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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!)

The Bible translation I am most looking forward to this Fall

October 19, 2014

The Bible translation I am most looking forward to this Fall is Everett Fox’s The Early Prophets:  Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings.  Fox tries to realize in English what Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig accomplished with their German Die Schrift

While I need to wait until November 4th for the volume to appear, it is already partly readable in the “Look Inside” feature on Amazon.  Reading portions of the Translator’s Preface make it sound like this will be an interesting volume.  (Fox’s translation of the Pentateuch is my favorite recent translation of those books.)

If you could just revise one word in a Bible translation ….

October 19, 2014

Suppose that you could just revise one word in a Bible translation.  Which word would it be?

Well, that’s the opportunity that presented itself to Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler in their (brand new for Simchas Torah) second edition of the (Oxford) Jewish Study Bible.  They were able to persuade the Jewish Publication Society, which owns the copyright on the NJPS (“Tanakh”) translation to change one word. 

The word they chose was חטאת, which they persuaded the JPS to allow them to present as “purification offering” rather than “sin offering.”  Now doubtlessly this was a justifiable choice – after all, it is 43 years since Jacob Milgrom published his study “Sin-Offering or Purification-Offering,” persuasively arguing that “purification offering” was the better translation.  But certainly there must be more words than that to revise!

Even in the first (2004) edition, Baruch Schwartz’s notes made it clear that he considered “purification offering” the better choice (in the way that scholarly study Bibles often correct the translation being used).  And there are many more places in both the first and second editions that commentators suggest better translations than the NJPS used. 

But there are so many other places one could revise.  For example, David E. S. Stein, in a series of volumes (Torah:  A Modern Commentary, The Contemporary Torah, Torah: A Women’s Commentary) has been making persuasive arguments for revising the NJPS translation of the Pentateuch and Haftoroh for nearly a decade.  But instead, Berlin and Brettler decided just to settle on “purification offering.”  Odd.

Berlin and Brettler say “in some cases, we sought new annotators to reflect more recent scholarship and to include more women and Israeli scholars.”  (However, despite these words, a number of women got the boot in the second edition, including Carol Meyers – who was the consulting editor for the Genesis and Exodus in The Contemporary Torah.  Neither can we somehow assume that the Berlin and Brettler were ignorant of The Contemporary Torah – in fact, Berlin was the consulting editor for Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy in that work.  And the same editor, Ellen Frankel, was key to both The Jewish Study Bible and The Contemporary Torah.)  Somehow, it seems that Berlin and Brettler were eager “to include more women” (even though that meant booting women) but were not eager to use a more accurate translation that better reflected the meaning of gender in the Pentateuch.

(Note:  I hope to post a full review in due course.  But for now, I’ll just mention my disappointment that much good material from the first edition has been deleted, including Elliot Wolfson’s sublime essay “The Glorious Name and the Incarnate Torah.”)

May the Angels Lead Her Into Paradise: Remembering Ann O.

October 16, 2014

I was saddened to learn of the recent death of Ann Olivier from a lovely eulogy at Commonweal. Although we had fallen out of touch, Ann was a very significant influence during my years of self-directed theological study leading up to graduate school.

I first met Ann online in the autumn of 2004 when I joined the VaticanII-Documents group on Yahoo, which was beginning a round of detailed reading and group study of the council documents by email. It was a very large group, but Ann O., as she always signed herself, was one of the more frequent and substantive commenters, and I soon began to look for her contributions in particular. She was a generation older than I am, and hearing about her experience with the pre-conciliar church and the changes that resulted from the council was a real gift. She also brought the training and perspective from her PhD in philosophy into our theological discussion of the documents.

What I particularly remember about Ann’s participation in the group is that, while she often had strong opinions which she expressed spiritedly, she seemed to do so almost always without ego. I never got the sense that she took criticism of her opinions or arguments as a personal attack. The word that comes to mind is dispassionate, except that she wasn’t! She had a lively curiosity, and was always willing to wonder, to ask questions, and to follow the implications of an idea no matter where they led.

I dropped out of the group after a little over a year (partway through Lumen Gentium — I still regret not having gotten to do the close read of Dei Verbum or Gaudium et Spes with that group), but I had already started emailing with Ann and a couple of other women from the group offlist. We formed our own little email group for a while, discussing various theological and spiritual themes that interested us from our varied backgrounds and perspectives. This included the time when I was deciding, applying, and preparing to go to grad school for theology, and all three of these women were tremendously helpful and supportive of me during that process.

