This week, my train of thought, along with months (and psychologically, years) of planning and preparation have been trod over and stomped on by recent violence in the streets in Ethiopia. Pictures of burnt out cars and protests in the very city I was to be visiting and making new friends and meeting extended family has made me sad and angry.
It is in the context of all this that I found this passage from Thomas Merton particularly arresting. I reproduce the whole passage here as it doesn’t appear to be available anywhere else on the web in plain text.
An alienated space, an uninhabited space, is a space where you submit.
You stay where you are put, even though this cannot really be called “living.” You stop asking questions about it and you know there is not much point in making any complaint. (Business is not interested in your complaint, only in your rent.) “I live on X Street.” Translated: “X Street is the place where I submit, where I give in where I quit.” (The best thing to do with such a street is pull down the blinds and open a bottle of whiskey.)
Can a street be an inhabited space?
This question begins to take shape. We begin to guess the answer.
To acquire inhabitants, the street will have to be changed. Something must happen to the street. Something must be done to it. The people who are merely provisionally present, half-absent non-persons must now become really present on the street as themselves. They must be recognizable as people. Hence, they must recognize each other as people. (Business is not about to recognize them as people, only as consumers.)
They must be present on the street not simply as candidates for the local shell game, or for manipulation by loan sharks, or for a beating, or for exploitation, or for ridicule, or for total neglect.
Instead of submitting to the street, they must change it.
Instead of being formally and impersonally put in their place by the street, they must transform the street and make it over so that it is livable.
The street can be inhabited if the people on it begin to make their life credible by changing their environment.
Living is more than submission: it is creation.
To live is to create one’s own world as a scene of personal happiness.
How do you do that?
Various approaches have been tried.
For instance, you can tear the place apart.
This does, admittedly, have points. It is a way of reminding business, the city, the fuzz, etc. that you are there, that you are tired of being a non-person, that you are not just a passive machine for secreting indefinite amounts of submission. It may get you a TV set or a case of liquor or a new suit. It may even (if the operation is on a larger scale) get you a whole new building. (Though the honeycomb you live in may be replaced by a better one for somebody else.)
But the trouble with this approach is:
– It does not make the street any more habitable.
– It does not make life on this street any more credible.
– It does not make anybody happy.
– It does not change the kind of space the street is.
– It does not change the city’s negative idea of itself and of its streets.
– It accepts the idea that the street is a place going someplace else.
It accepts the street as a tunnel, the city as a rabbit warren. It takes for granted what business and money and the fuzz and everyone else takes for granted: that the street is an impersonal tube for “circulation” of traffic, business, and wealth, so that consequently all the real action is someplace else. That life really happens inside the buildings. But for life to happen inside buildings, it must first find expensive buildings to happen in – downtown or in the suburbs where the money goes along with the traffic.
Violence in the street is all right as an affirmation that one does not submit, but it fails because it accepts the general myth of the street as a no-man’s-land, as battleground, as no place. Hence, it is another kind of submission. It takes alienation for granted. Merely to fight in the street is to protest in desperation, that one is unable to change anything. So in the long run it is another way of giving up.
-Thomas Merton, Love and Living, p.48-50
Constraint really is the key component of art. Taking the constraint as a given and then trying to push the limits of it to express an idea is where all the interesting things are at. The artist may work on a canvas and their frustration at being “boxed in” may make them wish the canvas away. But take it away and they are left adrift on an ocean where the noise of the world swallows up all the potential meaning, expression, and communication. But struggle IN the box, and you can produce great and even utterly amazing things. There’s a quote laying around somewhere from Brian Eno talking about pushing the limits of early digital audio that captures some of this well. Ah, here it is:
“Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit – all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.”
My 9-year-old son is doing this right now with Minecraft. I just think of him having fun building stuff, just like someone might have fun building with Legos and there is that, but there is also much more. He was extremely excited today to show me something he had just built. What was it? A bookshelf with some books on it. Very simple. A couple of them were laying sideways and were different colors. That is all. So why all the enthusiasm? He had pushed the boundaries of the constraints. He had found instructions on how to hack a command block to nudge objects only one pixel in space. In Minecraft, the 16x16x16 textured blocks are a primitive given. But with the hack, you can make small objects and with a lot of patience, produce relatively smooth curves where none should be possible. Any normal 3D modelling software could have produced that bookshelf in a couple minutes with a few simple points and clicks. Woopee. But to produce it in a world bade of clunky huge blocks, to suddenly make something impossibly small and intricate according to the “normal” rules of physics in that world, that was something exciting.
