Just a joke among Friends

In the New York Times on March 23, Ginia Bellafante wrote about a firing at Friends Seminary, a private school in Lower Manhattan. The story she tells isn’t as interesting as it would have been had it not come in a flood of similar stories. A professor commits an error in judgment and is fired.

She tells the story in a mostly straightforward manner. It’s not a hard story to tell. Ben Frisch, midway through his fourth decade of teaching at Friends Seminary made a Nazi joke in class. He was:

was seeking to demonstrate an obtuse angle in an 11th grade math class. Straightening his arm and pointing it outward, he mimicked the Nazi salute and said, “Heil Hitler.”

Ms. Bellafante continues:

No one believed he had suddenly become a Third Reich sympathizer, but at the same time not everyone found his professed effort at comedy particularly whimsical.

So the administration fired him and the students protested and Mr. Frisch is taking legal action to get his job back. It’s a tragic story [1] for the participants and it takes the wounds, both personal and institutional, a long time to heal, but the story itself is simple and increasingly common.

That isn’t what drew my attention to it. It is this paragraph in an otherwise straightforward account of a private school personnel action that caught my attention.

The danger of any educational institution rooted in progressive values but dependent on big money is the default to political correctness as a substitute for a broader liberalism — the promotion of economic equity. You cannot rail against an unfair tax system when you rely on those who benefit from it, but you can patrol offensive speech and innuendo in the name of moral compassion; you can reward unease and grievance as rectitude.

I find that sentiment unremarkable except perhaps for the grace and the economy of language it employs and I was nodding my head as I read along when suddenly it occurred to me that this is an editorial paragraph by Ms. Belafonte right in the middle of the story. So I went back and read it again.

belafonte 1Please note that she makes her case twice in this brief paragraph. The first is quite general: “The danger of any education…” It defines “a broader liberalism” as the promotion of economic equity. It contrasts the values implicit in “big money” [2] and “progressive values.”

Then, in the second part of the paragraph, she begins a more personal, more strident tone. “You cannot rail,” she says, “…but you can patrol.” “Railing” would risk offense to the economic base of the school. “Patrolling” the behavior of students and faculty within the school can look “progressive,” she says, and is much safer. That’s a pretty snarky thing to say and it gets a good deal worse in the second part of the paragraph.

Having begun, “you cannot rail…but you can patrol,” she goes on to talk about just what you can patrol and how you can justify it. “You can patrol offensive speech and innuendo…” Offensive speech and innuendo sound like pretty small potatoes compared to “an unfair tax system” and I think that is just the contrast she is looking for. Furthermore you can do your patrolling “in the name of” moral compassion—this is not at all the same as doing it as an act of moral compassion. Her use of “in the name of” signals the way the actions were spun, not the actual reasons for those actions. “In the name of” functions as a charge of hypocrisy.

“You can reward unease and grievance as rectitude” is a slur on both the parents who are complaining and on the seminary which is upgrading those common complaints to first class; they become “rectitude.” [3] The parents are feeling only unease and grievance, but they are wealthy parents, after all,  so even such feelings need to be catered to.

All in all, the political correctness of the Friends Seminary is seen as a cover for the belafonte 2political critique they don’t have the guts to make. Ms. Belafonte’s charge is that they have progressive values, but they can’t risk offending wealthy donors, so instead they go over the actions of the faculty with a fine tooth comb to see if anything has been done or said that could be prosecuted on grounds of moral rectitude.

Had this analysis appeared in an editorial column, I would have liked it. I would have nodded my head just as I did reading the news story. But coming as it does in the middle of an otherwise unremarkable account of an event at a private school in New York, it explodes like a grenade.

I don’t know any more about Friends Seminary than I learned in reading this piece so I am in no position to say anything further. I do think that the charge Ms. Belafonte makes—not the specific one about Friends Seminary, but the general one about progressive institutions dependent on wealthy donors—is a good description of a difficult dilemma. A school like that can keep its integrity or its donor pool. Not both. Compromises can be made in a lot of cases, but sometimes such a school in forced to go one way or the other.

I wish Ben Frisch good luck. I hope he is able to clamp down on his spontaneousness in class. I hope he is able to accept the friction that comes with allowing himself to be a source of division and dissent within the school. I hope he is able to continue giving the students the compassion and attention that seems to have marked his career there.

[1] I’ve had similar moments in my career in college teaching and I’ll have to say that the student protests are by far the most fun part.
[2] “Big money” is not what the development office at Friends Seminary calls its generous donors, I am quite sure, and the use of that expression by the writer plants her own ideological flag in the ground.
[3] Bellafante’s use of “as” in that sentence does the work of saying that the parents actions do not have “rectitude” (a marvelously stuffy word) but they are treated as if they do. I think left to her own devices, Bellafante would have called it self-righteousness, which is not nearly as stuffy and more in keeping with the other characterizations she makes.

 

 

 

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Reading a gospel like a newspaper

I’ve been trying for many years now to give up a bad habit. It’s hard. I read the gospels as if they were newspaper accounts. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to. Do you suppose there is a 12-step program for me?

Part of the difficulty I am having is that I am just trying to not do something. It is hard to not do something. As everybody knows, and as I remember from time to time, it is much more effective to do something else. I am so committed to action B that I just don’t have time for action A. [1] It follows, then, that I would be better off committing myself to reading the gospels in some other way, replacing the journalistic presuppositions with some other kind, some better kind.

The problem of journalistic assumptions

Of the many problems I have with the presuppositions of journalism, probably the worstjournalism 1 is that it directs my attention to the wrong place. Let’s take Matthew’s interest in Jesus as a player in the cosmic drama, for example.

The wise men saw the star at its rising and realized that a new king of the Jews had been born. What sort of statement is that? Is it like NASA announcing that it has discovered a new planet? Nope, it’s not like that at all. There is no value in dispatching astrophysicists to identify what that “star” might have been or what kind of cosmic event could have been mistaken for a star. You would be better off going to a local astrologer, who would begin with the presupposition that it is the meaning, not the fact, of a heavenly body that makes it interesting to us.

And at the end of that same gospel, Matthew ties a whole host of cosmic events into the death of Jesus. Here is a list from Matthew 27.

