A Personal Note on the Theological and Political Importance of my Dissertation pt. 2

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Authorial Note: Due to the goals and aims of the academy such as at the University of Edinburgh, even in the School of Divinity, if one touches upon anything that implies a personal investment and importance in one’s subject matter, it is frowned upon. One is suppose to assume deistic god-like stance toward one’s subject matter, while of course ironically laughing to one’s colleagues and friends about the absurdity of objectivity. As I am myself completing my Masters of Theology (MTh) degree in Biblical Studies, I find my theologically and politically minded impulses reflecting upon my academic work and yet am continually frustrated that I cannot express such reflections in the dissertation itself. Below are some controversial implications for the Church in worship and mission, if my academic conclusions are correct. Because the following is somewhat personal and informal, there will inevitably be large generalizations made, and important matters overlooked, for which I hope to be forgiven. This part will deal with with the implications for women and men with regard to the imagery of the whore, feminism, and reading practices. Part one of this personal exploration may be found here: A Personal Note on the Theological and Political Importance of my Dissertation pt. 1

          Having chosen to do my dissertation on a text like Revelation 17-18, with Rev. 17:16 being described by some of the scholars that I am reading as the most blatantly misogynistic passage in the New Testament, I found that while I had well been schooled by many of my close friends in what feminism is, what patriarchy is, and in particular the disturbing rise of ‘rape culture’, that I was, nevertheless, underprepared. When it comes to gender theory, feminism, queer theory, womanist studies, gender sensitivity, and what not- while I deplore political correctness due to my upbringing- I consider myself to be somewhat literate, as it is a mode of discourse our culture is becoming increasingly submerged in, that has both redeeming and not so redeeming qualities about it. But despite all that, I can clearly remember two personal stories in which my overlooking of my language and what it insinuated were detrimental to the perception of my character when it comes to women and gender relations.

          When I was working as a student intern at the Multi-Faith Centre at the University of Toronto, during the organization of a particular event I had used the phrase, ‘man the table’. I was gentle admonished by my employer subsequently that in such an environment, gender neutral language was preferable. In this case, I quite admit, that I initially attributed it to the over-scrupulous nature of the work place when it came to political correctness- the ‘grammar nazi’, if you will.* However, as I latter came to see, what that particular language would imply is that the male sex was the universal human being and that the female sex was an aberration from the universal standard of ‘MAN’ as opposed to both ‘man’ and ‘woman’ as the halves of a gender neutral or androgynous HUMAN. In theoretical language this is called androcentrism, but to the person not familiar with such terminology it simply means that at a very basic level, the way you understand the world, as expressed through your language is oriented to the male sex at the exclusion of the female sex. Thankfully, my employer did not make much of the incident nor did it affect my relationships with my co-workers who were all female.** In going forward however, I have found that I still dislike political correctness very much because it not only reminds me of the immense amount of hypocritical self-righteousness one can have (e.g. ‘I don’t use sexist biased language like men do’) but it can create an immense amount of anxiety as to what one says and not say. The constant monitoring of one’s thoughts, words, and actions can bring guilt and embarrassment, rather I think it is helpful (or at least what I am humbly trying in the hopes of being helpful) is not to monitor and ‘check myself’ but rather develop a character that does not exclude women, and then hopefully proceeding from that the language itself will conform to the disposition of the person.

          The second personal story however is much more disheartening. During a conversation with some of my flatmates here in Edinburgh, we came upon the topic of Christmas and I shared with them the parody of Rudolph the red-nose reindeer, called ‘Randolph the Red-Gunned Cowboy,’ or as I knew it, ‘Ruldoph the Rhinestone cowboy’. One of my flatmates laughed with me, the other was quite offended as the song contained a line that seemed to make light of shooting a woman- ‘Ruldoph with your gun so bright, won’t you shoot my wife tonight!’ Thankfully we’re now on good terms, but at the time she found it terrible offensive, and as I tried to justify it in my mind as ‘the joke is not about killing a woman, but at the sheriff’s annoyance with his wife’, the more I came to see such ‘explanations’ as empty. Its a joke about killing a woman, and it was this very blind sightedness, in this case to the obscenity that I regret telling, that I knew I could and would no longer have when it came to the biblical text.

          When I first presented my dissertation topic to a group of professors, I was surprised to learn afterwards that I had personally offended a professor or two with the artistic depictions of the Whore of Babylon that I presented in my powerpoint presentation.  harlot-being-attacked-51In particular, the image to the left, of the woman terrified at being eaten and attacked by the beast, may have shocked. My images were not anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, pornographic, or particularly bloody- they were in fact quite tame to what many see in Rev. 17:16 as a collage of immense militaristic destruction of peasant land and the the violent gang rape and cannibalism of a woman. But what I found was that if the professor was offended at the image, then they had not read the text in the same way- and neither had I. Now, most importantly, it appears to be agreed by all scholars (namely because the text says so), that the book intends the woman to be a symbolic depiction, an image, of a city- most scholars think Rome, in my dissertation I’m arguing that she is Jerusalem. Regardless however, the image is stark, and to those of us who have become immune to the Apocalyptic imagery of the book of Revelation through constant reading, cartoons, or through laughter at the ridiculousness of those who often interpret it, we need to be reminded continually- the apocalypse is no mundane matter.

          What to do then with such an image? Most attempts at trying to make the image less appalling seem to fall flat, as Tina Pippin, in her work Apocalyptic Bodies (Routledge: 1999), points out,

“…what if a male prostitute was the symbol in the Apocalypse, and this male was raped and murdered? The symbolism matters, and the symbolism of a woman’s body that is attacked is important. Would this symbol then be acceptable if the violence were imposed on a male? I think the gang rape and murder of a male would be totally unacceptable to biblical scholars and the “symbolism” of the evil empire would break down at this point.” (94)

Symbolism does matter, and what we furthermore need to ask then is: what is the function of the female sex of this particular symbol? Well, speaking quite frankly, it does seem that the passage is most certainly not prescriptive in the least (e.g. ‘you have to kill other prostitutes, because this particular city in a highly symbolic vision was eaten by a seven headed monster’). If not prescriptive then, as best as I can discern, because the reader, whether male or female, is clearly not to be identified with the woman, then the passage should be seen as a cathartic and excellent way of expressing one’s opposition to systems of injustice. The fact that she is a woman seem in my estimation to be no more than a conventional metaphor (yes, one incredibly misogynistic) used throughout antiquity of a piece of land as a women, and to express the notion found throughout the Hebrew Bible of ‘harlotry=idolatry’- it does not seem that the author of the work intends in any manner to make a statement about women as such, no matter what his working androcentrism reveals. I would propose that a feminist reading of the symbol, that would be outraged at the blatant and unjustifiable misogyny of the passage, would need to be supplement with a post-colonial reading of the passage, to see the passage from the perspective of one who has come under some form of oppression or colonialism- of which the woman (along with the beast) represents.  In fact, this is the way many women readers have faithfully been able to read this passage.  Anne Wentworth, in the late 17th century, expressed her outrage and her feeling of being oppressed, by none other than her abusive husband, using the image of the slain Babylon!***

Mercy and Judgment they did meet,

And with a holy Kiss each other greet:

Justice and Equity took Mercies part,

And Mercy stabbed Babylon to the heart:

That Babylon did bleed unto death;

Then the Lord put his Sword in his sheath.

When this monstrous Whore is dead and gone,

That would not leave a Saint not one;

Makes her self drunk with the Saints Blood,

This great Whore did never do any good;

But doth all the mischief, that she can;

And the people makes a God of proud Man.


It only occurred to my mind while writing this, that someone of a deeply political correct nature would most certainly point out that the phrase ‘grammar nazi’ would imply that the person who would correcting your grammar was exterminating your grammatical mistakes, which would in the analogy effectively be the ‘Jewish’ tendencies of language. Nazis would be conceived of as extremely thorough and discriminating, which they were not, and the symbol of ‘the Jew’ would be inscribed only in mistaken language, as if they were mistaken human beings. It is no exaggeration to say that any of the popular deconstructionist thinkers, like Jacques Derrida, Michael Foucault or the like would have made this point.

** Aside: If we wish to avoid androcentric language when speaking about humanity as a whole, then I would suggest that we also wish to avoid gynocentric (woman-centred) language when speaking of the liberation and emancipation of  both men and women from patriarchy and its effects. In popular discourse feminism is quite often defined in line with something like the notion commonly attributed to Bell Hooks’ that “Feminism is not simply a struggle to end male chauvinism or a movement to ensure that women will have equal rights with men; it is a commitment to eradicating the ideology of domination that permeates the Western culture on various levels-sex, race, class to name a few-and a commitment to reorganizing society…so that self-development of people can take a precedence over imperialism, economic expansion, and material desire.” If such is feminism, then I will make the declaration that I too am a feminist, however I think a term I would much rather use would be ‘liberationist’ because such language encompasses all of humanity, instead of focusing gynocentrically on the emancipation of women as the emancipation of all humanity, thus excluding men.

*** Cited and discussed in:  Kovacs, Judith, and Christopher Rowland. Revelation: The Apocalypse of Jesus Christ. 1st Edition. UK: Wiley, 2004. 189

A Personal Note on the Theological and Political Importance of my Dissertation pt. 1

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Authorial Note: Due to the goals and aims of the academy such as at the University of Edinburgh, even in the School of Divinity, if one touches upon anything that implies a personal investment and importance in one’s subject matter, it is frowned upon. One is suppose to assume deistic god-like stance toward one’s subject matter, while of course ironically laughing to one’s colleagues and friends about the absurdity of objectivity. As I am myself completing my Masters of Theology (MTh) degree in Biblical Studies, I find my theologically and politically minded impulses reflecting upon my academic work and yet am continually frustrated that I cannot express such reflections in the dissertation itself. Below are some controversial implications for the Church in worship and mission, if my academic conclusions are correct. Because the following is somewhat personal and informal, there will inevitably be large generalizations made, and important matters overlooked, for which I hope to be forgiven. This first part will deal with the issue of the Christian Church’s relation to the State of Israel, the second projected piece will deal with the implications for women and men with regard to the imagery of the whore.

          What the State of Israel is currently becoming is what Jesus of Nazareth warned the people of Israel against becoming in his call to repentance. Elsewhere, I have written on the theological difficulties of Christian Zionism, but it is, most especially here, important to point out at the start, that to be anti-Zionist is not to be anti-Semitic.A-Whore-Of-Babylon As I hope to show in my academic work, there is in a sense, even amongst largely Jewish minorities within the 1st century C.E., a strong strain of anti-Zionism, mostly in the condemnation of the Jerusalem Temple establishment. The Masters of Theology dissertation, which I’m currently working on, will hope to show that in a postcolonial feminist reading of the symbol of the Whore of Babylon in Revelation 17-18 she can clearly been seen, from the perspective of the new Christian minority throughout the Roman Empire, as, contrary to expectation, not the city of Rome, but the city of Jerusalem- the ‘little devil’ of the ‘big devil’ of the Roman Empire, if you like.

