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The literary of the Jews of Egypt and the Sappho of Lesbos

February 16, 2015

This is a 10-minute post to add to the blog series on the Interpretive Spins and Literary Sparks in the Ψαλμοὶ. Abram K-J (who’s in a group reading the Greek Psalmoi this year) is the inspiration for this particular post. He wrote one yesterday that reminded me of one of the fragments of Sappho. He’s struck by the syllable count of one particular word as much as anything:

One thing that continually impresses me about Greek is its preponderance of multisyllabic words. / Much of this has to do with how its verbs are conjugated. The four-syllable verb μεγαλυνω, for example, when inflected in Psalm 19:8 (Psalm 20:7 in English Bibles), becomes a majestic seven-syllable ending to an already beautiful verse:… [read the rest here]

What Abram didn’t mention is that this long-syllable-phrase appears multiply. So let me show the LXX Greek on that, the Hebraic Hellene. Then let me show the Sappho fragment of Greek lyric. And I’m going to add my quick quick English translation.

ἐν τῷ σωτηρίῳ σου,
καὶ ἐν ὀνόματι θεοῦ ἡμῶν
πληρώσαι κύριος πάντα τὰ αἰτήματά σου.

νῦν ἔγνων ὅτι ἔσωσεν κύριος τὸν χριστὸν αὐτοῦ·
ἐπακούσεται αὐτοῦ ἐξ οὐρανοῦ ἁγίου αὐτοῦ,
ἐν δυναστείαις ἡ σωτηρία τῆς δεξιᾶς αὐτοῦ.

οὗτοι ἐν ἅρμασιν
καὶ οὗτοι ἐν ἵπποις,
ἡμεῖς δὲ ἐν ὀνόματι κυρίου θεοῦ ἡμῶν

We’ll cheer
In the rescue, yours sir,
And in the name of The god, ours,
We’ll Go Great Giving High Praise.
He’ll fulfill, Oh Kyrios will, all of the requests, yours sir.

Now I knew that He rescued the One, Honored-with-Oil, His.
He’ll hear Him, and out of High Heaven Holy, His,
In Power, the rescue of the right hand, His.

Those’ll praise in chariots
And those others in cavalry,
But we will in the name of The god, ours,
We’ll Go Great Giving High Praise.

ἴψοι δὴ τὸ μέλαθρον·
ἀέρρετε τέκτονες ἄνδρες·
γάμβρος εἰσέρχεται ἴσος Ἄρευι,
ἄνδρος μεγάλω πόλυ μέζων.

Go high with the Great Roof!
Oh Hymen!
Grab it, technicians, men!
Oh Hymen!
Groom of the Bride is coming, equal to Ares,
Oh Hymen
A Great man? Plenty Greater!

Love subjectively: translating Luke 10

January 24, 2015

This post of mine takes a rather subjective perspective. You could call it my commentary.

This morning I’m struck by what I perceive as the Greek Rhetoric influence on the gospel of Luke. And the text, its language, seems quite aware of the Hebraic construction of the Hellene of the Septuagint. Luke Chapter 10, in particular, is an example. The first pericope, or episode, has the didactic Jesus engaged in the speech-act of sending his students (disciples, learners, talmidim) out in groups. Note the number, the nod to the LXX. Within the instruction is Greek simile, Hellenic fable/parable, and Hebraic metaphors. Through the larger story, readers find allusion both to the Hebrew Bible and also to the Greek of the translation done in Alexandria, Egypt; and so there are literary hints of insider cultural coded language. There are aphorisms and there are hidden gems and there are revelations, letting the reader in on the joke, so to speak.

Then we readers come to what is famously known as the parable/fable of the good Samaritan. The Greek readers are to this point siding with the pure Jewish interlocutors, Jesus, and his talmidim apprentices, and their god, who is called (in Hellene) Kyrios. But the surprise turn in the fable/parable is that the hero is not pure racially.

The set up, rhetorically and literaturally, is the Socratic dialectic between Jesus and one of the experts in the writings of the Five Books of Moses (a Talmid Chacham, a Torah scholar). The latter questions the former first. His is a very seemingly personal question:

Διδάσκαλε, τί ποιήσας ζωὴν αἰώνιον κληρονομήσω;

Didactic-Teacher, What do I do for life on and on? What do I do to inherit that?

And so the former, in return, questions the latter. Again, it is highly personal and intensely subjective:

Ἐν τῷ νόμῳ τί γέγραπται; πῶς ἀναγινώσκεις;

In the Torah what is written? How do you read it?

The reply, the ἀπό-κρισις, the retort if you will, might seem, to us readers of Luke, to be simply only merely a direct quotation from The Shema of the Torah. At the very least, we might expect the Hebraic Hellene of the Septuagint’s version we call Deuteronomy 6.

But there’s a twist. Or a twisting. An interpreting, a changing up, an addition to what is verbatim in the Law. It’s not even the gospel writer’s clearer Greek translating of the Hebrew text, clearer than the Hellene translation of the Hebrew translators who lived before him so far away in Egypt. No, out of the mouth of the Torah scholar, this Talmid Chacham, comes a new take in Greek, with a mashup of what’s in the Hellene of Levitikus 19:

οὐ μισήσεις τὸν ἀδελφόν σου τῇ διανοίᾳ σου,
ἐλεγμῷ ἐλέγξεις τὸν πλησίον σου

καὶ οὐ λήμψῃ δι’ αὐτὸν ἁμαρτίαν.
καὶ οὐκ ἐκδικᾶταί σου ἡ χείρ,
καὶ οὐ μηνιεῖς τοῖς υἱοῖς τοῦ λαοῦ σου
καὶ ἀγαπήσεις τὸν πλησίον σου ὡς σεαυτόν·

ἐγώ εἰμι κύριος.

Which roughly can be Englished this way:

thou shalt not hate that brother of yours in that mind of yours,
reproofing you shall reproof those in that near space of yours

and thou shalt not bear sin on his account
and it shall not be vengeance of yours, thine hand,
and thou shalt not be angry with the children of those people of yours,
and thou shalt love those neigh you

I am kyrios [master]

Granted, the “dia-noia,” or διανοίᾳ σου, is a very good Greek translation of the Hebrew in the sense that it captures the profound subjectivity of the requirement of this law, this teaching. The prohibition against “hate” puts it in the individual, in his or her heart, or in the Hellene, deep in the mind’s thoughts.

And so when the one rabbi retorts to the other, and when that other (Jesus) validates the answer as “correct,” the translation or interpretation or hermeneutic here expressed is very, very singularly personal and very, very profoundly subjective.

If you won’t mind, then, let me verbatim reproduce Luke’s Greek. And my English:


The universal requirement of love, and the object of that comprehensive love, wholly falls on the individual. This law, in my view, deconstructs the hierarchy of the Kyriarchy, bringing within close proximity of the Shema the additional command to love thy neighbor and in thine own mind and heart to not hate thine own brother.

Of course, Luke 10 goes on. The two rabbis get into their dialectic over “neighbor.” And didactic Jesus tells the fable that deconstructs the pure notion of the near or neigh one as a pure breed like these two pure teachers talking.

In this literary, rhetorical, fable-parable-law context, love deconstructs and love is very very subjective universally.

Susannah Heschel on “Selma”

January 18, 2015

Here are a few links relating Susannah Heschel’s reaction to the absence of her father, Abraham Heschel, from the movie “Selma.” She wrote,

The 50th anniversary of the 1965 march at Selma is being commemorated this year with the release of the film “Selma.” Regrettably, the film represents the march as many see it today, only as an act of political protest.

But for my father Abraham Joshua Heschel and for many participants, the march was both an act of political protest and a profoundly religious moment: an extraordinary gathering of nuns, priests, rabbis, black and white, a range of political views, from all over the United States.

Perhaps more an act of celebration of the success of the civil rights movement than of political protest, Selma affirmed that the movement had won the conscience of America.

President Lyndon Johnson had just declared, “We Shall Overcome,” and congressional passage of the Voting Rights Act would come quickly. Thanks to the religious beliefs and political convictions of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., coalitions had been built, religious differences overcome and visions articulated that meshed religious and political goals.

My father felt that the prophetic tradition of Judaism had come alive at Selma. He said that King told him it was the greatest day in his life, and my father said that he was reminded at Selma of walking with Hasidic rebbes in Europe. Such was the spiritual atmosphere of the day.

