Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Another What If... Using "Scripture" to "Teach" "Ethics"... and a whole lot more

I saw an interesting item a week or so ago in the Fairfax press; an opinion piece by David Hill titled "Churches don't have monopoly on the good life" and tagged 'Ethics Courses as Alternative to Scripture Classes in Schools'. It seems there's been an experiment in the NSW education system, a trial providing weekly ethics courses for school students in the government education system who don't attend the weekly religious instruction classes provided by the churches. These RI classes are called scripture classes.

It seems that the trial was a success and the participating students really enjoyed the ethics classes. It went down so well that the churches, especially the Roman Catholic and Anglican denominations want the ethics classes to made available to all and not as an alternative to their scripture classes. In fact there seems to be a fear that the ethics classes might prove so popular that they even draw students away from the scripture classes so the churches have mounted a campaign called, very tellingly, Save Our Scripture.

Now I have no idea how these so-called scripture classes are run or what they're like. It's been a long time since my school days and I'd like to think things have changed a bit since then. What's more I was taught in the Catholic system, in my childhood by the Josephite nuns at the local convent school. Back in those days the entire education system, government and non-government, seemed designed to bore students so much that they would never get interested in anything to do with thinking and reflection. Religion was much the same. We had our penny catechism which we learnt off by heart - I've pretty much forgotten all of it now. We also had something called a Bible history which was an illustrated collection of stories from Old and New Testaments. It wasn't the actual text, however, just a retold version in the long tradition of children's bible story anthologies. As we got older the penny catechism was replaced by a more complex hard cover catechism and the bible history by a copy of Knox's Four Gospels translated from the Latin Vulgate. But we really didn't read that much scripture and what we read was embedded in a tight doctrinal matrix underpinned by the catechisms.

I'd assume that scripture classes wouldn't operate like that any more, at least for Catholics, and presumably Uniting Church and Anglicans. But then the Sydney Archdiocese is very conservative and then there are all those very conservative Protestant denominations (presumably the Orthodox and Jews and Muslims and other religions have their own 'scripture' classes too). So I wondered just how and how much scripture might actually be taught in these so-called 'scripture' classes; were they actually doing a very good job of turning the students off scripture altogether?

Maybe because I was Catholic and we Catholics didn't read Bibles in those days, and coming to biblical studies later in life, I have a much greater appreciation of these anthologies of texts called imperially The Bible and I realise just how important these stories, these collections of narrative and poetry and polemic, actually are, not least in cultural terms. And so I began entertaining another what if...

What if 'scripture' was used in schools as a basis to teach ethics and a range of other stuff too. I'm not talking about religious instruction, mind. Far from it. No, what I imagine is something like a regular reading group where students from the start of their schooldays would read the text in an atmosphere where they would be encouraged, according to what I understand (from a rabbi I used to know) is the best of Jewish tradition, that is to always ask why, what is going on here whenever they see something odd, puzzling, shocking or even boring in the text. Because lets face it, there's some pretty wild and puzzling and quite outrageous stories in these scriptures (and some boring bits too) and I think stories like these are the best for ethical reflection not to mention stretching the imagination.

English is the main language of Australia and so I would make the King James Bible, the text for this enterprise. That way students can be introduced to the rich cadences of the language, but which, being some four centuries old, will contain words and usages that are alien. It would also have to be the King James with the so-called Apocrypha, so as to cross over most of the various biblical canons, not just the standard Protestant one. What I envisage is not a denominational exercise. Furthermore I would want the students to read a good English translation of the Qur'an alongside the Bible. That way they can learn how the biblical stories have been retold and live on in Islamic cultures, too, making the stories and characters central to the imaginative life of a plethora of cultures, Christian and Islamic as well as Jewish, over time and space.

My childhood was in the days before Vatican 2 and so I lived then in the world of the Latin Mass. While I don't necessarily miss it as such, I am grateful for spending my childhood in a religious culture with another language to English. As kids we weren't taught Latin but we were schooled in the Latin Mass; we learnt the Latin responses and we could see what they meant in the English translation in our missals. I think that, albeit limited, bi-lingual environment was enriching. Jews and Muslims read their scriptures in Hebrew or Arabic putting them in a similarly enriching bi-lingual environment (even for Arabs - the classical Arabic of the Qur'an is different to the modern Arabics spoken today). Studying the Bible can also create an enriching multi-lingual environment, not just because the King James uses an older form of English but because the stories were composed and transmitted in several different ancient languages. So when the students read Genesis 1.1 in the King James - In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth - they can also be introduced to the older Hebrew, Greek, Latin forms of the text

Bereshit bara elohim eth hashamayim w'eth ha-arets

En arche epoieisen ho theos ton ouranon kai tein gein
('ei' pronounced as in vein or neigh)

In principio creavit deus caelam et terram

They can also be introduced to the Arabic opening - In the name of God/Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful - of the Qur'an too

Bismillahi r-rahman r-rahim

Both the Hebrew scriptures and the Qur'an are sung or chanted texts and so in the first couple of years the students can both read in English and sing or chant in Hebrew and Arabic or at least listen to these texts sung and chanted (and chanted in Latin and Greek too). And so they become exposed to other languages, their linguistic repertoire is expanded. And there is indeed a whole rich world of music around these texts that they can be introduced to, as well as a world of art, film and literature. The biblical world on the internet is vast as is the Qur'an's internet world. Scripture classes can also become great vehicles to teach young people how to work the world of the internet.

As for ethics, well lets start with the Genesis creation stories. Read together with their versions in the Qur'an opens up the world of plurality already but if the school's students are multi-ethnic and multi-faith then it enables the opportunity to share stories from outside the biblical/quranic matrix, Hindu stories, Buddhist stories, Chinese and Japanese stories, and, most importantly in Australia, indigenous stories. If the school is more 'mono' in its faith and ethnic profile then there remain the stories from Greek and Roman and Egyptian and other related mythology too. I remember learning about the Greek myths in the local convent school; for the life of me I can't remember why we learned those stories but we did. What I'm getting at here is cultivating an ethics of listening and sharing and appreciating difference. The Jewish tradition of the midrashim can further reinforce how the biblical stories have been retold and reworked, added to, enhanced, to thus foster an ethics of creativity and, again, appreciation of plurality.

As the students get older then the ethical questions get more interesting, more challenging. In Genesis 1, the text repeats the refrain 'and God saw that it was good' as the great tone poem of creation unfolds. Can we say that the universe is good? What does it mean to say that? Is the universe bad? or indifferent? What then are the implications? There are other ethical questions in Genesis 1 too. How do humans relate to, engage with the rest of the earth? Is it just there for us to exploit any way we like? Related to that is the fact that the vision of human life in Genesis 1 is a vegetarian one - 'Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat' (1.29). So what are the ethics of our treatment of animals? The Genesis text already provides a means for opening up discussion of some pretty weighty ethical issues. And then there is also 'God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them' and 'Be fruitful, and multiply' - how do we go about the ethics of gender and sexuality. And that's just in the first chapter!

These themes get reprised again in the Eden stories along with another biggie, truth and falsehood. Who's telling the truth and who's lying in these stories? God? the serpent? Eve? Adam? And we're still only three chapters in. The rest of the biblical world is bursting with stories that raise a suite of further ethical issues. Power is a big one, not just with David and Solomon and the kings, there's also Joshua and Ezra and then the whole deployment of power in the Gospel narratives. David Hill gives as reasons why parents don't want their children to attend scripture classes 'Others complain that little children should not be traumatised by stories of the crucifixion or the threat of spending eternity ''burning in hell''.' The crucifixion is ugly, terrible, vile, that's the whole point. The story in its various forms raises a suite of ethical issues about power, its deployment, how to respond to it. As a child I was horrified by Herod's massacre of the infants of Bethlehem. Power continues to be used every day to destroy people in brutal ways - and these stories remind us of that fact. And, as with the case of the Hebrew midwives in Exodus, they remind us that people can resist such power too. As for hell, well that's an interesting ethical conundrum in itself, one which I've discussed elsewhere on this blog. While there's little or no hell in the Old Testament and not that much in the New either, an allied question is the ethics of divinity in the scriptures. God is a character in these stories and therefore should not be exempt from criticism or ethical evaluation. Does God's behavior through the Flood, at Sodom and Gomorrah, does such behavior give warrant for genocide? And what about holy war and the ban, the massacre of Canaanite and Amalekite?

And then there is the whole tangled web of gender and sexuality. The love lives (or more appropriately sex lives) of Abraham and Jacob and Samson and David and Solomon, and the poetics of rape and abuse in the prophets, just to name some. What can be made of Jephthah's daughter or the concubine at Gibeah? This is not a Brady Bunch world of sugar and schmaltz (let alone Father Knows Best) but a bizarre and frightening and ethically problematic world, the perfect space to exercise and cultivate ethical reflection. And this world does not exist in a vacuum either. There is more than two thousand years of Jewish, Christian, Muslim and other ethical debate and reflection around these stories. Was Lot right to offer his daughters to the mob? Jewish tradition offers an unequivocal 'no' but Christians and Muslims, are not so clear cut. Augustine's discussion of whether Lot was right or wrong to do so is a text that should be studied and evaluated in developing an ethical framework. Was Augustine right or wrong in his conclusions? And was Augustine uncomfortable with them? I think Augustine was wrong but I also think he wasn't happy with the conclusion he had reached or, at least, understood it was problematic.

