Thursday, March 31, 2011

full frontal (and backal) nudity

the thing I think I miss the most from my former life is public, casual nudity. we were generally naked in the north chestnut house, going from apartment to apartment all summer long, leaving our doors open for neighbors to simply walk in and join in whatever we were doing (often alcohol and weed, although I was known to simply dance to records--and there is a wonderful memory that most people under 45 can't appreciate, the skipping shriek a vinyl album made when your stereo, no matter how well balanced, shook from the shudder of bodies slamming the floor pellmell).

the first year of our marriage my wife and I instituted what we called "clothing optional nights" when anyone coming to our apartment (and before we were married, the apartment she shared with laura and leia and allowed me to bunk at) had the option of stripping down to watch television or eat or play a game or whatever we were doing. this was never the sexy, oily, sweaty, funky orgy you might imagine it (or I may secretly hoped it might become): it was simply a load of friends getting naked together and doing stuff and being comfortable with one another.

I think I learned this first with my parents, for whom nudity was not a big deal. it wasn't unusual for my folks to stroll the house naked, especially in summer, since we lived in the woods with no air conditioning. and then decades later when I belonged to the cult called direct centering then, where every night we ended meetings and consultations with paganistic nude dancing, clothes tossed everywhere, sweat flying, sometimes not even to music but what sound played from the slap of our feet against the wooden floor. we were ecstatics then and it's that last I most miss, the sense of comfort in my own body around other people. we are still naked around the house now, but it's only us, and it's usually summer. sometimes we still lie naked out in the sun behind the house where the only ones who can see our fishbelly white bodies are the deer and turkeys. but I mustn't forget there was a time, and not so long ago, when little pleased me more than having friends whose bodies I was pleased to see and pleased to show mine to.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

"with hosea from the right..."

for my midterm exam in older testatment prophets, I was given the assignment to come up with how I would introduce a 3-week adult religious education forum on the prophets, focusing on a specific 1 to present at the 1st meeting. I had 2 hours to write it up, which is why it's longer than my usual essays--as I mentioned to a classmate last night, I didn't have time to write fewer than 5 pages. (I had to cut out, in the interests of keeping it fewer than 6 pages, the 2 paragraphs making more explicit the analogy between hosea and pat buchanan; I also cut it out because I think if buchanan were to read this, he might be flattered by the analogy, and I don't want to flatter pat buchanan.)


[My context: The forum I’ve been asked to teach is centered on a mid-sized Unitarian Universalist congregation in the suburbs of the Twin Cities. As such, the class will be composed of people who are mostly retired, primarily from teaching or engineering backgrounds, with a smattering of younger adults with small children. Almost all of the participants will be white with a few younger Hispanics. Some identify as Christians. All will have had at least some college and consider themselves literate and informed. All will see the Bible as a form of literature but not all will see it as relevant to their lives or to contemporary society. All will have access to an NRSV or NIV Bible and I’ll furnish other texts they may thumb through. This is my introductory lecture.]

The world is full of frightening things. The earth quakes, tsunamis wash out whole towns and families; tornadoes uproot communities as well as individuals; floods engulf coastal areas and people too poor or too frail to evacuate are devastated; regimes that people have learned to live under for generations shift suddenly, it seems overnight, leaving chaos and fear in charge; volcanoes erupt, spilling lava and blotting out the sun with ash, oil leaks and decimates whole bioregions, blizzards freeze animals and people and entire economies, and when it happens everything we have ever known and trusted and counted on is smashed within moments so we don’t know what is up and down, who we can trust or where to turn for solace.

If we’re bent toward Buddhism, we reflect that being alive is suffering and our suffering is no more or less important than anyone else’s and no more or less is asked of us than is asked of anyone else. If we’re bent toward Hinduism, we recognize that this is simply the last turn of the wheel for us in this life and take comfort in our having lived lives that allow us to return for another go. If we’re bent toward paganism, we accept that this is the result of massive disturbances in the ecosystem, some of which we had a part in, and the result of our suffering may be a lesson for others. If we’re bent toward an Abraham religion—Judaism, Christianity or Islam—we may see the hand of a mysterious God that has decided, for reasons we may never understand, to touch down in this way at this time in this place.

The ancient Jews, from whom the Older Testament of Abraham religions derive, looked to their prophets, their seers, their men and women of God, to explain why such things occurred to them. After all, weren’t they the beloved of the Creator? Didn’t they benefit from the covenant with God which lay out in legal terms what God gave to God’s people and the fidelity God’s people returned? Unitarian Universalism is a result, however we might like to deny or ignore it, of Abraham thinking, for good and for bad, and as a result looking to the prophets and their answers resonates with us as it did for the people of ancient Israel. In this course we’re going to examine how the prophets responded to the physical, social and political upheavals of their times so to keep the people faithful to God at the same time recognizing that real people were being hurt and killed in real ways. Tonight we’ll look at what a prophet was in general and at one prophet, Hosea, in particular.

When we talk about someone today as a “prophet,” we generally mean that she sees the future somehow, not necessarily in specifics but maybe in broad strokes. Brother R.G. Stair of the Overcomer Church in South Carolina thinks of himself as this kind of prophet, or Madame Helena Blavatsky of Theosophy or Elizabeth Clare Prophet of the Church Universal and Triumphant. Ohio Representative John Boehner was called a political prophet when the midterm elections of last year swept many conservative Republicans into major offices. We call speculators like Jim Cramer economic prophets when their predictions about minor blips and dips on the stock market pan out and charlatans when they don’t. Prophets are people who’ve already seen the movie and know how it’s going to end.

But that isn’t what prophets in the sense that the term is used in the Older Testament means. “Older” and “Newer,” by the way, are the preferred terms in contemporary Biblical scholarship since they’re less suggestive of out-datedness or replacement. Prophets, from what we understand of them, had a complex relationship with their communities. Some, like Samuel, prophesied for individuals for a fee in addition to their more communally based prophecies; some, like Elijah, were marginalized members living on the forbearance of the community, while others were in privileged positions of authority, like the female prophet Huldah or Isaiah; some were members or founders of schools, like Elisha. What they shared in common was an ability, not to foresee the future, but to read the signs of the present.

