Feeds:
Posts
Comments

The alt-right seeks an account of what we are meant to be and serve as a people, invoking race as an emergency replacement for our fraying civic bonds. It is not alone; identity politics on the left is a response to the same erosion of belonging. But race is a modern category, and lacks theological roots. Nation, however, is biblical. In the Book of Acts, St. Paul tells his Gentile listeners, ‘God has made all the nations [ethnos].’ The Bible speaks often of God’s creation, judgment, and redemption of the nations. In Christ there is no Gentile or Jew, yet God calls us into his life not only as individuals but as members of communities for which we are responsible.

Today there are bespoke theologies for most every identity in American life. Meanwhile, we lack a compelling civic theology for the twenty-first century—a theology of the nation, not for the nation. In its absence the alt-right will continue to grow. Young men like Dan need the gospel. But they also need an account of nationhood that teaches them about their past, without making them fear the future; an account of civic life that opens them to transcendence, rather than closing them to their neighbors. In his last book, Memory and Identity, John Paul II reflected movingly on the Christian meaning of our earthly homelands. He denied that Christians have no ‘native land’ in this life and defended the nation as a natural community. Against those seeking a post-national world, he urged Western nations to preserve their languages, histories, and religious traditions. The ‘spiritual  self-defense’ of our homelands, he wrote, is part of our moral obligation, commanded by God, to honor our fathers and mothers.

A nation will become an idol, however, if its cultural inheritance is not oriented toward, and inwardly transformed by, a divine inheritance. ‘The inheritance we received from Christ,’ the late pope argued, ‘orients the patrimony of human native lands and cultures towards an eternal home land.’ The church midwifed many nations into existence, and it can renew their cultures still. For now it must suffice to say the alt-right cannot. It speaks of tradition, while transmitting no traditions. It guards a false patrimony, while destroying real ones. Its mistake is fundamental and tragic. Race offers no inheritance, and its mere preservation reflects no human achievement. Our stories, art, music, institutions, and religious traditions—unlike race—are transmitted only through special efforts of human intelligence and love. They are a bequest of the spirit, not blood.

The alt-right speaks a seductive language. Where liberalism offers security and comfort, the alt-right promises sacrifice and conflict. Although the struggle its intellectuals and activists envision is imaginary, it does not matter: Theirs is a sounder view of human needs. Human beings desire more than small pleasures in the routines of life. We also seek great challenges in the face of d death. And here Christianity speaks another, more necessary, and no less demanding language. ‘When Christ calls a man,’ wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘he bids him come and die,’ and in dying, to receive true life. For Christians, the problem with Faustian man is not the vaunting heroism of his aims. It is the pitiable smallness of his goals. We are not meant to merely aspire to the infinite. We are called to participate in it—to be, in a word, deified. Faust could not overcome death. Through Christ, Christians already have.

— Matthew Rose, ‘The Anti-Christian Alt-Right’ in First Things (March 2018)

Advertisements

Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, narrated sparely in this Audible Books version by Jill Masters, is nearly too sad for the bearing.

Hardy sees into the human heart with an eye for our folly that is Dickensian in its penetration. He turns that gaze on his invented rural ‘Wessex’, picking up the peregrinations of a pure young woman whose every turn is stalked by shadow.

51YknL-DqWL._SL500_

In the end, sixteen hours into drive time peppered with this listener’s audible gasps at each stunning turn, Tess becomes the victim of all that is artifice, class, and convention. In Jill Masters’ narration there is not a note of melodrama. She tells her tale with the same unflinching resignation that is Tess Durbeyfield, then Tess D’Urberville, then Tess a martyr to layers of unkindness that become in the aggregate a murderous and murdering weight.

An absolutely heart-ache of a listen, impossible to forget, incapable of abbreviation. There is no shortcut to the conclusion of Hardy’s most signature work. It takes sixteen hours to get there. Listen.

There is more than one way to tell the story of the battle for Hue, an awful battle in an awful year of an awful war.