As I recall, Ann and I were both particularly interested in language, how language functioned liturgically and theologically and symbolically. She introduced me to the work of Wittgenstein (ever so slightly) and Lonergan (more seriously), so that when I encountered them in grad school, we were already acquaintances. As it turned out, my master’s thesis engaged with ecclesiologists who had been strongly influenced by Lonergan, and one theologian who correlated Lonergan with Girard.

My particular gift from Ann as I was preparing for grad school was twofold. First, she strongly recommended that I read a book called How to Read a Book.

“Ann,” I said. “I’ve been a voracious reader since I was four years old. Surely I know how to read a book by now!” But she was adamant that I would find it helpful, because I had expressed concern about the culture shock and other difficulties I might experience moving from the sciences to the humanities. And she was quite right: it was very helpful, especially as I transitioned out of the self-directed theological reading I’d been doing for a couple of years, during which I had been reading everything that interested me as fast as I could looking for the pieces that would “click,” that would fit, that would seem right. Reading this book helped me understand that although I was reading extensively, I had not been reading critically, and that this would be a critical (ahem) skill in grad school. (Science majors don’t do critical reading in college; we do math instead. Lots and lots of math!)

She also persuaded me to… to… to start writing… in my books. :gasp!: Words cannot convey the depths of horror with which I greeted this suggestion. Write in my books?? Write in my books??!! Blasphemy!! I was brought up better than that! Books are for reading, not for writing in! Only barbarians write in books! I… I… I don’t think I could!

But she kept encouraging me to do it, insisting that it was an invaluable way to really engage with ideas of a text, to have conversations with the author in the margins. She said I could use a mechanical pencil, because it had the finest point. I really respected her opinions, so I dubiously agreed to try it… once… in this book she thought I should read.

And sure enough, she was right. I started out by making little notations, question marks, exclamation points, asterisks. My marginal comments gradually expanded. I started circling key words; bracketing key phrases; and ended up by drawing all over the page to connect the key ideas to each other! I was a convert. To this day, when I’m deciding between hardcopy or ebook, I’ll buy the hardcopy if I will need to really engage with the text, so I can write in it. Without Ann, I would never have known the joy (and it is a joy) of arguing with authors in the margins. :)

We lost touch not long after I started school, but I have always remembered her with fondness and gratitude. I would occasionally come across a comment from her in the Catholic blogosphere and once again appreciate her clarity and perspective. And I still, often, think of her when I pick up a pencil to write in my books.

They say that when someone dies, while we who have lost them are mourning that they’re leaving us, the great cloud of witnesses in heaven are rejoicing, Here she comes!! I’m confident that Ann is gathered with the saints at the river, deep in spirited conversation by the river that flows by the throne of God.

Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier?

October 9, 2014

This sentence is the one that the translator has left in French in the following excerpted “free English (not literal) [translation] of a telephone interview in French with Patrick Modiano following the announcement of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature, 9 October 2014. The interviewer is Hélène Hernmarck of Nobel Media.”

[HH] My name is Hélène and I’m calling from Thank you for giving us the time to ask you a few questions.

[PM] Ah, yes, yes, yes.

[HH] Where were you when you received the news?

[PM] I was actually in the street. Yes, I was in the street. It was my daughter who notified me.

[HH] Oh your daughter called you on your mobile?

[PM] Yes, yes, yes. I was very touched. It gave me even greater pleasure because I have a Swedish grandson.

[HH] Where were you, in the centre of Paris? In which particular street?

[PM] Oh, I was just next to the Jardin de Luxembourg….

[HH] You’ve written 20 or 30 books. Is there a certain book that you take greater pleasure in, which signifies more to you than the others?

[PM] Listen, it’s difficult. I always have the impression that I write the same book. Which means it’s already 45 years that I’ve been writing the same book in a discontinuous manner. You don’t really know your reader.

[HH] Now that you will become world famous which book would you recommend everyone to read?

[PM] Yes, I always have the impression that’s the last book I write.

[HH] What’s the title?

[PM] It’s called Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier.

[HH] Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier?

[PM] Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier.It’s about losing perspective within your surroundings. The last book is always the one I recommend because it leaves you …

[HH] Wishing for more?

[PM] Yes, yes.

And, Henri Astier, for BBC News, makes these additional, related and somewhat pertinent observations:

Only a handful of his 25-odd novels have been translated into English.
One reason for this might be that Modiano’s storylines are as slim as the books themselves. They usually centre on young men cast adrift among high-living crooks in 1960s Paris. There is a sense of threat, but little is explained.

The plot, however, matters much less than the feelings evoked by his deceptively simple prose. Blurred memory plays a key role. Modiano’s narrators try to make sense of half-remembered events from their youth, looking back through a glass darkly.