51And suddenly, the veil of the Sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom, the earth quaked, the rocks were split, 52the tombs opened and the bodies of many holy people rose from the dead, 53 and these, after his resurrection, came out of the tombs, entered the holy city and appeared to a number of people. [2]

In the journalistic mode, we could turn first, as in the star the Wise Men saw, to what, when, where, who, and why. Was there an earthquake? Why? How does Matthew know about it? Did the tombs open? How? Could the witnesses these “holy people” appeared to testify to what they saw? How is it that Matthew know about this event when Mark, Luke, and John don’t? The presuppositions of journalism push us in that direction, certainly.

journalism 5Or we could say about Matthew, “There he goes again.” There is no way, we might say, that Matthew is going to preach about the death of Jesus without a host of cosmic phenomena. [4] There is no value at all in asking why Matthew is interested in the cosmic dimension of the Christ. We might ask where he gets the accounts he passes along. He wasn’t there. This isn’t an eyewitness account. Where does he get it?

From several places, it turns out. The earthquake comes from Joel 2:10. The rocks being split from Nahum 1:5-6. The tombs opened from Ezekiel 37: 12, 13. The holy people coming out of their tombs comes, probably, from Daniel 12:2.

How shall we understand these descriptions? Are they “events?” No, they are not events; they are kinds of events. Matthew is highlighting for us the category of events into which these particular events fall. They are eschatological events, events that signal the end of the world. Brown (see footnote 4) summarizes this way:  “this popular, poetic description is deliberately vague—its forte is atmosphere, not details.”

So if I am trying to catch the story Matthew is trying to tell me, I need to start at the right place, which is that the birth and death of Jesus of Nazareth are cosmic events. There are physical corroborations of the events in this man’s life and death, as the birth (star) and death (terrestrial phenomena) show. That is the right place for my attention to be directed and imagining that this is a journalistic account are going to put my attention elsewhere.

So what can I use as a metaphor to keep me away from (back)sliding into reading the gospels as if they were newspaper accounts. If they aren’t newspaper accounts, what are they? I have two candidates: they are sermons and/or they are narratives.

It’s a sermon

I’ve tried to think of each gospel as a sermon. Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John are guest preachers, filling the pulpit on their appointed Sundays. Each preaches a certain kind of sermon, a sermon emphasizing something about the life and ministry of Jesus.

Their accounts come from the traditions they have access to, but there are a lot more stories than they can use. That’s a problem. And there are real needs in the congregation for which there are no stories. That’s another problem

The evangelists solve the first problem by choosing the stories that say, about Jesus, what journalism 4each thinks most needs to be said. The second problem is more difficult. If I am preaching and the tools I have in my tool kit are my collection of Jesus stories and the needs of the congregation are not clearly addressed by any Jesus stories I have…then what I really need is a new Jesus story.  The picture is President M. Craig Barnes of Princeton Theological Seminary, who is probably the best preacher it has ever been my pleasure to hear.

It is that problem that has forced me to get familiar with the adjective forms of the names of the evangelists. So something that has to do with Mark, is Marcan; if it relates to Matthew, it is Matthean; to Luke, it is Lukan; and to John, it is Johannine. Using those adjectives, I can say “the Johannine Jesus” instead of “the Jesus who is represented in the account John gives us,” which could be said every now and then, but which is too bulky for regular use.

So how is it that the Johannine Jesus—see how neat that is?—says this in Chapter 16?

2They will expel you from the synagogues, and indeed the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is doing a holy service to God.

Following the “my stock in trade is Jesus stories” metaphor, we can say that John is preaching to a church where the separation from the synagogue is actually going on. There aren’t any Jesus stories that tell the church what to do in a situation several generations removed from the public ministry of Jesus, so you make a Jesus pronouncement that applies to the situation your congregation is facing, post-date it to the time of the ministry, and put it in the future tense as if it were a prediction.

For John, considered as a guest preacher, that is a solution. He is quite sure he knows what the Jesus of his tradition would have said, so he said that Jesus said that. For me, as someone who is trying to imagine how to read the gospels outside the presuppositions of the journalistic mode, it is also a solution. Seeing the gospel as an anthology of sermons puts me on a new road entirely. [5]

This is a solution to the problem of sliding helplessly back into reading the gospels as if they were newspaper accounts. The solution is to find another metaphor, one that precludes those old journalistic bad habits, and then to work very deliberately on the new metaphor. The new metaphor is that the gospels are collections of sermons, some on the “remembered” end of the scale, and some on the “adapted” end.

It’s a narrative

I liked what Arlie Russell Hochschild, in Strangers in Their Own Land, called “a deep story.” [2] The deep story is a way to organize your perceptions of your own life or of the life of your group. The story provides the categories so that the experiences you have are not just “events,” they are instances.  This story isn’t “true” at the level of replicable events; it is “true” in that it correctly names the categories you are using to understand your life.

journalism 2Reading the gospels as narratives, I focus on the art of the narrator. I pay a lot of attention to the dialogical style of Jesus in John. When I read about Jesus’s interaction with Nicodemus in Chapter 3 as if it were taken down by a court reporter, it sounds like an inquisition. Nicodemus is a hapless tool and Jesus embarrasses him whichever way he turns. [6]  When I read that same text as an example of a format John uses—and into which he puts Jesus—in order to raise and highlight questions that would not be available for consideration otherwise, I can read it differently. John is writing both parts (the Jesus in John’s writing and the Nicodemus in John’s writing are two halves of a set dialogue) and he is writing them so that his goal as a narrator will be successfully reached.

When I see that Matthew has apparently grouped his collection of Jesus stories into five big books, each composed partly of a discourse of Jesus and partly of a narrative of the actions of Jesus, I can see a parallel to the Pentateuch, the five big books of Moses. Within each of these “books” there is a thematic grouping that makes no sense at all as a newspaper account, but that makes perfect sense as an artistic narrative.

When I read Matthew’s account of the events, described above, that accompanied Jesus’ death on the cross, I can read them in a journalistic mode—how big an earthquake, why a three hour eclipse, who saw the dead people coming into Jerusalem?—or I an focus on what Matthew is trying to tell me. He is saying that the cosmos took account of the death of Jesus, just as it did of his birth. It is a matter, as Brown says, of “atmosphere, not of details.”

Conclusion

I think either of these solutions would work for me. They give me a focus, something to work on, that is not journalism. If I am working hard enough on seeing the text as a narrative, I shouldn’t be backsliding into reading it like a newspaper. [7] So I think this is my 12 Step program and if I work on it hard enough and if I treasure the others who are trying, as I am, not to go back to the old habits, I might be successful.

