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Noah: A rabbi’s review

March 29, 2014

I went to see Noah – by Darren Arnofsky and Ari Handel – last night – took the kids, got a headache from the improved and marvellous dolby sound system, truly painful. Okay, what’s not to like besides the unremitting racket? The women were too submissive, really horrible to watch. It was all about “be a man,” “act like a man”  and “what would a man do?”  Not much that is good. I was somewhat more interested in what the women would do and they did do something but was it enough? Unfortunately it required a somewhat deus ex machina ending. Russell Crowe, aka, Noah, kept having man tantrums, ruining any sympathy I might have had for his character. Only Ham and Ila were interesting as characters. Noah was a vegetarian warrior against strip-mining, etc.The clothing fashions were from last year, few animal hides, lots of great knitted outfits, and funky woven jackets, on top of blue jeans? When did Noah’s wife have time for spinning, weaving and sewing? Not shown. The watchers, the nephilim, were essentially transformers which would appeal to the imagination of 10 year old boys. Too many people, too much modern industrial wasteland, war and shades of Mad Max, rocket launchers, destroyed landscape etc. only this time in Iceland.

What I did like. The watchers were portrayed as angels of light encased in golem like bodies, so even though reminiscent of transformers, they also followed some Jewish legends about golem. They were essentially jinni, encased in outer bodies of mud. Tubal Cain was developed as a secondary character, as someone to challenge Noah’s views, and argue against him, and present a different view of God and humanity. This produced the only dialogue worth listening to. There was a certain suspense developed around the problem of how to find wives for Noah’s three sons. The Bible says that there were 8 humans in the Ark. How would that play out? This was the main tension in the movie. Would the human race survive to reproduce? A clever denouement. They other plot line  involved the wrapping of tefillin and passing on the birth right – but why a snakeskin tefillin, that eluded me. And then there was a least a modern feminist three seconds towards the end of the movie. That pulled it out of the hole.

I think the movie is highly irritating, but I did enjoy interpreting the different plot lines and themes. The overall impression was unremitting racket and silly nonsense. Here is a rabbi’s assessment, poor on entertainment, but high on discussable religious points,

To recap: The value of the movie isn’t the entertainment — which I think is not great — nor in its faithfulness to the Bible — which it doesn’t have much of — but it doesn’t have to have. But, this movie discusses an issue that is both ancient and modern. It asks one of the biggest questions of all: What is religion’s purpose?

‘It asks one of the biggest questions of all: What is religion’s purpose?’

Is the purpose of religion to be the sword of God? The blade of morality which condemns the wicked and the unrighteous?

I have written two books about why innocent people suffer. And what I say is this: there are people who believe that the explanation for human suffering is straightforward. You see it in the Flood, in Sodom and Gommorah and with Moses and the Golden Calf. And yet, the principal distinction between Noah on one hand and Moses and Abraham on the other is that Noah accepts God’s judgement.

The film does a good job of showing this. Noah is not a hero in Jewish lore. The Bible says that Noah was a righteous man “in his generation.” He was only a righteous man compared to the others who were far worse than he.

Now, why wasn’t he righteous? Because righteousness is all about what you do for your fellow man. And Noah does NOTHING for his fellow man. He doesn’t care, he has no compassion. He executes God’s commandment to the letter. So when God says “I’m going to kill everybody,” Noah says, “will you save my skin? Oh, I get an Ark? Okay, fine.”

This is a traditional explanation of why Noah is not the father of the Jewish people.

So he was a facilitator, not a leader.

No, he failed in the greatest mission of all. He failed to protect human life. And failed to fight with God when he wanted to take human life. He refuses to wrestle with God. Noah is a fundamentalist. He’s a religious extremist. God says “everyone will die” and Noah says nothing. But this is not what God wants. God wants people with moxie! God wants people with spiritual audacity! He does not want the obedient man of belief. He wants the defiant man of faith.

‘God wants people with moxie! God wants people with spiritual audacity’

It isn’t until Abraham, when God says “we have the rainbow and I promise not to destroy everyone, but I will destroy these two cities Sodom and Gomorah,” Abraham does something audacious. He says “will the judge of the entire Earth not practice justice?” He lifts his fists to heaven! He raises a cudgel to Heaven! This made him the first Jew. A Jew does not just accept a divine decree, he does not just bow his head in silent obedience.

The word “Islam” means “obedience before God” or “submission before God.” Soren Kierkegaard the great Danish theologian sums up Christianity as being a “leap of faith.”

Judaism has no leap of faith. “Israel” means “he who wrestles with God.” You see none of that in Noah. Neither in the Torah or in this film, so in that regard, this movie portrays this very well. No other religion does this, they would see this as heresy. It’s amazing, it’s breathtaking!

‘A Jew does not just accept a divine decree, he does not just bow his head in silent obedience’

I’m not going so far as to say the Bible portrays Noah as a right-wing nut-job who captures his humanity only at the end — to the extent of the film – but I will say the Bible dismisses him. Noah is a father to mankind, but a footnote in the Bible. Never discussed again, because he’s a failure.

I would have loved to see, in this film, the family challenging Noah more – challenging him to fight with God.

Read the whole review here.  Well,yes, now that he mentions it, Noah really has distinct similarity to right wing nut jobs, but makes some feeble attempt to appear normal near the end.



A Short Note on God’s First Greek Puns: Earth, Birth-Word, Woman, Know

March 28, 2014

Here’s Abram K-J’s “A Short Note on God’s First Greek Words.”

And so here are a few short notes on God’s first Greek puns:

  1. Γενηθήτω or GenēTHḗtō and Γενηθήτωσαν or GenēTHḗtōsan are not only “the first words attributed to God, [such that the] LXX-G establishes a formulaic speech pattern that continues throughout the chapter” that begins the Bible (as per Susan Brayford’s commentary in Abram’s post). But these Greek words also are neologisms. That is, before the Septuagint, to the extent our extant Greek literature shows us, these words did not exist. So the LXX translator is already beginning to be rather creative from the get go. These verbs mean, “Let there be…” Or “Let there by this word be birthed. . . .”
  2. The noun τὴν γῆν or tḕn gẽn in Genesis 1:1 (the Greek version), comes before the verb already discussed. It means the Earth that God so poetically and creatively made. (At least in Greek it’s poetry; here’s the first verb of the Greek translation of the Bible: ἐποίησεν or époíēsen.)
  3. Not long after, God fashions a γυναῖκα or gynaίka, a wife or woman (or perhaps in English we could pun a wombman).
  4. Not long after, she “knows,” which in Greek can be tricky. (It’s a double pun when translating Hebrew into neologistic Hebraic Hellene.) She comes to know good and evil. She comes to know the man, her husband. To know or ἔγνω or égnō leads to a new birth, the first-born human. This is all very God-like in Greek: the earth creativity, the birth creativity, the birthing-woman creativity, the knowing creativity.
  5. Plato had played with this sort of thing. Or perhaps the γυναῖκα named Aspasia did, since she was a teacher of rhetoric for Socrates.
  6. Euripides with Electra does some similar wordplay, but this stuff is rare (outside of this playwright’s play and outside of Plato’s one dialogue mentioned above).
  7. In Hebraic Hellene this all sounds so much better. The translating adds and finds (rather than subtracts and loses).

Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

March 27, 2014

Caleb’s Crossing is the story of the first native American graduate of Harvard, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk. The story is told from the perspective of the fictional daughter of the preacher who first tutored Caleb in English, Latin, Greek and Hebrew, preparing him for the classics program at Harvard. One of the most disturbing aspects of the book is the theory of how all students, not just the native students, were deprived of adequate nutrition and exercise, in these early days. Some students were fortified by extra food sent from home, but the native American boys did not have this benefit. Caleb died of tuberculosis shortly after graduating with top grades. Of the very few other native American students, some died young and one became a mariner. It’s a fascinating story, and much revolves around the exclusion of girls from education, as the fictional main character, Bethia, works in the kitchen at Harvard, but listens to Chauncy’s lectures through the doorway. She eventually marries a tutor at Harvard, and their courting often takes place in the main library among John Harvard’s original book collection. Here is the historical background from the Harvard site.

Like his predecessor, Charles Chauncy (1592-1672) got into trouble for his religious beliefs. Chauncy’s troubles, however, preceded his arrival in the New World and, in fact, probably contributed to his decision to emigrate in 1638. Prone to quibble over small points, Chauncy had even served a brief prison sentence imposed because of “his tender conscience in the matter of ceremonies.” (Samuel Eliot Morison)

Despite such episodes of nonconformity, President Chauncy continued along the path laid out by Henry Dunster. Chauncy’s outlook embraced both religious orthodoxy and scientific curiosity. On the one hand, he demanded that students adhere to a rigorous program of religious devotions. (As Morison observes, “It is a safe guess that no generation of Harvard students listened to so many sermons as the pupils of President Chauncy.”) On the other, he supported Galileo’s modern astronomical perspective, and the College received its first telescope shortly before he died in office. Many regard Chauncy as the leading scholar in the New England of his day and perhaps the most learned of all Harvard presidents of the colonial era. Arabic was but one of the several foreign languages at his command.

