Monday, August 7, 2017

Joseph Got What He Deserved

“Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him.” Genesis 37:19-20)

The famous phrase is from Genesis is inscribed on the tomb of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Atlanta. 

But there’s another phrase from the same chapter that not only clinches the dysfunction of Joseph’s brothers, but informs only-children what it’s like to have siblings.
“But when his brothers saw that their father loved Joseph more that all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peaceably to him.” (Genesis 37: 4)
This particular passage, like the sagas of Cain and Abel, Jacob’s battles with his brother Esau, the parable of the prodigal son, and others, is easier to understand if you have siblings. The rivalry is natural. And while most sibling encounters don’t lead to fratricide, many sisters and brothers who have pulled back from one another’s throats could paraphrase Chris Rock: “I don’t approve of brothers killing brothers – but I understand.”

I was the oldest of four brothers and a sister and while I spent my teen years wishing I was a Kennedy, I now realize that to outsiders, we looked like a black-and-white sit-com. “The Adventures of Elmore and Mary”. “Leave it to Paul”. “Dad knows best.” Even our daily dialogue, recalled decades later, sounds like it had a laugh track.
Scene: 14-year-old Philip is in his room typing letters to his political idols while Dad has drafted Larry and Jim to help him hang tools on the garage wall. 
Dad: I can’t find the stud. Where’s the stud?  
Jim: He’s upstairs typing. (Laughter. Applause.)

Early pictures of the Jenks sibs capture us in our sibling detente. The portrait above was taken by Mr. Nickel who was also a high school English teacher and a colleague of Dad’s at Morrisville-Eaton Central School. Dressed for photographic posterity, the boys are flaunting bow-ties and Susan is wearing the frilly little dress Mom waited through five long pregnancies to buy. The card table on which Susan and Paul are perched was the field of many pitched battles when Mom hosted the bridge club.

I spent two glorious years as an only child. Alone and adored in the tiny apartment over Flora Cramer’s house on Main Street in Morrisville, I couldn’t have been happier. Early snapshots show me sitting on Dad’s lap, chewing on his pipe, or sitting bathed by sunlight in a bay window, watching bulldozers on Main Street in 1947. I even enjoyed the luxury of an imaginary friend only I could see, but whose ectoplasmic form was mysteriously captured on film while I stood nearby. (See the red circled figure, for which I offer no explanation.) 

As any only-child knows, having one’s parents to one’s self is an Edenic experience. It was only after the fall that siblings Cain and Abel began competing for parental attention and Cain killed Abel. Looking back, I think Cain had a reasonable defense. God liked Abel best and praised him at Cain's expense. “The Lord said to Cain why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin in couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Genesis 4:6-7) Just the kind of condescending, parental preaching no child can bear. 

My brother Larry was born almost exactly two years after me. I was too young to be aware of any Cain-like hostilities toward him, but these animosities are often unconscious and revealed in family tales told decades later. One of my favorite relatives was often reminded by her mother that when she was a toddler, she reacted poorly to the usurpation of a baby sister. “What shall we do with Sissy today?” her mother asked her. “We could drown her,” she suggested.

My own sibling resentment was more passive, and both Larry and I have told this story many times. I’m not sure how old we were, but Larry had just started crawling. We were still living in the apartment and we must have been “rambunctious” (one of Mom’s favorite words) because Flora the landlady often knocked on our door to ask Mom to keep the noise down. Those ominous visits would unnerve Mom, but rarely deterred me as I took advantage of my superior ambulation to chase Larry with objects he found terrifying, such as a serpentine enema hose I found in the bathroom.

One day, when Mom left the apartment for a few moments – probably to apologize to the landlady for the noise – Larry and I were playing in the bedroom. There was a tall, narrow dresser in the room and I enjoyed pulling out the drawers to use as steps so I could climb to the top. Larry, not old enough to attempt such a journey, would watch longingly as I giddily ascended. As I sat on the top of the dresser this particular morning and looked down at Larry looking up at me, I had a sudden inspiration. I scurried back down the creaking drawers, opened the bottom one, and pushed Larry into it. Noticing how perfectly he fit in it (once all the underwear and lingerie had been tossed out), I pushed the drawer shut. 


Larry was not whimpering. He likes it! Hey, Larry! Exhilarated, I scurried to the top of the dresser to declare my domain. Before I reached the top, the dresser began to topple forward. I jumped to safety, but the dresser fell on its face in a pile of its former contents. All the drawers made exhaling sounds and closed under the weight.


I wish I could say this was the last time in my life that an action of mine had unexpected consequences. I was beginning to surmise that what had happened was not good and I might be in trouble. The feeling did not go away when I heard my mother’s footsteps outside.

