated ritually. But he does believe that the death of Baal corresponded with a lack of agricultural fertility and threats to societal order. Smith focuses on the Baal Cycle as something that is literary, not ritual: "The Baal Cycle offers a literary rendering of the god that encodes the fertility and fragility of life on the natural, human, and cosmic levels."

And, speaking of the "literary or ritual" issue, Smith on pages 95-96 talks about whether or not certain Psalms were used in the Sukkoth festival. The context of this discussion is Mowinckel's application of many Psalms to a New Year's Festival, and A. Fitzgerald's argument (against Mowinckel's detractors) that many Psalms indeed were cultic and related to the renewal of nature---but they were used during Sukkoth. Smith is open to some of those kinds of Psalms being used for Sukkoth, but there are other such Psalms that he regards as primarily literary, not as cultic. For example, Psalm 63 uses the imagery of fall rains metaphorically, as the Psalmist describes himself as "parched like a waterless land" (Smith's words). Some Psalms lack liturgical aspects, such as communal refrains. Some Psalms mention Moses, Aaron, and Samuel rather than the king, which may imply a post-exilic adaptation, and which prompted even Mowinckel to acknowledge "the issue of a literary versus a cultic setting." For Smith, in short, Psalms that talk about rain or renewal may have been influenced by Sukkoth, but not all of those kinds of Psalms were necessarily part of the Sukkoth liturgy.

Reunions and Old Roles

On page 575 of Stephen King’s IT, Richie Tozer reflects on how people fall back into their old roles at reunions:

“The others saw him as the Klass Klown, the Krazy Kut-up, and he had fallen neatly and easily into that role again. Ah, we all fell neatly and easily back into our old roles again, didn’t you notice? But was there anything very unusual about that? He thought you would probably see much the same thing at any tenth or twentieth high school reunion—the class comedian who had discovered a vocation for the priesthood in college would, after two drinks, revert almost automatically to the wiseacre he had been; the Great English Brain who had wound up with a GM truck dealership would suddenly begin spouting off about John Irving or John Cheever; the guy who had played with the Moondogs on Saturday nights and who had gone on to become a mathematics professor at Cornell would suddenly find himself on stage with a band, a Fender guitar strapped over his shoulder, whopping out ‘Gloria’ or ‘Surfin’ Bird’ with gleeful drunken ferocity.”

I haven’t gone to any of my high school reunions, but I have reconnected with high school acquaintances online. I have had at least one experience that resembles what Richie Tozer is talking about. I posted something about reading David Stockman’s Triumph of Politics when I was in the sixth grade, and how I noticed that Stockman was a deficit-hawk, in a sea of non-deficit hawks. (I doubt that I thought in that vocabulary when I was in the sixth grade, but I could pick up in the book that Stockman wanted the government to cut spending and to raise taxes to redress the deficit, and most governmental people inside and outside of the Reagan Administration were unwilling to go along with his proposals.) One of my high school classmates then posted that I was smart and should become a Senator.

Contrary to appearances, she was not being condescending. There were people in my high school class who expected me to do great things when I became an adult. I was voted “Most likely to succeed” and “Most likely to become a politician”. I can understand people back then thinking that way, since I actually had political opinions, whereas many of my classmates did not (although some did). That made me look smart. Nowadays, most of my classmates as adults have reached decisions about where they should stand politically. I probably still come across to them as the same opinionated person that I was back in high school, even though, nowadays, my opinions are different, in that I’m currently more liberal politically and religiously than I was back then. But I can still appear opinionated. I guess some roles never change! I doubt that I come across as smart to many of my acquaintances from high school, however, for, nowadays, we all hold political opinions. I’m not one of the precious few who thinks about current events.

That’s why that one person’s comment took me aback. I can understand people thinking I would one day become a great politician back when we were in high school. But now? Heck, there’s no indication that I’ll even have a political career! I haven’t run for anything yet. Also, my Asperger’s pretty much prevents me from making a bunch of contacts that are necessary for a career in politics. I could dream big back in my high school days, and others could have high expectations of me. Now that I’m an adult, however, I don’t dream big.

But, to that one person, I have the same role today that I had in high school. Reading her comment was like going back in time, if that makes any sense.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Stories on Love

The topic at church this morning was love. In the sermon, the pastor had a lot of good stories. He opened with a story about Will Durant, who tried to find happiness in learning, in travel, and in writing, and he ended up feeling unfulfilled and fatigued. But Durant learned that happiness could be found in relationships. The pastor also talked about Babe Ruth, who remarked that the people who had been most meaningful to him in his life were not famous. Babe Ruth mentioned an elderly pastor whose wisdom inspired him. The pastor’s point was that acknowledging the people who have helped us is itself an act of love. The pastor referred to a mother whose son married a woman she did not like, and she refused to see her son and her grand-kids on account of that. She was holding on to her resentment, but at what cost? And the pastor mentioned Eleanor Roosevelt, who was considered an ugly duckling and whose husband cheated on her, but she overcame evil with good as she became a humanitarian and championed civil rights before it was even popular.

In the children’s service, the pastor’s puppet, Jake, said that he had two friends who did not like each other, and he asked what those friends should do. One of the kids suggested that the friends meet face-to-face and hash out their problems with each other. And the pastor said that the friends could do nice things for each other.

And the Prayer of Confession was rather deep: “God of Mystery, we are constantly amazed by the depth of your love. Over and over again, You turn our expectations inside out and upside down. And still we don’t understand the radical nature of your grace. We play by our own rules of justice, even when it means excluding those we are called to love and defend.”

My reactions: (1.) Relationships can bring happiness, but they don’t necessarily in my case, since I find socializing to be difficult. Still, it’s good to know that people care for me, and I should care for others. (2.) I like hearing steps to love that even I can take, with all of my introversion—acknowledging those who have helped me in the past, trying to empathize with others and pursue justice for all, etc. (3.) I tend to be avoidant when it comes to conflict, for better or for worse. I don’t confront people. I also am reluctant to do something nice for someone who dislikes me and whom I dislike, since that seems rather phony, and the person who dislikes me recognizes it as phony. He may think that I’m doing my act of kindness to obligate him, in some manner. So why bother? Some people I prefer to, well, avoid!

Beginning Mark Smith's Untold Stories

I started Mark Smith's Untold Stories: The Bible and Ugaritic Studies in the Twentieth Century. Ugaritic was a Semitic language in the ancient city of Ugarit, in Syria. A farmer in 1928 stumbled on a stone while ploughing, dug underneath the stone, and found a tomb. (I'm reminded of Stephen King's Tommyknockers.) More was excavated, and material in Ugaritic was found. Biblical scholars who were familiar with Semitic languages, some of whom had been cryptographers in World War I, went about deciphering the language. They concluded that it had an alphabet, and they began to make sense of the documents in front of them, as they drew from expertise in cryptography and their knowledge of Hebrew.

Ugaritic helped to illuminate the Hebrew Bible. It was believed to be a Canaanite language, I think on account of its similarities to Hebrew, plus it provided more information about gods that the Hebrew Bible associates with the Canaanites (e.g., Baal). Ugaritic literature highlighted similarities between Canaanite religion and strands of Yahwism in the Hebrew Bible (i.e., Baal and Yahweh dwelt on Tzaphon---see Psalm 48:3; both battled chaos; etc.). Daniel in Ezekiel 14:14, 20 was understood as Dan'ilu in Ugaritic literature, not as Daniel. Ugaritic also helped scholars to clarify Hebrew vocabulary. There were some shots in the dark, such as H.L. Ginsberg's argument that the biblical ban on boiling a kid in its mother's milk was a polemic against a ritual practice mentioned in Ugaritic literature. But Ugaritic has still helped scholars to understand the Hebrew Bible and to situate it in its ancient Near Eastern context.

(UPDATE: Later in the book, Smith talks about scholars who have problems with the label of "Canaanite", let alone with the classification of Ugaritic as Canaanite!)

Smith remarks that David Noel Freedman told him that this book reads like a phone book in places, and Freedman is right. But I still find the book interesting because it talks about the personalities and relationships of legendary biblical scholars. (The chapter I read today was about 1928-1945.) For example, there was tension between Cyrus Gordon and his teacher, E.A. Speiser (whom I have discussed on this blog before). Speiser thought that Gordon was an arrogant show-off (as did many of Gordon's young colleagues), and Gordon viewed Speiser as someone who was insecure about being upstaged. (I liked what Gordon said about Speiser, which Smith mentions on page 29: "he was skilled at kissing up and kicking down.") Gordon liked to pursue big projects (such as writing grammars on ancient languages), when the standard practice was to reserve the big projects for experienced scholars, while the younger scholars gained experience by tackling smaller projects. But Gordon was admired by Speiser and W.H. Albright, for he did have a knack for languages. As Albright wrote, Gordon could speak Hebrew, Arabic, and Syrian and Iraqi dialects.

