So Many Different Ways to Say Hello

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Greetings fascinate me, as they are sometimes really different from one language to the next.

The Hebrew “shalom!” means “let’s have peace!” and a very specific kind of peace: the flourishing of the whole community.

The Greek “xaire!” means “rejoice! celebrate! be glad!” or, more jovially, “Party!!!” Bill and Ted are very Greek in the first half of their famous greeting: “Party on!”

The Latin “salve!” means “be strong!” Very Roman sentiment, that. You could soften it to “be well!” because strength and health are largely the same concept in that language.

The English/Germanic “hello!” is a modern adaptation, several words removed, from “hail!” which literally means “Be healthy!” Guess we’re pretty Roman, too. (The Russian “Zdravstvuyte!” means the same thing, just with more syllables.)

The French “bonjour!” is a cheerful “good day!”

The Swahili “jambo!” appears to be derived from a word meaning “matters, business, things,” so it may have begun as a cheerful “Things to do!” or “Let’s get to it, friend!” Which maybe makes a lot of sense when we remember that East Africa, a few centuries back, was a network of the most bustling trade centers of the Old World, with merchants constantly arriving and leaving at the docks to do trade with everywhere from Persia to Indonesia to China. Those ports were busy places, and prior to the circumnavigation of the world, there were no ports on the planet that were busier.

The Chinese often say “nǐ chī le ma?” (Have you eaten?) and the expected response is, “I have, how about you?” I rather like that way of greeting someone: [Have you been taken care of? Do I need to feed you? I care about you.]

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I remember learning that there used to be, a century or so back, a formal Romanian greeting that literally translated to “I’m not holding a knife” or “I’m unarmed.” As in, hello, don’t attack me. Which likely made a great deal of sense as a greeting in a region that had been invaded constantly and relentlessly, practically in each generation, for over a thousand years.

Stant Litore

P.S. And of course the Fae open with “Ill met by moonlight,” because if you should encounter the Fae, you are probably going to get messed up. By moonlight.

Storytellers and Troublemakers

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If I’m not careful, I’m going to get a reputation as a troublemaker, which isn’t what I intend at all. I really just care about my novels about biblical prophets standing against the hungry dead and my stories of naked people competing on tyrannosaurback aboard orbital space colosseums. But I get so excited to have people to nerd out with about history and language. Then inevitably some pundit or politician or false prophet says something absolutely atrocious, my brain responds, “That’s not what it says in the text,” and then the teacher in me wakes up. If there are two things I can’t abide, they are tyrannosaurs without feathers and people who wrap up their avarice, bigotry, or fear in a coat made of scattered, out-of-context biblical verses and then have the audacity to strut about in it, as if the Word is a showy uniform you wear for your convenience rather than a flame blazing in your heart.

Stant Litore

About the Rebel Virgins of the Roman Empire…

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Because I think this is worth knowing: many of the verses quoted by teachers of American “purity culture” and taken as justification for the subordination of women were likely originally intended to have the opposite effect. Chastity and virginity were prized in the early first-, second-, and third-century Christian churches in Europe and Western Asia partially as a way to free up women to preach and to work in the community outside the home. Roman law after Augustus (the “family values” Caesar) required women to wed and bed a good young Roman boy (or perhaps an aging Roman man) and produce healthy Roman babies. That’s right, likely in response to the extremely high infant mortality rate, the state mandated getting married and knocked up — and penalized those who didn’t. However, there were at least two exemptions I am aware of, one for registered and professional prostitutes and one for priestesses. Rome had this idea that priestesses needed to be virgins and therefore shouldn’t wed and bed Roman men – so priestesses didn’t have to marry.

Now, in most recognized Roman religions, it was very hard to become a priestess, and the number of priestesses were few. But in Christian doctrine from its earliest days, every single Christian was a priest/priestess of God, and the members of the church collectively were the “bride of Christ.” So…during those times when the Empire didn’t ban the religion outright, any Christian woman could claim the marriage exemption, declare herself an official virgin, and rather than devote her life to raising a good Roman family, she could teach, she could preach, she could run a business (as many Christian women did – just look to Lydia of Thyatira for a quick, biblical example), and/or she could join one of the sisterhoods of the holy widows, gathering funds for the poor and organizing efforts to care for the community’s orphans and homeless.