More than sixty years later, I can only wonder what was going through my mother’s mind. “I will only be gone a minute. What can happen in a minute?” She must have heard the muffled crash of the dresser as she came through the door.

I can’t remember the expression on Mom’s face, but given that she had a progressive cornea deterioration disease that would take away her sight, she must have questioned the fuzzy scene before her. The tall dresser was now prone in a pile of socks, panties and boxers on the floor. I was standing calmly beside it. 

“What happened?” Mom asked.

I looked at her quizzically.

“What did you do?”

I shrugged.

“What made the dresser fall over?”

I shrugged.

Then, more urgently: “Where is your brother?”

I was too young to know that the answer to that question had already been scripted in the bible, so I stuck to my story. I shrugged.

At this point Larry, who may have been shrewdly silent while waiting to see if he was in some kind of trouble, decided it was time to whimper.

My mother looked stunned, and at first I thought it might have been the dresser itself that was whining. Not understanding what was happening, Mom’s eyes darted around the room to see where Larry’s voice was coming from.

“Where is he?”

I shrugged again, but thought it not inconsistent with my testimony to put my thumb in my mouth and nod toward the bottom drawer.

As soon as she grasped what had happened, the power of a protective lioness surged through her veins. With unnatural strength, Mom pushed the heavy dresser on its side and pulled open the drawer. Larry tumbled out unharmed and, so far as I could see, unruffled. Compared to being chased with an enema hose, he probably thought snuggling in the warm recesses of a piece of furniture was no big deal.

I can’t remember what happened after that – whether Mom muttered something about just waiting “until your father gets home” or whether this sibling confrontation resulted in punishments or consequences. But it does remind me that when it comes to sibling relationships, anything is possible. 

My siblings and I were alternately loving and rowdy, forgiving and aggressive and always competitive for attention. We got into loud fights and vicious wrestling matches that led to the parental prime directive: don’t bleed in here. When the three youngest members of our blended family engaged in the same loud confrontations in Port Chester, my spouse Martha – an only-child – was appalled and thought there must be something wrong with them. But as one-of-five, I knew better. The sibling rivalry was normal. All too normal.

The story of Joseph and his brothers begins in Genesis 37, and it’s not a pretty one. Joseph, the youngest of Jacob’s large brood of sons – remember Jacob, the dirty rotten scoundrel who stole his brother’s birthright? – is his father’s favorite. “Jacob loved Joseph more than any of his children, because he was the son of his old age,” goes the story (Genesis 37:3). You can’t be an only-child and understand why that’s a dangerous dynamic, but it also helps to be old. I’m 65, and a miracle baby at this stage of our lives would certainly attract my attention. I would probably spend the rest of my life staring at him with my mouth open.

This is probably what happened to Joseph, and both he and his brothers noticed that their old man was constantly staring at Joseph with his mouth open. And Joseph began to get the idea that he was special. His father lavished him with gifts, including the famous robe of many colors – actually “a long robe with sleeves” if the correct translation is used – and Joseph proceeded to make several tactical errors that must be explained by the fact that his frontal lobe had not developed. He had dreams that sheaves representing his brothers bowed down to his sheaf and, stupidly, he told his brothers about it. The dreams continued, and “his brothers were jealous of him.” (Genesis 37:11) They plotted to kill him but, out of mercy or guilt, they sold the boy to Midianite traders for 20 shekels of silver. The Midianites took Joseph to Egypt. In a breathtaking act of sibling cruelty, they killed a goat and smeared the blood of Joseph’s coat so Jacob would think the boy was dead. 

The story has been told in many forms for millennia. All us bible scholars know that Joseph’s ability to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams rescued him from bondage and enabled a stunning rise to power in Egypt. This development provides the best scene in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice, where the Pharaoh of Egypt is portrayed as an Elvis impersonator. (Donny Osmond’s Joseph is as good an illustration as any as to why his brothers wanted to kill him.)


But the fate of Joseph and his brothers is yet to be told, and the Common Lectionary wants us to stop reading here today. Imagine Joseph in shackles, humiliated and rejected, in the hands of a Midianite caravan en route to Egypt. What happens next? It’s a lectionary cliff-hanger.

Now, back to my own band of sibs. We turned out all right. As time passed we grew up and began our own families in various parts of the country. We eventually evolved into occasionally mature and often nurturing human beings who love each other and wish we had more opportunities to see each other. Growing up in Elmore and Mary’s place may not have been easy on Mary and Elmore, but we survived. And looking back on it, the memories are happy ones.*

And one of the benefits of growing up as competitive siblings is that when we read the story of Joseph and his brothers, we don’t have to Google bible commentaries to understand what is happening. We know. We lived it. 

Perhaps very few of us would have sold our most annoying sibling into slavery. But it would have crossed our minds.

