What We’ve Forgotten

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In reference to the article “4 Facts That Show That ‘Head’ Does Not Mean ‘Leader’ in 1 Corinthians 11:3″:

Research of this kind fascinates me. So much of how we translate and interpret the Bible is driven entirely by Roman ideologies and Roman cultural obsessions that we have inherited, and by the fact that Greek and Hebrew have been filtered to us through Latin. (Even our modern Greek dictionaries and lexicons tend to offer Latinate English vocabulary for translations.) Thus we almost completely misunderstand what the New Testament means by ‘truth,’ as I get into here in my post on aletheia.

Thus: we completely miss that the diatribe against homosexuality in Romans 1 is a paraphrase of Paul’s opponents in the Roman church and a parody of their over-the-top judgmental rhetoric (the whole point of Romans 1-2 is to dismantle the idea that Christianity and judgmental rhetoric are at all compatible). You can read a bit more on that here. And, bizarrely, we never think to question why this issue only comes up when Paul is speaking to Rome, the ancient world’s most homophobic culture, and never once when he is speaking to various Greek cities in which homosexual and bisexual relations, and an array of gender performances are both normal and expected.

Thus: we mis-translate passages on gender in the Pauline letters in a way that’s completely ahistorical (but that serves the status quo in our own society), as the early church was spread, organized, and facilitated by women. The connection of “head” to “leader” or “authority” is a specifically Roman idiom that we’ve inherited. That idiom didn’t exist in Koine Greek.

Thus: we mis-translate passages as instructing women to ‘submit’ to their husbands, when ‘hupotasso’ doesn’t mean to submit or to obey; it means to support, to lift up, to uplift. ‘Obey’ is a completely different word in Greek (hupakoe — and even ‘hupakoe’ doesn’t mean ‘obey’ in the military, hierarchical Roman sense; it means to listen attentively, to heed). And we miss the context (because we’re fond of reading communal letters in isolated little chapters and verses and chunks), so we forget that first-century Christian women are being asked to ‘hupotasso’ their spouses because most of their spouses were not Christian, most early Christians were women, and Christian wives of non-Christian men had to figure out how the heck to deal with that situation. It is situationally specific advice about not trying to convert the spouse but instead bring love to the table. It has nothing to do with obedience at all, and the verses that follow roll out an idea borrowed from Judaism that was profoundly subversive in Rome’s ultra-patriarchy: the idea that women “are fellow heirs in the grace of life.” Rome takes the idea of heirs very seriously. In Roman law and custom, women were not heirs; women were property. This idea of “fellow heirs” was radical and threatening to the Roman patriarchy.

Thus: we misread Genesis 2 as describing women as a “helper” sex. But “helper” (ezer genegdo) in Hebrew does not mean maid or servant; it means something a bit more similar to the modern phrase “partner in crime.” It is also the only case in the Old Testament where the word is used to describe women. In every other case, the word is used for God. Chavah (Eve) is a helper in the same sense that God is a helper. It is our post-Roman anachronism that translates ezer genegdo as “the help,” the servant class.

A fascinating look into the first and second centuries, if you’re ever curious, is the book God’s Self-Confident Daughters. Or, if you’d like something short to read, try “Rebel Virgins and Desert Mothers,” which you can find here.

You will be awed (and horrified) at how thoroughly the history of agrarian Europe’s first feminist movement was excised, erased, and finally hijacked and replaced by the Roman patriarchy.

There is a wealth of scholarship on this and has been for years, and there is more all the time, but … for reasons that are probably self-evident … this research rarely trickles into mainstream religious culture.

The reason that Rome was so fervently opposed to Christianity in the first and second century was that Christianity was seen as a profound threat to family values. “Family values,” in the sense that we usually mean it, was originally a Roman idea.) Roman law required women to have children and to do so by a certain age; Christianity created large sisterhoods of unmarried women (the “holy widows,” who were not secluded at that time but socially active, running nonprofits and neighborhood schools).

Rome placed the man in ownership of the household and gave him – at one time – the legal right to execute family members who shamed the family; Christianity undercut that structure. Rome relied on a strict caste system; Christianity insisted on the essential equality of all people regardless of ethnicity, gender, or social class (while exhorting its members at times to obey the law of the land to the greatest extent possible, because Roman torture-death penalties were no joke, and though there were things they were willing to die for, these people wanted to survive – so Christians found loopholes, lots of them, like the legal loopholes that allowed for women to enter holy sisterhoods and gain a marriage exemption if they were priestesses. And since in early Christian doctrine, every Christian woman was a priestess of Christ, this provided a very large loophole, one the government usually couldn’t close because doing so would disrupt other Roman religious institutions that were seen as supportive of the state).

Pliny whines to Emperor Trajan in the early years of the second century about his work torturing ‘two slave women, who in their church are officials.’ The underlying tone of his letter is a frustrated “What the hell, Governor, they have slave girls leading their religion.” Christians were called “the atheists,” because they worshipped at no shrines or temples. And most of all, they were hated because 1) the religion had its origin in foreign immigrants, especially groups of first-century emigrating Jews (Rome was very anti-Semitic), and 2) Roman women converted in massive numbers, and then taught Roman children their superstitious, unmanly new faith. Christianity, to the Romans, was a woman’s religion and “the eunuch’s faith,” prizing compassion over honor, and love over duty, and relationships over hierarchy; there were popular superstitions and prejudices that men who converted out of love for their wives would lose their virility.

We miss out on an exciting episode in history that has tremendous relevance to our own time — a moment when a radically egalitarian ideology and way of life threatened to upend hierarchical and oppressive structures — because men a few centuries later found it useful and convenient to erase that history while appropriating some aspects of the early faith in service to power. (This may sound far-fetched…that in three and a half short centuries, a religious institution might come to stand for many things that were the exact opposite of the teachings three centuries before, but it actually happens all the time and in much briefer spans of history … just look at the way Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words today are appropriated and twisted to sound like they support the status quo, in fact to support statements that are the very opposite of MLK’s arguments and convictions. Ditto, the American founding fathers.) Mistranslate or misconstrue a few abstract concepts in ways that support the status quo, or rip a few passages out of their context, and you can turn a radical faith movement or a new ideology into a nice, tidy, stagnant institution pretty quickly.

We miss out on an exciting episode in our history because certain men a few centuries later chose to erase it and rewrite and replace it (in some cases literally chiseling the faces of female bishops off of monuments), and we still believe their version. Their version still drives our politics, our prejudices, and our cultural norms. But their version was a hijacking of something that looked very different, something worth remembering, something inspiring and provocative, something that calls into question who we think we are.

This is part of what I write about. (Some of it, you can find in my novels, like What Our Eyes Have Witnessed; some of it, you can find here on this blog: https://stantlitore.com/category/radical-reading/)

Stant Litore

In a Time of Refugee Crisis, We Have Forgotten Who We Are

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(This is the fifth in my Radical Reading series. It is also the one of my five essays that can be read as overtly political. I am sorry; the times require it. The topic, however, is not politics, and no political leaders are mentioned in this essay. The essay is a call to fellow people of the Christian faith, and the topic is remembering who we are – and what that means in a time of refugee crisis.)

THE SOS

Sos (Greek: “rescued,” “safe”) nothing is more core to Christian identity than this concept: that we, who were in danger, in peril, without refuge, have been made sos by a Soter (Savior). Each of us is soterion (saved), delivered by a Soter from slavery and from flight, made sos. The early Christians wrote and taught and believed that they were each a soterion, literally a refugee granted refuge. While on earth, they were paroikoi and parepidemoi, strangers in a strange land, sojourners without citizenship, who “hoped against hope” (Romans 4:18) in God’s promise that they would find and arrive in a “better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb 11:16), in which they would have citizenship at last. In which they would be not slaves or exiles but huioi, sons and daughters (Galatians 4:4-6), adopted heirs and “citizens of heaven” (Philippians 3:20).

To my mind, nothing makes it more clear that a large swath of evangelical Christianity in America has sold its soul and lost its heart than the vocal support and encouragement from many quarters for bans on refugees and for walling out the xenoi: the “others,” the “aliens,” the “immigrants.”

THE XENOI

The radical statement of first-century Christianity, recorded in the Gospels and in the Epistles (both Pauline and otherwise)—a statement radical to a Greco-Roman world but traditional in the Hebraic world it was inherited from—was that we are all xenoi. We are all outsiders. The Christ himself was an outsider while on earth, and being one, he was able to welcome all outsiders to break bread with him. The kingdom of heaven, he taught, is like a banquet to which all outsiders are brought in, dressed, fed, and made at home (Matthew 22).

From this core identity as xenoi, as refugees on earth seeking citizenship in a heavenly country, derived the attitudes toward society, community, and alterity that characterized the earliest Christian writings and that often upset Rome’s heavily stratified and deeply xenophobic social order.

Thus, when Peter urges the early Christians to avoid slavery to earthly desires, he abjures them by their identity as refugees:

“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners [paroikoi] and exiles [parepidemoi] to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against the soul.” (1 Peter 2:11)

It is our active remembering of our identity as sojourners that permits us to live differently, Peter insists. A paroikos is literally a “dweller-near,” one who lives outside the house (oikos) and is without citizenship, yet is dwelling near the house: a resident alien. Implicit in the Koine Greek is the idea that these non-citizens live closely in community with citizens; the word emphasizes their nearness to the house, not their distance or their origin in a faraway place. That’s why we often find the word translated “sojourner” rather than “exile.” The other word, parepidemos, means a “passer-through,” one who is here for a time but was not born here and may not die here.

Earth is not our country, Peter reminds us. We are passers-through, we are dwellers-near-but-not-of, and this identity must drive our choices, our beliefs, our commitments to ourselves and others, and our actions.

For the early Christians, the lovers of truth (that is, lovers of aletheia, literally “unforgetting”), the promise you were supposed to actively unforget, from hour to hour, from day to day, was the promise of soteria, of salvation and refuge, of heavenly citizenship. In the Epistle to the Hebrews, early Christians of Jewish descent are urged to remember their Hebrew forefathers who held faithfully to a strong hope of soteria:

“These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers [xenoi] and exiles [parepidemoi] on the earth.  For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” (Hebrews 11:13-16)

The archetype for the life of faith in Hebrews 11 is the journey of Abraham across Mesopotamia. Abraham, as a xenos, traveled across a wilderness in search of a new home, “hoping against hope” (as Paul writes in the letter to the Romans) for a better country, a country promised but as yet unknown. In the same way, the Hebrew prophets and the first-century Christians, the writer of Hebrews suggests, are xenoi—others, strangers, aliens in the countries they pass through [parepidemoi]. They are willing to endure any hardship on their journey because of the strength of their yearning for “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” Of such faithful refugees, God is not ashamed; he has prepared for them citizenship in a heavenly polis (city).