Read more:

Other links and interviews:

Fresh Controversy …
Following in my father’s footsteps
Their Feet Were Praying

5 More Cities Allowing Students to Read the Letter from a Birmingham Jail for Free

January 16, 2015

This Friday in 2015 before the USA Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on Monday, news sources in America are reporting the following:

What’s more, for all of my BLT co-bloggers, I would just like to announce also that students in cities around the world are now allowed to read The Letter from a Birmingham Jail published widely before the march on Selma also “for free” on Monday, when students across the States of America will neither be segregated nor integrated in schools. Here are two previews:

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.”

But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim;

when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters;

when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society;

when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people;



when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”;

Martin Luther King Jr. and Two of His Children


when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you;



when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”;



when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”;

when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments;

when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you [white rabbis and white Christian clergy] can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern.

Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws.


One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”


I wish you [white rabbis and white Christian clergymen] had commended the Negro sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: “My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.”

Martin Luther King Escorting ChildrenMLK-walks-Mississippi-Children

They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’ sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.


translating “tout est pardonné”

January 15, 2015

Our BLT post “tout est pardonné” is generating lots of readers, which normally we are just fine with. Some English readers are finding it by searching for “translation of ‘tout est pardonné’” and expecting to learn what the French of the cover of the most recent issue of Charlie Hebdo must surely mean.

What it means, literally, as we say, is “all is pardoned.” What it signifies, figurally, however, is not that at all. Rather, with the apparent intent to flaunt and to draw charges of “blasphemy” from those who cheered on the crime of killing 12 persons in Paris, the phrase, satirical and ironic, actually means meanness: “Not anything is forgiven after all.” The crime of murder is matched by the sin of desacralization. Eye for eye. Tooth for tooth. Death for Death. The stuff more safely in Theatre. Which brings me to the purpose of this post. I’d like to recall a few paragraphs by Hélène Cixous. This is from her essay “Le lieu du Crime, le lieu du Pardon” (or “The Place of Crime, The Place of Forgiveness” as translated into English by Catherine A. F. MacGillivray):




The full original is here, the translation here.

Father Wil Gafney and womanism

January 13, 2015

Rachel Held Evans invited readers of her blog to “Ask a womanist biblical scholar” questions, namely “The Reverend Wil Gafney, Ph.D. [who] is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas and is an Episcopal priest canonically resident in the Diocese of Pennsylvania and licensed in the Diocese of Fort Worth.”

The Rev. Dr. Gafney has responded to many of the more than 40 questions posed to her. My favorite of her responses is this one:

Rebecca and Erin, Teaching a girl that she matters, that her voice and ideas matter even when others say they don’t is appropriate at any age. I have been an out feminist and womanist my entire clergy and scholarly career. Girls have always been able to see and hear that in my experience. Some of my practices are using explicitly feminist God-language, not just “inclusive” because folk hear/see/imagine a male god when they hear “God.” I also chose to be known as Father Wil when I became a priest so that the male priests and I would have the same title – which in that church they also used for God. When the Sunday School teacher told the 5 year-olds, “This is Father Wil and she’s going to say our Mass today,” the little girls’ eyes lit up and they sat up. The paradigm shifted before their eyes. There was another woman priest but she used a different title and I felt was seen/placed in a different category.

I don’t know that we can talk about freedom in the gospel without talking about freedom from the enslaving paradigms with which it is also framed and which are constitutive of it. That means talking about androcentrism, patriarchy, sexism and misogyny in the scriptures and in the church from the pulpit, in the theological classroom, in congregational conversations, in public theology and the scholarly literature. We must talk about slavery in the gospels, about Jesus healing but not freeing slaves and using the language of slavery as normative.

Father Wil does here with one male familial pronoun what one of my BLT-cobloggers, Suzanne McCarthy, does with another. She notes at another blog how she counts herself among the brethren:

I grew up among the Brethren and accepted that term as applying equally to men and women. Early letters of the Brethren to groups of believers were usually worded “greetings to my brothers and sisters in the Lord”…. I have a fair tolerance for archaism and would feel included in the term ‘brethren’. I came close to putting a subtitle on my Powerscourt blog of “women among the brethren,” since the only biography of Lady Powerscourt was in a book called “Chief Women among the Brethren.”… However, I decided to research the word ‘brethren’ a little more and found that it has been considered outmoded as a word for ‘brothers’ for several hundred years.

What Father Wil does for a girl in Sunday School, this same clergy person does for me. My eyes light up and I sit up, which brings me to another of her responses to questions, another of my favorites:

Dear Dan, first I’d like you to know something about your [“white, comfortable, middle-aged Englishman”] perspective that you may already know, that it is not the only one nor even the “right” one. Womanism is black women’s interpretation but it is not only for black women. Womanist biblical interpretation enriches every person and every community’s understanding of the biblical text. There are things you will never see in the text without reading in the company of black women. In the post-colonial, post-Atlantic slave trade world, it is crucial that peoples who have historically benefited from the sale and plunder of black women’s bodies, justifying those practices with their readings of scripture learn to hear and the scriptures in our voices and through our eyes.

I am one of those every persons with a community, and, with my eyes lit up and sitting up now, I am enriched by Father Reverend Dr. Gafney’s interpretations.

We can find her blogging and preaching here:

And here are the responses she gives to several of the questions asked:


P.S. – my own question asked is this one:

You have at times discussed yourself as a “fem/womanist” and have talked of the value of a “fem/womanist hermeneutic; that is, one that lies at the intersection of feminist and womanist hermeneutical practices.” You nuanced that to go on to call yourself, “a black feminist who works and worships in solidarity with my womanist sisters.” You make clear your “intent to participate in the redemption of a radically egalitarian ethic from the pale hands of those who infected it with racism and classism.” And you say that a “fem/womanist hermeneutic … affirms the full personhood and divine image of all humanity and combats oppressions—racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, elitism, imperialism—on multiple fronts in response to the presence and activity of God in the cosmos.” This seems as expansive, inclusive, and universal as bell hooks’s saying, “Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” And yet when you acknowledge the multiple oppressions (of more than just “pale hands”) the slashmark in “fem/womanist” begins to sound like Catherine Keller’s “feminist fourfold” from “genderfold” /to “colorfold” /to “queerfold” /to what she seems to leave open and fluid as “manifold.”

At what point do self-identities free us / and must they always somehow also implicate us (in the acts of oppressings)?

(I’m thinking of your related statement here: “Those of us who self-identify as Christian can never allow ourselves to forget that the Shoah, Holocaust, wasperpetrated in Christian lands by baptized hands.”)


Enumerating Techie Sexism

January 13, 2015

“This, of course, isn’t the first time a tech product has prioritized men over women. The vast majority of tech companies are staffed by men, especially on the development side. Phones are too big for many women’s hands. The newest artificial hearts are designed to fit 80 percent of men but only 20 percent of women. Drop-down menus show ‘male’ over ‘female’ even when the rest of the menus are alphabetical. But when it comes to data-tracking, there’s a perceived element of democratization. How could an app or tool that simply lets you track things be biased? Let us count the ways.”

— , “How Self-Tracking Apps Exclude Women: ‘Self-knowledge through numbers’ seems like a genderless goal, yet the actual products out there are anything but.” The Atlantic

The Deadly Violent Evangelists and their Gospel

January 12, 2015

Nick Norelli has a post up today entitled “The Gospel” that starts in this way with a contemporary English language problem for Christians:

The term “the gospel,” it seems, functions as a buzzword nowadays. It’s a shorthanded way of talking about one’s hobbyhorse of choice. For example, a preacher who is big on holiness will tell us that the cheap grace teaching of so many is not “the gospel,” but rather holiness is “the gospel.” Or a teacher big on grace will tell us that the legalistic teaching of the holiness preacher is not “the gospel,” but rather grace is “the gospel.” Or six day creationists might tell us that “the gospel” is God creating all that exists in six 24 hour days. Liberation theologians tell us that “the gospel” is social justice. You get the point.