And the grace we hold in common is that the God who watched over Joseph and brought him from slavery to salvation is the same God who brings order to our own lives. The God who guided Joseph’s brothers from murderous dysfunction to ultimate reconciliation is the same God who watches over us all.

Fraternal love may not be instinctive, and it’s not always the sort of thing we can accomplish on our own. But with God’s grace, siblings can transcend their natures. With God’s grace, we can emerge from the Jungian tumult as sisters and brothers together.

* Larry is a retired architect and brilliant still-life artist in Denver (see Jim is a semi-retired physician in Saranac Lake, N.Y. Paul is an electrical engineer in Saint Cloud, Fla. Susan is a healthcare professional in Newton, N.C.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Good Seed and Doofi

Genesis 25:19-34
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

There is an ancient tradition of the church that hunters are not holy.

The notion that “hunters beth nat hooly men” is not a biblical verity, but it does appear to be traceable back to Esau, the older twin of Jacob, the sons of Isaac and Rebekah. The line is from Chaucers Canterbury Tales, the 650 year-old poem which English majors learn in Middle English.
By cause that it was old and somdel streit 
This ilke Monk leet olde thynges pace, 
And heeld after the newe world the space. 
He yaf nat of that text a pulled hen,That seith 
that hunters beth nat hooly men, 
Ne that a monk, whan he is reccheless 
Is likened til a fish that is waterlees –This is to 
seyn, a monk out of his cloystre 
But thilke text heeld he nat worth an oystre; 
And I seyde his opinioun was good.
If Field and Stream needed an attractive cover model, it would not be Esau. The writers of Genesis portray Esau as a “skillful hunter,” but an impatient and impulsive man – two traits that every hunter knows can be dangerous.

Even so, if you were a hanger-on at Isaac’s tent and had to choose between the brothers, you’d conclude Esau – although perhaps not the sharpest knife in the drawer – was morally superior.

According to Genesis, the brothers’ sibling rivalry began earlier than most: when they were still in Rebekah’s womb. The boys wrestled and twisted so violently that Rebekah thought she was going to die. In the days before obstetricians, she went directly to God with her complaint, and as with many modern doctors, God was only partially helpful. God did give her prenatal information that went far beyond the gender or health of the fetuses:
‘Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.’
On the other hand, God did little to ease her violent cramping. The wrestling continued until the time of labor. When the boys finally hurled themselves down the vaginal track, Esau burst out first. He was startlingly red and hirsute, so they named him Esau, which of course means Hairy. His brother, struggling for the advantage down to the wire, is dragged out grasping his brother’s heel. They named him Jacob, which means Heel. As it turned out, both names were appropriate. 

The boys’ bitter rivalry was exacerbated, as often happens, by parental favoritism. Rebekah, whose postnatal soreness must have lasted for months, loved Jacob because he was smooth-skinned and liked to hang around the tent with his mother. Jacob loved Esau because he liked his meat and Esau the hunter had more slabs on him than a Lady Gaga dress.

The climactic chapter of the boys’ rivalry is reported almost too casually. The passage that should have begun more ominously, as, “It was a dark and stormy night,” opens like a gentle fairytale: 
Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, ‘Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!’ (Therefore he was called Edom.) Jacob said, ‘First sell me your birthright.’ Esau said, ‘I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?’ Jacob said, ‘Swear to me first.’ So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. (Genesis 25:29-34)
Neither brother looks good in this account. Esau is impatient and impulsive and convinced that if he doesn’t eat immediately, he’ll just die.  Jacob refuses to feed his brother until Esau gives him a prize of enormous value – his birthright to all his father’s lands, servants, riches, sheep, and property. How can Jacob be so selfish, so calculating? And how can Esau be so stupid? (Or, if we take the biblical account literally, how can he have been so ravenous?)

“Thus Esau despised his birthright” is the cliffhanger for today. The Common Lectionary wants us to reflect on this moment before we’re allowed to read on. Of course most of us  have already read past Genesis 25 and know the spoilers. Developments in future episodes will keep us on the edge of our Kindle: deception, betrayal, murder threats, fugitives living in poverty, erotic bating-and-switching – a mini-series that will make Fargo look like Ozzie and Harriet. Future chapters will also provide subtle reminders that if you’re looking for models of clean living and Republican family values, Genesis is not the place to look.

Fittingly, the Gospel reading prescribed by the Common Lectionary for this Sunday is Matthew 13:1-9:
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’
The parable of the sower is a helpful metaphor to keep in mind as we re-encounter the familiar histories of the old Patriarchs. When God first approached Abraham and told him his seed would conceive a nation as populous as the stars in the sky, God didn’t mention how rocky that sowing would be. 

