The unending mystery and a dash of Utopia

Of course, I’m not done. Not with these reflections.

One realization is how revolutionary much of the Bible really is.

For example, the critical portrayal of public figures and governments is something we take for granted today, at least in democratic societies. In ancient times, however, are there any other critical reports of a people’s heroes and rulers? Before David, that is? He’s presented as a flawed human, and yet becomes all the more impressive because of those failings. I suspect this candor alone would make the collection ground-breaking, as does the assumption that the monarchy is accountable to a higher authority, itself a consequence of the Covenant.

The glories of Egypt’s pyramids and the Greek statues and Rome’s social order came at an oppressive price to the common person. Where else in antiquity do we find such an awareness of the people who carry that burden as we find in the Bible?

Jesus, meanwhile, can be seen as a living koan, to borrow from Zen Buddhism. It’s not just his parables, either, but rather the unending upside to his example of living true to this faith.

Think, too, of the paradox of viewing him as Messiah — a king without a country, an army, a royal court, wealth. The very possibility points to a radically different kind of society. And, yes, I believe Scripture keeps pointing to a vision of Utopia as well as the daily nitty-gritty tribulations arising in basic living that would be part of it.

 

Related to Utopian hope is a sense of some golden age in the past.

We could start with Eden, though it’s really too confining if you look more closely. Or the age of Solomon. Or the early church. Or, for Quakers, the turbulent time when the movement burst forth in the British Isles. For some of us, it might even be in fond memories of the hippie experience.

Always, though, also tinged with a sense of loss.

Yet, without such a vision, how do we press onward for progress? Social justice, especially? The values at the core of the Biblical message?

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Yes, there’s trouble in these troubling pages

I was left troubled. The misogyny, militarism, and nationalism were more pronounced and inescapable than I had encountered in tackling the books individually, in no particular order.

My new awareness of different authorships and the late date of much of the composition, with J only one of the masters, casts doubt on many of the details of the earlier books of the Bible — especially those about Moses. Hearing more than one scholar question the very existence of Moses demands a response.

The Five Books of (or about) Moses and the poem about Job, especially, flow from the deepest recesses of antiquity and are rooted in the most central problems of humanity.

Rather than turn away from the Biblical trove, blaming it for the tribulations of modern humanity, I have a renewed conviction that answers and cures are found in soulfully addressing the pages of the perplexing anthology we know as the Bible, when we open ourselves honestly.

My approach, I repeat, is not that of the fundamentalist who reads it as if preparing for a courtroom decision. Mine is more like a theatrical production. In that regard, the figure of Moses is real, in a ways that render the question of whether he actually ever walked on the face of the earth is irrelevant. Ditto for Job. They’re more real than mere mortals, actually, and we need them. Think of Hamlet, if you must, or King Lear.

I’m a poet, among other things, and my reading of these books in sequence has enhanced my appreciation for them as poetry and in-the-gut stories — expressions of experience encompassed in metaphors, which can never, ever, be turned into neat dictionary entries or legal precedents or moralizing tales.

 

I keep returning to the image of two Jews sitting on facing seats in a railway car in Europe after World War II. The event, as related by a Quaker observer, as I recall, had them vociferously arguing over a text open on the small table between them. Slowly, he realized that one was speaking in one language while the other was doing so in a second, but they understood each other with no need of translation. More remarkable, though, was that they were squabbling over a page in yet a third language. And here he was, retelling this in his own native language, a fourth.

To me, in other words, these texts are not simply about some distant time and peoples. They are about us, now, if we sweep away all the contemporary clutter that clouds our vision. At their best, they speak the language of the heart.

To me, then, the way out of our own misogyny, militarism, nationalism, environmental disaster, and so on can be found in wrestling with these pages. The book of Revelation itself points to the miraculous Tree of Healing at the very conclusion, found flourishing next to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that opened all the travails that are reported in the Bible. We have to go back to the scene of the crime, as it were, if we want to solve the case that is us, guilty or innocent.