This is one reason that during the times of Nero, Trajan, Domitian, and Diocletian, Christianity was so hated by the Roman government. It wasn’t just that Christianity was nominally monotheistic (and so Christian mothers raised their children not to sacrifice to ancestral deities, a circumstance which eventually led to the crash of several major industries), it was all the growing numbers of women who were unmarried and teaching and leading and bursting into activity in their communities (though others were also withdrawing into secluded communities of scholars or anchoresses). There is a reason the letters in the New Testament name as many or more women apostles and teachers as they do men. To men in power in Rome, this may have appeared to be a bit of an apocalypse. “Women not getting married??? Women preaching??? The world as we know it is ending!! Stop them! Stop the Christians!”

Emperor Diocletian draws my particular ire. He attempted to exterminate Christianity in the Roman Empire in the year 303 specifically by attacking Christian women. He revoked the state’s recognition of Christianity as a legal religion and required that all Christian women marry. All women who refused were either raped by order of the state and then killed, or forcibly married (and then raped), or forced to register as prostitutes (and then raped). It was a systematic, state-ordered enslavement of tens of thousands of women.

After Diocletian, women were much more marginalized in the church, both because many Christian women who had been leaders in the church no longer existed — or lived in enforced marriages — and because the church that survived sold its egalitarianism in exchange for government recognition. The lesson the church seemed to learn from the early fourth century was: Women ministers aren’t safe from the government, and the church isn’t safe while women lead it; let’s have the women sit back and we’ll play it safe.

But it was not so in the beginning.

When you read stories of early Christian women martyrs who refused to give up their virginity, this is the context. Their state-recognized virginity permitted them to travel between churches as apostles, to lead, and to gather as financially independent sister “widows” or “virgins” who could take action in their communities. When Thekla, in the second-century text “The Acts of Paul and Thekla,” repeatedly escapes attempts at rape in order to continue traveling and preaching (where the rapists are hired by someone who had wanted Thekla to marry their son and took spiteful exception to vow of chastity, or by a village magistrate), the context is that rape was a weapon employed by local and imperial authorities to limit the spread of this subversive new religion and to enforce proper, Roman family values. At that time, a woman’s chastity was seen as an act of rebellion.

And today’s purity culture, which often hijacks the language of chastity in Roman-era texts to insist on the seclusion and submission of women … is such a bizarre (and arguably offensive) anachronism once you realize that the original teachings on chastity were intended to free women for public work, leadership, teaching, and preaching. It is one example of how, if you take a teaching out of one cultural and historical context and plunk it down into a different place and time without any consideration of context, you can actually end up with the same verses and the same words having opposite implications.

Stant Litore

P.S. For more on the role of women in the early church, see the book God’s Self Confident Daughters: Early Christianity and the Liberation of Women, my own favorite though there are many more studies on this, and also this witty little article in Atlas Oscura entitled “Rebel Virgins and Desert Mothers.”

P.P.S. Even the Apostle Paul, while he did write about marriage being an acceptable outcome and one to be preferred in his mind to a promiscuous state (in 1 Cor 7), he also advocated in very strong terms that an unmarried state and the pursuit of God’s work was preferable to marriage. In the early church, the two — chastity and active work in the community on one side, and marriage on the other — were seen as alternate paths for a Christian’s life to take. We often take from that passage Paul’s parenthetical remark “better to marry than to burn” and treat it as if that’s the important point in the passage; by doing this, we skip the actual point he is making for his first-century readers, which is that to his mind it’s better to be single and do God’s work than it is to marry. When we lack the context in which he’s writing, we emphasize very different things in the passage than his original readers would have.