The Patriarchs were not perfect. Many of them were distractingly quirky, and it’s easy to get angry at Jacob every time you read of his cruelty to his brother and his deceit of his father. Some of the seeds the Patriarchs sowed fall on rocks, others on thorns. But God remained faithful to their covenant, and in the end their seeds grew incalculably more than a hundredfold. The Patriarchs, imperfect as they were, remind us that God’s seeds have also been planted in us – and as imperfect as we are, God has promised to bring forth a sumptuous harvest.


As to the adage that “hunters be not holy men,” I cannot agree. 

Not many people in my home area in Central New York would think of hunting as an unholy pursuit. When Kirsten Gillibrand was appointed to the U.S. Senate, she sought to ingratiate herself with an expanded constituency by avowing, “Up here, most folks go hunting and shoot their Thanksgiving turkeys.” Could be, but I don’t remember a lot of neighbors doing that. You can’t relax and enjoy your bird if your tongue is exploring every bite for lead pellets.

I doubt my former neighbors in Central New York really hunt their Thanksgiving turkeys in the woods, but I do know this: slaying a turkey in the exhilaration of his flight is more humane – and more Godly – than raising them for months in suffocating crates before binding their feet and wings and stuffing them head-first into electric decapitators. Men and women who shoulder their 12-gauges and seek their game in the unfettered forest may not always be pious, but they clearly have a moral advantage over the operators of reeking slaughter houses and overcrowded chicken farms.

I say this with deference to my friends and relatives who love hunting. When I was growing up, almost every autumn Uncle Bob killed Bambi’s mother or one of her cousins and our dinner tables were laden high with venison for weeks. About that I have mixed feelings. Uncle Bob was a good man, but Bambi’s mother was good, too. And I hate venison.

I grew up in rural Central New York where hunting was popular and everyone 14 and older was eligible to take a 12-gauge or .22 into the woods. With fond memories of Fess Parker’s Davy Crockett, I spent hours in the woods across the road from our house. I had no interest in assassinating quail, but I shouldered my .22 more or less as a beard, so my hikes looked like manly quests and not effete interactions with nature. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, John Nickel and I took our .22 rifles to the village dump on Cedar Street to shoot rats. That was exhilarating at first, until we discovered how hard it is to kill a rat. Rats can take a lot of lead before waddling beneath piles of junk, growling and cursing in their nasty rat lingo.

Uncle Bob loved hunting, but my father hated it. Somewhere in a family album there is a picture of Dad crouching with his rifle beside a 3-point buck that he had shot. In another picture three or four other guys - including the high school principal, Dad's boss - pose behind him with broad smiles. Dad is not smiling. He looks like he is about to throw up.

Actually, Chaucer’s critical reference to hunters is uttered by a monk who’s a few beads short of a rosary. The monk dismisses as worthless as a plucked chicken the idea that hunters are unholy.

My final exegesis, therefore, is that both hunters and gatherers do Gods will, but the hunter Esau was feckless, Jacob was a self-centered opportunist, and Jesus left us wondering if even bad seeds can have a chance to take root and grow into something useful.

And a final thought for the day. For English majors who have discarded their Middle English along with the algebra they never use, be assured no knowledge is ever useless.  

All of us in Professor Jene Beardsley’s class at (then) Eastern Baptist College had to memorize 20 lines of Canterbury Tales in middle English. That comes in handy when you get unwanted solicitation calls at 9:05 p.m.

“Mr. Jenks, let me tell you about this wonderful new development in water softening systems …”

And I reply,

“Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote, the droghte of March hath perced to the roote.”

“Uh, beg pardon?”

“And bathed every veyne in swich licour, of which vertu engendred is the flour …”

“Sorry. Wrong number.”

The picture at top: Stained glass by Everhard Rensig and Gerhard Remisch, 1521, Victoria and Albert Museum.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

When God Seems Cruel

He said, Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you. Genesis 22:1-14
After a lifetime of explaining God’s existence and love to the dubious Oxford community, C.S. Lewis realized he had discovered the true nature of God. “God,” he said scathingly, “is a vivisectionist.”

Lewis had been a controversial figure at Oxford because he was a devout Christian. 

His faith set him apart from the cynical dons who hoisted bitters with him at the Eagle and Child pub and listened to him drone on about God, Jesus, and holy writ. The skeptical intelligentsia, who believed the existence of God had been pretty much dismissed by modern science and Darwin, snored and scoffed ale out of their jaded snouts when Lewis spoke.

But Clive Staples Lewis – Jack to his friends – held fast to his theological moorings. As a specialist in myths and legends, he was not disturbed by coincidental repetitions in other cultures, including common myths that a god assumed the form of a bird and impregnated a virgin with his divine progeny. Zeus took the form of a swan to inseminate Leda, and he was one of a long line of fertile fowl in search of virgins. In the Middle East, in fact, God appeared as a dove to a young Galilean girl and left her with a sacred swelling in her belly.