During the Chauncy years, America’s first university press blossomed in the Yard, producing materials in both English and Native languages. (Not all such activity found favor across the river in Boston: in 1662, responding to unspecified volumes from Harvard’s printing press, the Great and General Court passed the Bay Colony’s first law on book censorship.) Perhaps the most notable publication was the 1,200-page Indian Bible (1663), translated into Algonquian by John Eliot. The Indian Bible – the first Bible printed in North America – remained in use for almost two centuries. This period also brought Harvard’s first Native American graduate: Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, Class of 1665.

One never-ending frustration was Chauncy’s annual salary of £100, much of it paid in goods. This was more than Dunster’s salary (averaging £55 a year) but hardly enough for Chauncy’s wife, eight children (Chauncy’s six sons graduated from Harvard: two in 1651, one in 1657, and three in 1661), and three servants. Despite various appeals to the colonial legislature in Boston, Chauncy never succeeded in getting a raise.

Chauncy died in office on Feb. 29, 1672 (= Feb. 19, 1671, in the Julian calendar then used by English colonists).

The Nicene-Constantinople Creed, part 1: Translation, Theology, and more

March 24, 2014

Over at Vox Nova, David Cruz-Uribe is hosting a three week scriptural reflection on the Creed as a Lenten exercise. He has asked that the discussion there remain focused on scripture, and not digress to talk about issues of translation or other theological sources.

So I thought I’d open up a companion/overflow series here, where we can do just that, in parallel.

Here is the first part of the Creed, in the current Roman Catholic English missal translation:

I believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.

Here is the Latin:

Credo in unum Deum,
Patrem omnipoténtem,
Factórem cæli et terræ,
Visibílium ómnium et invisibílium.
Et in unum Dóminum Iesum Christum,
Fílium Dei Unigénitum,
Et ex Patre natum ante ómnia sæcula.
Deum de Deo, lumen de lúmine, Deum verum de Deo vero,
Génitum, non factum, consubstantiálem Patri:
Per quem ómnia facta sunt.

and here is the Greek:

Πιστεύω εἰς ἕνα Θεόν, Πατέρα, Παντοκράτορα, ποιητὴν οὐρανοῦ καὶ γῆς, ὁρατῶν τε πάντων καὶ ἀοράτων.

Καὶ εἰς ἕνα Κύριον Ἰησοῦν Χριστόν, τὸν Υἱὸν τοῦ Θεοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ, τὸν ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς γεννηθέντα πρὸ πάντων τῶν αἰώνων·

φῶς ἐκ φωτός, Θεὸν ἀληθινὸν ἐκ Θεοῦ ἀληθινοῦ, γεννηθέντα οὐ ποιηθέντα, ὁμοούσιον τῷ Πατρί, δι’ οὗ τὰ πάντα ἐγένετο.

Transliterated (per St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church):

Pistévo is éna Theón, Patéra, Pantokrátora, Piitín ouranoú ke gis, oratón te pánton ke aoráton.

Ke is éna Kírion, Iisoún Hristón, ton Ión tou Theoú ton monogení, ton ek tou Patrós gennithénta pró pánton ton eónon.

Fós ek Fotós, Theón alithinón, ek Theoú alithinoú gennithénta, ou piithénta, omooúsion to Patrí, di Ou ta Pánta egéneto

Roman Catholics recite the creed at every mass; normally the Nicene creed, though since the new translation of the missal came out, the Apostle’s Creed is also an option. It used to be the most boring part of mass for me, but I now find it a contemplative high point. Perhaps this is partly because, as I’ve studied theology, I’ve learned more about the theological concepts and doctrinal disputes that it was drawn up to settle: so it has much more depth for me than it used to.

I believe in one God: we lead with an affirmation of monotheism. Trinitarian monotheism, to be sure; but not tritheism. This is an affirmation that the God of Christians, the God and Father of Jesus, is the God of the Shared Scriptures.

God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God: this is such a beautiful image.

only-begotten: I’ve sung the Creed in Latin a few times, and somehow “unigenitum” more clearly and compactly conveys the concept to me.

consubstantial: I grew up saying “one in being” with the Father, in the 1970 ICEL translation. It wasn’t until I got to grad school that I came across the notion that Jesus is not only consubstantial with the Father (in his divine nature), but also consubstantial with us (in his human nature), because that part’s not in the creed. I suppose no one at the time challenged Jesus’ human nature, only his relationship with God; whereas nowadays it’s so easy for Christians to simply equate Jesus with God and overlook the implications of “fully human and fully divine,” “like us in all things but sin.” So I always think of that, when we get to this word.

I think, too, of the major controversy as to whether Christ was “of the same substance” homoousia or “of similar substance” homoiousia, the two Greek words differing by only the letter iota, thus giving rise to the idiom “not one iota’s worth of difference”. :) It’s too bad this is invisible in the English.

Please share your thoughts on this part of the Creed. Please quote the bit you’re commenting on, as I did above; feel free to quote from a different translation, if you have one. Thoughts on translation, theology, history, patristic commentary, or personal reflection are all welcome.

Jelly Roll Morton and Tipper Gore

March 24, 2014

I had a chance to pick up a new sealed copy of the CD version of the Jelly Roll Morton interviews and performances recorded in Alan Lomax in 1938 for the Library of Congress at a terrific price ($20).  As a web page on the Library of Congress brags, this release won two Grammy awards.  That web page tells a little about the history of recording the set:

In his essay [in the liner notes, jazz scholar and folklorist John] Szwed explains that BBC journalist and broadcaster Alistair Cooke told [Library of Congress audio archivist Alan] Lomax to seek out [Jelly Roll] Morton at the Music Box, a U Street nightclub in Washington, D.C., where the jazz legend occasionally played piano and regaled local devotees with tales of his glory days. There Morton would also expound on the history of jazz, which he claimed to have invented in 1902 and which, he said, few musicians born outside of New Orleans played well.

"He was thoroughly prepared," Alan Lomax said of Morton. "He’d thought about the whole thing. And we had a few minutes’ conversation and I knew I had a winner, and I had my own plot and I knew he had his plot and I ran up the stairs [of the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium] to Harold Spivacke [then head of the Library’s Music Division and Lomax’s boss], and I said, ‘Harold, I want to have a guarantee of a hundred discs—we’re going to do the history of New Orleans jazz!’"

Lomax’s subsequent conversations with Morton, made from the stage of the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium, produced the original 1938 recordings, which, indeed, amount to the first oral history of jazz.

More than 25 years ago, I had read a book that was edited from the transcripts of these sessions, so I knew that they were often bawdy (for example,Morton began playing piano at a brothel when he was 14; his adopted stage name includes a profane slang term).  Nonetheless, I was still surprised to find a parental advisory sticker on the cover of the  box set.   (An actual walk through New Orlean’s French Quarter is a far more jarring experience than listening to Morton’s jazz.)



I gave the matter due thought and consideration, and after meditating on it for several minutes, finally decided that I could go ahead and make the purchase without calling up my mother and father and asking permission.

Now the story of how this sticker came to be included on record music has been recounted many times before, but involves Tipper Gore and several other high-profile Washington politician wives who, under the name Parents Music Resource Center (but universally called the “Washington Wives”) decided to lobby Congress to mandate a rating system similar to the system used by the Motion Picture Association of America to rate movies.  (The MPAA system is theoretically optional, but is a de facto requirement for almost all commercial movie releases).   As part of a compromise, the  Recording Industry Association of America agreed to place this mark on recordings that may have inappropriate content for youth, although there is no particular standard on when recordings get this particular mark.  The label is called a “Tipper Sticker.”   A number of retailers (notably Walmart) do not carry recordings marked with a Tipper Sticker in their retail stores.

Interestingly, I own several recordings of readings of the Bible in original languages and in translation, and although there is certainly ample adult content in that work, I do not recall seeing a Tipper Sticker on any of those recordings.  Even more confusingly, I have yet to see a Tipper Sticker on any of the several opera recordings that I own, although those are far more profane than anything Jelly Roll Morton said. 

I do not believe that the availability of Morton recordings represents any particular threat to moral fiber of our youth – I have yet to hear of gangs of wayward young people gathering to listen to jazz recordings from the 1930s.  Certainly, as a contemporary popular force, a certain tasteless dance by Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke (that seemingly every adolescent in America has seen) appears to still be more prominent in the public imagination.

At the end of the day, putting a Tipper Sticker on the Morton recordings appears just a meaningless gesture; except perhaps, as a blog devoted to Morton says, the kids won’t be finding out about Jelly Roll Morton at Walmart anytime soon.

3 winners for the 2013 Willis Barnstone Translation Prize

March 23, 2014

For the 12th annual Willis Barnstone Translation Prize, there are three winners. Congratulations go to Stephen CampiglioSara Nović, and Marci Vogel!

If you entered the contest, as I did, then you received the notice last week. Here’s the letter I received: Barnstone Translation Prize 2013.