First-century Christians were called to lives of active involvement in their communities as the agents of God, his “hands and feet,” serving collectively as the body through which God operated in the world. The first-century ideal of chastity was intended to expand the agency of young men and women, whereas modern purity culture so often seeks to contract and limit agency.

P.P.P.S. This post is receiving some love in Likes and Shares on social media, so I will add this list to it:

Lydia of Thyatira.

Prisca.

Mary.

Julia.

Phoebe.

Junia.

Chloe.

Euodia.

Syntyche.

Tryphena.

Tryphosa.

Damaris of Athens.

Dorcas of Joppa.

The unnamed “elder” who was a “woman appointed by God” (2 John).

These are all women who were called to active leadership within church life in the first century and who are named in the Book of Acts or the Epistles as leaders, apostles, businesswomen and philanthropists, and as organizers or heads of sisterhoods. It was not just one or two women. And that’s just the first century, and this doesn’t even include the names of women leaders Paul wrote to but whose specific names he couldn’t remember (“the sister of Nereus”; “the mother of Rufus”; etc.). It also doesn’t even include the female leaders among those who, according to the gospels, organized and funded Jesus’s original ministry, like Susanna and Joanna.

The list gets long once you dive into second century texts.

So, if you are a woman in the church reading this post whose heart is called to an active life or to leadership, may this list give you courage. You are not some aberration of modern society, as others will insist. This is a list of your sisters. It is a list of names honored and trusted by the writers of the New Testament.

Stant Litore

(P.P.P.P.S. Also, of course, please check out my fiction and support my work if you would be interested. You can find out all about me and my stories at https://www.patreon.com/stantlitore) … Meanwhile, may this particular story, of the early church, move you and make you think.

You can also find more posts like this one here:

https://stantlitore.com/category/radical-reading

The Badass Women of the Bible

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Both in protest of our nation’s rampant misogyny that walks around wearing religion’s clothes — and also because I love their stories — here’s a shoutout to the badass women of the Bible: to Rizpah, who guarded the bodies of her children from wild animals and carrion beasts all night, defying the king and his soldiers; to Deborah, a middle-aged prophet who settled the court cases no one else could and led armies against an invading force; to Jael, who drove a tent peg through a dude’s head; to Mary, who fled to another country to keep her baby from being killed and then later after returning raised her child in a small town where everyone thought she was a “slut” — and raised him so well that the world still reveres his name (and hers) to this day; to Mary Magdalene, who endured the disbelief of everyone she ever told about what she saw, but didn’t disbelieve herself; to Judith, who seduced an invading general in order to get close enough to chop off his head; to a woman whose name we don’t remember, who stood on the wall of a starving city and killed the tyrant Abimelech by chucking a brick down at his head; to Miriam, the first of the prophets of the Children of Israel after their departure from Egypt, singing on the shores of the Red Sea moments after seeing her people’s enemies crushed under falling water; to Huldah, who commanded such respect that when the lost sacred texts were discovered, the priests handed them over to her and said, “Please interpret these for us, Huldah”; to Dorcas the healer, who refused to leave those dying of fever, no matter the contagion; to the Queen of Sheba, who traveled a continent to meet people of learning and establish trade deals for her nation; to Joanna and Susanna, who funded Jesus’s ministry and had a great deal to do with the early disciples not starving on the road; to Prisca, Mary, Julia, Phoebe, Junia, Chloe, Euodia, Syntyche, Tryphena, Tryphosa, and others, apostles and leaders of the early church; to Mary sister of Martha who studied with a rabbi, and to Martha sister of Mary who did the dishes and cooked so she could; to the unnamed, brave woman who suffered continual bleeding and a life of being outcast and untouchable by her community and who yet found the courage to seek out a miracle worker and commit what her community would treat as an unforgivable act: to touch him; to Anna, who spent nearly a century prophesying in the Temple; to Jochebed, who sent her baby down a river in a basket rather than let him be found by genocidal soldiers; to Abigail, who prevented a massacre; to Dinah, who got blamed for one; to Hadassah (Esther), who stopped a genocide from happening on two continents; to Tamar, who found an unusual, daring, and quite horrifying solution to her father Judah’s neglect in leaving her unprovided for and starving; to Delilah, who outwitted and captured her people’s greatest foe; to Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, who marched up to Moses in the desert and said, “We don’t have a brother, and we want to inherit our father’s property”; to the eshet hayil (the “woman of valor” who “stretches out her hands to the needy”) who fed Elijah when he staggered, exhausted and starving, to her doorstep, though she had only a single cake of bread left in the house; to the Shulammite, who loved a foreign king, survived prejudice and brutality, and chose love over fear, even against all the terror-pressure of past trauma; to Bathsheba, so often remembered as a victim of either rape or seduction, so often reduced in our retellings to a momentary plot device, but whose actual story lasted decades and who successfully maneuvered her only son to the throne; to Naomi, who lost so much to famine and tragedy, yet found joy again; to Ruth, who immigrated to a land hostile to her people, yet stayed and kept her mother-in-law and herself fed and alive, daily risking rape or worse in the fields where young men followed the vulnerable, “exotic” immigrant gleaners at a near distance; to Lydia of Thyatira, the businesswoman who funded Paul’s missionary work in Macedonia because a story he told once lit her heart on fire; and to so many, many others who lived such stories.