51jmtuMP+eL._SL175_Mark Bowden’s Hue, narrated huskily by Joe Barrett with a voice that was created for this story, tells of Hue with the unrelenting insistence of tragedy. The author has distinguished himself as the author of military histories that bulge with empathy for all players. Hue is no exception, in fact this work may fairly be considered Bowden’s calling card.

Though there are villains aplenty in Bowden’s tale, General William Westmoreland stands head and shoulders above them all for sheer self-delusion and defiance of evidence from the field. As a result of Westie’s pig-headed refusal to accept that Hue was a real battle waged by a determined enemy with truly threatening capabilities, Hue took the lives of more American Marines, more ARVN troops, more Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars, and more civilians who had called the graceful provincial capital their home than any reasonable calculus demanded. This at least is Bowden’s story, told unforgivably and with due note of the pathos that clings to almost every anecdote of this three-and-a-half week conflagration.

Joe Barrett is a superb narrator of a tale that demands both the pathos and the incredulity that his voice brings to its task. Bowden has not majored on the loss of faith in the war that Hue nourished back home in America. His concern is for the grunt, for the Front volunteer, and for the civilian whose family has perished under American bombardment or the vicious Viet Cong/NVA purging. The author unfailingly tells his military tales from the ground up, piecing together the larger picture only when concrete human experience on the ground has been sufficiently honored. Barrett is his accomplice, riveting the listener’s attention on the sheer nonsensical agony of it all. Still, all that this tragedy would mean for American involvement in the war is but a stone’s throw away, as Bowden’s slightly a-kilter subtitle suggests.

There are, as I’ve noted, other ways to tell the story of Hue, 1968, some more sympathetic to Westmoreland and his ‘MACV’. But if you appreciate a well-told audio book where author and narrator work hand-in-glove, begin here.

 

 

After exploring idolatry’s irony in chapter 45 around the issue of shaping and forming, the prophet again trains his sardonic firepower on idolaters in chapter 46. This time his sarcasm needles the makers of idols via the metaphors of lifting and carrying. Behind each of the two images lies the wearying nature of making and worshipping one’s own gods, on the one hand, and YHWH’s tireless lifting up and bearing around of his daughters and sons, on the other.

I quote the short chapter in full, below. The speaker is presumed to be YHWH throughout. I have attempted to highlight in italics the chapter’s references to the wearisome burden-bearing that depletes idolators, idols, and even the gods those idols purport to represent. ‘Bowing down’ and ‘stooping’ are best understood as the collapse of persons subjected to a forced march. The exhaustion spreads to the unfortunate animals that are doomed to carry heavy idols around, though in the broader Isaianic irony these innocent beasts of burden are more perceptive than foolish Judahites.

On the other hand, I have highlighted with underlining those references that denote or allude to YHWH’s lifting and carrying of his people. Note that even the clause ‘and will save’ at the end of the second paragraph quoted must be read as a lifting-and-carrying reference because the verb (מלט) is the same word used in the first paragraph’s ‘they cannot save the burden’ (לא יכלו מלט משא) rather than the more conventional biblical language of salvation.

Bel bows down; Nebo stoops; their idols are on beasts and livestock; these things you carry are borne as burdens on weary beasts. They stoop; they bow down together; they cannot save the burden, but themselves go into captivity.

Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from before your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.

To whom will you liken me and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be alike? Those who lavish gold from the purse, and weigh out silver in the scales, hire a goldsmith, and he makes it into a god; then they fall down and worship! They lift it to their shoulders, they carry it, they set it in its place, and it stands there; it cannot move from its place. If one cries to it, it does not answer or save him from his trouble.

Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.

Listen to me, you stubborn of heart, you who are far from righteousness: I bring near my righteousness; it is not far off, and my salvation will not delay; I will put salvation in Zion, for Israel my glory. (Isaiah 46:1–13 ESV)

The prophet presents Judah with a world in which folly and wisdom represent a carry-or-be-carried choice. Worshipping what one has created is not empowering, we are told. Just the opposite, it saps the life from everyone and everything. It is simply exhausting.

Finding oneself enveloped in YHWH’s redemptive purpose, on the other hand, is likened to the experience of being lifted up and carried to a worthwhile destiny rather than carried off into exile.

