Will Ashford and the art of erasure

If Tom Phillips’ A Humument is the gold standard for artistic erasure poetry, Will Ashford’s new work The Gospel According to Art should be a platinum hit. His erasures are not only image-rich, but use the text in varying ways: often for didactic purpose, but sometimes in more decorative/suggestive ways as well (a rain of “I”s, a swarm of “o”s). If I had a better developed sense of shame, I guess I’d be abashed I’d never heard of Will Ashford until he contacted me yesterday, prompted by a perusal of my Pepys erasures. But I’ve very glad (and flattered) that he did.

There’s a lot of good stuff in the Flash-based portfolio at his main site, too, but I found The Gospel According to Art easier to use at my relatively slow connection speed — and as a fan of the literary charms of the Bible, I was entranced by this re-purposing of the Gospel of Mark. It’s full of wonder, humor and delight. Go have a look.

Banjo Proverbs

This entry is part 23 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


A banjo is clamorous:
it is simple, & knows nothing.

Banjos make a mock at sin,
but among the righteous there is favor.

It is sport to a banjo to do mischief,
but a man of understanding has wisdom.

He that begets a banjo does so to his sorrow,
& the father of a banjo has no joy.

He that troubles his own house shall inherit the wind,
& the banjo shall be servant to the wise of heart.

As snow in summer & as rain in harvest,
so honor & a banjo don’t mix.

A dream comes from a crowd of troubles
& a banjo’s melody comes from a crowd of notes.

For as the crackling of thorns under a pot,
so is the music of the banjo.

A banjo’s strings enter into contention
& its head invites a beating.

A stone is heavy, a sandbag strains your arms,
but a banjo’s wrath is heavier than them both.

It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise
than for a man to hear the music of banjos.

Go from the presence of a banjo
when you perceive not the notes of knowledge in it.

As a dog returns to his vomit,
so a banjo player returns to his banjo.

Forsake the banjo & live,
& go in the way of understanding.

The Judeo-Christian Book of the Dead

I happen to have — for once — a copy of the King James Bible at my elbow. I open it at random while I’m waiting for the computer to boot up, and read this:

The burden of the valley of vision.
What aileth thee now, that thou art wholly gone
up to the housetops?
Thou that art full of stirs,
a tumultuous city, joyous city:
thy slain men are not slain with the sword,
nor dead in battle.
All thy rulers are fled together,
they are bound by the archers:
all that are found in thee are bound together,
which have fled from far.
Therefore said I, Look away from me;
I will weep bitterly, labour not to comfort me,
because of the spoiling of the daughter of my people.
For it is a day of trouble, and of treading down,
and of perplexity by the Lord God of hosts
in the valley of vision, breaking down the walls,
and of crying to the mountains.

That was from Isaiah, the beginning of Chapter 22. I really don’t know what the hell it means — nor, I’m afraid, do I particularly care. Though I do kind of admire the way Isaiah and the other prophets challenged the authorities and institutions of their day, they were all basically a bunch of fanatical whack-jobs, as far as I’m concerned. But isn’t it terrific poetry? “Thou that art full of stirs, a tumultuous city, joyous city” — the way this is phrased, all metaphorical possibilities remain open. Compare the New International Version, that favorite of modern evangelicals: “O town full of commotion, O city of tumult and revelry.” Gone is the familiar, affectionate “thou,” replaced by the affected “O.” Any suggestion that this “thou” might be a female, tapping into that city/woman metaphor so popular among the literary prophets, has been eliminated as well.

Then of course there is the inaptly titled New Living Translation, an almost unspeakable abomination among “translations.” If any book should ever be burned, this nuance-destroying exercise in tone-deaf exegetical hubris tops the list. Here’s what it does with the verse: “The whole city is in a terrible uproar. What do I see in this reveling city?”


Maybe this is why, when I try to explain why I love the Old Testament, I get puzzled looks.

But I guess I’m a mystery-monger and an obscurantist at heart, because it occurs to me that one of the things I most love about the King James Version is the near-impenetrability of many of its archaic phrases. Last week, a post at Read Write Poem asked poets to list the four books that most influenced their writing. My list led off with the great anthology Roots and Wings: Poetry from Spain 1900-1975, edited by Hardie St. Martin, but I forgot to mention the book which had prepared me for all that surrealism in the first place, by whetting my appetite for difficult language and nightmarish visions. And I’m quite sure that the kind of rhythmic free verse I specialize in was strongly marked by my youthful reading of the KJV.