Stant Litore

Related:

God’s Self-Confident Daughers: Early Christianity and the Liberation of Women

The Rebel Virgins and Desert Mothers

The Misleading Translation of “Wives, Submit,” and a Tale of Battle-Ready Women

4 Facts that Show that “Head” Does Not Mean “Leader” in 1 Cor 11:3

More Reads:

The Acolyte (a powerful book of narrative poems telling some of these stories) by Nancy Hightower

The Acts of Paul and Thekla (one of the early narrative works written by Christians after the New Testament)

Pliny’s letter to Emperor Trajan in the year 112 (in which he complains about not being able to stamp out the Christians successfully and mentions putting to torture two women who Roman society sees as “slaves” but who were held in honor and “were called deaconnesses” among the Christians; the egalitarianism of the movement is so shocking (and offensive) to Pliny that he makes special note of it)

Engorged with Justice: The 4th Beatitude

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I am reflecting today on the nature of creation and on the metaphor of a “banquet in the kingdom of heaven.”

“Blessed are those hungering and thirsting for justice, for they will be filled.”

Excerpt from Lives of Unstoppable Hope (2015):

The second half of that beatitude is: “…because they will be filled.”

I want to be careful. I don’t think this should be read as a platitude. I do not believe that God wants us to see life as a Hallmark card. I think he wants us to see the world’s injustice and the incredible agonies of human beings for exactly what they are: an unforgivable travesty, a train wreck, the ongoing rape and torture of everything life was meant to be like. Our world—and you do not need to look to starving children in some other country to see it, you can see it if you look in your own city; I see it in my city—is filled with injustices that will make us cry until our bodies can’t bear the pain of it, if we look around us for one moment with truly unlidded eyes.

We must never cheapen the reality of human suffering with platitudes. The response to a world that knows rape and cancer and child soldiers and ethnic cleansing and human trafficking and senseless deaths cannot be: “It’s part of God’s plan.”

That is not what we are asked to put our faith in.

What we are asked to put our faith in is a promise about the future that has been made to us by the Maker of all things, by the One who gave birth to something as vast and full of unexpected beauties as the universe. Creation is what God does. And the promise we have from God is this: that he will continue creating. That no matter what happens in our world or no matter what havoc human beings wreak on their own lives or on each other, he will always find a way to create new life and new joy. We are asked to trust that this is who God is, to put our faith in his creativity and his love and his commitment to us and to his universe. We are to trust that no matter how dark a situation seems, there will come a beauty and a joy—“new heavens and a new earth”—so wonderful and so fulfilling that the joy will eclipse the suffering that preceded it. Because ash is fertile, and no matter what burns down, God will grow something new where it stood.