It’s worth going back a bit to the ambiguities in the good spellings of English to recall how the word evolved rather problematically; here’s from the Oxford English Dictionary:

Etymology: Old English godspel, doubtless originally gód spel (see good adj. and spell n.1), good tidings (compare láð spel evil tidings), a rendering of the Latin bona adnuntiatio (Corpus Gloss. Int. 117) or bonus nuntius (‘Euuangelium, id est, bonum nuntium, godspel’, Voc. c1050 in Wright-Wülcker 314/8), which was current as an explanation of the etymological sense of Latin evangelium, Greek εὐαγγέλιον (see evangely n.). Compare Gothic þiuþspillôn ‘to preach the gospel’ (εὐαγγελίζεσθαι), < þiuþ-s good + spillôn to announce (cognate with spell n.1). When the phrase gód spel was adopted as the regular translation of evangelium, the ambiguity of its written form led to its being interpreted as a compound, gŏd-spel, < god n. and int. + spel in the sense ‘discourse’ or ‘story’. The mistake was very natural, as the resulting sense was much more obviously appropriate than that of ‘good tidings’ for a word which was chiefly known as the name of a sacred book or of a portion of the liturgy. From Old English the word passed, in adapted forms, into the languages of the Germanic peoples evangelized from England: Old Saxon godspell, Old High German gotspell, Old Norse guð-, goðspiall; in each case the form of the first element shows unequivocally that it was identified with God, not with good. The Old Norse form has survived into modern Icelandic; the continental Germanic languages early discarded the word for adoptions of Latin evangelium.

And since the OED editors want us to look back to the Greek (from which the phrases like Godspell and Gospel and such are derived semantically), well then. Let’s return to the Hebraic Hellene of the Septuagint, where the good news was not always so good. Where it was, rather, actually violent, and even deadly:

καὶ ἐξέδυσαν αὐτὸν καὶ ἔλαβον τὴν κεφαλὴν αὐτοῦ καὶ τὰ σκεύη αὐτοῦ καὶ ἀπέστειλαν εἰς γῆν ἀλλοφύλων κύκλῳ τοῦ εὐαγγελίσασθαι τοῖς εἰδώλοις αὐτῶν καὶ τῷ λαῷ

καὶ ἀποστρέφουσιν αὐτὸν καὶ ἐξέδυσαν τὰ σκεύη αὐτοῦ καὶ ἀποστέλλουσιν αὐτὰ εἰς γῆν ἀλλοφύλων κύκλῳ εὐαγγελίζοντες τοῖς εἰδώλοις αὐτῶν καὶ τῷ λαῷ αὐτῶν

ὅτι ὁ ἀπαγγείλας μοι ὅτι τέθνηκεν Σαουλ καὶ αὐτὸς ἦν ὡς εὐαγγελιζόμενος ἐνώπιόν μου καὶ κατέσχον αὐτὸν καὶ ἀπέκτεινα ἐν Σεκελακ ᾧ ἔδει με δοῦναι εὐαγγέλια

These three verses are respectively the Greek Jewish translations of the Hebrew scriptures for 1 Chronicles 10:9 and 1 Samuel 31:9 and 2 Samuel 4:10. And here is Sir Lancelot Brenton’s English rendering of that Hellene:

And they stripped him [Saul] and took his head and his armour and sent them into the land of the Philistines round about to proclaim the glad tidings to their idols.

And they turned him and stripped off his armour and sent it into the land of the Philistines sending round glad tidings to their idols and to the people.

he that reported to me [David] that Saul was dead even he was as one bringing glad tidings before me: but I seized him and slew him in Sekelac to whom I ought [as he thought] to have given a reward for his tidings.

This translation of a violent and deadly bit of history of “Philistine evangelists and their ‘good tidings'” is probably good news for anybody who is tired of dogma around religious words.

“tout est pardonné”

January 12, 2015

According to the AFP news agency, the gunmen shouted: “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad”. This is absolutely ridiculous and an insult to the Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him). Our Prophet does not require avenging. Forgiveness and compassion defined our Prophet Muhammad, not violence and revenge. These extremists show complete disregard for the compassion and care displayed by the Prophet throughout his life. Islamic sources include many instances where the Prophet (peace be upon him) had the opportunity to take revenge upon those who wronged him, but refrained from doing so.
Qari Muhammad Asim – Senior Imam at Makkah Masjid, Leeds

French media are reporting on what they say is the cover of the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French weekly that was the target of a deadly attack last week. It features an image apparently of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad shedding a tear and holding a sign that reads: “Je Suis Charlie” [“I Am Charlie”]. The cover reads “Tout Est Pardonné” [“All Is Forgiven”].

The new cover was released two days before the magazine’s latest issue hits the newsstands. And it comes less than a week after some of Charlie Hebdo‘s top cartoonists were killed in a deadly attack on the magazine’s offices.

Some Muslims regard any depiction — even positive ones — of their prophet as blasphemous. The two gunmen who killed 12 people at the magazine’s offices last Wednesday claimed they had “avenged the Prophet Mohammed” as they left the scene….

Charlie Pelloux, one of the magazine’s columnists, said that this week’s issue will be available in 16 languages, according to Agence France-Presse.

NPR is not posting images of Charlie Hebdo’s most controversial cartoons at this time. For an explanation of why, please click here.
Krishnadev Calamur – editor, National Public Radio

Learning to Call Myself White

January 10, 2015

I remember how hard it was to learn to call myself a woman.

Growing up, through high school, my female classmates and I were called “girls,” of course. (Or very rarely, “young ladies,” though mostly when we were in trouble.) So that’s what we called ourselves.

That’s what our mothers called themselves, too. They talked about “getting together with the girls”, “girls night out.” Occasionally “ladies,” usually in a humorous vein.

In college, I didn’t much like any of the words I might use to describe myself. I paid close attention to their counterparts for my male classmates. We all called them “guys,” which would mean I should call myself and my female friends “gals”: which I did, often, but it felt just a little too cowboy-Western to me. If my male friends weren’t “boys” then I shouldn’t be a “girl”; only on the rare formal occasions when they were “gentlemen” should I be a “lady.” “Young men” and “young women” sounded both too young, and too nineteenth-century. “Males” and “females” sounded both insufficiently human, and even more nineteenth-century.

I remember when I went to a sleepover party, the summer after sophomore year, with some reunited high school classmates of both sexes. One of them had made signs that designated separate sleeping areas for “Men” and “Women”: spelled out in a hand that was big, bold, unapologetic, and perhaps just a little self-conscious. I remember looking at that sign, “Women”, and thinking, I would not have had the nerve to write that word.

It wasn’t until I was out in the working world, aware that I was facing sexism, aware that the male-dominated field in which I work would further aggravate it, that I got serious about actively trying to own the word. It helped that having a fulltime job with a steady paycheck and my own apartment made me feel like an official grownup, but it was still hard. I had to practice saying it. It felt awkward for about the first two years, I think. If I hadn’t been a determined feminist, I would have given up.

Because it felt so awkward. It didn’t feel like something nice girls say. To call myself a woman was to assert my adulthood, my identity, my expectation that I would be taken seriously. It meant owning my embodied, space-taking-up identity, and naming it. It was an assertion of power: not something that girls are socialized to do.

Learning to call myself white reminds me of that. It feels awkward. Oh, I can do it all right if I’m reeling off all my social locations, perspectival-theology style: Catholic, Christian, theist, straight, cis, white, American, middle-class. When “white” is just one of many defining characteristics that I’m naming, it doesn’t stand out so much.

But simply to say “I’m white”: it feels, again, like something nice girls don’t say. It feels rude, in fact: because “white” means “privileged,” it means systemically better off in a number of ways, and I was raised to believe that it’s rude to point out how you’re better off than other people. (And you probably heard the echo in my writing, the echo in American society, that whispers, simply, “better.”) It, too, is a statement about power.

It feels wrong, too, because as a child of the 60s and 70s, I was socialized into the belief that the civil rights movement was successful, the era of Jim Crow was over, and we were all Americans now, and race didn’t matter anymore. That meant it wasn’t something you talked about. Nobody told me that: it’s just that nobody did, once the songs of the integration era were no longer played on the radio. I had tacitly learned that you don’t talk about race because we’re all not supposed to see race anymore: the word “post-racial” wasn’t coined until later, but the attitude was there.

And it feels wrong because I was taught that the correct term to use to describe such persons, when a term was necessary at all, was “African American.” And “white” is not the counterpart to “African American.” “White” is the counterpart to “black,” and until very very recently, I did not use the term “black” to describe people. “Caucasian” is the term I was taught to use to describe myself, as the counterpart to “African American”; but it isn’t, is it? The counterpart should be “European American.” But nobody ever says that; it sounds silly. (Because European-American is what “American” means, whispers society.)

