Tuesday, December 29, 2009

On Day-Dreams

When a mind has a tendency towards day-dreams, it's a mistake to shield it from them, to ration them. So long as you divert your mind from its day-dreams, it will not know them for what they are; you will be the victim of all sorts of appearances because you will not have grasped their true nature. If a little day-dreaming is dangerous, the cure for it is not to dream less but to dream more, to dream all the time. One must have a thorough understanding of one's day-dreams if one is not to be troubled by them....

(Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove, In Search of Lost Time; trans. Moncrieff, Kilmartin, and Enright)

Here the character speaking is the painter Elstir, relaying this information to our day-dreaming narrator at his studio in seascape vistas of Balbec. He almost comes off as a Platonist in his desire to move from the appearances of things to the things themselves, but the true nature here to be grasped is not the form or idea of the good or beautiful, but the true nature of something that is inherently evanescent, something that cannot have permanence nor a static nature: a day-dream. Indeed, can a day-dream or the nature of day-dreaming be grasped at all, or is it something more like sand--the tighter you grasp the more of it will slip through your fingers? The more you pursue a day-dream, the faster it slips away. If one is to face it, perhaps the best thing to do is to merely linger, and to let it thicken around you like a mist.

Academic Studies of Dudeism

According to the NYTimes, the Dude abides in academe:

December 30, 2009
Dissertations on His Dudeness

Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1998 movie, “The Big Lebowski,” which stars Jeff Bridges as a beatific, pot-smoking, bowling-obsessed slacker known as the Dude, snuck up on the English-speaking world during the ’00s: it became, stealthily, the decade’s most venerated cult film. It’s got that elusive and addictive quality that a great midnight movie has to have: it blissfully widens and expands in your mind upon repeat viewings.

“The Big Lebowski” has spawned its own shaggy, fervid world: drinking games, Halloween costumes, bumper stickers (“This aggression will not stand, man”) and a drunken annual festival that took root in Louisville, Ky., and has spread to other cities. The movie is also the subject of an expanding shelf of books, including “The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers” and the forthcoming “The Tao of the Dude.”

Where cult films go, academics will follow. New in bookstores, and already in its second printing, is “The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies,” an essay collection edited by Edward P. Comentale and Aaron Jaffe (Indiana University Press, $24.95). The book is, like the Dude himself, a little rough around the edges. But it’s worth an end-of-the-year holiday pop-in. Ideally you’d read it with a White Russian — the Dude’s cocktail of choice — in hand.


In one essay Fred Ashe — he is an associate professor of English at Birmingham-Southern College — profitably compares the Dude to Rip van Winkle, for both his “friendly charisma” and what Washington Irving described as Rip’s “insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labor.” Both men, Mr. Ashe notes, expose “the sickness of a straight society premised on the Puritan work ethic.”


Reading “The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies,” it’s hard not to recall some of the profound and not-so-goofy things the novelist Umberto Eco had to say about cult movies in his 1984 essay “ ‘Casablanca’: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage.”

“What are the requirements for transforming a book or movie into a cult object?” Mr. Eco asked. “The work must be loved, obviously, but this is not enough. It must provide a completely furnished world so that its fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were aspects of the fan’s private sectarian world, a world about which one can make up quizzes and play trivia games so that the adepts of the sect recognize through each other a shared expertise.”

(If the phrases “Nice marmot,” or “You’re entering a world of pain,” or “I can get you a toe” mean anything to you, then “Lebowski” has entered your private sectarian world.)

Mr. Eco certainly seemed to presage the existence of “The Big Lebowski” when he wrote in his essay about “Casablanca” that a cult movie must be “ramshackle, rickety, unhinged in itself.” He explained: “Only an unhinged movie survives as a disconnected series of images, of peaks, of visual icebergs. It should display not one central idea but many. It should not reveal a coherent philosophy of composition. It must live on, and because of, its glorious ricketiness.”


As a new generation of “Lebowski” fans emerges, Dude Studies may linger for a while. In another of this book’s essays, “Professor Dude: An Inquiry Into the Appeal of His Dudeness for Contemporary College Students,” a bearded, longhaired and rather Dude-like associate professor of English at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., named Richard Gaughran asks this question about his students: “What is it that they see in the Dude that they find so desirable?”

One of Mr. Gaughran’s students came up with this summary, and it’s somehow appropriate for an end-of-the-year reckoning: “He doesn’t stand for what everybody thinks he should stand for, but he has his values. He just does it. He lives in a very disjointed society, but he’s gonna take things as they come, he’s gonna care about his friends, he’s gonna go to somebody’s recital, and that’s it. That’s how you respond.”

Happy New Year, Dude.

It just makes me want to pull out my copy of the movie and watch it again.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Power of the Opposed Idea

A powerful idea communicates some of its power to the an who contradicts it. Partaking of the universal community of minds, it infiltrates, grafts itself on to, the mind of him whom it refutes, among other contiguous ideas, with the aid of which, counter-attacking, he complements and corrects it; so that the final verdict is always to some extent the work of both parties to a discussion. It is to ideas which are not, strictly speaking, ideas at all, to ideas which, based on nothing, can find no foothold, no fraternal echo in the mind of the adversary, that the latter, grappling as it were with thin air, can find no word to say in answer.

(Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove, In Search of Lost Time; trans. Moncrieff, Kilmartin, and Enright)

This reminds me of a saying by Oscar Wilde: "When people agree with me, I always think I am in the wrong." Similarly, Proust suggests that when your ideas encounter no opposition, they are simply flimsy, lacking robustness; they lack power. Only powerful ideas are complex enough, rich enough, to invite opposition. Proust's phrasing, however, is not just that of opposition, but of cooperation in opposition. Strong opposition suggests a "fraternal echo," a camaraderie that cannot occur when lesser ideas are proposed. Two or more figures--sharing in the "universal community of minds"--oppose one another and contribute to one another; they pull apart among plural minds and come together in the universal community with a composite resultant that bears the marks of one another's thought. It is almost the stereotyped Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis, but the antithesis can only have authority if the thesis was powerful; the synthesis is almost the child of two minds coming together in cooperation and opposition, being born with distinctive traits from both of its parents.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Archaic Mark Codex a Forgery

For full discussion, see here.

Ancient Book of Mark Found Not So Ancient After All

ScienceDaily (Dec. 15, 2009) — A biblical expert at the University of
Chicago, Margaret M. Mitchell, together with experts in micro-chemical
analysis and medieval bookmaking, has concluded that one of the
University Library's most enigmatic possessions is a forgery. The
book, a copy of the Gospel of Mark, will remain in the collection as a
study document for scholars studying the authenticity of ancient

Scholars have argued for nearly 70 years over the provenance of what's
called the Archaic Mark, a 44-page miniature book, known as a "codex,"
which contains the complete 16-chapter text of the Gospel of Mark in
minuscule handwritten text. The manuscript, which also includes 16
colorful illustrations, has long been believed to be either an
important witness to the early text of the gospel or a modern forgery,
said Mitchell, Professor of New Testament and Early Christian

"The mystery is now solved from textual, chemical, and codicological
(bookmaking) angles," said Mitchell, who first became intrigued by the
codex when she saw it as a graduate student in 1982. Comprehensive
analysis demonstrates that it is not a genuine Byzantine manuscript,
but a counterfeit, she said, "made somewhere between 1874 and the
first decades of the 20th century."

Mitchell said experts from multiple disciplines made the findings
possible. "Our collective efforts have achieved what no single scholar
could do -- give a comprehensive analysis of the composite artifact
that is an illustrated codex. The data collected in this research
process has given us an even deeper understanding of the exact process
used by the forger," said Mitchell. "It will, we hope, assist ongoing
scholarly investigation into and detection of manuscripts forged in
the modern period."

As the rest of the article indicates, there have been sporadic doubts of the codex's authenticity, from various fields.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Sumerians Look on in Confusion as God Creates World

Members of the earth's earliest known civilization, the Sumerians, looked on in shock and confusion some 6,000 years ago as God, the Lord Almighty, created Heaven and Earth.

According to recently excavated clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform script, thousands of Sumerians—the first humans to establish systems of writing, agriculture, and government—were working on their sophisticated irrigation systems when the Father of All Creation reached down from the ether and blew the divine spirit of life into their thriving civilization.

"I do not understand," reads an ancient line of pictographs depicting the sun, the moon, water, and a Sumerian who appears to be scratching his head. "A booming voice is saying, 'Let there be light,' but there is already light. It is saying, 'Let the earth bring forth grass,' but I am already standing on grass."

"Everything is here already," the pictograph continues. "We do not need more stars."

Historians believe that, immediately following the biblical event, Sumerian witnesses returned to the city of Eridu, a bustling metropolis built 1,500 years before God called for the appearance of dry land, to discuss the new development. According to records, Sumerian farmers, priests, and civic administrators were not only befuddled, but also took issue with the face of God moving across the water, saying that He scared away those who were traveling to Mesopotamia to participate in their vast and intricate trade system.