If anybody might be interested, and might appreciate a Vietnamese poem rendered into English, I’m sharing a couple of things below: a bit of a preface to one of my entries submitted, and then a bit from that poem and translation.



CBMW: A Brave New Movement: Kevin DeYoung and the Eternal Subordination of Women

March 20, 2014

I am going to blog for a few days on the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. You can read up on some details at the Wartburg Watch. I was given a copy of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood in 1992, and have been familiar with the movement on and off from then until now. Here are some of it’s distinctive beliefs, and how they differ from the historic Reformation doctrines about women.

1. CBMW – Women are subordinate in creation, and that is a good thing.

The Reformers held widely varying beliefs about whether women were subordinate in creation, or as a consequence of the fall.

1b. Women will be subordinate in heaven, which is the new creation. CBMW from time to time tentatively proposes this. I have no idea what the Reformers thought about this. I don’t know if they wrote about it.

2. CBMW – The consequence of the fall for women is that they now desire to control their husbands. This is the meaning of the Hebrew word teshuqa, traditionally translated as “desire.” This new meaning was introduced by Susan Foh in 1974. 

In the Reformation, the Geneva Bible said “thy desire shall be subject to thine husband” and this was the basic belief of theologians at that time. I will post about this later with evidence. As you can see having one’s desire subject to someone else is the complete opposite of desiring to control someone. There is nothing traditional about complementarian beliefs about women.

Well, that’s it. That is the core. Women were subordinate in creation and in the new creation they will also be subordinate, and their sin is that they desire to control their husbands or men, in general. This sums up CBMW.

This is important because on April 8 CBMW is hosting a conference and one of the speakers, Kevin DeYoung will speak on the Beauty of Differences in Heaven and on Earth. We all know the difference, the beautiful difference is that men lead and women follow. At least, if women follow, then it is beautiful.

This is not new to CBMW. This is article which appeared in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 1991, by John Frame  on the topic of gender in heaven. He asks, “Will We Be Male and Female in Heaven?” page 234.  He then affirms,

I am, however, inclined toward an affirmative answer: (1) Those who appear after death in Scripture always appear similar to their earthly forms (1 Samuel 28:11-15; Matthew 17:1-13; 27:52ff.; Revelation 11:1-12). I would assume that the men continued to appear as bearded (if they wore beards on earth), speaking with masculine voices. This fact seems to yield some presumption, at least, that we retain our sexual characteristics after death.

In Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood, 2002, on page 275, there is an article by Daniel R. Heimbach called, The Unchangeable Difference: Eternally Fixed Sexual Identity for an Age of Plastic Sexuality. He does not actually say that women will be subordinate, but the rest of the book does explain that sexual identity necessarily involves the “element of priority given to the male.” page 84 So that’s eternal. Here is an excerpt from Heimbach’s resumé. 

Professor Heimbach has been teaching Christian Ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary since 1993. Before that he served 1 year as Executive Director of the Defense Readiness Council, 2 years as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Manpower, 2 years on the White House staff under President George H. W. Bush both as Associate Director for Domestic Policy and as Deputy Executive Secretary to the Domestic Policy Council, and 2 years as Political Advisor and Legislative Assistant to Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana.

In JBMW Spring 2004, pages 17 – 28, Mark Walton wrote What We Shall Be: A Look at Gender and the New Creation, Walton concludes,

The only view that could be shown to have genuine biblical support was the sexual view, which maintains that gender distinctions will remain in the new creation.

Next, in JBMW Spring 2006, Relationships and Roles in the New Creation, page 14 – 15, Walton wrote,

First, consider the argument concerning man and woman as originally created. There is virtually universal agreement that man and woman are ontologically equal, equal in essence and worth, because both were created in the image of God. In the ordering of his creation, however, God formed the man first and gave him responsibility and authority as the head of the human race.41 This headship, far from being a result of the fall-feminist and egalitarian claims notwithstanding-is a central feature of the divine created order.42 Because the new creation is, fundamentally, a return to the divine order that prevailed before the fall, it follows that male headship will remain in the new creation.

Walton also expansively explains,

The social fabric of gender-based distinctions of roles was weaved in a pattern that accords with the prelapsarian decree of the Creator. In the new creation, that fabric will not be discarded or destroyed. The stains will be removed and rips mended. The fabric will be cleaned and pressed. But the pattern established in God’s “very good” creation will remain.

Okay, that’s enough. We shall wait and see what Kevin DeYoung has to say about this on April 8. Here is  hint from the conference coordinator, Grant Castleberry on what DeYoung might say,

God holds men accountable for what happens in their marriages, whether they want to be held accountable or not, because it is clear that God expects men to be the leaders of their households. …. Men and women are different, but we both bear the image of God (Gen. 1:27). We represent God’s rule on this earth in our differences. And in the new heavens and new earth we will finally break through the trappings of sin to experience creation as God intended.

I will post next about other arguments by DeYoung about the “desire to control” and how this has introduced me to an exciting new resource on Reformation theology.

The Invention of Wings

March 18, 2014

I am a little astounded that there are already 1,771 reviews of The Invention of Wings on Amazon and it was only published two months ago. Apparently the Kindle edition has notes by Oprah Winfrey, which most readers don’t seem to appreciate all that much. I bought a lovely hard back edition and enjoyed the book thoroughly. I see people reading this book everywhere I go.

Last month, while driving through upstate NY, I suddenly realized that we were in Seneca Falls, and the name sounded familiar but not immediately recognizable. We soon came to the Women’s Rights Museum and enjoyed an afternoon of education and interest. The area has the look and feel of the 19th century, houses with heavy gingerbread trim, and the Erie canal running through. It was an area of Quaker settlement at the time of the women’s rights convention in 1848. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who wrote The Women’s Bible, lived down the street. At the museum I bought The Ladies of Seneca Falls by Miriam Gurko and it was a couple of weeks later that I saw The Invention of Wings in a bookstore and had to have it. It tells the story of two earlier feminists, Sarah and Angelina Grimké.

I found the story of the Grimké sisters compelling on many fronts. They were raised in a wealthy slave-holding family in South Carolina. From an early age they were both deeply repelled by the cruelty of slavery as practiced on their own property and around them. They were both deeply religious, but moved from church to church seeking a way to express their revulsion of slavery and wishing, against their parents’ will, to contribute in some way to end it. After their father died, Sarah Grimké travelled in the north and became a Quaker. When she went back to South Carolina dressed as a Quaker, she was shouted down in the street and unable to live in peace and safety. Both sisters moved to the north where they wrote and spoke against slavery.

These sisters lived in the early 19th century, and Angelina Grimké the first woman on record to address a legislative body. These women are typical of many early feminists. They were heart broken and deeply touched by the plight of the slaves they saw around them, and, when wishing to address the public about this, they met many roadblocks since they were women. These were the early feminists.

Sue Monk Kidd does a great job of bringing this story to the attention of a broad audience. While she stays close to the facts in the narrative of the sisters, she also recounts a more fictional narrative about the slaves who lived in their household. I have read a few of Sue Monk Kidd’s books, but this one really stands out for me. I had to continue researching and reading about the Grimké sisters and their deep faith and theological reflection to get some idea of the the depth of their study and the legacy they left.

This theme has been rounded out for me by also reading 12 Years a Slave, The Spymistress, and curiously, 419, a recent Canadian novel. If you like offbeat and informative books, this is a good one. It takes place in Calgary, Alberta, and in Nigeria. I also just finished Transmission by Hari Kunzru, quirky but satisfying if you are interested in code and Bollywood movies, both of which I have at least a fleeting interest in.

Women of Courage: Kairos

March 18, 2014

In reading and writing about “women of valour” I noticed a group, which I should have known of before, called “Women of Courage.” They are an interdenominational Canadian group helping out women in different parts of the world, calling for female leadership and participation in leadership and decision-making by those most affected, the victimsof violence and rape.

I can’t help but think that they draw their name from the phrase in Hebrewshet eshet chayil, “woman of valour.” We need this kind of rhetoric, we need Bibles with phrases like “woman of courage” and “the peacemakers shall be called the children of God.” This is  about female leadership in peacemaking and protection. How sad that Bibles which do not contain these phrases have so much traction in the evangelical community. We need to keep fighting for inclusive Bibles for everyone, for other countries, to give away, to permeate society, inclusive Bibles for the Gideons, for example. What a thought! Why spread the gospel of the exclusion of women from God’s plans for human leadership?

We should speak up always about inclusive Bibles, and make sure that ministers and preachers who sneak non-inclusive Bibles up onto the screen, are made aware that this is not acceptable to the congregation. I have recently heard of Anglican churches using non-inclusive Bibles on the digital screen, and of churches where the minister has bought and put in the pews non-inclusive Bibles without consulting the congregation. Either Christianity is inclusive or it is not. If not, women need to get out.

Let me put out as a reminder that the Anglo-Saxon Gospels, Wycliffe’s translation, the King James Version, Calvin’s and Luther’s Bibles, and all pew Bibles until the last century, contained the expression in Matt. 5:9, the “children of God.” Anyone who teaches otherwise is distant from the intent of the original language and not connected to the history of interpretation. Get the word out that inclusive Bibles are the only way to go. Women around the world need access to leadership and equality.