While some were called “seers” and others called nabi “speaker, messenger,” what they did was to pay close attention to events, reflect on the meaning of those events, and then explain those events for the community. Their role was political—Martin Buber even calls them “theo-politicians”—whose position as messengers of Yahweh allowed them to focus on the bigger picture of political and social events and whose pronouncements were an articulation of the action Yahweh expected Yahweh’s people to take. To a degree, you can think of the ancient prophets Elijah and Samuel and Huldah and Ezekiel as the Rush Limbaughs and John Stewarts and Rachel Maddows and Glen Becks of their time.

In this analogy, the prophet Hosea is the Pat Buchanan of 6th Century BCE. He is convinced of the inevitability of decline and judgment. The people have strayed, he explains: like Hosea they have taken for themselves “a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord” (:2). After Hosea’s wife Gomer (representing Israel) gives birth to a daughter Yahweh tells him, “Name her Lo-ruhamah, for I will no longer have pity on the house on Israel or forgive them” (:6); when she conceives a son, Yahweh says, “Name him Lo-ammi, for you are not my people and I am not your God” (:9).

Hosea, probably a contemporary of Amos, for whom another book we’ll look at is named, was one of the longest-working prophets. The events he commented on took place over three decades; and while it’s true Hosea is not himself the author of the book for whom he’s named, it was probable that the book, redacted or edited and added to over the course of centuries, was the product of his followers and sympathetic later editors. He rails against the ease with which life under King Jeroboam II, then ruler of the northern kingdom of Israel, has degenerated, and follows Amos who had prophesied the kingdom’s mistreatment of the poor and indifference to justice. Israel, he says, has forgotten Yahweh: “Hear the word of the Lord, O People of Israel…There is no faithfulness or loyalty, and no knowledge of God in the land. Swearing, lying, and murder, and stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, and all who live in it languish…” (4:1-3).

For Hosea the awful judgment of Yahweh is unquestioned. It will come, it will be terrible, and it will be just. “[Yahweh] will become like a lion to [Israel], like a leopard I will lurk beside the way. I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs, and will tear open the covering of their heart…” (13:7-8). Swift, punishing retribution is what the people deserve for turning away from Yahweh.

But there is a second, equally strong current in the prophesies of Hosea. Yahweh continues to feel compassion for Yahweh’s people, despite their sinfulness. “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son…I took them up in my arms…I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks…How can I give you up…How can I hand you over, O Israel…My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender” (11:1-8).

This is a God who would be merciful (hesed) in remembering God’s covenant with God’s people. Even within the boundless and justified rage of Yahweh’s judgment, punishment is not for punishment’s sake. Like the Great Flood of Genesis, it is Yahweh’s way of erasing the corrupt and troubled worship and attention by past administrations so that the people, chastised and humbled, will return to their true god. “For the Israelites shall remain many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or pillar…Afterward the Israelites shall return and seek the Lord their God…they shall come in awe to the Lord and to his goodness in the latter days” (3:4-5).

Here we see the primary emphasis of Hosea’s prophetic passion. The people have turned away from their true path and are being punished justly for it. But the punishment is meant to punish Yahweh’s people the way a parent spanks a child, as a method by which the parent reminds the child that there are rules by which the child must live and that acting contrary to those rules has consequences. Don’t be confused that this simple analogy, bloodless and petty as it seems to us, was what Hosea was offering. After all, he would have seen up close the suffering and destruction that political change wrought. He saw the assassination of four kings over the course of his work, and for every king killed we can assume hundreds or thousands more died violently in the upheavals, sieges and campaigns in the wake of political turmoil. We are inured by the bloodless shifts of political parties into thinking that it was always this way. For the people of Hosea’s time, a change in leadership often swept away as many people as the recent Japanese tsunami did, and about as effortlessly, about as mercilessly. The mercy available in such an event, Hosea suggests, is in the response of his people after the destruction.

Two questions, then, for discussion: Is this the message we ought to take away from Hosea’s prophecy, that the response to disaster of any kind is humility and acknowledging there is a greater power? And if this is so, how should we behave toward that greater power?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

what do we do about libya?

I want to admit to something. I admit I am confused on how I feel about the bombing on libya.

I know how I ought to feel. I ought to be outraged that obama has reneged on what we took to be his promise to be more thoughtful and cautious in putting the us into war mode again--and say what you will, opening a 3rd warfront when you don't have a handle on the other 2 is anything but thoughtful or cautious. my knee-jerk response is that war is wrong--nearly all war--and the bombing strikes on tripoli don't satisfy what I think a just war ought to condone, namely that it is pinpoint strategic in its retaliation (and it ought to be retaliation rather than first-strike) and fought on as level a field as possible. this is neither.

but I also ought to feel compassion for the people being killed by gaddafi's forces and I ought to understand that fighting against evil is never a neat and peaceful thing. that gaddafi has been allowed to rule libya far too long is something I couldn't argue against--as I couldn't argue against the assertion that robert mugabe has ruled too long or that kim jong il has ruled too long or another dozen names. paraphrasing barry goldwater, "inaction in the face of injustice is no virtue." when a leader kills his people--whether saddam hussein, slobodan milosovic, augusto pinochet, fernando marcos--he loses the diffidence awarded any leader and becomes a doer of evil whose regime must end as quickly and as humanely as possible.

thus the conundrum I face: attacking gaddafi to bring his leadership to an end is a good, bombing his people to accomplish it is not. hence I become that unusual creature, a person with opinions who admits that, in this case, I simply do not know yet what my opinion is. I do not deny for a moment I am lucky to have that luxury.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

"the churches are too damned timid"

"it seemed pretty tame to me; but [reverend dave] moss now made an announcement: 'after dinner we can't go outside until 7 am. we've gotta be really under the radar about this. if you have to smoke this evening sometime between now and six, go out in ones and twos at the most. we cannot be visible to the neighbors or we'll have to shut the program down.'