Now I'm not proposing that students in grade 1 read Augustine. He, along with other Christian theologians and mystics and heretics, Gnostics, rabbis and kabbalists, sheikhs and imams and sufis, philosophers and the odd few Marxists, Freudians, feminists and other ratbags would come later as the students got older. They would be progressively introduced to these people throughout their school lives, along with the novelists, poets, dramatists, artists, composers and film-makers via the Bible and the Qur'an (which would be read beside the biblical texts in every class on scripture). Through the study of scripture students would be put in conversation with a wide variety of people, thinkers/artists, not just within the English language tradition but from a broad spectrum of cultures around the world and from across the last two to three thousand years.

To highlight the global and pluralist dimensions of these scriptures I had considered banning the adherents of the religions based on them - Christians, Jews, Muslims, Bahais, Druze, modern-day Gnostics, (and where do the Sikhs fit? [1]) - from having any role in teaching them. I would also include all those vigorous atheists of the Dawkins and Hitchens variety who by so striving to discredit these texts, in their very rejection make themselves as uncritically captive to these texts and hidebound as any fundamentalist Baptist or Salafi. So the teachers would have to be indigenous Australians or members of other primal indigenous traditions, Hindus, Parsis/Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Daoists, Shintoists, Jains, Cao Dai, etc, (and where do the Sikhs fit? [1]). I must admit I rather like that idea (even if it precludes such as myself). But then I felt that perhaps Jews should be excepted in honour of the rabbi who stressed to me that you must never be reluctant to ask why when you read these texts. So I have changed my mind. Instead I think the classes should be taught by a team of at least two, of whom at least one must come from a religio-cultural tradition not shaped by this Middle Eastern scriptural/religious matrix. Thus the cross-cultural dialogic framework can be reinforced. The other guideline then that I would place on these teaching teams is that it is okay for the teachers to disagree, even strongly disagree on any reading or evaluation of the stories and characters. Such disagreement could even be encouraged, so long as it was respectful. Here I'm mindful of the old saw 'put two Jews together and you will have three opinions'. And I guess I can't help but think of the yeshiva practice where young Jews argue and debate scripture as they study it and where in these debates if one party exhausts an argument the other party will help them to resume it by working out a critique of their own opposing position.

Obviously such secular teaching of scripture in every year of school could not then be the preserve only of the government school system. No, such teaching of scripture would have to become an integral part of the entire schooling system, public and private, secular and faith-based, school based and distance and somehow as part of home-schooling operations too. Indeed it would provide an essential corrective in schools run by more fundamentalist faith communities, Christian and otherwise.

Of course I realise this is a utopian vision and given the timorous and blinkered petit bourgeois mindset that dominates the politics of this country, as evidenced by the current election, these utopian imaginings have as much chance of success as a snowflake's in Hell (the old-fashioned traditional variety of Hell anyway). But given the singular importance of these scriptures in world history and imagination, not to mention our own Anglo cultural-linguistic trajectory, I don't think they deserve anything less. What's more I don't think children, young people deserve anything less either. These are the stories of their ancestors, of our ancestors, even much moreso now that we are a multi-cultural, multi-faith, multi-lingual society. These stories bring contemporary young people into conversation with those ancestors across two to three thousand years. These stories reveal to them the imaginary framework of their culture/s and language/s. And these stories give them the opportunity to enrich, explore and expand both their imaginative horizon and their ethical framework. Thus, I would suggest, they may become more fully human, surely the prime goal of any meaningful education.

[1] Not to mention Mandaeans and Yezidis.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

What If? Not Jerusalem but Samaria is the birthplace of the Bible

In between the depressive moments and my community/other commitments I've been reflecting a bit on the history of biblical religion or more precisely on how biblical religion and the corpus of texts that generate it got going. As part of that reflecting I had a little 'what if' moment that I want to share here. What if Jerusalem and its Temple are not the site for the origins of the bible scriptures but somewhere else? Samaria, perhaps?

Before I spell it out I want to first off reprise the standard, dare one say 'traditional', understanding of how the texts we call biblical/Old Testament came to be. In the Bibles used by Christians and Jews, whatever else one can say, Jerusalem and its Temple are so very central. One could say the Old Testament collections are really arguing about who should be in control of Jerusalem and its Temple. These arguments occur again in the New Testament collections which go on to say that the days of Jerusalem are over and that the Christian community gathered together is the New Temple, a Temple of the Spirit to replace the Temple of Stone. But that Temple of Stone was in Jerusalem and the new Christian regime is signified by a New Jerusalem that comes down from heaven, a New Jerusalem with no need for a Temple of stone.

This scriptural centrality of Jerusalem is such that in the various hypotheses of the origins of these texts, it's always assumed that the biblical enterprise begins in Jerusalem. The classic example is the documentary hypothesis of the origins and composition of the Torah, the 5 books of Moses, at the heart of Tanakh and Old Testament. The first version of the Torah, the famous book of J, is composed and written by the mythical Yahwist in Jerusalem sometime around when David or Solomon were supposed to have reigned. Deuteronomy, the D or Deuteronomist component, is likewise believed to have been composed in Jerusalem, and 'traditionally' understood to be the scroll of the Law found in the Temple in Josiah's day, prompting him to undertake a major reform and centralisation of the cult in the last days before the Babylonian conquest. Post-Babylon the Torah collection is further revised and edited by priests in Jerusalem, the P or Priestly component. At some stage, however, following the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel/Samaria, refugees from the north brought their own traditions which were also incorporated into the growing Torah corpus, the E or Elohist component, at some stage before the days of Josiah. The north then is ancillary to the whole process which is understood as being located in Jerusalem. Biblical minimalists, too, locate the entire process of Torah composition in a Persian or Hellenistic period Jerusalem.

The curious thing, though, is that there is no clear reference Jerusalem or its holy mountain, Zion, anywhere in the Torah, with the possible exception of the story of Melchizedek of Salem in Genesis 14, to which I will return later. On the other hand, various northern sanctuaries and even the Samaritan holy mountain, Ha Gerizim, are both present and important sites in the Torah. Mt Gerizim and its twin or sister peak, Mt Ebal, appear in Deuteronomy itself (11.29, 27.12), a text generally understood as representing the platform or core agenda of the Jerusalem-only trajectory in the scriptures and presumably of a Jerusalem based party in the period of composition. In Deuteronomy and again in Joshua (8.33) Mt Gerizim is clearly a site of considerable significance for the Israelites, a place of meeting for cultic obligations laid down by Moses himself.

As for Melchizedek, while nowadays it's generally accepted that the Genesis story is a reference to Jerusalem, Samaritan tradition understands Salem to have been at Shechem at the foot of Mt Gerizim. Curiously both in early Christianity and early Judaism Salem is identified with Shechem and there are stories of Melchizedek as a king of the north and not of Jerusalem. In part, this identification of Salem and Shechem is made possible by the Hebrew of Genesis 33.18, 'and Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem', the word for 'safely' is salem. Consequently, the Latin, Greek and Syriac versions of the text say 'and Jacob came to Salem, the city of Shechem'. Samaritans identify Mt Gerizim with Mt Moriah the site where Abraham took Isaac for sacrifice; Jews of course identify it with Mt Zion. The Binding of Isaac is not historical, of course, but a myth deriving from ancient Temple theologies of sacrifice, so the location of any (central) temple will likewise be the location for the events of the myth (just as, for Muslims, Mecca is the site for Ibrahim's binding of Ismail, the same mythic pattern).

It used to be thought, following Josephus, that the Temple in Jerusalem was the first to be rebuilt, in the Persian period, with the Samaritans only building theirs on Mt Gerizim in the time of Alexander the Great. Archeology has given the lie to that. It would appear that the re/building of both Temples began at about the same time early in the Persian period. Likewise it would appear from the evidence of the ancient Jewish community at Elephantine in southern Egypt, that both Jerusalem and Samaria were recognised as authoritative centres for Jews (or would it be better to designate these communities as Yahweh worshippers?).

What's been most interesting for me in my reading is to discover that, geographically, the northern regions of Samaria are much richer country for farming and other activities, than the southern regions of Judah/Yehud. The imaginative centrality of Jerusalem obscures that fact. Judah began as a poor client kingdom of the much richer Israel/Samaria/House of Omri in the north. And it would seem that the Persian province of Yehud and its capital, Jerusalem, were likewise much poorer than the province of Samaria to the north. So to return to my what if, what if the origins of the biblical process lay in Samaria, and specifically, the Temple at Mt Gerizim, and not Jerusalem. What if the great stories of Eden, Noah, Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Bilhah and Zilpah and Rachel, Joseph and his brothers and sister, Moses and Miriam and Aaron and Joshua, have their origins entirely in the north and not the south? What if the process of scripture/Torah composition began at Ha Gerizim but expanded into a bigger collaborative exercise incorporating the other sanctuaries of 'Israelite' religion. I have been thinking for a while that one of the factors important to the transformation of ancient Palestinian religion into Judaism(s), Samaritanism(s?), Christianity, Gnosticism, Islam, Bahai etc, was the critical question, what does a cult focused on a local king-priest (a Melchizedek) do when the local kings have gone, to be replaced by a distant imperial ruler of a world empire, in which once local cults have to face realities of globalisation and diaspora. In part this process, may well have been initiated by the colonisers, the imperial power itself (hence the generally positive image of the Persians in the Hebrew scriptures). But I think that the colonised took advantage of the process making it a sort of pas de deux, or even a pas de trois.