Canadian Women of Valour

March 12, 2014

Sort of imitating Rachel Held Evans here, but for good reason. Of course, I really want to talk about hockey – we are so proud of our women, as well as our men! And my sister just saw K. D. Lang yesterday, reminding me of her rendition of Hallelujah. Here is Cohen on Hallelujah. I remember k.d. lang from the days when she wore skirts and boots and a cowboy hat, sang country and danced to the fiddle. (Okay, I can’t find any more youtube sites without some awful advertising so that’s enough.)

I saw two blog posts recently on memorable Canadian Christian feminists that I want to share. The first is about Nellie McClung, whose book, Clearing in the West, I read as a child.

The second post was about the quiet feminism of Bernice Gerard, who was recognized by the Vancouver Sun as the most influential spiritual leader in British Columbia of the last century. I used to love watching her TV programme as she was such a calm and matter of fact preacher, such a gentle and no nonsense person. She was a Vancouver city counsellor, pastor and preacher, anti-abortion, anti-pornography, and anti nudity on Wreck Beach. She lost those fights but she happily commented that she was content to have her say even if she didn’t win.  She was no sourpuss. She was a foster child in an abusive household and was rescued, educated, became a teacher and travelling preacher.


Gustave Doré

March 9, 2014

There is an exhibition of Gustave Doré in the Musée d’Orsay this winter, and then it moves on to Ottawa, Canada (yes, the capital city that many Harvard students can’t name) this summer. I am very excited about this exhibition, but also have the opportunity soon to view some original prints in a bound edition from 1880 that a friend inherited from his great grandfather.

Gustave Doré (1832-1883): Master of Imagination
From June 13 to September 14, 2014
Organized in collaboration with the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, Gustave Doré (1832-1883): Master of Imagination is the first comprehensive retrospective devoted to this major artist. It will include prints, drawings, paintings, and sculptures. A hundred works, ranging from spectacular panoramas to intimate studies on paper, will be brought together to illustrate Doré’s great artistic diversity. NGC chief curator Paul Lang worked with Edouard Papet, chief curator at the Musée d’Orsay, and Philippe Kaenel, professor of art history at the University of Lausanne and an expert on Doré.

Today, Gustave Doré is probably better known as an illustrator; his notable works include Perrault’s fairy tales, La Fontaine’s Fables, Dante’s epic poems, and his incredibly successful edition of the Bible. He worked mostly at the more intimate scale of the book, but he also created paintings and sculptures of monumental proportions.

Doré also revived history painting in order to bear witness to the disasters of the Franco-Prussian War from 1870-71 and the consequent loss of his native Alsace. An incisive caricaturist, Doré contributed to the birth of the comic strip and the graphic novel.

Visitors will be surprised by how familiar they are with Doré’s works. His influence on film and photography is a testament to this. For example, the Victorian London in Oliver Twist by Roman Polanski pays tribute to his illustrated book London, A Pilgrimage.


The Minimum Bible

March 7, 2014

Joseph Novak has put up a “Minimum Bible” site with minimalist graphic posters illustrating the books of the Protestant Bible.  Here are three examples:




Katherine of Alexandria

March 1, 2014

I was a little taken aback recently when I followed  link to a post about five women of the early Christian church that we ought to be familiar with. One of the women was Katherine of Alexandria. I looked her up, wondering why I had never heard of her before. She was supposed to have lived in the 4th century and the first written record of her life appeared several centuries later. So her history is based on oral tradition. There is no other evidence for her existence.

Why are we suddenly hearing about her now? It turns out that the movie Katherine of Alexandria, to be released later this year, was the last movie that Peter O’Toole acted in before dying on Dec. 14, 2013. This makes it historic, in one sense at least. Here is the official website.  I scanned the website but could not find any admission that this history of Katherine of Alexandria is only a story, a legend.

What are we to do when people get enthusiastically taken up with stories like this which seem to prove that women did great and noble things in the early church? We can certainly recognize those for whom there are records, and often given less recognition that they are due – women like Paula, who worked with Jerome on the Latin translation of the Bible. But what do we do with the ones who are clearly fictitious?

This applies not only to early Christian martyrs but also to Judith, Esther and other biblical women. The books of Judith and Esther are both classified by scholars as “novels.” The book of Esther is part of the Hebrew canon, while the book of Judith is not. The most obvious reason is that Judith was written later than Esther, when the Hebrew canon was more or less formed. Even though there now exists no Hebrew copy of the book of Judith, all scholars agree that it was written in Hebrew. However, the Hebrew copy of the text was not preserved, while the Greek translation was preserved in the Septuagint. Therefore, the Greek and Roman church, but not Jews and Protestants, consider Judith as part of the canon, and her heroic acts are celebrated along with Esther’s. Jews, do, however, consider Judith an important Jewish hero. Evangelical Christian women tend to say “Judith who?”

Those who search out the Bible record and history to validate the participation of women in society as agents do well to recognize that many of these women may not have existed, or may not have lived the lives attributed to them. However, the same is true about many stories of male heroes.

In spite of this caution, one can derive from these stories which qualities were attributed to women with approval or disapproval. There are other intriguing details as well. For example, Esther was an orphan, and Judith was a widow. This put these women into  a special class of persons under the protection of God, but also distanced them somewhat from male authority. These women also used their beauty as an instrument of power, although for Sarah, Bathsheba and Joseph, beauty was a vulnerability. We can at least know what some people at the time thought about women, even if we don’t know if some of these women actually existed.

The odd Gideons Textus-Receptus ESV

February 28, 2014

I have now read repeated reports that The Gideons are now distributing (along with their traditional distribution of the KJV) a variant of the ESV that has been modified to include “missing verses” from the Textus Receptus.  According to some accounts, the ESV is replacing the NKJV; after the acquisition of Thomas Nelson by HarperCollins, The Gideons were not able to negotiate a renewed licensing agreement to their tastes. 

Here is the lengthy copyright entry in the new Gideons ESV Bible (original source):



From the copyright notice:

The ESV Bible translation carries forward the historic stream of Bible translation in English exemplified especially by the King James Version (KJV) Bible of 1611 and subsequent literal Bible translations.  At the request of the The Gideons – and in appreciation for their worldwide, century-plus distribution of more than 1.8 billion Bibles – Crossway is pleased to grant permission to The Gideons to include certain alternative readings based on the Textus Receptus, for exclusive free distribution of a Gideons edition, as follows:  Bible translation of the New Testament into English and other languages are almost exclusively based on either (a) the Greek Textus Receptus manuscript tradition (which was the basis for the 1611 translation of the KJV Bible), or (b) the Greek NA-UBS manuscript corpus (which is the basis for almost all Bible translations completed since the late 1800s).  In some places in the New Testament of the ESV Gideons edition, as printed and distributed exclusively under license to the The Gideons International, the Gideons edition follows the Textus Receptus manuscript tradition, which corresponds in the vast majority of instances to the corpus of New Testament Greek manuscripts known among scholars today as the Majority Text.

One commentator compiled a list of changes made in the Gideons ESV.

I have to admit that Crossway has shown a fair amount flexibility with its ESV edition – allowing this adaptation, a version that includes apocryphal books (based on the RSV Apocrypha), and even considering at one point a set of modifications for the Catholic lectionary

While I am unable to recommend the ESV translation, I am fascinated by its evolution and change through this process.   I hope I can obtain one of these Gideon modified ESVs..

Killing an Attitude of Entitlement

February 28, 2014

This post is slightly irregular. Carolyn McCulley has mentioned that she may be closing down her blog, and I wanted to save this post of hers from July 2, 2007, The reason that I am copying this post is because so many people insist that I protest only the hard extremes of complementarianism. I want to use this as testimony to the fact that McCulley provides this interview for biblical teaching about this lifestyle. I don’t know how she wrote this without crying, without reading the despair and loss of humanity. I have said enough. But this is what I am protesting.

The series we began in January about the good goal of getting married lives on! Today, I’m pleased to feature an interview with xxxxx, the bride of xxxxxxx and new mother of xxxxx.The goal of these interviews is to help us think both biblically and realistically about marriage and what life is like when the honeymoon is over and the real living begins. I’ve been grateful for the women who have been willing to share their experiences and insights with us.

1. In what area were you the least prepared to be a wife? What would you have done differently as a single woman to prepare for this? Well…the only thing that comes to mind is that I would have spent more time cultivating a biblical view of myself as the “worst of sinners”…recognizing that I am constantly in need of God’s sanctifying grace, that I’m unable to change anything in my own strength, and that I’m never going to be finished with the business of being sanctified. Since becoming a wife, I am much more aware of my sinfulness and my need for a Savior on a daily basis. As a single person it was easy to minimize my sin or not even see certain sins being expressed, because most times there was no context that would squeeze it from me in the way that a marriage relationship does. Seeing my sin more specifically and frequently (and against this person whom I love more than any other!) both surprised me and tempted me to despair and condemnation. I realized that, at least in my life, condemnation and despair are evidences of a reverse type of pride: I would not be despairing unless I had believed myself to be above sinning in that way, and I would not feel condemned unless I were believing the lie that Christ’s sacrifice for me wasn’t enough, like God didn’t really know what he was doing in planning my redemption or that he didn’t know all the ways I was going to sin. Praise God that the grace that saves us is the same grace that leads us and helps us grow for the rest of our Christian lives!