          It may be difficult for anyone reading the New Testament who is slightly familiar with the history of 1st century Palestine to think that Jerusalem could ever be conceived of as any enemy as evil as the Whore of Babylon. Sure the Temple elite conspired with the Romans to crucify Jesus, but can it honestly be contended that anyone living in 1st century Palestine could have seen Jerusalem as the demonic, violent, exploitative, oppressive, bloodthirsty Whore of Babylon? It is difficult to look at this period of history in such a way because of the subsequent oppression of the Jewish people, the destruction of their Temple, and so forth. However, as Martin Goodman has rightfully pointed out:

“…the Jewish world in which Jesus lived was under Roman rule but was not, and did not feel, oppressed by Rome…Roman peace had been good for Jerusalem. The Jews prayed for the well-being of the emperor as they had prayed for other royal benefactors in earlier times…It is hard to appreciate the felicity of Judaea in those days only because later events have cast a pall of gloom over memory…The magnificent Temple would be reduced to rubble. But at the time no one knew this. Herod had built a city to last. Jerusalem could hope to stand eternally alongside Rome…Such tolerance came under stress when revolt broke out in Jerusalem in 66 CE, sparked not by Jewish revulsion against Roman imperialism as a whole but in reaction to maladministration by an individual low-grade governor.” (Rome and Jerusalem: the clash of civilizations579-580)

Jerusalem’s assimilation and accommodation to Roman power is almost entirely forgotten, Herod’s joyfully acceptance of Hellenistic culture is wiped from memory, and the experienced suffering of several Jewish minority groups like the Qumran community, the zealots, and others is ignored. Most New Testament historians and theologians are even reluctant to accept the every possibility that Jerusalem was seen as an oppressive power by a Jewish minority, especially the Christian minority, because such a conclusion is perceived to be far too close to anti-Semitism to possibly be acceptable- as if our moral sensitivities are what determine historical conclusions.

        Now why is such a conclusion important for thinking about the development of the early Church and Christian theology at large? If the Church was to be the bride of Christ, they had to remember that God was a divorcé. The remembrance of the corruption and harlotry of Israel was not the focus of the majority of Christian history toward the Jewish people, for if it were it would have been more cautious of its own claims to ‘chosenness’- as St. Paul remarks, “For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you.” (Rom. 11:21, ESV). Subsequent Christian history was, on the contrary, fuelled by the idea not only that Israel was no longer chosen, but that she was accursed.* If the Church had remembered Jerusalem as the whore of Babylon, it is tentatively suggested that it would have remembered in its own stance as bride the kind of sins that would break God’s marriage contract- which the Christian Church had committed in subsequent centuries- such as violence, murder, economic exploitation, persecution, sorcery, and blasphemy.  However, once the Apocalypse of John had reached largely non-Jewish audiences the whore of Babylon was interpreted as the city of Rome and the Church had forever in mind- whores are always whores, and brides are always brides. Whereas, if the whore of Babylon were read as Jerusalem, then the city that was once declared the bride of God had become the whore, as it had many times in its history, and that the status of ‘bride’ could be shaken by unfaithfulness. For Christian theology at large, then, I would submit, rather paradoxically, that the more the early Christian prophetic imagination of Jerusalem as the oppressor and ‘little devil’ of the Roman empire, the more humility it would had encouraged in its own status as ‘bride’, and perhaps in that humility would have been less arrogant in its stance toward the non-Christian Jewish community.

        What could these following insights from an ancient text possibly mean for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East? Admittedly, I was raised with a very Dispensationalist view of Biblical prophetic texts, and thus understood the current State of Israel as the miracle of God in the 20th century and an oppressed minority in the world. Now, the standard narrative would be ‘but then I was introduced to social justice groups and saw otherwise!’, but my narrative is not so. No, first and foremost I had begun to take Jesus’ imminent call to repentance for the nation of Israel within the Gospels much more seriously than I had before. The way I describe it to my friends is: The destruction of the second Temple in 70 C.E. is the most important Biblical event not described in the Bible. The more that I had begun to disassociate the Biblical Israel, which was condemned and destroyed, from the current State of Israel in the Middle East, the more receptive I was in having a fuller view of the present conflict. The paradigm shifting of Biblical understanding lead to an interest in digging deeper into  the political landscape, rather than the horrifying truth of the political landscape prompting a more compatible Biblical understanding. Now, most controversially I have found, my thorough introduction to the conflict was the work of none other than Normal Finkelstein. However, I have found this man to be an intellectual and moral hero of mine, for his willingness to put his reputation and career on the line continually in the cause of justice.**

       However, one of the issues rarely if ever discussed by Finkelstein is the involvement of the Christian Zionist lobby in the perpetuation of the conflict. Having learned much more about the conflict in the region, and watching the violence continue day by day, the Christian Church’s stance towards this conflict cannot be to privilege the State of Israel, as the Church had privileged itself throughout the course of history. Furthermore, it should remember that even if the State of Israel was an excellent idea for the protection of the Jewish people due to the overwhelming hostility toward them throughout Europe in the 20th century, that her status as the bride of the refuge could easily become the status of the European-colonial whore of hostility toward ethnic minorities. More especially alarming for the Christian Church should be that it could, in its Zionist zealotry, by which it feels it will pay for its crimes toward the Jewish people throughout history, be the accomplice in the persecution of, arguably, one of the most abandoned minorities in the entire world- that of Palestinian Christians, who are rejected by Israel, by Islam, by the United States, and by their own brothers and sisters who see them as an obstacle. As any person who was raised in the Protestant tradition could easily tell you, one of the Christian’s primary enemies could quite easily be the Church. For the Christians in Palestine, I fear that the whore that is hunting them are the Churches in support of Christian Zionism. “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues” (Rev. 18:4, ESV).

On this topic, one helpful history among many would be: Lindemann, Albert S., and Richard S. Levy. Antisemitism: A History. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA, 2010.

** A good summary of the conflict by Finkelstein can be found at: 

The Cosmology of Authority: The Ascension Narrative of the Acts of the Apostles (Edited)

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Authorial Note: After hearing a sermon in which Jesus was an astronaut because he ascended into heaven, I finally decided to tackle in an academic way, the best that I could, the ascension narrative of the Acts of Apostles. For one such as myself, it is this narrative, and not the resurrection and other miracles even, that is the moment of apparent embarrassment when it comes to the ‘primitive’ views of ancient peoples found in the New Testament. Were we really expected to believe that a man flew in the sky past the clouds?ADD It be firmly honest, I still have not reconciled this narrative in its entirety to my own reason, but the following is an attempt to understand the function of the narrative better, though the historical puzzle will perhaps never leave my side. 

        The Lukan narrative of the ascension of Jesus at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 1:6-11) posed a challenge of alternative authority within the setting of the Graeco-Roman world of 1st century C.E. to the wider dominion of the Roman Empire. Often questions surrounding such a narrative inevitably get bound up with questions concerning cosmology, the place and location of heaven, and how exactly the story of the ascension of Jesus functioned not only within the narrative of the Acts of the Apostles but how it may have been heard by hearers within both Graeco-Roman and Jewish milieux. We may lament, along with Mikeal Carl Parsons that, “Too often the question ‘How did the event happen?’ grinds discussion to a halt, so that the larger question ‘How does the narrative function?’ remains untouched…” (Parsons 1987, 14–15; likewise Sleeman 2009, 37). But, while addressing how the narrative functioned, we will find that the question of ancient cosmology cannot so easily be evaded. Douglas B. Farrow, rightly reflecting upon our present inquiry, says, “From Homer to Stephen Hawking the word ‘god’ is liberally sprinkled on the pages of human reflection about the universe, indicating that the ancient bond between theology and cosmology is not easily snapped…” (Farrow 1999, 165).

        It is with sensitivity both to the narrative function of the ascension story and to its cosmological background that we will compare the narrative of Jesus’ ascension with four similar narrative-traditions within the same period; two from the Jewish milieu, those of Enoch (Gen. 5:24; 1 Enoch 12; 2 Enoch 67:1-3;Jub. 4:16-26) and Moses (Philo, Life of Moses, 2.288-292; Ezekiel the Tragedian, Exagoge, 67-89), and two from the Graeco-Roman milieu, those of Apollonius of Tyana (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, 8:29-30) and Romulus (Plutarch, Romulus, 27.4-28.3; Livy, Ab urbe condita, 1.16). As part of our comparison we will be looking at how these four narrative-traditions functioned with respect to their central figure and how the assumed cosmology of such narratives reflects the function of the narrative itself. In addition, while it will be important to keep in mind the form-critical distinction made by G. Lohfink between ascension stories of a heavenly journey of the soul (Himmelsreise der Seele), and ascension stories involving a full rapture of body and soul (Entrückung) (with the Lukan narrative being categorized in the latter; Zwiep 1997, 21-22), this distinction will not be invested in too heavily, for in fact it will be argued that heaven (οὐρανος) cannot be a sphere/realm/place too easily separated from earth in our narratives. The cosmologies of the narratives will be shown to have immediate implications for the function of such narratives, and it will be argued that the Lukan ascension story is much closer both in cosmological assumptions and in function to the stories of political figures such as Romulus and Moses, than to the stories of holy-sagacious men like Enoch and Apollonius.

      The Lukan narrative of the ascension of Jesus has a number of interesting features, all of which are appropriate in considering when analyzing its cosmological assumptions and functional role. Contrary to much of popular belief about ancient cosmology within the Graeco-Roman period, the assumed cosmology of many was not as simple as a three-tiered universe structure. As J.B. Davies elaborates,

…it has to be admitted that the Hebrew regarded the universe as a three-storeyed construction of which heaven was the first and earth the ground floor with Sheol as the basement. Yet it would be a mistake to regard this as in any sense a systematized conception. Heaven itself had been created by God, but the Hebrew never asked where God was before this act of creation took place. Again, it was recognized that “the heaven of heavens cannot contain” Him, and so God could not be said to be confined in space, although one might also affirm that heaven was His throne. (Davies 1958, 57)

In fact, it was noted by E. Haenchen that, in comparison to apocryphal narratives of the ascension story, such as found in the Gospel of Peter, the Lukan narrative “…ist unsentimental und von fast befremdender Nüchternheit’…” (quoted in; Zwiep 1997, 13) for the story does not divulge into long descriptions about what heaven looks like or how many layers it has such as later Enochic traditions do. Rather, heaven appears to function in the Lukan narrative not as another place that could be described, but instead as a realm or “significant setting” in the narrative that serves to “critique these other spatial perspectives” (Sleeman 2009, 146:9, 75). Contrary to Bishop John Spong and Richard Holloway’s assertion that a local transition narrative like a ascension would presume a mythological cosmos, the Lukan narrative does not present a cosmology where Jesus’ ascension is akin to a “space voyage” (Dawson 2004, 31; 39; 34), but rather presumes a relational notion of space. Thomas F. Torrance most adequately differentiated between a receptacle notion of space and a relational notion of space when he spoke of a relational notion as defining space “…in accordance with the nature of the force that gives… [it its]… field of determination”, so that earth would be humanity’s space because of the activity of human beings and in the same way heaven would be God’s space because of the activity of God (Torrance 1976, 130–131). We will find in our further comparison that receptacle notions of space and relational notions of space are found throughout our other four narrative-traditions .