This book presents examples of "If first you don't succeed, try, try again", or "When life hands you lemons, make lemonade". Speiser did not want Gordon to do projects in Assyriology, for Speiser thought that was his own territory (according to Gordon). And so Gordon pursued the study of Ugaritic. Another figure in Smith's book is Julian Obermann, who presented what H.L. Ginsberg considered to be a bad paper. But Obermann's work got better, and it even managed to impress Ginsberg!

I'll close this post by briefly touching on the debate between Albright and Theophile Meek on monotheism. Albright believed that monotheism was ancient in Israel, going back to Moses, whereas Meek maintained that monotheistic statements first appear in the sixth century prophets. On pages 35-36, Smith (who has written a lot on monotheism himself, and I have blogged about some of his research) states what he considers to be the weaknesses to the two positions:

"Albright...did not address the fundamental question concerning later monotheistic formulations. If Israel were basically monotheistic from an early time, as he claimed, then why did its rhetoric of monotheism appear in clearer, less ambiguous forms only in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E.? And Meek...did not solve the problem raised by the distinctive form of Israelite polytheism, which was certainly a far more reduced form of polytheism compared to the pantheons found in the Ugaritic record."

In short, Albright did not account for the late appearance of monotheistic formulas, and Meek did not address the point that, even if ancient Israel was polytheistic for some time, it was certainly a reduced polytheism, in comparison with that of other ancient Near Eastern nations. It did not have a huge pantheon, for example.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Cohen on Converts' Status and Timothy's Circumcision

I finished Shaye Cohen's The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties. In this post, I will talk about Chapter 10, "Israelite Mothers, Israelite Fathers: Matrilineal Descent and the Inequality of the Convert", and Appendix D, "Was Timothy Jewish?"

1. Chapter 10 discusses a difference of opinion between the Mishnah and the Jerusalem Talmud concerning the status of Gentile converts to Judaism, which was significant in a debate during the medieval period. On page 338, Cohen summarizes a Mishnaic position:

"Like all other Jews ('Israel'), converts are obligated to observe the commandments. They are obligated to bring first fruits to the temple and to pray; as Jews of good standing they may marry other members of the community. But converts are not the same as natives. Because they do not have Israelite fathers, in some contexts they suffer legal impairment and rank below natives. They are obligated to bring first fruits, but they may not recite the declaration proscribed by Deuteronomy, because they cannot truthfully declare that the fruits came from the land which God has sworn to our fathers to give us: God swore nothing to their fathers! Similarly, they are obligated to pray but they may not use the common phrase 'God of our Fathers,' because our God was not the god of their fathers. Converts may marry into the native Israelite community, but because of their blemished pedigree, the daughter of converts may not be married to a priest."

In essence, this particular Mishnaic position appears to treat converts as second-class citizens because they are not Jewish by blood, and thus they cannot keep certain commandments (i.e., the ones in which Israelites acknowledge their ancestry).

Rabbi Judah in the Jerusalem Talmud, by contrast, affirms that Gentiles who have converted to Judaism have become descendants of Abraham. According to Cohen, the debate in the high Middle Ages between advocates of the Mishnaic position and advocates of the position in the Jerusalem Talmud was resolved in favor of the Jerusalem Talmud position---that converts become children of Abraham.

2. Acts 16:1-3 states the following (in the translation that Cohen is using): "And he [Paul] came also to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer; but his father was a Greek. He was well spoken of by the brethren of Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him; and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews that were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek."

Why did Paul have Timothy circumcised, whereas he did not circumcise the Greek Titus, according to Galatians 2:3? New Testament scholars influenced by the Tubingen School have maintained that the Book of Acts presents a Paul who is not as opposed to the Torah as the Paul who wrote Galatians. But there are other scholars who have gone on a more harmonizing route, as some say that Acts was influenced by Paul's declaration in I Corinthians 9:20 that he became like a Jew to the Jews, in order to win the Jews, and others affirm that Paul in Galatians 5:11 ("If I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted?") is refuting those who believe that Paul thinks that works of the Law are necessary for salvation, since, after all, Paul circumcised Timothy.

Did Paul have Timothy circumcised because Timothy was Jewish through his mother, and thus Paul wanted to show that he was not against Jewish Christians keeping the Law? What is odd is that (according to Cohen) St. Augustine thought that Timothy was a Gentile and not a Jew, even though he believed that Jewish Christians could keep the Law. According to Augustine, Paul had Timothy circumcised in order to show the Jews and Timothy's relatives on his mother's side that Christians were not opposed to circumcision, whereas Paul refused to circumcise Titus because he did not want to support the claim that Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to be saved. But Augustine did not say that Timothy was a Jew, even though that would have helped him to explain Timothy's circumcision. And, according to Cohen, Timothy in the Book of Acts was a Gentile and not a Jew, for the notion of matrilineal descent had not yet appeared in Judaism. But a contemporary of Augustine, Pseudo-Ambrose, held that Timothy was Jewish through his mother, perhaps because he drew from Roman or rabbinic law.

I'd like to mention an interesting detail in this Appendix: Jerome believed that Peter and Paul were just pretending to argue in Galatians 2! Peter was trying to appeal to the Jewish Christians, and Paul to the Gentile Christians. But Augustine did not agree that the apostles told white lies.

This is a book that I may revisit in the future, whether I blog about it or not, for I am interested in such issues as Gentile observance of the Torah, Deuteronomy 23's ban of certain people-groups from the congregation of the Lord, and the question of whether the patriarchs observed the Torah. (As I have read and heard, and as Cohen demonstrates, pieces of rabbinic literature present the patriarchs observing it, while other parts maintain that God's requirements were different before Sinai than they were after it.)

Psalm 39

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 39.

The Psalmist does not want to sin with his tongue, which perhaps means that he is afraid that he will open his mouth and curse God, or that his complaints about God will cause his enemies to mock God and the Psalmist’s faith. But the Psalmist can keep silent no longer, and some take this to imply that the Psalmist does not want to complain about God to other people, but that he should feel free to do so before God. And yet, v 9 seems to indicate that the Psalmist regards silence before the God who is afflicting him as the wisest course, which may imply that the Psalmist hopes that passive acceptance of his suffering will appease God. But the Psalmist has a difficult time keeping quiet.

After the Psalmist says in v 3 that he cannot keep silent, one might expect him to complain about his plight or the injustices of life. Instead, he launches into a discussion about how life is short and the accumulation of wealth is vain, for who knows who will gather that wealth after the one owning it has died? The Psalmist sounds here like Qoheleth, but there are different ideas about the role of this discussion within Psalm 39 as a whole. I think that the most plausible interpretation is that the Psalmist is expressing his hope that God will deliver him soon because life is short and the Psalmist wants to enjoy it while he still can. But others have claimed that the Psalmist may be contrasting his own transitory nature—and the transitory nature of all of humanity—with the eternity of God. Many say that he is trying to find peace in a relationship with God amidst his suffering and the seeming vanity of life. And then, corresponding with the first view that life is short and the Psalmist desires deliverance so that he can enjoy it while he still can, there are some who argue that the Psalmist doesn’t even want much to do with God! After all, the Psalmist in v 14 asks God to look away from him so that he can be happy before he is no more. The Psalmist in Psalm 39 believes that God is punishing him for his sins.

And yet, the Psalmist hopes in God. He calls himself a stranger and a sojourner in v 12, perhaps because his life on earth is temporary, or because the Israelites are strangers and sojourners on God’s land (Leviticus 25:23). But the Hebrew words for “stranger” (ger) and “sojourner” (toshav) are technical terms for foreigners in the land of Israel, people who were economically vulnerable because they did not have an inheritance. In the different writings of the Torah, God is the protector of the resident aliens, and he commands Israel to be compassionate towards them. Perhaps the Psalmist hopes that God will have compassion on him precisely because he is a stranger and a sojourner, for the Psalmist in v 12 asks God to hear him and to give heed to his tears because he is a stranger and a sojourner.

