Wednesday, October 27, 2010

I'd Have Cursed the Fig Tree Too

Almost thirty years ago, Walter Bruggemann contrasted Israelite visions of peace and prosperity involving the motif "vines and fig trees". There is the prophetic version (Mic 4), looking to the eschaton, the state version (I Kings 4), legitimating the status quo, and the revolutionary version (I Macc 14), that does the latter in belief that it has achieved the former.

The prophetic version is straightforward:
"In days to come, the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established... People shall beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. But they shall all sit under their own vines and fig trees, and no one will make them afraid." (Mic 4:1-4)
Standard stuff from a prophet like Micah.

The state version demands reading between the lines:
"Judah and Israel were as numerous as the land and sea; they ate and drank and were very happy. Solomon was sovereign over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines, even to the border of Egypt; they brought tribute and served Solomon all the days of his life... Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beer-sheba, all of them under their vines and fig trees." (I Kings 4:20-25)
Bruggemann noted the glaring irony, since Solomon's military bureaucracy did anything but fulfill the dream of "all" Israelites. His reign was in fact a nightmare in which people were drafted away from any vines and fig trees, into the army, or just taxed out of the possession of their small farms in order to support the king's splendor, including his 40,000 stalls of chariot-horses (v 26) and the provisions supplied for elites who feasted at his table (v 27).

The Maccabean passage is interesting.
"The land had rest in the days of Simon. He sought the good of his nation, and his rule was pleasing to them. He extended the borders of the nation and gained full control of the country... They tilled their land in peace... Old men sat in the streets talking together of good things, and the youths put on splendid military attire... All the people sat under their own vines and fig trees, and there was none to make them afraid." (I Macc 14:4-12)
The Hasmoneans may have thrown off the yoke of tyranny, and undoubtedly Simon's reign was more benevolent that Solomon's, but images of "youths in splendid military attire" are ominous -- and don't exactly square with Micah's vision of everyone beating their swords into plowshares.

One might say the prophetic version is positively naive, the state version tyrannically propagandist, the revolutionary version fraught with contradictions. No wonder Jesus just cursed the damn fig tree altogether (Mk 11:12-14). In its Markan context, he was actually cursing Israel, the temple, and the Jewish leadership. (The nation hasn't borne fruit, for its leaders are incapable of recognizing the messiah and the fact that the temple has become a den of robbers.) What more appropriate vessel to bear the curse than a tree that seems too problematic for Israel's own good?

[Bruggemann's article is "Vine and Fig Tree: A Case Study in Imagination and Criticism," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 43(1981): 188-204, reproduced in A Social Reading of the Old Testament: Prophetic Approaches to Israel's Communal Life, pp 91-110.]

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Horror of Resurrection

Jesus was raised three days after his crucifixion (if you believe that sort of thing). Thomas Covenant has now been raised three thousand years after his own sacrifice. But where Jesus' resurrection signaled, in the words of a famous scholar, "The Victory of God", Covenant's seems to pave the way for the enemy's victory -- disaster and oblivion.

That's Stephen R. Donaldson for you. Only a few chapters into Against All Things Ending, the penultimate volume of the Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and I'm thrilling to my favorite author as much as ever. This is The Land, after all, where heroes are self-loathing lepers, rapists, and suicidal depressives, and where even the most promising beacons of hope spell calamity.

Those familiar with the series know that Covenant defeated Lord Foul at the end of the Second Chronicles by sacrificing himself and becoming part of the Arch of Time, leaving Linden Avery to heal The Land devastated by the Sunbane. In the Last Chronicles, over three millenia have passed (a mere ten years in our world), and Foul is back with dirtier tricks, assaulting The Land with caesures (destructive time distortions), and polluting it with an invisibly corrosive atmosphere that has killed the people's health sense. With Covenant dead, it's all up to Linden this time, until in desperation she dares the impossible: to resurrect him. The last pages of Fatal Revenant saw Covenant return to life, utterly horrified:
"Oh, Linden. What have you done?"