          In addition to the presumed relational cosmology of the Lukan narrative, we also find that the role of the narrative is neither for preservation of a body for a further eschatological role (contra Zwiep 1997, 78–79) nor is it simply ascension terminology being used for the ascent of the soul to heaven, for then the resurrection narrative would be left purposeless (noting the unique structure of the Jesus narrative; Farrow 2011, 2). The purpose of the Lukan narrative is made quite clear by the speech reported of Peter in Acts 2:22-36, in which, by quoting from Psalms 16:1-8 and 110:1, he points out that for many early Christian communities the ascension narrative served to show that where other Davidic kings had died, Jesus fulfilled the role as the proper Messianic king of the Jewish people. Furthermore, this kingly/political role of the narrative is further accentuated by the fact that, as Matthew Sleeman as pointed out in relation to the geographical conceptual framework provided by Ed Soja, ‘heaven’ in the Lukan narrative serves as a ‘thirdspace’ whose “…impact on earthly spaces within Acts challenges and reshapes both (firstspace) material locations and (secondspace) ideational projections, crafting constructions of places incorporating and exceeding conventional binary oppositions” (Sleeman 2009, 146:46). One can see this immediately in the preceding words of the Lukan Jesus before his ascension in Acts 1:7-8, where Jesus begins to dismantle not only the disciples’ presumptions about the temporal aspects of the eschaton but also their spatial presumptions found in 1:6. As Sleeman notes, by introducing the three firstspace locations of Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria in order firstly to reconceptualise their notions of what firstspace Israel is, he then separates Israel as a whole from their secondspace conceptual framework for the eschaton, by introducing his secondspace of the ‘ends of the earth’, thus effectively “…Jesus does far more than predict the witnesses’ future schedule: he (re)defines their space, and with them, that of the wider world” (Sleeman 2009, 146:72). As we will see, this redefining of firstspaces and secondspaces, by the thirdspace of heaven as the place of the ‘right hand’ of God, is a function of politically shaped ascension narratives focused on relational notions of space, as opposed to ascension narratives shaped by the role of holy/sagacious men and receptacle notions of space.

            Beginning with looking at the narrative traditions of the ascensions of Enoch and Apollonius of Tyana, we will look at both their cosmological assumptions and their functional role for their narratives main figures. The narrative tradition of the ascension of Enoch begins quite humbly with a vague reference in Gen. 5:24 of God ‘taking’ (לקח) Enoch, presumably from the LXX translation for his piety (εὐηρέστησεν τῷ θεῷ). From here however his position is elevated to having a role as a eschatological prophet as witnessed by his being referenced even in early Christian literature (Jude 14-15). Much of the Enochic tradition as witnessed by 1 Enoch 12 is concerned with Enoch’s role in having a separate space to be “hidden” (1 Enoch 12:2), which is defined as the space of the Watchers, so that he may record the misdeeds of these fallen angels. What we clearly see in 1 Enoch 12 is a receptacle notion of space, with heaven (presumably) as a separate space to put Enoch alongside of the Watchers, for while even the space is functionally a place for Enoch’s activity, it is not defined by Enoch’s activity. It is also clear what Enoch’s role is, for Enoch’s ascension into heaven does not redefine any geography nor is it to assume any authoritative role, it is so that he may perform his role as a “scribe of righteousness” (1 Enoch 12:4). We do later however see a remarkable mutation of Enoch’s ascension story in 2 Enoch 67:1-3, where we see a remarkable resemble to the Lukan narrative of the ascension of Jesus. The common elements between them are: the conversational setting, the ascension actually being described, the role of eyewitnesses, the attempt at an explanation for such a ascension, the worship of God as a response, and the return of the eyewitnesses to their original starting point (all noted in Zwiep 1997, 50). However, even in this case we must remember Arie W. Zwiep’s own caution that, “Similarities of language and form do not necessarily imply ideological correspondence…” (Zwiep 1997, 39–40). It is with this caution that we must ironically disagree with Zwiep’s own conclusion that the ascension of Enoch in 2 Enoch 67:1-3 exemplifies the basic formulaic structure for the Lukan narrative and that therefore they have the same function, that (in Zwiep’s estimation) of the preservation of a figure for an eschatological role.

          It is quite clear that later in the narrative of 2 Enoch the function of the narrative of Enoch’s ascension is precisely to confer authority upon someone else, namely Mefusalom, as Enoch’s son to be priest over the people (2 Enoch 69:1-7). In addition to the function of the narrative as conferring authority upon someone else, because now Enoch serves in a priestly role before God, the cosmological assumption of the narrative is still a receptacle notion of heaven, with no hint as to the relational aspects of how heaven interacts with earth or any other space. Lastly in our consideration then of the Enochic narrative-tradition of Enoch’s ascension we will look at the account in the Book of Jubilees. Here we find the most interesting mutation of the narrative, for here the ascension of Enoch, while transferring him to another location, precisely does not take him to heaven but instead to the Garden of Eden, so that he may perform both the priestly role assigned to him in 2 Enoch and the scribal role assigned to him in 1 Enoch (Jub. 4:23-26). It is interesting that here, while obviously there is a receptacle view of space in this cosmos, the receptacle is not heaven but Eden, for God in this narrative has four special places on earth:  the Garden of Eden, the Mount of the East, Mount Sinai, and Mount Zion (Jub 4:26). So while we do get a quasi-redefinition of secondspace notions about God’s residing place, this is not caused by a thirdspace to which Enoch is brought, but simply by the recognition of a larger secondspace than first imagined of where God’s residing place is on earth, the firstspace. On the whole, then, the Enochic narrative-tradition neither has the same cosmological assumptions, nor does it have the same role as the Lukan narrative of Jesus’ ascension.[1]

            From our example of a Jewish holy/sagacious figure who is raptured, we move on to analyze the smaller and yet still popular Graeco-Roman narrative-tradition of the ascension of Apollonius of Tyana.[2] Philostratus in his narrative notes that the Damis memoir he has been using does not include a death story and that there were a variety of traditions concerning Apollonius’ death and/or ascension. The ascension tradition we have of Apollonius is small but significant, for in the account of his death in Lindus he simply disappears within the temple of Athene, but in the account of his ascension in Crete it is said that he escaped from his imprisonment and was welcomed by a choir of angels to be brought up to heaven (Life of Apollonius, 8:29-30). In comparing the cosmological assumptions of this narrative with those of the Lukan narrative, at first their mutual lack of description of heaven might lend itself to think that Philostratus’ narrative has a relational notion of space, but as is quite clear from the story, heaven is a receptacle space of refuge to receive the fleeing Apollonius. Now while it is important to note that the gateway to heaven is found within the temple of Dictynna, suggesting that Dictynna is thought of as an important secondspace construction, it is nevertheless not expounded upon exactly how or in what manner the space of heaven defines either the firstspace of Crete nor the secondspace of the temple of Dictynna. As for the function of the narrative, this appears to be two-fold. The first is the aforementioned explanation of Apollonius’ escape from the guards. The second function of the narrative, however, appears to be so that in his immortal state he can continue to visit his disciples to teach them about the immortality of the soul (Life of Apollonius, 8:31). Of note here, then, is how both Apollonius and Enoch are still serving very much sage-like roles even after their ascension, answering inquiries and delivering messages concerning the heavens and the deep mysteries. It is of interest to point out this explicit function of the ascension stories of Enoch and Apollonius because it is precisely not what we find throughout much of the New Testament and, most pertinent to our study, especially not the Acts of the Apostles. After the ascension story the apostles are left on their own to cast lots for the new disciple (Acts 1:26), they are given the Holy Spirit for communication and as a sign of the ‘Day of the Lord’ (Acts 2:1-20), and in the dispute concerning the gentiles they must rely on the judgment of James (Acts 15). In fact the only thing the post-ascension Jesus appears to do in the narrative of the Acts of the Apostles is commission Paul (Acts 9:1-19). Present in the narrative-traditions of both Apollonius and Enoch then, are the cosmological assumptions of a receptacle view of space and the functional role of their ascensions to be for the deliverance of holy/sagacious men to a place safe from danger so that they may give their post-ascension wisdom/revelations/instructions. It may be safe to argue that neither of their narrative-traditions is well suited to understand the Jesus ascension narrative.

        The Lukan narrative presumes both a relational notion of space, where heaven is a thirdspace, and the functional role of the ascension as the enthronement of their main figure for political authority. It is with this in mind then that we’ll explore the narrative-traditions of two political figures with ascension, namely Moses, and Romulus. The narrative-tradition of Moses’ ascension and all its components is too immense to cover fully, but what can be gleaned from both Philo’s account and Ezekiel the Tragedian’s record of a dream confirm quite well that kingship/royalty/politics was a key factor in understanding Moses’ ascension to heaven. Beginning with Deuteronomy 34:4-8, it would seem quite odd, given this clear description of his death and burial that there should be a ascension tradition about Moses, and yet it appears that because of the unknown location of the burial (v.6), speculation grew. The tradition appeared, as evidenced by 2 Baruch 59:9-11 and Jub. 1:1-4, 26, firstly to unfold from the notion that Moses’ ascent up Sinai to receive the law in Exodus 24, was not merely an ascent up a mountain but into heaven itself. In fact, the furthest expansion upon this idea appears in Ezekiel the Tragedian’s Exagoge, in which Moses has a dream of ascending Sinai and finding a heavenly throne. The one seated upon the throne, who in this case we can only presume to be God, remarkably gets up from his throne and gives all the royal accessories to Moses. Jethro, Moses’ father in-law interprets the dream as a sign that Moses shall lead a great people and shall raise up a “mighty throne” (Exagoge, 67-89). As John J. Collins, has rightly pointed out, is that “What is implied in the vision, then, is the virtual apotheosis of Moses” (J. J. Collins 1995, 51). Moses, like Enoch, in this dream is allowed to see all times and place, even with the stars underneath his feet (Exagoge, 77-89). However, as rightly pointed out by Zwiep, this scene and the traditions before it, do not quite represent an entire full-body rapture as the conclusion of the figure’s life (Zwiep 1997, 65–66; so also Collins 1995, 51).