But I persist, awkward as it feels. I persist because I believe, as I did when I was learning to call myself a woman, that it is important. It is important to name that privilege that I have, that power. It is important to talk about race, because the civil rights movement of the 60s did not solve everything, because race still matters, because structural racial inequities still exist, and if we cannot even name ourselves in terms of race, then how in God’s name can we talk about racism? And we need to talk about racism.

I persist because I was dumbfounded at the fulminating responses from the white men in the Senate to Sonia Sotomayor’s statement that the court needed the perspective of “a wise Latina.” It was so obvious to me that her lived experience as a Latina did bring an important perspective that white men simply did not have. I could see, in the discourse around that interaction, the privilege of the white male perspective that perceives itself, and is accustomed to being perceived as, the “neutral” and “objective” (and “correct”, whispers society) perspective.

I persist especially now, after something I heard while participating in an excellent twitterchat on James Cone, father of black theology. Someone said something that made me fully realize, for the first time, that white theology is contextual theology. White theology is contextual theology. White theology is just as contextual as black, indigenous, feminist, queer, asian, mujerista theologies are.

My brain went on reciting White theology is contextual theology over and over again, as if it were sitting in a classroom, writing lines. Even though I had studied contextual and perspectival theologies in grad school, I had missed that “white” was being treated as the neutral, objective, unconditioned, unmarked, default. (“Traditional”, whispers the academy). For the first time, I realized I had the same damn blinders on as those Senators whose ignorance had stunned me.

So I persist. And I keep practicing.

Hi. I’m Victoria Gaile, and I’m a white woman.

Thanks to my co-blogger Kurk, whose comments on my self-identification as white in other posts and comments prompted this post. And thanks to @DruHart, @h00die_R, and the other folks of @AnaBlacktivism, who hosted the excellent #JamesConeWasRight twitterchat.

(What) might we learn from R Crumb and from Charlie Hebdo?

January 8, 2015

May I just start this post by expressing my deep sadness at the senseless killing of Stéphane Charbonnier, Cabu, Tignous, Wolinski, Bernard Maris, the two yet to be identified police officers trying to protect them, and the five other individuals murdered and still not identified publicly by the French authorities investigating the tragedy? My thoughts and prayers are for their grieving families, and for their nation, and for our world. And please know that my sentiments here are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my other co-bloggers here at BLT, each of whom I respect very much.

I posted some time ago asking, “(What) might we learn from Adolf Hitler and from Otto Weininger?” Laura Ziesel had been asking about learning from St. Augustine and Martin Luther, which was also prompting my additional questions again about learning from R. Crumb and Aristotle. To be fair to my cobloggers and everybody else, although these questions of mine are mine, I am always interested in What are your questions? And so I’d asked.

At another blog, getting at Aristotle’s mindset and method behind his gynophobia and misogyny, I had asked Bible bloggers excited about cartoonist R. Crumb’s sexist and racist illustration of the first of the Five Books of Moses whether they were okay with the illustrator’s legacy of hatred of women, and his anti-Semitic and anti-black racisms. These questions produced a series of posts:

Where does fear and hatred begin in the mind of a young man, like Hitler, and how is it spread?

How is this rhetoric in Germany expressing hatred of Jews different from this rhetoric in France expressing hatred of Muslims in the extreme?

Carolyn Wyatt for the BBC has let all of us in the world know this:

In rational, post-Enlightenment Europe, religion has long since been relegated to a safe space, with Judaism and Christianity the safe targets of satire in secular western societies.

Not so Islam. The battle within Islam itself between Sunni and Shia, so evident in the wars of the Middle East, and the fight between extremist interpretations of Islam such as those of Islamic State and Muslims who wish to practice their religion in peace, is now being played out on the streets of Europe with potentially devastating consequences for social cohesion….

France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, some five million or 7.5% of the population, compared with Germany’s four million or 5% of the population, and the UK’s three million, also 5% of the population.

And so I think we all will want to ask questions as I go lumping Charlie Hebdo in with R. Crumb and all my questions. Didn’t the Holocaust happen in “post-Enlightenment Europe,” this “safe space”? Can Judaism, Christianity, and Islam with their respective middles and extremes and fundamentalisms be lumped together as needing safe spaces? Can Charlie Hebdo and R. Crumb and Rabbis, Priests, and Imams and heads of state, women and men, express themselves safely and peacefully? When wars and terror really are not okay for anybody anytime, then when are wars of words and terrible images that betray fears and hatreds okay?

Is what a former contributor to Charlie Hebdo writes something we might learn from? These are my questions? What are yours?

Sexualized Racism: Crucifying Jews and Lynching Blacks

January 7, 2015

[René] Girard compellingly argues that human sexuality often incites a violent response. He shows this in terms of marriage and community relationships…. He says, “Sexuality leads to quarrels, jealous rages, mortal combats. It is a permanent source of disorder even within the most harmonious of communities.” — Kelly Brown Douglas, What’s Faith Got to Do with It? Black Bodies/Christian Souls

Let me confess in my own body and soul the profound biases (i.e., deep and implicit and involuntary responses) to a Southern Baptist Christian upbringing. I grew up an American missionary kid in South Vietnam the last decade of the Vietnam War (or the American War depending on who you ask) until 1975.  My white father’s assignment by the Foreign Mission Board was “field evangelist,” and my white mother’s was “church and home.” When I was 4 years old, my left temple was busted open by a rock thrown at me by a Vietnamese kid, which led to my having to get stitches in a U.S. military clinic. My two white brothers, my anh and my em [big brother and little brother], and I quickly learned how to befriend certain gangs of Vietnamese boys, and we, I can confess, participated in our share of rock fights over the years. There were no clinics for the Vietnamese kids, unfortunately. Often the violence was brought on by sexualized and racialized taunts. There’s the Vietnamese equivalent to “M*ther F*cker,” which is some of my earliest language learned (and I didn’t learn that English phrase until I went to the USA after the war and went to public school in Texas at age 13). There’s the phrase Mỹ lai, which is the equivalent of “B*stard.” There’s a Vietnamese finger gesture somewhat equivalent to the “middle finger” in the West (except it’s to signify fe-male genitalia), and if that didn’t work, well, exposing one’s male genitalia might provoke a fight. That with public urination on the other person often did the trick. Once I got beat up so badly that when my father returned home from church that evening he left again to try to find some in the gang who had injured me to confront them. Another time a Vietnamese soldier found me and my em walking alone, and slapped me on the cheek without explanation, and told my father it was in retribution for what I’d done to his son. Another time my father discovered us all in the middle of a rock fight and first caught and confronted my Vietnamese friend (or enemy) and then, in the middle of the fishing village we lived in, spanked me to show his Christian justice or something. (I just read today Derek Flood’s Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice, and the Cross, and some of it brought back to mind much of the sort of gospel I was raised on.) Anyway, I want say that my parents owed their gospel much to the Southern Baptist church, which was formed out of racialized doctrine (and racialized practice), in order to justify from the Bible the owning of black slaves by white Christians. Before we left for South Vietnam, we lived in Texas, where my father pastored a Southern Baptist church and where he and my mother employed an African American woman, “The Help.” Throughout their years as American Southern Baptist missionaries, they likewise always employed such “help.” If sexism existed in America during the Vietnam war, then it did in Vietnam at that time as well. Many of my childhood memories are of the American GIs trying to pick up Vietnamese women and of Vietnamese women working to get picked up. Some of my childhood friends were Amerasian whites and others Amerasian blacks. You can imagine the sort of privilege a kid like me had there during those days and years. And you must only just imagine the home life of missionaries and their children if you haven’t lived that.

When Kelly Brown Douglas in What’s Faith Got to Do with It? Black Bodies/Christian Souls quotes Girard and Orlando Patterson to develop her own contention that “lynching exemplifies the brutal potential of a platonized tradition… through the matter of sexuality,” I confess I find this rings true. She tells the history of America, of Christian white theology, as including how “white society confirmed its belief in black people’s inferior and satanic nature by characterizing … [t]he black male … a rapacious brute and the back female a seductive Jezebel… to sexualize a people… an effective for maintaining control and power over that people.” This rings true in the history as I understand my own people. Brown Douglas, self-identifying as a black female, is trying to give a good answer to the good question “How could you, a black woman, possibly be Christian?” She starts her book with horrific stories of nearly 5000 human beings in the United States lynched publicly not too terribly long ago with no prosecutions of the perpetrators to ask other questions, like, “Why is Christianity so often implicated in vicious crimes of racial, gender, and sexual hatred?”