"a blondish young woman name charlene remarked that up in oroville she had rented a lady's front yard for three hundred dollars a month so that she could pitch her tent there, with kitchen and toilet privileges. the police arrested her. the neighbors came to her defense, the landlady brought proof of payment, and the police had to let her go, but did so in an angry spirit. she also said that in marysville the city council had posted signs in churches announcing that people were not allowed to stay there after dark.

"frank asked for a volunteer to lead us in prayer and thank the church. we formed a circle, holding hands, and a woman prayed in a weak, tremulous voice. I heard her express gratitude to safe ground...then the church people served us dinner from a buffet table, ladies first. I thanked one woman for the salad she ladled onto my plate, and she replied: 'it's my pleasure to serve.' people like her give christians a good name.

"david leeper moss, retired from the united methodist ministry, big-shouldered alumnus of the board of loaves and fishes, white of beard and mustache, had been involved with safe ground since july of last year. 'I heard about tent city and defying the anti-camping ordinance, and I thought, man, this is the place where I would like to be! there's a disconnect between the people who are supporting safe ground and the people who are living safe ground, and since I know my gifts and graces, I know that I can be a bridge between them.'

"I told him that the necessity of his guests' hiding themselves from the neighbors made me sad. he replied: 'the trinity cathedral on capitol doesn't have the same community that we do, so people can smoke on the sidewalk. also, it's larger. there are even facilities for pets.' (all but one of the animal owners here tonight had left their animals in their tents at the river. the exception was a woman with a tiny, utterly silent dog.)

"moss went on: 'if you ask me, the churches are too damned timid.'

"'there must be many homeless who for whatever reason won't follow the safe ground rules,' I said.

"'safe ground is not a solution for homelessness. it's part of a mosaic of solutions.'

"I liked that. it was modest enough that it might be true...

"lying on my back in the darkness, I stared up at the high ceiling and around me at the yellow-glowing door panes, the long low sleeping-bag islands against the walls, and dave moss sitting alone in the light of the restroom doorway, reading a book. he sat there all night as far as I know, for in the morning he was in the same spot. another sentinel manned the table by the front door. I suppose that if one of us had attacked another, or tried to go into where the women slept, one of them would have called for frank. as I lay there, I felt a strange feeling of happiness. I could hear a woman's high-pitched cough, rich with phlegm. now the church was almost entirely silent. a man rustled crossly in his sleeping bag. a pack buckle clicked quietly open.

"in the morning the lights came on at six o'clock sharp. some of us were already rolling up our sleeping bags as quietly as we could. frank was booming out: 'I need a volunteer to mop the floor. I need a volunteer to clean the men's bathroom. thank you, volunteers.' there came a prayer, and toast and cereal for breakfast."

--from "homeless in sacramento: welcome to the new tent cities" by william vollmann in the march 2011 issue of harper's magazine

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

tuesday afternoon reading

"there were times it was annoying to smell urine when I came outside on a hot morning. indeed the most powerful quotidian argument against tolerating the proximity of the unsheltered must be an olfactory one. I quote a neighbor: 'there's a distinct smell that you're talking about in the winter; there's this musty, moist smell of earth that's not necessarily an offensive smell like a fart; it's a sort of musty smell that pervades the room when a homeless person who's been camping in the rain and using the same sleeping bag for a month walks in.' other times the smell is simply excrement. in my parking lot, one such human calling card will continue to make itself known throughout an entire rainless sacramento summer. sheer necessity excuses some of these productions, and since the exterior of my building cultivates an abandoned look, I cannot blame those defecators who believe what they see. but my property offers considerable square footage in which to relieve one's bowels; and with greater frequency than the law of averages would predict, the spot of choice, which incidentally offers no advantage of shelter or modesty, lies immediately in front of my door. when I have had a bad day, I chalk this up to simple meanness. year after year, I take up my hose and my humility, such as it is, and ask myself why. a convenient answer is that there is no why, that my guest intended nothing in particular and thought of me no more than he will when he dies and his corpse stinks.
"how one characterizes this unpleasant topic is the best indicator of one's 'homeless politics.' some citizens dwell on it with a disgust sufficiently obsessive to border on relish. they see their homeless brothers and sisters as, in essence, walking (or shambling) filth factories. from such a presupposition, logic demands the isolation, or better yet the elimination, of the contagion. how far would they wish authority to go to make the homeless disappear I've never asked them, fearing that the answer would make me sad. as for the more militant advocates of homeless rights, they belittle the stinking actuality, and sometimes accuse those who point it out of belonging to the other camp.

"from this ideological division follow all others. if I set up and maintained a portable toilet in my parking lot (never mind that this experiment would be illegal), would the immediate neighborhood get cleaner or dirtier? in other words, if a local human need gets satisfied, is the result to attract people in need from other localities? people can disagree in good faith on this question...when I give a panhandler a beer on christmas because that is what he wants, do you approve or disapprove? now for another question: who should take care of people in need? should it be 'the government,' or charitable organizations, or 'the neighborhood'? and if these entities decline to accept the obligations you have defined for them, what then? and while you and I are disagreeing in good faith, what's happening to the woman the police carried off from my parking lot in a squad car who now has returned to spend the night in a wet blanket on the asphalt between my fence and my billboard because she can't find a better place? and whether she moves her bowels considerately in a bag of kitty litter, as do some of my homeless acquaintances, or makes a mess on my doorstep, how relevant should that be to whichever 'homeless policy' gets applied to her?"

--from "homeless in sacramento: welcome to the new tent cities" by william vollman in the march 2011 issue of harper's magazine

"I have no pleasure in the death of anyone"

“I Have No Pleasure in the Death of Anyone”

Context: It is worth asking ourselves if disastrous events are Yahweh’s punishment. And if they are, are they fair or just punishments? This is not an academic or moot question. Only a few days ago Japan was subject to a magnitude 8.9 earthquake, the equivalent force of 240 megatons of exploding TNT, followed immediately by a nearly 25-foot tsunami, that left thousands of people dead and tens of thousands missing and injured. Aftershocks of the earthquake continued to register as magnitude 6 and above, volcanic activity has been reported, and every hour brings greater certainty of some disaster relating to the compromise of the nuclear power plants Japan’s energy depends on. If a plague of frogs can be said to be a punishment by Yahweh (Exodus 8:1-15), then surely if there is contemporary divine punishment, this would qualify.