          From this point, however, we have both the accounts of Philo and of Josephus that appear to narrate or imply a rapture story. In Philo’s Life of Moses we get a similar tradition to 2 Baruch and the Book of Jubilees, where Moses is given the world as his possession in sharing God’s own possession, allowed to see the inner mysteries of the heavens, and is declared both “god and king of the whole nation” (Life of Moses, 1.155-159). While the source of Moses being called ‘god’ may be made clear by Exodus 7:1, the tradition of Moses being a ‘king’ comes from Rabbinic Midrash from R. Tanhuma, who in interpreting Numbers 10:1-2 brings together Moses being declared ‘god’ with the implication that Moses shared in God’s kingship (Meeks 1968, 355–357). However, at the end of the account of the Life of Moses, we get an account- which while arguably, alongside of the Assumption of Moses and the ‘duplex Moses tradition’, describes the ascent of the soul to heaven (Life of Moses, 2.288-292)- is grouped with both Enoch and Elijah and uses vivid ascension terminology  (Zwiep 1997, 66n2). Lastly with regard to the narrative tradition of Moses’ ascension, we have the account from Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, IV 8.48), in which Moses is said to have “gone back to the divinity” (πρὸς τὸ θεῖον ἀναχωρῆσαι).[3] The phrase “gone back to the divinity” is a technical phrase used in Josephus, otherwise only used with reference to Enoch, and furthermore much else of the terminology in the narrative such as verb ἀφανίζομαι is used with reference to both Elijah and Enoch (Zwiep 1997, 67; so too Tabor 1989, 227). In fact, the account of Moses’ ascension in Josephus is so vivid that James D. Tabor is forced to argue that Josephus wanted to both describe the ascension of Moses as like the ascension of Philo’s Moses or Dionysius’ Aeneas and Romulus, and yet have it not so (Tabor 1989, 237–238)! In agreement with Zwiep however, we must find Tabor’s argument unpersuasive, for it appears that Josephus intends to record that “…Moses, knowing in advance of his coming rapture (like Elijah!), apparently wanted to avoid any notion of merit on his own part” and thus wrote his own burial account (Zwiep 1997, 69). Furthermore, this was not done on Josephus’ part as “…a conscious resistance…” to such traditions about other figures (as in Tabor 1989, 237) but rather to explain the discrepancy of why there were both accounts of Moses’ ascension to heaven and of his burial. What we have then in the narrative-tradition of the ascension of Moses as a whole, while not necessarily a full bodily rapture such as our Lukan narrative, is both the cosmological presumption of a relational view of space and the function of the narratives to confer political authority on their main figure.

        The heaven of this narrative-tradition, while serving quite secondarily as a receptacle space to explain the disappearance of the body of Moses, is also clearly a thirdspace that defines the secondspace of Moses’ ruler-ship as the whole world. The function of the narrative-tradition appears solely to be that of conferring political authority upon a national figure, and not upon any existing institution such as the Hasmonean kings (Meeks 1968, 366). Having looked at one national figure, we shall move to our last narrative-tradition for comparison, that of Romulus. In Plutarch’s account of Romulus’ ascension we have, first, the oddity of the disappearance of the body, then the conjecture that the senators had indeed murdered him in the temple of Vulcan, then finally the story that a dark cloud had descended upon Romulus in a public assembly meeting, taking up him to heaven to be not merely a god but a king. At first many accused the senators of themselves fabricating the story to trick the people, but then upon the testimony of Julius Proculus having seen a heavenly vision of Romulus, the people began to worship Romulus as the god Quirinus (Romulus, 27.4-28.3). Livy’s account of this apotheosis is quite similar to Plutarch’s in that it too has the disappearance of the body, the rumour that the senators themselves had killed Romulus, the public assembly setting for the thick cloud that hid Romulus from the sight of the public to take him up to heaven, and the worship of Romulus by the people as a god (Ab urbe condita, 1.16).[4] In addition, however, Livy’s account of Proculus Julius’ account of his heavenly visitation of Romulus gives not only a clearer indication of a relational view of space, but also of the specific function for the post-ascension Romulus. Plutarch’s account does indicate the pre-existence of the deity of Romulus and instructions for the Roman people so that they may be at the height of humanity (Romulus, 28.2), but Livy’s account contains a fuller account of the function of Romulus’ ascension.

         In Livy’s account we have the post-ascension Romulus declaring it to be “…the will of heaven that my Rome shall be the capital of the world; so let them cherish the art of war, and let them know and teach their children that no human strength can resist Roman arms” (Ab urbe condita, 1.16.7). Quite clearly, then, we can see the relational notion of space in view here, for heaven acts as a thirdspace in order to redefine the secondspace of the capital city of the firstspace, the world. It is true that the receptacle notion of space is also in view, so that heaven is the space where the mysterious disappearance of the body of Romulus is explained, but beyond this it is clear that the establishment of Rome is achieved by Romulus’ having authority in heaven, the thirdspace. Furthermore, this scene, as Adela Yarbro Collins rightly points out, is very similar to the commissioning scenes in the Gospels of Luke and John, and most especially, the Gospel of Matthew 28:16-20 (A. Y. Collins 2009, 30). In this light we may see Acts 1:8 as a commissioning scene in and of itself, where the disciples, like the Roman people, receive their power from ‘on high’ and are commanded to go out to be witnesses to the power of the post-ascension figure.

      As we have seen then, the Lukan ascension story is much closer both in cosmological assumptions and in function to the stories of political figures such as Moses and Romulus, than to the stories of holy-sagacious men like Enoch and Apollonius. With Enoch and Apollonius, it was clear that in their narrative-traditions the emphasis was upon a receptacle view of space, for whom ‘heaven’ was a receptacle in which to receive their body but in no way had any relational aspect with earth. We also found with both of these figures that the function of their narratives was both for the escape of the figure and for their post-ascension instruction of their disciples, but it was not connected in any way to political authority. The_Ascension_of_ChristIn contrast to them, we have found that while the narrative traditions of both Moses and Romulus do have a receptacle notion of space, so that heaven is a space for which to put their mysteriously missing bodies, this notion was strongly overshadowed by their relational notion of space. For these narrative-traditions, ‘heaven’ served as a thirdspace, much like it did in the Lukan narrative, which, after the entrance of their main figure redefined secondspace conceptions. In addition, we saw how with Moses and Romulus, their ascension narrative-traditions served to confer upon them a distinct unique political authority, much like our Lukan narrative as we saw from Peter’s sermon in Acts 2:22-36. Aside from characteristic features and specific terminology of our narrative traditions,[5] we have seen how in both cosmological assumption concerning space and in the function of their narratives, the Lukan ascension narrative concerning Jesus is much closer in resemblance to the political figures of Moses and Romulus, than to the sagacious figures of Enoch and Apollonius. Lastly, we may even see this political dimension in the response of the angels in the Lukan ascension narrative to the disciples (Acts 1:10-11), in which it appears that “…Idly gazing into heaven is an inappropriate reaction to Jesus’ ascension…Implicit in the angels’ words, of course, is that the disciples ought to busy themselves in light of and because of Jesus’ absence” (Parsons 1987, 182).

Works Cited List

Primary Sources

Andersen, F.I. 1983. “2 (Slavonic Apocalypse of) ENOCH (late First Century A.D.) Appendix: 2 Enoch in Merilo Pravednoe- A New Translation and Introduction.” In The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: Apocalyptic Literature & Testaments, edited by James H. Charlesworth, 1:91–221. USA: DoubleDay & Company, Inc.

Society, Jewish Publication. 2004. The Jewish Study Bible. Edited by Adele Berlin, Marc Zvi Brettler, and Michael A. Fishbane. USA: Oxford University Press.

Isaac, E. 1983. “1 (Ethiopic Apocalypse of) ENOCH (Second Century B.C.- First Century A.D.) A New Translation and Introduction.” In The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: Apocalyptic Literature & Testaments, edited by James H. Charlesworth, 1:5–89. USA: DoubleDay & Company, Inc.

Klijn, A.F.J. 1983. “2 (Syriac Apocalypse of) BARUCH (early Second Century A.D.)- A New Translation and Introduction.” In The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: Apocalyptic Literature & Testaments, edited by James H. Charlesworth, 1:615–652. USA: DoubleDay & Company, Inc.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Marc Z. Brettler, ed. 2011. The Jewish Annotated New Testament. New Revised Standard Version. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA.

Livy. 1919. Livy Books I and II. Translated by B.O. Foster. Vol. 1. 14 vols. The LOEB Classical Library. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Philo. 1984. Philo- On Abraham, On Joseph, and De Vita Mosis. Translated by F.H. Colson. Vol. 6. 12 vols. The LOEB Classical Library. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Philostratus. 1912. The Life of Apollonius of Tyana- The Epistles of Apollinus and the Treatise of Eusebius. Translated by F.C. Conybeare. Vol. 2. 2 vols. The LOEB Classical Library. London, England: Wm. Heinemann.

Plutarch. 1914. Plutarch’s Lives- Theseus and Romulus; Lycurgus and Numa; Solon and Publicola. Translated by Bernadotte Perrin. Vol. 1. 11 vols. The LOEB Classical Library. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Robertson, R.G. 1985. “Ezekiel the Tragedian (Second Century B.C.)- A New Translation and Introduction.” In The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: Expansions of the “Old Testament” and Legends, Wisdom and Philosophical Literature, Prayers, Psalms and Odes, Fragments of Lost Judeo-Hellenistic Works, edited by James H. Charlesworth, 2:803–819. USA: DoubleDay & Company, Inc.

Wintermute, O.S. 1985. “Jubilees (Second Century B.C.)- A New Translation and Introduction.” In The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: Expansions of the “Old Testament” and Legends, Wisdom and Philosophical Literature, Prayers, Psalms and Odes, Fragments of Lost Judeo-Hellenistic Works, edited by James H. Charlesworth, 2:35–142. USA: DoubleDay & Company, Inc. 

Secondary Sources

Collins, Adela Yarbro. 2009. “Ancient Notions of Transferal and Apotheosis in Relation to the Empty Tomb Story in Mark.” In Metamorphoses: Resurrection, Body, and Transformative Practices in Early Christianity, edited by Turid Karlsen Seim and Jorunn Okland, 1:41–57. Religious Experience from Antiquity to the Middle Ages. Berlin/New York: de Gruyter.

Collins, John J. 1995. “A Throne in the Heavens: Apotheosis in Pre-Christian Judaism.” In Death, ecstasy, and other worldly journeys, edited by John J. Collins and Michael Fishbane, 43–58. USA: State University of New York.

Davies, J. G. 1958. He Ascended Into Heaven A Study In The History Of Doctrine. Great Britain: Lutterworth Press.

Dawson, Gerrit. 2004. Jesus Ascended: The Meaning of Christ’s Continuing Incarnation. Great Britain: Continuum.

Farrow, Douglas. 1999. Ascension and Ecclesia: On the Significance of the Doctrine of the Ascension for Ecclesiology and Christian Cosmology. Great Britain: T. & T. Clark.