Moreover, the Sumerians were taken aback by the creation of the same animals and herb-yielding seeds that they had been domesticating and cultivating for hundreds of generations.

"The Sumerian people must have found God's making of heaven and earth in the middle of their well-established society to be more of an annoyance than anything else," said Paul Helund, ancient history professor at Cornell University. "If what the pictographs indicate are true, His loud voice interrupted their ancient prayer rituals for an entire week."

According to the cuneiform tablets, Sumerians found God's most puzzling act to be the creation from dust of the first two human beings.

"These two people made in his image do not know how to communicate, lack skills in both mathematics and farming, and have the intellectual capacity of an infant," one Sumerian philosopher wrote. "They must be the creation of a complete idiot."


This piece is part of The Onion's Our Annual Year: The Top 10 Stories Of The Last 4.5 Billion Years

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Yerushalmi Obituary

The New York Times has a nice obituary on Yosef Yerushalmi, who passed away earlier this week:

Yosef Haim Yerushalmi, a groundbreaking and wide-ranging scholar of Jewish history whose meditation on the tension between collective memory of a people and the more prosaic factual record of the past influenced a generation of thinkers, died on Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 77 and lived in Manhattan.


An elegant writer and mesmerizing raconteur, Dr. Yerushalmi earned his reputation as one of his generation’s foremost Jewish historians by plumbing eclectic subjects like the history of the Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 1490s, messianism, the intellectual history of modern German Jewry and Freud’s relationship with his religion. In 1982, Dr. Yerushalmi, then the Salo Wittmayer Baron professor of Jewish history, culture and society at Columbia University, published perhaps his most influential work, “Zachor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory,” a slim volume whose title bore the Hebrew imperative “Remember!”

Barely 100 pages, “Zachor” was an examination of the conflict between the collective stories that invigorate Judaism as a culture and the verifiable chronicle of history itself. The critic Harold Bloom, reviewing it in The New York Review of Books, predicted that the book might “join the canon of Jewish wisdom literature.” Many scholars would argue that it has joined that canon, even if they interpret his thesis differently.


Mr. Bloom, in his review, wrote that Dr. Yerushalmi worried that in the modern age “Scripture has been replaced by history as the validating arbiter of Jewish ideologies,” and that the replacement “has yielded chaos.”

Elisheva Carlebach, Dr. Yerushalmi’s successor as Salo Baron professor at Columbia, said Dr. Yerushalmi had encouraged scholars to treat collective memory itself as a subject of research. “He recognized that what’s important is remembered and that this becomes part of the consciousness of people,” she said. “Whether archaeologists can or cannot verify is a separate question on a different level.”

What I've Been Listening to: 30 Seconds to Mars

Other than having a cool name, this band has some catchy, somewhat addictive songs, such as the following called "Kings and Queens":

Ok...I don't quite get what's going on with all the bicycles. And I am not quite sure what that resuscitation (resurrection?) moment was doing there. Perhaps that is the "promise" in the "kings and queens of promise" or the juxtaposition of self-destruction and promise, the the moment of being in between heaven and hell? But the lyrics pick up on elements of fragmentation, brokenness, perhaps alienation (unless that is too existentialist):

Into the night
Desperate and broken
The sound of a fight
Father has spoken

We were the kings and queens of promise
We were the victims of ourselves
Maybe the children of a lesser God
Between Heaven and Hell
Heaven and Hell

Into your eyes
Hopeless and taken
We stole our new lives
Through blood and pain
In defense of our dreams
In defense of our dreams

We were the Kings and Queens of promise
We were the victims of ourselves
Maybe the Children of a lesser God
Between Heaven and Hell
Heaven and Hell

The age of man is over
A darkness comes at dawn
These lessons that we learned here
Have only just begun

We were the Kings and Queens of promise
We were the victims of ourselves
Maybe the Children of a Lesser God
Between Heaven and Hell

We are the Kings
We are the Queens
We are the Kings
We are the Queens

The lines "Maybe the children of a lesser God / between heaven and hell" reminds me a bit of the demiurge in Gnostic traditions.

Many of you might have recognized the lead singer: among other roles, he was Hephaistion, Alexander the Great's lover, in Oliver Stone's badly edited version:

St. Nick Reconstructed

The Feast of St. Nicholas has already passed (it was Dec. 6), but since so many people relate him to Christmas it is still relevant news that his face has been reconstructed using forensic anthropology.

While many people may not have realized that Santa Claus was based upon a real person, St. Nicholas was an ancient bishop who lived in the late third to mid fourth century CE. He was born and died in Myra, a city in ancient Anatolia--modern Turkey. He attended the famous Council of Nicaea. He was particularly known for his acts of charity and giving anonymous gifts, hence many of the familiar traits and legends that began to grow around him.

But what I didn't know was that his relics--including his skull--lie in the Basilica de San Nicola in Bari, Italy, and having taken measurements of his skull, his facial features have been reconstructed.

So, here's what Santa Claus may have actually looked like:

For background on the history of St. Nick and his remains, and the report on facial reconstruction, see here.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

R.I.P. Yosef Yerushalmi

I just received news that the esteemed and highly influential Columbia Professor of Jewish Studies, Yosef Yerushalmi, passed away yesterday. I particularly enjoyed his book on history and memory, Zakhor.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Space, Place, Sign, and Symbol

I am reading Yi-Fu Tuan's very clearly written, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. In his chapter on "Architectural Space and Awareness," which ranges from China, ancient Sumer, medieval European Cathedrals to modern architecture, he discusses the symbolic importance of space in a larger coherent worldview that is reflected in how we build, whether a home, a village, a church, or a skyscraper. While much of the chapter emphasizes continuities in how each society constructs its buildings and shelters in relationship to its larger symbolic system (to borrow a phrase from Mary Douglas), he notes something different is now happening in the modern world. Firstly, because of the high rates of literacy, the use of material and physical symbols are fading as the importance of verbal symbols rise: "verbal symbols have progressively displaced material symbols, and books rather than buildings instruct" (117). But there is something more, or something less that is happening. Symbols are themselves being emptied of their potency to organize the world because of a fractured worldview in modern perspective:

Symbols themselves have lost much of their power to reverberate in the mind and feeling since this power depends on the existence of a coherent world. Without such a world symbols tend to become indistinguishable from signs. (117)

How is Tuan differentiating between sign and symbol? It seems that he sees symbols as meaningful in and of themselves even as they indicate something else, whereas signs can only indicate something else. Or, perhaps in religious terms, symbols participate in the qualities of what they point toward, whereas signs may not. Symbols belong to a set of other symbols in a relatively closed (coherent) system; signs can exist outside such a system.

Retraction: More on "Couching" and "Crouching" in RSV

Earlier I noted a typo in my particular edition of the RSV that I use for class in which the LORD says to Cain that sin is "couching" at the door (Gen. 4:7). I took it as a typo, since it would be better rendered as "crouching." It would be a simple typographical error of the omission of one letter, but would totally change the meaning of the verse from a menacing predator to sexually seductive. Kevin Edgecomb, however, noted that all the RSV editions he could find say "couching," and so it might be the actual translation choice of the RSV. I had a hard time believing this, since "couching" just did not make sense, and "crouching" does, in fact, work with the Hebrew at this point. Other translations, for example, use "lurking" (NRSV). I suggested in the notes to that post that this might be an even bigger modern scribal error--one in the base text of the RSV that never got emended. Nonetheless, Kevin's suggestion that it might be intentional prompted me to check the different meanings of the verb, "to couch." Buried among all of the expected definitions of "lying down" to rest or to sleep are some that have more menacing qualities. For example, one definition means to "place or hold level and pointed forward ready for use." One can imagine someone holding a gun without its safety or a sword level and ready. It is like crouching in that one is poised and ready to pounce. This becomes much clearer in a subsequent definition: "to lie in ambush." This, in fact, is the exact imagery that "crouching" had suggested to me. The similarity in all of the definitions is that something is lying or held prone or horizontal, but it can be for rest or for destruction. This sense of "couching" however does not readily spring to mind the way "crouching" indicates a poised readiness to spring into action. This just illustrates why we constantly need to retranslate ancient texts, because our own language fluctuates so much.

The Fool Fixed in His Folly: Some Lines from T.S. Eliot

Perhaps in the alliterative tradition of Shakespeare's "Full fathom five thy father lies" (Tempest 1.2.329), T.S. Eliot renders in his own play about Thomas Becket, "Murder in the Cathedral":

The fool, fixed in his folly, may think
He can turn the wheel on which he turns.