The writers of the New Testament are informed here by the Jewish Torah and Nevi’im, by the Old Testament, by the recurring insistence of Moses and the Prophets that we are all strangers in the land, that God may grant us a residence in a promised land, but that we remain sojourners on an earth we do not own. “Shelter the strangers in the land,” Moses says also, “for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Hebraic law urges that immigrants be treated with justice—“one law, for the homeborn and for the immigrant”—in memory of the time the Hebrews themselves wandered in the wilderness. And, lest they forget that they remain sojourners even today, the festival of Sukkot remains a time when an increasingly settled people are urged to leave their homesteads and their towns and dwell in temporary booths and shelters in the countryside for a brief time.

This is what Deuteronomy instructed its readers to “unforget,” when they would lie down and when they would wake up and when they would walk down the road—this is what they were told to bind on their foreheads and write on their doorposts (Deuteronomy 6): their core identity as refugees and delivered slaves, brought across a wilderness and granted refuge. And it was as their Deliverer, their Rock and their Refuge, that they were to know their God: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt” – an authoritative line that repeatedly punctuates passages in the Torah.

By recalling in their daily lives that identity as refugees granted Refuge, they would be less likely to live lives of pride—the ostentatious lives of “self-made” people who, secure in their houses, would not see the children starving outside their walls. It is this forgetting that the author of Jeremiah finds so abhorrent in pre-exilic Jerusalem. Idolatry is abhorrent to Jeremiah largely because of what he sees as the consequences of forgetting the covenant; he describes women who bake cakes for Astarte and have houses full of bread while others’ children sit famished in the street outside. These are not the lives, Jeremiah insists, of people of the covenant—of people who live in daily awareness that their homes are temporary, of people who know their history as refugees and sojourners granted safety at last.

Terence (who, according to the writers of antiquity, was himself a freed slave of foreign birth who became one of the great playwrights in the Roman world) famously wrote, Homo sum; humani nil a me alienum puto: “I am human; therefore I consider nothing human to be alien to me.” There are no xenoi or paroikoi in Terence’s thinking; all humans are in the oikos, in the house. There are no dwellers-near who lack citizenship in humanity.

The early Christians, commenting on the Torah, arrive at a similar sentiment, but from an opposite point of origin: We are all outside the house. We are all strangers in the land; knowing this, no human can be a stranger to me. We are all xenoi, and we are all refugees. Because we are all shivering in the cold outside the house, and because we are all passing through a strange land hoping for refuge, it is no longer either desirable or rational ethically to wall anyone out. This was more than a metaphor for Paul, for Peter, for the author of the letter to the Hebrews: it was a way of describing the lived experience of a disinherited and diasporic people granted a new hope, a hope of citizenship in a city they had never seen, a city they had not built, a city to which they were being delivered by a Soter, a city they believed they were called to live their lives worthy of.

If evangelical Christians today forget their identity as xenoi and paroikoi—as refugees on the earth—then they will forget both their Soter (Savior) and what it means to be sos (saved, given refuge). If men and women of faith permit themselves to “harden their heart” (Jesus’s phrase) against refugees and deceive themselves into thinking themselves owners of homes (oikoi) and “homelanders” whose country must be defended against all comers, then they will have forgotten who they are. The entire story of the New Testament is that of refugees granted a heavenly city, brought there out of violence and sin and pain by a heavenly Soter, and then urged to imitate that Soter and to live as “citizens of heaven.”

How do citizens of heaven live? How did the Savior live? By giving refuge. By rescuing others. That is what it means to be a citizen of heaven. That is what it means to live as a community of what the Romans (who were obsessed with security, with law and order, with property, “their minds set on earthly things,”) called “the little Christs,” the Christians.

To see refugees as “others” is to forget yourself.

It is to forget your core identity as xenoi, as others.

It is to forget your core identity as the sos, the refugees saved.

THE PTOCHOI EN PNEUMATI

How did we get here?

How did we forget, as people of faith, that we are the outsiders, not the insiders—that we are the sojourners “dwelling near” (paroikoi) the house, not the dwellers in the house. We have forgotten that earth is the wilderness and heaven is our home. We let go of the truth: the aletheia, the ongoing act of “unforgetting.” We forgot that we are exiles and that we are poor.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)

“Blessed are the poor in spirit.” With these words, Jesus opens the Sermon on the Mount. In Koine Greek, the word chosen here for “the poor” is the most extreme word possible: hoi ptochoi. This is not hoi penoi (the day-laborers without savings accounts, working for their daily bread) or hoi penichroi (those needing daily bread), but hoi ptochoi, the utterly without-refuge.

To be poor in this way—to be ptochos—is to be unclothed, to be utterly destitute and without resources and to know it. To be ptochos is to be stripped of everything, your skin bare to wind and weather. The man who is ptochos lies naked in the dirt, his face pressed to the ground, utterly at the mercy of the one he is pleading to. To be ptochos en pneumati—poor in spiritis to know that you are made of ashes, that you will go back to ashes, that belief in your own sufficiency is a delusion.

It is that delusion—that faith in our bank account, or in our personal virtue, or in the solidity of our house, or in our cunning, or in our family heritage, or in our religious standing—that keeps us from living big, blessed lives. (Makarioi, “the blessed,” as I discuss in Lives of Unstoppable Hope, are literally those whose lives are made big in the sense of their impact on others; like Abraham, others’ lives are blessed—made bigger—through them. The root of makarios, “blessed,” is mak, “big”; in English, we get macro and mega from that same root).

The Emperor cannot be big and blessed in his new clothes, because those new clothes in which he is so confident are nothing more than an illusion. They might blow away at the wind of a child’s words. Even so, might our house or our religious standing or our bank account or our cunning fail us. Like the Emperor in the story, we all of us stand naked in the cold world, but some of us, experts in denial, choose to believe we are clothed.

The ptochoi en pneumati—the poor in spirit—are not blessed because they are poor, because they are naked, or because they are without resources.

They are blessed and able to live big lives because they know they are poor, naked, and without resources.

And, recognizing their own nakedness, the “poor in spirit” are no longer able to lord their possessions over others, or to look upon the unclothed with contempt. Yearning themselves for refuge, it would be nonsensical of them to deny refuge to others. (And, recognizing themselves as xenoi, the “poor in spirit” cannot afford xenophobia.)

They are the Emperors who have stopped believing in their invisible clothing. Naked, nothing more can be stripped from them. Poor, nothing more can be stolen from them. These are the people who can live day to day, as Mother Teresa did. These are the people who can lie on their side in the dirt without pride or self-imposed stigma, as Ezekiel did, if by doing so they might move the hearts of others, or who can sit night after night beside a loved one who suffers, if by doing so they might offer one sliver of comfort. These are the people that can march in defense of civil rights, no matter what slurs or fists or bullets are hurled at their faces. They have given the day to a higher cause or a higher God than themselves: “. . . having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland . . . They desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.”

These vagrants, these exiles, these poor in spirit, seek a better country, that is, a heavenly one. They yearn for our world to be more like that. They may march, they may weep, they may doubt, they may die, but they will never give up. The call home—the allure and vision of a world where no man is oppressed, no woman is beaten, and no child suffers needless illness, hunger, or violence—is too insistent to ignore.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, Jesus says, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” That is the first beatitude and the first description in the Gospels of living the saved life, the blessed life, of living life as a citizen of heaven.

THE CALL TO UNFORGET

If Christianity is to be not only “relevant” but critical and active in the years ahead, people of faith must remember who they are. We must remember—in fact, we must unforget, from hour to hour—that we are sos (saved). We must find ourselves again—as refugees on earth, as strangers in the land, as strangers to whom no other human being can be strange. As others (xenoi) who “other” no one. As citizens of heaven, hoping for a new city and yearning for home.

Our Soter requires that we hold to this truth (this aletheia, this “unforgetting”) and thus hold to Him.

Our fellow human beings require that we unforget that we are xenoi together—because, having forgotten, we are hurting them.

And we must do this unforgetting for ourselves, too. Because what will it profit us if we gain “the world” but forfeit our soul?

Stant Litore

Aletheia, or, What is truth?

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Abstract: “In languages descended from or heavily influenced by Latin, it is possible to bludgeon people with truths, because in Latin, ‘truth’ is a noun. But this is not possible in Koine Greek. In the Koine Greek of the New Testament, truth is an activity, not a blunt object.”

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After a conversation earlier today, I’m going to share this longer post with you because a few of you might find it useful or beautiful, or may want to refer to it in conversations later. The topic is what some key words from the New Testament mean in the original text, because they get thoroughly sucked dry and mangled in English. If the post is useful, it may provoke some readers to read certain things in a very different light than how they are typically read in our culture, or may help them challenge others to do so.

This is written in response to a reader who asked me about the meanings of the words ‘truth’ and ‘belief,’ and how they are connected.

Truth (in English)

A truth (from the word “troth,” the same word we use in “betrothed”) is something you trust deeply, perhaps with all your heart. As I wrote in a post earlier today, a truth is not a fact, and a fact is not a truth. These are very different concepts. It is a truth that I will stay with my wife until she or I die. That is not a demonstrable fact, and will not be for many years, I hope; it is a truth. It is a truth that my wife loves me; this is not a demonstrable fact in any scientific sense, but I trust it deeply. These are truths. And when we got engaged, we pledged our truth (troth) to each other. In religion, one might speak of the Truth of divine promises — something deeply and profoundly trusted by the worshipper, promises judged by the worshipper to be worthy of their trust.

In English, a truth is a promise. In English, you believe in a truth (a promise) likely because you trust (have faith in) the subject who gave you that truth. So, for example, if in religious belief God gives you a promise about salvation or about comforting you with the Holy Spirit, the salvation or the comfort is a ‘truth’ or a promise, and God (and/or, potentially, writers of sacred texts and ancestors) is the subject who has relayed that promise to you. So in English, you believe the truth (the promise) and you trust (have faith in) the subject (God). The object, if there is one, is you yourself, the one trusting.

Belief (in English and Greek)

In Greek there is no word used in the New Testament that corresponds to the modern English “believe.” The word in Greek is much closer to “trust.” It is the verb for the Greek noun that we translate “faith,” but we don’t have a verb for faith in our language (which is a rather enormous oversight, if you think about it), so for four centuries we’ve been forced to substitute the word ‘believe’ as a placeholder for the missing word that doesn’t exist in English and that no one thought to invent. Often with unfortunate consequences, because the modern sense of ‘belief’ is very far from the words actually used in the text. To be fair, the original meaning of ‘believe,’ centuries ago, WAS closer to the intent, so the substitution may have made more sense at the time; the word “believe” has changed a lot over time. It originally didn’t have anything to do with your mind at all. In its Old English and Old Germanic roots, the word meant to hold something dear, to love it. Ten centuries ago, you would ‘believe’ a spouse, meaning you’d embrace and love them and hold them dear. (Compare ‘lieve’ root with modern German ‘liebe’ for love.) That’s what ‘believe’ originally meant.