———. 2011. Ascension Theology. India: Continuum.

Meeks, Wayne A. 1968. “Moses as God and King.” In Religions in Antiquity: Essays in Memory of Erwin Ramsdell Goodenough, edited by Jacob Neusner, 14:354–371. Studies in the History of Religions (Supplements to Numen). Leiden, The Netherlands: BRILL.

Parsons, Mikeal Carl. 1987. The Departure of Jesus in Luke-Acts: The Ascension Narratives in Context. Edited by David E. Orton. Vol. 21. Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series. Great Britain: JSOT Press.

Sleeman, Matthew. 2009. Geography and the Ascension Narrative in Acts. Vol. 146. Society For New Testament Studies Monograph Series. USA: Cambridge University Press.

Tabor, James D. 1989. “‘Returning to the Divinity’: Josephus’s Portrayal of the Disappearances of Enoch, Elijah, and Moses.” Journal of Biblical Literature 108 (2): 225. doi:10.2307/3267295.

Torrance, Thomas F. 1976. Space, Time and Resurrection. First edition. Great Britain: The Handsel Press.

Zwiep, Arie W. 1997. The Ascension of the Messiah in Lukan Christology. Vol. 87. Supplements to Novum Testamentum. BRILL.


[1] For our purposes we will not be considering the identification of Enoch as the Son of Man in 1 Enoch 70-71, for not only its notorious textual problems but also because the dating of that narrative is quite the matter of dispute (Zwiep 1997, 51–58).

[2] Admittedly the sample of stories upon which we are drawing from the Graeco-Roman world and Jewish milieu is quite small in comparison with the vast literary tradition of such figures that include Elijah (2 Kings 2:1-18), Baruch (2 Baruch 76:1-5), Phinehas (Ps-Philo, Liber Antiquitatum, 48:1), and Heracles (Apollodorus, Bibliotheca II 7, 7; DiodS, Hist IV 38, 5; Euripides, Heraclidae 910; Lysias  2, 11; Lucian, Cynicus 13; Hermotimus 7; Cicero, Tusculanae I 14, 32), and many more besides, but for sake of brevity we must. (All these examples are discussed in; Zwiep 1997, 38; 58–63; 71–76)

[3] The translation for this passage come from: Tabor, 1989

[4] It does seem clear however that neither Plutarch or Livy actually believe this account to be true, but the importance of their reporting of a narrative-tradition is no less important for that.

[5] On which, “The ascension of Jesus in Acts more closely resembles the Greco-Roman literature in terms of characteristic features- clouds, angels, and mountains seem to play a more significant role in the pagan texts than in the Jewish literature. The Lukan terminology, on the other hand, is much closer to the Jewish literature, particularly the Elijah texts” (Parsons 1987, 40). In addition however, the argument here gets beyond the impasse of Graeco-Roman vs. Jewish influence debate, for the argument does not emphasize the Jewish nature of the story as in contrast with the Graeco-Roman nature of it or vice-versa.

From Union to Family: What kind of a Community is a Church?

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Authorial Note: Most of the following proposal comes from my own personal experience of having arrived in Edinburgh and deciding that I would stick to the first church that I attended, Carrubbers Christian Centre. During this experience I learned much about the formation of human community, and the perversion of the notion of Church community within our capitalist and market based society. For more about my own personal experience see: Journey Through Scotland, ep. 4.

            To live and commune with a people whom you like, on a voluntary or involuntary basis, is easy. To live and commune with a people whom you don’t like, on an involuntary basis, is difficult but one could learn the art of toleration and peaceful co-existence. To live and commune with a people whom you don’t like, on a voluntary basis, seems irrational and an experience filled with such agitation it could only make one wonder, ‘Why don’t they just stop living and communing with them? If they dislike it so much, why continue to be a part of that community?’ It is the motive of the last of these situations that needs to be outlined to explain why being part of a Church community is important, for any other basis is not extraordinary enough to merit the attention of the disciple of Christ. The idiom quite common amongst people who settle into a new area, looking for a Church community to be a part of, is ‘Church shopping’. The disgusting assumption built into this idiom is that communities are commodities, from whom we get certain things like ‘spiritual experiences’ or ‘good music’ or ‘inspiring sermons’ in exchange for our tithes, and more often than not, just our very attention span. The community as a place of market exchange is the implicit assumption found throughout various voluntary associations, clubs, sport teams etc… of a capitalist and market-based society. One joins a bowling league because one wants to bowl with people and in exchange you pay some money for a shirt. One goes clubbing because one wishes to ‘hook-up’ and this will probably be in exchange for your money, your phone number, and more often than not your dignity. If one treats various Church communities in and around one’s area in this manner, one has mistaken a family for a union.

            One can see this mistaken form of Church community even in the example of Atheists churches, or ‘godless congregations’. Lee Moore, founder of the Godless Revival, decided to break off from the original Sunday Assembly,mlyn1447l because he feared that the Sunday Assembly was essentially watering down its atheistic overtones in favour of a more “humanistic cult”.* What’s even more interesting is what Sanderson Jones said in response to this split, which was “We are only one flavor of ice cream, and one day we hope there’ll be congregations for every godless palate.” Anyone familiar with protestant church settings especially, knows that the language both Moore and Jones are speaking in is essentially church marketing, something which evangelical have long been masters at. What is disturbing though is that it is clear that the notion of ‘community’ found within these types of settings, is essentially community as a product for individuals, and when the product no longer serves the consumer needs, the consumer can leave. Communities are ice cream to be devoured. The entire centre of community formation is based around the self-interest of individuals, in other words, a union.

            We can see well the contrast between understanding one’s community as a union verses one’s community as a family for instance, in the example of the debate held on Premier Christian Radio’s Program Unbelievable, (May 31st, 2014) between the famous Catholic theologian Hans Küng and a lesser known more conservative Catholic, Peter D. Williams of Catholic Voices.** It is here where, in response to a question concerning why Prof. Küng is not a protestant, that he effectively exhibits what a familial notion of community looks like by effectively arguing that he has been a priest in good standing with the Roman Catholic Church for decades and has no intention of leaving it. Implicitly he argued that one’s membership in the Roman Catholic Church does not depend on one’s particular beliefs, of which millions of Catholics share his, but upon one’s commitment to the community. Prof. Küng, while being a ‘liberal’ Catholic is actually much more orthodox than Williams, who argued that he was part of the Roman Catholic Church because he thought it was the truth. From Williams’ stand-point, one’s commitment to a community depends on whether that community caters to your sense of truth and beliefs, which (while he himself does not acknowledge this) can change and when they do change you separate yourself from such community because it no longer serves your interests. Whereas, from Prof. Küng’s standpoint, while one may disagree with many of the teachings and beliefs of one’s community, to even the point of being asked why one still is committed to the community, one is nevertheless based in the community by love and commitment to the community itself. The entire centre of community formation is based around the self-sacrifice of individuals, in other words, a family.

            In addition to the different centres of community formation, i.e. self-interest vs. self-sacrifice, there are many other differences between communities that are unions and communities that are families. Another of these is membership. In unions, one gets to choose one’s members but in families, one does not get to choose one’s family members. Speaking from a Christian theologically standpoint, what this insight means then is that if the church is to be a community based upon self-sacrifice and not the useless-narcissistic basis of self-interest, if the church is to be a family and not a union, is that while ‘liberal’ Christians can proudly proclaim Martin Luther King Jr. as a brother, they must also except Pat Robertson as one as well.  Likewise, for ‘conservative’ Christians this would mean proclaiming Martin Luther as a brother, but also excepting Brian D. McLaren as one. Let us be clear: this does not mean that we have to agree with all such figures, for our community is not based on shared beliefs and interests, rather it means that we do not get to decide who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out’ for ourselves. We do not get to decide who is worthy of our time, attention, and love. Drawing back to the beginning of this essay then, this means that if the familial notion of community means that we do not get to pick our family members, it may often be the case that our particular family members will be people we don’t like or agree with. Most troubling, it means that we might voluntarily be parts of communities whose people we don’t like, or whose beliefs we may not always agree with, because, paradoxically, while from our perspective joining a Church community may appear to be voluntary, we must act and commitment as if we did not actually choose the Church, if the Church is a family whose centre is self-sacrifice and whose membership is not up to our preferences.

            The last aspect of a familial understanding of Church community then, in addition to its centre being self-sacrifice and its membership not open to our choosing, is that the way one then chooses which family members to spend time with, cannot be out of belief agreement or general ‘warm-fuzzies’ with the people you spend time with, rather the way ones chooses which Church community to join oneself too, is by asking, ‘Who needs me most?’ It is for this exact reason that if one believes that a particular Church community has a distorted theology, one has all the more reason to stay with them, for clearly (at least in one’s own thinking) they need some better teachers. It is for this exact reason that someone like Prof. Küng is much more likely to reform the Roman Catholic Church than any of its critics who refuse to be associated with it.  Is it not true that often the effective critics of a tradition are those who are identified with it? Or, to take the situation from a different angle, if the particular Church community is somewhat of a loveless environment, then one should take up the line in the Franciscan prayer that reads, “Where there is hatred, let me sow love”, and even furthermore, “Grant that I may not seek so much as to…be loved as to love.”

            The Christian Church then is not a community of spiritual commodity to be shopped for, rather it is the family whom we are called to love, to whom we have been given, not one that we have chosen, whose centre is self-sacrifical love. At this concluding point we would be remise to not reflect on a passage from the New Testament which shows most exemplary all of that which has been discussed. In the first Epistle of Peter, the author argues, that the Christian Church is “…a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people…” (1 Peter 2:9, NRSV), now while much can be said let us reflect on one of some the most interesting implications of this familial understanding of the Church community. Some of the ‘practical’ implications for what has been discussed then, taken in reverse order, are: (1) when an individual or biological family is looking for a Church community to join in the midst of their area, they should imitate Christ in self-sacrifical love by joining the community, not that best suits their ‘needs’ but rather who needs them most. (2) When one is considering the beliefs of the community, one should not fear the accusation and guilt to be accumulated by association with, for the community is not based on mutual agreement of belief, but love and commitment. Truly if one is to join the family of love, one is called to love even the crazy uncle whom those outside the family hate. (3) If a Church community is seeking to build up its own community, it should not bother with marketing or trying to be better entertainment than sunday night football, for by doing so it has already appealed to people’s self-interests, and not to the people of the self-sacrifical love of Christ. Rather, a Church community should seek not even to build its own interests and numbers, but rather be the one community in the world who intentionally breaks open its body and pours out its blood in love and sacrifice in imitation of its central ritual the Eucharist.