These lines come in the midst of a scene highly reliant upon the Devil's temptation of Jesus in the Gospels. Here four different tempters come to Becket with different types of temptations that vary in subtlety from obvious physical temptation to the temptation of power. The tempter here seeks to remind Becket of his previous life of "mirth" and love, a life of pleasure, before he became archbishop of Canterbury. These lines are Becket's reply. The point is that one cannot return--literally turn back the wheel. What is done is done. If one seeks one's old life, one will find that this time around, things are different. He suggests that similar things happen from generation to generation because people fail to learn from others' mistakes, but in one's own life, one cannot repeat, one cannot return to one's youth. It is an attitude of folly. The last tempter, however, is much more subtle. He seeks to tempt Becket into doing good, but good that seeks spiritual power from beyond the grave as a martyr, as one is idealized and, in fact, idolized. It is a power more powerful than a mere king, who dies and is replaced. It is an ongoing power. It is the temptation, in fact, that Becket acknowledges that he is most inclined toward, but he finally resists, saying:

The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

One does good because it is good. Or, perhaps, one does good for God's glory and not for amassing spiritual power, even beyond the grave as a saint or martyr. (A true saint does not seek to be one.)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Islam in Switzerland

In a vote, the far right in Switzerland won a referendum to ban the construction of new minarets in the (notoriously?) neutral country. The ban itself was opposed by the current government, but the NYTimes reports...

The referendum, which passed with a clear majority of 57.5 percent of the voters and in 22 of Switzerland’s 25 cantons, was a victory for the right. The vote against was 42.5 percent. Because the ban gained a majority of votes and passed in a majority of the cantons, it will be added to the Constitution.

The Swiss Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the rightist Swiss People’s Party, or S.V.P., and a small religious party had proposed inserting a single sentence banning the construction of minarets, leading to the referendum.

The Swiss government said it would respect the vote and sought to reassure the Muslim population — mostly immigrants from other parts of Europe, like Kosovo and Turkey — that the minaret ban was “not a rejection of the Muslim community, religion or culture.”

I am ignorant of much of the Swiss system of governance, but would not a ban on the construction of new minarets contradict the Swiss constitution's guarantee of the freedom of religion? Can a referendum that leads to a constitutional amendment be instituted if itself contradicts other aspects of the constitution? In short, can an amendment to the constitution be ruled unconstitutional?

Of 150 mosques or prayer rooms in Switzerland, only 4 have minarets, and only 2 more minarets are planned. None conduct the call to prayer. There are about 400,000 Muslims in a population of some 7.5 million people. Close to 90 percent of Muslims in Switzerland are from Kosovo and Turkey, and most do not adhere to the codes of dress and conduct associated with conservative Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, said Manon Schick, a spokeswoman for Amnesty International in Switzerland.

“Most painful for us is the not the minaret ban, but the symbol sent by this vote,” said Farhad Afshar, who runs the Coordination of Islamic Organizations in Switzerland. “Muslims do not feel accepted as a religious community.”

This vote--alongside France's problems with Muslim clothing--reflects growing fears of militant Islamic groups, which do not represent the majority of Muslims in Europe. These campaigns play upon these fears, and do not reflect a careful, considered approach to religious freedom. If anything, such proposals could create resentment among those it oppresses, and degrades the quality of freedom in such countries for everyone.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Typos: The Modern Scribal Error

Kevin Edgecomb at Biblicalia has just posted on typographical errors in his modern copy of Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History, particularly how the turning of Satan into Satin, turns a potentially powerful moment into silliness.

In the Bible I use for my Lit Hum class, I also have found an interesting typographical error. It is the Meridian printing, which belongs to the Penguin Publishing group, of the RSV of Gen. 4:7. The story is of Cain and Abel. Abel's sacrifice to the LORD was accepted and Cain's was not. Cain becomes angry in response, but the LORD speaks to Cain, saying (with the typo included):

Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.

With the typo, it seems that sin is spending the night, perhaps even bedding down at the door. The language of "couching" adjacent to "desire" is suggestive of sexual attraction being applied to sin. It is trying to tempt you into bed. But, this is a typo. The real version is "crouching" and not "couching." This suggests a different set of images. Instead of sexually seductive, it is a menacing animal. Crouching is like a beast poised in the position to spring and to strike. Instead of sexual desire, it is seeking to devour. You are its food. Instead of mastering a seducer, you are to tame this lion. It is a powerful image, but one lost in this edition by this modern scribal error, and, with mass printing, it is a widely disseminated error.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Clay Head Studios and the Art of Hanneke Danielle Relyea in NOLA

One of the best aspects of the Society of Biblical Literature meeting this year is that it is in New Orleans. I probably attended a panel and a half total. My schedule was packed with interviews and other events on Saturday and Sunday. It was a misty, cloudy, and rainy weekend. It felt like the U.K., but perhaps a bit warmer. But Monday the sun came out and I was able to wander through the French Quarter--not that I didn't wander before, but it was more enjoyable in the sunshine. After a plate of beignets and a cafe au lait at Cafe du Monde, my attention was caught by these beautiful prints/paintings--they are monoprints--of silhouetted trees against a marbled, colorful background. The colors were rich and deep, yet still caught a nice contrast against the foregrounded black trees. The trees had few leaves and the roots were in full view, exposed, just like so much became both covered and exposed after Hurricane Katrina. I spoke to the artist, hanneke danielle relyea of clay head studios, at length about her process and the different aspects of her work.

Find her beautiful prints for purchase here. I thought the work she had with her was even more stunning that the online examples. If you are in NOLA on a weekend, you might catch her around Jackson Square.

(I have in no way been asked by the artist or her studio to promote her work, nor have I been compensated in any way.)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

SBL Online Program Book

I just discovered tonight--and I thought I would share my new-found information--that the online SBL program book has room numbers (here)! So you can map out and find those early sessions ahead of time, and not have to wait until the last minute to figure out where you're going--especially if you are in on one of those Friday meetings.

See everyone in New Orleans!

All Eyes on Genesis 1

There seems to be a lot of interest in Genesis 1 at the moment. In addition to my post late last night on variation in its formal elements, there is a post at Early Jewish Monotheisms on whether or not it should be read as polemic. Although it shows a lot of similarities with and adapted the Enuma Elish (and, here, I think it needs to be read in terms of the larger Priestly narrative patterns in the Pentateuch), I tend to read it as liturgy rather than polemic. Gen. 11:1-9 is polemic. And, finally, there is Mark Smith's new book completely dedicated to Genesis 1--The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1--which I have bought but have not read.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Variations of Creation in Genesis 1

Years ago, Moshe Weinfeld argued (convincingly in my view) that Gen. 1:1-2:3 was originally a temple liturgy. It does come across as a tightly constructed--highly structured--hymn with, in fact, some passages that almost seem designed for antiphonal choruses. Yet, upon a close reading, there are a great many variations within this structure. Just when the structure seems established on day one, there is some literary riffing by the great artist (or group of artists--perhaps from generation to generation) that put this hymn together.

Firstly, let is take care of general organization. Gen. 1:1-2 serves as a nice prologue, or introduction to the main sections of the hymn. The "In the Beginning" or "When God began" with the famous problematic first word בראשית with a shava under the first letter already sets us off into the realm of literary labyrinths of impossibilities and possibilities. Right on the heels of it is the famous rhymed pairing of תהו ובהו. It is after this, after meeting the primordial waters and formless abyss and the spirit or Spirit hovering over the waters that we find the well-known central portion that is highly structured in a day-to-day sequence of "And God said, 'Let there be...' and there was.... And God saw that it was good...And there was evening and there was morning, the...day." The finishing touch, the conclusion of completeness comes in 2:1-3 when God completed all his work, and rests on the Seventh day, which he hallows. From this pattern of six days of work plus a seventh of rest comes the week-in and week-out pattern of life as we know it, and yet it brings meaning to our lives since by working six days and resting on the seventh, we imitate God's creating and resting on a weekly basis. We sanctify our time and lives through this imitatio dei.

But the point of this post is to look more closely at the middle sections. They may seem uniform at first glance, but a second look shows them to be quite variable in the day-to-day presentation. The first day of the creation of light already sets the basic framework that will be embroidered from day-to-day (all the following quotes will be from the RSV--not for any particular reason other than that I teach in class using the RSV and perhaps one of my students will stumble onto this and find it useful):

And God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.

All the elements I mentioned as basic to the structure are here. God speaking things into existence, them coming into existence, God seeing that it is good, and evening and morning. The notion of divine utterance as a mode of creation is quite old. It can be found in the Enuma Elish, with which this passage has so much in common--a topic well-worn by scholars. In the Babylonian creation story, Marduk creates, destroys, and then recreates the constellations by his most effective utterance. In return, he is given sovereignty by this display of verbal power. It occurs only once in the Enuma Elish, but in Genesis 1 has become the primary mode of creation: God's speech itself becomes most effective and creative.

The very next day, however, shows a riff on this very element. While the effective utterance is still present--"And God said, 'Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters..."--there is a new mode of creation or, if not a new mode, a new way to discuss it: "And God made the firmament." Instead of God speaking and then those elements coming directly into existence from speech, on the second day, God speaks and then makes. He may make by speaking, but the "making" is a new element introduced. At the same time, however, there is no instance of it "being good." Why is "good" omitted here?