I can identify with the Psalmist’s desire that God leave him alone, for I can somewhat relate to atheists like Christopher Hitchens who say that they don’t want some divine super-cop monitoring their every thought, feeling, and action on a constant basis. I myself fall short on a continual basis! And yet, I would not want for God to have nothing to do with me, for I believe that God’s presence can give meaning to my life, which can easily lose purpose (and I am just speaking for myself here, not everyone, for there are plenty of people who find happiness and purpose without religion). At the very least, I enjoy God’s company!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Conversion, Intermarriage, and Matrilineal Descent (with Some Interesting Asides)

For my write-up today of Shaye Cohen's The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties, I will blog about Chapters 7-9. What I will do is talk about what I consider to be the essence of the chapter, and then I will refer to a detail in the chapter that I found interesting.

1. For Chapter 7, "The Rabbinic Conversion Ceremony", I believe that page 219 highlights an important element of Cohen's argument:

"[Circumcision] was the only ritual that, as far as is known, was demanded of all male converts by all non-Christian Jewish communities. [G]entiles might demonstrate their affection for Jews and Judaism in a number of different ways, but if they wished to attain full membership in a Jewish community, they had to be circumcised. Passages from Philo and Josephus that are cited by modern scholars as proof to the contrary prove no such thing. Righteous gentiles can certainly find favor in God's eyes even if they are not circumcised, and if they have come over to his exclusive worship they can be said, at least by Philo in one highly debated passage, to have become part of 'Israel,' but none of this implies 'social conversion'---that is, the integration of the convert into the Jewish community. In any event, all tannaitic texts that even incidentally refer to the requirements of conversion take circumcision for granted as a (or the) vehicle for conversion. This is true for Mishnah, Tosefta, and the Sifrei on Numbers. The Yerushalmi (the Talmud of the land of Israel) cites a debate between R. Joshua and R. Eliezer about the relative importance of circumcision and immersion; both agree that circumcision is essential for conversion, but disagree concerning immersion. According to R. Eliezer a convert who been circumcised but not immersed is nonetheless to be regarded as a convert, whereas R. Joshua says that immersion is no less essential than circumcision."

Cohen raises some interesting points here: How an uncircumcised righteous Gentile can be a part of Israel, and yet not fully a part of Israel, and also the role of immersion in conversion, which is especially significant for Gentile women who convert to Judaism, since they cannot be circumcised. And, elsewhere in this chapter, Cohen shows that rabbis could be quite liberal regarding aspects of the conversion ritual. Circumcision could count for conversion even if the Gentile was not specifically circumcised to convert to Judaism, as long as he affirmed his allegiance to the commandments. And bathing in water for purification from a sexual discharge could count as immersion for conversion.

In terms of an interesting detail in this chapter, on page 231, Cohen refers to the Jewish view that a Jew must not teach a Gentile Torah, and that a Gentile studying Torah is "liable to the death penalty." So how would a potential convert know what he was getting himself into in converting to Judaism? Some medieval Jews held that Gentiles could only be taught Torah after their conversion. But another rabbinic view is that the potential convert could be taught some heavy and light commandments, so he'd know what he was getting himself into, and then he'd continue his studies after his conversion.

2. Chapter 8 was about "The Prohibition of Intermarriage". Were Jews allowed to marry Gentiles? There were some voices that said "no", such as the Book of Jubilees, and also the Hasmoneans. The rabbis, however, were more open to intermarriage, and some of them interpreted Deuteronomy 7:3-4 to be prohibiting marriage with people from the seven Canaanite nations, not all Gentiles in general. But there were some anomalies in rabbinic Judaism. For example, on pages 246-247, rabbinic theory held that "only Jews possess the legal capacity to create marriages" (Cohen's words). Consequently, the Babylonian Amora Rava asked how Deuteronomy 7:3-4 could prohibit Israelite intermarriage with Canaanites, when Canaanites "were legally incapable of marriage". His solution was that the passage "prohibits intermarriage only with Canaanites who have converted to Judaism."

In terms of issues of interest in this chapter, I appreciated Cohen's discussion of the different interpretations of Deuteronomy 23:2-9, which prohibits certain people-groups from entering the congregation of the LORD. What exactly was being prohibited here? One proposal is that the foreign people-groups are being forbidden to intermarry with Israelites. In I Kings 11:1-2 and Nehemiah 13:23-28, elements of Deuteronomy 23:2-9 are drawn upon to criticize intermarriage. Other proposals are that the foreigners are being banned from worshiping at the Temple (either the Second Temple or, for some Qumranites, the Messianic ones), or entering Jerusalem, or engaging in Jewish religious life. Lamentations 1:10, after all, appears to draw from Deuteronomy 23:2-9 to lament that certain nations have invaded God's sanctuary, even though God prohibited them from entering his congregation. And Christians such as Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen interpret Deuteronomy 23:2-9 to mean that the people-groups cannot join God's people. But, as Cohen notes, the author of Judith did not interpret the passage in that way, for he talks about the conversion and circumcision of the Ammonite Achior, even though Deuteronomy 23 bans Ammonites from the LORD's congregation.

3. Chapter 9 is entitled "The Matrilineal Principle". In my last two posts on Cohen's book, I have mentioned that the principle of matrilineal descent---that one was Jewish through his mother---was not the rule prior to the time of the rabbis, who (with exceptions) believed in it. In Chapter 9, Cohen asks why the rabbis embraced matrilineal descent. He goes through a variety of proposals---that Jewish women were raped by the Romans and needed assurance that their offspring was Jewish, that the rabbis were imitating Roman law, that the rabbis felt that a child was closer to his mother, etc. Cohen sees weaknesses in all of the proposals that he discusses. In the case of the scenario of Jewish women being raped by the Romans, for example, Cohen states that this does not account for the rabbinic law that the offspring of a gentile woman and a Jewish man is a Gentile, or the declaration in the earliest stratum of rabbinic law that the offpsring of a Jewish mother and a Gentile father is a mamzer, who can never become a legitimate member of the community of Israel. Ultimately, while Cohen believes that some proposals are better than others, he admits that he does not know the answer to his question.

In terms of interesting details in this chapter, pages 302-303 refer to odd Jewish and Christian interpretations of bestiality. B. Pesahim 49a-b mentions the view that a sage who sleeps with the daughter of an am ha-aretz (a Jew who is not scrupulous about observance) is violating the law against bestiality, and Maimonides says the same about a Gentile woman who has sex with a Jewish man (Laws of Forbidden Intercourse 12:10). And Cohen states that "In medieval Christian law sexual intercourse of a Christian with a Jew was regarded as sex with an animal." Those are pretty loose interpretations, in my opinion!

The Sanctity of Life, and Stephen King's IT

I have two items from Stephen King’s IT, both of which relate to the sanctity of life.

1. Patrick Hockstetter was a part of Henry Bowers’ gang of bullies. He was a psychopath, but his teachers were not overly concerned about him because he mostly kept quiet, in contrast to the disruptive Henry Bowers and Victor Criss. Patrick killed his baby brother, Avery, and page 826 explains why:

“Patrick had not liked it when his mother brought Avery home from the hospital. He didn’t care (or so he at first told himself) if his parents had two kids, five kids, or five dozen kids, as long as the kid or kids didn’t alter his own schedule. But he found that Avery did. Meals came late. The baby cried in the night and woke him up. It seemed that his parents were always hanging over its crib, and often when he tried to get their attention he found that he could not. For one of the few times in his life, Patrick became frightened. It occurred to him that if his parents had brought him, Patrick, home from the hospital, and if he was ‘real,’ then Avery might be ‘real,’ too. It might even be that, when Avery got big enough to walk and talk, to bring in his father’s copy of the Derry News from the front step and to hand his mother the bowls when she made bread, they might decide to get rid of Patrick altogether. It was not that he feared they loved Avery more (although it was obvious to Patrick that they did love him more, and in this case his judgment was probably correct). What he cared about was (1) the rules that were being broken or changed since Avery’s arrival, (2) Avery’s possible reality, and (3) the possibility that they might throw him out in favor of Avery.”

When Patrick suffocated Avery in his crib, he got a thrill, and so he proceeded to kill animals to get that same thrill. He had no respect for the lives of others.

The passage on page 826 is sad. Patrick was selfish in that he desperately wanted everything to operate according to his own schedule and preferences, even at the cost of somebody else’s life, and that indeed is an inner pit. But Patrick was also insecure. He did not think that his parents had enough love to go around, for both him and also his baby brother. And he did not know how to share the world with somebody else, for he felt that somebody else’s existence would threaten his own value. Patrick’s feelings of insecurity, jealousy, and fear of being unloved are held by many people, including those who are not psychotic. But those who are not psychotic do not resort to murder. They try to cope with the world as it is, or they somehow learn that they are loved. They recognize that other people besides themselves have innate value as human beings. And that brings me to my second item.