            ‘But what of the implication of the Epistle?’- it is later argued in the Epistle that one should “Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (1 Peter 2:17, NRSV). Most readers only notice the last clause, ‘honor the emperor’, as if to see that in here were the seedbeds of the later corruption of the Church embodied in Roman Catholicism, without reading the first clause, ‘honour everyone’. What has been done here is nothing less than the categorizing of the emperor with everyone else. It is here where we leave to leave with a central question of community formation that could not be written about here in its entirety: Is the Christian Church suppose to love its members before it must love those outside of the community? Or would the privileging of the Church communities over other communities, quench its very spirit? The dualism of ‘Us-vs.-Them’ may be entirely unescapable,*** but now that we have argued that the posture within Us should be self-sacrifical, what the community as a whole’s posture should be toward Them, is another question entirely.

“Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” Remember this saying. And as for you…go out beyond these walls, but in the world you will abide as a monk.”

- Elder Zosima, The Brother Karamazov


Engelhart, Katie. “After a schism, a question: Can atheist churches last?” CNN Belief Blog. CNN Belief Blog, January 4, 2014. http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2014/01/04/after-a-schism-a-question-can-atheist-churches-last/

** To be accessed here: http://www.premier.org.uk/unbelievable

*** Often one hears that a society of tolerance should not tolerate the intolerant, and one has the sneaky suspicion that nothing profound is being utter but only the same rule almost all communities hold- ‘We like us, but we cannot like those who are not us’. 

Help My Discontent: A Prayer for the Disgruntled

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And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood.  It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.”  Jesus said to him, “If you are able!—All things are given to the one who is grateful.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, 

“I am grateful; help my discontent!” 

 When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!”

(Mark 9:20-25, NRSV- Adapted)

            We in the Christian tradition are caught in a terrible conundrum between aspiring to be like the Apostle Paul who had “…learned to be content with whatever…” (Philippians 4:11, NRSV), and yet also recognizing the impulse of ultimate discontentment with this life, so well described by C.S. Lewis,

“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.” (Mere Christianity)

Caught between the cessation of a desire for more so as not to complain, and yet having a deep inner cry of the spirit yearning for healing- how to escape this? Is it a matter of striking a balance, such as remembering to be grateful while jokingly complaining to let off steam? Is it a matter of being totally content in all things, and having no desire to change anything or for the creation to be healed? Or is it a matter of admitting defeat in never being satisfied with anything in life, strive for utopia, and living out one’s old years wondering what could have been? The first seems to be what many do, as most of their lives they complain about the little things then have a one day celebration for giving thanks. The second seems to be that of a person whose own peace of mind is more desirable than anyone else’s peace. The third finally appears to be a burden of a tremendous amount of anxiety, being the revolutionary that carries the weight of the world upon her shoulders, who can never be satisfied with less than the perfection of the world which they strive for, even out of a motive of justice.

            Why is the above passage from the Gospel of Mark adapted as it is, and how might it help us with our discontent with the sickness of the creation, and yet the need to be content in order to receive all things? Notice in this adaption the boys sickness appears as if it could be a suicidal mental disorder, a boy driven by immense amounts of anxiety possibly due to tax collection or the harvest or some related issue. The father cannot accept the situation as it is, he cannot be at ease with it and nor should he. To be at ease with the sickness and anxiety of the creation, would be a sign of callousness, not peace of mind. Naturally the father turns to the holy man of the town in a world of little resources, even the random ‘alternative’ healer would be called upon. The response of the holy man at first appears to be an arrogant reply equivalent to, ‘How dare you question if I can heal him, of course I can!’, but if this were the attitude in which the reply was made most certainly the local holy man would want to show the doubter his skills…but of course this is not what happens. The holy man points to the fact that it is not entirely up to his ability as to whether the boy would be healed or not,* but it was rather dependent in part on the man’s own posture toward the creation.** Jesus, the holy man, says, in reminiscence of the father in the story of the prodigal son (‘all that is mine is yours’- Luke 15:11-32, NRSV), tells the father, that ‘All things are given to the one who is grateful’.

          To parse out exactly what this enigmatic saying might mean, it would be helpful to look at the story of the prodigal son. In the story, the elder brother is upset that his younger brother has come home and got a party, whereas the elder has never left home and yet has never gotten a reception like his brother. It is to this discontent that his father tells him ‘All that is mine is yours’, but the problem was that the elder brother did not perceive the ‘all-that’ as ‘ALL-THAT’. He was not grateful, therefore he did not receive it as a gift. One never receives a gift as such unless one understands that it is a GIFT. Whatever one may receive, if one receives with a posture of entitlement, will never be a gift, only a due. What then Jesus, in our adaption of the story then is saying to the father is that the gracious gift of the health of his son would only be received as such if the father knew that he was not entitled to such treatment. If the father felt in anyway that Jesus owed him something, or was bound to do this for him, even then if Jesus did heal the boy, the father would not appreciate it, but merely rejoice that he had received his just due.

          In our contemporary cynical age we might read such a prompting as, ‘I’ll heal you’re boy, but you better be grateful for it!’ Is this, however, how we should read the prompting of Jesus about the father’s posture of gratitude? No, rather, Jesus’ concern is that the man in the midst of his and his son’s suffering, still rejoices with Job, “…the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21, NRSV). The desire to make sure someone is grateful and content can often be the only way to make sure someone does not devour their own soul with their discontent. Instead of an arrogant- ‘you better be grateful!- Jesus’ prompting is to make sure that the father was grateful and desired the healing of his son because he was grateful for the gift of his son, and not out of a soul-devouring posture of discontent and entitlement. The father’s reply to Jesus’ prompting is “I am grateful; help my discontent”.

         The father’s reply is what anyone, caught in the terrible conundrum described at the beginning, should pray. For the father acknowledges, that he is caught in the conundrum, and not in the cynical manner that we are often caught up in. The father does not jokingly complain about things to let off stream and give thanks to maintain credibility. Rather, the father recognizes that his discontent about the sickness and anxiety of the creation is present right alongside of his utter gratitude for what he has been given. After acknowledging the conundrum, he affirms his gratitude and asks for help with his discontent from Jesus. Despite his discontent in life he still proclaims that he is really and truly grateful for the gift of life, or as the Elder Zosima’s brother, Markel said, in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov, “…why, I myself want to be guilty before them, only I cannot explain it to you…Let me be culpable before all, and then all will forgive me, and that will be paradise.”  He owes the creation a debt of thanks in his loving gratitude toward the creation and his son as gifts from the one who knows how to give good things. But what of the second-half of the father’s cry, ‘help my discontent’? Is he asking for a peace of mind about the world’s cares so that he may be content with what is? Is he asking that his desire for better may be quenched so that he will no longer complain about the injustices of this creation?

         The important question to ask then, is on whose behalf is the father asking for healing and what drives the desire for something better? He is asking on the behalf of his son, and his drive is the gratitude and love that he already has for the gift of his son. The striving for a better creation should come from the gratitude and love for the way that the creation is already received by us. If the gift of the creation is rejected, we will wander as discontented gruntled souls looking for a better home then the one we inhabit, or if the gift of creation is not received as a gift we will continue to receive the joys of life as entitlements and ‘rights’ only to never be content. The father in our story does not wish that he had never been born, as Job later comes to cry in his story (Job 3, NRSV), nor does he feel that it is Jesus’ duty to heal his son, that his fair share has not been given.  Rather the father knows that he is grateful for the creation as a gift that has been given to him, and as he stares into the eyes of the one who first gave him his son he cries for the healing of the creation that is sick out of gratitude and love. He is not disgruntled or filled with complaint about his lot in life, rather he is grateful- ‘I am grateful!’ Furthermore than this, his ‘discontent’ is driven, not by a sense of lack or a sense of  unfairness on his own part, but rather by a sense of  love on behalf of the gift he has been given.

       The cry to ‘help’ our discontent is not a cry for us to be rid of it, it is right that we are caught in this conundrum.  The cry to ‘help’ our discontent is to say,

Lord, Help My Discontent this day

I am grateful and content in all things

 The creation owes me nothing,

I owe everything to everyone

When I reject a gift or disparage the day I was given it

Remind me that

Their is no satisfaction in other than you have given of yourself

When I receive a gift as a due and sense a lack

Remind me that

‘All things are given to the one who is grateful’

When I see that a gift is sick and anxiety ridden

Remind me that

It was given in love, and so shall it be restored



* In terms of the original story, the observations thus far offered about the Holy man, may be equally applicable, just framed in the context of ‘belief/unbelief’, instead of ‘gratefulness/discontent’ 

** In the original story its about the man’s level of belief. In this adaption it is about how he regards what he has already been given.

The Sweet Old Lie: “Violence is Virtuous”

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“Too long have I had my dwelling
among those who hate peace.
I am for peace;
but when I speak,
they are for war.”

(Psalm 120:6-7, NRSV)

            The words of the Psalmist are echoed throughout the world, off the walls of reality do they bounce, and into the ears of those who sharpen the weapons are they heard. In quoting the words of the Roman poet Horace, Wilfred Owen in the awake of the first world war told his country that if they knew the terrors and horror of war they would not teach their children, “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori“-“How sweet and right it is to die for one’s country”. The Psalmist also knew well that one could only be convinced of the goodness of the pursuit of war by “lying lips” and “a deceitful tongue” (Psalm 120:2, NRSV). As to how deep the venom of the deceitful tongues flows into the caverns of our thoughts that bring forth majestic Babylonian trees bearing the fruit of violence and war, is another question entirely. The lie must consist of its virtue, of its ‘sweetness’,  because if the lie consisted in its effectiveness, it is very much doubtful whether many would believe it at all. If the appeal to its virtue is what makes itself pleasing to the human heart, then it is this very ‘virtue’ that needs to be cut at the root so as to withdraw the venom out. What will appear as a destructive act of everything we knew and were told by the deceitful tongues, will in fact be the only way of salvaging our minds from the ‘old lie’, which runs through the manifestations of our society from war propaganda to innocent children’s sports. The sweet old lie is not only perpetuated in our media, but in the works of our theologians and major thinkers to the point of pure blasphemy and, in the strongest Christian terms, distortion of the very Gospel of the Prince of Peace, with whose banner they often lift in their pursuit. In the terms of the writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes, there is a time for the academic and careful voice, and there is a time for the prophetic and reckless voice. This instance is of the later.