Truth (in Greek and Latin)

“Truth” is actually a substitution, too, in the case of the New Testament, because again, we don’t have a word in English that means the same thing as Greek “aletheia,” or even close. Truth (a promise) was selected as nearest to the spirit of what translators felt the New Testament was looking to convey. “Aletheia” actually means “unforgetting.” Not just remembering, but un-forgetting (“a – lethe”), the daily act of holding a promise present in your mind and heart, of letting that promise drive all that you do. Literally un-forgetting it. Implied in the word is the idea that we are naturally in lethe (forgetting). Lethe is the river in Greek myth that the dead drink from to forget their lives and pasts and all that mattered to them, so that they can cross the river and dwell as somnolent shades in the underworld. The New Testament writers are telling Greek-speaking readers that, figuratively speaking, they have drunk from Lethe and are at risk of forgetting their relationships and their past and what’s been done for them, and the promises made for their present and future. Hence the word “aletheia,” unforgetting, un-Lethe’ing your heart. In a sense, resurrecting your heart, day by day, hour by hour, from the underworld of forgetfulness where life is expressed in hues of gray, without the constant awareness of joy.

In modern Western culture, when someone young and in love slips a love letter inside their clothing to keep it near their heart and to feel the paper against their skin, that is an unforgetting: an ongoing, constant unforgetting of the new love and joy, and of the promise for the future that the letter embodies.

(Paul’s “aletheia,” and the gospel writers’ subsequent adoption of the word, is an attempt to translate a similar concept from Hebrew, one that you can get the substance of if you read Deuteronomy 6, about keeping your history and the promise before your mind and your eyes constantly, wearing it on your forehead, writing it on your doorpost, telling your children the story when you wake and when you lie down, when you go about your day, when you come home from work, etc. Paul coins the word “aletheia” to transfer that concept into a Greek context. Topic to discuss more fully in some other post, but I mention it because this is also one reason why Judaism does not share Western Christianity’s ways of belaboring “biblical truth”; the Jewish concept of witness is much closer akin to Paul’s ‘unforgetting’ than to English ‘truth.’)

So, for example, when in the book of John Jesus says “I am the Aletheia,” he is saying “I am the Unforgetting.” He is describing himself as an embodied unforgetting of God’s promises, a daily living-out of the promise of union and reunion between God and humanity, and between humanity and humanity, and a daily and ongoing incarnation of God’s promise of ‘ki eyeh immakh’ (I will be with you). It’s a very nuanced and breathtaking passage, which unfortunately we don’t have the vocabulary to render well in English.

Also, notice that in Greek, ‘truth’ (unforgetting) isn’t really a noun or a thing. It isn’t a statement. It’s an ongoing action, a verb wearing noun’s clothing. In Greek, it’s easier to verb nouns than in English. “Believe in the Truth” is a weird Englishism that would have been incomprehensible and fairly circular to writers in Koine Greek, much as if you were to say to someone today, “Trust in Trust.” (Say what?) In the Greek New Testament, rather than ‘believe in the Truth,’ you strive all the time to unforget promises, and you hold dear and trust the one who gave you the promise. Where most of our culture’s conversation about belief is transactional in nature (accept this premise and sign on the dotted line), the original text is entirely relational (trust someone and hold their promise constantly before you).

One reason our translation gets so tilted on its side is that we’ve filtered our religion through the lens of Rome, and our translations (and in fact, the European languages we’re translating into) are profoundly influenced by Latin. The Latin Vulgate translates ‘aletheia,’ rather horribly, as ‘veritas’ (“something verified or confirmed”). This kind of substitution is common in the Vulgate. In the book of Mark, for example, the Vulgate routinely replaces a Greek word conveying a concept similar to ‘authority’ with the Latin word for ‘power’ or ‘force.’ But a moment’s reflection might persuade us that authority and power are not the same thing.

In similar fashion, the empire-builder Romans replaced the Greek idea of aletheia with the idea of verifiable fact. (‘Fact’ itself is a Latin word: factum est, “it happened’). That is why in our culture, we still confuse “truth” with “fact.” That’s a typically Roman thing to do. Our modern translations follow suit. (This is also why, in the story of the trial, Pontius Pilate had no idea what Jesus was talking about. “What is truth?” he asks, because his cultural and linguistic vocabulary leaves him ill-equipped — much as our own leaves us ill-equipped — to “get” it.)

In languages descended from or heavily influenced by Latin, it is possible to bludgeon people with truths, because in Latin, ‘truth’ is a noun. But this is not possible in Koine Greek. In Koine Greek, truth is an activity, not a blunt object.

When Paul says, “Hold fast to the truth,” in Greek he is not saying hold fast to a mental opinion you have in your head; in Greek he is saying, Keep unforgetting the promise. If I might paraphrase, it means: ‘Keep unforgetting who loves you, and how much he loves you.’ And in Greek grammar, that isn’t a one-time activity but something that is ongoing, every hour, something to be actively doing all the time.

Stant Litore

Addendum: Exhibit B -“Charity”

It’s easy to remain unaware of the extent to which language shapes our thinking. Here’s another example. The word “charity” has only meant what it means now for roughly 150 years. The word was originally coined as a translation of “caritas” in the Vulgate New Testament, and many older Bible translations have this word “charity” everywhere. But “caritas” doesn’t mean giving at the office; the word means a caring love that holds the other to be of high value. In turn, Latin “caritas” is an attempt to translate Greek “agape,” which means a reckless, spendthrift love that holds no accounts and no ledgers, the love where you sacrifice everything you own, even if you are as rich as king, to save one endangered child. That’s the word that we translated ‘charity.’

In the Old Testament, “charity” translates the Hebrew word for “justice.” In ancient Hebrew, there IS no separate word for charity; our often derisive concept of charity does not exist in that language. The people who wrote the Old and New Testaments regarded responding to the needs of the poor and the marginalized (“the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow”) not as acts of charity but as, depending on the text, acts of justice or acts of reckless love.

Stant Litore is the author of The Zombie Bible, The Ansible Stories, The Running of the Tyrannosaurs, and Dante’s Heart — and is endlessly fascinated by religious studies. You can support his work — and get some amazing stories to read — by joining his membership on Patreon: www.patreon.com/stantlitore

Do You Need Religion to Be a Good Person? (Or: Levinas for Everyone)

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Note: As I cautioned at the beginning of my earlier posts, “The Bible: Why and How I Read It” and “Why Christians Shouldn’t Ignore Derrida,” I am not a religious leader or an expert on philosophy. I am a storyteller and I am fascinated, day by day, with how we read and how we interpret the things we read. Each of you must consider for yourselves how much merit my words have.

This week, I have been asked the same question by two readers from quite different backgrounds. One was a religious person demanding to know how people who don’t believe in God or in an ultimate and absolute moral Truth can have any reason to treat each other decently, and the other was an atheist demanding to know what absolute moral Truth we could find outside of religion in order to resolve that same question.

Though I am myself a religious man, the idea that religious belief is a prerequisite for ethical behavior has always struck me as really odd. It’s neither logical (because a moment’s reflection will reveal that a majority of human beings appear to possess a conscience whether or not they possess religious beliefs) nor biblical (in both his speech at the Areopagus and in Romans 1, Paul insists that ethical behavior and a longing for goodness is written into the world, and later in Romans he argues that the law is written on our hearts, whether we have it in our conscious mind or not).

So why do we want to treat each other ethically? And is it necessary to believe in a Divine Being in order to answer that question?

There has actually been a vigorous conversation and study of this going on for the past sixty years, but because it has been going on in French and on the other side of the world, very few people in the U.S. outside of graduate philosophy courses have been a part of it. This post is my attempt to relay a few key points from it in very easy-to-understand terms. This is important to me because our growing understanding of ethics has profoundly informed my novels — I’ve jokingly referred to Strangers in the Land as “Levinas for everyone” — and has informed my views on life and why I tell stories and love books so, so much. Read on.

What Happens When We Look in Each Other’s Eyes

In the 1950s, in his book Totalite et Infini, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas proposed what in retrospect seems a very simple but powerful idea. Here is the short-short version:

Something happens when we meet each other’s gaze. When two people have a face-to-face encounter and neither avoids the other’s gaze, there is an intimacy that occurs. When I look into the eyes of another person, someone who is not-me, who is in fact different from me, who may have a different gender, religion, race, or class from my own — when I look into her eyes and see her looking back, there is an implicit “demand” in her gaze. (I would call it a request, but Levinas calls it a “demand,” so for now we’ll go with that.)

The demand is that I recognize her as akin to me. In this meeting of our gazes, we are both human. In this moment, I can recognize that she loves, hopes, fears, and desires, even as I do. That gaze bridges, briefly, our separateness and our aloneness. In other words, when I meet her gaze and she meets mine, her eyes communicate, implicitly, the demand that I respond to her as a fellow and equal human being. It is a demand for ethical behavior: for just and compassionate treatment of the other.

This is why we ask others to look us in the eye so that we can see if they are communicating the truth to us. It is harder (not impossible, alas, just harder) to lie when you are gazing into the eyes of the person you’re lying to. It’s also why a hierarchical caste system in which society’s lowest layers consist of “untouchables” is often paired with a cultural restriction on eye contact across castes. When you don’t meet the eyes of untouchables, you are less likely to hear any demand that you treat them justly, equally, and compassionately. Thus, you are less likely to respond, and the system is less likely to change. Gandhi’s project of ahimsa (nonviolence) was about facing the oppressor assertively but non-aggressively, eye-to-eye, making it difficult for them to avoid your gaze — in short, making it difficult for them to deny your essential human kinship.

The Human Other and the Divine Other

This is why ethics is possible whether the universe has a God or not: ethics is a response to that demand in the other’s gaze. That is a demand that we might potentially encounter at meeting anyone’s gaze. It’s why both religious people and atheists “feel” when they see photos of the eyes of children in cages along the US/Mexico border. It’s why both religious people and atheists may, or may not, stop to help an old grandmother across the street.

In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (the Abrahamic religions), God is the ultimate Other: the Other who is most “other,” most different from us, and yet who calls to our heart with the greatest yearning for union with us. God is the divine Other who responds to our demand for love, compassion, and justice, and who calls out to us with his own demand that we love him and love our neighbor:

  • In Christianity, the two “greatest commandments,” upon which “the entire law” — all of ethical and just behavior — rest, are: “Love God” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Respond to God’s demand and to the human other’s demand with the very love and justice that you would want given to yourself.
  • In Judaism, a core tenet is tzelem elohim (from Genesis 1): that all human beings are made in the image of God, and that when you look into the eyes of another person, you see the face of God. Emmanuel Levinas was an atheist Jew, and his philosophy is deeply influenced by Judaism’s approach to ethics.