2. Bill Denbrough and Richie Tozer are investigating Georgie Denbrough’s room, after Georgie had been murdered by IT. Richie notices pictures on Georgie’s wall. Page 334 has the following:

“A third, which Georgie had colored himself, showed Mr. Do holding up traffic so a bunch of little kids headed for school could cross the street…Kid wasn’t too cool about staying in the lines, Richie thought, and then shuddered. The kid was never going to get any better at it, either. Richie looked at the table by the window. Mrs. Denbrough had stood up all of George’s rank-cards there, half-open. Looking at them, knowing there would never be more, knowing that George had died before he could stay in the lines when he colored, knowing his life had ended irrevocably and eternally with only those few kindergarten and first-grade rank-cards, all the idiot truth of death crashed home to Richie for the first time. It was as if a large iron safe had fallen into his brain and buried itself there. I could die! his mind screamed at him suddenly in tones of betrayed horror. Anybody could! Anybody could!

That is one thing that is tragic about death: it brings an end to a person’s story, as well as any potential for growth and development (although there could be an afterlife). That being the case, who is any of us to bring to an end somebody’s story, someone’s opportunity to grow, to change, and to become a better person? And what hits home for Richie is that he knew Georgie Denbrough. Death was not some abstract entity that merely affected people “out there”, for it took someone he knew. And that made Richie realize that he, too, could die, meaning that his own story could come to an end. That sort of realization should lead one to value life, both one’s own and that of others.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Cohen on Gentiles and Judaism

I'm continuing my way through Shaye Cohen's The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties. In this post, I'll talk some things that I got out of Chapters 4-5.

In Chapter 4, "From Ethnos to Ethno-Religion", Cohen addresses a question. In the second century B.C.E., Judea managed to convert Idumaea and the Ituraeans and made them part of Judea. I said last time that this was a forcible conversion, but, while many ancient historians indeed present such a picture, Strabo does not, for he asserts that these people-groups cooperated with Judea and formed an alliance with her. My impression is that Cohen believes a little of both happened, but the question with which he wrestles is this: Where did Judea get the idea that she could convert other people-groups to the Jewish religion and thereby make them Judeans? According to Cohen, we don't really see this idea in the Hebrew Bible, for that presents a picture of Gentiles worshiping YHWH with the Judeans as Gentiles, not as people who become Israelites themselves. Probably the closest we get to conversion is Genesis 34, in which some people of Israel propose to become one people with the Shechemites through circumcision, but Cohen does not think that the Hasmoneans got the idea of making other people-groups into Judeans from that passage, for the proposal there is merely a ruse. Cohen's conclusion is that the Hasmoneans got the idea from the Hellenists, who tried to make much of the known world Greek-like. If the Greeks could do that, why couldn't the Judeans do something similar?

In Chapter 5, "Crossing the Boundary and Becoming a Jew", Cohen talks about different approaches among Gentiles to Judaism. Some admired Judaism because they deemed its monotheism to be a pure religion, in contrast to the vulgar worship of images. Some incorporated YHWH into their pantheon, or they regarded YHWH as the equivalent to Zeus, in accordance with their tendency to look for equivalents to their own gods in other cultures. Some were friendly to the Jews, probably for political reasons (like Cyrus). This could lead to conspiracy theories about the Jews, as when nationalists in Alexandria, Egypt accused the imperial Romans of being too pro-Jewish on account of their support for Jewish rights, and they accused one Roman emperor of being the "cast-off son of the Jewish Salome". Some Gentiles practiced Jewish rituals, leading Seneca to lament: "the customs of this accursed race have gained such influence that they are now received throughout all the world. The vanquished have given laws to their victors." Some embraced monotheism, and some converted, which entailed circumcision.

Cohen touches on the issue of matrilineal descent, the notion that one is Jewish through his mother. Cohen notes that this was a second century rabbinic idea, whereas first century figures such as Philo and Josephus believed that one was Jewish through one's father. And the rabbis also believed that, if a Gentile woman converted to Judaism, then her children would be Jews. At the same time, Cohen notes that proselytes had an ambiguous status within Jewish communities, for they were not Jews by blood.

Page 158 has a statement that stood out to me, for I am interested in how Judaism has regarded Gentile observance of the Torah, which was given to Israel: "Perhaps the God of the Jews would be pleased with gentiles who venerated him and practiced some of his laws, and perhaps in the day of the eschaton gentiles would not need to be circumcised to be part of God's holy people, but if those gentiles wanted to join the Jewish community in the here and now, they had to accept circumcision." I have read that the rabbis did not like the idea of Gentiles observing the Sabbath, but, in rabbinic passages that I have encountered, they appear to be rather neutral on Gentiles honoring their parents or abstaining from unclean meats.

I'll stop here.

Coping with Rejection, and Stephen King's IT

In Chapter 11 of Stephen King's IT, "Walking Tours", some members of the Losers' Club are walking about their childhood home of Derry, Maine. Eddie Kasprak does so and reminisces about his childhood. As he walks through what was a more affluent part of town, he recalls a little crush that he had on Greta Bowie, a snooty rich girl. On page 551, we read the following:

"He fell in love with [Greta] a little that day---her shining blonde hair falling to the shoulders of her culotte dress, which was a cold blue. She glanced around and more a moment he thought she had seen him, but that proved not to be so, because when he raised his hand in a timid hello, she did not raise hers in return but only whacked her [croquet] ball back onto the rear lawn and then ran after it. He had walked on with no resentment at the unreturned hello (he genuinely believed she must not have seen him) or at the fact that he had never been invited to attend one of the Saturday-afternoon croquet games: why would a beautiful girl like Greta want to invite a kid like him? He was thin-chested, asthmatic, and had the face of a drowned water-rat."

I can identify with Eddie's ways of coping with what may have been a rejection. I try to give the person who may be rejecting me the benefit of a doubt: Perhaps the person is blowing me off because she's busy, or preoccupied. And then there are times that I put myself down and seek to justify the rejection: Of course the person is rejecting me, for I can be opinionated! Or perhaps some people don't like my blog because it's not for everybody!

And then there are people who are simply cliquish, or are just plain jerks. I suppose that I can try to identify my part in them being that way towards me, since that can help me to believe that I have a degree of control over what people think about me or how they treat me. I think that it's good for me to identify ways that I can do things better. But there are some people who are just jerks---who believe that you have to impress them to be a part of their club. What can you do then? It's like Peter Griffin told his daughter, Meg, on an episode of Family Guy: You have a mind of your own, and people don't like that! (And, just for the record, I'm not in the habit of drawing life lessons from Family Guy!)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Beginning Cohen's Beginnings of Jewishness

I started Shaye Cohen's The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties. The book is about what in antiquity marked a person as a Jew. Cohen offers documentation that Gentiles did not identify Jews as Jews on the basis of their appearance or clothing, or even their circumcision, for Gentiles could not see that on Jews in their day-to-day lives (though Cohen does mention a story in which Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers by showing them he was circumcised). Rather, Gentiles identified Jews as Jews because the Jews primarily associated with other Jews, observed certain customs, and worshiped the God of Israel.

Then there was Herod, who was also relevant to the question of "Who is a Jew?" According to Josephus, Herod was half-Idumean, and Idumea was technically a part of Judah and was forcibly converted to Judaism a few centuries before. But Herod's mother was Arab. And so Herod was a Judean through his father, meaning that the custom that one is Jewish through his mother had not yet come into play. But Herod did not believe that his Judean credentials were strong enough, and so he commissioned his historian to make him look more Judean---as in, descended from the exiles who returned from Babylon (which Cohen equates to the pilgrims arriving to America on the Mayflower). And then there were people who did not believe that Herod even was Judean.

Cohen also talks about the Greek word "Ioudaios." He thinks that it means Judean---in a geographical and a cultural sense---and yet Cohen mentions a lot of evidence that one could be a Judean in the exile, away from the land of Judea. "Jew", however, which it later meant, was more of a religious term, in that it refers to the Jewish religion. So there is a difference between "Judean" and "Jew", as far as Cohen is concerned, and I may have been misusing the terms in this post. But (for me as I write this post), it's late.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Emotion and Detachment, and Stephen King's IT

On pages 694-700 of Stephen King’s IT, Henry Bowers’ gang of bullies is engaging in a rock-fight with the Losers’ Club (Bill Denbrough, Ben Hanscom, Beverly Marsh, Mike Hanlon, Richie Tozer, Eddie Kasprak, and Stan Uris), the heroes of the book.

There are times in which emotion helps the fighters. For example, when a rock hits Beverly Marsh, Ben Hanscom runs and tackles Henry Bowers, which causes Henry to fly because Ben is heavy. (Ben has a crush on Beverly.)