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The Bible is not the only ancient expression of our ancient roots. I’m indebted to the Zen Buddhist American poet Gary Snyder for his insights along these lines, especially in his books Earth House Hold and The Old Ways, and to Jerome Rothenberg’s anthology Technicians of the Sacred, with its many pieces from “primitives” around the world. Snyder, in fact, has said that a poet needs to be conversant in at least one form of arcane knowledge. We in civilized societies lose much in our bargain with the Devil, and we need to remember how much of our comfort and ease come at a cost to the psyche. Maybe you and I will discuss that in the future. Me? I’m not yet ready to give up my computer.

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Charles Fager’s Three Quaker Bible Studies: John, Mark, First Corinthians takes an unconventional tact, “to think of the Bible not as a book of answers but rather one of questions.” As he explains, “I will be looking not so much for doctrines and precepts as for challenges and queries. Or as early Friends would put it, I will be seeking … for the words of God, rather than some final, dogmatic Word.”

For him, passages that outwardly conflict – say on an issue like divorce – allow for deeper investigation and reflection.

 

Whose book is it, anyway?

So here’s the experience of reading it all in a page-to-page, book-to-next-book sequence. Front to back. Whew!

When I set forth, I had no clue there could be three different routes (or more) in going straight through what I knew as the Old Testament.

That, in itself, raises many questions about what’s considered important and how one part relates to the others.

I had chanced upon references to Sophia, or Wisdom, as having attributes similar to those of Christ, but I had no idea how many of her descriptions come largely in the Apocrypha, those strange books that aren’t included in the Hebrew or Protestant Bibles. In tracing her fuller dimensions, I find them helpful in comprehending the concepts of both Christ and the Holy Spirit, and of infusing a feminine sensibility into our perception of the Divine.

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Yes, there is an evolution in the definition of the Holy One over the centuries, though in the Biblical narrative it’s far less systematic than I had hoped.

The war-god undeniably reigns over the Israelite history up to the Babylonian exile, and the imagery is largely male, despite assertions to the contrary, and somewhat confined to a place, as in accompanying the troops or residing in the Tabernacle, the Ark, or the Temple.

What happens during that captivity transforms the descendants of Jacob into Jews — that is, the people of Judah — and does so far more profoundly than I had suspected. For starters, God is liberated from a specific place and becomes accessible to its chosen people everywhere. Some of the most powerful thinking in the Bible, in fact, arises in this upheaval — during the tragic buildup to the defeat, during the captivity, and then in resettlement in what had been the southern kingdom.

 

What my straight-through reading has given me is an awareness of proportion. I no longer view the Hebrew Bible — the part I’ve known as the Old Testament, even without the Apocrypha — as the “old half” of the Bible. It’s the bulk of the Bible. The New Testament sits atop it, like the visible part of an iceberg, merely a fifth of its volume.

Listening to the Jewish authors in Congregation reflect on its books, I sense how differently they relate to these stories than do we Gentiles. Few Christians live out these dramas, nor are they essential to our identity. No, for most, it’s all “back then” in antiquity.

Gordon Lish’s essay is the one I found least helpful. His diatribe starts off quibbling with his daughter, even before he launches into a defense of himself as a Jew who stopped attending services right after his bar mitzvah.

Here I am, sensing how much I’m an outsider, a visitor, appreciating the wonders of this culture and its legacy, which has nonetheless shaped my own. But then Lish throws it all back in my face.

“The bible, Jewish or otherwise, is all Christian to me — an alien object, uncongenial to me, pestilential at its worst. It is the Christians who own all of the parts of this book, from whichever sources its gorgeous sentences may have once issued. Try this sentence of mine: The Christians owned the bible owned the bible even before there were Christians.”

Nothing like stereotyping, is there? But it gets worse.

“Don’t you know that the Christians have title to all the objects of the world?

“They even own, as they could any instant prove, my body and probably yours.”

Is he trying to pick a fight? This could be dirty.

Lish then launches into a rant against the Word and those who examine it legalistically, a charge that now turns on “the side-curled whose scholarship totemizes a text” and thereby Christianizes it, which he sees as being as far from Jewish as you can get.