One thinks here of Jesus’ famous claim in the eleventh chapter of the gospel of Matthew.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28–30 ESV)

Though I am not aware of convincing evidence the Jesus purposely alludes to Isaiah 46, the rhetoric is strikingly similar both in intent and in means.

In Isaiah, prophetic sarcasm deploys emotional violence to clarify the consequences of idolatrous piety vs. confidence in YHWH. In Matthew, Jesus extends an invitation to abandon wearisome labor and to find rest under—ironically—a ‘burden’ of discipleship that he rests lightly upon human shoulders.

As with so many other things, neither religion nor work nor rest are necessarily what they appear on the surface of things to be.

 

 

Readers of this blog will be familiar with Isaianic irony. The work of Israelite prophecy that we abbreviate as The Book of Isaiah does not instruct only with straight-forward words. Rather, its artistry drives its message home with relentless subtlety, some of which is inevitably lost when the book’s soulful poetry is translated into English or another modern language.

Nowhere is the subtlety more powerfully deployed than in the prophet’s anti-idolatry polemic. He finds the veneration of idols not only enslaving, but also astonishingly stupid. Idolatry, he insists, is a religious practice that wearies rather than invigorates the worshipper.

In chapters 44 and 45, the book indulges in a lengthy run of such sarcasm-with-a-purpose. YHWH’s creative abilities are articulated via a plethora of vocabulary that occurs with frequency in those moments when divine creation becomes the subject of the Hebrew Bible’s discourse. One verb stands out for its repetition in these two chapters: יצר or yatsar.  The word is commonly translated as to shapeto form, or to fashion. The reader with little command of Biblical Hebrew will recognize the verb’s three consonants ( צ , י , and ר ) in the verses quoted below.

No fewer than nine times in chapters 44 and 45, YHWH is seen to form or fashion important created works. The high-level persuasive task of the passage is to convince the reader that YHWH has been able to form Israel, his servant because he is unimpeded in all his creative whimsy. If he is free to form and shape whatever he wants to create, then he can certainly create and re-create Israel against all the odds of historical precedent and human calculation. For this reason, Judah/Israel’s demoralizing captivity in Babylon does not mean that she is doomed. On the contrary, she can become YHWH’s newest new thing. This otherwise despairing nation can become, in a national sense, born again.

Thus says the Lord who made you, who formed you (ויצרך) from the womb and will help you: Fear not, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen. (Isaiah 44:2 ESV)

Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you (יצרתיך); you are my servant; O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me. (Isaiah 44:21 ESV)

Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, who formed you (ויצרך) from the womb: ‘I am the Lord, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself … ‘ (Isaiah 44:24 ESV)

I form (יוצר) light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things. (Isaiah 45:7 ESV)

Woe to him who strives with him who formed him (את־יצרו), a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it (ליצרו), ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’? (Isaiah 45:9 ESV)

Thus says the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, and the one who formed him ((i.e., perhaps, Israel; ויצרו): ‘Ask me of things to come; will you command me concerning my children and the work of my hands?’ (Isaiah 45:11 ESV)

For thus says the Lord, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed (יצר) the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it empty, he formed it (יצרה) to be inhabited!): ‘I am the Lord, and there is no other.’ (Isaiah 45:18 ESV)

The prophet-poet would have made his point if this were all he had to say about the matter. But his sardonic wit wants to make a further point. It runs something like this: YHWH is the sovereign shaper of Israel and of all things. Yet idolators insist upon sweating over the forming and shaping of their own pathetic little gods, tiring themselves out in the ‘creation’ of gods who do them absolutely no good.

Idolatry makes the creature the creator and the creator the creature.

Taken from the same two chapters, the following three verses make the point.

All who fashion idols (יצרי־פסל) are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. Who fashions (מי־יצר) a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? (Isaiah 44:9–10 ESV)

The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it (יצרהו) with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. (Isaiah 44:12 ESV)

The idolator makes himself a little YHWH, so he imagines. He creates his own god.