"Done, Timewarden?" Infelice snapped viciously. "Done? She has roused the Worm of the World's End. Such magicks must be answered. Because of her madness and folly, every Elohim will be devoured."
Now, three years after one of the greatest cliffhangers in fantasy literature, comes Against All Things Ending, and in the first chapter we get treated to Covenant's perspective in the very first moments after his resurrection. It's worth citing some of the brilliant writing. I imagine this to be a dark version of the Johannine incarnation/resurrection -- the "white gold becoming flesh".
"Thomas Covenant knelt on the rich grass of Andelain as though he had fallen there from the distance of eons. He was full of the heavens and time. He had spent uncounted millennia among the essential strictures of creation, participating in every manifestation of the Arch: he had been as inhuman as the stars, and as alone. He had seen everything, known everything—and had labored to preserve it. From the first dawn of the Earth to the ripening of Earthpower in the Land—from the deepest roots of mountains to the farthest constellations—he had witnessed and understood and served. Across the ages, he had wielded his singular self in defense of Law and life.

"But now he could not contain such illimitable vistas. Linden had made him mortal again. His mere flesh and bone refused to hold his power and knowledge, his span of comprehension. With every beat of his forgotten heart, intimations of eternity were expelled. They oozed from his new skin like sweat, and were lost.

"Still he held more than he could endure. The burden of too much time was as profound as orogeny: it subjected his ordinary mind to pressures akin to those which caused earthquakes; tectonic shifts. His compelled transubstantiation left him frangible. With every lived moment, fractures spread deeper into his soul. Defying every necessity that sustained the Earth and the Land, he had pointed Linden toward the ineffable catastrophe of his resurrection.

"The Worm of the World's End was coming, and it was holocaust incarnate."
I'm sure that Against All Things Ending will deliver the usual fever-pitched crescendos with unceasing suspense. Back to reading.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Favorite Live Songs?

A tough question, but this is what I came up with. Songs which I think are either as good as, or surpass, the studio version... and there are currently youtube videos for all. Enjoy.

1. Ode to My Family, by the Cranberries. Munich, 1995.

2. Par Avion, by Mike and the Mechanics. Dusseldorf, 1989.

3. Skeletons, by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Stockholm, 2009.

4. Where the Streets Have No Name, by U2. Slane Castle, 2001.

5. San Jacinto, by Peter Gabriel. Modena, 1994.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The New York Times' Scripture Quiz

Mark Nanos posted a fun quiz on Facebook, The New York Times "Test Your Savvy on Religion", which has an eye on inflammatory scriptures and religious extremism. Go ahead and take it (reproduced below) before reading further. I scored 12/13.

I do have a slight problem with what The New York Times author is trying to put across. He correctly implies that all religious traditions have the scriptural arsenal to justify basically whatever they want, whether violence or peace, intolerance or kindness; and thus that all religions have the wherewithal to evolve positively. But he also seems to imply that our major religions -- Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism -- are about equally clean and dirty in doing this. The patronization of Islam is transparent.

The real question, to me, isn't so much what religious texts say, but how seriously they are taken, or to what degree they are subordinate to others. I don't know of many Jewish people who advocate #1 and #11 (the Old Testament injunctions to stone non-virgins and dash the heads of babies against rocks). On the other hand, there is massive agreement among the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence that jihadist warfare against unbelievers is obligatory for Muslims, and that Jews and Christians who refuse to convert to Islam should be subjugated as second-class citizens -- which means that practically speaking, #2 (the Koran's "let there be no compulsion in religion") may not be such a cause for comfort.

The Times author is right that we shouldn't rush to inflammatory conclusions about a religion based on cherry-picking texts, but nor should we hold back from underscoring inflammatory elements based on actual practices. It may not be the PC thing to do, but it's honest. Anyway, enjoy the quiz.

1. Which holy book stipulates that a girl who does not bleed on her wedding night should be stoned to death?

a. Koran
b. Old Testament
c. Upanishads

2. Which holy text declares: “Let there be no compulsion in religion”?

a. Koran
b. Gospel of Matthew
c. Letter of Paul to the Romans

3. The terrorists who pioneered the suicide vest in modern times, and the use of women in terror attacks, were affiliated with which major religion?

a. Islam
b. Christianity
c. Hinduism

4. "Every child is touched by the devil as soon as he is born and this contact makes him cry. Excepted are Mary and her Son.” This verse is from:

a. Letters of Paul to the Corinthians
b. The Book of Revelation
c. An Islamic hadith, or religious tale

5. Which holy text is sympathetic to slavery?

a. Old Testament
b. New Testament
c. Koran

6. In the New Testament, Jesus’ views of homosexuality are:

a. strongly condemnatory
b. forgiving
c. never mentioned

7. Which holy text urges responding to evil with kindness, saying: “repel the evil deed with one which is better.”

a. Gospel of Luke
b. Book of Isaiah
c. Koran

8. Which religious figure preaches tolerance by suggesting that God looks after all peoples and leads them all to their promised lands?

a. Muhammad
b. Amos
c. Jesus

9. Which of these religious leaders was a polygamist?

a. Jacob
b. King David
c. Muhammad

10. What characterizes Muhammad’s behavior toward the Jews of his time?

a. He killed them.
b. He married one.
c. He praised them as a chosen people.