Putting aside the argument what Japan might be punished for, could Ezekiel’s lament of chapter 18 be updated to answer the results of this modern disaster? As a college teacher focusing on the Bible as literature or as a minster leading a study group on faith texts that seek to justify the ways of gods to people, this is a patently legitimate question. The prophets of the Older Testament seek, if not justification for Yahweh’s actions, then to make clear why things have happened as they have. It is axiomatic in their world that there are no coincidences and that the wicked suffer for their behavior. Contemporary prophets, to remain true to this Biblical intent, should insist the same. If we take the words of Ezekiel and what he is trying to articulate seriously, then asking the same question of contemporary disasters that Sixth Century BCE Israelites did of their Babylonian exile is necessary and respectful. Would a contemporary Ezekiel locate the recent disaster in Japan as the fault of its people?

Exegesis: Ezekiel’s Yahweh (and we can call Yahweh “Ezekiel’s” here because there is evidence that this book, in contrast to the oral backgrounds of most Biblical prophecy books, was written, edited, expanded on and preserved, possibly during the prophet’s life and so is a literary construct) begins this chapter by chastising his people’s use of a proverb to explain the suffering of people as payment for their forebear’s misdeeds (:2). “Know that all lives are mine…it is only the person who sins that shall die” (:4).

Brueggemann (2003) argues that the text is not intended to set up a false dichotomy between individual and corporate morality. Paul Joyce (whom Brueggemann quotes) writes, “Ezekiel certainly rejects the idea that the present disaster is a punishment for the sins of previous generations [and] he is not concerned here with the moral independence of contemporary individuals. He takes for granted the general principle of ‘individual responsibility’…but the possibility of Yahweh judging individuals in isolation from their contemporaries is not considered…[The] question at issue is a different one, namely, ‘Why is this inevitably communal, national crisis happening?’”

Ezekiel’s Yahweh goes to great lengths to distinguish between three generations: the first is “a man [who] is righteous and does what is lawful and right” (:5); but “he has a son who is violent, a shedder of blood…” (:10); and if that “man has a son who sees all the sins that his father has done, considers, and does not do likewise…” (:14); each will have a different end. The first “shall surely live” (:9), the second “shall surely die” (:13b), and the third “shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live” (:17). Unspoken but assumed is the idea that the sins of the second generation will also not be forgiven by the goodness of the first and third: “[Each one’s] blood shall be upon himself.” (:13c).

While Brueggemann uses this to forward his argument that, because “the destiny for and verdict upon each generation depends upon adherence to Torah in terms of (a) avoiding idolatry and serving only YHWH, (b) obedient sexuality, and (c) obedient economics” (206), he also explains that the generations are not theoretical but refer to Josiah, Jehoiakim, and Jehoiachin, on whom “the verdict is still out…Thus it is probable that…Ezekiel 18 concerns the destiny of and the theological verdict upon…the generation of exiles led by Jehoiachin” (206).

Locating the text in a specific era does not mean we shouldn’t draw from it to determine contemporary lessons, however; the disaster of the exile is the fault of the second, wicked generation and it is up to the third, exilic generation to expiate its predecessor’s guilt. Yahweh states that “if the wicked turn away from all their sins that they have committed and keep all my statutes and do what is lawful and right…[none] of the transgressions they have committed shall be remembered against them; for the righteousness that they have done they shall live” (:21-2). There is, of course, no way of knowing if the victims of Japan’s tsunami “lived” or “died” as Ezekiel means the words—that is, whether they lived forever (chayah) or perished (as a nation: muwth)—the reality is that their bodies died, some horribly, but Ezekiel would recognize their deaths as part of a corporate body. As individuals they are not important. While he “echoes Jeremiah’s emphasis on personal responsibility for one’s actions before God…Ezekiel’s work of bringing individuals to repentance and conversion…will begin to build the new community by preparing its individual members to take part in that rebuilding” (Ceresko: 254-5). In other words, individual fates do not sway Yahweh’s decisions about Yahweh’s people, but leaving “behind the pride and pretensions associated with a political state, this community will find a new identity as a people” (255).

“Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked…and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live?” exclaims Yahweh (:23). No one generation is all good or all evil (Michael Coogan’s textual note reads, sardonically, “Ezekiel’s audience is far from an innocent generation”). Individuals who take responsibility and turn from sin will be forgiven. But Ezekiel’s Yahweh recognizes peoples, not people, and for a moment, Ezekiel suggests that Yahweh’s mercy will overtake his judgment. “But when the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity and do the same abominable things that the wicked do…None of the righteous deeds that they have done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which they are guilty and the sin they have committed, they shall die” (:24). There is no forgiveness for the wicked. (Presumably the sins one turns away from into righteousness are venial rather than mortal.) When the wicked protest Yahweh’s unfairness (takan, “unmeasured, unregulated, uneven,” suggesting commerce), Yahweh responds, “When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it…Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed….they shall not die” (:26-8). Yahweh holds to Yahweh’s self the right of judgment and urges Yahweh’s people, “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O House of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone…Turn, then, and live” (:31-2).

Lesson Outline: Presenting this in a classroom setting would require a class or study group that has a good deal of previous experience with Biblical texts and with ethical considerations of them. I would assign Ezekiel 16-19 to place the reading in context and ask the question “Is Yahweh justified in bringing disaster on a people who broke covenant with him?” On the day for discussion, after a short discussion—the answer to which I’d expect everyone would agree is “yes”—I’d share background about the Babylonian Exile and a few Hebrew words and expand the question. “Ezekiel and his followers believed that Yahweh had control not only over Yahweh’s covenanted people but over the whole world. Is this true for contemporary Christians? If it is, would a contemporary Ezekiel say that Japan’s earthquake and tsunami were Yahweh’s punishment against the Japanese people for some transgression, perhaps known only to Yahweh?” My follow-up questions would include, paraphrasing Paul Joyce, “From a Biblical perspective, why is this national tragedy happening?”