Lewis might have dismissed all these stories as fanciful fantasies generated by humanity’s common biological gene pool. But the devout Church of England layman thought he discerned a greater truth. What if one of these legends was the true myth that validated all the others? And what if the multi-cultural repetition of like myths was God’s way pointing humankind to the ultimate reality?

Lewis gradually emerged as one of the great interpreters of the Christian faith. His many books – including The Screwtape Letters, Surprised by Joy, and Mere Christianity – are still best sellers. As his reputation grew, even Lewis’ most cynical critics came to respect him.

But toward the end of his life, even Jack Lewis’ faith began to crumble. He married an American divorcee, Joy Davidman, initially to enable her to settle in England as permanent resident. But as often happens, his platonic relationship morphed to passionate love and the already married couple moved in with each other. It was a too, too British romance.

And Lewis told himself it was God’s doing. Through his love of Joy Davidman, Lewis felt, God was rewarding him with a metaphor of God’s unconditional love for all.

Then Joy was diagnosed with bone cancer. 

Lewis was devastated. But the couple prayed intensely for God’s healing. And, as is often the case in these tragedies, Joy experienced an inexplicable remission. The couple rejoiced at what they felt was a miraculous cure, and interpreted it as a sign of God’s healing power.

But the remission did not last long. After a series of setbacks, Joy died on July 13, 1960.

“You must rely on your faith,” Lewis’ rector told the grieving widower.

But Lewis shook his head. “No,” he said. “This is simply a mess.” 

Lewis felt utterly betrayed by a God who seemed to have condemned him to a rollercoaster of conflicting emotions: joy at the love he had for his wife, grief when she was diagnosed with cancer, joy when she appeared to be cured, grief when the cancer returned, hope that a loving God would still intervene and restore her to health, and desolation when she died.

How could God be so cruel?

The story of Lewis’ return to faith is recorded in A Grief Observed, one of his greatest works. The book is often read by bereaved persons who struggle with the loss of a loved one. 

Lewis concluded that when he thought God was promising his wife would recover, he was imposing his own hopes, fears, and delusions on God’s voice.

In fact, as fervently as we may pray for those things God already knows we want, God does not promise to do our will.

“We were promised sufferings,” Lewis wrote.  “They were part of the program. We were even told, 'Blessed are they that mourn,' and I accept it. I've got nothing that I hadn't bargained for. Of curse it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.”

Lewis said his grief was “like an amputation” in which an essential part of his being was painfully removed. And – far from being a vivisectionist – God’s aim is to use our grief to build us up, not tear us down.

“God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality,” Lewis wrote. “He knew it already. It was I who didnt. In this trial He makes us occupy the dock, the witness box, and the bench all at once. He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.”

Clive Staples Lewis died on November 22, 1963. His death went largely unnoticed because it was on the same day President Kennedy’s death plunged the world into griefs observed on a massive scale.

But the legacy he left with us is important. His message is this: be very careful, when you think you are hearing God’s voice, that you are not actually responding to your own hopes, desires, or prejudices.

Usually it’s difficult to tell.

Was it really God’s voice that spoke to Abraham?  Was it really God who, in an act of cruelty so unlike the God of love, ordered Abraham to kill and burn his beloved son?

Was God really testing Abraham? Or was Abraham testing God, pushing himself in God’s face, forcing God to see Abraham’s importance and willingness to do anything to benefit from God’s power?

If that is the case, it’s fortunate God was able to bring Abraham back to reality at the last minute.

But what if Abraham never got the message? What if he was never able to tell the difference between God’s voice and his own inner illusions?

This is a vital question, for we live in a world torn apart by persons who can’t tell the difference.

Congregations are torn apart because quarreling members are deluded that God is telling them to shun and reject those who disagree with them.

Denominations are divided by debates on theological and ecclesial issues including styles of baptism, restrictions imposed on ordination, attitudes toward sexual orientation, and other issues on which each side claims to be the exclusive auditors of God’s voice.

Deluded churches claim special messages from God about when Jesus is returning again, or about God’s hatred for immigrants, persons of other races, or LBGT persons.

So called pro-life Christians hear God’s voice calling them to intimidate and murder healthcare professionals who perform abortions.

Taken to extreme levels – as happens every day – many persons of faith hear God’s voice calling them to 

attack Muslim worshippers, 

beat same-sex couples on the street, 

bully their classmates, 

beat and stone their daughters who have dated persons of other religions, 

kidnap hundreds of children to make a point about making their society theologically pure, 

use rape as a weapon of war, 

strap explosives to their waists to kill dozens of innocent persons,

 or hijack airplanes and crash them into buildings.

It hardly takes a dash of discernment to discover God’s real voice is not present in any of these actions.