But there is also a time during the fight when emotionless detachment helps a fighter. Victor Criss is a friend of Henry’s, and he does not want to be there because “People could get seriously hurt in rockfights; a kid could get his skull split, a mouthful of broken teeth, could even lose an eye.” Moreover, Victor has gotten to a point where he is scared that Henry will go too far. Victor may be like Bobby in the 1984 Karate Kid: a more compassionate bully.

But page 698 says regarding Victor that “since he was in it, he was in it. He intended to dish out some trouble.” While others were chaotically acting and reacting, Victor was calmly and quietly using the time to pick up some good-sized rocks, which inflicted a lot of damage on the Losers’ Club. Actually, page 698 says that Victor did the most damage to the Losers! But Victor retreated when Bill Denbrough threw rocks at him with “murderous force” and had a frightening look in his eyes. Henry’s gang lost the battle.

There are times when passion for a task, or anger, or some emotion can help a person in a task. But there’s also a place for looking at something from a distance and approaching it with calmness and rationality. Emotions can be a motivator, but they can also be an obstacle.

Sternberg on the Dinah Story

I finished Meir Sternberg's Poetics of Biblical Narrative. In this post, I will highlight two passages, both of which are about the story of Dinah in Genesis 34.

On page 472, Sternberg argues that the text identifies with Simeon and Levi's slaughter of the Shechemites because Shechem had raped their sister, Dinah. While the other sons of Jacob plundered the Shechemites, Simeon and Levi did not do so. According to Sternberg, Simeon and Levi did not have materialistic motivations, for their aim was "to redress the wrong done to their sister and the whole family, which includes the prevention of an exogamous marriage, by hook or by crook."

On page 475, however, Sternberg offers a more nuanced judgment. He states that the text presents before us such problematic choices that one "cannot fully identify with any of the positions taken." Jacob is inactive throughout the story, until the end, when he is outraged at Simeon and Levi's deed. But one can identify with his desire to keep his family safe from the Canaanites, and Simeon and Levi imperiled that safety when they slaughtered the Shechemites. And Simeon and Levi were rash in that they disregarded the potential consequences of their deed and failed to trust in God's providence. Yet, the narrator sympathizes with Simeon and Levi, for the story closes with them protesting that Shechem had treated their sister as a harlot.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Confidence-Builders, and Stephen King's IT

In this post, I will muse and ramble about confidence-builders, as I draw from Stephen King’s IT.

On a page for Free Believers (which I define as believers in Christ who have issues with the Institutional Church and the way that it has portrayed God), someone said the following:

“Take away all the props: the books, the blogs, the teachers, the preachers, the conferences, the schools, the services, the groups, the forums, the podcasts, the TV shows, the radio broadcasts… What are you left with? What do you have alone in the dark when it is just you and your mind and your heart? That is your true faith. If you can’t find God in that alone place then your faith is not your own.”

A commenter replied by mentioning another prop:

“One prop that should have been mentioned is the music. Too many times I relied on the worship songs to bring me ‘into the presence’. If the worship service was crappy then the spirit didn’t show up. If the service was good then I felt the presence and the spirit was ripe for the asking. And I was sure to set the atmosphere while on the go in the car, through the ipod and at home. When I took away that prop, I discovered the silence. And it is good. As one person said: ‘Silence is the language of God. All else is poor translation.’”

The issue of props, or confidence-builders, shows up a few times in Stephen King’s IT. That one commenter mentioned music as a prop that wasn’t always reliable. Well, on page 582, Richie Tozer thinks about the effect that rock music had on him when he was a kid: “The beat did more than make him happy. It made him feel bigger, stronger, more there.”

And, while we’re on Richie, on page 734, Richie thinks about an energy that is in the room as he interacts with his friends from his childhood:

“Richie had felt a mad, exhilarating kind of energy growing in the room. He had done cocaine nine or ten times over the last couple of years—at parties, mostly; coke wasn’t something you wanted just lying around your house if you were a bigga-time disc jockey—and the feel was something like that, but not exactly. This feeling was purer, more of a mainline high. He thought he recognized the feeling from his childhood, when he had felt it every day and had come to take it as merely a matter of course. He supposed that, if he had ever thought about that deep-running aquifer of energy when he was a kid (he could not recall that he ever had), he would have simply dismissed it as a fact of life, something that would always be there, like the color of his eyes or his disgusting hammertoes. Well, that hadn’t turned out to be true. The energy you drew on so extravagantly when you were a kid, the energy you thought would never exhaust itself—that slipped away somewhere between eighteen and twenty-four, to be replaced by something much duller, something as bogus as a coke high: purpose, maybe, or goals, or whatever rah-rah Junior Chamber of Commerce word you wanted to use.” (The passage is in italics, which I have left out.)

Richie felt the sort of energy that he used to feel as a child—a pure high, if you will (in contrast to the high that he experienced from cocaine). Perhaps he was getting this from being in the company of his friends, as part of a mission to destroy IT (though they also enjoyed each other’s company and caught up with each other at their reunion as adults). This mission was commissioned by some divine force, which brought them together.

We turn now to Eddie Kasprak. On pages 790-802, Eddie is in the hospital, recovering from abuse that Henry Bowers and his gang had viciously inflicted on him (in retaliation for Eddie and the Losers’ Club throwing rocks at Henry to protect Mike Hanlon). Eddie’s mother, Sonia, is overly protective of her son, for she does not want him to die as her husband did, and she’s also afraid of being alone. Sonia tells Eddie’s friends—Bill and the rest of the Losers’ Club—to leave, and Eddie dreams that Pennywise the Clown (IT) is ecstatic about this, for IT realizes that the Losers’ Club has a greater chance of defeating him when its members are together. When Sonia later visits Eddie, Eddie has the strength to confront his mother in a confident, firm, and yet loving tone, even when his Mom cries in an attempt to get her own way. On page 802, Eddie reflects on this encounter:

“The things he had said to her, the way he had acted—it had been him and yet it hadn’t been him at all. There had been something working in him, working through him, some force…and his mother had felt it, too. He had seen it in her eyes and in her trembling lips. He had no sense that this power was an evil one, but its enormous strength was frightening. It was like getting on an amusement-park ride that was really dangerous and realizing you couldn’t get off until it was over, come what might.”

The power that was bringing the Loser’s Club together to defeat IT was working through Eddie, while preserving Eddie’s identity, meaning this was not a possession. This force resembled how Christians have characterized the Holy Spirit, which empowers Christians to will and to do what pleases God (see, for example, Philippians 2:13 and II Timothy 1:7). Eddie was getting his confidence from a supernatural entity.

And, while we’re on Eddie, pages 768-779 have an interesting discussion about placebos. Eddie has an inhaler because he thinks he’s asthmatic, but Mr. Keene, a town pharmacist, recognizes that the asthma is merely in Eddie’s head, and so the inhaler that he continually gives to Eddie is a placebo consisting of water and “a dash of camphor thrown in to give it a medicine taste.” Eddie’s “asthma” is from Eddie being stiff and tight, which causes the muscles around his lungs to work against the lungs, rather than doing their job of helping “the lungs to expand and contract easily.” Eddie’s inhaler, therefore, is not real medicine, but it helps Eddie to breathe because Eddie believes in it, and he thus relaxes after he inhales from it. Mr. Keene gives Eddie an interesting lecture about placebos, including ones that alleviate pain. Even after Eddie concludes that Mr. Keene is right—since Eddie’s inhaler says “Administer as needed”, and every medicine he knows of sets limits on how much a person can take—Eddie breathes more easily after he uses it. It helps him to relax, as if breathing from the inhaler gives his mind permission to calm down.

I think that it’s all right to draw strength from different sources—from music, from friends, from the Holy Spirit, and from faith and relaxation. Whether or not that always works, that’s a question by itself! I’ve found that music can strengthen me. Friends can, too, if I feel genuinely accepted and valued. As far as the Holy Spirit goes, he may very well give people strength and composure, but I haven’t always experienced it, especially in social situations. But I still hope and pray for it. Regarding placebos, I myself have felt better when I’ve allowed my mind to give my body permission to relax. But, in my case, real life is usually not so neat as what occurs in some stories on television: someone has a good-luck charm that helps him to become confident and good at things (i.e., sports), and he later learns that the power was in himself all of that time! My Mom gave me a good luck charm when I was a kid to help me to do better in school, and it didn’t work! But it’s good for me to believe in something. And I don’t mind using props to help me in that!

My Blog Is 4!

Today is my blog's fourth birthday!

This year, I mostly blogged through my academic reading for my comprehensive examinations. And my blogging helped me immensely on my comps, for going through my blogs about the books that I read planted or reinforced things in my mind that I used on those tests.