• Brueggemann, Walter. (2003.) An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY.
• Ceresko, Anthony. (2005.) Introduction to the Old Testament: A Liberation Perspective. Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY.
• Coogan, Michael, editor. (2007.) New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV). Oxford University Press.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

I will be delayed

since the school where I teach was on spring break this past week, I thought about taking some time to drive down to madison and join the hoopla protesting the rollback of union rights. but almost immediately I knew I couldn't do that. or more accurately, I could, but to do so would require changing my whole week around.

here on the rim I'm only a 3 1/2 hour drive from mad-town, an easy two-cigar trip, and have people there with whom I knew I could stay, one of whom even works near the capitol, so I could be, in effect, a commuting protestor for a day.

but to do so meant discounting my responsibilities. I was responsible for church services both sundays and had older testament class monday night, dog-training class tuesday night, internship hours and 2 meetings on wednesday, and internship class thursday night, and that isn't even to mention doing the laundry and dishes and walking the dogs. I decided I should be able to drive down early morning friday the 11th and come home saturday night.

but I was felled by a cold the previous friday night that made even speaking painful and caused me to miss tuesday's class and reschedule my meetings and internship for friday. I knew that to get down there, even for a day, would require changing everything for that day and maybe the days surrounding it.

I spent the entire week feeling, in addition to ill, a nagging sense that I should be down there. this is important, this fight for bargaining rights. I've belonged to 3 unions in my working life, and I've walked my share of pickets, even picketing for a union that wasn't my own. I'm a staunch believer in the necessity of unions and collective action. I know there are excesses and abuses but show me a human organization where there is none.

but I couldn't rationalize my desire to be in mad-town beyond the dull sensation that I itched to be there. there is a history happening there and I am close by and want to be a part of it and that is about it. I am aware of how little I might do there--all I could do is observe, which is important in itself--but there is no lack of eyes already available there. I might say something to someone, an offhand comment to a fellow protester, say, or a word to someone who disagreed with me that might in some way change the way he thinks. but to think a single day is time and opportunity enough to accomplish anything like that is to engage in a delusion of influence and presence that would put me head and shoulders above even the place scott walker imagines himself.

so, with a depressing sense of obligation, I put off going to fight the good fight and stayed home to fulfill my duties. I felt like everyone else had gone off to the dance while I practiced my violin.

but at my postponed meeting on friday, which was supposed to be a casual discussion over coffee with the chair of the planning committee for one of the churches where I intern, I quickly realized that what I was actually doing there was providing a listening post for him to talk about, among other things, the goings-on in madison as well as nearly every other left-of-center event and idea that has happened in the past year and a half. he is an attorney specializing in divorce and family mediation, a specialty that is in its definition a conservative activity, and it dawned on me after the first 1/2 hour he simply wanted to talk about what he saw going on around him with someone who wasn't going to tell him he was crazy or wrong, with someone who would listen attentively and respectfully and even chime in with his own observations. and I came to the epiphany that while I wasn't likely to make any effect at the dance, where I'd be 1 among thousands, I could do good staying at home, where I was 1 of 2.

the protests don't show any sign of stopping despite walker's attempts at undercutting the state constitution--in fact, they may be gaining momentum--so I may end up out there sometime soon. in the meanwhile, I've made this request of my friends who've gone on ahead to join our brothers and sisters on the line. kiss them for me, I will be delayed.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

reading while sick (2)

shuffling around all day in one's jammies, drinking herbal tea and watching the birds flit from branch to branch, and being terribly jealous of everyone one knows simply because they can be outside while one is stuck inside drinking tea and draining one's sinuses--this is the time one gives to reading odd things and enjoying that experience. here, the 2nd excerpt, roughly 40 pages from the end of pat cadigan's tea from an empty cup. this is from the perspective of yuki, the alternate heroine of the novel, who has entered artificial reality in search of a friend.

"after a time, the light died down, from blinding to something softer, something on the order of the warm golden glow from an antique lamp. yuki became aware slowly that she was no longer falling, had not been falling for some time. her eyes were closed and she had no sense of her position--had she passed out? was she still unconscious and dreaming?

"she opened her eyes and jumped, startled. she was sitting in an enormous leather chair...pulled up to a large, round, dark wood meeting table. there was a touch on her arm and she turned to find her grandmother sitting at her left.


"'body,' the woman said.

"'whose?' asked yuki, bewildered...'you look and talk just like my this how they use you in the afterlife? they keep your brain running to generate post-apocalyptic ar cities?'

"'if I am your grandmother, I'm dead, I'm past caring why they keep my brain running.' the woman smiled. 'it doesn't matter what they intended anyway. something else is happening, something they didn't bargain for.'

"...'it's all just ar. right now, I'm moving so fast they can't track me, but eventually I'll start to lose momentum and they'll find me again.'

"'actually, they'd rather find you before you lose momentum,' [the woman] said, leaning over to look at the center of the table. yuki followed her gaze but saw nothing other than a vague area that might have been a spot that a dustcloth had missed. 'they've been trying to get up this high for a while now. only one or two managed it in the past--accelerant combined with high adrenaline, nature's own speed cocktail. they want to follow you up. they know there's something here and they want it...old japan.'

"yuki laughed without humor. 'oh, yeah. post-apocalyptic tokyo, the hottest thing yet. please. save the sales pitch. I don't do ar...'

"'no. not a cheap amusement park. the real old japan. and I know who you're looking for.' there was a pause. 'igochi tomoyuki tried to sell his birthright. the one who purchased it was set upon by a demon, who killed him.'

"'sorry, I don't believe in demons,' yuki said sourly.

"'ask tom, then, when you find him, if he believes in demons.'...[the woman's] face became a cold mask. 'he became greedy. he took the catalog, he decided he would sell the high-level access for money, to anyone, non-japanese as well as japanese. greed is a very old, very unorginal scenario, so boring. if we could recover the catalog, the accesses to the higher levels--'

"'if tom's still in here,' yuki said, careful to keep her voice even, 'why can't you find him? or do you already have him--out there--and he just won't talk?'