2. What does being a helpmate look like in your marriage? This is a big question, so I can think of a few ways to answer it. Also, after writing out this response, I realized that I should qualify it by saying that I don’t do these things anywhere near faithfully or perfectly. So this is what a helpmate SHOULD look like in my marriage and what I aspire to do!
(1) Praying for him daily and caring for him biblically (pointing him to God) when he is struggling. Actively looking for ways to encourage him and thank him for evidences of grace. Refraining from criticism unless I have spent time in prayer about it and sense the Holy Spirit guiding me to bring it graciously, as an observation, at an appropriate time, and out of pure motives (love for him as opposed to how this will make my life easier or better).
(2) Responding to the priorities he has established in the realms of caring for the home, such as cooking, cleaning, food shopping, errands, and any other tasks he delegates to me. (Perhaps I should mention that in the first year of our marriage, while I was still working full-time, this looked a LOT different than it does now. At that time, the priorities he had for me were different and were realistic given the fact that I was juggling working outside the home with caring for the home.)
(3) In this season, it also means supporting him in the ministry team that he leads.
(4) Regularly sharing my “to do” list with him and asking him if anything should be removed or added, which items are his priorities for me to do, etc. Then, I should do whatever I can to serve him on a daily basis, even if it means that items I’d rather get done don’t get done.
(5) Providing companionship in ways that are meaningful to him. In our marriage this includes things like getting up early to have breakfast with him, not only so I can prepare it for him but also because he appreciates spending a little time with me in the morning. It also includes joyfully greeting him when he comes home at the end of the day, relaxing with him when he desires to relax together (even if my ‘to do’ list beckons), giving him my attention when he wants to talk (even if I am tempted to be distracted by something else).

3. What was the biggest surprise to you after marriage? I think I may have believed that submission, as biblically defined, would be easier than it actually is. I had such a desire to be married, to serve a godly husband, and to learn how to be a godly, submissive wife. So I guess perhaps I thought this strong desire would make me better at it. (Ha ha!) I never anticipated how many times we would disagree on small things, mostly matters of preference, and how I was not at all entitled to have my own way on these things just because they were small, or just because they fell under the category of home management, or for any other reason. (Just to give you an idea, I’m talking about dumb little things like how long to store an opened jar of spaghetti sauce in the fridge before it gets thrown away.) My husband might make a decision at times based on my input, but he’s not obligated to do this. This attitude of ‘entitlement’ to have my own way was probably the biggest thing I had to work to put to death early in our marriage. An important verse for me was Philippians 2:5-8: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” If my Savior, who was in the form of God, humbled himself, took the form of a servant, and obeyed to the point of death, how much more should I, as a weak, sinful person, be willing to humble myself and die to myself and my own preferences daily? I needed to learn to trust that God has sovereignly and lovingly placed me under my husband’s leadership, and that unless his decisions are leading me into sin, I can joyfully follow him knowing that ultimately the Lord has good for both of us in it. This is easier said than done when I think he’s making a poor decision or one that I don’t agree with – but even at those times, or especially at those times, it’s important for me to obey the Lord and submit to my husband. Sometimes, the Lord wants to teach him something through a mistake that he makes. More often, though, I find that he wants to humble me by showing me that what I thought was a mistake was really the path of wisdom!

4. How do you think single woman should pursue/prepare for marriage?
(1) Spend time with married couples or married ladies and ask them these kinds of questions! Also, once they know you well, ask them to tell you what they see in you as the areas where you could most grow in your preparedness for marriage. (Then, make a plan for growing in these areas.)
(2) Involve yourself with godly married couples or families whenever and however possible – this might be by living with them, or serving them by babysitting or other practical ways – not only for the purpose of getting to know them, which is great, but also to get a real-life vision for what God requires in marriage and how it is lived out on a daily basis. (You can also get their help in practical skills where you know you need to grow – whether it’s cooking, cleaning, budgeting, basic home improvement tasks, child care, or whatever other skills might serve your future marriage.)
(3) Practice humble, biblical self-assessment and conflict resolution. In particular, I would say, learn to recognize the sin of sinful judgment in your life. When you are tempted to judge someone, put Matthew 7:1-5 into practice and learn how to find the log that is in your own eye, regardless of how obvious and blatant the sin of others may appear to you. When you are in conflict with another person, be quick to humble yourself, confess your own sin without defending it or accusing them in the process, and ask their forgiveness. Be quick to forgive the other person (whether they ask for it or not) and then work on not keeping a record of their wrongs.
(4) Practice seeking the input of others on decisions ranging from small to large. Then, don’t just ignore it if it doesn’t agree with what you were inclined to decide, but humbly ask yourself if there is any wisdom for you in the counsel you are being given (especially if multiple people are giving you the same counsel!)
(5) Actively look for ways to serve the needs of others ahead of your own. Work to die to your own preferences whenever possible!
(6) Look for ways to encourage the men in your circle to lead. Don’t try to be the ‘leader’ in group situations where there are men present, even if those men might not be the strongest leaders you know. If you really feel like you have unique gifting appropriate for the situation, perhaps ask them what you can do to help, rather than just ‘taking charge’. It will help you to practice a peaceful and gentle spirit in preparation for what it looks like to submit in marriage, and it will encourage growth in their leadership.
(7) Read great books on the biblical role of a wife like Feminine Appeal, The Excellent Wife, The Fruit of Her Hands, and Reforming Marriage. Figure out which parts you can apply to your life as a single woman, and use them to get a realistic vision for what it will look like to be the kind of wife that God requires.
(8) Practice a consistent devotional life, characterized by lots of Scripture reading and application, humble self-evaluation, and prayer for others.

5. What is one thing about men you learned after marriage? I think I have learned, and am learning, that biblical leadership is just as hard for them as biblical submission is for us. (Just look at Genesis 3 – it’s because of the fall, in both cases!) I think I was tempted in the beginning to think that men have it easier than women because as leaders, they have the final say on decisions. But they bear a lot of responsibility in this regard. They are one day going to be held accountable before God for how they led their wife and family. Not to mention the fact that their leadership should be primarily characterized by sacrificial love. So, it isn’t enough for them to just be good decision-makers. God knows their hearts and sees when they are leading sacrificially versus when they are leading from self-interest. But my encouragement to them would be that God’s grace is ever-present and will meet any of them right where they are to help them grow. It really will! God is all about glorifying himself in this process of sanctifying men and making them good Biblical leaders. And furthermore, it is ultimately the shed blood of Jesus that makes them acceptable before God, not how many instances of sacrificial leadership they can point to in their lives.

Musical fraud

February 21, 2014

BLT co-blogger Victoria has published a brilliant interview about music and theology here; and I encourage you to read it.  I want to talk about an aesthetically simpler issue:  musical fraud.

I rarely watch television, and I don’t subscribe to cable, but I do have a Tivo box to record over-the-air television.  I’m about one week behind on watching the Sochi Olympics, and thus only last night did I watch Daisuke Takahashi’s free skate performance to the soundtrack of Mamoru Samuragochi’s Sonatina for Violin.  When I saw it I was outraged.  I was outraged because Samuragochi is a fraud.


Mamoru Samuragochi’s claim to fame is that he has been a brilliant Japanese classical composer who is deaf.  However, we now know that there are three problems with that claim:

  1. Samuragochi did not compose the musical works attributed to him.

    Takashi Niigaki composed Sonatina, for example:  “Niigaki said he created the pieces based on Samuragochi’s instructions and images. He said Samuragochi is incapable of penning his own scores.”

    And in fact, in an apparent publicity stunt, the piece was “composed” for a violinist with an artificial arm:  “the most calculated part of the story involves Mikkun — Miku Okubo, the teenage violinist for whom Samuragochi ‘wrote’ the Sonatina, which went on to sell more than 100,000 CDs. While Mikkun had already been noticed by the media because of her artificial bowing arm, Samuragochi’s attentions have made her even more famous. Niigaki suggests it was he who told Samuragochi about her, since Niigaki had been her accompanist when she was a little girl and he was close to her family.”

  2. Samuragochi apparently has normal hearing. 

    Niigaki said that “that he never felt that Samuragochi was deaf and that he carried on normal conversations with him. He explained that he often composed melody fragments based on ideas provided by Samuragochi, played them on the piano and recorded them. He then let Samuragochi listen to them and choose from among them, then he composed a bigger piece based on the chosen melodies.”