Now that I've passed my comps, I'm still blogging through academic books. I'm doing so in order to gain more knowledge, which will help me once I start to write articles and teach. I hope to be writing book reviews for publication, thereby building my CV.

Some people may have been turned off by my academic posts, but others have found them helpful. Personally, I can identify with those who don't find those posts appealing, since they might not strike people as all that edifying. I think that the historical-critical method can be seen the way that a commenter described it under a post I wrote on Leviticus 11, in which I discuss Baruch Levine's presentation of reasons for the dietary laws: "So this kinda proves a divine intelligence at work and not a bunch of ancient carnal lugheads trying to palm off their own ideas!"

But I'll continue to write these posts, and it's not just to prepare myself professionally. There's something therapeutic about it. Having to work through an academic piece of literature---as I summarize or evaluate a scholar's argument, and seek something in it that I find interesting---takes my mind off of my problems and my negative emotions. And there is a sense of accomplishment that I feel after I write my academic posts. I'm not sure what to do with scholarly insights on a theological basis, but maybe that will come together some day.

So expect more posts on religious scholarship! But I will also blog about other things, such as church, Stephen King, movies, etc.

Why Does Gideon Misquote?

For my write-up today of Meir Sternberg's Poetics of Biblical Narrative, I will quote something that Sternberg says on page 420, then I will elaborate on the biblical passage to which Sternberg is referring.

"For a more intricate example of betraying motive by misquotation, consider the charge leveled by Gideon at the people of Succoth after his victory over Midian" 'Behold Zebah and Zalmunah [the kings of Midian], concerning whom you taunted me, saying, Is the fist of Zebah and Zalmunah now in thy hand, that we should give bread to thy weary men?' (Judg 8:15). However villainous the quoted people of Succoth, they could hardly go so far as to load the dice against themselves by referring to the army they refuse to feed as 'weary men.' Indeed, checking the quotation against their actual words given earlier, we find that they did nothing so foolish. Gideon has simply effected a montage between his original appeal ('Give, pray, loaves of bread to the people that follow me, for they are weary') and their original response ('Is the fist of Zebah and Zalmunah now in thy hand, that we should give bread to thy army?'), so as to blacken the accused before destroying them."

I talked about the Scriptural passage a while back in my post here. Here was my summary of this particular story:

"In Judges 8, when the people of Succoth and Penuel refuse to feed Gideon's exhausted army because he has not yet captured the Midianite kings, Gideon promises to trample their flesh on thorns and briers, which is a horribly painful way to die. And, after he catches the kings, that's exactly what he does. According to my trusty E-Sword commentaries, the people of Succoth and Penuel were afraid to support Gideon because they feared Midianite retaliation. They weren't sure Gideon would win! What would happen to them if they supported Gideon and he lost?"

Sternberg's point is that Gideon misquotes the people of Succoth, who refused to support his weary army. Gideon said to them, "Give, pray, loaves of bread to the people that follow me, for they are weary." The people of Succoth refuse, responding, "Is the fist of Zebah and Zalmunah now in thy hand, that we should give bread to thy army?" And, after Gideon captures the two Midianite kings, he quotes the people of Succoth as saying, "Is the fist of Zebah and Zalmunah now in thy hand, that we should give bread to thy weary men?" But Gideon is misquoting the people of Succoth, for they themselves said nothing about Gideon's army being weary. Gideon was the one who told them that his men were weary.

So why is Gideon misquoting the people of Succoth? According to Sternberg, his aim was to "blacken the accused before destroying them." Gideon may have been castigating the people of Succoth for refusing to support his men when they were weary, or for denigrating his men as weak, which Gideon and his army proved to be wrong when they captured the Midianite kings.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

My Pastor on the Messianic Secret

At church this morning, the pastor offered a sensible interpretation of the Messianic Secret. The Messianic Secret is Jesus keeping secret his Messianic status in the synoptic Gospels. Jesus either did not tell people that he was the Messiah, or he exhorted his disciples and demons not to reveal to others that he was the Messiah. Why? According to the pastor, Jesus did not want people to think he was the Messiah according to a common understanding of the day: that the Messiah would be a king who would deliver Israel from her Gentile oppressors. New Testament scholars would probably offer a more nuanced perspective on first century Jewish Messianic expectations, but there were many who envisioned a cataclysmic and dramatic intervention by God into world events. The pastor’s point was that Jesus did not want to be associated with that in people’s minds, and so he distanced himself from the term “Messiah”. Rather, Jesus desired for people to focus on his deeds of mercy and compassion.

This could be. At the same time, plenty of New Testament scholars would argue that Jesus did proclaim an imminent cataclysmic intervention by God into world events. He just thought that he’d have to die and rise again for that to happen, and that did not accord with his disciples’ expectations.

Saul Is Tov

On page 355 of Poetics of Biblical Narrative, Meir Sternberg says the following about King Saul:

"'Saul'---the traditional rendering goes---'was a handsome [tov] young man. There was not a man among the children of Israel more handsome [tov] than he; from his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people' (1 Sam 9:2). Not only does he enjoy royal appearance; he may well have the character to go with it. For the key epithet tov, translated in automatic fashion as 'handsome,' originally means 'good' and only by extention 'good-looking.' So the two readings of the character are prefigured in miniature by the two-faced epithet. Does Saul owe his election to his being the best of the best looking of the Israelites?...All the character traits [the narrative] brings out in episode after dramatic episode---modesty, self-restraint, inspired leadership in the war against Ammon---count heavily and unequivocally in Saul's favor."

People of faith have interpreted the character of Saul in different ways. Josephus and rabbinic literature say positive things about Saul. An evangelical friend of mine once hearkened back to the zeal that Saul had for God and for justice in his early years. Others, by contrast, have argued that the roots of Saul's later downfall were actually in place during his early years. Sternberg praises Saul's modesty, but there are religious interpreters who have mocked Saul's hiding among the baggage when he was being selected as king, as if that foreshadowed his later fear of the people and sense of inadequacy, when he lighted the sacrifice before Samuel arrived and spared the animals and the king of Amalek. Then there was Saul's rashness in barring Israelite soldiers from eating in the heat of battle, and Saul even went so far as to be willing to execute his own son, Jonathan, for eating honey. For many interpreters, that's not a good example of leadership.

Interpreters who are negative about Saul also comment on Saul's appearance. They argue that Saul may have looked good, but his heart was not right. When Samuel went to Jesse to anoint a replacement for Saul, Samuel was impressed by Eliab's stature, but God told Samuel not to look at the outward appearance, for God looks at the heart.

In my opinion, it should be remembered that God chose Saul to be king. Does that mean that God saw something there that was positive? Or was God deliberately choosing someone who would fail, thereby preparing the stage for David, who was prophesied to be king years earlier, in Genesis 49. Many historical-critics may say that I shouldn't jumble together sources---that there is a pro-Saul source, an anti-Saul source, and sources that emerged during or after the time of the Davidic monarchy, in order to legitimize it.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Psalm 38

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 38. I have four items:

1. The Psalmist is sick in Psalm 38, and evangelical preachers I heard speculated that David may have had a venereal disease, perhaps because his disease appears to be God’s punishment of some sin on his part (see vv 2-4, 18), and, according to these preachers, venereal disease is a consequence of sexual immorality. That sounds rather judgmental, but the same preachers did say that we should not be like Job’s friends, criticizing those who are suffering while they are down. The Psalmist may have been suffering for something that he did, and many people (including myself) experience the consequences of their actions. But, when we are criticized for that, it is good that we can appeal to God.

Some scholars argue that the Psalmist does not have a specific illness in Psalm 38, but that the Psalm is a generic Psalm for all sorts of illnesses, since it mentions a variety of maladies. And the fourth century Antiochian Christian exegete Theodore of Mopsuestia holds that the illness is symbolic of David’s affliction at the hands of Absalom, which was God’s punishment of David for sleeping with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. When the Psalmist talks in v 7 about his loins having a disease, Theodore states that David is saying that his lust is mocking him, presumably because his lust led him to sleep with Bathsheba, which resulted in his punishment by God through Absalom. And, when the Psalmist in v 14 says that he is like a man who does not hear, and that there are no reproofs in his mouth, Theodore relates that to David refusing to answer or kill Shimei, who was badgering David during David’s flight from Absalom (II Samuel 16).