It’s like being given a box of Legos after living in a room full of jumbo Duplos. No, actually that’s a poor analogy. That wouldn’t be nearly as fun. This is like melting down some of your Duplos with matches and remolding the pieces in a hand-carved cast to produce a precious handful of Legos. It is the delight of the child builder to put their mind and hands to this. It is the delight of the painter to get that tree, that face, to fit on the canvas and look, somehow, even more real that it was in the flesh.
The usual accounts of ‘scientific’ method focus (with good reason, in my view) on hypothesis and verification/falsification. We make a hypothesis about what is true, and we go about verifying or falsifying it by further experimentations. But how do we arrive at hypotheses, and what counts as verification or falsification? On the positivistic model, hypotheses are constructed out of the sense-data received, and then go in search of more sense-evidence which will either confirm, modify or destroy the hypotheses thus created.
I suggest that this is misleading. It is very unlikely that one could construct a good working hypotheses out of sense-data alone, and in fact no reflective thinker in any field imagines that this is the case. One needs a larger framework on which to draw, a larger set of STORIES about things that are likely to happen in the world. There must always be a leap, made by the imagination that has been attuned sympathetically to the subject-matter, from the (in principal) random observation of phenomena to the hypotheses of a pattern.
Equally, verification happens not so much by observing random sense-data to see whether they fit with the hypothesis, but by devising means, precisely on the basis of the larger stories (including the hypothesis itself), to ask specific questions about specific aspects of the hypotheses. But this presses the question: in what way do the large stories and the specific data arrive at a ‘fit’? In order to examine this we must look closer at stories themselves.
-N.T. Wright, “Knowledge: Problems and Varieties”, from The New Testament and the People of God, p.37
Good science requires imagination, not just good tools and accurate observation. Science also happens inside of these larger frameworks, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and about the world. Which is why a scientist who shuns philosophy and psychology will be eaten alive by them in course of his own efforts. Our hypothesis don’t happen in a vacuum. We need that air to breathe.
Leviticus 4 and following articulates a wide variety of sacrifices that should be brought to God for sin, depending on the person’s position in the community. The high priest has to bring an adult bull. The nation as a whole, a young bull. A leader, a male goat. A common person, a less valuable female goat. A poor person, just a dove or pigeon. A very poor person, only a cup of flour.
The more influential you are, the more terrible the effect of your sin. Leviticus does not treat sin in the abstract, but by how it impacts the community. We are not all in equal positions in life. Some are leaders and teachers, some aren’t. Some are rich, some are poor. If you are the president of the USA or the CEO of a huge corporation and you sin, it effects tons of other people. We may not be famous like that, but when we sin, it effects are children and our community. When the CEO of Wells Fargo lies (as it came to light this past week) then 5000 people lose their jobs. When our nation’s leader’s sin, they may rip thousands of families apart by sending young men to a pointless war. When I sin, the result is not so dramatic, but it hurts my wife or screws up my children and maybe causes strife or jealousy amongst my friends. When your 4-year-old sins by throwing a fit when it’s time to go to bed… not a whole lot happens. That’s a good time for training!
“With great power comes great responsibility” is not just some idea from Spiderman. The sacrifices that the priest or the king had to offer were bigger to symbolize this. We often like to think of ourselves as potentially just as smart or important as anyone else. We could have been an astronaut if we had really wanted to be, right? But in reality, we are all in different spaces in life. We have different strengths and weaknesses and circumstances given us by God. Let’s not burden ourselves with impossible expectations and beat ourselves up over our failures. At the same time, let’s be aware of what riches and responsibility we DO possess, even on a small scale, and seek to honor our creator with them. It is natural and just to do this. The devil would seek to make us ever confused us as to what is required.