"'--we would forgive him, we would make him part of bunraku. as you are.'

"'bunraku,' yuki repeated, mystified...

"'the method by which old japan will be remade--awakened--for good. the real, the true old japan. we were bringing it to fruition, we were nurturing it with the life of our blood and tissue and the afterlife of our souls...'

"something rippled through her, like a sensation from someone else's body, as if someone else were sharing the suit with her by some remote access. except this time, it didn't feel hideously obscene, like being invaded by a stranger from within.

"there was a gentle touch on her shoulder and she looked up to see a large doll-woman in traditional japanese costume floating in front of her on the table. it bowed and began to move slowly and precisely, with as much grace as a living person.

"not a doll. a puppet, with several living persons behind its movements. her movements. bunraku. japanese puppet theater. not a children's diversion but the classic puppter theater of old japan, as serious as noh and kabuki, a demonstration of skill and grace, control and cooperation. now she could see the outlines of the people moving the puppet if not their faces. see them and feel them--"

I have to say in closing that I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel, so much so I have decided to locate its sequel, dervish is digital. the ending in particular is not slapdash or cartoonish but a solid, complicated ending.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

reading while sick (1)

there are worse times to be sick than when one is on vacation, I suppose. the house is warm and from my bed I can see a light snow falling. I've had my coffee and throat lozenge and the dogs are piled on my feet and sides and the cats are settling into the drawers my wife leaves open after getting dressed and hurrying to work.

I've been ill since saturday. it showed up as a sore throat and has progressed steadily until I fell asleep on the couch last night with a cold. this morning I'm in that hazy state where reality is a blurry thing with occasional sharp edges.

I like to read odd things when I'm sick. the weirdness accentuates my feelings of being out-of-control. I'm a person who likes being drunk, who likes vertigo, who likes the sensation of endlessly falling (which is probably why I often dream that). when I have a fever I like to pore over the sorts of science fiction and horror and fantasy that expand that fuzziness with which I see the world.

on saturday I chose an old--well, not so old to me, but published over a decade ago, and because of its subject matter, hopelessly retro now--an old novel about artificial reality by pat cadigan called tea from an empty cup. it takes place in a future easily imaginable to anyone familiar with the look of liquid television and ghost in the shell (the concept of the ghost in the machine is actually referenced by one of the minor characters) or, from my own time, starstruck. there are 2 passages I want to share, one today and one tomorrow. this one is from early in the novel, when the investigator into a real-time murder witnesses the murder in artificial reality from the perspective of the victim.

"shantih love abruptly looked back in such a way that s/he seemed to be looking directly out of the screen into konstantin's eyes. the expression on the unique face seemed somehow both questioning and confident. konstantin steered the detached perspective from behind shantih love around his/her right side, passing in front of the androgyne and moving to the left side, tracking him/her as s/he walked toward the multitude on the shore.

"a figure suddenly popped up from behind the low concrete barrier running between the street and the river. shantih love stopped for a few moments, uncertainty troubling her/his smooth forehead. konstantin tried adjusting the screen controls to see the figure better in the gathering darkness but, maddeningly, she couldn't seem to get anything more definite than a fuzzy, blurry silhouette, definitely humanlike but otherwise unidentifiable as young or old, male, female, both or neither, friendly or hostile.

"the shape climbed over the barrier to the street side just as shantih love slipped over it to the shore. the ground here was soft and shantih love had trouble walking in it. the fuzzy shape paced her/him on the other side of the wall and konstantin got the idea that it was saying something, but nothing came up on audio. shantih love didn't answer, didn't even look in its direction again as s/he moved in long strides toward the crowd...

"the perspective had slipped back behind shantih love. konstantin tapped the forward button rapidly; now she seemed to be perched on shantih love's right shoulder...shantih love whirled suddenly; after a second's delay, the perspective followed. konstantin felt a wave of dizziness and the images on the screen went out of focus. when the focus cleared, konstantin saw that the figure was standing on top of the barrier, poised to jump. shantih love backed away, turned, and began stumbling through the party crowd, bumping into various people, some less distinct than others. konstantin didn't have to shift the perspective around to know that the creature was chasing the androgyne. now the pov seemed to be only inches in front of the creature's face; she had a fast glimpse of bandage-wrapped arms and hand with an indeterminate number of fingers...

"the pov began to shake and streak. as if it were embedded in the pursuer's body. frustrated, konstantin pounded on the forward key, but the pov didn't budge. they called this custom editing? she fumed. even worse, now that she was among the party crowd, almost every attendee was either so vague as to be maddeningly unidentifiable or so broad a stereotype--barbarian, vampire, wild-child, homunculus--that anonymity was equally assured.

"shantih love broke through the other side of the crowd two seconds before she did and ran heavily toward a stone rise leading to the sidewalk. s/he scrambled up on all fours, a heartbeat ahead of the pursuer.

"love vaulted the low barrier and ran along the middle of the street, looking eagerly at each wreck...something moved inside each one, even those that were burning. konstantin realized she was probably alone in finding that noticeable, much less remarkable--living in a bonfire was probably the height of ar chic. this week.

"she tried pushing the pov ahead again and this time gained several feet. shantih love looked over his/her shoulder, seemingly right at the pov. the androgyne's expression was panic and dismay; in the next moment, s/he fell.

"the pov somersaulted. there was a flash of broken pavement, followed by a brief panorama of sky, a flip and a close-up of the angrogyne's profile just as the pursuer pushed his/her chin up with one rag-wrapped hand. perfect skin stretched taut; the blade flashed and disappeared as it turned sideways to slash through flesh, tendon, blood vessels, cartilage, bone.

"blood flew against the pov and dripped down, like gory rain on a window. wincing, konstantin tried to erase the blood trails; nothing happened.

"shantih love coughed and gargled at the sky, not trying to twist away from the bandaged hand that still held his/her chin. blood pushed upward from the artery in an exaggerated display. the creature pushed love's face to one side so s/he stared dully past the pov and then bent its head to drink."