All that present is the antithesis of the God of love: our illusions, our prejudices, our hostilities, our megalomaniacal drive to force inferior people to believe what we presume God is telling us.

But God’s real voice is not calling us to attack those with whom we disagree, but to place ourselves in a loving – and occasionally risky – dialogue with them.

“To love at all is to be vulnerable,” C.S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves.

“Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

As always, God’s truth voice speaks to us in counter-intuitive irony. 

We hear God in weakness, not in belligerence.

And we hear God in love, not in hate.

Thousands of years ago, the Psalmist reminded us how to hear God’s voice:
I will sing of your steadfast love, O LORD, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations. I declare that your steadfast love is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens. (Psalm 89:1-2)

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Handmaid's Travail

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian maid whose name was Hagar, and Sarai said to Abraham, “Behold, the LORD has prevented me from having children; go in to my maid; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai … And he went into Hagar and she conceived, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress.” Genesis 16:1-2, 4 
But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” Genesis 21:9-10.
Our Bible story today begins in the tent of Abraham. It should have been a happy scene with Abraham surrounded by the rustic opulence of the rich desert ruler he is. He should be sitting in fleecy comfort, his every whim satisfied by hard-working and loyal servants. Long gone are the poor shepherd’s itchy burlap garments that absorb the desert’s heat and radiate the odor of human sweat at night. Gone are the sand-encrusted sandals that abused his bunions. God has blessed Abraham, and he is very comfortable and very rich.

So how come his life sucks? Sister wives Sarah and Hagar have been at each other’s throats for years and their discord has wearied the old man. Sarah hates Hagar. Hagar despises Sarah. Sarah beats Hagar and bans her from the tent whenever she can. This is not the domestic paradise envisioned by Joseph Smith when he posited that polygamy was Heavenly Father’s will.

As our bible story opens, the years of discord have come to an explosive climax and Sarah uses her authority as senior wife to demand the  expulsion of Hagar and her child from Abraham’s luxurious tent. What follows is one of those heart-wrenching scenes that dominate the saga of Genesis: 
So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. Genesis 21:14-16.
How could Abraham and Sarah be so cruel?

The back story offers some clues. 

Abraham was 75 when God ordered him to move to Canaan where, God assured him, he would be the primogenitor of a vast nation. God said “jump” and Abraham jumped, pruriently winking his pretty wife, Sarah, to tell her they’d better get started. 

But years went by and the nation-starting business was going nowhere. There’s reason to suspect Sarah was tiring of her husband’s sweaty efforts to make God happy. Looking around, she saw her beautiful Egyptian servant, Hagar, and presented her to him as a gift. “She’s all yours, dear.” Abraham dutifully accepted and continued his feverish endeavors to please God. 

Looking back, Sarah must have wondered what on earth she had been thinking. Naturally, Abraham continued his feverish endeavors to please God by sowing his patriarchal seed. And because it was (and continues to be) the practice of men, he cared little which woman was the holy receptacle. 

Hagar is one of the biblical models for Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which details both the dangers of a literal interpretation of scripture as well as the natural enmity between the barren and the nubile.

Sarah, initially relieved that her vigorous husband was occupied elsewhere, soon became exasperated by Abraham’s sacred enthusiasm and threw Hagar out of the tent. Hagar, heavy with child, was filled with contempt for her mistress. 

Years passed and God – still working on an early draft of a commandment forbidding adultery – decided Abraham’s nation-building tasks needed to continue with Sarah only. Sarah thought she had retired from that job because she was far past the normal age of child bearing. But after years of watching her husband embrace her hated rival and her rival’s son, Sarah gave birth to Isaac. 

Finally with a son of her own, Sarah knew her position as senior wife had been re-established. When she saw Hagar’s son playing innocently with her baby, she snapped. “Cast out this slave woman with her son,” she ordered her husband. “For the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” Genesis 21:9-10.

What a mess. What a great soap opera. But did it really happen?

Genesis is a library of allegories, metaphors, and myths. The stories are fun, and they are a lot more fun when you believe the events are literally true.

That’s about as close to advocating a literal bible as my conscience will allow me to go. I’ve known a lot of brilliant and accomplished people who believe God enables people to survive fiery ovens or live in fish bellies. I once met Colonel Jim Irwin, the aeronautic engineer and astronaut, in a Southern Baptist pressroom in the seventies. He had exchanged his Air Force blues for a dazzling red and yellow double-knit plaid jacket and baggy white pants, and his GI haircut was now a fashionable shag. You don’t often run into people who walked on the moon so we journalists pressed near him to hear what it had been like. Instead, he announced he was going to Turkey to search for the original ark. Retirement can send a guy off in odd directions (I now know), but if an astronaut believed the ark was real, who was I to argue? 