It took me a while to realize who the side-curled are.

I am curious about how he’d react to the line of thinking that emerges from viewing the Word as Logos, affiliated with the Holy Spirit and Sophia, and I have been deeply offended by his bigoted smear (substitute one word and we’d rightly hear the howl of anti-Semitism), yet now suddenly he’s throwing the Chassidic in with me.

It’s a troubling essay from a troubled man, and frankly I’d rather hear from his daughter Jenny.

But he also forces me to admit that my approach to these books is largely unconventional. Though raised in a mainstream Protestant household, I came to Quaker faith as an adult, and see it very much as an alternative Christianity.

 

Lish fails to recognize that for many nominal Christians, the Bible is a distant echo. Many Catholics openly admit to knowing little of it. For Protestants, it’s essential, the center of the sermons that are at the center of the worship, even when many today keep the book at arm’s-length. It sits unopened on a dusty shelf or at bedside, like the Gideon Bible in the motel drawer.

One point where Lish could build an argument, at least in the English-speaking world, comes in the weight of the King James translation on our perspective. Other authors in Congregation deal with its impact and the ways it colors and distorts the content, even for Jews conversant in Hebrew.

Even in the Greek Orthodox services, where the English passages are chanted in contemporary translations, the Lord’s Prayer is congregationally recited in its King James richness, addressing who art in heaven, thy kingdom come, thy will be done. Ahem.

The twist I hadn’t recognized until now is how much the shadow of my grandfather has stood over this project. He, with his eighth-grade education, though I hadn’t known that part until the past decade, claimed to have read the Bible end-to-end five times. What I do know is how much our interpretations would diverge. His were, I know, highly dogmatic and conventional, as Uncle John, with his degree from Yale Divinity School, tells me, A copy of the painting of Jesus knocking at the door, invoking Revelation 3:20, was the most prominent visual piece displayed in their house, in all of its hollow religiosity.

Our own house was more timid in its expressions of faith. We had a watercolor of a farm scene over the mantel instead, one by a respected cousin. Dreary, as in a snowless winter, all the same, with not a person in sight, not even Jesus knocking at the door.

Revelation and the devastation facing our own era

The New Testament — and thus, for Christians, the entire Bible — swirls to a tempestuous conclusion with the book of Revelation. Singular, not plural.

Attributed to John, often presumed to be the one who’s source of the book of gospel as well, it’s a volcanic eruption of apocalyptic utterance that brings to mind the psychedelic imaginings of Ezekiel, the promised new land of Deuteronomy, the justice of Isaiah, the tribulations of the Babylonian exile, the trials of Daniel, and a harmonious New Eden with its tree of healing and pure waters.

While many commentators over the years have imposed literalistic, even legalistic, interpretations on the text, pegging it to specific historical events in Biblical times or their own, and reducing each image-metaphor to a mere symbol of some particular episode or figure, I prefer to approach this is a vast symphony, one as overwhelming as the outburst Job receives from voice in the whirlwind. The text addresses our own time as much as the fires leading up to the destruction of the Second Temple or the Holocaust.

Think of Star Wars, nuclear annihilation, or climatic upheaval with its melting ice caps and great disastrous flooding, if you must. Ask, too, just where you stand in this text.

Revelation is the promise of the triumph of goodness and passionate fidelity over the futility evil, and of holy victory over the Dragon and the Ancient Serpent, “which is Satan and the Devil.”

Yes, there are those who try to interpret this as the Rapture, but I think they fall way short in their vision. Revelation is far more about holding to the promise and Covenant now, despite all appearances, rather than some cataclysmic future.

Psalm after psalm call on the faithful to praise the Lord. Many even mention instruments of orchestration. In Revelation, I’d add a large chorus. Of angels, like the one accompanying this story.

And that’s what I hear as I read this.

Tree of Life

 

Some give the date of composition as 68 CE during the Great Revolt, or even earlier, in 55 CE. Others place it as 95 CE.