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

what do we do with a god that rapes?

this has unsettled me since I read jeremiah closely for last night's older testament class. there are multiple violent images but it is this one that nags at me:

20 Look up and see
those who are coming from the north.
Where is the flock that was entrusted to you,
the sheep of which you boasted?
21 What will you say when the LORD sets over you
those you cultivated as your special allies?
Will not pain grip you
like that of a woman in labor?
22 And if you ask yourself,
“Why has this happened to me?”—
it is because of your many sins
that your skirts have been torn off
and your body mistreated.
23 Can an Ethiopian[a] change his skin
or a leopard its spots?
Neither can you do good
who are accustomed to doing evil.

24 “I will scatter you like chaff
driven by the desert wind.
25 This is your lot,
the portion I have decreed for you,”
declares the LORD,
“because you have forgotten me
and trusted in false gods.
26 I will pull up your skirts over your face
that your shame may be seen—
27 your adulteries and lustful neighings,
your shameless prostitution!
I have seen your detestable acts
on the hills and in the fields.
Woe to you, Jerusalem!
How long will you be unclean?”

this is the NIV version of verses from jeremiah chapter 13. I've quoted it at length to give the passage I want to point to some context.

here, the prophet speaks for yahweh and likens israel and judah to a bride who has whored herself and must be punished. I've some difficulties with that, but those can be put aside. yahweh can be said to be speaking in the abstract, and as literature I can accept that.

but it is here, in verse 22, that I have questions: "And if you ask yourself, 'Why has this happened to me?'—it is because of your many sins that your skirts have been torn off and your body mistreated." my NRSV renders that final word as "violated." the phrase in the hebrew, according to my strong's concordance, translates to aqeb chamac "your heels have been exposed," apparently a euphemism for great violence, probably rape (in jeremiah 22 the famous "do no wrong or violence to the alien" uses the same word chamac).

it is 4 verses later that we come to what gives me great pause: "I will pull up your skirts over your face that your shame may be seen" (my NRSV adds "myself" between the 1st 2 words.

is this a god who is threatening rape on israel? at the very least, since the identity of who is doing the violence in both 22 and 26 is left ambiguous, is this a god who is abetting rape?

to be fair, this is not yahweh speaking but it is jeremiah who says he is speaking for yahweh. and there are not a few references elsewhere in the older testament, and esp in jeremiah, in which chamac is used to suggest a more general violence than rape. however, there really is no getting around the violation being described in 22 and 26 is rape or at least some violence done when the (woman's) skirts are lifted. even if it is a metaphorical rape made because yahweh's people have disobeyed yahweh, is this a god threatening rape? (and I would argue that god's use of it as metaphor is even more damning to our modern ears, as what's the difference between yahweh and an emotionally abusive, threatening partner?)

if yahweh is threatening rape, even metaphorically, is this a god we should trust, let alone worship? is the god of the older testament so time-bound in that place and period that that god has nothing in common with us? 2500 years later, does a book that suggests this resonate with us?

Monday, March 7, 2011

uu web

for a service I'm involved in, I reconfigured a 2008 10-pager down to a single page focusing on the place of individual congregations in the larger place of regional and national organizations. the original title of this is "without support, the finest web will fall apart" and can be read in its entirety here.

"The seventh UU principle declares our intent to be aware of and our 'respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.' A web is an excellent metaphor for what we rely on to exist. Each strand of the web affects the others, so that you can’t have an effectively operating web, ready to catch flies and butterflies and other delicacies for your spider’s dinner, if one part is sagging and shoddy. The morsel will simply roll away from the web or break off the strand it’s attached to. A web must be solid in its construction in order to be an effective one; remove a part and it falls apart. But equally important, and rarely remarked on, is the importance of the leaf or tuft or window ledge or tree or whatever supports the web itself is attached to. That too has to be well-constructed and pretty solid in order to withstand the buffets of wind and struggle the web itself invites.

"Our congregation is a member of the Prairie Star District. The Unitarian Universalist Association, which is the national organization overseeing the administration of its many churches, societies, fellowships and congregations, is divided into districts, and our district runs from Eau Claire in eastern Wisconsin, to all of Minnesota, Iowa, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and as far south as Kansas and Missouri.

"Unitarian Universalism prides itself on its polity, which keeps administration for a congregation within the congregation—what a congregation does and its policies, what it chooses to believe as a corporate entity and who it chooses to be led by, stay on the congregational level. Ministers aren’t sent out by some mothership to the farflung regions to bring enlightenment to a benighted Podunk-ville. More often, a Podunk congregation has its choice of whether it prefers to be led by a Podunk local minister and a Podunk chair of the board and it makes its Podunk decisions in Podunk ways, taking Podunk-ville and its special circumstances into account. Podunk is the web. The UUA and the District are the twin supports on which this web relies."

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

rip this down and eat it!

We were a group that had coalesced around the creative writing classes at New Paltz, and I think the majority of us (I was not among them) were taking classes at the time. We fancied ourselves poets, remnants of the same urge that had brought out the Beats and the Romantics and the German Renaissance and the like: we were opening new borders and ripping down old walls and reimagining poetry, which was the only thing worth doing with writing.

There was Everett who studied with Tony Robinson, the ranking—and I think he was the only—member of the creative writing section of the English department; Everett had a piece accepted and then killed by the New York Times Magazine. He was big and bluff, curly-haired, thick fingers like sausages. Tom—slim, long-haired, dressed always in clothes that smelled like they’d been in a pile in the basement—had investigated dioxin poisoning in the area for years, and eventually broke into the New York Times with an article detailing it. He wrote haiku to relax. Gail was tall and blonde and very, very sensitive: she and Fred would eventually become the only two from the group I know of who would become adjuncts at the school, which was really something we all secretly hoped to do. She wrote villanelles. It might be difficult to consider how one could change poetry by composing in one of the more formal of its styles, but it was a mark I thought of our strength and resolve that no one questioned it. Robin was tall and blonde and could be distinguished from Gail by not being sensitive. She’d actually had a poem published and been paid for it. Admittedly, it was only ten dollars, but still. Fred was bald on top and the third one, besides me and Gail, who’d been divorced. Grizzly was out and out crazy and I think was just looking for companionship.