[1] There are lots of ways to express that. My choice of “time” was just a convenience. You could replace action B because you are committed to the value of action A because you thought A was morally superior or more technically effective or for any other reason you might have a preference.
[2] From the New Jerusalem Bible
[3] In most settings, “deep story” would be called a myth, but myth has now taken on the primary meaning of “not true,” rather than fundamentally true.
[4] Raymond E. Brown in The Death of the Messiah, calls these “The Four Terrestrial Phenomena,” see pp. 1120—1133.
[5] It is possible that this new road doesn’t actually go anywhere, but it is NOT that other road, certainly, and it doesn’t to anywhere, I will have to turn around—that’s why they have a word like metanoia, which means “to change your mind”—and come back.

[6]  And being a nice sort of person myself, I wince on Nicodemus’s behalf and learn to resent the Jesus I have experienced in that court reporter mode.

[7] Except, of course, for all those things I learned in newspaper mode over the course of a long life of Bible study. Those aren’t all going to change, magically, now that I am driving down a different road. They are still what they were when I first leaned them and I am going to stumble on them from time to time and be embarrassed.

 

 

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A Weed of Snark in a Field of Flowers

This is a celebration of a line of greeting cards called “Bald Guy” cards. You can see the whole collection here and make up your own mind about them. I think they are nearly all clever. Some are ironic, some pretend to be naive, some are just snarky. I’m a fan.

Let me introduce them by giving you a little history of the company. I got this account or the beginnings of this company from their website (see above) under a tab called “History.” When you go to the tab called History, you get to choose whether you want the real history or the fake history. I clicked “Real History,” which is how I learned this:

OCTOBER 10TH, 2005 – THE WRITING OF THE CARDS

Ian completed the writing of the cards. He had 50 cards that he loved and was ready to test them out in the world. And by the world, he meant his friends at his old job and the Chinese guy that works next door.

OCTOBER 15TH, 2005 – THE SWEET 16

After a month of deliberation, 16 cards surfaced as the favorites.  Although the words on a blank page were brilliant enough, Ian quickly realized these cards  needed a design element. Ian knew exactly where to turn. Unfortunately, Ian’s first choice  was not available, but he knew exactly where to turn second. He turned to his long time friend  and artist, Sean Farrell. And the partnership was formed. The rest is history. Well, not history.  What’s the word I’m looking for? Wait, history was the right word, never mind.

That’s probably mostly true. Now to be honest, I’m not a big fan of the pictures Sean Farrell contributes, but I’m more a words person than a pictures person. It’s Ian Kalman’s words that get to me and that is what this essay is about.

Now…everybody knows that the thing that’s funny about humor is the experience of it, not the explanation of it. So I’m not thinking of writing a funny essay; just an essay about funny cards. The most fundamental question is probably something like, “OK, why is this funny?” [1] It think it’s funny if it gets you going one direction and then at the last moment, it switches. It switches to meaninglessness in some kinds of humor and to a new and unexpected kind of sense in another.IMG_0577.jpg

In the Bald Guy cards, it is most often a change of mood or a play on social conventions. See what you think. Here’s one I bought for Bette as a valentine. I didn’t give it to her because I lost it, so I took her over to the store to see it. I know that sounds cheap.

So here’s the picture that Sean Farrell contributed. I’d imagine that Ian Kalman, the bald guy, came up with the inside message and sent it to Sean to fit some image to it. I think a lot of images would have done the trick if they were dark and ominous lookintg because this is, after all, a Valentines Day card and we wouldn’t want anything with hearts and flowers. This image does that, so it does what it is supposed to do.

On the inside, it says:

“I know the bottom of my heart sounds like the crappy part, but that’s actually where all of my most thoughtful arteries are.”

And, of course, that’s why I got it for Bette. The part of the sign on the card is true, if you accept the conventions about what hearts do (in the romantic, not the circulatory sense) and how the bottom is different from the top. Kalman goes right at the notion of “bottom of the heart.” He almost asks out loud, “Why on earth do we use a metaphor like that?”

And then he kind of rescues it, or at least give you the feeling that he is about to try to rescue it, with “but that’s actually…” Ah, we say, he is going to head for the hearts and flowers after all.

But no. He goes to the arteries. Now the arteries actually are “the crappy part” in the world of hearts and flowers. You would think that “bottom of my heart” and “crappy part” and “arteries” are all in the same line of meaning. There is no reason for “but” to be there at all.

And then he rescues (tries to rescue) the reference to arteries by saying that is where the most thoughtful ones are. The most thoughtful arteries. Right.

It’s wrong in so many different ways that you don’t know, at first, whether to laugh or cry. I chose to laugh and so did Bette. [2]

I don’t have any more pictures to show you, but I did copy down a few more of the inside verses. One says:

“Here’s to a birthday you probably won’t remember.”

The inside story twists the most likely meaning of the saying, particularly when the picture features a lot of booze. It says,

Not because of drinking. Old people just forget things.

So the drinking is offered as the reason why you won’t remember, then it is snatched away. And in its place, the prominent deficits of old age. A hairpin turn.

And here is one that says something like:

“You bring me nothing but the greatest happiness.”

The cover picture is pretty sappy for a Bald Guy card. That ought to raise your suspicions right there. The inside says:

I’ll be honest though, cheese makes me pretty happy, too. I’m a simple person.

So the opening is unremarkable. You make me happy. And then, “Well, lots of things make me happy.” So if you thought that it was the “You” in “You make me happy,” which is what you are supposed to think, you just went for the bait. It isn’t just you. Cheese. Mushrooms. Rainy days. Whatever. And finally, it isn’t really about you at all; it’s about me. I’m just a simple person. Maybe two hairpin turns in that one.

And finally, one that just makes me happy to look at it. There are no syntactical booby traps for once. It’s just a straight out inappropriate thing to say. I love it.

May your first marriage bring you nothing but happiness.

[1] That’s really the best way to ask the question. There is an enormous academic literature on just what makes something funny. My favorite is Max Eastman’s in The Enjoyment of Laughter. He says “…it is the unpleasant…which, when taken playfully, is enjoyed as funny.
[2] I do understand what a gift it is to have a wife who truly enjoys an ironic Valentines Day card.

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“Great Decisions” and underlying themes

I once had a Latin teacher who said that teaching Latin was the ONLY way to learn Latin. I don’t think that’s really true. Being a Latin teacher, he often used the device of a minori ad maius [1] so it is hard to know just how far to go in extending his remarks. I do know of my own knowledge, however, that in preparing to teach a class I learn more than I do in preparing to take a class. It is one of the many reasons I like teaching.