She uses the present tense in these questions, as if there is still some problem to continue to grapple with. And so does James H. Cone when he tries to look back at the past. He tells the interviewer:

I’ve been writing The Cross and the Lynching Tree over a long period of time. I was writing it before the Obama and Wright controversy emerged. The book emerged out of my attempt to understand what the gospel of Jesus and his cross might mean for America. Especially for America since they crucified so many marginal black people in its history through lynching, the same way Roman society crucified Jesus and so many marginal and poor people during the time of the empire.

I wanted to suggest that maybe if Americans could see the cross in the light of the lynching tree, they might be able to understand what the cross really meant in the 1st century and what the cross might mean for the people who have put other people on crosses.

What the cross meant for my Southern Baptist American missionary parents was that Jesus was not on it. They scorned the Roman Catholic crosses that kept him crucified, perpetually hung up in death. They did not, when I was a little missionary kid, teach me about lynching or seek to identify Jesus’s killing with others who have been oppressed and killed.

But that’s typical. It’s “so traumatizing for the Church that we have covered it up – literally,” confesses Wil Gafney.

She goes one to say this:

The mocking, taunting, forced stripping of Jesus was a sexual assault.

And if you click here, she gives us pictures.

This is all so awfully subjective that I’m afraid my own upbringing is enmeshed with the horrors and realities. It’s American, and Christian, and raced, and sexualized, and violence.

And yet the histories and the violences and the stories and the subjectivities go back further, more deeply, into other racisms and sexisms. Sometimes we can only bear these things in our present time through art. And sometimes even that art is marked.

Marc Chagall, for example, had and made one rather peculiar and “very personal response to the atrocities” of the Holocaust. Here it is:

One art educator at “Ben Uri, The Art Museum for Everyone, The London Jewish Museum of Art,” explains:

This painting was created at the end of the Second World War, and depicts the
anguish Chagall felt at the increasing number of revelations about the persecution of
Jews during the Holocaust. It is a very personal response to the atrocities.

Importantly, many symbols that Chagall used regularly in his works are used in this
one but with different significance. The floating figures do not symbolise love as in
many of his other works, but pain and horror.

Additionally, most of Chagall’s other paintings of Christ have his eyes closed and a
loincloth covering his genitals. Here Christ’s eye is open to look at the Nazi, and the
loincloth removed.

The picture broadens the view of theology, beyond racialized and sexualized Christian America. It also focuses it on the race of Jesus, and on his sexuality, in terms of empire oppressors, like the Romans and like the Germans. That also, I’m afraid, takes me back to my own childhood and all that was covered up in shame.

So why are you reading this post? Or, rather, let me ask the question another way: what’s my point for readers of this post? Well, you have your own stories, don’t you? And many of us are dealing with American race and sex and violence issues today. And we’re finding much in these issues to be horribly profound with histories that run deep. And just maybe our considerations and our conversations about them might help us understand more and work together to positively change much.

Lost in Translation: The Disappearing Drummer Boy

January 2, 2015

Lost in Translation

When I first watched this lovely a capella arrangement of The Little Drummer Boy by the Pentatonix, I was especially struck by the diversity of the group. I teared up when I saw that — at least to my eye, which is particularly poor at this sort of thing — some of the singers would not have looked horribly out of place in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. “It’s just too bad,” I thought as I watched, given what’s going on in the country right now, “that there isn’t a black singer, too.”

Oh wait – there is, he shows up about a minute in. That’s funny, why would they wait so long to show another singer? Or did I just miss him?

I watched it again. Oh, there he is at the beginning, I did just miss him. Huh.

But something seemed a bit off about the video. Was it just me, or was he really getting less screen time than the others? I’m lamentably new to paying close attention to issues of racism, so I wasn’t really sure. I watched it a few more times.[1]

And it wasn’t just that. Look at the arrangement of the singers: all the others are standing in a semi-circle, with him at the center, slightly in front of them. Look at the choreography, at about 2:00, when the lyrics get to “Shall I play for you?”, and again at about 3:00. Doesn’t it look like they are all centered on him, and that those moments are leading into segments that were really intended for him to shine?

This gentleman’s name is Kevin Olusola. In addition to beatboxing, he plays piano, cello, and saxophone. He combined two of those skills and won second place in the international competition “Celebrate and Collaborate with Yo-Yo Ma” for his “cello-boxing” arrangement of “Dona Nobis Pacem.”

He sings vocal percussion for the Pentatonix. He is the percussion section. They’re singing “The Little Drummer Boy.” He is the little drummer boy. He is the Little Drummer Boy!! He is the star of this song!

The arrangement shows it. The choreography shows it. They were clearly designed to put his talents front and center. Literally!!

But in the translation from performance to music video, he was somehow demoted from star to sound effects guy.

Which is terribly sad, because the video is the final product. It’s the only thing we get to see. We can imagine; we can try to fill in with our mind’s eye the camera angles that were edited out, the shots that would have kept him centered in the frame during those segments that were intended to feature him. But we’ll never see them.

Now. We have to talk about the fact that it is the black guy that this happened to. Are we looking at racism in action, here?

Remember that racist actions are not exclusively determined by malice or even by intent. Just as with sexism, systemic biases and unconscious individual bias can produce outcomes and actions that are racist. Not long before I saw this video, I had recently read an excellent analysis of the street harassment video that was going around about a month ago, by a sociologist who looked at three hypotheses that could be compatible with the video’s presentation of a white woman being harassed only by men of color, “almost all black men.” So I was primed to think about similar effects in this music video.

I don’t think there was any kind of racist intent here, even though the camera has to work pretty hard to avoid Mr. Olusola, seeing as how he’s standing front and center.[2] I think that several independent judgments about the normative aesthetic for music videos, and about marketing, were affected by systemic racism to produce this video.

Let’s take marketing first. It seems quite likely to me that the person in charge of PR for Pentatonix didn’t think the video would be as popular if it starred the black guy. Is that a racist decision, or a practical decision?[3]

Maybe it wasn’t even that conscious. Maybe they were just looking at the popularity of all the singers, trying to make sure that the most popular singers got the most screen time.

That leads into the normative aesthetics for music videos. (Now, I don’t have any expertise in this at all, and I rarely watch music videos, so this is a novice’s view.) First of all, it was clear that the camera always focused on the singer who had the lyrics and/or the melody, which I believe is a usual convention. Secondly, all the harmonies are very legato, sung almost entirely on vowels. It’s an almost ethereal aesthetic. This is reflected in the eyes, the faces, the gentle swaying of the four singers that the camera lingers on. The setting, too, is very light and airy; the dominant background is the white, cloudy sky, with a hazy skyline in the distance.

Beatboxing is not ethereal. It emerged in hiphop, which is an African-American artform, and incorporates techniques that are used in forms of African traditional music.[4] It’s almost entirely consonants: the opposite of legato. It is a thoroughly and visibly embodied technique: all lips and tongue and teeth and cheeks. It cannot be made to look ethereal. If the video editor was aiming for an ethereal aesthetic, is that racism, or is that artistic judgment?

Just as with feminist work, part of anti-racist work is becoming aware of how all these little decisions, none of which were made with race consciously in mind, nevertheless have been influenced by race. In America, the default person is white, and the default culture is white. But, as Kurk is so fond of pointing out with regard to gender, the default is not marked: only the “other” is marked. So white people say things like “American culture” and “black culture,” when what we actually mean is “American white culture” and “American black culture.” The “white” part gets lost in translation.

Marketing considerations are driven by the target demographic and target genre (as defined by record labels or whatever the equivalent is these days); if you want mainstream success, you target white audiences, with an aesthetic that appeals to white culture.

Let me be very clear: I am not ragging on Pentatonix here. I love their music, and I wish them success. I am not saying that they are a racist group, or that their marketing people are racist, or that their video editors are racist. People aren’t racist nearly as often as words and actions and outcomes are.

I’m just really sad that, after making all the decisions that went into making this video, they didn’t notice that the result had lost something important in translation, and throw it out, and try again. Because I really wanted to see Kevin Olusola as the little drummer boy.

And if they released another, differently-edited video that did star Mr. Olusola? I would totally buy that.