The third day, however, is much more extensive in its variations. Here the literary variation is doubling. Instead of only one "God said....and it was so...and God saw that it was good" there are two instances of it (1:9, 11-12). The first is the gathering of the waters, and the second is the vegetation on the newly uncovered land. Yet it returns to the first day's mode of creation: only speaking and no making.

The fourth day works by rearrangement of Day two--the day with speaking and making--with additional riffs on the act of creation. Day 2's pattern can be set as follows: speaking, making, and it was so, evening and morning. Day four, however, switches the second and third elements: speaking, and it was so, making [and setting], [it was good], and evening and morning. Unlike day 2 and like all of the other days, however, there is the element of calling these creations (the lights in the firmament) good. Moreover, there is a new element of creation: setting. Not only does God speak and make, but God "sets" the lights in firmament. (I just got a mental image of God hanging stars in the sky like we do Christmas ornaments on a tree.)

The fifth day introduces an entirely new element. On this day when the sea and sky creatures are made, God not only speaks them into creation and "creates" (same word as in Gen. 1:1), but for the first time in the narrative God blesses something: "And God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas and let birds multiple on the earth.'" (Gen. 1:22). These are commands that will not come about again until the creation of humans--not even the land animals receive such blessings and commands of multiplication.

Nonetheless, the sixth day is even more interesting for another fact: the creation of land animals almost seems like an appendix. It seems to happen on the sixth day, since it occurs after the "and there was evening and there was morning, a fifth day." So just like the third day, this day also is doubled. There are two instances of God said (1:24, 26), two instances of "and it was so" (1:24, 30), and two "it was good" (1:25, 31). The two elements here are the land animals and one particular land animal, the human being. The first element shows very good balance in its repetitious phrasing that suggests antiphonal elements. If I put it in strophe/antistrophe terms, one might show it was follows:

And God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds:
cattle and creeping things and beasts according to their kinds."
And it was so.

And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds.
And the cattle according to their kinds,
and everything that creeps upon the earth according to its kind.
And God saw that it was good.

In these terms, the third-person narration of the antistrophe repeats and elaborates the the second-person divine speech of the strophe. Whereas the first takes "according to their kinds" twice, the second takes it three times, applying it to cattle (where it was omitted in the first part).

The second part of day six, however, is the most elaborate and, in fact, for the creation days is the climax: it is the creation of the human. It is the only day to use the plural forms. Instead of God directly uttering something into existence, the text uses the first-person plural hortatory subjunctive: "Let us." The question of who "us" is has given a wide-ranging speculation throughout the ages. Perhaps God spoke with the "royal we," or angels helped. Or perhaps this is a vestige of an older polytheism that has not yet been fully monotheized out of the tradition. Again, the human is not simply uttered into creation, but is "made," like the firmament and the sun and the moon. But the human is made in "our" image and "our" likeness. Again the plural remains, but unlike the rest of creation, the human resembles God or the Gods. This particular creation will have dominion over the rest of the created animals. In 1:27, the language is "creating" as in the water and flying creatures and the general discussion in Gen. 1:1. While there have been repetitions in the text, there has not been anything quite as rapid-fire and succinct as what follows:

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
(Gen. 1:27)

Most repetitions in the text are two-fold and lengthy (two or three lines are then repeated for another two or three lines). Here a short, pointed line is repeated three times with variations. The first variation is a matter of word order, but the second variation elaborates the creation of the human: it is male and female, and unlike the Adam and Eve story that follows, they are created at the same time as the zenith of creation. The three-fold repetition of a short line packs a stronger punch than the earlier lengthier repetitions. It is a literary exclamation point. It emphasizes the importance of this moment of the creature who participates in the image and likeness of the creator. Like the sea and flying creatures, the human is then blessed and told to multiply. Then the earlier third-person narration of the human dominating all of creation is repeated in God's own second-person direct speech to the human. Only at this moment is the creation "very good."

In terms of formal characteristics and content there are some patterns:

Day 1 and Day 4 seem to correlate in terms of content: one is light and four is the day of specific aspects of light.

Day 2 and 5: day 2 establishes the creation of sky and sea (the two waters); day 5 is the creation of sea and sky animals.

Day 3 and 6: Day 3 establishes the creation of earth from the waters; day 6 is the creation of land animals. Formally, as well, Day 3 and day 6 use doubling of the creation pattern.

In sum, while Gen. 1:1-2:3 shows a tightly organized sequence of days of creation, the passage indicates great literary artistry in its ability to riff on the structure it had established. Each day is unique, in fact, not just in its content, but in its formal characteristics as it embroiders a seemingly strict framework established on day 1. This formal variation sorts, emphasizes, highlights different aspects of creation: those that are not just uttered, but made, created, and set--perhaps more intimate activities of the creator; those that are singled out and blessed; those that show different types of repetition to make antiphonal callings back and forth or an exclamatory emphasis.

Friday, November 13, 2009


Beckoned anew to a World
where wishes alter nothing,
expelled from the padded cell
of Sleep and re-admitted
to involved Humanity,
again, as wrote Augustine,
I know that I am and will,
I am willing and knowing,
I will to be and to know,
facing in four directions,
outwards and inwards in Space,
observing and reflecting,
backwards and forwards through Time,
recalling and forecasting.

(W.H. Auden)

Saints and Conquerors

Animal femurs
ascribed to saints who never
existed, are still

more holy than portraits
of conquerors who,
unfortunately, did.

(W.H. Auden, "Marginalia" IV)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Sophocles Soothes the Traumas of War

The NYTimes has a nice piece about how a few critically acclaimed actors in the acting troupe The Theater of War have been performing readings of Sophocles' Philoctetes and Ajax, for troops dealing with the traumas of war.

November 12, 2009
The Anguish of War for Today’s Soldiers, Explored by Sophocles

The ancient Greeks had a shorthand for the mental anguish of war, for post-traumatic stress disorder and even for outbursts of fratricidal bloodshed like last week’s shootings at Fort Hood. They would invoke the names of mythological military heroes who battled inner demons: Achilles, consumed by the deaths of his men; Philoctetes, hollowed out from betrayals by fellow officers; Ajax, warped with so much rage that he wanted to kill his comrades.

Now officials at the Defense Department are turning to the Greeks to explore the psychic impact of war.

The Pentagon has provided $3.7 million for an independent production company, Theater of War, to visit 50 military sites through at least next summer and stage readings from two plays by Sophocles, “Ajax” and “Philoctetes,” for service members. So far the group has performed at Fort Riley in Kansas; at the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Md.; and at last week’s Warrior Resilience Conference in Norfolk, Va.

The scenes from “Ajax” show the title character plotting to murder Greek generals who have disgraced him. Under a trance by the goddess Athena, he ends up slaughtering farm animals he thinks are the officers. Ajax’s concubine is depicted as trying to bring him to his senses; the final scene shows Ajax in agony, committing suicide.

The “Philoctetes” segment portrays Greek military leaders plotting to trick the hero into leading an attack on Troy, and shows Philoctetes struggling with both physical and emotional pain.


“Sophocles was himself a general, and Athens during his time was at war for decades,” he continued. “These two plays were seen by thousands of citizen-soldiers. By performing these scenes, we’re hoping that our modern-day soldiers will see their difficulties in a larger historical context, and perhaps feel less alone.”

Film screenings and theater performances have long been staples of mental health and rehabilitation services, intended to provoke discussions among viewers who might dislike talk therapy but who can identify with characters or plot points.

For active-duty soldiers, stigmas about therapy can be even greater, psychologists say. Concerns that they might be passed over for promotion or regarded as weak have prevented some from seeking help from mental health professionals.

“There is good evidence that active-duty personnel worry about the stigma of post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Richard J. McNally, the director of clinical training in the psychology department of Harvard University.

Some troubled veterans do not seek help even after their service careers are over, said Dr. McNally, who has worked in the field of trauma and memory, especially with war veterans, since the mid-1980s but is not involved with Mr. Doerries’s project.

“If seeing the Theater of War can reduce stigma and help veterans seek these treatments, then that will be wonderful indeed,” he added.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Mormon Support of (Some) Gay Rights

From the NYTimes:

November 12, 2009
Mormon Support of Gay Rights Statute Draws Praise

The Mormon church has been a target of vituperation by some gay-rights groups because of its active opposition to same-sex marriage. But on Wednesday, the church was being praised by gay rights activists in Salt Lake City, citadel of the Mormon world, for its open support of a local ordinance banning discrimination against gay men and lesbians in housing and employment.

The ordinance, which passed unanimously Tuesday night, made Salt Lake the first city in Utah to offer such protections. While the measure probably had majority backing on the seven-member City Council anyway, the church’s support was seen by gay activists as a thunderclap that would resonate across the state and in the overwhelmingly Mormon legislature, where even subtle shifts in church positions on social issues can swing votes and sentiments.


In its statement backing the ordinance, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said that while it remained “unequivocally committed to defending the bedrock foundation of marriage between a man and a woman,” the question of how people were treated on the job and in finding places to live were matters of fairness that did not have anything to do with marriage.