Great Decisions logoOr, in the case I am just about to describe for you, not even teaching; just convening. This year, at the senior center where I live, we used the Foreign Policy Association’s annual program, Great Decisions. It teaches itself, in a way. There is a video of eight 30 minute programs and a briefing book to go with it. My own job was simply to convene the group, show the video, and moderate the discussion afterward.

I did, however, want as good a discussion as I could get–I really like good discussions– so I cast about for some way to prepare the other residents to engage the material for themselves. I hit on the idea of pulling some quotations out of the material they were going to see and passing them out the week before. It didn’t work that well all the time for the group, but it was absolutely terrific for me.

That’s how I discovered the “themes.” That’s what I call them. They are emphases that didn’t play a starring role in any of the eight topics, but that showed up in a supporting role in at least half of them. In watching the DVDs over and over to get the quotes right and to attribute them correctly, I began to notice some of the material that I passed over on the first several viewings.

Here are the three I chose to share with my fellow residents after the program ended last week. These are obvious points. They are dumbfoundingly obvious. Don’t let that discourage you. And they are big points, by which I mean the scale is large. You don’t get to these points by mastering the details. But after the details are so familiar that you don’t have to pay attention to them any more, these more general and often, more important points begin to emerge.

1. What kind of international order does American hegemony guarantee?

A hegemon [2] is a kind of first among equals and the U. S. emerged from World War II as the leader of an alliance of western nations. The period of mostly peaceful competition among nations since then has been referred to as the Pax Americana, the peace that American dominance guarantees.

You don’t have to know very much Latin to know what Pax Americana means. It is pax-americanaintended to be parallel to the Pax Romana and the Pax Britannica and when the Pax Sinica (the peace guaranteed by Chinese ascendancy) is fully in place, they will say it is a parallel expression to the Pax Americana. So I, along with everyone else was familiar with the Pax Americana. It means that the U. S. is the principal guarantor of the dominant international order. But what kind of system is it that we guarantee?
It seems an obvious question, right? I never asked it and never heard it asked. But it showed up in several of the presentations, almost always as a bit player, and after awhile I began to ask it myself. The answer is that America guarantees a “liberal international order” a LIO. That means, according to one of the commentators:

…a new order—an American-led order that involved the creation of the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund. Separate but equally important NATO, the World Trade Organization. These were really the key pieces of architecture of the U. S.-led global order.

This is the architecture of the international order. It is hard to explain to Americans what “liberal” means in this context because both conservatives and liberals in the American political spectrum are Liberals in this historical sense of the term, so I moved on to WIO, a Western-oriented International Order. That has several advantages. For one thing, it clearly means architecture favorable to the West and, really, what other kind of order would the Pax Americana guarantee? Furthermore, if it is true that there will be a Pax Sinica under China, we will have a name ready for the new architecture. It will be EIO. [3]

It will provide something like the World Trade Organization (they have already begun an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) but it will operate with different rules and different priorities. There will be different tariff rules and different rules for military engagement and for financial management. I have no idea what they would be, but they would be guaranteed under the Pax Sinica, (which is an EIO) just as the international rules and institutions oriented toward the West are guaranteed by the WIO.

The new idea to me is that something is guaranteed under the leadership of the leading nation. When we take the trouble to say just what that would be or what it now is, we will know better how to talk about the era and might even catch a glimpse of ourselves in the mirror.

2. Liberty and Equality are not only not the same thing, they are probably not even compatible on the global scale.

First you have to go through detoxification. This particular kind of syntactical poison operates by making any “good” (positively connoted) word the rough equivalent of any other such word. So, brought up on this particular toxin (as you probably were), I was entirely likely to equate liberty and equality on the grounds that they are both good words and we like both of them.

But Jeremy Adelman, commenting on the Cold War confrontation, put it this way.

What the Soviets held out was a model of global integration that was connected to social and economic progress for those at the bottom. Let’s say the American model, liberal internationalism, made a different case. argued that it was not so much the language “the equality of all peoples,” but rather “the liberty of all people.”

Adelman contrasts the rhetorical pitches being made by the U. S. and the Soviet Union as “the liberty of all people” as opposed to “the equality of all peoples.” That’s what detox looked like to me. “Liberty” is the pitch we were making; “equality” is the pitch they were making. We are pitching a process by which everyone is free to pursue whatever it is they want. They are pitching an outcome, where groups that were radically unequal at the beginning have achieved a rough parity by the end.

I’m not arguing that either pitch was sincere or that one would work better than the other. I am remarking that this year, thanks to the Foreign Policy Association, I noticed that liberty is one kind of thing and equality another.

Then, in the program on South Africa, the writer of the script, Mary Patricia Nunan, gives this line to the narrator.

While the racial composition of South Africa’s elite has shifted to some degree, the staggering level of inequality has not. A tiny majority still control most of the industry, land, and economic power.

That took me to the site of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development to look at nations with prominently unequal distributions of income and there I found this, the last two (worst) bars on the right representing South Africa and the United States.Then I remembered, in this new context, that our pitch is all about liberty and we think of liberty as freedom from government control. It is a political issue for us.Screen Shot 2018-03-23 at 7.22.56 AMEquality could be about politics— “one man, one vote” said the Supreme Court in 1963—but it cannot be disconnected from questions of economic equality. South Africa is a good illustration of that, of course, and I already knew that. Allowing the black citizens to vote changed everything politically and almost nothing economically. So what are we doing over there is the next bar to South Africa? That brought Jeremy Adelman’s distinction between liberty and equality right back to me and this time, with some force.
3. America cannot be the hegemon and court valued customers at the same time.

This is another one of those “yeah, of course” realizations. But stop and think for a minute. Where, in the contrast between Western-oriented and Eastern-oriented International Orders, do we see the United States curtailing its role as hegemon so that it can compete in the trade wars along with Europe and China? I’ve read about our hegemony and I’ve read about our trade initiatives, but I have not reconciled our much-heralded “leadership of the Western World”with our courtship of new customers.

While I was preparing for the discussion of our economic relationship with South Africa, I ran across an article by Parag Khanna in the New York Times. Khanna invents the term ‘Second World” to refer to the nations that are just becoming rich enough to be valuable customers. [4]

Screen Shot 2018-03-23 at 7.29.06 AM

When I started thinking of it that way, I found this picture, (above) which represents the latter part of that dilemma. Khanna says that China, Europe, and the U. S. are engaged in all-out courtship of these nations for their trade and their resources. In this picture, I saw the Second World as the attractive woman in the center and China, Europe, and the U. S. (clockwise around the circle) as suitors. And when I began to see commercial “courtship” in this way, the contrast with “American hegemony” became a very sharp contrast.