2. In Psalm 38:11, the Psalmist laments that those who love him, his friends, and his kin are all avoiding him on account of his sickness. We see in this Psalm the Psalmist’s feeling of alienation from other people. And yet, the Psalm probably was used in communal worship, as many Psalms were. Erhard Gerstenberger affirms that the community’s confidence in God is being applied to the individual sufferer, which presents a picture of the Psalmist being alone, and yet not fully alone. I think that a lot of churches push people to fit in and to dive into relationships, while disregarding the difficulty that some may have in doing so. There are people who have a hard time overcoming their own personal alienation. And yet, being at a church—or some setting that emphasizes reliance on a higher power and hope that is based on people’s experiences—can hopefully remind even those who feel alienated that they are not fully alone, for perhaps they can draw strength from the stories of others.

3. In my notes, I sum up Peter Craigie’s comments on Psalm 38 as follows: “The Psalmist leaves his desire before God and does not respond to his enemies. The Psalmist prays, even though he thinks God has forsaken him.”

The part about the Psalmist leaving his desire before God is based on v 9, where the Psalmist says that his desire is before God, and his groaning is not hidden from God. This verse was meaningful to me recently, when I was afraid that I might have to pay much more money for tuition than was actually the case. There are some circumstances that I cannot control! But I left my desire before God for him to do with it as he will, and I told God that he was aware of my concerns. I found that to be helpful. I wasn’t sure how the situation would turn out, but I found some comfort in my situation being before God.

The part about the Psalmist not responding to his enemies is based on v 14, the passage where the Psalmist says he does not hear or speak reproofs. That reminds me of an experience on a Christian dating site, where a mentally-unstable woman was wrecking havoc. A Pentecostal man kept posting, “Walk in love—neither approve nor criticize.” I find that to be good advice, not that this particular guy always practiced what he preached (or that I practice that principle as often as I should)! But it’s a noble aspiration—and it’s not utterly impossible for one to do.

And the part about praying to God even when I think God has forsaken me is important, too. I feel that I should continually keep the channels of communication open to God, for talking about my problems with God can make me feel better, and it can also put me in a position to learn something positive, as happens for the Psalmist in many Psalms.

4. In v 20, the Psalmist says that those who return evil for good are his adversaries. Matthew Henry says that this teaches that the wicked hate goodness, even when they benefit from it. When someone does good to me, what is my reaction? That the person is trying to make himself or herself look good, or to puff up his or her own ego? That the person is naive and too “nice” for the real world of sophistication? I should be inspired to love goodness myself, and to help others whenever the opportunity presents itself.

What Really Needs Emending, According to Sternberg!

For my write-up today of Meir Sternberg's Poetics of Biblical Narrative, I will start with something that Sternberg says on page 312. I'll give more information about the topic of the quote in the course of this post.

"Hence the surprise now occasioned by the surfacing of the familial motive for the pursuit---the slaughter of Gideon's brothers, who have so far played no role in the narrative. Gideon, it turns out, has not even entertained any hope of rescuing these brothers. "Where are the men you slew at Tabor?" he asks his royal captive, an inquiry whose apparent senselessness has elicited from scholarship the usual crop of textual emendations. But what really needs emending is the scholar's sensitivity to the expressiveness of biblical dialogue. For the question is not intended to make sense as a demand for information: indeed, the addressees themselves (to dispose of another scholarly pseudo-crux) show their perfect understanding of its rhetorical drift in making no attempt to meet it. The very incoherence of the question betrays the questioner's raging pain and indicates vengeance as the mainspring of his actions all along."

I chose to write about this quote because I loved Sternberg's line of "But what really needs emending is the scholar's sensitivity to the expressiveness of biblical dialogue"! At this point, however, I'll try to understand the context of Sternberg's discussion. Sternberg is talking about Judges 8. I actually wrote about this chapter a while back (see here), and I said the following in summarizing Gideon's question about the men of Tabor:

"When he captured the Midianite kings, Zebah and Zalmunnah, he boldly confronted them about an atrocity at Tabor, in which they had slaughtered Gideon's brothers. Gideon tells them, 'They were my brothers, the sons of my mother; as the LORD lives, if you had saved them alive, I would not kill you' (Judges [8]:19). If not for their atrocity, Gideon would have shown mercy to the Midianite kings."

Gideon asked the Midianite kings, "Where are the men whom you slew at Tabor?" And the Midianite kings respond, "Like you, like them, one according to form, sons of a king." English translations render this passage to convey that Gideon was asking the Midianite kings what the men whom they had slain at Tabor were like, and the kings respond that the men looked like Gideon and had a royal appearance. I do not know why there would be emendations, unless scholars' problem is with the word eiphoh, which usually means "where?", not "what kind?" I notice that Sternberg italicizes the word "slew", so perhaps the problem is that the question appears senseless: Where are the men who were killed at Tahor? Well, still in Tahor, I suppose! I doubt that the Midianite kings would take the corpses with them! But Sternberg's point seems to be that the question is rhetorical---that Gideon is not asking for information, but instead is confronting the Midianite kings with their atrocity. And the Midianite kings do not answer the question, but rather talk about the type of men Gideon's brothers were.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Did David Know That Uriah Knew (Assuming Uriah Knew)?

In my reading today of Poetics of Biblical Narrative, Meir Sternberg plays with the idea that, in II Samuel 11, David realizes that Uriah knows all about David's affair with Bathsheba. Sternberg also provides reasons for the possibility that Uriah did not know this, and that David recognized that Uriah did not know this. But, in this post, I'll focus more on the scenario in which David knew that Uriah knew, since it's most likely the scenario with which many of us are unfamiliar.

What in II Samuel 11 might indicate that Uriah knew about David's affair with Bathsheba? The text does not say that Uriah did not know, plus there was a messenger going between Bathsheba and David, so Uriah could have found out about the affair. Also, according to Sternberg, Uriah's behavior may be too good to be true. When the king gave Uriah time off to go home, eat, drink, and sleep with Bathsheba, why couldn't Uriah have done that? I mean, it wasn't as if Bathsheba lived too far away from where Uriah was at that moment, in the presence of the king, for David lived close enough to Bathsheba to see her bathing on the roof. Moreover, Uriah may be taunting David. David is giving Uriah permission to eat, drink, and sleep with Bathsheba, but Uriah will not abandon his duties. Uriah may be throwing in David's face the fact that David was eating, drinking, and sleeping with Bathsheba, rather than attending to his duty as the king to lead his people in battle.

But, if David knew that Uriah knew, why would David send Uriah to give Joab the letter that would order Uriah's death? Isn't that having a lot of faith that Uriah would not open the letter and read it? Would David take that risk if he knew that Uriah knew about the affair? According to Sternberg, in this scenario, David was not thinking clearly. After all, David was ordering all of the soldiers to abandon Uriah so he would die, which assumes that the entire army would be privy to information that was denied to Uriah. David was taking quite a gamble that the secret would be kept! In addition, this scenario presumes that enough people knew about David's affair, since even Uriah was aware of it, and so David sent Uriah to his death so he could kill his mocker and take Bathsheba for himself, not so much so that he could cover his tracks.

Perhaps II Samuel 12:12 undermines this scenario, for that passage says that David did this thing secretly. But that may not rule out people---including Uriah---finding out about the secret.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sternberg on Historical-Criticism, the Narrator, and Other Stuff

I'm continuing my way through Meir Sternberg's Poetics of Biblical Narrative.

1. I talked yesterday about Sternberg's views on literary and historical-criticism, and I asked if the historical contexts of the biblical writings played a role in Sternberg's interpretation of the biblical text. From what I read today, my answer is "yes" and "no."

On the "yes" side, Sternberg stated that the Bible "directs much of its narrative energies" against the pagan "humanizing conception of the divine order and might", as it portrays God as one who "exercises absolute sway over the universe (nature, culture, history) in conspicuous isolation and transcendence" (page 101). Many ancient Near Eastern gods, by contrast, were vulnerable to chaos or other deities. Sternberg acknowledges, however, that God in the Hebrew Bible does not always intervene, as when God allowed freedom of choice in the story of Dinah in Genesis 34 (and yet, Sternberg notes that God in the very next chapter put fear in the hearts of the Canaanites so that they would not avenge the deaths of the Shechemites at the hands of Simeon and Levi). Similarly, regarding other cases in which the Hebrew Bible appears to portray God as limited (e.g., God learns of Abel's death, God changes his mind, God visits Sodom and Gomorrah, etc.), Sternberg states that God may choose to impose limits on himself, at times. Sternberg does not agree with H. Gunkel that these represent traces in the Hebrew Bible of pagan thought. Overall, my impression has been that Sternberg seeks to portray the ancient Israelites as different from other nations in the ancient Near East. He also believes that biblical literature is innovative. For example, on page 176, he states that "The passage from ignorance to knowledge, one of the great archetypes of literature, is another Hebraic innovation, for which the Greeks got all the credit."