Millions of thoughtful people believe Abraham was a historical figure, and they could be right. But if he was a myth who evolved to explain the origins of the twelve tribes of Israel, he was a captivating myth. His story is a soap opera of betrayal, greed, lust, jealousy, and mass murder. And unlike other protagonists of most sagas, he had 175 years of life to get it done.

Typical of soap operas, it was Abraham’s sex drive that kept getting him into trouble. The teller of his story seeks to make the point that God has decided to build a great nation through Abraham’s seed and Abraham was faithful to God no matter how many obstacles God put in his way. The main obstacle was Abraham’s little Abraham, which was not getting any younger. And, as the bronze-age macho storyteller tells it, God and Abraham pursued their goals by compelling women to graciously submit to their male will.  

This part of the myth is true. Bronze-age men used women as means to their own ends and they never doubted that was God’s eternal plan. We know that is true because it’s still true. Gender equality is a relatively nascent phenomenon and men still hold most of the power in business, the church, and certainly in U.S. Senate.

That is changing because only the most insulated and closed-minded persons still believe the genders are intellectually, spiritually, and physically unequal. Unfortunately, insulated and closed-minded people, though dwindling, have been gerrymandered into our social structure. Hopefully our daughters – and sons – will live to see the time when they have passed from the scene.

In the meantime, our bible story should also be a cautionary tale about the complications of assuming allegorical myths are historically true. 

Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar are convincing characters because they all believed a male God had ordained male patriarchs to use females as unwilling vessels of nation building. Such people did exist in 1800 B.C. and such people exist today. 

But we don’t need prophets like Margaret Atwood to see how such beliefs can be harmful. Such beliefs were an underlying cause of misery for Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar.

This much we know to be true: great nations arose in the fertile crescent of the Middle East, and they bore common witness to the One God, sometimes called Yahweh, sometimes called Allah. These great nations have a common origin and proclaim themselves children of Abraham.

The Abraham of Genesis is a patriarch who believed God wanted him to sow the seeds of nationhood using his wife and her handmaid as inferior vessels for the task.

That part of the myth is true because that is what men have believed for thousands of years.

But the pain that accompanied that belief, meticulously detailed in the Genesis story, remind us that inequality breeds misery for all concerned.

The story also impels us to remember that God is not a God of misery. Our God is a God of love whose metaphorical arms embrace all persons, all races, all ages, all creeds, both genders, and all sexual orientations. 

And that is no myth.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Wonder of Super-Suspended Disbelief

NOTE: As the blockbuster movie season continues with Wonder Woman drawing millions to IMAX 3D screenings, I’m revisiting “Deus ex Superman,” an essay I wrote in June 2013.

In 1817, Samuel Taylor Coleridge told us how to really enjoy summer blockbusters about robots, transformers, aliens, and super heroes.

As every fastidious English major knows, Coleridge suggested a “willing suspension of disbelief.” He meant the act of will that enables us to believe the unbelievable in fiction, film, Fox News, and professional wrestling. 

It’s that willingness that makes the ridiculous sublime. Sure, we know Mary Martin and the Flying Nun didn’t really take wing, and there are no vampires sustained by True Blood extract. But it’s fun to pretend, and it’s good exercise for the left side of our brains to briefly embrace what cannot be. When Alice tells the Mad Hatter she sometimes believes six impossible things before breakfast, she is at the height of her mental health.

Vivid imaginations and active fantasies can be good for you, and millions of moviegoers will emerge from 3D IMAX viewings of super heroes as happier, healthier persons because of their 144-minute break from reality.

Superman, for example, is an unambiguously messianic character (see my 1979 commentary about that here), and Wonder Woman is herself an actual goddess. 

Most of us nerds know Superman was created in 1938 by Jerry Siegal and Joe Schuster, nice Jewish boys from Cleveland. The creation of Wonder Woman is less straight-forward, according to historian Jill LePore, whose Secret History of Wonder Woman is summarized in this tantalizing paragraph in the New York Times:
On the other hand, “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” is fundamentally a biography of Wonder Woman’s larger-than-life and vaguely creepy male creator, William Moulton Marston (1893-1947). He was a Harvard graduate, a feminist and a psychologist who invented the lie detector test. He was also a huckster, a polyamorist (one and sometimes two other women lived with him and his wife), a serial liar and a bondage super-enthusiast.
The current cinematic incarnation of Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot, is as leggy and sexy as her comic book counterpart, although unlike the cartoon WW she does not submit to frequent bouts of bondage that tantalized young comic book readers and appalled critics. 

It’s fun to willfully suspend our belief and enjoy the Wonder Woman ride. (It helps to suspend what we know of Gal Gadot herself, an Israeli whose views on Palestinian rights border on apartheid.) But stark reality awaits movie-goers outside the theater doors and the reality we suspended crashes down on us. When the show is over, we’re thrust abruptly back to real life. What do we do with the fantasies that were so exhilarating?