One might wonder if discriminating against gay marriage is also an issue of fairness, but supporting anti-discrimination in these more basic elements (having a job and a place to live) is a place to start.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Can you Separate a Person from their Work?

That is a question perennially asked concerning Heidegger, the highly influential 20th century philosopher--some may say the most influential 20th century philosopher--and Nazi. Is it possible to separate his philosophy from his Nazism? It is something being addressed, once more, in Emmanuel Faye's book, who says "NO!" See the discussion here.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Event

In physics, an event is the intersection of the three dimensions of space and the dimension of time. In ritual, I would say, an event is the coordination of sacred space and sacred time. W.H. Auden discusses the event poetically:

Between those happenings that prefigure it
And those that happen in its anamnesis
Occurs the Event, but that no human wit
Can recognize until all happening ceases.

An event is what happens between foreshadowing and retrospection, yet it is unrecognizable until its passage. It is only knowable in retrospect rather than in the moment. Perhaps. I think it is strange to express this in the perpetual present of poetry. Can there by retrospective poetic moments? Or is poetry, at least modern (and non-epic) poetry, only introspective? As such there is no poetic event, since there is no moment to see it from. Perhaps this is the point of the final line: "until all happening ceases." Is this the "happening" of a single event? Or is THE Event (which a capital E) all happening--all existence, all the ephemera that happens under the sun. As such, we cannot recognize the Event until the end of it all, the ultimate retrospection when all is seen in relation to all. THE Event is only recognizable from a non-human, a God's-eye view.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Did God Mean that Literally?

James McGrath has a great posting of a cartoon, which he in turn picked up from someone else. I just had to repost it here, let it make its way through the blogosphere.

This gets back to my posts from last year on Luke and Biblical Redistribution of Wealth. Just hit the tag on "Socialism and the Bible" to revisit those posts.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Defecation and Philosophy according to Poetry

The Geography of the House

Seated after breakfast
In this white-tiled cabin
Arabs called The House where
Everybody goes
Even melancholics
Raise a cheer to Mrs
Nature for the primal
Pleasures She bestows.

Sex is but a dream to
But a joy proposed un-
-til we start to shave:
Mouth-delight depends on
Virtue in the cook, but
This She guarantees from
Cradle unto grave.

Lifted off the potty,
Infants from their mothers
Hear their first impartial
Words of worldly praise:
Hence, to start the morning
With a satisfactory
Dump is a good omen
All our adult days.

Revelation came to
Luther in a privy
(Cross-words have been solved there):
Rodin was no fool
When he cast his Thinker,
Cogitating deeply,
Crouched in the position
Of a man at stool.

All the Arts derive from
This ur-act of making,
Private to the artist:
Makers' lives are spent
Striving in their chosen
Medium to produce a
De-nacissus-ised en-
-during excrement.

Freud did not invent the
Constipated miser:
Banks have letter-boxes
Built in their facade
Marked For Night Deposits,
Stocks are firm or liquid,
Currencies of nations
Either soft or hard.

Global Mother, keep our
Bowels of compassion
Open through our lifetime,
Purge our minds as well:
Grant us a kind ending,
Not a second childhood,
Petulant, weak-sphinctered,
In a cheap hotel.

Keep us in our station:
When we get pound-noteish,
When we seem about to
Take up Higher Thought,
Send us some deflating
Image like the pained ex-
-pression on a Major
Prophet taken short.

(Orthodoxy ought to
Bless our modern plumbing:
Swift and St Augustine
Lived in centuries
When a stench of sewage
Ever in the nostrils
Made a strong debating
Point for Manichees.)

Mind and Body run on
Different time-tables:
Not until our morning
Visit here can we
Leave the dead concerns of
Yesterday behind us,
Face with all our courage
What is now to be.

~W.H. Auden

On Literary Allusion and Imagery

...even an unveiled and substantiated allusion does not offer any essential element for the artistic and ideological understanding of that image. The image is always deeper and wider, it is linked to tradition, it has its own aesthetic logic independent of the allusion.... Even if one single allusion...could be positively identified...it would not help us understand the traditional meaning of this image...nor its specific artistic function in the novel.

(M.M. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 114; trans. Helene Iswolsky)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Poetry and Truth: Forgeries

I can imagine a forger clever enough to imitate another's signature so exactly that a handwriting expert would swear in court that it was genuine, but I cannot imagine a forger so clever that he could imitate his own signature inexactly enough to make a handwriting expert swear that it was a forgery. (Or is it only that I cannot imagine the circumstances in which anyone could want to do such a thing?)

(W.H. Auden, Dichtung and Wahrheit X)

It is almost like taking Polonius' advice to Laertes in Shakespeare's Hamlet as inevitable: not only "to thine own self be true" but one cannot but be true to oneself. Although one's signature is duplicable, one can only falsify others and not oneself. It is an interesting idea to express in handwriting. Although I am not sure it is true, and, in fact, Auden himself expresses parenthetical doubts that not being able to think of one who could falsify oneself is due to a lack of imagination.

Doggie Church

This article from AP was just sent to me about a Church that has started a special doggie service:

Before the first Canines at Covenant service last Sunday, Eggebeen said many Christians love their pets as much as human family members and grieve just as deeply when they suffer - but churches have been slow to recognize that love as the work of God.

"The Bible says of God only two things in terms of an 'is': That God is light and God is love. And wherever there's love, there's God in some fashion," said Eggebeen, himself a dog lover. "And when we love a dog and a dog loves us, that's a part of God and God is a part of that. So we honor that."

The weekly dog service at Covenant Presbyterian is part of a growing trend among churches nationwide to address the spirituality of pets and the deeply felt bonds that owners form with their animals.

Traditionally, conventional Christians believe that only humans have redeemable souls, said Laura Hobgood-Oster, a religion professor at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas.

But a growing number of congregations from Massachusetts to Texas to California are challenging that assertion with regular pet blessings and, increasingly, pet-centric services, said Hobgood-Oster, who studies the role of animals in Christian tradition.

She recently did a survey that found more than 500 blessings for animals at churches nationwide and has heard of a half-dozen congregations holding worship services like Eggebeen's, including one in a Boston suburb called Woof 'n Worship.

"It's the changing family structure, where pets are really central and religious communities are starting to recognize that people need various kinds of rituals that include their pets," she said. "More and more people in mainline Christianity are considering them to have some kind of soul."


But as Eggebeen stepped to the front and the piano struck up the hymn "GoD and DoG," one by one the pooches lay down, chins on paws, and listened. Eggebeen took prayer requests for Mr. Boobie (healing of the knees) and Hunter (had a stroke) and then called out the names of beloved pets past and present (Quiche, Tiger, Timmy, Baby Angel and Spunky) before launching into the Lord's Prayer.

And of course there are passing out of treats, something like a dog-biscuit communion.

I personally think it is a very good idea. It definitely would make church a bit more interesting.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Morton Smith on Secret Mark Documentary

Mark Goodacre, who as of late seems to scour YouTube for video clips of controversial finds, has posted a clip of Morton Smith discussing Secret Mark, which has been making additional waves in scholarship lately.

I have decidedly not publicly defended or refuted anyone's claims on Secret Mark, and do not expect to get anything out of me anytime soon. Those who pay close attention to my CV--the nocturnal initiates--will know why.

Here is the clip on Jesus' potential nocturnal initiation ceremonies:

Be sure to click on the link above to get Mark Goodacre's comments.

R.I.P. Claude Levi-Strauss

The very famous and highly influential anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss, has just died at the ripe age of 100, just a few weeks short of his 101st birthday. Frankly, I had not realized that he had been still alive all this time.

The AP has his obituary:

November 3, 2009
French Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss Dies at 100

Filed at 12:22 p.m. ET

PARIS (AP) -- Claude Levi-Strauss, widely considered the father of modern anthropology for work that included theories about commonalities between tribal and industrial societies, has died. He was 100.

The French intellectual was regarded as having reshaped the field of anthropology, introducing the concept of structuralism -- concepts about common patterns of behavior and thought, especially myths, in a wide range of human societies. Defined as the search for the underlying patterns of thought in all forms of human activity, structuralism compared the formal relationships among elements in any given system.

During his six-decade career, Levi-Strauss authored literary and anthropological classics including ''Tristes Tropiques'' (1955), ''The Savage Mind'' (1963) and ''The Raw and the Cooked'' (1964).

Jean-Mathieu Pasqualini, chief of staff at the Academie Francaise, said an homage to Levi-Strauss was planned for Thursday, with members of the society -- of which Levi-Strauss was a member -- standing during a speech to honor his memory.

Born on Nov. 28, 1908, in Brussels, Belgium, Levi-Strauss was the son of French parents of Jewish origin. He studied in Paris and went on to teach in Sao Paulo, Brazil and conduct much of the research that led to his breakthrough books in the South American giant.