Whether or not you hear God’s call, God’s demand for your love and for your justice, whether or not you believe God exists, whether or not you care, you will likely hear the demand of human others for your love and your justice. You will encounter that demand at the meeting of the eyes (and on other occasions, too — we’ll get to that in a moment).

So no, it is not necessary to believe in God in order to find reason to behave in an ethical, just, or “moral” way.

That is not to say that belief in God might not add something to ethics; it simply isn’t a prerequisite for ethics. (If empathy and our response to empathy is hard-wired into human beings on a level much deeper than belief, then belief and religion can either augment or detract from our ability to empathize and respond to the demand of the other with love, compassion, or just action.)

What Christianity can add to our ethical life is 1) a powerful story about an ultimate relationship between two who are other (those two being homo sapiens and God); 2) a demonstration of the demand of the other and the ethical response to the other (including the ultimate demonstration of the salvific, messianic sacrifice, the Cross, as a response to humanity’s cry of pain and yearning for God’s love); and 3) a set of specific ethical premises, such as:

  • that we are more able to love others freely when we realize that a divine Other is already loving us and modeling that love for us (“we love, because He first loved us,” says John);
  • that all human beings, regardless of race or gender or class, are equally participants in that love (“there is no Jew or Gentile, no male or female, no master or servant, for you are all one in Christ,” says Paul),
  • and that agape, self-sacrificing love, is the ultimate ethical or “good” treatment of another person (“Greater love has no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friend,” says Jesus).

The Power of a Story

While Emmanuel Levinas’ idea was pretty awesome and an effective starting point, it did have its flaws, too, as a complete explanation of ethics. Other thinkers have questioned his insistence that only the face-to-face encounter — the meeting of the eyes — can communicate the other’s demand for justice and provoke our response to that demand. After all, blind people have consciences just as sighted people do. And we often respond to requests for love or just action from people we have never actually seen. So perhaps there are other communications that can serve as proxies for a meeting of the eyes.

Jacques Derrida, for example, suggests that a written text might convey that demand, too. A letter, a speech, a sacred book, words spoken to your ears: any of these might also invoke a moment of intimacy and relay the other’s demand for love and justice. Similarly, C.S. Lewis, in An Experiment in Criticism, argues passionately that reading a great story can be one of those acts — like love or religious devotion — that permits us to be larger than and outside of ourselves, to be united with others. Reading a thousand stories, Lewis argues, “I see with a thousand faces, yet remain myself.” He goes on to yearn that he might read a story written by an animal, because how much bigger his world might then be, if he might experience it with the multifaceted vision of a bee or the rich olfactory sense of a dog.

Stories can be incredibly powerful because of that potential for sharing in the experience of others, and because we use them to “walk in another person’s shoes” or to “see through another person’s eyes.” In his famous defense of poetry, Percy Shelley argues that imaginative stories train us to “sympathy” for others — that, in fact, all empathy begins with imagination: with the imaginative act of identifying with the other and picturing to ourselves what it would be like to experience and feel what they are experiencing and feeling.

So when we cannot meet each other’s eyes, we can still communicate in stories. Stories can cut deep. They can make us feel what others have felt, even others long past. Even imaginary others who have never been born.

Why do I want to behave well toward other people? Because I can imagine being them. Because when I see their eyes, I realize we are both human. Because when I hear their story, I am moved.

As Hurriya, an ex-slave in my novel Strangers in the Land, tells an aging prophetess:

“When you see another’s face—the face of a child, or another woman, or the face of the goddess, or the face of someone hungry or hurt—their eyes, they look back. They look at you. They ask your love, they ask you to hear their crying and know that you and they are both alive, and some day you may be hurt, you may be hungry. It may be your child carried dying in your arms.” Hurriya choked a moment, then went on. “When I look at you, you look back. Only the dead don’t look back. You think the Law is a pact with your God, a pact with others of your People. But it’s not just a pact. It’s an answer. You have rules for everything. But it’s not the rules that matter. It’s that you want to make them. You want to answer the suffering you see in another woman’s face. You want to give her safety, or justice, or comfort. That’s what matters. That’s why you have your Law, why you love it.”

The core truth of Christianity is that God is on the Cross gazing at us, responding to our pain with his love and demanding that we gaze back and respond with our love, too. And the core truth of the human condition may be that our fellow human beings (whether through a silent gaze or a spoken story) are often demanding our response to their pain and that we all feel that call to respond, that this call is fundamental to human communication, and that we are wired — as relational, communal, social primates — to want to respond. The question demands its response. We are uncomfortable with silence for an answer.

We are also wired for other, contradictory things that prevent us from responding, that prevent us sometimes even from looking at the other’s eyes or hearing the other’s story. Self-defense, for example. Satisfaction of our basic appetites, for another. Tribal identity (to the exclusion of others), for yet another. Whether you want to call the fault sin or appetite or animal instinct or ego or anything else, we have impulses that drive against responding to that call for justice. And so we have crime and conflict, and we start to create laws, rules, or moralities to try to limit that.

It is not the morality or the Law that drives us to be good, though. Moral codes and laws and religious creeds and institutions are the response to our desire to be good (or to our failure to be good), not the cause of that desire. What drives us to be good is the tzelem elohim — that we look into each other’s eyes and see the demand for kinship. Religious people might say that demand for kinship is because in each other’s eyes we see the likeness of God; atheists might say it is a primal instinct for empathy inherited from tribal primate days. But whatever you want to call it, that demand is there.

Tikkun Olam

I am a storyteller and an avid reader because stories are often our best proxy for meeting the eyes. They allow us to take part in the internal life of people (real or imaginary) who are not actually in the room. They make our world bigger, taking it from population-one (myself) to population-potentially-infinite.

It’s also why I care about diversity in fiction and in art. A few days ago, online, I grumped that I had seen yet another poster of a white Jesus with a mullet. I wrote:

If the poster inspires people, I can see that it’s a good thing. It’s just…how are we ever going to navigate racial and religious tensions in our own country if we insist on always depicting God as a white American dude? If God himself is invisible and largely replaced with a white-skinned, rated-PG idol, how are we going to learn to stop treating black and brown people in our own neighborhoods as invisible? That college-aged woman in the airport who said of darker-skinned human beings, “They’re animals, mamma, they’re just animals”: was she aware her “animals” category includes Jesus?

This is why a project like The Zombie Bible is important to me. I get frustrated that we replace powerful, troubling stories with refrigerator magnets and posters. That we get really bad at listening to anyone’s story… The stories we tell and the stories we’re willing to listen to are what make or break our world.

/endrant /storyteller-on-the-loose

Similarly, the author of the fantasy novels The Gentleman Bastards recently posted a hilariously irate and eloquent response to a reader who had written him indignantly that he should have written his second novel about a male pirate, and not about a black female single-mother pirate. The author, in his response, lamented that the reader’s own vision of the world was so small, that there was room in it for only white male swashbucklers. The author wanted no limits on his imagination: he wanted to envision and experience and share with his readers a world where black single mothers can be pirates and, in fact, where all sorts of extravagant and wondrous things happen. (By the way, just as a footnote, there have been black single mother pirates in the history of our own real world, too.)

In what J.R.R. Tolkien calls “fighting the long defeat” against injustice and evil, our secret weapon is stories. Tikkun olam, they say in Judaism: “Tell the story, and heal the world.”

In stories, we who are so separated draw near each other at last.

That’s part of what attracts me to religious studies in general and Christianity in particular: Christianity is about the power of a story to transform lives, to inspire us to gratitude and love and to just action, to utterly rearrange our lives. That’s because in Christianity, a story — a “good news” (gospel) story — is the occasion for our encounter and union with the ultimate Other, God.

In a less metaphysical and more day-to-day sense, I yearn to hear more stories, and to tell the stories I hear — to tell and retell and pass them on — because in stories I encounter others who are so different from me and yet are human, just as I am. I want to hear everyone’s story. I wish I had the time and immortality and patience to hear everyone’s story. To see the universe with a thousand faces, and to treat the wearers of those thousand faces in the way we treat people when we have taken their stories into our hearts.

We Need a World of Curious, Effective, Avid Readers

Why do we have morality? Why do we want to be ethical, though we often fail to?

Because we are capable of meeting each other’s eyes or imagining meeting each other’s eyes. Because we are capable of hearing and telling stories, of reading and receiving stories. How do you fix the world? I have no idea, but I do know that one of the things we’d need along the way are millions and millions of compassionate, skilled readers. Skilled hearers of stories. People who hear stories of diverse people (whether real or imagined), people who approach everyone’s story as eager, curious readers and hearers.

Yet we have become, increasingly, a culture of folk that spend more of our time talking and soapboxing and less and less of our time reading and listening.

They say that when your one tool is a hammer, sooner or later, every problem looks like a nail. I may be guilty of that; my tools are storytelling and reading. Yet I do believe that what the world needs are really, really good readers and really, really good stories to move into their hearts and do in there the “good news” work of reconciling and reuniting us readers with each other and with God.

Stant Litore

Stant Litore is the author of The Zombie Bible, The Ansible Stories, The Running of the Tyrannosaurs, and Dante’s Heart — and is endlessly fascinated by religious studies. You can support his work — and get some amazing stories to read — by joining his membership on Patreon: www.patreon.com/stantlitore

Why Christians Shouldn’t Ignore Derrida

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Note: As I cautioned at the beginning of my earlier post, “The Bible: Why and How I Read It,” I am not a religious leader or an expert. I am a storyteller and I am fascinated, day by day, with how we read and how we interpret the things we read. Each of you must consider for yourselves how much merit my words have.

crossMy fellow Christians, for the most part, tend to ignore the ideas of Jacques Derrida, but I am going to propose to you that deconstruction is a tool of considerable importance in devotional reading and biblical study. I don’t mean that it is the only useful tool, and I’m not wise enough to argue whether it is the most useful of all tools; I think we would benefit enormously, too, if we did more group reading in the form of lectio divina to learn simply to sit in the presence of God, we who are so trained now to instead run and spin in circles in the presence of Facebook. And I think Christians would benefit — and have begun to benefit — from looking into the Jewish rabbinical tradition and midrash reading. But deconstruction is also extremely useful to both religious and secular readers, and in America, deconstruction has been widely misunderstood and therefore dismissed.

I ask you to bear with me and hear me out before reaching judgment. This post has a lot to say, so it is going to be long. If you don’t have much time, I hope you’ll read what you can and bookmark it. I promise it will be fascinating and worth it.

To keep this post intriguing and illuminating, I am going to focus on just two ideas — the fallibility of human language and Derrida’s idea of a remainder. (For those who are well-acquainted with Derrida, this really is only going to touch on a tiny piece of the questions he proposed; it’s a first step. Otherwise this post would be as long as a book, or likely longer still. This post offers a tentative first date with Jacques, not a marriage.) Then I’m going to offer an interpretive reading of Genesis 1 for religious readers that, if you haven’t encountered these ideas before, may open new doors in your mind or heart (we’ll see).