The lack of clarity goes hand in hand with geographical precision – with each Paris location overlaid with layers of imperfect memories. The poetic character of Modiano’s writing may explain why few have ventured to translate him so far.


The Purpose of Marriage: Gen 1 or Gen 2?

October 4, 2014

The bible begins with two creation stories, and each has its own purpose. Gen 1 tells the story of how all creation came to be, with the creation of humanity, male and female, as the culmination of creation. In this story, which is dominated by themes of generation and fertility, God tells people to be fertile and multiply, fill the earth; eat these things for your food, and leave those things as food for the animals. This is a story about the world, and humanity’s relationship to the world.

Genesis 2 tells a story about humanity. In Gen 2:18, God says “It is not good for the human to be alone,” determines that none of the animals are suitable companions for the human, and fashions a suitable companion from the side of the human, from the very same flesh. (Note the single-nature anthropology implied here: ie, there is a single human nature shared by women and men.) Gen 2:24 says “that is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.” This is a story about the origin of marriage.

Notice that the story about the origin of marriage says nothing about procreation.

Read the rest at Gaudete Theology.

Isaiah 54: a poem in mother-tongue

September 23, 2014

First, please read this post. Then this one by Jade Davis.

Davis shows this caption to an old photo:


And she explains what we know and do not know:

The photograph is of a “A warrior woman, near Kambole; insisted on fight with the men” according to the caption. While we do not know much other than the location (the date and name of the photographer are unknown), we do know that at some point the photograph was in the hands of an English speaker, and was probably taken by an English photographer as Zambia was part of the English colony of Rhodesia. The photograph belongs to a larger collection entitled “Scenes of daily life of natives and a foreign missionary in Malawi” (where it states that the collection is from not before 1862).

Now we are just about ready for the mother-tongue of the poem, Isaiah 54.

There are, of course, different ways of gazing and being gazed at, depending on who you are and how your body is sexed and what color it is. The two posts I’ve linked to above try to get at that. So to be just a little more ready, we might read the Hebrew-Bible Hebrew of Isaiah 54. My BLT co-blogger has called it HerBrew. Read it beside the 1917 JPS translation (mainly because, for Proverbs 31, our English translator, the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney gives her “[t]hanks to Leonard Greenspoon for pointing out that the 1917 JPS translation is ‘woman of valor'”). And you may want to see and to sound out the mother-tongue where the JPS has named “the LORD” out of respect.

Here that is:

Now we may be ready, for her or him who has ears to hear, Isaiah 54 –




A Prophet Without Honor by the Rev. Bernice A. King

September 17, 2014

Several years ago, President Reagan signed the legislation setting aside the third Monday of January to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. Many across the land rejoiced. For many of us, it was an honor long past due for a man who changed the face of this nation. It was the first time an African American was honored with a national holy day. And now every January, in every state, we pause to honor the man, the message, and his mission.

Unfortunately, as we survey the land, we would have to ask ourselves, where is the real honor? On the one hand, we celebrate a man who stood for peace, and yet we are the most violent nation in the world, so where is the real peace? We pay tribute to a man who fought for justice, and yet we have the Rodney King [Amadou Diallo, Rodney King, Timothy Thomas, Renisha McBride, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Shelly Fry, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Rekia Boyd, Michael Brown] incidents. We pay tribute to a man who fought for economic freedom, and yet African Americans are denied loans to buy homes and start businesses. We commemorate a man who struggled for equality, and yet African Americans continue to be judged first by the color of their skin and not by the content of their character. We honor a many who championed nonviolence, and yet we glorify violence from the silver screen to the TV screen, from the state house to the school house.

How dare we say we honor the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. when we allow these atrocities to occur with impunity? We must do more than honor a man of this magnitude with just a holiday; we must honor him with action. We must honor him by bringing into reality what he merely dreamed about. Until we are willing to honor Dr. King with consistent, liberating actions, then we dishonor him with our mere words, and he is a prophet without honor.

Throughout history God has sent us prophets who have spoken the word, but who have seldom been heeded. In essence, they were forced to prophesy in a vacuum. That’s why Jesus said, “A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country.” (Matt. 13:57) It was, and in some cases still is, very difficult for America to find a real place for Martin Luther King Jr. We fear the prophet. We ridicule the prophet. We jail the prophet. We even kill the prophet. But we have no problem making the prophet merely a dreamer. Let’s face it, there are some people in power how have no intention of allowing my dad’s dream to become a reality.

from Hard Questions, Heart Answers


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