Levi-Strauss also won worldwide acclaim and was awarded honorary doctorates universities including Harvard, Yale and Oxford, as well as universities in Sweden, Mexico and Canada.

He is survived by his sons Roman and Laurent.

Here is a longer obituary from the NYTimes.

The French newspaper, Le Monde, also has a lengthier obituary.

Islam and Creationism

The NYTimes has an article about a study coming out of McGill University in Montreal about the increasing prevalence of Creationism in Islamic communities and countries, a topic I know many of my regular readers will be interested in and and more informed about than I am.

According to the article, Muslim Creationists tend to be "old earth" Creationists in contrast to the more Christian "young earth" Creationists, meaning most Muslim Creationists do not think the earth to be a mere 6000 years old. They have no real problem with geologists and astronomers who argue that the earth is billions of years old. But they do seem to have some problems with biologists:

They do not quarrel with astronomers and geologists, just biologists, insisting that life is the creation of God, not the happenstance consequence of random occurrences.

This, as with everything, varies from group to group and from country to country, but there is a growing presence everywhere in the Muslim world. What is interesting is that evolution is not totally excluded, but only HUMAN evolution:

For many Muslims, even evolution and the notion that life flourished without the intervening hand of Allah is largely compatible with their religion. What many find unacceptable is human evolution, the idea that humans evolved from primitive primates. The Koran states that Allah created Adam, the first man, separately out of clay.

All other life can evolve, it seems, except human beings who are created directly by God. For the information from country to country, check out the article.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Noah: the Original Dionysiac!

Now, even as Noah--that sainted man to whom we are all beholden and indebted since it was he who planted the vine from which comes to us that nectar-like, precious, heavenly, joyful and deifying liquor that we call piot--was deceived when he drank of it since he was ignorant of its great virtues and power: so likewise did the men and women of the time partake with great pleasure of that lovely plump fruit.

(Francois Rabelais, Pantagruel, Gargantua and Pantagruel; trans. M.A. Screech)

Halloween from an Anthropological Perspective

One last post on Halloween, although I fully realize it is now All Saints Day. In my reading this morning, I ran across a passage from Victor Turner, who discusses Halloween in a series of cross-cultural calendrical rituals (as opposed to rites of passage) that emphasize the temporary reversal of roles and the importance of masks in those rites:

In Western society, the traces of rites of age- and sex-role reversal persist in such customs as Halloween, when the powers of the structurally inferior are manifested in the liminal dominance of pre-adolescent children. The monstrous masks they often wear in disguise represent mainly chthonic or earth-demonic powers--witches who blast fertility; corpses or skeletons from underground; indigenous peoples, such as Indians; troglodytes, such as dwarves or gnomes; hoboes or anti-authoritarian figures, such as pirates or traditional Western gun fighters. These tiny earth powers, if not propitiated by treats or dainties, will work fantastic and capricious tricks on the authority-holding generation of householders--tricks similar to those once believed to be the work of earth spirits, such as hobgoblins, boggarts, elves, fairies, and trolls. In a sense, too, these children mediate between the dead and the living; they are not long from the womb, which is in many cultures equated with the tomb, as both are associate with the earth, the source of fruits and the receiver of leavings. The Halloween children exemplify several liminal motifs: their masks insure them anonymity, for no one knows just whose particular children they are. But, as with most rituals of reversal, anonymity here is for the purposes of aggression, not humiliation. The child's mask is like the highwayman's mask--and, indeed, children at Halloween often wear masks of burglars or executioners. Masking endows them with the powers of feral, criminal autochthonous and supernatural beings.
(Victor Turner, The Ritual Process, 172).

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Spanish Catholic Church vs. "Pagan" Halloween

According to the London Times, the Spanish Catholic Church with the backing of the Vatican has come out completely against the celebration of Halloween. The article quotes an earlier, more lenient position taken by the Vatican as follows:

The Vatican appeared previously to take a more lenient position. Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican’s chief exorcist, once said: “If English and American children like to dress up as witches and devils on one night of the year, that’s not a problem. If it is just a game, there is no harm.”

But the Spanish hierarchy begs to differ.

Wearing skeleton suits, dressing up as vampires, witches or goblins or slapping on fake blood is not far removed from communing with the Devil, according to the country’s bishops.

However, the bishops, with Vatican backing, have reserved their venom for the millions of parents who allowed their children to celebrate this “pagan” festival.

Father Joan María Canals, the director of the Spanish Bishops Conference Committee on Liturgy, condemned parents for permitting their children to go to “un-Christian” parties when they should be focusing on All Saints Day today and All Souls Day on Monday.

All Hallows Eve is the Christian appropriation of an earlier "pagan"--specifically Celtic--holiday called Samhain. As I discussed in my previous post, if one wants to do away with holidays that have "pagan" elements, one would also have to do away with Christmas and Easter. And I do not think the church is going to claim those as anti-Christian and communing with the Devil. Frankly, dressing up in cute, clever, and sometimes gory costumes going door-to-door asking for candy is a pale reflection of the "pagan" roots of the holiday. Easter is probably closer to its pagan background! Very helpfully, the article gives a history of the holiday from Celtic origins, to Roman appropriation, to Christianization, and finally Americanization (which is basically synonymous with commercialization):

• The Celts wore costumes made from animal heads and built large fires to celebrate their new year, which fell on November 1. New Year’s Eve on October 31 was known as Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”) and marked the end of the “season of the Sun” (summer) and the beginning of “the season of darkness and cold”( winter). Although this 2,000-year-old version of Hallowe’en did not include trick or treating, it was far from dull.

• The Celts would burn crops and animals as offerings to their gods. Before the celebration, the ancient people would extinguish all fires other than the central bonfire, and scare each other with fortune-telling and prophesying

• The Romans later adapted this festival of the dead to honour the goddess of fruits and trees, Pomona. This is the most likely reason why, on Hallowe’en, we still bob for apples

• In the year AD835 the Roman Catholic Church made November 1 a holiday to honour all the saints. Although it was a joyous holiday, it was also the eve of All Souls Day, or All Hallows, so in medieval times it became customary to pray for the dead on this date

• Hallowe’en’s modern popularity can be attributed to the Americans. Because the celebration was largely free of any religious connections, it was quickly embraced by a broad swath of immigrants in the second half of the 19th century. Today Americans spend an estimated $6.9 billion (£4.2 billion) on Hallowe’en each year

Nowhere in the early stages was there anything about candy, there was no trick-or-treating, and, although there were costumes, I doubt many of us are wearing real animal heads. There are scary stories, however. The bonfire sounds fun.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Es tu Paganus?

As all hallow's eve approaches, the NYTimes has an article on the polytheistic background of the highly commercialized holiday (well, aren't all holidays these days?): the autumnal festival of Samhain.

Many people probably know that most of our "Christian" holidays rely upon an older calendar of European religious festivals, referred to as "pagan":

Certainly, there is nothing new about Paganism per se. From Halloween to May Day to Yuletide, said Prof. Diana L. Eck of Harvard Divinity School, “There’s a way in which all of us, especially in the Christian tradition, follow a religious calendar that is pegged to ancient Pagan festivals.”

One might add all of the fertility imagery (rabbits and eggs) in Easter. It was recognized early on by Christian leaders that it would be easier to convert people and keep them in the fold if many of the practices and festivals of the older religions were retained in some form and re-framed in Christian terms--that is why Christmas is December 25th, which used to commemorate the Sol Invictus ("unconquered sun"), and now commemorates the "unconquered son." Even for those who converted and their successors, the older polytheistic practices and beliefs have retained a strong hold: we are all still their successors.

More generally, however, the article focuses on groups and individuals who self-identify as "Pagan" or even "Heathen," and their struggle for official recognition. Sub-groups include Wiccan and Druid.

"Pagan" is an interesting word to identify oneself by. It literally means "villager." During the spread of Christianity in late antiquity, it began to be used to refer to those who did not convert and held onto their earlier religious traditions. Since Christianity spread fastest through a network of cities in the Roman Empire, most of the holdouts lived in the villages; thus, the term "pagan" was applied to a particular set of religious practices. But it was a "dustbin" category--it referred to anyone who was neither Christian nor Jewish. It was a pejorative term.

Nonetheless, as one of the ultimate terms of creating an outsider, an other, in societies that came to be dominated by Christians, "Pagan" has been adopted as a self-identifying term for those who practice or who resurrected these earlier religious forms with some modifications: most ancient forms of European and Near Eastern polytheistic worship included some sort of animal sacrifice, which is excluded in modern iterations (yet this is true of all religious movements--the modern versions bear faint resemblance to their ancient forebears). I have a feeling, however, that the variegated movements that fall under this broad umbrella appropriated this term due to the need for official, governmental protection. It is, in a way, useful so that each individual group would not have to fight for recognition separately. I do not know, however, to what degree someone who practices Wicca would recognize their similarity with someone who is a Druid except insofar as their common history of exclusion and their struggle for recognition. But, on the other hand, the same may be said for the difference between a Russian Orthodox Christian and a Southern Baptist.