Sacrifice, as the anthropologists and psychiatrists have been telling us for some time, lies deep within the human aware that things which are wrong have to be put right; and the way in which they are put right involves the CONSCIENCE and the WHOLE LIFE of those involved. There is an irony here. A generation ago, liberal thought managed to get rid of sin; and, with sin, most theories of atonement were dismissed as odd and unnecessary. But in our own generation we have rediscovered guilt; we have plenty of shame and violence; we have alienation at all levels. And we don’t know what to do with it, either at a personal [or community or national] level. Cleansing of the conscience is what is required; and the only way to do that is by the total offering of the human life to God. But the total offering isn’t something we can do for ourselves. If we try, we are merely trying to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. That’s why the Old Testament, pointing forwards, teachers that God himself provides the sacrifice necessary to cleanse the conscience.
-N.T. Wright, sermon on Hebrews, from Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship
We are buried up to our eyeballs in shame and guilt today! Turn on the TV (or don’t). It’s just people yelling back and forth trying to make feel each other ashamed about not caring for this or not supporting that. Fire up Facebook and hear all about how you are such a terrible parent or human being for (_________ fill in the blank). Then the comment thread gets deleted and friends leave in a huff. Rinse and repeat.
We live in guilt and shame city. The passage I quoted from Wright is from 1995. The amplification of shame in our culture is dramatically higher than when that observation was made. The awareness of sin is back in our face with a vengeance. But, if we will not name it, if we continue to call it something else, holding out false hope that enlightenment and “raised awareness” amongst our neighbors and ourselves will result in peace, then we cannot fully discern our inadequacy. We cannot deal with it and our deep need for forgiveness.
Death has power, but because of the victory of Christ, it’s power is rather limited. Here, Bonhoeffer argues convincingly that we idolize death today by ascribing it far too much power. His description of how the secular west is both seemingly extremely concerned about life (health, children, the future, etc.) and, at the same time, also flippant about it is quite seems entirely accurate to me.
Where death is the last thing, fear of death is combined with defiance. Where death is the last thing, earthly life is all or nothing. Boastful reliance on earthly eternities goes side by side with a frivolous playing with life. A convulsive acceptance and seizing hold of life stands cheek by jowl with indifference and contempt for life. There is no clearer indication of the idolization of death than when a period claims to be building for eternity and yet life has no value in this period, or when big words are spoken of a new man, of a new world and of a new society which is to be ushered in, and yet all that is new is the destruction of life as we have it. The drastic acceptance or rejection of earthly life reveals that only death has any value here. To clutch at everything or to cast away everything is the reaction of one who believes fanatically in death.
But wherever it is recognized that the power of death has been broken, wherever the world of death is illumined by the miracle of the resurrection and of the new life, there no eternities are demanded of life but one takes of life what it offers, not all or nothing but good and evil, the important and the unimportant, joy and sorrow; one neither clings convulsively to life nor casts it frivolously away. One is content with the allotted span and one does not invest earthly things with the title of eternity; one allows to death the limited rights which it still possesses. It is from beyond death that one expects the coming of the new man and of the new world, from the power by which death has been vanquished.
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, p.80
Why study all of scripture, even the seemingly unusable parts of Leviticus? I answered that question in several ways in a recent sermon, borrowing heavily from this very good essay from Dustin Messer at Theopolis but taking it in a slightly different direction.
In the modern world, we have an unhealthy tendency to treat everything as if we were scientists in a lab, always breaking things up into their smallest parts. So a delightful honey crisp apple, for example, becomes a collection of certain proportions of fiber and sugar and dosages of vitamin K, B-6, and E. Now it may be true to say those things about an apple, but when you put those nutrients back together, you don’t get an apple. The parts interact with each other and the apple itself interacts with our body when we eat it in complex ways. The experience of eating an apple, the taste, the crunch, is part of living and being human that looking at the cell of a fruit under a microscope can tell you nothing about. To live we need food, not just nutrients.
To grind up scripture into tiny parts of text to study certainly has some value, but in doing so we run the risk of becoming modernist scientists cooking up magic pills to solve world hunger, including our own hunger. Jesus, in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, gives us bread and wine to eat. In the church, he gives us a new community of extended adopted family to live amongst. These things are complex and we can’t always say how they work or are supposed to work. He gives us the whole of scripture – the very old, old, and new. The stories, the worship, the songs, the teaching, and the mysteries. The Word of God is our food. Studying and meditating on books like Leviticus is part of our effort to eat everything good on the plate that has been prepared for us. Some of the dishes might be unfamiliar, but the chef has a fabulous reputation, so let’s keep our expectations high!