Let’s go on an adventure.

Fallen Language and the Remainder

Derrida suggests that all language is fluid, indeterminate, and fallible. This is an idea that has since become ingrained in the humanities and the social sciences, but has been met with derision by the unlikely duo of analytical philosophers and religious readers, especially in America. In America, we have a tendency to assume that (a) after a bit of mental work you can identify, beyond doubt, the complete and final meaning of a written sentence, and (b) that everything can be expressed accurately in “common” language, or language that everyone can understand. Jacques Derrida ruffles our American feathers by suggesting that language is much more fluid and that the task of deriving fixed, absolute meaning from language is a task that can never actually be completed.

But while our feathers may be ruffled, I’d suggest that this is an idea that Christians can actually find a lot of sympathy with. After all, we have our story of the Tower of Babel, with its suggestion that the confusion of languages served the explicit purpose of distancing human beings from God and from building a tower to heaven and becoming like God, comprehending everything. We also have the theological hypothesis that everything in the universe is fallen, as humanity is, and subject to decay. Why should language itself be any different?

We know things get lost in translation from one language to another: the Greek agape suggests concepts that aren’t conveyed by the English word love and certainly aren’t conveyed by the Latin or French equivalents.

We also know that commonly assigned meanings to a word shift over time, sometimes rapidly; “condescend,” for example, used to be one of the most beautiful words in our language. It was often interpreted as “to step down with” someone into their moment of vulnerability, to lift them up on their feet and climb out of that moment together. But because of the way Victorian charities “condescended” to the poor, that word began to suggest very different (and far more negative) meanings to us. The meaning of words doesn’t stay fixed.

Even at the exact same moment in time, the meaning of a word shifts depending on who is speaking it and where and to whom. Forgive me for writing such an incredibly ugly word, but the word “nigger” means something very different depending on whether a black man is saying it to another black man, a black woman is saying it to a black man, a black man is in heated conversation with a white man, or a white man is saying it to a black man. And when I write it in this post, reducing it to an object example, the significance of the word is different, again, from all of the diverse cases I mentioned a moment ago. The meanings that word suggests to the one hearing it shift dramatically, not across time but from one speaker (one interpreter) to the next, from one situation to the next. This flummoxes some white Americans, who simply don’t “get” why the word suggests different meanings when a black man says it than when a white man says it. This empirically evident situation frustrates the commonly-held white American belief that the meanings of words are mostly fixed, easy to understand, and can be depended on reliably. “I said what I said, and I meant what I meant” — that’s a very American sentiment that, to our frequent confusion, doesn’t tend to hold up very well in practice.

We also know that things frequently and regularly get lost in translation in both spoken and written conversations, even between people with the most similar backgrounds, beliefs, and values. How many times have you been misunderstood over email or on social media?

The meaning of words doesn’t stay fixed; it isn’t absolute, out there in some ideal space, something that we can refer back to. The meaning of words, Jacques Derrida cautions us, is something that is constructed in the moment, by the hearer, based on the context, the speaker, the inter-relationships between different words and phrases, the relationships between different ideas, and what the hearer notices or fails to notice.

Derrida would suggest that what’s happening in these cases is that when we interpret communication that is conveyed in words, we are constructing the meaning, the interpretation, in that moment. And constrained as we are by our context, by the influence of other moments in which we’ve encountered similar words and ideas, by our knowledge of the language, by our own values and views, by our opinion and understanding of the writer or speaker, and by many things, when we construct that interpretation we always leave something out of our interpretation. There is something we neglect to consider. Some remainder that is left over after we’ve constructed the meaning of the word, sentence, or chapter we just read. That’s how we get an interpretation — we focus on something and exclude other things.

Reading Humbly

Deconstruction (which has seemed either so scary or so absurd to many Christians) is a way of reading. It can be very playful and also very intelligent, but at its heart, it is a stance of humility toward the written word. It means that a reader approaches a text (biblical or otherwise) and starts with these realizations:

  • The interpretations others have offered for this text have left something out. There is a remainder.
  • If I find what was left out, that finding will deconstruct the established interpretation. It will take that interpretation apart, to one degree or another.
  • If I find what was left out, I might discover so much through this text that I never noticed before. There will be opportunity for a deeper understanding and another interpretation.
  • However, my new interpretation will also be fallible, because I am also leaving something out. Language is fallible, so while I may understand more or differently, my new understanding can also be deconstructed.

This might sound alarming to some Christians, because you could take this to mean, “We will never finally know what this passage ‘means.'” But that’s a pretty arrogant response, one that assumes that to approach God, we need to fully understand and comprehend his word, completely, without mistakes, and one that assumes that it is actually possible for us to do that. Of course, God sets no requirement that we fully comprehend him. And it is the height of absurd pride to think that we can. Admittedly, it’s a very American way of thinking — we don’t like to exist in what the Catholic mystics called “the cloud of unknowing,” we don’t like to approach God (or anything) in the dark, and we really, really like to have definitive answers. When we don’t have them, we get frustrated. (And when we do have an interpretation that seems good to us and someone approaches us and deconstructs that interpretation, it may annoy us enormously, or even appear threatening to us. We simply don’t like having our interpretations deconstructed. We are often either proud of our interpretations or very reliant on them.)

In fact, that’s one reason a lot of American Christians have a reactionary stance toward science and deep skepticism about scientists’ ability to uncover useful and reliable knowledge for us. There is a perception that scientists are constantly “changing their answers,” and this appears to annoy us to no end. But of course they are, because they’re constantly testing what they’ve learned, uncovering new evidence, deconstructing a previous theory or interpretation, and arriving at a deeper understanding of the natural world and how and why it works. That new understanding may also be fallible if there is evidence that it left out — if, in Derrida’s terms, there’s a remainder that didn’t get noticed or considered. Newton’s interpretation of how the universe worked was a pretty deep and effective interpretation…until Einstein suggested that something was left out. The effective scientist (and I’m not talking about media personalities, I’m talking about people running experiments in labs) has a relatively humble perspective; like the poet Goethe, the scientist’s heart starts with Many things I know; yet many things I do not understand — and then goes on to add, But it’s going to be so fun and rewarding to step into the space I don’t understand, ask questions, test what answers I get, and learn more.

In religious reading, we sometimes forget that there is a humility and even a joy in looking deeper, in looking for what was left out, in finding the remainder, in approaching the word with the base assumption that our interpretation is going to be fallible. That doesn’t have to be a scary thing. It can be a position that glorifies God and humbles man.

This is Very Similar to How Jesus Read

In What Would Jesus Deconstruct? the radical theologian John Caputo makes an intriguing observation: Jesus, in the gospels, tends to read the Old Testament deconstructively. In fact, only on rare occasions does Jesus make definitive interpretive statements about the Old Testament (which is striking, because in the tradition of Christian theology, he may indeed be the one person in history who might claim a right to do so).

Instead, Jesus constantly asks questions and tells stories — often stories where the ending is left out (as in the case of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan) and the audience or the reader is left with a riddle or a question for interpretation. Will the older son join the father and the younger son in that forgiveness banquet? The audience, many of them uncomfortably in the position of the older son, needs to address that question. (If you want to take a closer look at that example, Tim Keller’s Prodigal God gives a fresh exploration of it.) Looking at the priest, the levite, and the Samaritan, which of these was the man’s neighbor? A Jesus parable is like the opposite of an Aesop’s fable: where Aesop closes with a moral, Jesus closes with a question or a riddle. It’s his method. His stories invite his listeners to deconstruct their previous understanding of how the world works, how God works, and how they could work.

The other thing that we see Jesus do when he teaches is continually deconstruct established interpretations by pointing out the remainder. The Pharisees in the gospels put a great deal of stock in working out, in exactitude and in fine detail, what is meant in the levitical law. They, like today’s American readers, really like to have definite answers, and to have definite answers that don’t shift when you have your back turned. Jesus really, really pisses them off, because he upsets that stability, charging into their interpretations and overturning them as abruptly as a man flipping over tables and whipping moneychangers out of the temple.

Here’s an example. The priests and the scribes notice that Jesus’s disciples are gathering wheat to eat on the Sabbath. The Sabbath is serious business in the Old Testament. So they challenge Jesus on this: You claim to be a religious teacher, so why are your disciples gathering up wheat as they walk through this field?

Jesus responds not with a direct answer but by deconstructing their interpretation of the laws about the Sabbath. You’ve left something out, he says. Don’t you remember the moment in the Old Testament when David took holy bread from the tabernacle on the Sabbath? What can we learn from that moment? “Man is not made for the Sabbath; the Sabbath is made for man,” he tells the religious thinkers of the day. That is the remainder, a really big idea that they left out while they were focused on other details.

That’s what deconstruction does: it challenges you with the possibility that in focusing on some things, you might actually be leaving out big things. In Christianity, we believe that the scripture is God-inspired. But Scripture is written down and translated by fallible people in flawed and imperfect language (if you have ever tried to express your love or express extreme grief in words, you know how extremely limited a technology language actually is, though I am extremely thankful that we have it), and the interpretation of Scripture is likewise developed by mortal, fallible, fallen human beings.

It always leaves something out.

Jesus, in the gospels, kept pointing out that remainder, again and again. He also pointed out that when you arrogantly assume that your interpretation is final and that there is no remainder, that has real-world and dangerous ramifications. You make big mistakes. You start to leave people out. You judge when it is God’s role alone to judge, and sometimes you judge unjustly. The letter kills, and the spirit gives life, Paul tells us. Following the spirit of the text is about humility, about approaching scripture not with the intent of arriving at a definitive and final answer, but with the intent of encountering the heart of God and having your assumptions, whether prideful ones or lazy ones, shaken up — because God sees so much more than we do.

Let’s Do Some Deconstruction, Right Now, and See if it’s Useful

Maybe this all sounds a bit abstract and academic. In fact, that’s another reason we tend to ignore deconstruction or regard it as suspect — it looks to us, sometimes, like a bit of an academic game.

Christians have often, throughout history, been accused of that same abstraction. (Remember the angels dancing on the head of a pin?) Philosophers have, too. And as American readers, we regard abstract ideas with especial suspicion. We like things that can be boiled down in simple and concrete terms.

But it is fundamental to Christianity that abstract ideas and beliefs have profound impact on real lives and real actions and motivations. This is not a stance that’s foreign to us; it’s central.

Let’s do a quick experiment to see deconstruction in action; then we’ll be better able to judge if it has something to offer in religious reading.

Let’s read Genesis 1 and start with a humble stance that when we’ve read it previously, we left something out. Let’s take that as a given — just for this experiment. And so let’s approach the text looking attentively for what we left out before. In doing so, we may not arrive at a definitive and final interpretation, but we may gain deeper insights into the heart of God. It might waken our hearts and minds. It is worth doing.