Es tu Paganus? To at least a small degree, most of us are even if by the shattered remnants that have survived the ages in new clothing, even if that is not our identifying term.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Swine Flu and Religion: the Hajj

Disease, particularly on an epidemic scale, often affects religion. I might point to what Thucydides, for example, says about religion during the great plague of Athens in the fifth century BCE at the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. As people died of the plague and the plague spread, all social bonds broke down. He writes:

Equally useless were prayers made in the temples, consultation of oracles, and so forth; indeed, in the end people were overcome by their sufferings that they paid no further attention to such things.
(Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 2.47; trans. Rex Warner)

The complete abandonment of religion (and all law) is a rather extreme version of how disease affects religious observance. But less extreme but still significant changes, mostly coming from religious authorities have been put into play with multiple religions.

A couple weeks ago we heard about changes in Catholic services, when the common cup for Eucharist ceremonies was removed and holy water was no longer available to stem the spread of swine flu. Many churches--as with so many other institutions--are now decked out with hand sanitizer.

But perhaps the biggest change I have seen is in Islam: Saudi authorities are worried that the hajj, the largest gathering of humans on the planet, will be a breeding ground for the flu.

“The hajj is a central ritual of Islam, and our country tries to make it easy for everyone to come,” said Dr. Ziad A. Memish, the country’s assistant deputy minister for preventive medicine. “We’ve said we won’t turn away anyone who arrives at our borders. But we are recommending to other countries whom they should let come.”


While religious pilgrimages feed the souls of those who attend, they often endanger the bodies. There have been several outbreaks of meningitis in Mecca since 1987, and in 2004, Muslim pilgrims spread polio from northern Nigeria across Africa to Saudi Arabia and from there outward to Yemen and Indonesia.


It will be impossible to stop the flu from arriving, the authorities acknowledge, and hard to slow its spread. But they are trying to lessen the damage by keeping the most vulnerable pilgrims away. Every country gets an annual limit as to how many pilgrims it can send. This year the Saudis suggested barring anyone who is pregnant, under age 12, over age 65 or suffering from diabetes, chronic lung, heart, liver or nerve disease, or some other conditions. Psychologically, the ban is hardest on the old and the sick, Dr. Memish said.

In countries with large Muslim populations, many applicants get one or two chances in a lifetime at the pilgrimage that every Muslim is supposed to make, and “some people save money for their whole lives to do it,” he said. More than half of all pilgrims are over 50. In a normal year, many of those desperate to come before they die are pushed in wheelchairs or carried around the Kaaba and through the other rituals.

The new swine flu vaccine could end all the Saudi worries, but only a few countries have even small amounts available, and the Saudis want anyone with access to it to have the shots at least two weeks before arrival.

Godspeed to all making the pilgrimage this year.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Some Considerations of "Absolute Space" and Sacred Spacetime

In my work of developing a spatiotemporal approach or a "poetics" of spacetime, I have been reading through Henri Lefebvre's Production of Space. For the most part, Lefebvre privileges spatial over temporal dimensions, but, in his defense, he claims he does so because this is a tendency of capitalist societies--privileging of space and the subordination of time is a quality of what he is studying. Nonetheless, in so doing he does show a certain sensitivity to time's relationship to space and how this relationship shifts from society to society, or, perhaps more accurately, from mode of production to mode of production.

One aspect of space he considers is "absolute space," and it is his comments on this type of space I would like to use as a jumping off point in developing an understanding of sacred spacetime. He writes:

Considered in itself--"absolutely"--absolute space is located nowhere. It has no place because it embodies all places, and has a strictly symbolic existence. This is what makes it similar to the fictitious/real space of language, and of that mental space, magically (imaginarily) cut off from the spatial realm, where the consciousness of the 'subject'--or 'self-consciousness'--takes form. Absolute space is always at the disposal of priestly castes. It consecrates, and consecration metaphysically identifies any space with fundamentally holy space: the space of a sanctuary is absolute space, even in the smallest temple or the most unpretentious village church. The space of tombs, for its part, unless it contains a god or a monarch, is analogous merely to the spaces of birth, death or oblivion. Absolute space, being by definition religious as well as political, implies the existence of religious institutions which subject it to the two major mechanisms of identification and imitation. These mental categories, destined to become those of imagination and reflective thought, first appear as spatial forms. The material extension of absolute space occurs by virtue of these processes, to the benefit of priestly castes and the political power they exercise or serve.
(Henri Lefebvre, Production of Space, 236-7; trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith; emphases original)

The first thing to consider is that absolute space differs from abstract space. Absolute space is not abstract, geometrical (Euclidean) space. The question is how is absolute space both everywhere and nowhere? Is it what consecrates as Lefebvre claims, or is it what is consecrated? Consecration--the creation of holy space--indicates a degree of separation and if there is separation and such differentiation, it cannot be everywhere in fact. Although it can be anywhere and everywhere in potential in the sense that consecration of space could theoretically occur to any space, turning any space into absolute/sacred/holy space. It is in this sense that, Lefebvre next says, it is "ritually affixable":

Being ritually affixable to any place and hence also detachable therefrom, the characteristic "absolute" requires an identifying mark. It therefore generates forms, and forms accommodate it. Such forms are microcosms of the universe: a square (the mandala), a circle or sphere, a triangle, a rational volume occupied by a divine principle, a cross, and so on.
(ibid., 237)

The "identifying mark" is its differentiation. Its marks are, indeed, its symbolic elements--they are the elements upon which meaning and, perhaps, a surplus of meaning is imputed. As such, it can be affixed to any place, but cannot be all places at once, except insofar as it contains all places. In this consideration, therefore, absolute space is the macrocosm. It consecrates, if we give absolute space agency as it seems Lefebvre does (which seems problematic to me), other spaces to become absolute spaces as well as microcosms. Thus the village temple, church, synagogue, mosque, etc., are microcosms that mirror the macrocosm. But, as the first paragraph quoted emphasizes, it is not just by imitation of the macrocosm that the microcosm becomes absolute space, it is also by identification. The macrocosm that contains the microcosm is fully present in the microcosm contained within it. So, although one might say that absolute space is everywhere insofar as it contains all space, on the other hand it is only accessible through the differentiated, marked spaces that are in some way holy. This means that we have to move a step beyond Lefebvre. He has suggested three relationships between macrocosmic (my word) absolute space and microcosmic absolute space: (1) the first consecrates the second; (2) the second imitates the first; and (3) the second identifies with the first. But imitation and identification are not quite enough to explain the relations of the two and encompass the claims that absolute space is everywhere and nowhere. Beyond imitation and due to identification, these differentiated, marked microcosms must also participate in the macrocosmic space.

I would contend, moreover, that these maneuvers pertain to time: we might say something about "absolute" time (which to me sounds like a nice substitution for "eternity") and absolute time's consecration of a marked time (through liturgies, rituals, etc.) and marked time's imitation and identification with absolute time, which, moreover, participates in absolute time. It is something that is again "ritually affixed." But this ritual affixation, moreover, suggests something else: it is a moment, an event, that concurrently organizes or coordinates this marked time with the marked space. Indeed, once we take agency away from "absolute" space and/or time, it give it to the ritual actors--the "priestly castes," perhaps--through the ritual actors' bodily movements and manipulations (and movement is where space and time coincide since one always moves through space and time together) the differentiations and relative sacrality of the entire spatiotemporal environment are created (or, in Lefebvre's terms, produced and reproduced).

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Illustrating Genesis: R. Crumb's New Graphic Version

Today I purchased R. Crumb's new The Book of Genesis: Illustrated. Many bibliobloggers have been discussing the release of this book lately, showing a pre-released page or two. My local independent bookstore, Book Culture, has had this featured on their shelves for weeks now, even though it is much before its official release date of October 28. Kudos to Book Culture for being able to get this weeks before it is available elsewhere.

I have merely glanced at it so far, so my comments are necessarily cursory. The illustrations are very earthy--even those of angels and God (although God appears a bit luminescent). It freely depicts what the Bible describes (e.g., Adam "knowing" Eve, or any other sex scene in Genesis with some nudity--such as bare breasts or butts, and, when not explicitly nude, nipple outlines show through clothing). I was interested in looking at Genesis 22, the binding of Isaac, which illustrates the internal turmoil of Abraham through his facial expressions, particularly his eyes, which have both a searingly hard and troubled look, and the drawing of sweat. If you turn to Jacob wrestling with the man/angel/god, that figure looks just as human as Jacob. One recurrent element I find interesting is the use of jewelry. Women are often depicted with nose rings, men with earrings, and there are necklaces galore. Crumb is very interested in hairstyles and beardstyles. Styles of jewelry and hair clearly indicate social elements of gender and class. It shows an attention to middle-eastern styles of dress and detail.

It looks to be an enjoyable rendition of Genesis. It is the only copy of either a complete or portion of the Bible that comes with a warning: "Adult supervision recommended for minors." I think this should be the case for the Bible when not illustrated! Not necessarily for the sexual encounters described, however epigrammatically, but the violence involved.

