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Esau and Jacob

“Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated,” at least according to the recollection of Paul in Romans. One of the most poignant scenes in the Hebrew Bible is the story of Esau. Born as the elder brother, in ancient times one could expect certain privileges. Yes, Esau sold his birthright to his brother over a rumbling stomach, but he still knew that the blessing—the true gift—was still his. That, however, Jacob took from him by deception. Isaac, their aged father, was blind but wanted to bless his firstborn before he died. While Esau was out hunting, Jacob slipped in, in disguise, and stole the blessing before fleeing to Iraq. In Genesis 27, Esau came in as instructed only to find the blessing gone. His weeping has never ceased through the ages as his father blessed him with a sword. Years later, Jacob returned to find his brother a wealthy and powerful man. A man who forgave and forgot. But Paul remembered.

Rubens, The Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau

Rubens, The Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau

Hate is a strong word. As a child the worst punishment I can recall came from saying that I hated someone. That word was worse than a swear. Hatred was not worthy of a loving god. Like Esau, however, we don’t stay young forever. By our sword we make our living. For some of us that sword was the written word that we were told was sacred. The image of big, hairy Esau weeping before his blind father disturbed me. He’d done nothing wrong. In fact, he was simply doing what his father asked him to do when his brother snuck in and took something that my young mind couldn’t even parse out from the birthright earlier bargained. Clearly, however, it was important.

Upon returning home six chapters later, Jacob fears Esau’s righteous wrath. He knows his brother has legitimate cause to hate him. Esau, however, aware that he has enough, welcomes the prodigal home with open arms. There is enough to go around. Even today, with the will to do so, the hatred could be removed. This is a metaphor, not literalism. Genesis is, after all, not history. Stories, however, can convey what facts cannot. Millennia have passed and myths have come and gone. In the simple, if primitive justice of my childhood, you dare not say you hate your brother. Having grown up with brothers I learned that despite conflicts that inevitably arise, hatred is never the answer. Esau forgave, according to Genesis 33. And the land was wide enough for all.

Watchers and (Un)holy Ones

HiddenOnes Angels, demons, djinn, watchers, giants, and a healthy dose of fantasy pervade Nancy Madore’s novel, The Hidden Ones. In this present world where, I’m told, the supernatural is irrelevant, it is pleasant to come across a work of fiction that delves so deeply into the pagan roots of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Monotheism does have its own skeletons in its capacious closets. Madore is a novelist who insists on prying open those doors long shut, and spinning a tale that involves first responders, shady military officers, and a band of rather hapless archaeologists. And Lilith. Throughout the story Madore comes up with clever etiologies for stories that will appear in canonical form much later, and at one point I couldn’t help wondering if the screen writers of Noah had read her book. Well, actually, The Hidden Ones is the first of a trilogy, Legacy of the Watchers. I’m sure the next two books will contain many surprises as well.

The Hidden Ones put me in mind of Michael Heiser’s novel, The Facade. Both take on the mythology of the Nephilim, the fallen ones about which the Bible tells us enough only to leave us hungry. The early chapters of Genesis are like that. There’s so much going on that those of us reading it many centuries after it was written are left wondering what the full story was. The writers of the Bible had no compunction to disbelieve in monsters and beings beyond the human ken. Nor does the Bible attempt to systematize them in any sustained way. These creatures just are. As the old saying goes, however, fiction has to make sense—those who write with gods and angels have to make them fit into a system.

No doubt, the uncanny occasionally intrudes upon our rational world. The Hidden Ones presents one such intrusion that, ironically, takes some of the fact of the Bible while leaving the theology suspect. We know that even before the Hebrew Bible was complete ancient scribes were attempting similar things. The book Jubilees, for example, tries to fill in some of the unanswered questions of Genesis, including the watchers and details of the flood. Jubilees, however, never made it into the Bible thus depriving canonical status to the backstory that demonstrates how religion often chooses for ambiguity, leaving it to theologians to bring it all into a system. And novelists. And among those novels that tread where even J, E, P, and D quail, is The Hidden Ones.

Founding Principles

That feeling is in the air. Autumn began to stretch its melancholy fingers into August this year. Even before the month was half over the mornings had that chill in them that sparked the trees to begin their slow process of shutting down for the winter. Not wanting to admit that it was time to send my daughter back to college, I resisted what is one of the most compelling senses of self-abnegation that can be known—fall, in all its glory. When I saw a blog post on the Salem Witch Trials, I knew I wasn’t alone. The nights are already longer, and that sunset over summer’s beach comes earlier each day. Salem has a way of bringing that home to me. Innocent people murdered for fictitious crimes. Much of the fear that led to this miscarriage of justice was, of course, inspired by religion. The colonials had a great fear of new religious movements. Although it is difficult to believe, Baptists were such a new religion at the time. Considering how Baptist sensibilities now drive much of the Religious Right, it is difficult to imagine that once upon a time, being a Baptist could lead to accusations of being a witch.