On pages 181-184, Sternberg criticizes A.E. Speiser's claim that biblical writers were unaware of ancient Near Eastern customs that were reflected in the material that they were using (for background information, see my posts here and here). Sternberg essentially argues that the writers did not need to be aware of those customs, for those customs were irrelevant to their plot! Here, Sternberg does not deem (say) the Nuzi laws to be essential for an understanding of parts of the Hebrew Bible. At the same time, on page 134, he says that the city of Nahor in Genesis 24:10 refers to a city that is named Nahor, not a place where a man named Nahor lived, for the Mari tablets mention a place called Nakhur.

On page 127, Sternberg argues that the Hebrew Bible differs from other ancient Near Eastern works in its treatment of variants. Whereas other ancient Near Eastern works (and also Herodotus) preserve different versions of the same story and present them as different versions, the Hebrew Bible attempts to make them into a single story. For example, the wife-sister stories are not treated as three versions of the same event, but rather as three separate events in patriarchal history. Sternberg does not strike me as one who is preoccupied with identifying the different sources and layers of the Hebrew Bible, for his approach is rather synchronic. On page 155, he criticizes the "treatment of incongruity as a symptom of genetic interference rather than of engagement and pleasure in the game of art, whose name is difficult coherence." This may imply that Sternberg seeks significance even in the bumps of the text.

2. I wrote yesterday that Sternberg's view of the omniscient narrator relates to God's omniscience. Today, I saw what appeared to be a slight backtracking from that idea, for he states on page 154 that the narrator "moves beyond or parallel to God's viewpoint without challenging its authority." On page 155, Sternberg says, "Nor does God himself, the Bible's most voluminous speaker, share the narrator's aesthetic norms and practices..." Somehow, the narrator shares God's omniscience, on some level, and yet the narrator is not God.

3. In his discussion of literary elements of the text, Sternberg had some interesting things to say. On page 157, he mentions pity for Esau and Saul. I identify here, for I have often felt sorry for those characters, rather than demonizing them! And, on page 197, Sternberg talks about how David's leisure (e.g., sleeping late) led to his adultery with Bathsheba.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Our Parents Being Human, and Stephen King's IT

In this post, I will muse and ramble on the subject of regarding one’s parents as real people. I will be drawing from Stephen King’s IT, but I will begin this post by quoting from Rachel Held Evans’ Evolving in Monkey Town. Rachel talks about her struggle as an evangelical Christian with the issue of hell, particularly how God could condemn people in non-Christian cultures for not believing in Jesus. Rachel discusses the issue with her father, a Christian professor, and he tells her that God’s ways are higher than our ways. Rachel is not satisfied with that answer, and she wonders if the God of evangelical Christianity is just as bad as a Nazi prison guard. Her father then gently says that she should be careful about what she says. On page 100, Rachel states the following:

“I think you officially grow up the moment you realize you are capable of causing your parents pain. All the rebellion of adolescence, all the slammed doors and temper tantrums and thoughtless words of youth—those are signs that you still think your parents are invincible, that you still imagine yourself as powerless against them. As my father and I talked in his office that afternoon, I imagined how devastated I would be if I ever left the faith, and I realized for the first time that I could break his heart. I realized for the first time that we were made out of the same stuff. Fear and insecurity felt the same to him as they felt to me. He had no special immunity against disappointment or guilt, no built-in armor to protect himself from the pain I might cause him. For the first time in my life, I knew what it was like to relate to my father as a peer. It was scary.”

This passage really hit home for me, for I myself tend to put my parents on a pedestal. It’s not that I regard them as flawless, mind you, but I’d like to think that their approval of me is rock-solid. Consequently, if I am cross or impatient with my Mom, I chalk that up to my weak human nature, but, if she is cross or impatient with me (which doesn’t happen that often), I feel devastated. In short, I don’t give my parents the space to be human that I allow for myself. It’s like I see them as God-like, but not totally God-like.

In a variety of ways, Stephen King’s IT touches on the issue of our parents being human, just as we are. Here are some examples in what I have read in the book so far (and, just to be clear, much of the following has nothing to do with how I see my own parents!):

1. After IT kills Bill Dengrough’s little brother, Georgie, his parents are not the same. Laughter is gone from the house, and, when Bill’s father does smile, his smile is merely a shadow of his old grin. Bill’s parents are silent and distant. Bill understands his parents’ grief, for he shares it himself. But my impression is that he longs for his parents to be stronger for him, or at least to be available to him as parents. (Pages 242-243, 671)

2. Henry Bowers is a bully, and he is abused by his crazy father, who intensely dislikes his African-American neighbors, the Hanlons. Henry hates his father, and yet he also loves him and desires his approval. In a disturbing and horrible scene, Henry lures the Hanlons’ dog with chips and treats, then he kills the dog by feeding him food laced with insect poison. Henry then ties the dog to a tree and watches him die. On page 666, we read: “And that afternoon, after he had told [his father], he felt he had finally found the key to his father’s affections, because his father had clapped him on the back (so hard that Henry almost fell over), taken him in a living room, and given him a beer. It was the first beer Henry had ever had, and for all the rest of the years he would associate that taste with positive emotions: victory and love.”

3. On pages 662-663, Richie is frustrated with his mother because she will not listen to him. Richie’s glasses break after a bully (and friend of Henry Bowers) named Gard Jagermeyer pushes him into a gutter. But Richie’s Mom reprimands Richie, saying, “Honestly, Richie, do you think there’s a glasses-tree somewhere and we can just pull off a new pair of spectacles for you whenever you break the old pair?” She later says, “the next time you see your father come in looking whipped after working late three nights in a row, you think a little bit, Richie.” Richie tries to explain to his Mom that it wasn’t his fault, that he was pushed into the gutter by a bully, but she will not listen. We read, “This failure to make his mother understand hurt much worse than being slammed into the gutter by Gard Jagermeyer…” The concern of Richie’s mother is certainly understandable, for glasses are expensive, and Richie’s father (as the breadwinner) would have had to work extra hours to replace them! But Richie was hoping to find compassion and understanding from his mother.

And, while I’m talking about Richie’s mother, I wrote an exclamation point by something on page 366, which talks about what Richie’s mother was thinking about Richie and Bill:

I don’t understand either of them, she thought. Where they go, what they do, what they want…or what will become of them. Sometimes, oh sometimes their eyes are wild, and sometimes I’m afraid for them and sometimes I’m afraid of them. She found herself thinking, not for the first time, that it would have been nice if she and Went could have had a girl as well, a pretty blond girl she could have dressed in skirts and matching bows and black patent-leather shoes on Sundays. A pretty little girl who would ask to bake cupcakes after school and who would want dolls instead of books on ventriloquism and Revell models of cars that went fast. A pretty little girl she could have understood.”

This took me aback because I expect parents to be unconditionally loving and approving of their children, and so it seems out-of-place to me when a parent—particularly a mother—is scared of her own son and deems him to be so inadequate that she wants a daughter. But I’m probably speaking from my own sheltered experience.

4. The Hanlons are the only African-American family in Derry, Maine, and Will Hanlon is Mike Hanlon’s Dad. On pages 668-670, Will has a talk with his son about how he should be careful in a world in which many don’t like African-American people. This scene reminded me of the Family Matters episode, “Fight the Good Fight” (see here—though the YouTube video no longer works), in which Laura is the victim of racism when she tries to start an African-American History class at her school. Her parents, Carl and Harriett, are broken by the incident, and they realize that they cannot shelter their daughter from the realities of racism in the world, as much as they’d like to do so. Many of us would like to think that our parents are God-like oracles, who are above the unfairness of the world, and who can protect us from it. But, like a lot of human beings, they, too, are its victims, and sometimes all they can do is share their experience.

While I’m talking about Will Hanlon, on page 455, Will on his deathbed is telling his son Mike about an incident that occurred when he was a young man in the military: the burning of an African-American night-club by white racists (who were prominent in the Derry community). Before he arrives at that part of the story, however, Will discusses his social life with his friends: “Oh, you could pick up a woman at any pig, you didn’t even have to work at it that hard—there was a lot of them wanted to find out if a slice off’n the rye loaf was any different—but to kids like me and Trevor Dawson and Carl Roone, my friends in those days, the thought of buying a whore—a white whore—that was something you had to sit down and consider.”

Mike then narrates about this: “As I’ve told you, he was heavily doped that night. I don’t believe he would have said any of that stuff—not to his fifteen-year-old son—if he had not been.”

And, with that, I’ll close this post about parents being human!

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