* * *

For those who live with a fierce hunger and with a thirst that tears at the heart, for justice—for those who hunger and thirst, there is a specific promised blessing. Χορτασθήσονται (chortasthesontai), Yeshua of Nazareth says: we will be fed, we will be fully satisfied, we will be “engorged.”

That Greek verb χορτάζω (chortazo) means ‘I gorge myself’ or ‘I fatten myself.’ Say the word χορτάζω and feel it in your mouth: it is actually a really funny word. It has a very funny sound. Χορτάζω!

In the Middle Ages, religious scholars frequently contended that Christ had no sense of humor and that though he was recorded as having sweated and wept, he was never recorded as having laughed. I think these scholars saw the words of Yeshua as humorless because they read them in Latin rather than Greek. It is difficult to say “Χορτάζω! I engorge myself! I burst! I am coming apart, I am so full!” without a grin.

Χορτασθήσονται is a remarkable promise, a ridiculous promise, a wonderful promise, if we have the courage to believe it, if we have faith even the size of a mustard seed. Yeshua is speaking this promise to human beings, who know suffering. In the first century, he is speaking it to people living in poverty within an oppressive empire where their most basic rights might be revoked at any hour. Yet he is asking them to trust so deeply into God’s love that they can laugh with him. God has seen the end of the story, and it is worth laughing about, though we who live our lives in the middle chapters, in a broken world that we see “through a glass darkly” cannot imagine how an ending that would provoke delighted laughter could be possible.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after justice, for they will be gorged full of justice.

They will see so much justice, so much rightness.

They will be so full that all they can do is loosen their belts and laugh before sitting back and closing their eyes in a dozy contentment.

That’s how much justice and rightness God plans to bless us with.

Hungry for justice and rightness in the world? Yeshua asks in the Sermon on the Mount. Well, my Father is going to have a banquet. And all of you here on the street will be welcome to the table. And at that banquet, the world is going to become so full of justice that you will be engorged with it. You will be fully, fully satisfied.

* * *

Even as I wrote the first draft of this chapter, Inara began having what looked like gelastic seizures—fits of seizures that manifest as bouts of hysterical, uncontrollable giggling. Afterward, she would often slump, exhausted, or even black out. This would happen four or five times a day, and it threw us into a panic of medical tests and anxious vigilance.

I stopped writing this book for many months.

My heart had been torn open. The injustice of it ate at me. Inara had been largely free of seizures throughout 2013; she was beginning to pick up new skills and recover lost ground. The thought that she might lose all of that again, perhaps even be plunged back into long weeks at the hospital—it was like watching the sun die into dusk without any hope of dawn.

Yet I did hope.

My wife and I awaited, fiercely, the results of the tests. And early in 2015, Inara’s epileptologist called us with a startling answer, in fact the best of all possible news.

This past year, Inara has not been having gelastic seizures as we had feared.

She has been having honest giggles, but due to her her delayed development, her laughter consumes her entire body; she loses all control of her body when she laughs, and the blacking out is actually from physical exhaustion. Much as an elderly person might lose control of their bladder while laughing hard, Inara loses control of everything.

Inara also has a very low exhaustion threshold compared with you and me. This is why she can’t eat normally yet: she hasn’t been able to develop the necessary muscle tone for her jaws and after trying to eat for a bit, she’s literally too exhausted to continue or to do anything else. (Inara receives 85% of her nutrition through a G tube.)

So apparently, when something strikes Inara as funny, her laughter consumes her and burns what energy she has and then she either blacks out or just slumps and lies listless for a while until her body recovers. We thought we were looking at post-ictal exhaustion, the fatigue-state that follows a seizure. But no. Inara literally laughs herself into exhaustion.

The doctor thinks Inara, who is partially blind, sometimes sees a shadow from the corner of her eye or a funny blurry shape, and that sets her off. “She’ll find something hilarious that you can’t see in an empty room,” her doctor tells us, “and she knows it is the funniest thing in the universe.”