Somewhere along the way, there was a falling out between north and south. Perhaps the centralising logic of Deuteronomy, prompted a radical pre-emptive and defensive strike on the part of Jerusalem against its wealthier and more prestigious partner to the north. So Jerusalem set out to further develop the story but with Jerusalem at the heart of it all., not Ha Gerizim and, furthermore, to traduce all those sacred centres of the north that are so important to the sacred story of Genesis and even Joshua. That way Jerusalem successfully resisted control or worse from the north. Or maybe Jerusalem's motive was a far more mundane matter of cashing in on the pilgrim trade. Jerusalem and Yehud is poor and pilgrims bring money. We have plenty of examples in the ancient world of Temples with an international appeal. The Temple of Artemis in Ephesus was one such rich and internationally popular sanctuary. And certainly Jerusalem has known many periods of prosperity all thanks to its centrality in the religious imagination of countless numbers of people.

Sadly however, the Temple at Ha Gerizim lost out in the struggle and was finally destroyed at the behest of a Jerusalem high priest and de facto king, almost 130 years before Christ. But the people whose faith was centred on that northern sanctuary held on to their scriptures, the Torah of Moses. Their numbers would gradually dwindle in the face of Roman (the Samaritans joined with the Jews in the first Jewish War against Rome 66-72CE), Christian (the Samaritans rebelled unsuccessfully against the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire several times in the 5th and 6th centuries and were brutally suppressed by Emperor Justinian) and Muslim power (in the centuries of Muslim rule they suffered periodic forced conversions), to the tiny handful that they are. But the greatest tragedy is that they would never be credited with that immense achievement in human religious imagination (and to which they cling tenaciously) the Torah, the 5 Books of Moses.

Of course, it might not have been like that but what if...

Monday, July 12, 2010

After the Eclipse

There was a solar eclipse early this morning a little while before dawn, my time. Eclipses, solar and lunar, are important in astrology and this one took place in my sun sign, Cancer, and made a variety of connections in my chart. It fell in my third house of communications and so maybe it's no surprise that I have a strong urge to write today. What's more surprising for me is that the urge is about more personal stuff even though I have a lot of thoughts/ideas on biblical, sexuality and political issues calling out to me, wanting me to play with them in this public space.

When I set up this blog, almost 18 months ago now, it wasn't set up to be a personal site where I talk about my life and my self and all the various dramas that crop up as they do. And it's certainly not meant to be a site where I vent and rant and rage about whatever is upsetting me at the time. Far from it; the purpose of this site is basically to research my thoughts, as my friend and teacher, Ed Conrad, would put it. Ed would tell all his research students that we don't know what we know until we start writing about it. That's why teaching and research go so well together. Just the other day, a friend of mine made the astute comment that the more one knows about something the more one is impelled to teach it. Teaching is a way of gathering thoughts together into clumps called classes. She also understood, too, that often the best way to learn something is to actually teach it.

So this blog is a place where I try to find out about what I know. I've rehearsed ideas here for a number of essays and articles I've been working on. It's a place where I reflect upon what I've read,where I tease out and play with ideas. But the beauty of the blog medium is that it's a public space, each blog is part of a network of blogs doing the same sort of stuff. We can read each other and comment on each other, something analogous to a seminar or a classroom (the ideal classroom perhaps). A blog is kind of a combination of a journal/magazine and a conference. On my blog, I've been exploring my ideas, finding out what I know, playing with my thoughts, sharing my ideas, learning from others, while at the same time others learn from me too (at least so I'm told by the feedback I get).

At the same time I haven't tried to avoid the personal either. I learnt early on that bracketing out the personal is not necessarily conducive to clarity of thought. We are all subjects with specific frameworks of perception and experience. Rather than deny such frameworks, it can be enriching to acknowledge them and deploy them consciously. That's the particular talent of queer readings of texts; it's also been one of the important attributes of feminist criticism and reflection. And I remember for a time there was something called autobiographical criticism, at least in biblical studies, the merging of the personal with the theoretical to engage with the text. The texts of our lives can be just as important as any other text.

Not that I'm planning to do that in this post. No, what I'll be doing is looking at my life, reflecting on my situation to find out what I know, to see if I have a narrative that makes sense, to just take stock. And when I get to the end I hope I will publish it, not least, so that all of you who know me can get a better sense of what's been going on with me, especially if I've seemed a bit odd or distant, and certainly in terms of blogging, much quieter of late.

A week ago I turned 58. As it's said in French, I have 58 years... behind me (and a few more days, a week now too). The older one gets, I guess, the more birthdays serve as times for reviewing one's life, of pondering where to from here. In my case, my birthday serves as a reminder of just how anomalous I am, or as another friend of mine would put it, just what a misfit, how queer, I am. Friends of mine roughly about my age are planning their retirements, some already have retired. In my case though, retirement is the last thing on my mind. However the work I want to do, the work I'm most equipped to do is just not available. I'm talking about academic work and by work I don't just mean a job you do to get some money in, I'm talking about what can be termed a career, or maybe a vocation. The word career too often today is associated with climbing up the workplace or professional hierarchy, not something I'm all that interested in as such. So I'll go for the word vocation.

When I went to university back in the early 90s I went for two reasons. First of all I needed a rest after the years with the AIDS Council, especially as QuAC at that stage had gone in a direction that I considered problematic. But my enthusiasm was excited when I discovered Studies in Religion at uni. I knew more than anything else that was the area I wanted to study. In terms of sexuality, homosexuality, it was a key area for maintaining and transforming attitudes and social norms and I still think that. At the same time, in those days there was a burgeoning in LGBT/sexuality studies courses and a rush of theory, most notably queer theory, and a by then well-established feminist and gender scholarship too. I didn't plan to but ended up in biblical studies, Old Testament studies particularly, when the discipline was undergoing an exciting and dare I say liberating paradigm shift from an older and unicentric historical critical theoretical model to a pluralistic, polycentric, multi-vocal, not model, but milieu. It was an exciting time, but a time which I can safely say is now almost dead.

I've watched that death over the last few years as one by one the courses disappear and the positions too. I've watched as departments and schools and study programs have gone. I subscribe to the Chronicle of Higher Education Job Search Agent which has given me a ringside seat at the decline of various disciplines, not just biblical studies, in North America. Various terms have been used to describe the processes, the assault on the humanities, the death of the humanities, the corporatisation of universities etc etc. Back in 2008 I was at the SBL International Meeting in Auckland and a number of people were talking jokingly about setting up biblical studies communes, where all us unemployed biblical scholars could live together and support each other as we continued our biblical studies work. I guess, a kind of farming commune cum biblical studies research centre, which has a certain kind of appeal. Monasteries must have been a bit like that once upon a time. Mind you a modern biblical studies commune would have to have a broad base to incorporate all the adjunct theoretical and associated disciplines that are part and parcel of engaging with biblical texts today.

The only places where biblical studies survives seem to be church/religious institutions which for obvious reasons are not places that will employ the likes of me. And there's not really much that interesting coming out of most of them either. Instead the text is kept tame for denominational purposes. All very vanilla and white bread really except for those fundamentalist universities and colleges over in the USA which crop up every once in a while on the job lists to remind you that in the hierarchy of knowledges, LGBT concerns are pretty much out there with the garbage. Certainly not vanilla, those. I doubt that there is anything culinary that can adequately describe them.

So over the last few years, I've soldiered on with an almost reckless tenacity, applying and applying and applying. In the meantime, I've survived on sessional work over the years apart from a really bad patch I went through in 2004. I was quite burnt out and depressed then following a very intense 2003, after finishing the PhD, which I spent editing the dissertation for publication and working on a number of other publishing projects, all the while surviving on next to nothing through sessional teaching. Then from 2005 onwards more and more my sessional work was doing organising with the University based National Tertiary Education Union rather than any teaching. Union work really exposed me to the dark side of University life. Corporatisation has centralised power at the top as well as the imposition of a regime of quite intense micro-management for all staff. And at a time of restricted resources, such regimes tend to make life quite unpleasant for everyone caught up in them. I've seen it before at other times in my working life and I saw it again in the universities I worked at. If there's not outright bullying then there's a constant buckpassing which only barely stops short of scapegoating. There's been quite a few times over the last few years doing organising work when I've had to draw on my experience of telephone counselling back in my AIDS Council days, because I was dealing with deeply distressed and demoralised members who had had enough or had their backs to the wall and turned to the union for help.