[1] Thanks to @h00die_R and @tapji for watching the video and validating my impressions that something was not right here.

[2] And thanks again to @h00die_R for this observation.

[3] This issue was brought up by David Chen and quoted by Zeynep Tufekci in her article about the street harassment video.

[4] According to Wikipedia.

Finally, thanks to Regina Heater who reminds us those of us who celebrate it that it’s still Christmas with a lovely commented list of Christmas music over at A Nun’s Life, which is how I came across this video in the first place.

Psalm of a Soiled Dove

December 17, 2014

**The following is a flight of theological imagination**

Psalm 84

The original author of this psalm was a young woman, perhaps a Midianite, who was ravished away from her home by a pillaging army and forced to serve as one of the whores that traveled with the army to provide recreation for its soldiers. She was freed from sexual slavery by the Israelite forces that defeated her captors, and found refuge among the Israelite women. Psalm 84 is a song of praise to the God of the armies who freed her and of the women who welcomed her, a God who sees her as pure and innocent despite her enslavement as a whore. Although the text was later adapted for use as a pilgrim psalm during the Temple period, traces of its origin remain, as we shall see.

1 How sensual are your tents,
O LORD of armies!
2 My soul yearns, it faints
for the encampments of the LORD.
3 My heart and my flesh
cry out for the living God.

These verses mix imagery of the boudoir with that of the military camp. The erotic imagery is frequently interpreted as a poetic means of indicating intense passion for the LORD, while the remaining language is overlooked. In fact, the psalmist here deliberately uses the language and imagery of impassioned sexual desire — which she had been forced to simulate in her sexual slavery — to convey the depth of her authentic passionate response to the God who freed her from enslavement.

The incongruous juxtaposition of a boudoir response to the rough surroundings of a military encampment is clever and intentional, as can be seen by reading them together with verse 11. If the locations in these verses are interpreted as referring to the beautiful courts of the Temple, as they are often translated, the psalmist’s rhetoric is weakened.

4 Even the sparrow has found a home
and the swallow a nest for herself,
that places her fledglings by your altars,
LORD of armies, my king and my God!
5 Blessed are those who dwell in your house!
They never cease to praise you!

These verses are about the women of Israel, among whom the psalmist found a home. The words for “sparrow” and “swallow” are also the names of women, Zipporah the Midianite wife of Moses, and Devorah the judge of Israel whose army drove Sisera to defeat at the hands of Jael, who later became the wife of Heber the Kenite. Devorah’s song of Jael’s victory notably includes a passage in which the mother of Sisera wonders what is keeping him, and concludes that he must be delayed by raping young women, as usual. Some scholars even speculate that Jael herself was the psalmist, but there is little evidence to support this view.

The psalmist may be referring to herself as the “fledgling” who has been taken in and given a home by the women of Israel, the descendants of Zipporah and Devorah. Or, perhaps she identifies with the swallow (thus the speculation that she herself was Midianite) and had recently been made pregnant by her captors (in which case, her plight would have been even more desperate), and she rejoices that she has found a place to settle her own child.

In verse 5, she invokes blessings on those who dwell in the encampment of the LORD, who have made a place for her. It is by their actions of welcome and charity for an oppressed alien that they “never cease to praise” the LORD.

6. Blessed the folk whose strength is in you,
in whose hearts are the ways of the pilgrims,
7. who, as they pass through the Valley of Tears,
transform it to a refreshing spring,
bringing early rain that cloaks it with blessings.

These verses continue the theme of blessing the people of Israel, who find their own strength in the LORD and whose actions, made powerful by that strength, have transformed the psalmist’s bitter tears to blessing psalms. The references to water here also allude to the ritual cleansing of impurities, looking ahead to verse twelve. A “soiled dove” might have expected that her past would be held against her; instead, the loving actions and generous spirits of the women of Israel recognize that as a victim, she was blameless, effectively washing away any impurity associated with sexual sin, in floods and springs and rains of blessing.

8 They walk from strength to strength:
the God of Zion is shown forth.
May they walk from strength to strength;
May they see God in Zion.

Verse 8 could be read either as a description of the faithful people of verse 6, who by their actions make present the God of Zion; or as a blessing upon those people, as they continue their pilgrimage towards Zion. In fact, both readings are intended.

9. LORD God of armies, hear my prayer;
listen, O God of Jacob [and Leah and Rachel].

The prayer of verse 9 is the blessing of the previous verses.
Although the surviving text invokes only the God of Jacob, it seems quite probable that the psalmist would also have associated that God with Leah and Rachel, considering her experience and the kindness she received from the Israelite women.

10. Regard our protection, O God;
look upon the face of your anointed.

This verse continues the prayer of the previous, asking God to look (favorably) upon those who rescued and now protect the psalmist (and perhaps her child, or other women who had also been rescued), and are demonstrably the anointed of God.

11. Better one day in your encampments
than a thousand “I have chosen.”
Better the threshold of the house of God
than to dwell in the tents of wickedness.

The quoted phrase may have been the ritual language used by the patron of a brothel to indicate his selection, and might therefore have been used by the women as shorthand for such a forced sexual encounter.

These verses return to the opening theme of the psalm. The brothel in which the psalmist was enslaved would have been relatively luxurious, devoted as it was to sensuality, and she would likely have had a private section allocated to her, at least while she was working. But even a place at the threshold of the camp of the LORD is a thousand times to be preferred to her former circumstances.

12. For a sun and a shield is the LORD,
God is acceptance and honor.
The LORD does not withhold, but bestows
blessings on those who are blameless.

Verse 12b is usually translated “grace and glory,” for the parallel with sun and shield in 12a and for the alliteration. But the semantic fields of the Hebrew words include acceptance and honor, which the psalmist — blameless for the sexual slavery into which she was forced — has received.

13. O LORD of armies,
happy is the woman who is secure in you!

As the psalmist, indeed, now rejoices that she is.

Thanks to my co-blogger Suzanne McCarthy, whose speculation about whether Psalm 84 was written by a woman, and whose association of sparrow and swallow with women’s names, gave wings to this flight of fancy. Robert Alter’s translation and commentary, particularly the footnotes that puzzled over certain phrases, provided additional inspiration. Special thanks to Thomas Bolin, who helped me fuss over possible readings of the verb forms in verse 8.

I must also acknowledge, with deep gratitude, the generation of women who developed the practice of reading with theological imagination as a means of accessing the lost, forgotten, and suppressed voices of women in scripture: a practice that I had previously held at arm’s length. Without their work, particularly that of Sr. Dr. Miriam Therese Winter, in whose writing I was primarily exposed to the technique, this piece would never have been written.

While I do not present this as an academically solid exegesis of psalm 84, it does offer a plausible reading of some otherwise puzzling images and phrases. I found that my imagination was quite thoroughly captured by the story of my “soiled dove” psalmist, and her experience with the generous and loving Jewish women who gave her refuge. They were a blessing, a mitzvah, to her, making present the blessing of the LORD upon her; and she blessed them and blessed the LORD in return.

Did it really happen?
Could it really have happened?

Does it matter?

I will never read this psalm in quite the same way again.

May the God of Hagar, Sarah, and Abraham,
the God of Rebecca and Isaac,
the God of Leah, Rachel, and Jacob,
the God of Zipporah, Devorah, and Jael,
bless our reading and our imagination,
and inspire us through them
to grow in faithfulness, generosity, and praise.

Hands Up, a call to art

November 24, 2014

Not waiting on a grand jury verdict, the Alliance of Black Art Galleries announced an initiative on the killing of Michael Brown, and artists by the score have responded. When this young man was still alive, some artists from sometime back and from some other places had already heard this call to art. Here are three examples:



These works are by Langston Hughes, by Jean-Michel Basquiat, and by Michael Dantuono.

Translingual Practice, Evangelization, and Ecumenism

November 16, 2014

I was struck by these excerpts quoted in Kurk’s post on Chinese translation:

As I [Lydia H. Liu] have argued elsewhere, one does not translate between equivalents; rather, one creates tropes of equivalence in the middle zone of translation between the host and guest languages. This middle zone of hypothetical equivalence, which is occupied by neologistic imagination, becomes the very ground for change. . . . Meanings, therefore, are not so much “transformed” when concepts pass from the guest language to the host language as invented within the local environment of the latter.

because it reminded me of the changes that have occurred in recent years in both missionary and ecumenical discourse.