11. Which holy scripture urges that the "little ones" of the enemy be dashed against the stones?

a. Book of Psalms
b. Koran
c. Leviticus

12. Which holy scripture suggests beating wives who misbehave?

a. Koran
b. Letters of Paul to the Corinthians
c. Book of Judges

13. Which religious leader is quoted as commanding women to be silent during services?

a. The first Dalai Lama
b. St. Paul
c. Muhammad


1. b. Deuteronomy 22:21.
2. a. Koran, 2:256. But other sections of the Koran do describe coercion.
3. c. Most early suicide bombings were by Tamil Hindus (some secular) in Sri Lanka and India.
4. c. Koran. Islam teaches that Jesus was a prophet to be revered.
5. All of the above.
6. c. Other parts of the New and Old Testaments object to homosexuality, but there’s no indication of Jesus’ views.
7. c. Koran, 41:34. Jesus says much the same thing in different words.
8. b. Amos 9:7
9. All of the above.
10. All of the above. Muhammad’s Jewish wife was seized in battle, which undermines the spirit of the gesture. By some accounts he had a second Jewish wife as well.
11. a. Psalm 137
12. a. Koran 4:34
13. b. St. Paul, both in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2, but many scholars believe that neither section was actually written by Paul.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Crusades Pick List

After finishing Thomas Asbridge's new book on the crusades, I rushed to update my earlier pick list. Here are ten books on the medieval holy wars you can't do without. Asbridge easily makes the top slot, with Tyerman a close second. Riley-Smith's atlas, of course, is stunning, probably the best atlas of any subject I've ever seen, and it's criminal for it to be out of print. I keep including Payne's popular treatment, even if he drops the ball on some points. The collection of primary resources edited by Elizabeth Hallam is a priceless tome, and I can't bring myself to dispense with Runciman's hostile classic, so he retains a place at the bottom.

1. The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land, by Thomas Asbridge. The best comprehensive treatment available and perfect sequel to the author's book on the First Crusade (#9). Resisting easy answers and simplistic formulas, Asbridge shows that Christian and Muslim motives weren't always what scholars assume. Asbridge is a shrewd thinker and sharp writer; it's impossible to put his books down. Particularly refreshing is the analysis of historical figures: there's no clear division of good and bad guys here; you're often unsure whether to dislike or warm to individual crusaders or jihadists -- or both. I recommend reading this book in conjunction with The Atlas of the Crusades (#3) for endless enjoyment; prepare to let dinners go untasted.

2. God's War: A New History of the Crusades, by Christopher Tyerman. The best in-depth analysis of the crusades to date. Tyerman demolishes myths about crusading motives, which had nothing to do with colonialism. Crusaders were driven by religious zeal, the desire to protect holy places and secure their salvation; the papacy by reform and power-politics as it sought control over secular authorities. The author shows how crusading didn't become popular overnight: enthusiasm waxed and waned for over a century before Innocent III established it as an institution with all the logistics formalized. When you've finished this tome, you'll feel like you've heard the papal bulls and gone on crusade yourself, and appreciate that moral indictments of the holy wars don't come easy. (See a complete review of this book here.)

3. The Atlas of the Crusades, edited by Jonathan Riley-Smith. The best atlas of the holy wars. Beautiful maps are punctuated with painstaking detail -- historical dates, battle sites, travel routes, castles & fortresses, monasteries & holy sites, cities and towns -- all set against the backdrop of splendid color-plating. The expeditions to the holy lands are charted in great detail, as well as those in Spain and the Baltic region. See how the Islamic world evolved and shifted under different caliphates, and how Christendom responded to recruitment for the holy wars. It's a crime that this is out of print: it's a visual bible, unlike Angus Konstam's Historical Atlas of the Crusades, which should be avoided.