Three Days

Jesus said, "Earthly life consists of three days: a yesterday over which you have no control, a tomorrow which you do not know whether you will attain, and a today which you should put to good use."

(Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Minhaj al-'Abidin; trans. Khalidi, Muslim Jesus)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Some Sayings from the Muslim Jesus

Christ said to his followers: "If people appoint you as their heads, be like tails."

"Blessed is he who sees with his heart but whose heart is not in what he sees."

Christ said, "The world is a bridge. Cross this bridge but do not build upon it."

Christ said, "Be in the middle but walk to the side."

'Abdallah ibn Qutayba, 'Uyun al-Akhbar 1:266; 2:268, 328; 3:21 (Trans. Tarif Khalidi, The Muslim Jesus)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

To Know and to Do

Jesus said, "It is of no use to you to come to know what you did not know, so long as you do not act in accordance with what you already know. Too much knowledge only increases pride if you do not act in accordance with it."

Ahmad ibn Hanbal, al-Zuhd (trans. Tarif Khalidi, The Muslim Jesus)

A Don's Life by Mary Beard

Mary Beard, the prominent Classicist and always-provocative and insightful writer, has turned her blog, A Don's Life, which is associated with the London Times, into a book.

The book reprints some selected posts, as well as including quite a few comments (and I think that debate actually makes the book). It also has an essay, by yours truly, on the nature of blogging -- and why I am a convert to the genre, despite many initial misgivings about dumbing down etc etc.

I hope you'll like it.

This of course raises a publication question: why would anyone buy the book if they could just look at her blog for free?

Nonetheless, it sounds very intriguing:

I'd like to think that anyone planning to apply to a so-called "elite" university would find some reassurance here: Oxbridge interviews really aren't as mad as they are made out to be, and you'll find some useful reflections from someone on the "wrong" side of the interview in the book. You'll also find a glimpse of the day to day life of a don -- much less port, and much more hard work than is usually painted (though even the blog cant quite capture what my everyday life is like ... no student would fancy seeing our discussion dissecting her essay reprinted on the web).

You'll also find some debunking of classical myths (Did the Romans wear togas? Well, not often -- about as we wear dinner jackets). And you'll come across some sharp commentary on 'new' classical stories in the headlines, not to mention some expostulation about the world as we know it (why do mixed institutions make it so hard for women to find the women's loo?)

Not to mention the occasional pointed rant on "the erotics of pedagogy', or on the Elgin Marbles.

I frankly did not realize she had a blog. But I have added it to my feed.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Anglicans, Catholics, Poaching, and Marriage

So there has been a lot of discussion of Pope B16's welcoming of Anglican bishops and priests who want to defect into the Catholic Church (after a re-ordination). From the Anglican side, it has been seen as "poaching" and "predatory" as discussed by the London Times. It is "poaching" more conservative Anglicans who have problems with the ordination of women and (openly) gay clergy. On the other hand, this maneuver to attract conservative Anglicans has instigated the paradoxical speculation of a possible result of "liberalizing" the Catholic clerical structure. Since the move by the Pope allows MARRIED Anglican clergy to defect to become Catholic clergy as married clergy, it will reopen or give momentum to the discussion of allowing married Catholic clergy. Married clergy are allowed by every other Christian tradition--Orthodox and Protestant--but hasn't been a part of the Latin rite in over a millennium. Will anything come of this?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Donne on Prayer

I have been reading some John Donne lately during my evermore frequent bouts with insomnia (is this the plight of all academics?), and I came across a couplet on prayer that I found interesting:

Hear this prayer Lord: O Lord deliver us
From trusting in those prayers, though poured out thus.

(John Donne, Litanies XIV.125-6)

I am fascinating by this prayer, since it is a prayer to deliver us from trusting in prayers--a truly paradoxical sentence.

Monday, October 5, 2009

"Great Books" and "Middlebrow" Culture

There is an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the Great Books movement and "middlebrow" culture in the U.S. As someone who teaches a quintessential "great books" course, Literature of the Humanities, at Columbia University--not quite a "middlebrow" culture--I found the article interesting.

I found the following few paragraphs interesting and strangely ironic:

In my early 20s, when I was starting out as a graduate student in the humanities, I hosted a small gathering at my apartment. It didn't take long for my guests to begin scrutinizing my bookshelves. (I do the same thing now, of course, whenever I am at a party.) I remember that there were numerous battered anthologies, at least a hundred paperback classics, the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (acquired as a Book-of-the-Month Club premium), probably six copies of PMLA, and several shelves of books that I had retained from childhood, including the Time-Life Library of Art and the Old West Time-Life Series in "hand-tooled Naugahyde leather."

Perhaps the most revered set of volumes from my childhood—proudly displayed—was Great Books of the Western World, in 54 leatherette volumes. I remember I bought them all at once for $10 at a church sale when I was about 13; it took me two trips to carry them home in plastic grocery bags.

"Your clay feet are showing," said one of my guests, another graduate student, as she removed Volume 1 of the Great Books from my shelves. I caught the biblical allusion, but it took me a couple of years to realize the implication of the remark: My background was lacking. If graduate school was a quiz show, then I was Herbert Stempel trying to make it in the world of Charles Van Doren.

The last bit refers to the famous "Quiz Show" debacle that has now been immortalized in film. What I find fascinating about it is that Charles van Doren's father, Mark van Doren, the much beloved literature professor at Columbia University, was a great proponent and foundational supporter of the "great books" movement and the development of the very course I teach now at Columbia. Though it may be different: the teaching of masterpieces of literature versus the mass-marketed book series. Nonetheless, I do wonder if van Doren, who inspired such a great American writer as Jack Kerouac, would disapprove of mass exposure of such masterpieces? I doubt it. His basic philosophy was that anyone who was an attentive reader could learn and teach such masterpieces.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Archaeologists Uncover Amphitheater at Portus

The London Times reports that archaeologists have unearthed a private amphitheater for the emperor at Portus, a site near Rome's Fiumicino airport.

This is the first time that a large-scale dig has taken place at the site, known as Portus, which was discovered in the 16th century and excavated in the 1860s. Now two miles inland, it would have been twice the size of the port of Southampton and an important gateway between Rome and the Mediterranean. It is possible that it was frequented by 2nd-century emperors.

British excavators, including staff from the University of Cambridge and the British School at Rome, said that the amphitheatre was likely to have been built for the private entertainment of a senior statesman or emperor and could have held up to 2,000 spectators.

Professor Simon Keay, the project director, said: “[The amphitheatre’s] design, using luxurious materials and substantial colonnades, suggests it was used by a high-status official, possibly even the emperor himself.

They also found the toilet there.

Biblical Studies Carnival XLVI

Daniel and Tonya at Hebrew and Greek Reader have posted the latest Biblical Studies Carnival.

Yours truly has a few posts this time, which I found interesting since I posted much less this month. Perhaps quality went up with less quantity.

My review of Mark George's Tabernacle as Social Space made the cut. Unfortunately, the link they set up does not work because it is missing the "l" in "html."

My off-hand post on Pathos also shows up. And my reporting of a report on the find of a horde of coins. Personally, however, I thought my post on Gilgamesh and Ecclesiastes was more interesting than these last two. But maybe Death is too light of a topic for the Carnival.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Quote of the Day: John Donne

Seek we then ourselves in ourselves; for as
Men force the sun with much more force to pass,
By gathering his beams with a crystal glass;

So we, if we into ourselves will turn,
Blowing our sparks of virtue, may outburn
The straw, which doth about our hearts sojourn.

(John Donne, "To Mr Roland Woodward")

The Places of Past Memories

I just completed Swann's Way, the first part of Marcel Proust's magnum opus, In Search of Lost Time. It is an absolutely beautiful book. It captures the always escaping evanescence of our memories, but fully sensually. It is the luxurious perfume that triggers something within us and sets out minds into places in our past, places that can never be the same again because we have changed. Lost places are the other dimension of lost time that slip on by, wafting and then dissipating in the air. The last line of the book captures the temporality of place beautifully:

The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. They were only a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.

(Marcel Proust, Swann's Way, In Search of Lost Time; trans. Moncrieff, Kilmartin, and Enright)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Scapechicken?

Yom Kippur is coming up on Monday. In Leviticus 16, the real action of the ancient ritual concerned two goats. One goat was slaughtered and the blood cleansed the sanctuary. The other, the "scapegoat" or the goat "for Azazel," had the people's sins passed upon it and it was driven into the wilderness (evidently where Azazel was).

In Brooklyn on Monday Hasidic Jews will sacrifice a chicken in the "kapparot." The idea is that sins are transferred to the bird and then disappear at its death. I don't know much about this ritual, its origins, its explanations, and its developments. But it sounds like the two goats from the ancient ritual combined together into a single chicken.

Interestingly, it seems that this ritual contravenes rabbinic rulings on proper slaughter of animals.