I have a very happy daughter. As we’ve confirmed that we’re not looking at seizure activity—and haven’t been since 2013—the doctor has approved dialing Inara’s dosage back a bit and continuing to watch her. But she and her team have consensus that Inara is no longer having seizures.

My wife and I are vastly relieved. And, once I can start breathing again, I’ll probably also be very amused that Inara finds things in life so hilarious that sometimes she faints from the sheer humor of it!

I have become so accustomed to hitting the high-adrenaline, get-ready-to-fight button whenever something happens with Inara that can’t be explained and that looks dangerous … but now it looks like my wife and I can actually breathe for a while. When I first received this news, I was so thankful and relieved and exhausted and happy, I thought I might pass out.

Sometimes—just sometimes—we get a glimpse of that banquet of justice and rightness that is yet to come. Sometimes, we get a sense for what it must mean to push back from the table and groan, “Chortazo! I am full! I am so, so full!”

* * *

I am still trying to let that sink in.

I cannot begin to express how much this promise, this blessing, astonishes me and moves me. In the rare moments when I feel that I glimpse or grasp this blessing—as when a starving man catches the scent of a banquet and realizes the door is open and not barred—when I see my daughter giggling until she blacks out, or making music on an iPad tablet with her toes, when I see her painting with her fingers and toes and knees on a canvas my wife has provided her, painting all the poems she cannot speak, I want to laugh, too. I want to laugh hard with Inara. I want to laugh hard with God.

Stant Litore

(Photo Credit: Image by RusticVegan on Unsplash.)

You can get Lives of Unstoppable Hope here.

And you can support my work — both fiction and nonfiction, from ancient languages to tyrannosaurs, and help me keep Inara fed and well — here, on Patreon.

Would Jesus Do It?

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I’m hearing the name “Jesus” in the mouths of the powerful a lot (as in, if Jesus were alive today he would do this or do that or be a card-carrying this or a card-carrying that…). So I attempted a quick-to-read WWJD flowchart: “Would Jesus Do It?” Share if it moves you.

WWJD Would Jesus Do It? flowchart

A transcript of the flowchart follows for those who can’t see the image.

Would Jesus Do It?

1. Matt 23 “Are You Being a Pharisee?” Test: Does it harm or burden someone who may be more vulnerable than you?

If YES: Nope. Jesus wouldn’t do it.

If NO, go to next test:

2. Golden Rule Test: Would you want someone else to do it to you?* (*And if this is an act of evangelism, would you want someone from another religion to approach you in this exact same way?)

If NO: Nope. Jesus wouldn’t do it.

If YES, go to next test:

3. Matt 25 Goats & Sheep Test, Combined with Luke 4 Jesus Mission Test: Does it involve giving food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, welcoming a stranger or refugee, clothing and providing for someone who is naked or without resources, visiting and healing the sick, or visiting and comforting someone who is in prison? Alternately, does it involve giving the poor hope, releasing captives, helping the blind see, freeing the oppressed from their oppressors, or proclaiming a year of forgiveness of all debts?

If NO: Honestly, Jesus probably wouldn’t have time for it.

If YES: OK, yeah, Jesus would probably do it. And those who love him are called to do likewise.

A Humble Request

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A humble request. Will you join my Patreon membership (https://www.patreon.com/stantlitore)? It’s the engine that funds everything I do. It gets you complimentary copies of the ebooks, the opportunity to get signed books, sneak previews of everything that’s coming up next … and it keeps my daughter fed and medicated and my creative work funded. It’s also an outrageous amount of fun. I ask folks to join me at $5, but really, the membership fee can be whatever you would like. It’s up to you. And you get to hear me tell you stories. So if my work moves you or entertains you, if you enjoy what I do, will you come be a part of it? We’d be glad to have you! There are 115 of us in this Patreon family, and we hope to one day be 1,000. That would be a big campfire to sit around and would fund a lot of stories!

The link: https://www.patreon.com/stantlitore

I hope to see you there!

Stant Litore