When I read Genesis 1, I notice 3 things that usually get left out. There are more, and there are also things I am leaving out. My reading is fallible. The language that I’m reading is fallible. The language in which I’m sharing these observations is fallible and unfixed, and much will be lost in translation when each of you reads this. There are things I haven’t noticed at all. But those 3 things I did notice are pretty huge things, and they challenge me to pray and ponder.

Here are 3 things that some contemporary, American Christians have left out when they read that text:

1. Bara

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

An interpretation of this was offered in the fourth century, and we have rarely bothered to look deeper since; we just read the way people in the fourth century did. They suggested the idea of creatione ex nihilo — creation of the universe from nothing. This was because the Greek and Latin words for creation are words for making and because the idea of ex nihilo was very attractive to Roman thinkers, who liked to focus on power and authority as divine attributes, even at the risk of forgetting about other attributes.

Let’s assume something was left out. What?

The next verse got left out. “The earth was without form and waste.” The Hebrew word that I just substituted “waste” for connotes a dry and empty desert; in Latin and English translations, the word’s meaning shifts around like stones sliding down a slope. For example, we often see this translated “void.” But while the Hebrew word suggests emptiness and dryness, it’s empty like a desert, not empty like blank space.

That isn’t nothing. A desert isn’t nothing. It is just, in this verse, a dry waste without life and without form.

That intrigued me. I looked into some research that’s been published on this passage (there has been some vigorous conversation about it in recent years), and I also studied the etymology of bara, the Hebrew word here that we translate create. In other words, the people whose work I was reading had noticed something that got left out and I launched an investigation into it (albeit a small one).

Bara doesn’t mean making something out of nothing. It suggests taking an object that is without use or purpose and creating out of it a new object that has purpose, use, and beauty. For example, when you take a reed and carve holes in it and turn it into a flute, you are doing the kind of creation that is bara. When you take a rock and make a statue, that is bara. When you take twelve people of diverse classes, traditions, and motivations, and weld them into a team of apostles, that is bara. When you take dust and form it into a human being and breathe life into it, that is bara. When you take cells that are not a fetus and develop them embryonically into a fetus in the womb, that is bara. Bara is taking raw materials and making out of them something of purpose and beauty.

This isn’t even a new interpretation, just one that’s been largely forgotten and is now less popular. John Milton, when he wrote Paradise Lost, described God making the universe out of “his dark materials.” (That phrase His Dark Materials became the title of Philip Pullman’s recent fantasy series that has prompted such controversy.) Milton was reading his Old Testament in Hebrew; in fact, some accounts suggest that he had the Old Testament memorized in Hebrew, which staggers my mind if it is true; I haven’t checked. Regardless, he was more familiar with the possible nuances of the word bara than most.

Physicists will inform you that we are all made out of stardust. The atoms in us and in everything we see are the same atoms that burned at the heart of the first stars in the universe. Once reduced to “dust” (or, rather, component atoms), these no longer had any purpose or beauty or use. But we, and the other things we see, that have been remade from those atoms, from those “dark materials,” do or can have purpose and beauty and use.

Take a moment and just ponder the ramifications. Creatione ex nihilo (creation out of nothing) and bara (taking raw materials and shaping them into something purposeful and beautiful) are very different concepts. One of these is about emphasizing God’s power. The other emphasizes purpose. One emphasizes what God can do, while the other is briefly suggestive of how and why God does things. If you are a religious reader, this has some big implications.

2. Called

The other thing that sometimes happens in America when we read Genesis 1 is that we get completely focused on the first verse, as if that is the only verse in the chapter that matters. The question of creation takes up our whole mind; we’re anxious about it. So we get lost focusing all our attention on one thing, and we miss other things that may be just as or more important.

For example, as John Caputo notes in his book The Weakness of God, “created” isn’t the only verb that gets repeated several times in Genesis 1. “Called” and “said” get repeated, too. God calls the world into being — an idea that later gets repeated often in the Psalms.

In fact, look at what does get spoken first in Genesis 1: “Let there be light.”

That isn’t a command. That isn’t the imperative voice. That isn’t the same as, “Light, be!” That’s “Let there be light.” Subjunctive voice. It’s a call, a suggestion, a strong request.

What if, in bara creation, God took the raw materials of the universe and called them to be something of purpose and beauty? What if God is like Isaiah and John the Baptist’s “voice crying out in the wilderness,” calling us to change the world? What if God is, sometimes, a still, small voice that approaches us not with a command but with a call? Elijah hears the still, small voice say not “Elijah, get your butt back into action,” but calling him, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” God walks through the garden in the evening calling for Adam. Jesus calls the disciples. Today, we talk about having “a calling.” God calls Samuel into his presence in the middle of the night. And so on. The Bible is full of calling. In fact, the whole idea in the New Testament of the reformation of the heart is that God takes a heart that has become a wasteland and calls it to purpose, justice, love, and faith. “Grace” isn’t just that God forgives; it’s that he remakes, in a bara sense. He calls us and begins to make us into something new and beautiful.

Just as a Christian might imagine God taking stardust and forming it over time into planets and trees and people, we might think of God taking fallen hearts and calling them to be something new. That is continuing the work of creation and calling that we see in Genesis 1. “Let there be light.” “Let there be waters above the waters.” “Let there be living things.” And so on. That’s God standing at the edge of a formless waste and calling forth life. That’s Jesus standing on the waters calling Peter out of the boat. That’s Christ calling to a desolate heart.

It’s not a command. We can always ignore it. It’s a call. John Caputo would call it a persistent and insistent call, one that can be refused but one that sometimes gets inside us and gets more and more difficult to ignore.

And that idea of “calling” — that big idea that may be core to God’s work of creation described throughout Scriptures, that may even be very core to the Christian faith — gets left out of most of our readings of Genesis 1. Often, when we’re done reading about creation and we finish constructing our understanding of what we’ve just read, that idea of “calling” is one remainder, left over and forgotten.

3. Tzelem Elohim

Here’s another. This is one that the Jewish tradition has not left out; in rabbinical reading, this one is central. But Christian readers often glide past it without really focusing attention and really taking it in. And this one has huge, everyday, real-world implications. We can’t afford to just leave it out and let it be a remainder.

In Genesis 1 we find that we are created tzelem elohim, “in the likeness of God.” In fact, we find that all people, “male and female,” are made in the likeness of God. Paul later comments on this when he tells the Galatians that there is no male or female, no slave or master, no Jew or Greek, no hierarchy or system of classifications in God’s eyes; we are all loved, we are all made in God’s likeness.

That’s a really Big Idea. In fact, if you think about the time in which Genesis was written down, the idea we usually focus on — that God was creating the world — wasn’t a big idea. Almost everyone living in the Near East at that time took it for granted that a deity or deities had created the universe. What would have been a bigger issue is how the world was created (bara) and why (calling) and what kind of world got created. When we get so focused on whether or not God created the world, our attention gets so narrowed that we miss many of the big things that the story may have been addressing.

The ancient Hebrews didn’t miss it. They wrestled with tzelem elohim. In fact, they had an incredibly hard time with it. They lived in a world that was prior to Greek thought and prior to Christian ethics and prior to Talmudic teaching and prior to the Pax Romana and prior to democratic representation and universal suffrage and prior to modern views of slavery. They lived in a world of near-constant warfare, raiding, and violence, a world in which tribes and nations constantly had to protect themselves or attempted to conquer others and harvest their resources (which, for the ancients, meant land, herds, labor, and women). It was also a world with very little restraint; our world still has little restraint, but theirs had less. There was no United Nations. There was no Geneva Convention. There was nothing to prevent one tribe from kidnapping and raping and marrying the women from another tribe — nothing except for either a rival show of force … or a powerful and widely accepted idea.

Let me tell you a story.

Prior to the High Middle Ages, before the Crusades, in the handful of centuries after Rome’s fall that we often poetically refer to as “the Dark Ages,” Europe was a political mess. Roaming tribes, mercenary troops, and local warlords all churned against each other in decentralized and violent conflict over land and other resources. The Catholic Church was an institution that, at the time, did not have the wealth or the political power that it later did; but it did wield significant influence nonetheless, because people gave credence to the Church’s claims of moral authority and representation of God’s will on earth. There were several Popes who attempted, in this climate, to take Jesus’s words about peace and apply them to the real world. They looked at their increasingly violent and chaotic continent, and tried to suggest restraints. Flawed ones, the best they could think of at the time. For example, there was the Pax Dei or “Peace of God,” where a Pope declared immunity for unarmed noncombatants like peasants and clergy. Essentially, the Pax Dei suggested, “Ok, you’re going to fight and kill and slaughter each other, but God says that unarmed villagers and clergy are immune; you cannot kill them in the course of combat.”

This did not always work very well.

That is probably no surprise.

But when at first you don’t succeed, you try, try again. So the Church later came up with the Treuga Dei, or “Truce of God.” This declared that there must be a ceasefire on all holy days. (And, not entirely by coincidence, the Church around this time established a lot of holy days and saint’s days.) This worked a little — but not always. Still, it had an impact, limited as it was. It echoes down the years through European tradition even into the twentieth century; there are cases in which temporary ceasefires have been declared over the Christmas holiday, as in the case of the Brits and the Germans in World War I. But obviously, this does not always happen.

Why did I tell this story? Because it provides a parallel to a project that the ancient Hebrew, levitical priesthood may have attempted around three thousand years ago.

Leviticus and Deuteronomy are immensely well-read books in Jewish traditions of reading, and Jews read these books very differently than anyone else does (and, in many cases, more intelligently, but that’s a topic for this other post to cover). Christians and secular Americans tend to ignore these books to the extent possible. Christians either choose not to read them (much) because they’re “dry” and because the topics addressed in the levitical code are so unsavory (rape of female war captives, for instance), or they may put strong emphasis only on selected passages (like the sentence about gay sex, for example). Secular readers tend to either withdraw from these texts in horror or seize on them as evidence of the latent evil in religion. (“See what your Bible says to do! It says to rape and commit genocide!” That is a comment I have heard quite often.)

Neither of these are very useful or informed approaches. They rely on a glib reading of levitical code as absolute, timeless instruction for religious readers, and by reading in that narrow way, they miss so much that’s important.

Suppose that you were part of a levitical priesthood three thousand years ago, living in the world we just described: roaming tribes coming into frequent conflict, cities being burned and rebuilt and burned again, ubiquitous slavery (which, for the ancients, was their alternative to genocide; they hadn’t yet come up with a third or fourth option for dealing with conquered peoples, to every historian’s sorrow; and one has only to look back at what was done to the Native Americans to realize that some of the third and fourth options we did come up with eventually were also atrocities), and the widespread capture and enslavement of foreign women. It was not, by modern standards, a very kind or just world. It was a mess. (I say “modern standards” to describe what we today expect, not what we have; we can probably each cite a number of occasions on which the “modern” world has proven as bad or worse.)