The understanding of missionary work during the imperial and/or colonialization period was laced with Manifest Destiny and drenched in power dynamics: we civilized European Christians had been commanded by God to “go and make disciples of all nations.” That means bringing the civilizing effect of the gospel to the heathens and the savages. That means making them over in our own image, bringing them the benefits of Christianity and Anglo-European culture whether they like it or not. We’ll come with our bibles in one hand and our military and economic weapons in the other, to ensure they accept the truth. It’s for their own good, after all. We’ll suppress their heathen customs and force them to live like civilized Christians — two words that often seemed to be used synonymously. Christendom was to be extended, and Christendom started life as an empire.

How different is the language used in the Vatican 2 document on missionary work, Ad Gentes, meaning “To the Nations.” Its paradigm for missionary work is what we commonly refer to as “enculturation”: rather than imposing our cultural pattern as the means by which we carry the gospel, we instead endeavour to discover the native dress in which the stories and truths of the gospel may be clothed, so that they may be encountered as respectful visitors rather than marauding invaders. The document refers to local culture or cultural conditions more than twenty times.

Of course, care must be taken to avoid creating a syncretist melange that is no longer Christianity on the one hand, and to avoid exploiting or appropriating elements of local culture for our own purposes, on the other. This requires the practice of an attentive respectfulness both to our own experience of the gospel we carry, and to the experience of those with whom we hope to share the gospel. Missionaries are indeed visitors in a host culture, and evangelization is an act of translation: as it was when Paul first preached to the Gentiles, finding points of contact in the religious and philosophical beliefs of the citizens of Athens in which he could clothe the gospel, that it might be more easily comprehended and received.

Similar issues of translation arise in the practice of ecumenism. The great ecumenical movement of the 20th century began with a methodology of convergence. The hope was that we simply misunderstood: misunderstood each other, or misunderstood God’s Word; and if only we could strive together for understanding, we could resolve our differences, eliminate our divisions, and reunite Christ’s church: “that you may be one, as the Father and I are one.”

And this hope was at least partially well founded. Great progress was made, especially in the early years, as separated sisters and brothers approached our texts and traditions with eyes and hearts unclouded by the polemics of the history that divided us. Through bilateral and multilateral dialogues often facilitated by the WCC Faith and Order Commission, we found language in which we could express our shared beliefs, and clearer, calmer statements of the matters that still divided us. One of my most compelling experiences in graduate school was reading the Lima document on Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, in which the body of the text contains language that all could agree on, while remaining differences are set off in boxed text, and seeing with joy that most of the document expressed shared consensus. In more recent years, the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation have signed a similar document on the doctrine of justification, to which a number of other denominations have also become signatories.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, many churches embarked on, and some have completed, a process of re-establishing full ecclesial communion. Our contemporary Christian landscape is filled with churches that have “United” in their name, and some that don’t, that are the outcome of this process. Other churches defined, or discovered, or created means by which they could be in partial or full communion without giving up their separate ecclesial identities, traditions, and cultures: permitting eucharistic sharing and even full clergy recognition, so that a minister ordained in denomination X is fully qualified and eligible to pastor a church in denomination Y.

And yet, despite the hard work and devout prayer of ecumenists, there seem to be limits to this method of convergence. Church-dividing differences still remain, and new ones have arisen, as some churches move towards full inclusion of women and LGBT Christians while others do not. Churches in the process of uniting have encountered difficulties for various reasons; the process has stalled or been descoped, settling for partial rather than full communion.

While dialogue towards convergence still continues, in a modified approach that works towards a more nuanced differentiated consensus, a different approach has also emerged. Called receptive ecumenism, the goal of this approach to ecumenical dialogue is appreciation, rather than agreement. Participants focus on sharing the treasures of their own ecclesial traditions, and appreciating the beauty of treasures that are not their own. Instead of trying to forge an objective consensus expression of truth on neutral common ground, receptive ecumenism traverses the liminal space between dialogue partners, crossing and re-crossing the space between ecclesial traditions, as respectful visitors and as gracious hosts. The paradigm of appreciation fosters a generosity of spirit: after all, one can freely admire certain features of a work of art even when one would be entirely disinclined to take it into one’s own home! The language of receptive ecumenism resembles the translingual practice described by Liu, as gracious hosts try to articulate their love of their own treasures in language that their visitors can understand, and respectful visitors try to encounter and appreciate foreign treasures in their own settings, on their own terms.

Although receptive ecumenism does not explicitly work towards ecclesial unification, it seems to me that it is well suited to accomplish the communion of hearts. To the extent that Christianity is relational, that the church is a community of persons (and Persons) and their network of relationships, it can be said that receptive ecumenism does work towards full communion, after all.

Psalm 84: was it written by a woman?

November 15, 2014


This is a reflection on Psalm 84 in Hebrew. It is copied from an email I sent to one of my sisters. I would love to know if anyone else has offered this interpretation of Psalm 84. It keeps me focused on women’s responsibility to their fellows, their peers, sisters or brothers, and not to their “fellows.”

I hope I can figure out why my authorship has been swallowed up on my laptop, but not on my iPad.

Car Trouble, the Tiger Bell, and Chinese Translation into English

November 13, 2014

The White House pushed very hard for President Xi Jinping to take questions during his news conference with President Obama at the end of their two days of meetings Wednesday. It did not want a repeat of the stilted, scripted encounter Mr. Obama had with Mr. Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, in 2009 on his first trip to China as president.

What the White House got was Xi Jinping, Unplugged, and that may have been more than it bargained for…..

The Chinese leader reached for an unexpected metaphor to describe the predicament of The Times and other foreign news organizations, saying they were suffering the equivalent of car trouble. “When a car breaks down on the road,” he said through an interpreter, “perhaps we need to get off the car and see where the problem lies.”

“The Chinese say, ‘let he who tied the bell on the tiger take it off,’ ” Mr. Xi added, in a somewhat enigmatic phrase that was not immediately translated into English. It is normally interpreted as “the party which has created the problem should be the one to help resolve it.”

— Mark Lander, “Fruitful Visit by Obama Ends With a Lecture From Xi.” New York Times (12 Nov 2014)

As New York Times reporter Lander and his editor use English metaphors “Fruitful” and “Unplugged,” they also make their “objective” report personal (and perhaps very very subjective):

Lander writes how, at the recent news conference in Beijing, “Mr. Xi seemed to ignore two questions from a reporter for The New York Times — [1] about whether China feared that the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia represented a threat to China, and [2] whether China would ease its refusal to issue visas to foreign correspondents in light of a broader visa agreement with the United States.”

“White House officials said” — Lander reports further — that “Mr. Obama had called on The [New York] Times reporter to make a point.”

The backdrop to the two at-first ignored questions for the Chinese president asked at the urging of the American president is this, Lander notes:

“Several of the newspaper’s China correspondents had their visas applications denied by the government, an issue Mr. Obama raised with Mr. Xi in one of their meetings.”

President Xi’s “circled back” eventual response to this is the “car trouble” and the “tiger bell” metaphors. We read in English from Lander how the interpreter translated and then hesitated to translate the Chinese into English.

So do we readers of The New York Times in English get this right? We do infer that there’s an indirectness on the part of both President Xi and his interpreter in the issue of allowing direct news coverage of China especially by reporters like Lander. But do we understand the motivations and the means of the interpreter’s translations (and does Lander get that right)?

I recall how Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping describe English translations of Chinese poetry in The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry: From Ancient to Contemporary, The Full 3000-Year Tradition:

The Chinese poem [translated] in [American] English is like a stolen car sent to a “chop shop” to be stripped, disassembled, fitted with other parts, and presented to the consumer public with a new coat of paint. But despite its glossy American exterior, it’s a Chinese engine that makes this vehicle run, and fragments of the poem’s old identity can be glimpsed in its lines, the purr of its engine, the serial number, which we may still be able to read…. [We do well] to discuss ways … found of negotiating between Chinese and English-language poetic paradigms, and to touch on the aspects of English that have proved compatible with the Chinese poem, which has been a part of Western poetic traffic since the early years of modernism.

The use of the metaphor of the car, certainly an invention during the days of modernism, is just fascinating. But why “stolen” and why the violently altering “chop shop” metaphors?