Conclusion

Sometimes, I guess, the most obvious lessons are the hardest to learn. That is particularly true if you have spent an apprenticeship of…oh…70 years or so in learning not to see the obvious things. But now that I have seen them, I guess they are going to have to compete for mindspace with all the other things I have learned.

[1] From the lesser to the greater. For example, in Luke (23:31) Jesus says, “For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry? Green is the lesser (a minori) and dry the greater (ad maius)

[2] There doesn’t seem to be any way around this unfamiliar word. It is a Greek word ”hegemōn”which means “leader,” just as the German “Fuhrer” does. In common use, it refers to the leading nation among a set of powerful nations. The abstract noun “hegemony” is more familiar to most readers.

[3] The only major downside to this abbreviation is that for most Americans, EIO already means something and McDonald’s farm is not where I want people’s imaginations to be headed.

[4] Rather than the old division where “second world” referred to the communist countries, and “third world” to the poor and underdeveloped ones.

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Turning the other cheek

When you come up against a vividly described ethical rule like this, you really need to decide what to do with it. This famous dictum is part of the famous Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5.

“…but I say this to you: offer no resistance to the wicked. On the contrary, if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well” [1]

The first part of deciding what to do with it is deciding what it “means.” For me, the first part of deciding what it means is trying to figure out what it meant to Matthew because this is Matthew’s own version of the Jesus tradition. The closer I can get to attaching this text to the shape of the narrative as Matthew has constructed it and to the needs of the church for whom Matthew intended this account, the better off I will be when I get to the issue of applying it to myself.

frances 3So the first thing to know is that the Sermon on the Mount is a device that Matthew uses to contrast Jesus to Moses. Moses goes up on the mount and brings down the Law; Jesus goes up on the mount (different mountain, of course) and refines the Law’s demands. That is why v. 39 (above) is preceded by v. 38, which cites “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” as if it were clearly the Mosaic standard. And that is the point Matthew is trying to make: the “old law,” what Moses brought to Israel, is no longer enough and we must now open ourselves to “the new law,” that is, to Jesus.

So the meaning of the new demand, not to resist the wicked, is played off of the inadequacy of the old demand, which is tit for tat retaliation. That’s what it means to Matthew. [2] And if it means that to Matthew, what does it mean to us?

I have a story to tell you that sheds some very interesting light on this question. It is Russell Hoban’s Bargain for Frances. At the core of this story, Frances’s friend Thelma cheats Frances out of her tea set. When Frances finds out what Thelma has done, she returns the favor and cheats Thelma out of the same set. It sounds very “eye for an eye;” it’s a tea set for a tea set. And we need to ask whether that is what Jesus had in mind. Should 5:38, 39 be read to say that Frances ought not to have done what she did?

The Case for Narrow Interpretation

In the case of a Bargain for Frances, it depends on whether the injunction not to resist evil is to be understood specifically and tactically or broadly and strategically. In the tactical understanding, Jesus says that turning the other cheek is the right thing to do no matter what the result is. It is the behavior that is specified. And Frances is clearly wrong by this understanding. She should have given Thelma her sizable collection of teas as well as the tea set.

It is hard, though, to specify behavior NO MATTER WHAT. It is tempting, always, to say that the results of that behavior will be good. Proverbs 25:21,22 does that

21If your enemy is hungry, give him something to eat; if thirsty, something to drink. 22 By this you will be heaping red-hot coals on his head, and Yahweh will reward you.

The good results include shaming the enemy—I think that is what the hot coals are supposed to represent—and also the reward God give you. I think that is also the sequence Paul had in mind when he quotes and expands on the Proverbs text in Romans 12:

19 Never try to get revenge: leave that, my dear friends, to the Retribution. As scripture says: Vengeance is mine—I will pay them back, the Lord promises. 20And more: If your enemy is hungry, give him something to eat; if thirsty, something to drink. By this, you will be heaping red-hot coals on his head. 21Do not be mastered by evil, but master evil with good.

There are the red hot coals again, the shaming of the enemy.

But what if it doesn’t happen that way. What if the results are routinely bad. Or they are not all that bad in general, but are routinely bad in your interactions with a specific person? You are still bound, by the tactical understanding of the text to say what God requires and allows and Frances is required to continue being preyed upon by Thelma.

The Case for a Broader Interpretation

I suggested above that a command like “turn the other cheek” may be understood broadly and strategically as well as narrowly and tactically and it is time to look at that now. So Frances cheats Thelma and gets her tea set back. And Thelma says, “Well, from now on I will have to be careful when I play with you.”  And Frances responds, “Being careful is not as much fun as being friends.  Do you want to be careful or do you want to be friends?”

“Being friends” is not an outcome contemplated by Matthew’s Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.  In fact, just the phrasing of that outcome sounds out of place in a First Century collective society.   Tit for tat retaliation is rejected. Accepting any manner of abuse is proposed instead, the goal being to give the enemy a chance to be ashamed of himself. Neither of these is the course Frances takes.

frances 2Frances understands eventually what her mother understood right from page 1: Thelma is a predator and Frances is her prey. That is the nature of the relationship—mother gives several examples—and will continue to be the nature of the relationship unless some kind of fundamental change is made.  You could argue, I suppose, that Frances might suggest that they both become prey; that no one take advantage of anyone else. But the only action that is entirely within Frances’s power is to become a predator just like Thelma and that is what she does when she cheats Thelma out of the tea set. And Thelma recognizes it right away. “I see that you, too, are now capable of predation.” That’s what “I am going to have to be careful “means.

But Frances, having brought about parity, offers friendship. That may have been a generous impulse, but it also might have been what Frances had in mind from the beginning. Predator and prey cannot be friends. [3] In making herself a fellow predator, friendship becomes possible. Also perpetual antagonism. Frances offers friendship?

Is that action ruled out by our understanding of Jesus’s teachings in Matthew 5? I think I would say that it is ruled out by the narrow understanding. By that understanding, Jesus specifies a means, not an end and that is not the means Frances chose. But I think it is not ruled out by the broad understanding, in which it is an end that is to be sought and some means is chosen that is likely to attain that end. This understanding imagines that on beyond the shame, the “heaping coals of fire” on the head of the transgressor, there is the hope of friendship. The text certainly doesn’t say that and doesn’t clearly imply it, but why not? After the violator has had a chance to think about what he has done (in the narrow interpretation) or has had it done to him (in the broader interpretation) some new kind of relationship might very well be available. Why not friendship?