We’d come together through Fred, who’d somehow gotten in touch with all of us one at a time (except maybe Grizz who had a habit of just showing up in places where everyone knew him but no one remembered having said anything to him about getting together: the psychotic—and Grizz was eventually hospitalized and put on sedatives because he really, really was crazy—have their own methods for finding things out they want to know) and put out the idea that we might put our talents to use by leading, collectively, a new school of poetry.

“Great,” Everett said. He was one of the few adults in the group who actually worked a regular job and played violin professionally. “You mean publish our own magazine?”

“Maybe something like that,” Fred said.

“We got money to do that?”

“We could sell advertising space,” Gail suggested.

“Sure,” Fred said.

“Who’s going to buy ads in a magazine put out by unknowns?” This was Robin.

“Is there a market for what we do anyway?” asked Tom.

“There isn’t for the stuff I do,” said Grizz, and everyone knew he probably wasn’t referring to writing.

Gail nodded. “Formalized structure isn’t much of a paying market.”

Fred said, “Maybe we could print it gratis.”

Robin said, “Gratis? You mean like no one gets paid?”

“Well, not to start. Maybe later, when things get going, people can get paid. But you know, all the authors get comps.”

I sighed. “Not any worse than we’re doing now.”

Robin said, “I don’t think a printer will accept comps. A printer wants money.”

Someone mumbled, “I want money,” and there was a general mumble agreeing with him.

“Okay, okay, maybe that’s something that’ll come. We have to look at the long haul on this and think of the impact we could have.” Fred wanted this dream desperately. He’d been rejected by every journal he’d submitted to and even the mimeographed, unedited pamphlets like Street and Junk Mail had returned his stuff. This was probably where he got his idea he was on the cutting edge.

And then I said something that sounded stupid even as I said it. “Why don’t we just do a Xerox of our stuff and distribute it ourselves?”

Everett frowned. Robin leaned forward. “What do you mean?”

“I don’t know. We type our stuff up and use the copier in the library and then put them in the Laundromat and the bars and places.”

There was silence.

Grizz nodded. “I like it.”

That should have been a clue.

It was put to a vote, although we hadn’t determined we were taking votes on things or even that everyone there would be involved, and we decided someone would type up our shorter poems and take up a collection among everyone involved to Xerox several copies (because it cost a dime a sheet at the library). And then, for maximum visibility, and because it meant spending less money, we’d paste the copies on windows and phone poles and bulletin boards all over town and school.

“Don’t we need permission for that?” Gail asked.

“Fuck permission,” Tom said. “It’s better to ask forgiveness than ask permission.”

“What’ll we call it?” Robin was getting a little more excited at the prospect.

“Street Poets.”

“Real Poets.”

“Real Poetry.”

“Street Poetry.”

“Trashcan. You know, like the Ashcan School.”

“Gut Bucket.”

“Eat Shit.”

“The Slim Edge of Hope.”

“Okay,” Fred took over again. “Okay, we can decide later on what we’ll call it. We’ll play with some titles.”

“Hey, do we want to put our names on it?” This came from Gordon, another guy who actually worked for a living and wrote really short poems with obscure titles like “Hark, And Thus”. He had slipped in the door a little later than the rest of us and stayed quiet in the back.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, if we’re not gonna ask permission of anyone to put this shit up, and it’s got our names on it, we’ve got some problems.”

This took a moment to sink in. It was generally agreed that publishing in obscurity, for now, was the better legal option.

“Do we wanna just put stuff up unattributed?”

“Hey, why not.” Robin was really getting into the idea. “I mean, all the best stuff is graffiti and this would be like graffiti.”

“Graffiti artists tag their stuff.”

“So let’s tag our stuff.”

“Like how?”

“I don’t know. Like a group name.”

“Street Poets.”

“Real Poets.”

“The Last Mad Poets.”

“The Last Poets Who Matter.”

“The Poets Who Don’t Matter.”

“How about Deli Poets?” We were meeting in Fred’s rooms above the Main Street Deli.

Tom was staring out the window. “There’s a fire zone sign out there.”

Everyone looked at him.

He shrugged. “You can’t park in a fire zone. Fire Zone Poets. Poets in the Firing Zone.”

“Poets Living in the Fire Zone.”

This was from Grizz. It was just Zippy the Pinhead enough to appeal to almost everyone.

So we became, officially, the Poets Living in the Fire Zone. Everyone who had access to a computer was conscripted for keyboarding duties, and some of us who only had typewriters were going to type things up as well, so it wouldn’t look uniform. Fred and Gail bought wheat paste in tubes and Tom collected some cash for copies. The rest of us contributed short, short poems. Some were only a couple lines, some a single stanza. Nothing was longer than fifteen lines. It was agreed no one would sign his stuff when submitting and the typist made any editing decisions.

Two nights later we had our first issue. It was a bizarre looking amalgamation of fonts and sizes, typescript and dot-matrix print. It looked like a ransom note, only rather than individual letters cut from various sources, it was as if whole paragraphs were culled from newspapers, books, magazines, suicide notes, stuff scribbled on the backs of envelopes, crumpled, discarded love notes, the odd jottings you made when you woke in the dark from a dream. Fred, Gail and I conscripted Bicycle Dan who was always up for this sort of thing and went out after midnight with our tubes of wheat paste and roughly ten copies each and plastered them on every surface we could find.

The next morning I went out to survey our work. With only a couple exceptions, like the bulletin boards where anyone could put up anything, every single copy had been ripped down. The window of the deli, where I’d seen Fred paste his first one, sported four corner shreds and a middle section with a few discernable words.

Fred found the rest of the copy in a nearby wire trash can. He pulled the remains out and brandished them like a battleaxe. With his beard and balding head and bulky middle, he looked like a Viking gone to seed.

“Rip this down!” he said. “Rip this down, my ass!” He shook the paper vigorously. “Rip this down, and eat it!”

We collected a new batch of poems that day and retyped them on the fly and made a new batch of copies. We had a new title. We rebranded our poetry sheet Rip This Down and Eat It, by the Poets Living in the Fire Zone.