And we remember how Language Log blogger and linguist Victor Mair notes a use of the English letter Q as a loan into Chinese, even for a car:

Another usage for QQ on Mainland China is as the name for a mini car produced by Chery Automobile (Qirui 奇瑞), a Chinese company.  To avoid confusion with the internet QQ, it is often referred to as Chery QQ (奇瑞QQ).  Unveiled in 2003, Chery QQ was so successful that it became the best-selling mini-car in 2005-2007.  It is often thought of as a car for ladies.  Since it is the cheapest car in many foreign markets, including the EU, its sales have skyrocketed. (A photo of the Chery QQ ishere.)

And so now let’s get back to President Xi’s metaphors, his interpreter’s translation of them into English, and reporter Lander’s English language reporting of them as a guest in China. It may be even more useful for us to read Lydia He Liu’s works on the historical context. We might start with Tokens of Exchange: The Problem of Translation in Global Circulations (Post-Contemporary Interventions) and Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity-China, 1900-1937.

In the former, she considers what many of us in English limit as “translation” from a more Chinese perspective:

As I [Lydia H. Liu] have argued elsewhere, one does not translate between equivalents; rather, one creates tropes of equivalence in the middle zone of translation between the host and guest languages. This middle zone of hypothetical equivalence, which is occupied by neologistic imagination, becomes the very ground for change.

In the latter, she elaborates:

I am interested in theoretical problems that lead up to an investigation of the condition of translation and of discursive practices that ensue from initial interlingual contacts between languages. Broadly defined, the study of translingual practice examines the process by which new words, meanings, discourses, and modes of representation arise, circulate, and acquire legitimacy within the host language due to, or in spite of, the latter’s contact/collision with the guest language. Meanings, therefore, are not so much “transformed” when concepts pass from the guest language to the host language as invented within the local environment of the latter. In that sense, translation is no longer a neutral event untouched by the contending interests of political and ideological struggles. Instead, it becomes the very site of such struggles where the guest language is forced to encounter the host language, where the irreducible differences between them are fought out, authorities invoked or challenged, ambiguities dissolved or created, and so forth, until new words and meaning emerge in the host language itself. I hope the notion of translingual practice will eventually lead to a theoretical vocabulary that helps account for the process of adaptation, translation, introduction, and domestication of words, categories, discourses, and modes of representation from one language to another and, furthermore, helps explain the modes of transmission, manipulation, deployment, and domination within the power structure of the host language.


If it is always true that the translator or some other agent in the host language always initiates the linguistic transaction by inviting, selecting, combining, and reinventing words and texts from the guest language and, moreover, if the needs of the translator and his/her audience together determine and negotiate the meaning (i.e., usefulness) of the text taken from the guest language, then the terms traditional theorists of translation use to designate the languages involved in translation, such as “source” and “target/receptor,” are not only inappropriate but misleading. The idea of source language often relies on concepts of authenticity, origin, influence, and so on, and has the disadvantage of re-introducing the age-old problematic of translatability/un translatability in the discussion. On the other hand, the notion of target language implies a teleological goal, a distance to be crossed in order to reach the plentitude of meaning; it thus misrepresents the ways in which the trope of equivalence is conceived in the host language, relegating its agency to secondary importance. Instead of continuing to subscribe to such metaphysical concerns perpetuated by the naming of a source and a target, I adopt the notions “host language” and “guest language” . . . (. . . radically alter[ing] the relationship between the original and translation), which should allow me to place more emphasis on the host language than it has heretofore received.

Notice how Liu changes the Western, modernist notion of translation to more of a social exchange, which implies one is the host, the other the guest. Why should she want change in general that sounds less like chopping up the body of a car and more like hospitality and mutual respect? More particularly, why should she want more emphasis on the “host” by those who are more clearly the guests?

If we answer with merely nationalistic and modernistic answers, then we may miss Liu’s astute points. In the struggle over free press and over foreign passes into China by her guests, for Liu, as somebody who is Chinese, as a person who is a woman, there is more to consider. This is evidenced by her saying things like this: “Is there a female tradition in modern Chinese literature? By asking this question, I intend to bring to critical attention a number of interesting claims put forth by women.” And she goes on to say more here.

My only point for this blogpost is simply that there is much to the translational exchanges between China and the former empires of Europe and between China and the present super power of the USA. Car trouble and the tiger’s bell may need a little more attention.

The Exegetical Method of Antioch

November 9, 2014

The exegetical method I was taught began with a clarification of purpose: exegesis was intended to excavate the intended meaning(s) of the original author of the text, as it would have been heard by the original audience of the text. Following the procedure given in Michael Gorman’s excellent book The Elements of Biblical Exegesis, this meant that we began with the historical and cultural context: when, and where, was it written? For what purpose? In what particular setting? This was followed by the canonical context: what were the surrounding passages? How was this passage positioned in the scriptural book, and where was this book in the scriptural canon? (Preachers or liturgists might also ask “or in the lectionary?”) Were there similar passages elsewhere?

Having situated the passage, we proceeded to a structural analysis, identifying symmetries and parallelism; which segues neatly into detailed analysis, looking at specific words and linguistic relationships, wordplay, and other literary devices (including soundplay, for those who could read the original languages) that emphasize or relate significant concepts. This is where one pulls out the concordance to look for other scriptural uses of significant words, and examines relevant contributions from other scholars. Ultimately, one pulls it all together and presents one’s resulting interpretation of the text. We were encouraged to close the paper with a reflection, a pastoral or spiritual application of the passage to the Christian life.

This method was taught to us so clearly, and produced such clear papers, that I was especially intrigued to read about a similarly clear exegetical method practiced by the Antiochene theologians such as Theodore of Mopsestua. In his paper “Search the Scriptures for they Speak of Me”: Reading Scripture with the early Fathers,” presented at an ecumenical consultation on the church fathers, Eastern Orthodox scholar John Behr draws on the work of Frances Young to outline this method, which has been associated with the historical and grammatical methods used by the rhetorical schools of Antioch.

The method begins by identifying the hypothesis, a technical term which here means the proposed subject of the text, the underlying framework which creates literary unity.

[T]he lexical level is examined next, establishing the correct punctuation and construal of sentences; attention is then paid to uestions of translation and etymology, foreign words, metaphors, and figures of speech; and finally the interpreter turns to the train of thought in the text, comparing it to other texts, which might provide further background material, from the scriptures, to set the text in its proper [scriptural] context. (Behr, 11)

In our studies, we were also introduced to the concept of a “canon within the canon,” which becomes especially relevant when two passages appear to conflict with each other. All biblical scholars have some method of resolving such conflicts, which often asserts that some books of the bible have greater weight than others: thus, these books constitute an informal and sometimes implicit “canon” within the canon of scripture. For Christians, the New Testament is generally given heavier weight than the Shared Scriptures; and within the New Testament, the gospels. Those with a more historical bent might prioritize Paul’s letters, or his undisputed letters, over the gospels, because they were written earlier; likewise they might give greater weight to the earlier gospels. Liturgically minded scholars might define the lectionary as the canon within the canon; and so forth.

It seems that the Antiochene scholars used the historical books of the Bible as their “canon within the canon”: according to John J. O’Keefe, “the narrative of the historical books completely controls and restricts the meaning of other texts” (O’Keefe, JECS 8:1 (2000), 92-94, quoted in Behr). I find this fascinating, given the significantly different Jewish and Christian ordering of the Shared Scriptures, and the fact that some books which are included under the Prophets in the Tanakh are classified as historical books in the Old Testament. Without further investigation into the relative chronology of the Antiochene exegesis and the ordering of the canons, I wouldn’t make any claims about causality (in either direction); but it certainly is suggestive.

Behr concludes that Antiochene exegesis did not ultimately survive in Christian biblical interpretation because it took history, rather than Christ, as its primary hermeneutical key; he also notes that, of course, there was not perfect consistency among all Antiochene scholars all the time. But I thought the discussion of method was interesting enough to blog about. :)

On a somewhat different topic, Behr also notes that Irenaeus gives an example of creating a Homeric pastiche when discussing incorrect methods of scriptural interpretation, using technical terms.

The terms Irenaeus uses are all technical terms in Hellenistic literary theory and philosophy. The term “fabrication” describes stories that are not true but seem to be so and “myth” refers to stories that are manifestly untrue.
(Behr, 5, discussing Against the Heresies, 1.8.1-9.4)

I thought this last point might interest one of my Greekier co-bloggers, who might consider engaging with Irenaeus… (hint, hint!)


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