4. The Chronicles of the Crusades: Eye-Witness Accounts of the Wars Between Christianity and Islam, edited by Elizabeth Hallam. Experience events through the eyes of those who were there: a tale of cannibals who roasted babies on spits; the account of the horrible fate on the Field of Blood; a rabbi's account of how Bernard of Clairveaux saved Jews from massacre; descriptions of the gradual "easternizing" of crusaders; a Muslim's contempt for Acre, "the city of Christian pigs"; Innocent III's letter of excommunication threats to the leaders of the Fourth Crusade; and much more. No fan of the crusades should be without this handsome selection of primary sources interwoven with modern essays.

5. The Dream and the Tomb, by Robert Payne. The best popular treatment of the crusades, and a personal favorite of mine. Focusing on the crusades in the holy lands (1095-1291), this book reads like a novel while mostly remaining true to history and primary sources. The chapters covering the time period of 1100-1187 are the best, sketching the six kings of Jerusalem in all their colorful personas: militant Baldwin I, pious Baldwin II, shrewd Fulk, charismatic Baldwin III, lecherous and unbelieving Amalric I, and brave, leprous Baldwin IV (Payne curiously drops the ball on Baldwin I, calling him a womanizer of all things; most scholars now recognize that he was probably homosexual). By the time Jerusalem falls to Saladin in 1187, you feel like the dynasty has become part of your family.

6. The Crusades: The Essential Readings, edited by Thomas Madden. An important assortment of scholarly essays, many of which broke important ground. Jonathan Riley-Smith -- the "E.P. Sanders" of crusades scholarship -- refutes myths of colonial crusaders, in particular the idea that crusaders were landless sons intent on carving out territories abroad. Tyerman's controversial article, "Were There Any Crusades in the Twelfth Century?", argues that prior to Innocent III (1198-1216) the crusades really weren't distinct from other forms of Christian warfare. H.E.J. Cowdrey's classic "Pope Urban's Preaching of the First Crusade" also finds a place in this collection.

7. Fighting for Christendom, by Christopher Tyerman. The best introduction to the crusades, for anyone who wants to learn about the subject in two or three sittings. This is a prelude to Tyerman's later crowning achievement, God's War (#2), about one-tenth the size, though there's nothing superficial about it. The conclusion addressing supposed parallels between 9/11-conflicts and the crusade & jihad is excellent. Modern western imperialists are anything but "crusaders", and the al-Qaeda network, far from "medieval" in its techniques and ideology, is as modern as the World Wide Web.

8. What Were the Crusades?, by Jonathan Riley-Smith. The crusades have been either incorrectly or too ambiguously defined, and Riley-Smith explains them with precision. A crusade was (1) a voluntary and temporary vow to wage warfare in the defense of Christian places or people; (2) approved by the pope; (3) penitential, whereby the participants received remission for the penalties of confessed sins -- as well as a package of related temporal privileges, including church protection of family and property, immunity from lawsuits and debt interest. Crusades weren't confined to the holy lands; the wars fought in Spain and the Baltic region were also crusades. This book justifies the definition.

9. The First Crusade: The Roots of Conflict Between Christianity and Islam, by Thomas Asbridge. A vivid account of the most important and successful crusade. With juggernaut pacing and firm scholarship behind it, the book invites the reader to experience the First Crusade in all its horrors, disease, starvation, massacres, and miraculous visions. It puts the reader right on medieval soil, where warriors slaughtered for their salvation and treasured holy relics above land and booty. And it offers the best and most succinct explanation for Urban II's motives in preaching the crusade.

10. A History of the Crusades (3 vols), by Steven Runciman. Hostile and misleading, this three-volume classic retains its place on a top-10 list for its elegance and thorough detail. A detailed history from the old school of thought, portraying the crusaders as greedy and barbaric colonizers over against an enlightened Byzantine empire which the Latins ultimately diminished, thus paving the way for an Ottoman takeover. "And the Holy War was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is a sin against the Holy Ghost." We've come a long way since Runciman.

11. The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam and the Crusades, by Robert Spencer. I throw this one in as a bonus and perhaps to counter Runciman with the other extreme. Spencer is no scholar and gets some things seriously wrong, but he does correct a lot of silly PC myths about the crusades -- for instance that Christianity and Islam are for the most part "equivalent traditions", that jihadists like Saladin were benign sweetie-pies, and that crusaders were land-hungry colonizers motivated by greed. I particularly like his bruising of Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven film -- about as historical as The DaVinci Code -- which portrays a sentimentally tolerant Islam during the time of the crusades. On the not-so-bright side, Spencer offers some counter-myths -- like the crusades being primarily defensive conflicts, Christianity being inherently benign and Islam inevitably nasty, etc.