As much as the Religious Right likes to make claims to a primitivism that is completely fiction (Christianity has always been this way), we have lost touch with what it meant to be a Christian in early America. States (still colonies) had their religious preferences, some even established. If you were a Baptist you’d be most comfortable in Rhode Island. If you leaned Quaker, Pennsylvania was for you. When these disparate colonies banded together into a country, it was quickly realized that religious freedom was the only way for them to work together. The government, the state, could not determine matters of individual conscience. Until, that is, that we could declare that the views of particular individuals on birth control—as informed by their religious authorities—could legally deny their employees full health benefits. Oyer and Terminer, anyone?

Freedom is a beautiful idea. It is a concept that only works, however, if it is shared equally. When one faction claims liberty for itself while limiting it for others, we’ve fallen back into times when the Baptist at your door was more dangerous than the Devil in his Hell. And so we revise our history and make claims that America was founded as a Christian nation. Evidence can be ignored, or, failing that, revised. Nothing is written in stone. When you visit Salem, there is a quiet little park, off the beaten path. Under some weary old trees are a set of stone benches against a stone wall. On each of the benches are engraved the names of those executed for being imaginary monsters. The leaves on those trees are, I’m sure, beginning to turn. Soon they will silently fall, and only those who are made of stone will deny that autumn is upon us again.

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Future of an Illusion

AtlanticHEIf anyone’s premature death has been announced more than Mark Twain’s, it is that of higher education. September’s The Atlantic arrived in my mailbox proclaiming itself the “Education Issue” leading with an article “Is College Doomed?” While I appreciate the headiness of Atlantic articles, they run long and my time runs in the opposite direction. I have to read selectively. Things like paying bills and work vie for my time as well. I flipped it open to the article actually entitled “The Future of College?” by Graeme Wood. Four words in, and I froze. The fourth word is “entrepreneur.” Don’t get me wrong; I’m open-minded. Having seen higher education showing its teeth and claws, I know it isn’t the nice pet that the dean will tell you that it is. Nevertheless, from my viewpoint, the main problem higher education is experiencing right now is entrepreneurial in character. Perhaps it’s old school to say, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but it is perhaps the most apt phrase to apply to colleges and universities prior to the twenty-first century. And, in my humble opinion, today, while some vestiges can be salvaged.

Oh, I know I’m a dinosaur. I literally finished my formal higher education last century. Still, the experience worked well enough. I can’t express, even with daily posts on this little blog, how much I learned sitting through bachelors, masters, and doctoral programs. None of the institutions I attended was perfect (although Edinburgh came pretty close), but they were largely faculty led, and they all recognized that their primary function was to educate, not to prep for entrepreneurial enterprises. There were business schools for that. You couldn’t learn dead languages in business schools. Or even great ideas beyond those with an economic twist. What hath Nietzsche to do with supply-chain optimization? Oh yes, the death of God. My mistake.

In my younger years, I had no preconceived notion about higher education. My high school teachers and the clergy in my life encouraged me to go to college, despite the fact that nobody in my family ever had. Even though it was only Grove City College, as soon as I got over the homesickness, I realized I was home. Higher education—my assumptions were challenged. I had to learn to weigh the evidence. By the time I was finished, I had learned to create content as well. And then I started to hear that higher education had one purpose only—to prepare the young for the job market. A place that is too often unthinking and uninspiring. We aren’t educating, we are teaching conformity. And those who don’t have jobs don’t have healthcare coverage. Survival of the fittest. Entrepreneurs by definition. A quarter of a century ago I didn’t even know that higher education was sick, let alone dying. When the future begins with entrepreneurs, however, I’m going to side with Mark Twain, even if he is really dead.

Whether the Psalms

How about that weather? Changeable, isn’t it? I have spent a large part of the last few days going over the proofs for Weathering the Psalms, the book I wrote over a decade ago. While I’m excited with having the validation that comes with publication, I worry a bit about the changes that the last decade has brought. Although I live near some impressive libraries, my time is devoted to commuting and working and anyone who has tried to be a serious scholar as a weekend warrior only knows that it is unsustainable. One element that good research absolutely and uncompromisingly demands is time. When I began commuting into New York City three years ago, I taught myself to read on the bus. As someone who easily gets car-sick, this took an enormous effort, but it paid off in the number of books I’ve been able to finish. There are limits, however. Seriously research-oriented academic books do not fare well on a noisy commute or at early hours. As much as we scholars like to think our books are riveting, try reading them at 6 a.m. Perspective makes all the difference. In short, I had to leave the main body of the text of my book as it was a dozen years ago.

There is a lot of good information there. You notice things by laying out all the Psalms that refer to weather side by side. I can’t tell you those things here, since that’s the point of the book, but suffice it to say, I still agree that the material should be published. One of the main reasons is the change in worldview over the last several millennia. Although we like to complain about the weather, for most of us it is merely the inconvenience of being outdoors that brings it to focus. We spend our days behind computer screens, living a virtual reality. But when we have to trespass outdoors—weather awaits us. For those in the world of the Bible the opposite was true. Indoors was shelter, but not insulated like today’s homes. Most of the day would be spent outdoors, weather permitting. They knew a lot more about the practical aspects than we tend to. We, on the other hand, know the science but have tended to forget the experience.