            The goal here in expounding upon the false virtue of the sweet old lie is not originality or innovativeness but reveal things in the starkest and most blunt of terms, sensitivities will be disturbed, and things cherished will be mocked. Let’s begin with the teaching of Mixed Marital Arts (MMA) to children throughout Ontario after the ban of such things was lifted in 2010. The UFC and its associated practices have often been compared to Roman gladiatorial games, and it still remains to be seen why the comparison is not apt other than the lame moral bar of- ‘Well the intention isn’t to kill the opponent in UFC’..yes quite right, it is only to beat him or her into an inch of their life, and what an inch it is!romans-amphi-gladiators1 The Toronto Star headlined its story as “MMA for kids: Teaching violence, or values?”, which is entirely wrong because there is no question that it teaches violence, and furthermore it teaches violence as a value. One instructor of the sport, Mel Bellissimo said, “Don’t look at 15 seconds (of UFC) on television and then make a judgment,…Come to a place like Lanna MMA and watch what the kids do. And you tell me whether or not this is about violence or whether this is about learning and making words like respect, honour and hard work not just words but words to live by.” How wonderfully charming it sounds- ‘Don’t look at our superficial images in the media, that’s all hype! Come see for yourself how wonderfully your kids are disciplined into respecting those bigger than them, how honourable their meaningless competitions are between each other, and how much hard work they put into learning to kick each other in the stomach!’- Is not the truth however that the images portrayed on TV  (you know the violent bloody ones?) are actually the real form of fighting, as they so like to pat themselves on the back for? Whereas the fighting that occurs in the training centre is the highly controlled superficial environment of rules and regulations from instructors and paternal authority? In relation to war then, it is not to difficult to see how the very teaching of violence is seen as a value because it contributes to other well-known virtues like honour, respect, discipline, and hard work. The exact same sort of rhetoric is of course found within militaries the world over, as military reform schools are seen as what teaches someone values and how to become a valuable citizen. As Nigel Biggar, in his new work In Defence of War (Oxford University Press: 2013),* says, “Anger, hatred, rage, the sheer pleasure of destruction: these are all powerful emotions on the battlefield, but they can be governed…Whether or not they will be governed depends crucially upon the military discipline instilled by training…” (89). The idea both with MMA fighting and the military is that ‘yes while anger, bullying, violence raw are terrible, you can be taught in extensive training in these arts the values of discipline, hard-work etc…’ The false virtue then to be seen is that hard-work, discipline, honour, etc… are goods in and of themselves regardless of the end of violence at which they are aimed- ‘if you kid has trouble finishing his homework on time, train him to be a soldier, then he’ll learn discipline to finish his homework!’- as if the teaching of violence was the only possible way of instilling these ‘virtues’, which again are no virtues of ends, only of means. The honest message of the sweet old lie, which is still a lie but is nevertheless more honest in its intentions, can be whispered as: violence in moderation is possible, so don’t worry, indulge what little you need to, enjoy!** 

            Alongside of arguing that teaching violence is a virtue because it instills other virtues, is also the notion that dying for one’s country out of self-sacrifice is an honourable thing. Stanley Hauerwas has outlined the particular American history of this idea that the war is a needed and noble sacrifice for the freedom’s of one’s country in his essay, “Why War Is a Moral Necessity for America or How Realistic Is Realism?”***, in which he writes,

“…after the Civil War Americans think they must go to war to insure that those who died in our past wars did not die in vain. Thus American wars are justified as a “war to end all wars” or “to make the world safe for democracy” or for “unconditional surrender” or “freedom”…War, American wars, must be wars in which the sacrifices of those doing the dying and the killing have redemptive purpose and justification. War is America’s altar.”

The same kind of justification with strong nationalist undertones can of course be found in any country, despite increasing internationalism and globalism. The wars of national purpose will be rewritten as wars that defended human rights or some other just international ideal, with that same idea however that they were a blood sacrifice. Every remembrance day or whatnot will remind the citizens of a particular country, that we need to pay homage to our soldiers, not only the ones past but the ones in the present, because they fought and are fighting for our political freedoms, which we should honour and be grateful for. man-of-steel-national-guard‘They had to die so that we might live’- is the notion presented. Outside of the Christian tradition, if one is a secularist, or a nationalist or a humanist of a particular sort, then yes, quite possibly the soldiers did die for your freedoms, because despite the fact that ‘modern’ society has believed itself to surpass our ‘barbaric’ ancestors, it still devoutly believes in the system of atonement for sins.+ If the speech of the politicians were explicit, it might appear something like this: “To pay for the sins of the science of eugenics, racism, and many other evils of modernity, soldiers were sacrificed in world war two to save us from the Third Reich so that we might enjoy the fruits of modernity, having now cleansed our consciences. The soldiers who gave themselves up for the task defended our liberties, our rights, our way of life, and to them we will be grateful by erecting statues, wearing flowers…(though actually caring for veterans is another matter entirely)…and in imitation of their brave example  (and Superman, the Man of Steel!!!) we invite you to join their ranks, so that we may continue to live the lives we do. The world is retaliating against us and is jealous of our freedoms, let us appease the discontent of our populous and the gods who have taken away their favour, with a war to show our devotion to the rights and elevation of humanity given us by Prometheus.”

            In fact, because soldiers are viewed in a self-sacrifical manner, they are often compared to Jesus. In the Gospel of John Jesus is portrayed as saying, “No one greater love than this, to lay one’s life down for one’s friends” (John 15:13, NRSV), and this is the acclaimed love of the soldiers. In the Christian tradition, self-sacrifice is the highest form of love, and therefore throughout much of theological rhetoric in justifying and making a virtue out of violence by the soldier’s practice, violence and war are given a divine character and blessing. However, it must be said that it is difficult to conceive of many things more blasphemous in the Christian tradition than to compare the violent destructive activity of soldiers to the sacrifice of the one who, though about to be executed by soldiers, “…yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter…” (Isaiah 53:7, NRSV). The false virtue found in the notion of the self-sacrifical soldier in a violent endeavour, is precisely that they are not self-sacrifical, they sacrifice others and then are killed in an act of resistance. In what sense is it even believed that soldiers are self-sacrifical? It is believed that they sacrificed their lives, when in reality they did not sacrifice their lives but they risked their lives. One risks their life by sky-diving, one does not sacrifice their life by sky-diving. ‘Should not the risk be honoured? Did they not risk it on our behalf?’- no, they died on the behalf of ‘future’ generations, they did not know you, but furthermore and more importantly, they not only risked their lives, but they risked their lives in the pursuit of sacrificing and killing other lives, as any combatant does, including the other-side of the conflict.++ The honest message of the sweet old lie, which is still a lie but is nevertheless more honest in its intentions, can also be whispered as: violence is redemptive, risk your lives, offer your sacrifices, and enjoy your crop!    

            Lastly in the list of deceits to be revealed as such- in addition to the false virtues of (1) that hard-work, discipline, honour, etc… are goods in and of themselves regardless of the end of violence at which they are aimed  (2) that soldiers are self-sacrifical, instead of the sacrificers, and killed in an act of resistance- is simply that something can be rendered virtuous by its ‘necessity’. For instance, in our present day, a humanities professor at Stanford University, Ian Morris, can write an opinion piece in the Washington Post, in which he argues that the process of war, “…yet despite the Hitlers, Stalins and Maos, over 10,000 years…” has “…made states, and states made peace”. Furthermore, it is when such a professor can write something like the following secular theodicy, that   a ‘religious’ person can deeply understand how disgusting all ‘religious’ attempts at a theodicy or an explanation of the evils of the Holocaust can be,

“War may well be the worst way imaginable to create larger, more peaceful societies, but the depressing fact is that it is pretty much the only way. If only the Roman Empire could have been created without killing millions of Gauls and Greeks, if the United States could have been built without killing millions of Native Americans, if these and countless conflicts could have been resolved by discussion instead of force. But this did not happen.”

How would we ever know such a ridiculous proposal that it could not have been otherwise? Have any societies that we’ve ever known of tried the alternative of civilization without war?!?!? Notice the way Prof. Morris simply assumes that the brutal course that history took, was inevitable and necessary for our peace and abundance. ‘If only [it] could…’, as if we knew it could not have. For Prof. Morris, the process of enslavement, exploitation, racism, and much else can be described as, “…the winners of wars began incorporating the losers into larger societies…” More than this however, is the much larger lie that even if humanity’s past violence was necessary for our peace that that therefore makes it good and right. In other words, alongside of the very questionable premise of whether war and violence are ‘necessary’ is the false virtue that even if it were necessary this would mean it would be good, which is non-sense because in a realist worldview (of which it can only be presumed that Prof. Morris is) there could be such a thing as a ‘necessary evil’. But let us peel one more layer back and ask what the honest message of the sweet old lie, which is still a lie but is nevertheless more honest in its intentions, can be whispered as, in this case. Is it not?- Go, indulge your violence, history will thank you for doing the ‘necessary’ dirty work of violence, enjoy! 

            In sum then, what can we see? The false virtue of violence can have three separate parts, namely: (1) that hard-work, discipline, honour, etc… are goods in and of themselves regardless of the end of violence at which they are aimed  (2) that soldiers are self-sacrifical, instead of the sacrificers, and killed in an act of resistance and (3) simply that something can be rendered virtuous by its ‘necessity’, even violence. But what we have also seen is something much darker, which are the honest messages of the sweet old lie of violence as virtuous, which consist of: (1) violence in moderation is possible, so don’t worry, indulge what little you need to, enjoy!,  (2) violence is redemptive, risk your lives, offer your sacrifices, and enjoy your crop!, (3) go, indulge your violence, history will thank you for doing the ‘necessary’ dirty work of violence, enjoy! What do these whispers of the tongues of deceit appeal to in order to make itself pleasing to the human heart? Grimly its simply that the human heart already desires violence and all it needs are preachers, professors, media, and others to give them the justification for that which they already want to do. Violence is what we already want to commit, we just have to make sure that we don’t seem ‘crazy’ and over-indulgent to those with a conscious, and that we exercise moderation. Violence is what we already want to pursue, we just have to justify to the remainders of our conscious that its a redemptive thing to do. Finally, violence is something we already have decided on, we just have to convince an audience that we did the ‘necessary’ thing for which we should be thanked.

It must be confessed that I have not read the entire book yet, though I do intend too.

** Without much deciphering, it can also be said that this is the exact message of rape culture to young men, ‘Boys will be boys! Just make sure she’s unconscious, use a condom, and make sure she’s of age. We all understand that you have those violent impulses, just be disciplined about it. If people weren’t so sensitive and over-protective about the word ‘rape’ on the news and actually come to a frat house, they would see that the kids are having fun, they would understand that this is completely normal, and probably healthy too because it lets out sexual frustration.’ 

*** Which can helpfully be accessed herehttp://criswell.files.wordpress.com/2008/10/ctrhauerwasformatted3.pdf

On which, see Mr. Upton’s essayhttp://calebdupton.wordpress.com/2014/01/02/the-reinstatement-of-the-sacrificial-system-or-its-abolishment-atonement-theologys-abuse/ 

++ In addition, this false virtue is also similar to the previous false virtue in that it is a virtue of means, rather than a virtue of endsYes, self-sacrifice is a virtue, but the Christian tradition has never praised self-sacrifice in and of itself, rather it has praised self-sacrifice on behalf of the love of neighbour and on behalf of the Gospel.

Symbolic Acts: Assessing the Effectiveness and Nature of Art and Gesture

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Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching…

…to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
    from the prison those who sit in darkness. 

I am the Lord, that is my name;
    my glory I give to no other,
    nor my praise to idols.
 See, the former things have come to pass,
    and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
    I tell you of them.