    From another story:  “many of the elements that contributed to his story sound as if they were engineered to make it more affecting. In an article he wrote for Shukan Bunshun, Norio Kamiyama describes how once Samuragochi became a public figure, he always wore black, as if in mourning, and sunglasses, because bright lights made his ears ring. He walked with a cane, and his left hand was bound with tape because he suffered from tendonitis. As for the deafness that earned him the sobriquet ‘the Japanese Beethoven,’ it developed late in life, which meant he could speak with ‘normal’ pronunciation but tended to use a sign-language interpreter during interviews. Last week, Samuragochi admitted his hearing ‘returned’ three years ago.”

  3. Samuragochi is not brilliant.

    One summary:  “Though a number of critics have said, mainly in hindsight, that Samuragochi’s most famous work, the 80-minute Hiroshima Symphony, is basically an amateurish Mahler pastiche, it has sold more than 180,000 CDs, impressive even for an established artist.”

Now, this is absolutely craven.  Can there really be any doubt that any number of people were in on the con?  Here, a classical “composer” was given the “J-Idol” treatment.  We are used to this in Japanese pop music – cute but talentless adolescents being presented as “the next big thing” when their sole contribution to music may simply be lip synching (of course, this happens in Western pop music too, as any Milli Vanilli fan knows.)  But who could imagine that this would happen in classical music.

The degree of calculation here is just absurd:  we do, in fact, celebrate Beethoven’s late compositions  – not because he was deaf, but because he was a brilliant composer.  We do study Leonhard Euler’s mathematics – not because he was blind, but because his mathematics is particularly important and relevant.  We do read William H. Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico and History of the Conquest of Peru – not because he was blind, but because of his brilliant writing and research abilities.  Beethoven, Euler, and Prescott became greats not because of their disabilities (and certainly not because they faked their disabilities) but because of the quality of their work. 

But apparently, in Japan, it is acceptable to take such a low view of the human condition that disabilities – real or faked – simply become marketing opportunities.

A Music Theologian Engages with Pope Francis’ Favorite Music:  An Interview with Dirk von der Horst

February 15, 2014

In December I finally got around to reading the papal interview, and I was very intrigued by the section in which he talked about his favorite music. I didn’t know the pieces he mentioned, though, and I found myself wondering how his musical tastes were reflected in his theology, or vice versa. I immediately thought of asking my friend Dirk, who wrote his dissertation on early modern English musical treatments of David’s lament over Jonathan and the historicity of gay theology. He graciously agreed to be interviewed on the topic for the blog, and to answer any followup questions in the comments.

What’s a music theologian, you ask? Well, so did I:

So, you’re a theologian of music: what does that mean, exactly?
The first task of a theologian of music is to recognize the integrity and relative autonomy of musical ways of making meaning. Often, theology treats music as “a servant of the Word,” an understanding which reduces the richness of the concept of logos in the Gospel of John to mere verbal expression. If we think of logos as including the idea of pattern and not simply speech, music can be a manifestation of the Word, and not simply “serve” it. And if we look at the extent to which anxiety about music not serving the Word is a manifestation of concerns about the mind/body relationship, taking music seriously on its own terms is a way of resisting the dualisms that keep creeping back into Western spirituality. In this regard, I’m not so much a theologian of music, but a queer/feminist theologian who uses music to bring Word to flesh.

I’m especially interested in how music actively shapes and reshapes possibilities of Biblical interpretation – in this regard, my interest in music’s power to signify on its own terms meets up with a very Protestant Bibliocentricism. But I’m not simply interested in how music can reflect the Biblical text; I want to hear how it can make the text say something new, how different musical approaches to the same Biblical text make clear how opposed political and religious ideologies can find justification in the same Biblical text, how music can go against the grain of a Biblical insight and even resist it. It is precisely because music can make meaning in its own ways that it can be a partner to the most verbal and narrative dimensions of the Word, and not simply a servant to them.

Finally, theology of music involves an ethical critique of music itself. Just as language can be used to express helpful and hurtful messages, so can music. One of the great philosophers of music, Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), explored various ways in which music mediated dehumanizing ideologies. I’ve noticed a backlash against his thought in the last ten years, and most contemporary theologians of music seem eager to distance themselves from his Marxism and negative dialectics. Adorno, however, was as critical of secular reason as he was of religious justifications of oppression. There’s still room for a musico-religious engagement with Adorno’s legacy. And from a Biblical perspective, the explicit denunciation of liturgical music as covering up injustice in Amos 5:21-24 and the more metaphorical critique of musical sound devoid of love in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 mandate that a spirituality of music not be divorced from struggles for a just society and the beloved community.

How did you end up in that field? Are you a musician or composer yourself?

I started playing violin when I was seven and switched to viola in high school. In high school, I composed incidental music for productions of the plays “The Zoo Story” and “The Elephant Man.” I was very much drawn to composition in high school and took some classes in college, but it wasn’t an interest that I was able to sustain with the necessary devotion to do it as my life work. I’m not sure why that’s the case. I majored in viola performance in college, still unsure of where I wanted my life to go. College was also the time that I moved from having a life-long interest in religion to actively participating in religious communities – first with a Mennonite church, then moving to a United Methodist congregation. I later moved over to the Quakers, which is my worship community now.

Early in my college years, I read the radical feminist theology of Mary Daly, came out as a gay man, and became active in Latin American solidarity groups, which challenged my pacifism. These three developments spurred me to reflect deeply on my religious commitments and that reflection was the beginning of my theological career. I had a hard time integrating music into my theological reflections until I came across the musicological work of Susan McClary and Carl Dahlhaus, who gave me the conceptual tools to put my religious and musical interests together. After college, I stopped playing the viola and have not composed; once I got involved in political activism, I found the world of classical musicians alienating. It seemed cut off from the struggles and suffering of the world, and I had trouble seeing its relevance. I also craved more explicit conceptual engagement with music than I found in the practice room. Again, Adorno and McClary were really the main voices that helped me link my political and conceptual passions with my love for music. I should stress that even as I found the world of classical music alienating, it’s something I can’t imagine not being in my life. My main interaction with music at this point is as a listener. When the opportunity arises, I still teach beginning violin or viola, which is a real joy.

What else informs your theology?

I’d say the theologians to whom I’m most indebted are the Roman Catholic feminists Rosemary Radford Ruether and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. They both combine a deep sensitivity to the dynamics of historical change and relativity with firm ethical commitments to contemporary social struggles and what we now call an intersectional approach to feminism. They also provide good tools for thinking of the Bible as an important resource, but not an exclusivist one. I’ve had a long interest in religious pluralism and comparative approaches – Buddhist meditation in particular has been a source that has shifted some of my assumptions about how theology should work. For example, its non-dual approach to thought exposed the sterility of the theism/atheism debate for me a long time ago: Buddhist thought sees every opposition as a kind of illusion – in this light it just makes no sense to argue in the terms set out by attacks on and defenses of the existence of God. I can relax into the paradoxes of faith without getting too worked up over logical rabbit holes. The relational thought of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and the lesbian Episcopal priest Carter Heyward has also been a major strand in my theological work; Heyward in particular has a vibrancy that is unrivaled.

Of late, I’ve renewed my love for the thought of H. Richard Niebuhr, who shares Ruether’s and Schüssler Fiorenza’s emphasis on historical change, but does so with a more explicitly theocentric focus typical of the Reformed Protestant tradition. He also anticipated many developments in religion-science debates – such as the development of neurotheology – and he’s my main inspiration in some of my newer interests in theological engagement with science. Francis mentions his love of Michel de Certeau, and there’s some similar emphases on historicism in his thought as there is in the writers I’m drawn to.

At the end of the section of the papal interview titled “Must we be optimistic?” Pope Francis talks about hope in the context of Hebrews 11, Paul’s letter to the Romans, and… the first riddle of Puccini’s opera “Turandot.” As a theologian of music, how do you read that musical piece in this context? Can you connect the dots for us between those three texts?

We have to go back to the papal interview itself to see the thread he uses to weave these three texts together. He precedes the discussion of hope with a lengthy discussion of how we discern God, not in an “empirical eureka,” but in a spiritual sensitivity to God as initiating processes. So, the entire Epistle to the Hebrews, especially the eleventh chapter, describes how faith is inextricable from the processes of history, and the changes of history. It opens with a statement of radical historical change, “In times past, God spoke in fragmentary and varied ways to our ancestors through the prophets, in these final days God has spoken to us through the Only Begotten.” (Heb. 1:1 – Priests for Equality translation). The eleventh chapter continues this line of thought by narrating the concrete history of faith. Romans speaks to the challenges to hope in the present – nakedness, persecution, sword – and holds out in a hope for a redeemed world that will make those challenges seem like nothing. So, to speak of hope is intrinsically related to any kind of spiritual discernment because Biblical faith is always faith in a historical process with deep interrelations between past, present, and future.

Francis and the interviewer hone in on the riddle from Turandot and the interviewer even recounts the lines:

At that moment I recalled more or less by heart the verses of the riddle of the princess in that opera, to which the solution is hope:
“In the gloomy night flies an iridescent ghost.
It rises and opens its wings
on the infinite black humanity.
The whole world invokes it
and the whole world implores it.
But the ghost disappears with the dawn
to be reborn in the heart.
And every night it is born
and every day it dies!”