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My book surveys a cross-section of the biblical worldview (the Psalms) for what it tells us about the weather in ancient thought. I suspect others have begun to explore this since I wrote my humble contribution to the discussion. Today I would have done it very differently, but Weathering the Psalms was written by a scholar isolated in a seminary, literally and figuratively in the woods. The fact that other scholars had noticed the weather now and again showed me that the task, though halting, was necessary. Rereading it is like a time-capsule. These were the thoughts of a younger man, employed full-time in a kind of academic setting. Hopeful that the next job would be worthy of tenure. Believing that there was a next job. But the weather is changeable. Indeed, we know it is unpredictable. Despite its archaic cast, I look forward to Weathering the Psalms and hope that it inspires others who are isolated to keep up the effort. Even if it’s raining.

Who Do You Say?

DMZ. What acronym inspires more terror? Or did I mean DMV? I can’t keep my acronyms straight. Nothing reveals the layers of bureaucracy in clearer cross-section than the Motor Vehicle Agency. A trip to the DMV with every conceivable form of identification (usually inadequate) inevitably becomes a multi-trip visit as I’m sent home again and again to excavate some forgotten form to prove my identity. Who am I? Is there any more religious a question? Moral rights, civil rights, human rights, all define who we are. Reading about war recently, I came across the concept of the soldier giving up life for country—a profoundly religious act—based on nation as a kind of deity. A deity that can demand sacrifice. The cost for the nation is slight while the cost for the individual is unsurpassable. It all revolves around the identity of I.

Religion is often presented in terms of the worship of gods or the belief in supernatural powers. Undoubtedly those elements are often involved, but religion is a human enterprise, and at the center of all human enterprises is, well, humanity. Religion is generally associated with a Latin root that means “binding.” The nature of that binding and the easiest religions have no word for religion itself. One way to conceptualize it is the binding of an individual to some cause greater than the self. Community, humanity, deity—something that gives meaning to an existence that remains unsatisfying if it is only individual-focused. In a consumer market that involves choice—we choose our religion. In ancient times, up until modernity, actually, you were born into it. The self may not have existed in the same way that it does now. We install complex rules to ensure that no self (except the rich and powerful) is able to benefit from the system at the expense of the whole.

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In the eyes of most ancient religions humans are identified as those who are in trouble. We’re lost, reincarnated, suffering, fallen and some kind of help is required. In return our response should be one of gratitude. Humanity the subservient. Now that we’ve recognized ourselves as the creators of religion—are not the gods just ourselves writ large?—we once again face an identity crisis. There is no larger religion that binds us. Generals, however, don’t want to die on the field so we need privates. And if ever the police should stop you while driving, there’s no assurance you’ll give them your real name just because it is the responsible thing to do. So we make licenses to prove we can drive and to prove we are who we say we are. No religion need be involved, just papers that prove I am who I say I am. I think of Pilate’s question and ponder this bit of plastic bearing my likeness. I am who the government says I am.

Secret Religion

Recently I read an article about a religion called Sabbateanism. I’d never heard of it before, so I turned to the collective wisdom of the human race—the Internet—and came away only more confused. There are so many religions in the world today that no one person can rightfully claim to be an expert on them all. The Sabbateans, it seems, are a secret sect, so not being able to learn about them should not be surprising after all. A Google search soon suggested reading about Illuminati and I realized I was once again in the realm of the conspiracy theory. A few months ago my wife and I began reading a book on the Freemasons (we both have grandparents who were Masons, so it has always been an area of interest). The book, however, was so convoluted that we had to give up. As Poe long ago realized, the best place to hide something is in plain sight. As I pulled up to a stoplight recently, I noticed the car in front of me had the masonic emblem hidden as a decal on its brake lights. Was I on the road to enlightenment?

Sabbateans, it seems, can be traced back to a seventeenth-century rabbi called Sabbatai Zevi, who lived under Muslim rule. Apparently he converted to Islam, but was also recognized as a messiah (there have been more than a few) and his followers went underground. We are told, at least by Wikipedia (where the article suffers from lack of verification) that several groups resemble, or may have derived from, the Sabbateans. It should come as no surprise that a secretive religion would be difficult to verify. That’s the whole point. Most religions claim that a certain small cross-section of believers has some esoteric knowledge that the rest of us lack. It would be difficult to claim any kind of authority if they didn’t.

Conspiracy theories are endlessly fascinating. Whether it is the Bilderberg Group or the Rosicrucians, we’re just sure somebody’s holding out on secret knowledge and power that keeps the rest of us in the dark. Mainstream religions, which tend to train their clergy in mysterious seminaries with arcane knowledge, have always been critical of secret societies. Catholics claimed Masons to be heretical, while Protestants claimed them to be too Catholic. Every religion, however, has its secrets. Umberto Eco and Dan Brown (it hurts just to use those names together in the same sentence) both recognized the appeal of the conspiracy theory in popular literature. The Illuminati, I’m told, are largely taken as a joke on the Internet. In my quieter moments I tent my fingers and consider: that’s just the way they’d want it to be, isn’t it?

Who is this man?

Who is this man?