My purpose in telling all this is to show that I had really started to wonder whether academic work, university work in general, was really worth the effort. This was 2008. By July of that year, I'd finished a long stint of union work at two different universities. I'd decided to go to that SBL conference in Auckland, which for me felt like a homecoming after a long absence. The rest of the year I had some writing commitments to complete and so I stayed out of the job market to do so; I had enough money saved from all the union work to keep me going. (Before then, between the union gigs, I'd been exploring the broader job market as well as the academic one). And I'd decided that 2009 would be the year in which things would open out one way or another. After all we had the new Labor gov't and there was going to be more resources for higher education flowing through.

It turned out I was right about 2009 but not in the way I expected. I kicked off this blog which I guess gave me more of a profile, linking me much more directly into the world of biblical studies. It also brought an old friend back into my life. I also knew that early last year there was a significant astrological event in my chart taking place to do with career and public profile. Sure enough on the very day in question I was rung out of the blue and offered sessional work at a university here. This pattern continued in the middle of the year with both sessional university and union work offered me out of the blue. I was also being sounded out for some more long term but sessional teaching work at another local institution and a couple of other Australian academic jobs in biblical studies were also advertised in apparently secular institutions. (Many secular universities offer religion courses only through partnerships with denominationally based colleges, making them only quasi-secular).

So it seemed that maybe, just maybe things might be turning around careerwise. At the same time the revived friendship was getting very close - intense might be a good way of putting it. I don't think I've ever had the kind of intellectual rapport with anyone that I had with him then. If I fell in love with him, and I probably did, it was probably for his mind or maybe his ethics. But falling in love, any sort of romantic relationship was not what he wanted and that was fine with me. The friendship was most important; I already had a model in my life of someone, a long time friend, who had once fallen in love with me. And there are friends I have who I had fallen in love with once upon a time but the friendship has continued despite that. Falling in love, is probably an all too common pain or pang of close and long-term friendship. The friendship, though, should take first priority.

There are two other themes important for last year. Loss, grief, death is one. As regular readers might remember I launched the blog just after the deaths of two friends. One death was sudden, unexpected, heart attack. He was a few years younger than me too. The other was my old friend and astrological twin, Colin. His wasn't unexpected although it happened more quickly than I had hoped. As well as being AIDS workers and AIDS activists together back in the old days, Colin and I had shared a house with a third person for about 8 years up until 2003. That other person had died, unexpectedly, almost two years to the day before Colin's death. It was as if a whole slab of my life had been deleted. That was thrown into sharper relief because many of the people who had been regularly visiting that household in those years were themselves also dead. And that time of year, late January through early March, seems to be compacted with anniversaries of the dead. A long ago boyfriend of mine had also died unexpectedly in February three years before Colin's death and there have been other deaths around that time in the last few years too. These issues of loss and grief came back again later last year when my mother had a big health scare too involving hospitalisation and some surgery end of September.

The other theme that unfolded late in the year might be called the craziness of friends. I'm not certain what it was but all of a sudden a lot of friends of mine were having crises. Some were also friends of my flatmate and so the home space got drawn into some of this vortex of crisis too. I won't go into those details here but for a while I seemed to be in a web of fallings out and reconciliations and other strange dramas. Sometimes they were happening right there at home in front of me. The dramas over St Mary's South Brisbane got involved too as some of these friends, like myself, had returned there to give support after the departure of Peter Kennedy.

Writing and reviewing all of this brings home to me just what a stressful time I was facing by the second half of last year. So , in hindsight, it's probably no wonder that by November I was unravelling. By that stage the various long term academic job prospects had bombed. One of them, which I thought might have been particularly promising, bombed out in a very messy way as far as the institution itself was concerned, showing itself to be in the grip of rather old -fashioned theological agendas. I presume they've resolved that mess by now - they re-advertised the job again several months ago - perhaps not. But the long and the short was that I was face to face with a dead end while all around me people seemed to be going crazy.

I can't work out when I tipped over the edge myself. Certainly by the start of November I was unravelling badly. Thing was, nobody saw it. It was more a kind of staged implosion than anything dramatically spectacular as was happening with some of my friends. I was walking almost manically at that time. I can't believe the amount of walking I was doing then and I lost weight dramatically. A union friend was shocked when she saw me in December by how much weight I'd lost since she last saw me in September. I fobbed it off by joking about getting fit but really it was due to all this manic energy which drove me to walk and walk and walk. I don't know how I kept working at the time - clearly this was a controlled implosion - but I did. By November and December it was union work again to do with collective bargaining with an intransigent management; I was helping to organise industrial action. So the workplace itself was a pretty intense environment too - perhaps the perfect cover for what was happening to me and an outlet for some of the energy ripping me apart.

Only one person saw some of what was happening, my friend who had come back into my life earlier last year. In fact, he was copping the shrapnel so he had no choice. In my mind I had elevated him into a central of point of signification. Everything was falling apart around me, everything was crazy, except for the relationship with him. It was as if I was drowning or plumetting into the abyss and all I could see to hang on to was him. Of course no one can sustain themselves under that sort of overdetermination so he finally shut me out completely from his life. That was my Hollywood slap, as I term it, the slap that silences the frantic babbling hysteric. It silenced me, it didn't stop me walking, but it put my entire inner life into a complete shutdown. It was almost as if I was an automaton, a walking automaton, always walking but everything else was still. Numb.

That was early December. My work contract was scheduled to finish a couple of weeks later around when I was due to start some housesitting for a month or so over Christmas and New Year. The work kept me occupied, a handy distraction in fact. The solitude from the housesitting was most important. The first week there I was still working so it was a good transition too. I could, at last, attend to some of the crisis that had swept me away. As well as the solitude, what also helped was the prospect of more union work around February with the potential of it being long-term too. That probably helped ease much of the anxiety. I hadn't actually decided that I would take it up if it did become available but it was a fixed point on the terrain where before there was nothing.

Instead I had to deal with the grief, the mourning of a shattered friendship, a friendship which I had trashed. So along with grief was guilt. Such guilt. And I had to try and work out what had happened. I was depressed and so exhausted. I'd even stopped all the walking. If you check out the blog for the period you'll see I put up one post for December, the day before New Year's eve. I'm surprised to see I could get 8 posts up in January. Even more surprising is that I got up 7 posts in November when I was, to coin a term, barking mad, manic. I must re-read them sometime to see how they measure up although my memory of them is that, in the main, they were pretty good. Probably they demonstrate how bifurcated I had become back then (and maybe there is a certain manic quality to writing itself).

Grief, so much grief. Horror, too, at what had happened. I had become this crazy monster. The worst thing was that this monster was channelling, drawing from my best instincts. I could tell that something was wrong happening to my friend, that there was some sort of problem and I wanted to give my friend some kind of support. But the problem was me. As I said, he was copping the shrapnel from my implosion and the more I could see the shrapnel heading his way, the more anxious I was becoming which was, itself, generating even more shrapnel. I think there were some lucid moments when I could see something of what was really happening, but the maelstrom just drew me back in. I was in a vortex of doubt, such that moments of clarity would quickly be called into question.

That I wrote so much here in January surprises me because I am conscious that at the time I was trying to work out what had happened, to be able to give an account, to describe it to myself. Time and again I would sit down and try to write something but I couldn't. So I think of that time, of all of this year, in fact, as a time of writer's block. I was able to send my friend a message, a short message to apologise just at the end of the year. Whether he got it, whether he read it, I don't know. I've not heard from him, I don't expect to. I think that perhaps back then I was also resisting the temptation to enmesh an apology within an explanation so I kept the apology as brief as possible. He deserves both but taken together explanation can appear as special pleading, or worse, justification. Whether my thinking that is one more form of that overwhelming doubt that pulled me to pieces back in November I can't tell. Whatever might be the case, it certainly constrained me from writing about what had happened, describing it firstly, above all, to myself.

But I know that I need to write about it, to tell it and thus reconcile it before I can do anything else, to achieve any sort of healing. That I can write so much now is astonishing me, I'm hoping it's a sign that I'm finally coming out of the crisis. Because, well, it didn't end then. That union job prospect did come through and I did decided to go for it. My friend and union colleague, who spotted my weight loss, quit to start a PhD. So off I went to work in her old job. I'd worked at that university twice before with her, the last time in August/September last year to help her out with her industrial campaign around collective bargaining. So I knew the place well and liked the people in the branch. Shortly after I started in February, the job was advertised and I applied for it. The selection process took some time because there was another job advertised, too, at another university. Some of the applicants had applied for both - I'd only applied for one - so both had to be resolved together. Finally in early April, just before Easter, I received a call from the State Secretary, saying that I was unsuccessful, I'd missed out by a 'cigarette paper thin margin'. How thin the margin doesn't really matter because in the end you've still missed out. So needless to say mine was not a very happy Easter. Luckily I had a very short housesitting gig over that long weekend because I would not have been good company at home, plus I really needed time to myself. And fortunately, too, the weekend after Easter I came here to start this current long housesitting gig that I'm doing.

