Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Mimesis, or the Akedah Lives Again

During World War II, Erich Auerbach wrote his monumentally important study called Mimesis, while he was in exile. It begins its history of mimetic literary representation with a comparison between the revelation of Odysseus's scar in the Odyssey and the Akedah, or "binding," of Isaac in Gen. 22. This story from Genesis has reverberated throughout the centuries. You can find it in the Maccabean literature to describe martyrs, or, more accurately, to encourage martyrdom (ironically, since Isaac never died in the original story), there are hints that early Christians applied the story to Jesus, to medieval massacres of Jews in Europe (see Shalom Spiegel's fanstastic book called The Akedah), and the story has resurfaced in a new guise today.

Non Sequitur here. I have recently began to watch a new show on TNT called "Saving Grace." Grace is a cop who drinks, sleeps with married men, etc., and is basically on God's "last chance list." An angel named Earl, who eats tacos and chews tobacco, is her guide (and she does not completely believe he exists). In the last episode, a very religious father and son duo enter the story. They are conservative Christians, and the father claims that God talks to him. This actually is not, in the parameters of the show, very difficult to believe, since Earl the angel keeps coming on the scene to talk to Grace. But, even here, things start to appear a bit cooky or scary. The father tells the police to guard his son closely (he was being guarded already because he was a witness to a high profile case), because God had told him that he would not live to see his 18th birthday, and, lo and behold, the son was to turn 18 that very night at midnight (or 12:01, for you picky people out there). Indeed, just before midnight, someone knocked out the guard protecting the child and kidnapped him. BUT it was the boy's own father. In the next scene, the father holds a knife to his son's throat while he is being surrounded by police. He claims that, in fact, God told him that he would have to carry out the prophecy (that his son would have to die that night).

This story has Abraham and Isaac written all over it, down to the use of a knife for the sacrifice and the divine command. The biblical story has been interpreted many ways, of course, as all multivalent texts are. It has been understood to represent the shift from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice in Israelite society (this is a scholarly interpretation, of course). Since antiquity, however, the story has been interpreted to highlight Abraham's righteousness, obedience, and faith as well as Isaac's obedience and faith. Perhaps obedience more than anything. But, in the modern environment, when seeing a new iteration, it appears more like fanatacism or mental instability.

This raises the question: can someone have too much faith? be too obedient? I have often considered it my calling and, in fact, my duty in the classroom to bring doubt and to encourage questioning when and where certainty have long held sway. Can you really have faith without some doubt, anyway? At what point can obedience slip into blindness?

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