(Isaiah 42:1-4, 7-9 NRSV)

            Pope Francis, in his first visit to the Holy Land, made an extremely provocative gesture on his way to Bethlehem,  by stopping at Israel’s “separation wall”, in particular at a spot that read in graffiti “Bethlehem look like Warsaw ghetto. Free Palestine”, to pray against this symbol of conflict and apartheid. The immense amount of power captured in this gesture, encapsulated many messages from a subtle hint against the US’s recent failed attempts at a peace process, to comparing the suffering of Palestinians to the suffering of those in the Warsaw ghetto, to even implying that the realm of “sensitive politics” was a religious issue.*Screen Shot 2014-05-26 at 11.15.45 AM However, as a good friend, Jared A. Walker** has said, “What happens when an infallible Pope meets an unmovable object…” Indeed, it is the key question to see what happens as a result of this loaded gesture. In fact, it may be instructive to compare this gesture alongside of another instance of symbolic protest, that of the Vodka boycott against Russia’s stance on homosexuality.*** The goal of many bars across North America essentially with this boycott is to protest Russia’s ‘anti-gay’ laws+ that have been enacted recently, as a form of cutting off one of Russia’s main exports in the hopes that the laws will change, though as Robert Joseph Greene notes, the boycott is “mainly symbolic”. Alongside of other forms of symbolic protest such as Pyotr Pavlensky nailing his own scrotum in Moscow’s Red Square, it is thought that drawing attention to what are seen as socially oppressive laws, will not only show the solidarity of the LGBT community around the world, but perhaps even force Vladimir Putin’s hand.

            The boycott of vodka and Pavlensky’s actions are also loaded symbolic acts that encapsulate messages arranging from the willingness of the LGBT to abstain from a beverage as a way of ‘voting with their dollars’ and identify with the sufferings of those like them around the world, to even denying that sexuality is the key issue in Russian discrimination and instead highlighting that the key issue is the denial of the humanity of those of the LGBT community. In either of these cases, that of Pope’s Francis in Palestine and of bars across North America, there can be no question about their effectiveness as a means of spreadings particular messages against the particular powers that be. What can be questioned however is their effectiveness as a means of protest. In line with a previous essay concerning a return to politically radical theocracy, it may be asked as to how such a perspective can contribute to an understanding of effective protest. Symbolic acts are frequently found throughout the Christian tradition, such as the incident of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, but an important question to ask in our times of turbulence and social upheavals is what are the elements of an effective protest? Furthermore, if we should find that symbolic acts are not an effective means of protest, then what is the use of symbolic actions? For whom are the messages embedded in the gestures for, if not the powers whom they are against?

            The first thing to notice about both Pope Francis’ and the LGBT community’s actions is that neither of them had an major impact.++ As Daniel Levy of the European Council on Foreign Relations has said, the meeting that Pope Francis’ hopes to arrange between the different leaders would “mean nothing in big-picture terms”, and as David Horovitz, editor of the Times of Israel has also pointed out that while psychologically the meeting would be helpful, it would be politically insignificant. In parallel then, it can also be pointed out that Pavlensky’s actions effected no political change,photo_0_1 and as Mark Lawrence Schrad has noted, “…the Kremlin’s historic reliance on vodka revenues is largely over…” as many of the companies serving vodka in the United States are made and branded outside of Russia, thus making the boycott effectively futile. If we want to bring this much closer to the Christian tradition, what did Jesus’ cleansing of the temple actually accomplish other than creating a mess, giving his opponents an excuse for his death, and making it look like Jesus’ has an anger problem? In all of these symbolic acts and gestures then we must remember that they are symbolic actions, not concrete actions. One of the great confusions for many in our times is quite clearly not only the substitution for, but the confusion of, symbolic acts and gestures for literal actions. As a result our culture of protest creates various contradictions such as people who protest the destruction of forestry by holding signs made of paper, or protesting capitalism by buying communist memorabilia, or even people who protest religion by going to church. It is these forms of powerfully symbolic but materially ineffective forms of protest that drive us back to our two questions of (i) what makes an effective protest? and (ii) what then is the use of symbolic acts and gesture?

            Without much argumentation for sake of brevity, we can note that effective protests protest not only the messages and beliefs embedded in oppressive actions, but that the matrix and means that make these oppressive actions possible. For a simple example, how might one wish to materially and effectively protest abortion if one wished to do so?+++ Often it is thought that one should change the laws to outlaw abortion, or even violently eliminate abortion clinics and doctors to protest abortion materially and effectively. Of the first, however we may question how many fetuses would be rescued by such a procedure, and the answer is not necessarily any because abortion will then be accessed in much more dangerous ways outside of government regulation. The change of the law then would be a ineffective symbolic action meant to express the political change of opinion concerning the morality of abortion, nothing more. What of the second? As for the second, is it not an embodiment of the very ideology they wish to oppose- “You get rid of your problem by killing it”? Neither of these options actually protest the matrix and means that make what they perceive to be a societal evil possible. An effective, non-symbolic, concrete protest against abortion would be inaugurated perhaps by an alleviation of the poverty many women are trapped in that drives them to get an abortion in the first place, or perhaps by massive campaigns at adoptions for the mothers who cannot raise the fetuses they are carrying. Neither of these means of protest are symbolic, nor do they exist within the matrix within which abortion is carried out or participate in the means by which it is carried out. Rather either of these means would be literal actions in protest of abortion because they would not merely send a message against the societal evil, but try effectively to see its decline in society.

            Having then given one brief example of what an effective, non-symbolic, concrete protest would be in the face of a societal evil, and left with the project of creating others in the face of other oppressive powers and societal evil~, we are still left then with the question of what then is the use of symbolic acts and gesture? Should symbolic actions like Pope’s Francis’, like the LGBT community’s, like Jesus’ simply be abandoned in favour of further dedication to concrete protest? If then symbolic acts are ineffective as protest, then the potential for them may be found in the messages they carry, as a form of proclamation. The proclamation is a means to send a message not only to the enemy but to the community itself, to remind one another of one’s own mission and formation. Proclamation is not a materially effective form of protest against any power, but it is a wonderful trumpet to announce, “This is who we are and this is what we’re about”, which is as much to warn an enemy as it is to rejuvenate the base. Pope Francis’ action reminded Catholics around the world that the Church is the ministry of reconciliation, the LGBT community’s boycott reminded the community and others that it was not alcohol or sex that defined the problem but the stake of humanity itself, and Jesus’ action in the temple was to remind Israel that the temple was the refuge, not the institution of exploitation.

            Protest then is the synonym for alternative action, and proclamation the synonym for symbolic action. One should never confuse creating a piece of art or a symbolic gesture for actual protest, as much as one should never dismiss the need for symbolic action out of zealousness for concrete action, and it is this point on which we shall end. Quite often there is a dismal of philosophy, in parallel with the dismissal of symbolic action or performance art, as a cheap elitist non-sense showing our culture’s lack of ability to address materially and concretely. As Jonathan Jones has said with regard to Milo Moiré’s ‘performance art’ in Germany, where she pushed eggs filled with paint out her vagina in the nude to show the power of the creative feminine, “If performance art did not exist, bile-filled commentators on the modern world would have to invent it. For what else so perfectly captures the cultural inanity of our time?” Perhaps for the example of Moiré we could dismiss it as a piece of art, not for the fact that it is symbolic action however, but for the fact that it is actually a terrible symbolic action in that it embodies the exact opposite of that which it wishes to proclaim, the creative feminine. Symbolic action, for any community of a different social order is necessary, alongside of protest, in order to constantly remind others and itself of its vision of justice against all attempts that would wish to distort it for the community. In religious discourse symbolic action is called ritual, and it is ritual paradoxically that is necessary to keep a community away from the abstract vision of justice as defined by the social order, namely ‘the real, the everyday etc…’ As Slavoj Žižek has rightly written,

“…the highest form of ideology lies not in getting caught up in ideological spectrality, forgetting about its foundations in real people and their relations, but precisely in overlooking this Real of spectrality, and pretending to address directly ‘real people with their real worries’. Visitors to the London Stock Exchange are given a free leaflet which explains to them that the stock market is not about some mysterious fluctuations, but about real people and their products- this is ideology as its purest.” (The Fragile Absolute, 16)

Ritual/Symbolic action, then is necessary for constant reminder of a community’s vision of justice, though it itself does not enact this justice (for this is the job of concrete protest), because visions of justice can be derailed and distorted by other visions constructed by the very ones one wishes to protest against.

            At the beginning of this exploration, the prophet Isaiah prophesies that God’s servant while not making loud his voice in the streets like an activist, still “faithfully brings forth justice”. God’s servant will not confuse the bringing forth of justice in concrete protest in the healing of the blind and the freeing of the prisons, with the proclamation of “his teaching”.  In perfect harmony with recognition of how to faithfully bring forth justice, is the proclamation and remembrance act as to who defines this vision of justice, which while is a gesture of a non-concrete nature is vitally necessary for the community to remember in their pursuit of this God’s vision of justice, and furthermore to remind the powers which the community is protesting against as to who this community follows exclusively. Thus is the vision of justice in protest and proclamation, word and deed, focused in the politically radical theocratic perspective.

* Many news reports confuse Pope Francis’ statements about his visit to the Holy Land to be “purely religious” to be misleading, while missing the fact that for Pope Francis it was a perfectly accurate statement because the politics of peace and conflict are for him “religious” issues. For such an example:  Cole, Juan. “Pope Francis Prays at Apartheid Wall, Calls for Palestinian State.” Alternative news Site. Truthdig, May 26, 2014. http://www.truthdig.com/eartotheground/item/pope_francis_calls_for_palestinian_state_prays_at_apartheid_wall_20140526.

** His work to be accessed here: http://jaredawalker.com/blog/

*** Branson-Potts, Hailey. “Vodka boycott spreads to protest Russian anti-gays laws.” Toronto Star, July 31, 2013, sec. News/World. http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2013/07/31/vodka_boycott_spreads_to_protest_russian_antigay_laws.html.

+ For an interesting examination of which see, Brian M. Heiss’ report, found and summarized helpfully here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=btAUWI0rYJg&safe=active

++ Of course the verdict is still out on both of these cases, but in of and themselves, neither of them had huge impact and arguably in all probability, neither of them will lead to any great impact. However f0r an argument that Pope’s Francis’ actions will lead to political change see:  Vallely, Paul. “For the First Time, the Holy Land Will Witness a Fearless Pope.” The Guardian, May 22, 2014, sec. Comment is free. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/22/pope-francis-holy-land-two-state-palestinians?CMP=EMCNEWEML6619I2.

+++ For another one of Mr. Upton’s essays concerning abortion see: http://calebdupton.wordpress.com/2014/04/07/the-new-abortion-solemn-reflections/

~ Veganism may be an excellent example of such a protest against the food industry and animal cruelty.

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