I stayed in the job until the end of April to hold the fort until the new person started and to do a handover, settle them in. That wasn't as difficult as it sounds. The new person was another old friend of mine from undergrad days (Brisbane can be such a village sometimes) and, even if not, it was only fair on them to have direct handover and share from my experience in the job to get a sense of continuity. All up, then, April was a busy time with work, housesitting (packing moving unpacking) plus my community commitments (and I wrote nothing here that month). May, of course was a different story, I was unemployed ,although I still had a few things on my plate from my community involvement and my writing/publishing commitments. Nevertheless, it was in May that the depression really began to come back. After all I was back in the situation that had triggered my meltdown last year. There was absolutely nothing ahead of me. Taking the union job was a signal to myself that I had given up on any expectations for academic work. I could deal with that because I had been doing union work for the last 5 years off and on and I was still in the university sector. But that path was closed too. And there was still all the unresolved grief and guilt about my friend.

While I wouldn't recommend it to anyone, nonetheless depression can be a really interesting process to observe in oneself. I've been closely observing it and its waves or cycles over the last couple of months. I think the worst period was probably early this month, certainly the days before and after my birthday, I had some really debilitating times. Everyone thinks of depression as grief or melancholy or sadness and, yes, it is all of those. But, at least as I've experienced it, there are two key words, doubt and paralysis, that best describe what happens.

Doubt, well it's central to anxiety isn't it. You doubt everything, most especially yourself. Nagging, nagging doubt, that probably is the famous black dog that worries at you like a dog at bone. It chews up all the inner energies so that sometimes a complete lethargy, exhaustion comes over you. From doubt comes paralysis. You doubt everything including your abilities and all your motivations. Doubt puts everything in the worst possible light. Consequently, it becomes too difficult to make any sort of decision, to initiate any sort of action. You're like a rabbit in the spotlight, frozen, because everything you might opt to do looks so bad, either bad in itself, or coming out of something bad in yourself. That I'm writing all this now indicates that the doubt has eased because at it's worst I could not have even put finger to keyboard. I would be caught up in an inner self-critical monologue busily analysing and tearing apart why I'm going to write and what I'm going to write especially and then secondarily, the reception and consequences of what I write out there, especially if I publish. It's the primary doubting assault on motivation and ability and worthiness to write that is the most paralysing. And then just replace 'write' with a whole suite of other actions of life, because it's not just about writing it's about all the important aspects of your existence.

I've heard it said, too, that depression is about inwardly directed anger. That's probably true but, if so, it's mechanisms are doubt and the paralysis it gives rise to. The depressive wave incorporates a whole range of feelings but for me it still appears to all come back to doubt. Nevertheless, the other day when the wave was really wrenching through me, for a brief moment I noticed a point of rage. It was white hot, almost incandescent and ever so brief. What surprised me, and maybe you too if you've read this far, is that it awoke my curiosity. I was taken aback, intrigued even and wanted to ponder it, examine it. That response acted like a circuit breaker, tripping the depressive wave, releasing me from its grip. At least for a while. A couple of days later I was able to tell a friend of mine in Melbourne just briefly about what had been happening. That was on the weekend and it was an important move on my part. That effort to tell, to give an oh so brief summary in a Facebook message, seems to have been the trigger to get me to move into a writing mode, to be able to write this.

So what next? I don't know. I still have to work out what to do with my life and what to do means more than just getting a job, although having an income is obviously a priority. My CV or resume probably counts against me. I have a PhD for a start. I've heard the stories, its happened to me even, of people being told by a Job Network person that the PhD makes them almost unemployable. It intimidates prospective employers! Added to that, I've got several years of union work to boot. And then there's my age. I'm supposed to be on my way to retirement (I'm so anomalous, though, I'd be happy to work for another 20 or so years). Maybe in this day and age, too, the gay thing mightn't matter so much for the job market, possibly, but if it did I can't hide that either.

No, that's not doubt or negativity, I hope, just a realistic appraisal of the situation, I think. What would I love to do? I would love to be teaching or, put better, sharing the knowledge I have and encouraging people to go off and explore some more. I would love to convene a Bible reading group. Mind you that would be a huge commitment over a long period of time because there are so many texts that are included in the biblical gestalt. What I think is so important, too, is to start reading the texts of the homosexual literary tradition. LGBT folks start off as aliens in their own homes, and they don't get the opportunity to really discover that there even is a tradition. Even at university, at least in Brisbane, there's nothing by way of courses that gives access to that tradition. I was given for my birthday a copy of Mary Renault's, The Charioteer, a classic novel from 1959 of same sex love, the title of which refers to Plato's Phaedrus. How many queer folks have read the Phaedrus, or the Symposium for that matter, or have even had the opportunity to or have even heard of them? How many queer folks have heard of or read Mary Renault? There must be a way to introduce this sort of material to people and to get them talking about the ideas there. And overlapping at many points with this tradition, there's a rich written tradition around friendship. Friendship is a much devalued relationship in our society, fact quite bizarre considering it's central to Christianity, or used to be anyway. Why and what can we learn?

Hmmm, I seem to have gone off on a tangent. But it illustrates my problem nonetheless. When I think about what I want to do, I think about stuff like that. There's no place for anything like that in our modern universities even. So how to go about doing it? And in the meantime where does my money come from? A friend of mine keeps saying "Michael, you've been living on faith for so long and something always seems to turn up." Perhaps he's correct, but right now my faith is sorely tested. I'm thinking too how fortunate I am to have had this long period of housesitting just now, I'm sure my flatmate would agree too. Right now I'd be terrible company for anyone. I want to write at some point about solitude. Not here, though, but I have to say that I really needed it and I'm glad I have a couple more months of it too. And one little voice says that maybe it's a good thing I didn't get that job after all. If I had done, I might never have had the chance to have confronted the unresolved grief and pain and uncertainty. Or perhaps I would have done so but in a far more terrible way.

Then there is all the grief about the friendship now lost. If there was anything I could do to undo those events, I would. I can't begin to imagine what it must have been like for him but I know some of what it might have meant for him to have suffered it. That comes from confidences that remain between he and I, which I keep close always. And, believe me, that knowledge heightens the guilt as well. I hope he wasn't too damaged by what happened; I know how, why damage could be done. I don't know how but I hope I can atone in some way, make some kind of expiation some day. I am so sorry. As for any reconciliation, well that's not in my hands and I don't know how it would come about anyway. All I can do is pray in the words of Julian of Norwich that one day, that somehow "all will be well" - for him most of all. (And there are traces of him here at this house I am looking after too. I was here a couple of short occasions last year and he visited here too. There's even a coffee cup in the kitchen cupboard that was his preferred and so now speaks to me of him).

As for me... Well, I know what I need most of all and that's the gift of tears. It's not something that can be forced and it's certainly not something that can happen when the waves of depression crash over you and through you, even though then there may be tears too. No the gift of tears is a marker of release. Julia Kristeva observes, although I can't find the exact quote now, that once the tears flow then the suicidal crisis has passed. I think that's true for all crises (no I'm not suicidal now). I know this one will finally pass when the tears flow, when the grief finally gets its chance to speak, when suffering takes voice. I hope my thinking is clear on this for you, dear reader, because, no doubt, you are wondering why I've not got some sort of medication by now. If I thought that it might facilitate the tears then I probably would. I'm not interested in simply being made happy. If it means denying the grief, then, what difference from the original anxiety and depression which are themselves mechanisms of denying, suppressing the grief. But I will willingly take advice on that from those who know of what I speak.

Writing all this over the last two days now has generated a great calm in me. Quite a contrast to my mental state of a few days ago. Have I adequately arranged the data, the events of my life crisis in any meaningful way? If the calm, dare I say peace, that I'm feeling is any indication then maybe I have, that I have described it adequately. The next step is to summon up the courage to publish on the blog because publish I must, I know that. But there's no rush as yet; it's always good to have a further review. I also want to see whether the anxiety levels go up at the thought of imminent exposure. They will, so I guess it's a matter of evaluating the nature of the anxiety. I also want to put some ground rules on my publishing this material too. Except for what I've indicated above, I don't want advice. If however any of you find a resonance with your own experiences and want to share it, then feel very welcome. But I also recognise the vulnerability involved in talking about such experiences so there's no necessity. I know once I've posted this I will feel extremely vulnerable, raw. Consequently, I don't want sympathy. This is not an exercise in seeking sympathy. Sympathy simply makes the experience of vulnerability, of rawness more acute. I will probably not respond to sympathy and definitely not to advice. I may not respond to any comments whatsoever. I can't predict because I haven't written this for feedback as such, or 'support'. I write to describe to myself and I publish because this descriptive exercise is quite substantial and it saves me the expenditure of energy in having to go over it again and again with others. Because obviously it must be told at sometime and I don't know yet how this thing will work out.

That's all for now, I think. I am hoping to write on a range of topics soon, including solitude, hospitality, biblical prophecy, the future of gay identities, maybe something on the state of universities. I might even gird my loins and make some observations on our federal politics. For some reason, the processes unfolding now in Canberra keep reminding me of aspects of the personal depressive crisis. But I probably won't write about that.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Did King David Really Exist?

People are regularly shocked when I say that there is no archeological evidence that David or Solomon ever existed. The stories about them and the other kings, queens, prophets, heroes of ancient Israel are the stuff of ripping yarns. They're embedded in our European derived culture and also in Islamic culture too. The Old Testament stories, narratives are certainly history-like and draw on aspects of ancient Middle Eastern history. And for the greater part of the last, say, 200 years the dominant way of reading and interpreting the biblical texts is by doing some kind of history, history of ancient Israel.