Now suppose that your priestly community is undertaking the long project of establishing and improving a legal code that you want twelve diverse tribes to adhere to and obey. There are appointed judges, there are now some rudimentary systems for trials and gathering witnesses, and you’ve taken a set of 10 proclamations (that you preserve on stone tablets, to last for all time, because stone is pretty durable) and a set of ethical propositions that are ascribed to divine origin, and you work out a system of over 600 laws. That’s pretty complex for that time. And those laws order and organize many facets of life, from agriculture (how long to leave a field fallow, for instance) to violent disputes (we’ll establish places of refuge where a fugitive and can flee for safety and demand a trial, and if their angry pursuer enters those places and kills the fugitive, that is an offense before God and an abomination) and combat (what restraints will we put around the treatment of war captives?).

Actually, why put any restraints at all?

Well, because the statements your God is recorded as having made (all human beings, male and female, are made in God’s likeness; the sabbath must be kept holy; blood spilled unjustly defiles the land, and the land must be kept holy; keep yourselves a people set apart, a just people; shelter the stranger in the land) are pretty radical, and you are tasked with somehow translating these religious and ethical precepts into actual laws and courses of action for your tribe.

If all people, male and female, are made in the likeness of God, what are the implications?

It means if I look in the eyes of another, I am looking into the eyes of another person who bears the image of God. That is a holy thing.

What does that mean for our tribe, which regularly takes women captive after a conflict? What if those women, too, are made in the likeness of God and have irreduceable and intrinsic value as God-created human beings?

If the spirit of your law is that we are all made in the image of God, the letter will be a flawed, real-world attempt to wrestle that into practice at a specific time, under specific conditions. The regulations we record in the Old Testament can be interpreted and read as just such a flawed attempt to put that spirit into practice in a world very different from our own. Deuteronomy 21 doesn’t say, unfortunately, “Don’t take women captive,” perhaps because no one thought of it or perhaps because taking women captive was too desirable in that culture, or perhaps because no one would actually have obeyed such a prohibition and there would have been no power to enforce it. Just like with the Pax Dei, the man holding the spear could simply laugh at your law and do as he pleased.

But maybe you can apply some restraints and give those restraints religious significance — warn the man that he must “fear God” and observe God’s ways. If that woman who is now a captive, who has witnessed and will suffer atrocities, is truly made in the likeness of God, then she cannot be treated trivially, the way one might, for example, treat a jewelled necklace that one has seized from the burning city, using it immediately or selling it to someone else for a high price. A woman and a jewelled necklace are not the same. There are no feminists in the ancient levitical priesthood — just men wrestling with the concept that a woman is made in the image of God. If that’s true, they propose, then you cannot simply seize her and then rape her. You must recognize, on some level, her humanity. You must grant her one month to mourn for her parents whom you have killed. You may not “go in to her” at that time. You may not force her to wear cosmetics or pretty clothes or show her off as a trophy to the other men, either. You must permit her the mourning customs of the time — shaving the head, wearing clothes of lament. Providing that month to a war captive becomes a law. It also might give the man who has seized her time to consider her slowly, to notice her weeping, time for her to speak to him and appeal to his empathy, time for the initial feeling of triumph and lust to dull and some empathy to develop. Or it might not; that could well be a too-comfortable illusion, something I would prefer to think because the idea of inflicting such suffering on others without empathy disturbs me deeply. As a father of two daughters, that kind of situation is barely comprehensible to me, and I am ill-equipped to understand it. So I must guard against wishful thinking. The likely fact is, that woman is eventually going to be raped and abused. It remains an atrocity.

But the levites make the attempt at restraint, just as the Catholics do with their Pax Dei. There must be some restraint. You must allow the captive her time of mourning. You must recognize her human need to grieve. And when you have, in the end, done as you will, if you then tire of her, the levites say, you mustn’t do any of the things that a tribal warrior three thousand years ago is most likely to do. You may not sell her to another or “treat her as a slave” — she is still a woman made in the image of God. “Let her go where she pleases,” the priests say. The levitical code tries to put in place some protections for these women, because they, too, bear God’s image. A war captive in 1100 BC is not the same as a seized ewe or cow. She has the right to grieve. She cannot be sold or kept as a menial work slave. Horrifyingly, many terrible things can be done to her, but not those things.

As with the Pax Dei and the Treuga Dei, I am a bit skeptical that the levitical regulations and restraints actually worked all that often.

This has been a long tangent, though I hope it has been interesting. The point is that the Hebrews who began writing what eventually became recorded as the Old Testament wrestled with tzelem elohim and with other statements that the priests said God had made. These ideas did not jive well with the circumstances of their world, in which top tribal priorities were often keeping the tribe pure from outsiders and gathering more resources.

Today, we typically choose to just ignore passages like the one we just examined (or we take them as literal instruction for us, and then we are justly offended or horrified). But there’s a way of reading (one that Conservative and Reformed Jews do, and that Christians arguably should do) where you look for the spirit of the text, and learn from watching the ancestors wrestle with how to put that spirit into action. As Paul is careful to note, the deeply flawed levitical code is not law for us; it is an ancient example that these issues need to be wrestled with. It is useful and instructive in that sense because those of us who are religious need to wrestle with tzelem elohim today, too, even as the levitical priests once did, and under cultural and political pressures that are different but no less difficult. Will we look into the eyes of children caged on the US/Mexico border and say, “These children are made in the likeness of God, human beings even as our own children are, and we must find a way to treat them accordingly.” Reacting to the Ferguson riots, a young woman told her mother (in the hearing of an author friend of mine at an airport in Florida), “Mamma, they’re animals. They’re just animals.” Well, no, they’re not. Whatever cultural drives or prejudices prompted her conclusion, it is incompatible with tzelem elohim. “They” are not “animals” in the sense that the young woman probably meant the word; they are human beings made in the image of the divine.

How does tzelem elohim affect the way we look at the violence in Ferguson, or in the Near East? These are uneasy questions that we are called to address — because right at the very start of the Bible, this is one of God’s first pronouncements, and one that the rest of the Bible continues to wrestle uneasily with. If we are religious readers, when we turn to Genesis 1, we can’t overlook it. We can’t leave it as a remainder.

Approaching the Word like Little Children

To recap: Deconstruction is the practice of taking apart our current understanding of what we’re reading, looking closely at the parts, and identifying what we’ve left out. A deconstructive reading opens our eyes to potentially important things we’ve missed. That’s why it’s not a mere academic exercise, and that’s why it can be really important (and useful) to Christians, who probably should be starting anyway from the base assumption that our current understanding is limited, that it’s prideful to “lean” unquestioningly on our own understanding, and that our language and our interpretations are necessarily flawed, fallen, and incomplete. When we are willing to deconstruct what we think we know and look for the remainder that our previous interpretation left behind, we find things like bara creation. We learn more deeply that God, from the beginning, has been calling the universe into life, purpose, and goodness, and expecting the universe (and us) to respond. And we are reminded that tzelem elohim stands at the very beginning of the Word and then resonates and troubles the rest of the Bible. Not only should we not just glide blithely by it; it could be central to how we choose to live out a life of “loving our neighbor.” If our only takeaway from reading Genesis 1 is to reinforce the established interpretation that it is all about the fact that God created the universe (and, to some minds, how long it took him to do so), we are missing so much of what’s there in Genesis 1, and so much that may be incredibly important to our lives, to our actions and values.

The purpose and function of deconstruction isn’t to destroy. It’s to take apart a flawed interpretation (which, because it’s flawed, might miss opportunities or even be dangerous). You might then reconstruct, developing a new interpretation that takes into account and is partly shaped by the remainder you’ve noticed. But, because you are a flawed human being using flawed, fallen language, it would be wise to realize that your new interpretation is also tentative and also deconstructible.

The interpretations I’ve shared above as examples are tentative and deconstructible. I am convinced that I have left things out. And I will look for those things when I read the text again or the next time I discuss it with someone. In fact, just now I’ve spotted something I missed in my thought-experiment with Deuteronomy 21. Those words “let her go where she pleases” are pretty vague. Her city might be burned to the ground; where will she go? Is she going with, or without, provision? Is she being simply abandoned? Is this one of the passages that Jesus responds to in the gospels, deconstructing the Pharisees’ teachings on divorce and arguing that it is a great injustice in the eyes of God to put one’s wife away (remember that Jesus was speaking to a century and a culture that had not yet invented alimony and in which employment for unmarried women barely existed, other than prostitution). Or is this passage unrelated to that? Perhaps some rabbinical scholar has explored the passage and can point me toward a new reading. Or perhaps I can look at the Hebrew words that we translated “let her go,” and there may be clues there. I don’t know what I would find if I looked into it; I don’t even know for certain whether I would find something useful; I would have to try and then see. It is just clear that this is something I have left out of my reading. I probably left other things out, too, and the reading I’ve given necessarily stands on shaky ground.

If we approach the Bible (or any other written text) with a willingness to deconstruct our previous interpretation, that is a humble act and may even be, for the religious among us, a devotional act. It is a way of letting go of our desire to master God and his word, and instead open ourselves to encountering God’s heart and his word anew, each day. It is a way of letting go of either our pride or our desperate need for certainty and saying, “God, I will not lean today on my own understanding. Before you, what I think I know is insignificant. I am going to approach your word and your kingdom like a small child, with questions and new eyes and a willingness to notice things for the first time. God, what do you want me to notice today?”

Stant Litore

Stant Litore is the author of The Zombie Bible, The Ansible Stories, The Running of the Tyrannosaurs, and Dante’s Heart — and is endlessly fascinated by religious studies. You can support his work — and get some amazing stories to read — by joining his membership on Patreon: www.patreon.com/stantlitore

Stant Litore on the Bible: How and Why I Read It

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Note: I am not a religious leader or an expert. I am a storyteller and am writing to satisfy the curiosity of my readers, who have said they would like to know what the author of The Zombie Bible has to say about The Holy Bible. Each of you must consider for yourselves how much merit my words have.

Stories that Live in Our Blind Spot
I write because I love stories, because I can’t go a day without telling a story or listening to a story. And as a child I encountered the Bible as a wondrous collection of shocking, horrifying, empowering, and troubling stories (sometimes, all four at once). When I embarked on The Zombie Bible, I wanted to share these stories, I wanted to make them new again, I wanted people not to walk past them but to live the horror and the wonder that I found when I read them. At the risk of sounding like a bully, I wanted to make readers cry.

I suspect that the majority of people in the U.S. ignore biblical stories. Religious people ignore these stories because, most often, they read merely for examples to corroborate or elaborate on what they’ve been taught. Secular people ignore these stories because, as a rule, they are unwilling to separate these ancient stories from the political slogans and agendas that refer back to them. To me, this is a tragedy. We are talking about one of our oldest and most diverse treasure-houses of stories, and it is the one such treasure-house that everyone talks about and no one really experiences.