Ever since the exile it had been possible to study and practice Torah even without the Temple and the Land. In the exile, of course, there was no Temple. This, naturally, constituted part of the problem of how to be a Jew in Babylon, how to sing YHWH’s song in a strange land. But in the [later] Diaspora [at the time of Christ], then and subsequently, the study and practice of Torah increasingly became the focal point of Jewishness. For millions of ordinary Jews, Torah became a portable Land, a movable Temple. The Pharisees in particular, in conjunction with the burgeoning synagogue movement, developed the theory that study and practice of Torah could take the place of Temple worship. Where two or three gather to study Torah, the Shekinah rests upon them. The presence of the covenant god was not, after all, confined to the Temple of Jerusalem, which was both a long way off and in the hands of corrupt aristocrats. It had been democratized, made available to all who would study and practice Torah.
-N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, p.228
Wright is imitating the phrase of Jesus in Matthew 18:20 (“where two or more are gathered together”) regarding the presence of God in his description of later Jewish thought about the Torah, but I think it’s accurate. The original reference is to ‘mAboth 3.2’, that is, Midrash Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers):
Rabbi Chanina son of Tradyon would say: Two who sit and no words of Torah pass between them, this is a session of scorners, as is stated, “And in a session of scorners he did not sit” (Psalms 1:1). But two who sit and exchange words of Torah, the Divine Presence rests amongst them, as is stated, “Then the G?d-fearing conversed with one another, and G?d listened and heard; and it was inscribed before Him in a book of remembrance for those who fear G?d and give thought to His name” (Malachi 3:16).
This entire shift is fascinating to me and the parallels in some sections of Christianity and Islam seem possibly related.
During the Babylonian exile, the focus of worship and devotion to Yahweh shifted from the temple (which was torn down) to the scrolls – the written word of the law, the Torah. Even after the temple was technically rebuilt, things were never the same. The cloud of glory was gone. The Ark was likely gone (this is never explained, leading to endless speculation). The Davidic kingdom was gone. The Romans ruled through a puppet king and the access to the rebuilt temple was controlled by elites. Devotion to the scripture had already begun to replace proper temple worship in Jesus’s day. The destruction of the temple in AD 70 was just the last nail in the coffin, not the beginning of a new era. From then on the holy words on the scrolls from God and the endless debate of their meaning (and the teaching of that meaning) would constitute the activity of the priestly class, now open to anyone willing to exercise their reading chops. Before, being a Levite was primarily to be a butcher. Now it was to be a scholar. The Word became a proxy for the (now inaccessible) Temple and Holy Land.
We see a similar shift with the more recent rise of Wahhabi Islam. This strict Sunni sect holds the holy words of the Koran to overshadow any later Muslim traditions or even borrowed traditions from the beginning. While the Shitte still have holy places and shrines, the Wahhabi (which currently includes many in power in Saudi Arabia) make a point of bulldozing them. ISIS destroys ancient sites of pilgrimage wherever they go. In this version, Islam is reimagined as something whose entirely lies completely in the text. The land (the currently non-existent caliphate) and the temple (Mecca) are downplayed in key ways.
Even the significance of the Kabba stone, the central cultic artifact of devotion from Islam’s conception is minimized under this scheme. It’s almost seems to me as if they are preparing for it’s possible destruction: accidental, or by enemies in war, or even by iconoclast clerics themselves. Under the Wahhabi scheme, the loss of the Kabba would not really be a mortal blow to Islam. It’s integrity would lie chiefly in the words that remain.
The parallel in Christianity is with those traditions that hold to fundamentalist Biblicism. In extreme expressions, the Bible is cherished as the thing that saves, not Jesus Christ. Evangelists urge listeners to come to the “saving knowledge” contained in it’s pages, rather than to enter into the work of Emmanuel, the outside savior come close.
Naturally, such an idea could only develop in a highly literate culture where all people could have unhindered access to their own copy of the scripture. A natural outworking of this theory is that the celebration of the Eucharist are extremely minimized and church polity is made a free-for-all. The formal Church, both the Pope with the keys in Rome, and the Reformed “Mother Kirk” variety, can be completely discarded. Sacraments? What are those? Church buildings are pointless. Let’s just repurpose a warehouse or arena. Worship modes conform to whatever conventions are familiar to the people. There is no ‘temple’ and no ‘land’, just the Word. Historical theology is completely disregarded. It’s just the Bible and God speaking to me via the Bible and my devotion to God via the Bible. My congregation is my local peeps who believe the same.