I am a fan of the broader interpretation, as you no doubt have noticed, but I am beginning to be willing to say that the strategy I have found to be workable is in fact, available in Jesus’s teaching and, in fact, may be just the kind of faithful adaption to modern society that a modern Christian might favor.

Finally, I am not really surprised to find that there is a very common reading of that text that requires me to hold myself in tension between the text and the practical choices I am required to make. That tension is not the new thing for me. The new thing for me is finding support for that new interpretation in the context of Matthew’s framing of the teaching.

[1] This is the New Jerusalem Bible translation.
[2] It means much more than that, but the fundamental dynamic is set in place with “not that, but this.”
[3] Woody Allen jokes that in our time, when the lion lies down with the lamb (as in Isaiah’s prophecy), only the lion gets back up.

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Politics is the least of our worries

I argued two years ago this month, that as scary as the Trump candidacy was, the conditions that made it possible for such a candidate to be successful were much scarier.  I still think that’s true and since then, Trump, now President Trump, has done some really scary things.

The Brooks Triad

So what “conditions” are we talking about? David Brooks, in a recent column, named three.

First, says Brooks, is the erasure of the informal norms of behavior. He cites a recent book that argues that democracy relies not only on formal constitutions but also on informal codes.

Second, is the loss of faith in the democratic system. Brooks gives the example of an Italian voter who said “Salvini is a good man. I like him because he puts Italians first. And I guess he’s a fascist, too. What can you do?”

The third, element is the deterioration of debate caused by social media.

Triad Infrastructure

I don’t disagree with any of those,[1] but my interest goes a little deeper. What are the causes of these three phenomena that David Brooks rightly laments?

Let’s begin with the “informal codes.” Imagine a group of friends hanging out together. Rival gang leaders show up and begin to call one and then another of the members of this group to join them to prepare for war against the others.

democracy 5There isn’t a war, but the gang leaders—these gangs may be ethnic enclaves or nation-states with elected leaders—say that there is going to be a war and furthermore that there should be a war. It is a moral necessity. “Yo, Sam,” calls one of the aspiring leaders, “You have no business hanging around with people like George there. He’s one of THEM. Come over here and we’ll take the war to him.” There’s nothing remarkable about that sentiment—the awful tone deaf language I used to convey it is bad, sure, but you get the idea—and it is, in fact, the basis of shock jock radio.

But what does Sam say? This brings us to the “informal codes” David Brooks is talking about. Does he say he’s perfectly happy and there’s no reason for war? Does he say there are grievances, sure, but warfare isn’t the way to right them? Does he say that he is not under any circumstances going to turn against George, who is a member of his bowling team [2] and a fellow Eagles fan and a fellow member of the City Club and the parent of one of his son’s best friends?

He could say that. And if he were one of the first ones the gang leader called to man the barricades, he probably would say that. But if he is the fifth or sixth one to leave the group of friends, he is going to have to make a choice of communities. The gang community is a community of tight bonds and obvious purpose and is given a very satisfying cohesiveness by being “against” something. The group of friends, by contrast, is a community of weak bonds—the Bowling Alone kind of bonds—and an array of private purposes, and no obvious enemy. We are asking Sam to make a very difficult choice. David Brooks is asking Sam to make a very difficult choice.

What conditions will help Sam make that choice? Well, having some hope for his own or for his children’s economic future would help him. That doesn’t look like it is going to happen, at least not for hourly workers. Things are not getting better and they are not going to. That is not going to make Sam abandon George UNLESS some case can be made that George’s fortunes are better than Sam’s and/or that George can be, in any way at all, blamed for Sam’s dismal prospects.

The best solution to this problem—the problem we are dealing with is maintaining  the crucially important weak social bonds among diverse populations—is for incomes to increase. Failing that, some reason to hope that they will increase would help. And failing that, placing the blame where it will do the most good would help a great deal. [4]

Needless to say, none of these is a solution to the taste of the gang members. What would best serve them is despair about the current group of friends, anger about the prospects of continuing to hang out with them, and hope that something radical like joining a gang and going to war against your former “friends.” will do some good.

Loss of faith in democracy as a system

This is the second of Brooks’ three points and while I agree with it, I would put is somewhat differently. The Framers had very little trust of “the people” and counted on the elites—people like themselves—to steer the ship of state. Early in the history of the republic, we turned to mass-based political parties of which Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican party was the first. The theory was that, while ordinary citizens could not run the government, they should be able to choose between two proposed directions and that is what the parties would give them.

This presupposes party voting. So…you might ask…what else is there? Well, there is “issue voting” but that requires a great deal of information about your issue and a focused effort to advance it. But mostly, there is “candidate voting.” Notice the Italian voter Brooks quotes.

“Salvini is a good man. I like him because he puts Italians first. And I guess he’s a fascist, too. What can you do?”

democracy 7The Fascist Party of Italy, about which I have headline knowledge only, is presumably anti-immigrant. They promise to take Italy back to some largely mythical “golden era” when things were as they should be. The party proposes programs about how to accomplish that. Let’s imagine, just to have something to refer to, that everyone who can’t prove he or she was born to an Italian father and mother, has to leave the country. What that means, for our example, is that Signor Salvini has to look at the proposals of the Fascist Party and say, “I don’t care about those.” You can hear that in “I guess he’s a fascist, too,” as if he were saying, “And I hear he also collects stamps.”

That focus on “the candidate,” or more precisely, the image of the candidate that has been marketed to you, simply precludes party platforms. And if you don’t think that we choose among market images of “presidents,” let me pass on to you this comment about President Bartlet and some other candidates.. [5]

A Detroit voter said, in 2003 that she would vote for Bartlet for president because, “I really know him better than Bush or Gore.”   And this is one small clip from the substantial research mixing factual and fictional “leaders.”  See Melissa Crawley’s superb Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington for the whole argument.