What I want to suggest for a moment is that the fact that Francis remembers a riddle from an opera is significant because music teaches us so much about ways we can experience interconnections between past, present, and future. Music compresses processes of expectation and recollection so that we have models of large scale change, but we can experience them over the course of anywhere from five minutes to five hours. So, it’s not just significant that the riddle in Turandot gives an especially poetic expression of what it’s like to hope, but it embeds that expression in a specific musical structuring of time that models a particular way of moving through time.

Here is a performance of the riddle scene with Placido Domingo:

But the riddle in Turandot is part of a larger plot. As much as I love the opera, the Turandot example is extremely problematic in this context. The plot of Turandot is that of Calaf, an unknown prince, who solves various riddles and wins the hand of Queen Turandot – who has those suitors who can not solve the riddles executed. Turandot, however, makes the riddles a condition of courtship to memorialize the violation of a previous queen, who was abducted, probably raped, and killed. The opera spells out the defeat of a strategy of women’s solidarity through the triumph of what Adrienne Rich called “compulsory heterosexuality.” Hope in the context of the opera erases what the Catholic political theologian Johann Baptist Metz called “dangerous memory,” the memorialization of suffering that keeps us asking critical questions and looking for deeper forms of solidarity.

Turandot narrates the story of her predecessor in the aria “In questa reggia” before Calaf solves the riddles.

In the next section, “Art and Creativity”, Pope Francis identifies Mozart as one of his favorite composers, “of course,” and particularly praises the “Et incarnatus est” from his Mass in C minor. Tell us about that piece.

The C-minor mass is an unfinished work, which Mozart composed in 1784 to celebrate his engagement. You can hear the “Et incarnatus est” here:

Mozart does something very different in his setting of this text than do the Renaissance composers I’m more at home with. Where they stop playing with intricate polyphonic textures to set the words “et incarnatus est et homo factus est” in a more declamatory style, Mozart plays with a lot of polyphony. For an example of the contrast, listen to the Credo from the Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis by Clement non Papa (1510/15-1555/6).

Both Mozart and Clement non Papa are able to achieve breathtakingly beautiful results in their music, but what “et incarnatus est” means is something different in each case. In Clement’s case, incarnation is a moment where movement slows down, becomes more solid. But what’s intriguing about this moment in Mozart’s setting is the way it envisions the incarnation as an ongoing process – the text is clearly in the plain past tense, but Mozart’s music lingers on this phrase and makes it go on and on and on, and repeats it. So, in contrast to Clement, in Mozart’s case, incarnation is a moment where movement keeps flowing.

Historically, there have been moments where churches have tried to force choices between one kind of music and another, but one thing that’s nice about reflecting on music now is that these different versions don’t make us rush to choose between one meaning and another in the same way that trying to hammer down a doctrine in language tends to do. In this sense, musical engagement with religious texts can teach us the kind of suppleness in relation to doctrine that Francis gestures toward in his discussion of the church as a field hospital. Both musical versions affirm the same doctrine – but they do something very different with it according to the conventions and culture with which they affirm it.

Francis says, the music of the “et incarnatus est” “lifts you to God!” I hear the music moving in the other direction – it is more a sensation of the Spirit wafting down to meet us.

He also says, “But I cannot think about his music; I have to listen to it.” What do you think he means by that?

I have a few very different reactions to that statement, so I’ll unpack some ranges of meaning implicit in it – but I won’t pretend to know what Francis means by it. And – I should admit that I keep finding myself defaulting to hearing the statement in relation to music in general, whereas Francis is specifically referencing Mozart. So, that’s a layer I’d want to think about further.

First, it strikes me as a queer sentiment. This response should strike readers as strange – that’s part of the nature of the concept “queer,” which has as much to do with ways of transgressing normalcy as it does with sexual identities. Still, my response here isn’t suggesting that Francis is queer, but rather that there’s an opening in his response for deep dialogue with queer perspectives. My reaction here comes out of conversations within musicology and music theory: two of my teachers have had a particularly strong impact on my thinking here. The music theorist Fred Maus has done an exemplary job of showing how certain kinds of “thinking about” music have to do with maintaining a masculine subjectivity through control over music. In his analysis of music theorists’ rhetoric he finds underlying and connected misogynistic and erotophobic assumptions. Instead of letting oneself be seduced and overpowered by music, music theorists have found ways of perceiving music in ways that emphasize the ability to be the master of the sounds that one finds seductive. In a complementary perspective, Suzanne Cusick describes a lesbian relation with music as one in which refusing the kind of control over music that music theorists often seek manifests a way of being that is an escape from the entire patriarchal system exerts control over women’s lives.

The kind of straight masculinity that Maus and Cusick resist is also a very secular subjectivity. Just as musicologists and music theorists find ways to avoid the kind of openness to musical sensuality that motivates their work, that kind of closing off to openness is definitive of secular identity: the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor makes a basic distinction between a traditional “porous” self and a secular “bounded” self in his analysis of modern secularism. Recently, the musicologist Karol Berger has made the secular commitments of much music history and theory explicit in his study of the transition from Bach, whom Berger sees as representative of a theological mindset, and Mozart, whom he sees as a representative of the modernity of the bounded self. Francis’s exclamation that Mozart’s music “lifts him to God” resists the narrative Berger wants to tell, and I’m happy to see that resistance. So, in both in relation to sexual and spiritual experience, I hear the bracketing of “thinking” in relation to listening as a kind of maintaining openness.

Of course, musical experience is different than other kinds of experience, and listening engages us in a different way than thinking does. Music’s ability to reach into an ineffable dimension is one of its greatest pleasures. There’s a way that deep listening brings us into a kind of insight that can underlie the things we can say about music technically, but shifts our perception so profoundly that we’re aware of how inadequate language can be when trying to explain what is going on in the music and our experience of it. This aspect of music is key to the connection of music and spirituality. The “Et incarnatus est” manifests this aspect of music superbly.

From a very different angle, the statement makes me somewhat nervous because there is so much misperception among people that music is something we experience in a way that bypasses cultural conditioning and the discursive aspects of experience. The canard “music is the universal language” often is a short-hand way of expressing the illusion that musical experience is strictly extra-linguistic and not culturally conditioned. A wide body of ethnomusicology and many studies in music perception have laid that idea to rest – there is absolutely no way we experience music unmediated by cultural and linguistic conditioning.

A contrast between a lot of classical music and Gospel will provide one blunt example of the fact that we always experience music through cultural and discursive lenses. Classical music often works with the idea of the return to the tonic, moving back to the home key, which creates a sense of stability. But in Gospel music, the return to the tonic would signify a let-down, rather than stability. If you want to hear the contrast, a good example of “returning to the tonic” is Cat Stevens’ “Morning Has Broken,” in which he sings melody twice in the tonic key, moves to another key, and returns to the tonic for the fourth verse. What you want to listen for is the chord that gives a feeling of stability right before the final verse in the home key:

In contrast, listen to Gospel singer Hezekiah Walker keep going to higher keys (whenever he says “take me a little bit higher”), where the idea is to illustrate being lifted without going back down.

In classical music, the return to the tonic creates a kind of closure that gets us to a sense that the music itself is a self-contained world like a Platonic form to be contemplated; in Gospel music the continual pressing upward emphasizes redemption as going to heaven, of which the musical experience gives the singers and hearers a foretaste.

There’s one example of how sounds don’t just mean something by virtue of being sounds, but need various conventions for us to make sense of them. Of course, the raw experience of music is valuable, but the rawness of such experience is in some important ways illusory. Because of the power of this illusion, when “listening” and “thinking” are placed in such stark opposition, there’s a real danger of reinforcing some bad assumptions about how music works.

So, that one little sentence has many layers.

What might you infer about his theology, based on the music and performances that he mentions here?

It’s hard to just get a list of musical pieces and composers and infer something about someone’s theology because a list of pieces tells me nothing about the listening strategies someone brings to those pieces. The same instance of music can mean very different things to people depending on what their listening habits will clue them into. A very blunt example: I was listening to Mahler at a friend’s house when his roommate walked in and said, “Oh, you’re relaxing.” Here the strategy is simply to follow an expectation that classical music is relaxing – amply attested to by oodles of recordings of classical music compilations for the purpose of inducing relaxation – and Mahler equals relaxing. Now, “relaxing” is the last thing on my mind when I listen to Mahler. The musicologist Raymond Knapp, who describes a movement from Mahler’s Second Symphony as an analogue to the psychological horror movie, Sybil, hears Mahler on even more distressing terms than I do. So, the statement that Mahler’s music was “relaxing” revealed a completely different listening strategy than the one I was bringing to it.