For me too, questions of history are important. I enjoy history generally and since my childhood I've been fascinated by the history of the ancient Middle East, Egypt in particular. As far as the biblical texts are concerned, I like to have some idea of the world these texts came from and refer to. And so I've been catching up on the state of play re archeology and ancient Israel/Palestine/Canaan. Mostly I just want an overview of what the archeology is telling us so I can have some sort of framework for a timeline or a storyline.

So I've been reading two books by a couple of Israeli archeologists, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman. One book, The Bible Unearthed, gives a panoramic sweep of what archeology tells about Palestinian history in the Bronze Age, Iron Age, Persian/Hellenistic periods. The link is to an excellent detailed summary on Wikipedia. In large part the book held no surprises for me. I knew that there was no evidence of an invasion of Palestine let alone of an exodus from Egypt. I knew that Israelites had once been Canaanites and that the oldest mention of Israel as an entity is Pharoah Merneptah's stele from around 1230BCE recounting a series of victories in Palestine. The mention of Israel is as follows, "Israel is laid waste, its seed is not", clearly a vainglorious boast, as the 'seed' of Israel remained and several centuries later emerged into a major Iron Age state in the region of the northern West Bank/Samaria around modern day Nablus.

I also knew that there was little evidence of a united monarchical state centred on Jerusalem and ruling all of Palestine in the 10th century BCE when David and Solomon are supposed to have lived. But I wasn't really up to date on the archeology of the Iron Age kingdoms of Israel and Judah. This book certainly is useful for that. However the authors are advancing the thesis that the Torah and 'historical' books were mostly written in the monarchical period, primarily in Judah after the fall of Israel to Assyria. Re David and Solomon and a united Israelite state the authors point out that not only is there no evidence of a grand Davidic or Solomonic 'empire' but that Judah in the 10th century when these two kings were supposed to have lived would have had no more than 5000 people living there; Jerusalem could have been no more than a village. The region of Judah lacked the resources of water and good farmland that are found in the north and account for the fact that it was the kingdom of Israel that would emerge first in the 9th century under Omri and then his son Ahab and rule a state stretching from Moab in the south to Damascus in the north. The authors note that the biblical picture of David and Solomon's empire might actually be based on the real history of the Omride dynasty in the north, and idea that was advanced by Giovanni Garbini roughly a couple of decades ago. Certainly the importance of Omri and Ahab was such that the kingdom of Israel was referred to subsequently in Assyrian records as the House of Omri.

But because Bible Unearthed explores the monarchical period as a setting for the writing of the Torah I thought I would turn to their other more recent book, David and Solomon: In search of the Bible's Sacred Kings and the Roots of the Western Tradition. Now this book does give a good account of the archeology of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah but the authors are arguing for the composition of the books of Samuel and Kings in large part in the reign of King Josiah just before the fall of Judah to Babylon. Quite interestingly too the authors are arguing that there probably was a person called David and speculate about what can be hypothesised about him. Why a David? Well, because of the Tel Dan stele which celebrates the defeat of the kings of Israel and Judah by the king of Damascus. In the Tel Dan stele the king of Judah, Ahaziah, is referred to as son of Jehoram king of "the House of David" resembling those Assyrian references to Israel as the House of Omri. I remember in the 90s, when the stele was discovered, there was considerable debate about how to interpret the byt dwd reference with 'minimalist' scholars saying that it would be wrong to read it as evidence for an actual David. I'm not particularly bothered either way, maybe there was or maybe there wasn't. Interestingly by celebrating the deaths of the vanquished Ahaziah of Judah and Joram of Isreal by Hazael of Damascus the stele conflicts with the biblical account of the deaths of these kings. In 2 Kings, these two monarchs are killed by Jehu who succeeded to the throne of Israel by way of a coup that ended the Omride dynasty altogether.

Anyway, Finkelstein and Silberman take the stele as evidence for a historical David, founder of the dynasty that ruled Judah. What intrigued me was that they then proceeded to argue that maybe some of the stories of David might actually be memories of the historical figure. In particular they argue that the biblical portrait of the social world of David as bandit leader and Philistine mercenary sort of corresponds with the archeological picture of rural Judah, the wilder country of Judah where David was based. My problem though is with the notion that because some of the stories of David have a certain verisimilitude then they should be taken as records of actual events. The problem is that the rest of the story of David can't be supported by the archeology, why then should these be accorded historicity. After all, if the portrait of the kingdom of David and Solomon is a retrojected borrowing from the reality of the Omride kingdom several generations later what's to say that David the bandit leader isn't a borrowing from other bandit figures of popular legend. Can these stories be any more 'really historical' than the stories of Robin Hood, say, or William Tell? And given that the greater part of the story of David is clearly fictional does it really help us to identify some possible history in the bandit stories? Aren't Finkelstein and Silberman simply attempting to hold on to the biblical story of David as in some sense 'real' when it actually isn't. Are they trying to defend the authority of Samuel as a biblical text through a claim to some historical veracity?

They then turn to Saul and make a further audacious move. It would seem that the biblical narratives about Saul likewise have a certain amount of verisimilitude. Saul is from the tribe of Benjamin and in Samuel, Saul's 'base' or heartland is portrayed in the plateau of Benjamin, unsurprisingly, which lies to the north of Jerusalem, around modern day Ramallah. Unlike David we have no ancient inscriptions with the name of Saul; there are no references to a House of Saul in any Iron Age text. But it seems that the biblical portrait or geography of Saul's heartland does get an independent Iron Age attestation but from a surprising source, the record of the Pharoah Sheshonq inscribed in the temple at Karnak celebrating his military campaign in Canaan.

Sheshonq is the biblical Pharoah Shishak who, in the 5th year of king Rehoboam, Solomon's son and successor, attacks Jerusalem and carries off the treasure of both the Temple and the palace. Roughly 930BCE. In Sheshonq's account of the campaign, however, there's no mention of an attack on Jerusalem, let alone plundering its temple or even of any forays into Judah. That's consistent with the archeology which shows that there was not much in Judah at the time that would warrant the attention of a Pharoah intent on booty. But it seems that it was a different matter for the plateau of Benjamin and according to Sheshonq's account he campaigned there perhaps as far as the Transjordan. Furthermore the places he mentions can be connected to places in the biblical narrative associated with Saul's heartland in Benjamin. Finkelstein and Silberman wont say that this was an Iron Age kingdom, they term it a polity, instead possibly under the rule of some bandit leader like David is supposed to have been, but not David here but Saul. They further speculate that behind the stories of David's struggle with Saul and further the stories of David serving as a mercenary for the Philistines might be a historical memory of a struggle between the warlords of Judah and Benjamin, with Judah on the side of Egypt serving with its agents, the Philistines. That the biblical narrative doesn't involve Egypt in the struggle between David, Saul and the Philistines is the effect of it being written at a later time when the power of Egypt had faded from Palestine after the reign of Sheshonq.

Finkelstein and Silberman want to locate the composition of these biblical accounts of the united monarchy in Judah in the time of the Assyrian hegemony in Palestine after the fall of Israel. It seems the archeological evidence supports a large influx of refugees into Jerusalem from the north after Israel's fall and it appears that for a time too especially in the days of Josiah in the 7th century BCE Judah ruled over the region of Benjamin. Finkelstein and Silberman speculate that the older stories of David were changed for propaganda purposes, so that he is shown striving to at all times remain loyal to Saul and furthermore is kept innocent of any involvement in the fall of the house of Saul.

These guys write well and it's all very compelling, almost as compelling as the biblical narratives themselves. However, apart from these narratives what is their reconstruction based upon? One, maybe two, Iron Age references to Judah as House of David, analogous to Israel as House of Omri. And a 10th century Pharaoh's account of his campaign in Canaan, an account which has no mention of David or Jerusalem let alone of Saul. And according to the biblical account this campaign takes place in the days of David's grandson, and maybe 70 years after the death of Saul. It shows how easy it is to fill a vacuum. The only contemporary text is Sheshonq's account. Unsurprisingly it tells us very little as its main purpose is to give glory to Sheshonq and his god. So Finkelstein and Silberman can fill this vacuum with their own historicising midrash on the David-Saul story. This midrash also serves to save the credibility of the book(s) of Samuel and keep Saul and David within an orbit of the historical. It's compelling but in the end it doesn't work partly because it actually dissolves the narrative completely so as to keep the biblical Saul and David as "real" people. But they only really exist as part of the narrative in the first place. At the same time they can't save Solomon. He can't exist, there's no place for him; there's no move they can make to sustain some sort of historical Solomon.

As I said earlier, that there is some verisimilitude, that there seems to be fragments of historical memory in the book Samuel (or any of the other historical books) is no guarantee of the historicity of the narrative and its characters. It's clear that the authors of the biblical worked with sources, that they are re-working or re-telling older stories and legends. The Tel Dan stele shows that even if we find contemporary texts verifying the existence of characters in the biblical narrative, that it's a matter of the names only haven't been changed just the details of how they lived and/or died. If there was a David and there are stories about him that have a certain verisimilitude there's no guarantee that these were originally stories about him. They may well have been stories about other heroic figures we know nothing about which have had their original protagonists replaced by David and Saul and others. After all, who killed Goliath, David or Elhanan?