Social media as a killer of reasoned debate

I see this as less serious and more serious than Brooks offers it in this column. Reasoned debate has never been our strong suite. It has never been anyone’s strong suite. When the Enlightenment first offered reason and evidence as the solution to our problems, it proposed a program that most people simply cannot or will not follow. We don’t make up our minds rationally about things we care deeply about and trying to arrive at a decision that way is probably folly anyway. Furthermore, when the urban machines of the late 1800s were overturned by the Progressive movement, the idea was that paying voters (jobs, favors, amenities) to vote for the party machine was clunky and corrupt. People freed from the daily bribery of machine politics would be free to make up their own minds and to vote their own interests. That was the point at which rates of voting plummeted to levels that are now among the lowest in the industrial world.

Those two watershed moments—the Enlightenment embrace of rationalism and the Progressive affirmation of individually determined self-interest—are the perfect setup for party politics. You don’t have to reason; there are talking points available if you really have to talk to anyone. You don’t have to know your own interest; the party will find and press your hot button issues so that you “feel represented,” whether you are or not. None of those requires “rational debate,” and both, in fact, are alternatives to it. So the structural problem was with us long before social media.

On the other hand, social media did exacerbate the problem. The problem of social media is often said to be that it locks us into monolithic ghettoes of value and fact. Everyone in “my group,” —and that term can now be extended to refer to people who watch the same news stations, who read the same blogs, and who share their opinions online with remarkably similar groups,—feels the same way. [6]. That is a severe difficulty, I grant. It is hard to “debate” anyone when everyone’s views are the same.

But I think there is a worse problem and the social media are not adjunct to this one. They are at the very heart of it. And that is the erosion of the distinction between gossip and truth. Big words, I know. But not too big.

I am not a big fan of “the truth.” My notion of what “a truth” is is just a proposition which can be richly supported by evidence. Needless to say, conflicting propositions can be supported by evidence—really good evidence, not just academic experts for hire by Big Pharma—and we turn then to which propositions really matter. This is the battle among “truths” that Thomas Kuhn popularized in the 1960s and ‘70s and that has left a lasting mark on scientific debate. [7]

democracy 6But if, in the present context, the alternative to truth is gossip, then I vote for truth—even for “truthiness.” [8] When you live in a small village, you know you can pass along “information” you got from one person, because it is likely to be true, but not “information” from another person because he or she–not just “she” as in the picture– is a notorious gossip and just passes along what he or she has heard, without assessing the likelihood of it. Life is the same is small organizations. You get a sense of who screens his remarks for the likelihood that some piece of information is true and who just pass anything on.

But life among the social media is not like that. That’s what makes the Russian meddling in what were once “American debates” so perilous. Anyone can set up a platform called Americans for Truth and Justice and disseminate the most frightful tales. This is the real “fake news” because it is valued  only for the effect it has, not for any data being shared or any real opinions expressed. It is the likely effect alone that matters and no one knows who you are.

What the social media have done is to make is possible to “pass along to friends” allegations about which you know nothing. You become, by consenting to that process, a “platform,” rather than a person. No one says of a platform, “it provides information you can count on.” A platform is just an electronic bulletin board; it cannot conceivably have any integrity. And when millions of Americans, accepting the presuppositions of the social media, disseminate to their friends allegations about which they know nothing, they are just gossiping. [9]

Conclusion

So I agree with David Brooks that it is not so much Trump himself, but the conditions that promote “Trump-ism” that are our real concern. Of the three such concerns Brooks named, I think the most dangerous is probably the effect of social media. If our reliance on social media has finally eradicated the difference between truth (what can be shown to be true) and mere allegation, then we have finally crossed a bridge we will not be able to re-cross.

Ignorance can be combatted by information. Prejudice can be combatted by experience. Even mistrust can be combatted, under some circumstances, by repeated trustworthy words and actions. But is nothing can be established as true—nothing at all—unless we like it, then we have gone too far and will not be able to come back.

That’s the threat. It isn’t just Trump.

[1]This may be the place to say that since the rise of President Trump to power, I have come to value Brooks’s good sense and conservative decency more than I ever did during the Obama administration.
[2] This kind of relationship is the source of Robert Putnam’s article, and later book, “Bowling Alone.” We used to have lots of casual acquaintances who re not like us. It turns out that those mattered more than anyone but Putnam thought.
[3] One of my favorite lines from South Pacific is De Becque’s retort to Capt. Brackett. Capt. Brackett: “We’re asking you to help us lick the Japanese. It’s as simple as that. We’re against the Japanese.”
De Becque: “I know what you are against. What are you for?”
[4] Which brings me to my own favorite field of study. Placing the credit or the blame for some event is one of the most politically fraught decisions citizens can make.
[5] The TV show, The West Wing, hasn’t been broadcast for more than a decade now, but a lot of people know that President Jed Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, was a very appealing president. His only real liability was being entirely fictional.
[6] The word “feel” has been transformed into a much more general word, now meaning “what I think.” Tom Lehrer once introduced his satirical song, Vatican Rag, by saying that the Catholic church’s new use of secular music has “inspired me with the thought that…” The copy I have renders that transition as “…but I feel…” That’s the transformation I’m talking about.
[7] Briefly, Kuhn argued that one set of presuppositions for research (a paradigm) cannot be shown to be better than another apart from the comparative utility of one paradigm or the other. Ultimately, it is not the truth, but the utility, of research designs that causes some to live and others to die.
[8]Truthiness, according to Stephen Colbert, is “the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true.”
[9] Some have complained that this standard would require them to “fact check” everything, but, of course, that is not true. You would only have to check what you were going to disseminate. You are perfectly free to put it in your trash and/or send a snarky note to the person who sent it to you.

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Being “snakebit”

I gave a small lecture recently to a Lenten class at our church. It was more a rant, really, but they seemed to be a tolerant mood. I called some scripture texts “flat” in the way a Pepsi might get “flat” if you opened it and left it out for a few hours.

But that’s not the only way to discover flat texts. There are some texts that, if you see snakebit 6what is being said, simply bristle with aggression or twist with implication and you never really noticed. That’s why it was flat to you. And when you notice what is being said, you wonder how you ever managed to pass it by as if it were not remarkable.

The class I taught fell between a church service—just before my class—and a Vespers’s service late in the afternoon. John 3:16 and a few surrounding verses were read at both services, [1] but the Numbers passage (Chapter 21) was read only at Vespers and Numbers shines a very bright light on John 3. And I read John 3 as if I had just been awakened—which is unkind, but just about accurate.

Having been raised in the church, I am familiar with John 3:14. It is a kind of taxiing passage to prepare you to take off at John 3:16. And I think that rhetorically, that is just the way John uses it. But today I want to look at what it actually says and play a little with the implications.