Still, the prophet’s satire has not exhausted itself, for in 44.9 he takes up the commonplace that the idols are nothing and extends it to the self-important idol-maker: All who fashion idols are nothing.

The modern reader who begins to discover the layers of sophisticated irony that make the book of Isaiah an enduring object of our contemplation might stop here, with a chuckle at those pathetic ancients who did such things and so became the butt of prophetic irony.

Yet one imagines that Isaiah’s sophisticated understanding of idolatry is as pertinent now as then, today as in pre-Christian antiquity. We modern and post-modern sophisticates labor hard over the things we worship, the constructs we assemble, the images we shape. Then we bow down to them, conceding to our pathetic little monsters mastery over our own very lives, our own destiny.

Imagining ourselves skillful and wise, we—like they—become nothing.

All the while, YHWH goes on forming and fashioning as he likes, via a simple word and with an implicit invitation that we should become the beauty he is creating in his world.

‘It cannot be!’, we decide, then return to our busy sanding and polishing, arms a bit sore and fingers worn almost to the bone.

 

In a recent post I’ve noted the resolute anchoring of the events surrounding Jesus’ emergence in identifiable details that are open to debate, dispute, and falsification. The moment’s various layers of government and governance, the geographic and political entities in which these things took place, the calendar’s framing up of chronology and sequence, all these things mattered to Luke. Indeed, they matter twenty centuries later to people whose lives derive their meaning from Jesus himself and the early testimony about him.

Yet Luke was capable at the same time of asserting that common views of Jesus’ origin were mistaken ones. In the mist of a formulaic genealogy, where the pattern of one son and one father occur in a fixed rhythm, Luke marks an exception.

Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Melchi, the son of Jannai, the son of Joseph,the son of Mattathias, the son of Amos, the son of Nahum, the son of Esli, the son of Naggai … (Luke 3:23–25 ESV)

So does Luke add genealogical weight to a claim he has already made in his narrative: Jesus’ origins were not normal.

He was the son of Mary, a matter that can be discussed with particular tenderness. He was also the son of Joseph, a father of a poignantly noble character. Yet he was not the son of Joseph in the way that people supposed.

The angel’s announcement, Mary’s question about how such things could come about ‘since I am a virgin’, and the generally momentous cadence of Luke’s story drive home a point that later theologizing would codify with enduring references to Jesus having been ‘born of a virgin’.

For now, Luke places before public opinion that claim that Jesus was born under circumstances that are familiar to anyone who cares to make a study of them. Except for one. His father was another, whose tracing lies beyond the capture of human genealogy.

Perhaps we should give up heaven for Lent.

Like a cleansing diet, it might be a good thing for us to lay aside our notions of an esoteric, heavenly faith. At least long enough to re-root in history, where YHWH’s redemption locates itself and—in its way—turns the world upside down.

Luke the evangelist could hardly initiate us into the story of Jesus’ adult life and work in a  more rooted, historically anchored way than the manner he has chosen.

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Luke 3:1–3 ESV)

We get Roman history. We get Jewish history. We get geography. We get John.

The gospel’s narrative names names, dates facts, anchors events in contested soil.

Into this mix, the venerably prophetic ‘word of the Lord’ arrives like a thunder clap.

We get the professions, too: real-world jobs, remunerated, food-on-the-table, sometimes graft-ridden occupations of real human beings with dust on their feet and sweat in their armpits. Before the scandalously biting rhetoric of this John, this desert prophet, recognizably employed people whose hearts have been bludgeoned tender by John’s impolitic truths, ask ‘What about us? What should we do?’

And the crowds asked him, ‘What then shall we do?’ And he answered them, ‘Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.’ Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Collect no more than you are authorized to do.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.’

As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ. (Luke 3:10–15 ESV)

It takes a lot of unpacking and unwinding of long theological habit to work our way back from common Christian notions of ‘heaven’ to the biblical texts that stand at the origin of our journey. It takes a lifetime of unwinding, for some of us.

Yet a modest beginning might consist of refocussing on this world as the normal and customary place where redemptive stories worth their trouble begin, take root, flourish.

And name names.