These are horror stories and wonder stories, but we’ve largely forgotten that. In many cases, these stories were written to amaze us, or shock us, or move us. A crucifixion is horrific. A child sacrifice is horrific. These stories try to shock us awake and then invite us to ask really tough questions, necessary questions. I wanted to bring these stories to readers in such a way that they would horrify and amaze us again, move us again.

These stories deserve our attention, and we deserve the opportunity to let them touch our hearts and bring us to tears or anger or joy. We deserve to experience these stories as more than just political slogans or ‘life application’ self-help messages. The shock and grief of zombie horror is a way of letting us do that. It’s a way of taking us back out into the heart of the storm on the lake, to that moment when the waves are high and the sky is crushing us down with its dark weight, God is asleep, and we are hanging on to the gunwale for dear life, learning who and what we are.

How Not to Read (Seriously)
Let me try to explain what I mean more clearly. If you’re reading this, skip any part that gets tedious.

I think that most people, whether religious or secular, assume that you should read the Bible as one coherent narrative, novel, or history book. This is true whether you’re ransacking this text for a consistent religious doctrine or whether you’re trying to dismiss it in entirety.

But it isn’t one narrative.

It’s a whole nest of different texts from different times in which different people struggle to understand both God and humanity. Whether you “believe” in God or not — whatever your relationship (or lack thereof) to religion may be — the Bible provides a polyvocal record (a record consisting of many voices) of man’s developing understanding of man, ethics, and God.

This record opens with two ethical statements in Genesis 1:

  • God looked on creation and pronounced it to be “good.”
  • Male and female, we were each created in the likeness of the divine.

The thousand-odd pages that follow consist of 66 books (slightly fewer, slightly more, depending on which Bible) that debate these two ethical propositions (and others), across three continents (Asia, Africa, and Europe), three languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek), and nearly a millennium of writing. You have a collection of legal texts, historical chronicles, poems, sermons, letters, testimonies, hagiographies, collections of proverbs, and dream-stories that wrestle with what these ethical statements mean, what these statements imply about God or about people, and whether/how/in what ways these statements might be lived and practiced in real life.

The Bible is an ongoing wrestling match, not a plotline.

Let me give you an example.

Strangers in the Land
You probably recognize Strangers in the Land as the title of my third novel, a nightmarish story of zombies and genocide in 1160 BC. It also refers to one of the core ethical statements in the Old Testament, one repeated again and again throughout the book of Exodus. Moses the Lawgiver instructs the Hebrews that, as they were strangers in the land of Egypt, they must treat the stranger in their own land well. There must be one law, both for the home-born and for the stranger. Strangers’ rights must be protected, vigorously — because the Hebrews, too, were once strangers in a strange land, and because the Hebrew and the stranger are both made in the likeness of the divine.

Now this ethical proposition flies in the face of some of our most basic instincts. We would rather fear the stranger, wall the stranger out, or possibly get rid of them; we want to protect our own. But Moses says no, you have to “shelter” the stranger.

One way to read significant passages in the Old Testament is to read them as dozens of different views of how the Hebrews struggled with two directions that often appeared contradictory: Shelter the stranger on the one hand; on the other, keep your own people safe and secure as well as separate and sacred as a “chosen people.” An ethical conflict that we get to watch in action:

  • Exodus is the story of the wrath of God falling upon a nation that fails to shelter the stranger.
  • In Joshua, tribes of Israel invade the promised land, displacing strangers
  • In Ruth, a stranger from a strange land immigrates to Israel and is, at first, treated horribly — shunned by the Israelite women, starving, in danger of rape in the fields. Yet she is the heroine of the tale (and an ancestor of Jesus). The man who marries her is a man who goes out of his way to shelter the stranger.
  • In the erotic poem, Song of Solomon, the Shulammite bride is a stranger in the land, and she is not liked. Other women in the city taunt her; the watchmen find her in the night and beat her. Yet her lover and husband finds her breathtaking. The poem is a breathtaking song of their union.
  • In Daniel and Esther, the tribes again try to survive as strangers in someone else’s land, facing genocide, slavery, and several attempts simply to annihilate their language, their names, and their way of life.
  • In Ezra, a priest demands that the people of Israel, who have newly returned to the land and have taken strange wives, cast their wives away as strangers, shunning them.

And so on, back and forth. In some accounts, the view that is privileged is “shelter the stranger.” In others, the view that is privileged is reject the stranger — violently, if need be. In the New Testament (in Galatians), Paul says that there is no Greek, no Hebrew, no male, no female, no master, no slave in God’s sight. In other words, race, gender, and class are seen as arbitrary and manmade distinctions. But then Paul has to wrestle with how to make this practical. What if a Christian woman has married a man who worships the old gods? What then? He wrestles with the issue, indicating what he thinks is right, and concludes with the direction that his readers must search their own hearts.

They must wrestle with it.

As readers, these stories, poems, and letters invite us into the wrestling match. Because make no mistake, we have to ask the very same questions that were asked thousands of years ago. Are we to shelter the stranger? How does this impact our views on immigration? How does it effect what we do when our child brings home someone of another race for dinner?

“Who is my neighbor?” one listener asks Jesus, and gets a very uncomfortable story in response. Who am I responsible for loving and sheltering?

You can take any number of ethical statements proposed in the Bible, and watch it get wrestled with, generation after generation, story after story, letter after letter. The Bible is not a consistent plotline or a manual; it’s a record of centuries of intense wrestling and it is an invitation for us to wrestle — openly, honestly — with these ideas. Ideas that have shaped and troubled our world. Ideas that are radical and important.

He Wrestles with God
In fact, the word “Israel” literally means “He wrestles with God.”

Think about that.

I mean, really think about that.

What if reading the Bible is not an act of taking in information (which you may then either adopt or reject), but an act of wrestling? How might that be a different reading activity (maybe an exciting one — regardless of whether you are religious or not)? What if the reading experience is supposed to be tense and contradictory and sometimes laden with horror, and what if that isn’t a bad thing?

What are we wrestling with, when we read the Bible?

Well, God, clearly — regardless of whether or not God exists.

We’re also wrestling with ourselves — with our own assumptions.

And we’re wrestling with the dead. With our past, which always (if we ignore it) rises up to devour us.

Wrestling with the Dead
There is a 1800-year-old Judaic tradition of reading the Old Testament which stands in stark opposition to the literalism of modern fundamentalist Christianity (and of much modern reading, in general). This tradition survives today in the conservative movement in Judaism and rabbinical scholarship (not to be confused with what “conservatism” means in America). This tradition celebrates the text without treating it as some type of novel or character profile, but as a treasure-house of cultural stories from the ancestors that need to be questioned and wrestled with — precisely because how we approach these stories has an impact on who we are and how we decide who we need to be.

A reader in this tradition is expected neither to accept tales of genocide in the Old Testament nor to reject them, because both are irrelevant to the goal of reading: which is to engage with one’s ancestors, what they felt and believed and hoped and feared, to wrestle with your dead for a while, learn from them, and talk with them, as part of a dialogue through which we create or attain wisdom for the present.

Our dead are different from us — even though they, like us, may have endured exile and privation and even though they, like us, may have experienced love and loss. By listening to our dead, we become better able to listen to the living — who are also different from us.

Relearning How to Read
Unfortunately, we’re taught to mine the Bible for information or models for behavior; it is treated as a static document, rather like instructions on how to assemble a bookcase. Maybe it is recognized to be more difficult to read and interpret than the typical bookcase assembly instructions, but in the end, we treat it as that kind of document — except that we are what is being assembled — and we either accept or reject the Bible depending on whether we like the shape we think these instructions will assemble us into.

In fact, we’re taught to read almost everything that way. Unless we have escaped this trap either by means of voracious reading on our part or some college instructor’s insistence, we tend to read even works of great literature in search of their “moral” or their one right, or best, interpretation. We go into stories looking for their end result, whether that end result is “True love conquers all” or “A good man is hard to find” or “Christ will save your soul.”

We aren’t taught that reading can be an act of wrestling.

If you look at a standard, American Christian study bible (let’s say the ESV Study Bible — beautiful translation, awful study aid), what you find is text at the top of the page, and annotations at the bottom of the page, in which one preacher or editor footnotes difficult passages and explains exactly what they mean.

Ick.

I was shopping for a Bible once, in a religious bookstore, and the woman shopping next to me asked for my advice. “I want a study bible with clear notes,” she said, “so I’ll know what it means and I won’t have to think about it.”

She actually said that.

We’re most often taught to read this way — as though every question in the book has an answer and only one answer and one of our fellow human beings will tell us exactly what that answer is. Infallibly.

Let’s compare this to a rabbinical study bible — the Etz Hayim, a Hebrew/English parallel text with annotations at the bottom. It is laid out just like a Christian study bible. But there’s a big difference. The annotations at the bottom might footnote a difficult passage and then run through five examples of how different people have read that passage in different centuries. Some of it is brilliant. Some of it is beautiful. Some of it is thought-provoking. It’s all meant to prompt you to wrestle with the text yourself, to ask smart questions and figure out what it means, not be told what it means.

That’s a beautiful, intelligent, exciting way to read.

How Do We Get There?
I think we start by making the stories real again. Whether we start (or end) as religious or atheist or agnostic readers, if we’re going to read at all, we need to encounter the stories — not as chapters in a novel, but as hundreds of stories that are all tackling related questions.

We need to read about Ruth in the fields gleaning scraps of food, as a single woman with a widowed and ailing mother-in-law, and we need to feel her fear and her desperate hope.

We need to read Jeremiah’s words as he howls in the street about the child sacrifices on the Hill of Tophet, and we need to feel his horror when he cries, “I see the blood of children on your skirts!”

And we need to watch Ezra banish the women and let ourselves feel very, very uncomfortable. Not just dismiss it or explain it away. Actually look at it, wrestle with it. And then ask ourselves some hard questions.

We need to read and feel — not just let these stories be some kind of commercial for a political program, nor source texts for a troubling religious dogma that some of us feel obligated to disinherit, nor even a religious instruction manual that is all about us. We need to go to these stories as we go to a date, a tense but hopeful encounter with people who are both like and unlike us, people who are other than us, and let ourselves be drawn into their lives for a while.

These stories have made me cry. And laugh. And shiver.

And they have challenged me to seek deeper relationships with my fellow human beings, with the dead who came before me, and with God. They have helped me work out my faith and my tradition with fear and trembling.

They have invited me to ask tough questions.

I think that’s partly what they’re for.

Stant Litore

Stant Litore is the author of The Zombie Bible, The Ansible Stories, The Running of the Tyrannosaurs, and Dante’s Heart — and is endlessly fascinated by religious studies. You can support his work — and get some amazing stories to read — by joining his membership on Patreon: www.patreon.com/stantlitore