The differences can also happen at different registers; for example, one listener paying more attention to harmony may get a completely different sense of what’s happening in music than another listener who is focusing on what happens rhythmically. So, it’s impossible for me to infer much about Francis’s theology from a list of works, though his inclusion of performers does help limit the range of possibilities. I could analyze the works he mentions in their historical context or unpack my reactions to them, but that would tell me nothing about what theological messages Francis is drawing from them. Readers can draw their own theological conclusions from the music by listening to the various examples he mentions:

Clara Haskil playing a Mozart piano sonata:

Furtwängler conducting the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Here’s Christa Ludwig singing “Erbarme dich, Jesu” from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion – I chose a performance along the lines of the performances Francis mentions elsewhere:

But, one thing that stands out is that he talks exclusively about music from the era of what we used to call “common practice tonality” – European music written between 1700 and 1900. Music in the nineteenth century, especially, often fostered a kind of contemplative practice that fits well with the contemplative emphasis in the interview. The classical music tradition is my home base, as well – it’s what I was raised on and what I gravitated to as a child. What I would suggest, however, is that the classical music tradition has a narrative and way of forming subjectivity that can be idolatrous in its own way. I’ve had to spend many years unlearning an affirmation of Arnold Schoenberg’s notions of musical progress as a practical object of faith. So, when I hear Francis speak of the arts, I hear a kind of narrowness of reference. To be sure, there’s tremendous depth in the classical tradition and I affirm that, but there’s a danger of falling into a “Christ of Culture” approach if that tradition isn’t relativized by other forms of musicking.

Given what he likes, what pieces or performances might you suggest to him that he might like, that he might not normally encounter?

The music he describes all falls in the notion of “serious” music, a prominent element of the nineteenth-century classical tradition that sets the basic parameters of his musical experience. If I were to recommend one new composer along these lines, it would be the contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Here’s his setting of Psalm 130:

There’s a small gem by Brahms, the Intermezzo Op. 119 #3, that has always suggested to me the kind of freedom that I anticipate as a quality of redemption. It’s very gentle, somewhat playful, and very non-aggressive:

What music might you suggest that would complement, challenge, or invite him to stretch theologically?

First, let me stress that as a Quaker and someone who identifies broadly with the Protestant tradition, I’m aware that an intra-Catholic conversation is a very different matter than an ecumenical conversation. As a non-Catholic, I respect the real limits as to how I can ask Francis to stretch theologically. Nevertheless, as a gay theologian, it’s clear to me that there’s still a gap between Francis’s willingness to listen to LGBT people and the current state of Catholic teaching on the matter. Where Francis’s listening will lead is an open question at this point, but there’s a real difference between treating LGBT people with sensitive pastoral care (which I think Francis is doing admirably) and learning from advances in queer theology (I have no idea where he is in relation to this step). For a Catholic lesbian-feminist perspective, I’d direct readers to Mary Hunt’s recent reflection on the papacy at Religion Dispatches.

So, I’ll continue with queer musicology, as I’ve already touched on some of its insights. Before I’d ask Francis to listen to any new music, I’d ask him to read Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology, so he can get a sense of how our musical desires work, how we articulate our own needs, what we have to offer in insight to the conversation about music.

One advantage to starting with that book is to broaden a perspective on musical agency. I’ve already talked a bit about paying attention to what listeners do when they listen, and how that subverts the idea that the composer makes all of the meaning. Queer musicology has been one significant force in broadening our understanding of who makes musical meaning – it has drawn special attention to the roles of listeners and performers in music’s signifying processes. Francis gives both performers and composers their due in his interview – so in a way he’s already moved beyond the “works-centered” approach of classical music, which treats the “musical work,” the composer’s product, as paramount. Of course, one of the projects of queer musicology is to get composers out of the closet, so I’ll draw attention to one composer in particular here: Dame Ethyl Smyth (1858-1944): Her Mass in D, dedicated to her friend Pauline Trevelyan, was first performed in 1893. The Credo starts at minute 9:32 in this recording:

What I’d want to draw special attention to in Smyth’s handling of the et incarnatus est section is the way she makes the phrase blossom on the words “Maria virgine.” Heard in light of her lesbian desires and efforts for women’s suffrage, Smyth uses the text of the Credo to find an opportunity to emphasize the woman-centered perspective that informed all of her output. The musicologist Elizabeth Wood hears in the fugue in the et vitam venturi saeculi section a return to a way in which Smyth used fugues throughout her life to code lesbian desire. Wood postulates that by turning to a fugue in the expression of hope for future eternal life, Smyth may have been expressing a wish for reconciliation with her former lover Lisl Herzogenberg.

Keeping with the project of fighting the erasure of women’s voices from the historical record, I’ll also highlight a very different composer, Chiara Margarita Cozzolani (1602-1677), a Benedictine nun. Here’s her version of the “Dixit Dominus.”

Another direction in which I’d be interested to see Francis’s musical experience grow is in relation to music that more explicitly reflects the experiences of the Latin American poor that inspire much of Francis’s emphasis on social teachings.

When I was involved in Latin American solidarity efforts in college, one of the singers who was particularly popular was the Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez. I didn’t fully appreciate his music at the time, but his craft is solid and he carries a revolutionary ethic forward. One of his more popular songs is “Playa Giron”:

In this collaboration between Holly Near and the Peruvian group Inti-Illimani, two parts of my life come together as a lesbian icon sings with a Latin American group:

And I’ll close with a bit from music from a mass celebrating the spirituality of Brazil’s poor, a collaboration between Bishop Pedro Casaldaliga and the Brazilian musician Milton Nasciamento, the Missa dos Quilombos, recorded in Brazil in 1981:

Thank you very much, Dirk! This has been fascinating – you’ve really given us a lot of depth here. I’ve learned a lot, and I’m sure our readers have too.

Dirk von der Horst is a Visiting Scholar at Graduate Theological Union. He earned his doctorate in Theology, Ethics, and Culture from Claremont Graduate University. He is a co-editor of Voices of Feminist Liberation: Writings in Celebration of Rosemary Radford Ruether and contributed an essay on gender identity in relation to the music of Yes to Progressive Rock Reconsidered.

You can ask him more about the music in the papal interview and the other pieces he’s discussed by posting a comment here, and follow him on Twitter @DirkvonderHorst.

Crossposted from Gaudete Theology.

Do Jews have anything to say about the Catholic canon?

February 13, 2014

In an interesting pair of comments to a post on Tim McCormick’s bog Catholic Bible, active commenter CJA Mayo observed

The canon is closed, and can not be re-opened. The Jews lost their stewardship of the old revelation around the time the NT canon was completed (if not recognized as closed) — to use an infamous saying of Justin the Martyr’s, speaking to Trypho, his Jewish interlocutor: "Not your scriptures, but our scriptures." [Chapter 29] […] As the early Christian church had no competence to define (for lack of a better word — the canon is not defined, it is recognized: and it was left to the Jews to recognize the OT canon) the OT canon, the Jews had no competence to affect the NT canon. And so on.[…]

The Jews can’t change their canon now, not in a way that affects Christians, because the OT canon was transferred to the care of the "New Israel" after the close of NT revelation.[…]

Now in a very real sense, I agree with him.  Each religion defines its own canon.  You and I might consider The Book of Mormon to be 19th century cultist writings in pastiche of the KJV, but to a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, The Book of Mormon is sacred scripture.  

And further, the Roman Church has an Old Testament Canon distinct from the Hebrew Scriptures – the Roman Church has a Deuterocanon considered to be apocryphal by Jews (and even its own Catholic apocyrpha in an appendix to the Vulgate.)  We are fortunate to have ecumenical scholarly translations such as the RSV, NRSV, NETS and the OTP (the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha – recently expanded) which present these texts.

Finally, the Christian churches do not generally accept the body of greater rabbinic “Torah writings” (including the Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, and medieval writings).  Christians may study Rabbinic “Torah” writings for historical insights, but regardless of the degree of reverence granted to these writings by Judaism, they are most definitely not regarded as scriptural by most Christians.

But yet, it seems to me that the Hebrew Scriptures are in a different category.  Jews guarded these texts with care, and this carries weight in the Christian churches.  Thus, for those books in the Hebrew Scriptures, Divino Afflante Spiritu gives primacy to the Hebrew version (and this is subsequently clarified in later Vatican writings to include consultation of the Septuagints).  In practice, this means that translations tend to be based largely on the Masoretic texts of the 9th-11th centuries; even though these versions were under Jewish stewardship (as opposed to the Septuagints, which are sometimes available in more ancient forms and were under Christian citizenship).  The reasoning, as I understand it, is that even though the Masoretic text is much later and under Jewish control, it is generally acknowledged that Jews have been careful custodians of their sacred texts and thus the Masoretic text is generally considered to be less corrupt than a translation from the Masoretic text.  (There are clearly some exceptions to this rule – there are places where the Masoretic text appears corrupt or incomprehensible – but overall, the Masoretic text carries the day.)

Now to be fair to CJA Mayo, I do not think he was necessarily making any statement about text critical issues, but rather he here restrictied his statements to the question of the list of books included in the canon.  Nonetheless, it is fascinating to me that despite the centuries of animosity between Judaism and Christianity, there is still is a degree to which contemporary Christianity sometimes relies on post-Common Era Jewish scholarship.  (A notable exception to this rule, of course, is the practice of certain Eastern Churches to solely rely on particular Septuagint texts in the suspicion that Jewish texts may be seriously corrupt. )


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