But then Finkelstein and Silberman are not only trying to flesh out a history of 10th century Palestine but also a history of the later kingdom of Judah and even of the biblical texts themselves. According to Finkelstein and Silberman the biblical texts are the product of processes within a newly resurgent kingdom of Judah first under Hezekiah and then more importantly in the reign of his great grandson Josiah who ruled an expanded Judah after the fall of Assyria and the end of Assyrian hegemony in Palestine. Certainly both Hezekiah and Josiah are treated as heroes who reformed and purified the religion of Judah in the book(s) of Kings; Hezekiah is also a key figure in the narrative sections of Isaiah, which serve to historically ground the book. But while we know that these kings lived, without the biblical material we don't have a lot to flesh out their reigns without. There's no archeological evidence of the cultic reforms attributed to Hezekiah. He does seem to have, probably stupidly, challenged Assyrian dominance following the fall of Israel and to have paid a comparatively mild price (defeated and Judah pillaged, he was allowed to remain alive and on his throne). His son, Manasseh, who in the biblical history is regarded as a most wicked king, apparently accepted Assyrian hegemony and the archeological record shows that his reign was a flourishing and prosperous time for Judah. Then, following the 2 year reign of Amon, comes Josiah.

In the biblical account Josiah is the great king who restores the true religion to Judah, purifying the Temple, re-establishing the Mosaic law and the Torah feasts and rituals. King when Assyria falls, he expands Judahite rule into the north, taking control over the old centre of Bethel with its ancient shrine. In fulfilment of an ancient prophecy he destroys the shrine there. Finkelstein and Silbeman point out that there's, as yet, no clear archeological evidence for the destruction of this shrine by Josiah. Judahite artefacts, pottery etc, from the period have been found in the area of Bethel. However Finkelstein and Silberman are wanting to show that the texts we call the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings) are not only written during but are programmatic for Josiah's reign. Thus they see the account of Josiah's conquest of Bethel as proof that Josiah himself was determined to show himself as fulfilling a Davidic legacy. So the only monument that Josiah is said not to destroy is the tomb of the prophet who in the biblical narrative predicted Josiah's destruction of the shrine (c.f. 1 Kings 13.2). But outside of the text, there is no evidence of this prophet, let alone of his tomb. Finkelstein and Silberman are reading the accounts of David and Solomon beside the account of Josiah to flesh out the archeological data for Josiah's reign with a narrative/history, a circular process which they also use to date these texts and the development of both biblical religion and Davidic messianism to the reign of Josiah.

The only problem is that the is nothing to clearly peg these stories to the reign of Josiah. He's clearly a hero in the story but he's not the end of the story. Finkelstein and Silbeman argue that Josiah's unexpected death at the hands of Pharaoh Neccho threw a major spanner in the works of the whole Josianic religious project giving rise to a theology of deferred messianism. But then the only evidence we have is the text and the text itself is clearly completed sometime after the fall of Judah to Babylon and the destruction of the Temple. I'm also of the view that these texts of the Deuteronomistic History - Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings - in Judaism known as the Former Prophets, are meant to function in some way together with those texts Judaism calls the Latter Prophets - Jeremiah, Ezekiel, The Twelve and Isaiah, especially so for the books of Samuel and Kings. In which case the package is clearly a product of a much later time than the reign of Josiah.

That Finkelstein and Silbeman can read both the narratives of David and Solomon together with the narrative of Josiah to make a history is due to the fact that there are no (non-biblical) texts from Josiah's reign. The only details we have are in Kings (and Chronicles). But if these texts have created a whole world of fiction that is the united David-Solomon kingdom and even have a fictional account of the deaths of Joram and Ahaziah what guarantee do we have that the story of Josiah isn't likewise largely a fiction.

For me the final key bit of archeology that throws the whole scenario in doubt is the fact, reported by Finkelstein and Silberman, that archeology shows that the Samaritan Temple at Mt Gerizim was (re)built at the same time as the building of the 2nd Temple in Jerusalem giving the lie to Josephus claim that the Temple was built after Alexander the Great. It seems that the Samaritan Temple was built, as Finkelstein and Silbeman put it, to worship the God of Israel too. In other words, Jerusalem and Ha Gerizim together shared the same cult which would seem strange if a full blown Deuteronomistic History traducing the religion of the north was already in existence and set the norm in Jerusalem and amongst 'Jews' generally. Certainly the 5th century BCE Jews of Elephantine in southern Egypt seemed to regard both north and south as authoritative in religious and cultic matters.

If anything the Deuteronomistic History, repeats the pattern of fall from grace we find in the Torah itself, starting in Eden. The Israelites can just never live up to the amazing opportunities they have been given. Even with the kings. Saul is given a chance but he can't cut it. David the great king, beloved by all including the LORD, is nevertheless himself a flawed figure as is his son, Solomon, the wise, the builder of THE Temple. After these two it just goes downhill with short respites provided in the persons of Hezekiah and then Josiah. But by that stage things had gotten so bad that even a king of the ilk of Josiah could not save things. In the end kings, prophets, judges all failed, leaving the Israelites subject to foreign rule and dispersed among the nations. But there is still the Temple, the House of the LORD.

So did King David exist. Probably not. Finkelstein and Silbeman say as much. Was there a David? Possibly. Possibly, a brigand or bandit and maybe eventually a warlord with some authority in Judah possibly in the 9th century, from whom a subsequent dynasty in Jerusalem claimed descent. Of the origins of that dynasty and of its early kings we know little or nothing. Solomon? Rehoboam? Nothing. What of the northern kings? What do we know of Omri? Are the stories about David, really stories of Omri transplanted? Are David and Omri both mythical heroes from whom later Palestinian monarchs claimed descent, just as the Caesars claimed descent from Venus? Was there a Saul? Perhaps there could have been a warlord of that name in the Benjaminite region in the 10th or 11th centuries BCE. There seems to have been some kind of polity there so maybe there was a Saul. But if so we know nothing about him. If there was a real Saul he might not even have been a contemporary of the real David if he existed. For all we know these might have originally been stories of other heroes whose names are now lost to us. The stories about David and Saul are not about the history of Iron Age Palestine but address other questions. What about Michal and Bathsheba and Samuel and Nathan and Uriah and Absalom and Tamar? All characters in a wonderful narrative, creations of the storytellers art, but not history. If any of them are based on real people we can't know and we can't know those real people any more than we can know a real David if he did exist. The same applies to Jonathan. I'd like to think that if there was a real David that then he had a real Jonathan in his life. After all, in the biblical account, Jonathan's is the pivotal, the central, the most important, maybe the only, real (human) love in David's life. David and Jonathan belong together like Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Achilles and Patrocles, Heracles and Iolaus, Alexander and Hephaestion, Hadrian and Antinous, Jesus and John. And if there was a real David and a real Jonathan, I hope theirs was a happier story than the biblical one.

Friday, July 2, 2010

God's friendship

Stephen Lovatt is a traditionalist English gay Catholic. Unlike myself, who was born and raised in the Roman communion, Stephen converted, I think from Methodism. He maintains a quite extensive website Pharsea's Home Page, which is certainly worth a look, especially if you are gay or lesbian and wrestling with a Roman Catholic outlook. A physicist, he's also a Platonist in philosophy and has published an exposition of "Plato's wisdom for the modern world", New Skins for Old Wine. Stephen's traditionalism is not strictly conservative as he argues for changes to Roman Catholic teaching on sexuality, especially homosexuality, and he also supports the ordination of women. I am not a traditionalist. Unlike Stephen I do remember the pre-Vatican 2 Church and I also remember the heady days post-Vatican 2 when it seemed that the Church was opening up and transforming itself in more inclusive ways, even revolutionary ways. Yes, there was such a time, long ago now. I also part company with Stephen on his views about Islam, which one would have to say are Islamophobic. I would probably stand more in the tradition of Louis Massignon when it comes to appreciating Islam as a religion (or more correctly, a continuum of religions) drawing from the same Middle Eastern spiritual traditions as Christianity and Judaism. The three along with Zoroastrianism, Bahai, and Mandaeism are integrally connected and are a close, though fractious, religious family. Geopolitically I recognise the awful fact of European and US imperialism in generating the Middle Eastern conflicts and the cycle of blowback that George Bush wanted to call the War on Terror.

Stephen maintains a MySpace blog which is on my blogroll. There you can find all manner of discussions, including ongoing dialogues presumably arising from private correspondence from his readers. Although at the same time, I wouldn't discount that he uses the Platonic dialogue form so perhaps his interlocutors are fictional characters by which he can elucidate an argument about theology, philosophy, sexuality. A post a couple of days ago, Pelagianism or Orthodoxy, caught my eye and I've been mulling over it ever since. It's only a short post so I'm going to reproduce most of it below

2. One can try to be just without calling on God's help.

3. God always helps those who try to be just; but is more able to do so if they ask to be helped; because it is partly the recognition of one's weakness and need of God's help and encouragement which makes it possible for God to help one.