When we are children, we are far less concerned about separating fantasy from reality. 

My experience with Superman dates back to early childhood when I believed everything I saw. I never doubted that television showed real stuff. 

One day in 1952 I happened to be sitting alone in front of my family’s 12-inch black and white Admiral TV. I tuned-in mid-way through a show that seemed to be a cops and robbers drama because there were people sitting behind long steel bars in a jail. Suddenly a man dressed in skin-tight pajamas with a long dark towel trailing behind his neck jumped into the scene and pulled the bars apart so the people could escape.

That I remember this scene so vividly after 65 years shows what an impact it had on me. I was stunned and ran to tell my father about it: “And there was this really strong guy, and he bended open the jail bars, and he ran away …” If I had stayed in front of the TV long enough to see him jump out a window and fly away, I would have probably wet my pants.

What I was watching, of course, was The Adventures of Superman, starring George Reeves. 

Looking back, I realize how lucky I was to view this scene at a time when I couldn’t tell the difference between fact and fiction, when the most mundane things were mystic and magical. I didn’t have to willingly suspend my disbelief because it was perpetually suspended. The long years that followed have been, as they are for us all, harsh reality baths that convert us from starry-eyed children to jaded adults. But how wonderful it is to be able to remember how we viewed the world when it was enchanting and new.

My most vivid childhood memories, in fact, are of those times when I struggled to tell the difference between what was real and what was pretend.

The Sunday school of the small-town Protestant church I attended was a perfect laboratory for this struggle. In post-World War II America, my teachers spoke admiringly of Jesus and General Douglas MacArthur, often using the same words in the same sentence. At 4 or 5 years of age, I had difficulty deciding if Jesus and MacArthur were different people and at one point theorized that Jesus sometimes wore dark glasses and smoked a pipe.

My working image of Jesus, of course, was Salman’s Head of Christ. When Pastor Bergner said in a sermon that Jesus was coming back, I envisioned Salman’s long-haired Jesus dressed in a tailored black suit, sitting expressionless behind the pastor waiting to be introduced to the congregation. 

When I asked Mrs. Dutton how Jesus died, she put her hand on my shoulder and said, “He died on a cross of nails.” I don’t know why she put it quite that way, but I immediately imagined Salman’s Jesus in his white robe, laying on hundreds of nails hammered into a large white X that looked like a Yogi’s bed. 

Eventually I developed a more traditional Christology, but all of these images remain in my head.

I did not, I should make clear, think of Superman as a Jesus-like figure sent by his loving father into the world to champion good people and fight evil. 

Even so, there was something thrilling and enchanted about the Man of Steel as George Reeves portrayed him in the 1950s.

And the Action Comics that brought Superman’s and Wonder Woman’s adventures to newsstands provided a tangible religious experience for me as a would-be cartoonist. In my lonely teen years, I spent hours in my room, drawing and re-drawing Superman. I conscientiously copied the work of artists Wayne Boring and Kurt Swan who set the standard for Superman iconography. To me, these guys were no mere cartoonists but artists whose depiction of the human form in action provided free lessons as I traced them with my nubby pencils and broken crayons.

Of course it is also true that Superman taught moral lessons. He set high standards of conduct, brought evildoers to justice, and never abused his super powers for selfish reasons.

Too, he was always available to persons in need, cruising cityscapes and villages to save people not only from criminals but also from fires, floods, earthquakes, and airplane malfunctions. He was a deus ex machina – a God in the Machine – who swooped into dramas at the last minute to rescue people from certain injury or death.

This is what makes Superman and Wonder Woman messianic figures. a messianic figure.  In our dark and confusing reality, we yearn for messiahs in blue tights or bangled bustiers to burst through our gloom to save the day.

That will require a willing suspension of our disbelief that the whole idea of Superman is absurd and was made up by a couple of cartoonists from Cleveland in 1933. And Wonder Woman is the scion of a bondage-loving polygamist who advocated womens rights. 

But that willing suspension can provide both a healthy respite from the realities of life and an opportunity to open our minds to hidden realities that are not dreamt of fun our philosophies.

For 80 years, Superman has been a morality tale that points us in the direction of greater truths. 

Beneath all the legends, special effects and imaginary scenarios, there is an actual loving father who sent his beloved son to earth to rescue us from evil and death. 

That son, Jesus, is the original Superman.

And one way to comprehend the real messiah is through a day at the movies that renews our childlike imagination and  childlike faith.

That imagination and faith are the most powerful gifts we have because they exceed the capacity of any cartoonist or film maker to open our hearts and minds to the ultimate reality: the loving God.