Jesus says [2]

14 as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up 15so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.[3]

The Fiery Snakes

Presumably, the reference to the snake directed the attention of all his hearers back to the incident in the desert, when God sent poisonous snakes among the Israelites to call them to repentance. I know that sounds odd, but that is the perspective of the authors of that story in Numbers. Here is that passage from Numbers 21.

4They left Mount Hor by the road to the Sea of Suph, to skirt round Edom. On the way the people lost patience. 5They spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die in the desert? For there is neither food nor water here; we are sick of this meagre diet.’ 6 At this, God sent fiery serpents among the people; their bite brought death to many in Israel. 7The people came and said to Moses, ‘We have sinned by speaking against Yahweh and against you. Intercede for us with Yahweh to save us from these serpents.’ Moses interceded for the people, 8 and Yahweh replied, ‘Make a fiery serpent and raise it as a standard. Anyone who is bitten and looks at it will survive.’ 9Moses then made a serpent out of bronze and raised it as a standard, and anyone who was bitten by a serpent and looked at the bronze serpent survived.

Let’s look at the pattern first. My reason for doing that is that I believe John is reminding his readers of the whole sequence of events, not just the climax. So the people lost patience (v. 4) and spoke against God (v.5). So God sent fiery serpents (v.6) and a lot of people died. Then they repented (v. 7) and God provided a solution of sorts (v. 8,9 more on that later) and those who accepted the solution God offered, survived. Presumably, the others did not. It is that sequence I am referring to as “the pattern.”

Clearly, Jesus says he is like the snake who was lifted up. [4] And he says that salvation is available to those who “believe on” him. “Believing on” is the analog to “looking at” in Numbers.

snakebit 1But what is John saying about everyone else? That takes us back to the wilderness. The snakes were a punishment from God and they afflicted Israelites generally. They did not seek out the ones who had been complaining and bite them and leave the rest alone. Furthermore, God did not withdraw the snakes when the people repented; God just provided a remedy for some of the Israelites. And to be saved from death, the Israelites had to “look at” the bronze snake on the pole.

There are some oddities in this account when you look at it carefully, but the essential transaction is very clear. If you believe what Moses says—and he did, after all, do that thing at the Red Sea—and you are bitten by a snake, all you have to do is go to the pole and look at the bronze snake and you will be healed. In cause and effect terms, this is like taking an aspirin when you have a headache.

There were some people, surely, who didn’t believe Moses and refused to do somethingsnakebit 2 as nonsensical as “looking at a snake on a pole.” [5] Believing Moses wasn’t always the obvious thing to do. He had had his good moments and his bad moments. And they had just had their hands collectively slapped about the golden calf and here is this “brazen image” thing again. But there is something very persuasive about feeling that you are dying from a poisonous bite and looking at the snake on the pole as you were told to do and recovering from the poison. People who had seen that done might very plausibly exhort others to “take the treatment” and be saved.

The Cursed Condition

John draws on all of that, but the analogy is stark. Jesus says that he, himself is the snake, and that he is going to be “lifted up,” which is the term John uses for crucifixion. So where does that leave the people he is speaking to? If Jesus is the remedy, in the same sense that the snake was the remedy, then the people he is talking to are snakebit. [6]

Several substantial problems flow from this. First, John’s use of this analogy comes at a time of substantial conflict. Quite a few of John’s slurs against “the Jews” have the rhetorical flavor of “Yeah, and your mother wears army boots!” Second, this relates to a condition, not to an event. A guy who has been bitten by a snake knows when and where. There is no “event” of “not believing in Jesus.” That is a condition. Furthermore, it is a condition fully sanctioned by the traditions of your people.

Third, while “looking at a snake” is an action clearly understood and immediately taken, “believing in” Jesus is neither. It is not “an action”—thousands of Billy Graham appeals to the contrary notwithstanding—and it is not clearly understood. What on earth does “believing” mean in this context? And what does “eternal life” mean? [7] The hearers didn’t seem to know.

And finally, there is a much different role for evangelists in John’s setting. “Evangelists” snakebit 3are people who tell the good news. In the desert, the good news is that you really don’t have to die because you were bitten by this snake. You can go to the pole and look at the snake and you will live. Not “eternally,” but you will not die today. People who carried that message to their friends and neighbors who would otherwise by dead by tomorrow, were carrying “good news” indeed.

The role of the evangelist—the bringer of good news—in John’s account is that however you might feel about your life, you are, in fact, cursed. You are “snakebit.” And for this implausible diagnosis, we offer an equally implausible treatment. “Believe in” Jesus. That is like “looking at the snake” and it will have the same effects. It will keep you from dying. That is the role of the evangelist in John.

So the premise of the “if I be lifted up” passage is that you are all snakebit and I am the way God has provided for you not to die. That’s the premise. That’s what makes everything else in John 3 understandable. This isn’t at all like Matthew’s scribe (Chapter 13) who brings treasures, both old and new, out of the treasury. It isn’t like Luke’s (Chapter 5) wonderful old wine in comfortable old wineskins. This is a blanket diagnosis of the condition of life the hearers are experiencing but not understanding.

And I thought that text was flat? What on earth was I thinking? [8]

[1] The lectionary readings for the fourth week in Lent in Year B include readings from Numbers 21, John 3, Psalm 107, and Ephesians 2
[2] This is the Johannine Jesus speaking and as I read it, he is directly addressing the issues contemporary with the writing of John’s gospel. The church and the synagogue were, by the end of the First Century, in full contact battle with each other.
[3] All scripture quotations are from the New Jerusalem Bible.
[4] If you like doubling back on the metaphor and you are drawn to the role of the “serpent” in the Garden of Eden, please don’t let me stand in your way.
[5] Naaman couldn’t understand why he had to bathe in the waters of the Jordan when there were so many better rivers back home in Aram. It took world class staff work to get him to do it.
[6] It’s a recent word, first recorded in 1957, but it was so apt that I decided to use it anyway. Merriam-Webster says it means “having or experiencing a period of bad luck” but the Urban Dictionary comes closer to the uses I have heard when it identifies it as “cursed.”
[7] The Greek is zoē aiōnion, which can legitimately be translated “eternal life,” but which can just as legitimately be translated “life of the ages” or “life for the ages.” That expression refers much more clearly to a kind of life, not to an extent of time, which is why I prefer it.
[8] Heartfelt thanks to Caroline Litzenberger, who spoke briefly at Vespers and laid these two texts down side by side for us and who, in doing that, knew full well what she was doing.

 

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