4. Without God's help and encouragement it is impossible for any human being to become fully just.

5. With God's help and encouragement it is possible for any human being to become fully just.

6. No matter what one achieves by oneself one cannot ever earn God's respect or friendship. Friendship is a freely offered gift, but has to be asked for - explicitly or implicitly. Respect is due only to one who is worthy of it and we can only become worthy of God's respect as a result of His help and encouragement and friendship.

7. "God's help and encouragement" is generally called "grace" in theological circles.

Now I think that's a pretty good summary of what Christianity is all about and I want to reflect some more upon point 6 (and a little on point 3) in particular the notion of God's friendship. Somewhere along the way Christianity lost track of the friendship of God, replacing it instead, especially in the West, with the vindictive, judgmental God who's wrath must be appeased by the murder of his son and even then that appeasement is understood as partial. Following Augustine and particularly with the Reformation the comes the notion of the total depravity of humanity, derived from Augustine's notion of Original Sin. Luther was so haunted by it that he soared high on the ecstasy of justification by faith alone. Calvin on the other hand went down the darkest Augustinian path and taught predestination whereby the mass of depraved humanity are created for eternal damnation. Only a small number are saved by the will of God and from before time began. Predestination was also Augustine's idea (wisely rejected by the Western church after his death) and some have called the Reformation an attempted Augustinian renewal of the Church. My own thinking is that in the Reformation, mainly wrong answers were given to all the right questions that urgently needed to be asked, addressed.

But I want to return to the notion of God's friendship. Many years ago, I was surprised when reading Kallistos Timothy Ware's book on the Orthodox Church to read that one of the great post-Nicene Church Fathers, Gregory of Nyssa, had declared that Christians may pray even for the redemption of Satan. It was many years later that I discovered that early Christianity was not necessarily the hellfire and damnation religion with which we are so familiar today. Famously, Origen, the real founder of Christian biblical studies, was posthumously condemned for a range of heresies some centuries after after his death, one of which seems to have been a form of universalism. By universalism I don't mean the notion that all religions are the same and all point to the one thing but rather the notion of a ultimate reconciliation, that no one is lost, that all will finally be saved. The term used is apokatastasis and it seems Origen and Gregory of Nyssa were not the only ones to accept it. It was pretty common among Christians although not all would necessarily include Satan and the demonic realm in that final reconciliation. Whether or not Satan was included, apokatastasis was understood either to be an automatic given, that no bounds could be put on God's love, or in other accounts, that the prayers of the saints would obtain salvation for all at the last judgment. As I wrote on one of the very early posts on this blog, the latter idea can be found in the 2nd century Epistle of the Apostles, a 2nd century Orthodox rebuttal of gnosticism, as well as in the Christian Sybillenes. It can also be found in the Apocalypse of Peter, a particularly gruesome text on the afterlife and its punishments/rewards that was widely popular amongst early Christians and regarded by many, including Clement of Alexandria, as scriptural. Clement himself is one of the many early Christian thinkers/teachers/saints who held to some notion of apokatastasis as integral to what Christianity was all about. Indeed, even though poor old Origen got condemned much later, in part, for believing it, it would seem he represented the early Christian norm.

But I'm wondering whether apokatastasis by the prayers of the saints or as a natural result of the boundless love of God are necessarily two separate ideas or are really two sides of the one coin. And for that I need to return to atonement, deification/theosis, and kenosis/self-emptying. Probably from its very beginnings, Christianity has understood the execution of Jesus as key to a cosmic drama of Atonement. Now there have been various theologies of what Atonement means and what happened when Jesus was nailed to the cross. I wont bother going through them all now. But so important is Atonement in Christianity that one could be forgiven for thinking that Christians invented it all themselves. But of course they didn't. Atonement was key to the old Temple Judaism of the time (and remains so for Rabbinic Judaism too) such that what really happened was that Christians interpreted the execution of Jesus in light of the rituals and theology of the Day of Atonement as practised in the Temple (in 30CE at Jerusalem and one also at Leontopolis in Egypt). In these rituals the High Priest slaughters first a bull and then a goat and then takes the blood into the Holy of Holies. The blood is then sprinkled and smeared on various parts of the Temple. The Day of Atonement is part of the New Year festival at the autumnal equinox which celebrates the creation of the universe and the renewal of creation. Blood is life and the animal blood represents the blood/life of the High Priest who represents Yahweh, the LORD, who creates and renews creation by an outpouring of the divine life. In esoteric Judaism, this outpouring is understood as the Tree of Life of Kabbalah by which creation occurs through the outpouring of the divine light through the 10 Sefiroth or emanations that comprise the Tree and mapping the process of creation, of consciousness. In Christianity, Jesus on the cross pours out his blood/life as befits the Heavenly High Priest through whom all creation came to be. Jesus on the cross instantiates the divine processes of creation, atonement, renewal. More than anything else atonement is about healing creation, making it whole, restoring it to balance, which is why a key aspect of Jesus public career is healing the sick. Jesus also forgives sin; forgiveness and healing more often go hand in hand in the gospel accounts. Healing, renewal, liberation, and forgiveness are all part of the ancient Jewish theology of Atonement as expressed not only through the annual rituals of Yom Kippur but the associated sabbath and Jubilee years which were proclaimed on the Day of Atonement.

Atonement rituals were not unique to ancient Judaism but were part and parcel of ancient Middle Eastern religion. My own personal view is that such Atonement rituals were an attempt to approximate the maternal dimension of life, of the Godhead. This maternal dimension resurfaces, manifesting explicitly in the medieval West with the rich imagery of Jesus as Mother (and Mary as his Priest). I'm also inclined to think that the origins of this atonement model of understanding the crucifixion lie with Jesus himself who must at some stage have realised that his path had only one logical destination, given the realities of Roman rule in Palestine.

Nevertheless, while the Temple rituals of atonement were no doubt profound and awe-inspiring, death on the cross is not. It is brutal, disgusting, horrifying and shameful. Crucifixion was meant to debase and degrade as well as kill. So the sight of a person hanging bloodied and brutalised on a cross is not self-evidently an instantiation of the divine creative and healing process, far from it. I think it is this fact that lies behind the Christian stress on kenosis, self-emptying, that is understood from very early on as a hallmark of the divine, of the divine as manifested in Jesus. The god of Christianity is a god who submits to degradation and abandonment and death - eloi, eloi, lama sabacthani - this is a god who knows despair and brokenness. In other words this is a god who approaches humans on the same level, sharing human pain and desolation, who will submit to brutal death rather than summon legions of angels to lord it over humans.

God is friendship, says Aelred of Riveaulx; God is love, says John, and the language of friendship runs through John's gospel. That God becomes human so that humans can become divine is a key affirmation of early Christianity. After the crucifixion comes the resurrection. Divinisation, deification, theosis remains central to Eastern Christianity even though it has largely been forgotten in the Western churches. What does becoming divine mean? Again and again, the easterners say that it means becoming a friend of God, entering into friendship with God. God becomes human to invite humanity into friendship. By becoming friends with God one becomes more and more like God.

So to return to apokatastasis, the image of the saints praying for the salvation of all at the Last Judgment and having their prayer granted demonstrates the activity of deification, theosis. The saints are those who have died in the friendship of God. Now deified they live the divine life by praying for the salvation of all, a prayer that is, of course, answered because the love of God has no bounds. These are not two different forms of apokatastasis but integrally linked and derived from Christian language of atonement, kenosis and theosis.

Returning to Stephen's post, I particularly like his observation that God's friendship can be asked for "explicitly or implicitly". I take that to mean that asking for God's friendship does not necessarily mean embracing a specific form of Christianity or even any specific form of religion. One of the recurring dilemmas in most forms of Christianity as a result of theologies of eternal damnation is that of the righteous unbeliever. In my school days, it was one of the stock items we would put to our teachers to try to catch them out, to discomfort them. As kids we realised something was amiss with the notion that one had to be a Christian, or even a Catholic, to be "saved". What about the righteous godfearing Hindu for example? Or the righteous atheist? These were the days of Vatican 2 and after, the days when the Roman communion began the move from an exclusivist eternal hell theology to the de facto universalism of today. One of the first things to go was the tenet that there is no salvation outside the Church, which did originally mean just the Roman communion. Bad luck you Protestants, Orthodox and everybody else.

Eastern Christianity never completely abandoned apokatastasis/universalism but the West did to its great detriment. But perhaps Purgatory is the older Christian hell revived, or maybe not even revived but renamed instead. Nowadays, not just the Roman communion but much of Western Christianity has likewise returned to a de facto, at least, universalist position. Only the fundamentalists want to hold on to it and they claim to base their position on the scriptures, taken at their literal meaning. Which raises the question, if someone like Clement of Alexandria, counted as a saint and a key early Christian theologian, not only read the same scriptures as contemporary Christians but counted even more hair-raising texts like the Apocalypse of Peter as scripture, and could still hold to a universalist position, how much does the interpretation of the text depend on the framework one brings to interpret the text? Obviously, quite a lot. And perhaps contemporary Christians need to spend some time in the schools of Clement, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa (and Dame Julian of Norwich, too, for a bit of medieval universalism).

You can find a really interesting article by Andreas Andreopoulos on apokatastasis here. And a very good article by Brendan Palphrey on theosis in Orthodox Christianity can be found here.