Adherents to this tradition (of which I count my own background as belonging to some lite flavor of this) describe it both as a “progress” away from medieval and even reformation-era baggage, and a “back to the roots” recovery movement of a more early “raw” and true form of Christianity. All Bible all the time. I’d love to believe the best and say that this tradition arose out of deep love of God’s word, but I suspect it’s more complex than that. I think it’s often rooted in anger at the institutional dysfunction of the church, or in feelings of disenfranchisement (loss of temple), or with increased cultural decadence and the rise of secularism in America (loss of land).
All three movements replace the importance of stuff “out there” with the stuff in the scrolls. It could be seen as just a cultural retreat (and it may be that), and yet, in a mystical sense, there IS some possible justification for this. Jesus Christ describes himself as the living Word. The meaning of John chapter 1 is still a mystery. Psalm 119 praises God’s delivered precepts in a way that is blurred with worship. Many of our philosophers have marveled at how the power of language seem to transcend communication mechanics and touch on something deep in the imago dei. When the Pharisees adapted their worship to center on the Torah rather than the temple, it made sense. The Holy Spirit has ensured that the Word is remarkably resilient.
In psalm 23:5, David says that the good shepherd prepares a table for him in the presence of his enemies. But how close are they exactly?
Those who insist the pastoral metaphor extends throughout the chapter imagine the sheep being fed from a trough in the evening while wolves sulk in the distance, knowing they dare not approach.
The more common interpretation (and what I typically hear preached) is that the metaphor changes at this point in the psalm and we find the author in a great feasting hall with the king seating him in honor at the high table while his enemies watch on fuming from the cheap seats. The Lord’s blessing and protection is prominent and public.
Again though, reading through the Amharic translation recently, I was struck by how different a word is used to describe the proximity of the enemies: “fit lefit” – face to face. The enemies aren’t “out there” watching you, but rather sitting AT the table right in front of you. Perhaps the Lord has transformed them into friends. Perhaps his protection allows you to sit across from them without fear, but empowered to give hospitality. Either way, they are not as easily dismissed moving forward.
As part of learning to speak and read Amharic this year, I’ve been translating familiar passages from scripture. I recently went through psalm 23 and was struck by how in verse 2 when the Lord “maketh me to lie down in green pastures”, the word used there instead of “green” is (transliterated) “lemlem”, meaning verdant or full of life. Well of course – the good shepherd’s pastures are not just any old fields of grass, but particularly lush and healthy ones. But why should this be news?
Because for me, and as I suspect for perhaps some others in the modern world, “green” is strictly a color and nothing more. Now the word for “green” in many languages still caries this memory of growing things. In Spanish the word is “verde” with the same root as our “verdant”. I figure that when the scribes working under King James back in the 17th century decided to use the word “green” in English, it still retained that lush meaning for them and their immediate readers.
But no longer. For those of us who were raised around computers and on a steady diet of science curriculum, “green” has little to do with life and everything to do with optics. I remember entering RGB (red, green, blue) pixel values by hand on the computer when I was young and using some kind of paint software. When I hear the word “green”, in my mind’s eye I see a color wheel or selector like this:
Chlorophyll is green and emeralds are green and eyes can be green and Gatorade is (hopefully) green, but green is not necessarily chlorophylly or emeraldy. Now, when you begin to modify the word and say things like “Kerry green” (my wife’s favorite color), or “forest green”, or “neon green”, “sea green”, or even “grass stain green”, then it comes to life with all kinds of additional meaning, but in the 21st century, in the West at least, the memory of it’s former life seems to be somewhat faded.
That is why, as many qualities as the KJV and their kin have, they end up staying the same while the meanings of their words among the common people changes. Even if you have been deeply educated in its reading, the halo of meaning and memory that surrounds the words in your mind is very different than what people had in their imaginations in previous centuries. In addition, you are probably the least qualified person in the room to articulate what those differences in shades of meaning might be.
Finally, that is why we simultaneously can still benefit from new translations, and the study of the original languages.