I had the Bible out this morning because yesterday I’d been to a funeral, and the choice of readings struck me as a little unusual. Instead of the nauseatingly familar 23rd Psalm, the minister read Psalm 140 — one of the vengeful Psalms. This seemed especially incongruous given that the sermon that followed took the parable of the Good Samaritan as its text, extolling the kind and generous spirit of the departed. And the other reading could not have been more different: Ecclesiastes 3, in its entirety. That’s the one that begins, “To every thing there is a season.” It was, I thought, an inspired choice for a funeral.

I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts. For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.

As most regular readers of this blog are probably aware, I’m not a conventionally religious person; I can’t see having a man or woman of the cloth officiating at my funeral, with all the usual assurances about an afterlife in which I do not believe. But if the Bible had to be part of the last rites for my small portion of supernova excrement, which verses could I stand to have read? Psalm 139 is a favorite — at least up until the 19th verse, when it turns hateful and paranoid. It’s got that whole pantheist vibe going on. And Verse 8 might be especially interesting at a funeral:

If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there;
if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.

Job 14 might be good for mourners to hear, as well:

Man that is born of a woman is of few days,
and full of trouble.
He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down:
he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not…

But my top choice would probably be Ecclesiastes 11, beginning as it does with an exhortation to be generous, followed by a defense of religious agnosticism, and concluding with the Biblical version of “gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”

Cast thy bread upon the waters:
for thou shalt find it after many days.
Give a portion to seven, and also to eight;
for thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth.
If the clouds be full of rain, they empty themselves upon the earth:
and if the tree fall toward the south, or toward the north,
in the place where the tree falleth, there it shall be.

He that observeth the wind shall not sow;
and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap.
As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit,
nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child:
even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all.
In the morning sow thy seed,
and in the evening withhold not thine hand:
for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that,
or whether they both shall be alike good.

Truly the light is sweet,
and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun:
But if a man live many years, and rejoice in them all;
yet let him remember the days of darkness;
for they shall be many.
All that cometh is vanity.
Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth;
and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth,
and walk in the ways of thine heart,
and in the sight of thine eyes:
but know thou, that for all these things
God will bring thee into judgment.
Therefore remove sorrow from thy heart,
and put away evil from thy flesh:
for childhood and youth are vanity.

What about you? What Bible verses can you imagine being read at your funeral?

Why I love the Old Testament

These generalizations about the Tanakh – its proper name – don’t quite hold for the latest books, Ezekiel and especially Daniel, which betray a great deal of Iranian influence and thus should really be classed more with the intertestamental apocrypha and pseudepigrapha. NOTE: This is a draft post, subject to further refinement. These reasons are basically all right off the top of my head – the kind of things I would tell you if we were sitting down to coffee, and you happened to ask me how the heck a professed anarchist like me can love the Bible.

1. It does not depict a creation ex nihilo, but opens (pace the usual translations), “When God was beginning to create the heavens and the earth…” God creates as a sculpter does, day by day uncovering an emergent order from the primordial wilderness (see 15, below).

2. It contains no theology (aside from God’s teasing statement to Moses in Exodus 3:14, the sense of which is “I will be whoever the hell I want!”).

3. It is not entirely monotheistic, alluding in a few places to other gods (e.g. Psalm 82); depicting Yahweh as having divine offspring and/or representatives (“angels”); and suggesting a multiple nature for divinity itself with Yahweh’s frequent alternate name Elohim, which is a plural form. (Adonai is also a plural form, but this “is usually construed as a respectful, and not a syntactic plural,” whereas “it is argued that the word elohim had an origin in a plural grammatical form.” See the Wikipedia article Names of God in Judaism for further discussion of the way different names reflect different aspects or personalities of divinity.)

4. Its Yahweh is not incorporeal, all-good, or all-wise, and in some stories resembles an amoral trickster deity similar to the Norse Loki, the Yoruba Eshu or the Maidu Coyote. Yahweh kicks ass.

5. It is free of the poisonous influence of radical dualism (good and evil – or matter and spirit – as wholly separate, mutually exclusive categories). The problem of evil is raised but not “solved.”

6. The destiny of the individual soul after death is alluded to, but nowhere treated as a matter of consequence.

7. The language is direct, rhythmic and repetitious in the manner of the best oral epic. The graceful language and vivid imagery recall poetry more than prose.

8. It is full of analogic thinking and creative leaps, such as “Man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward” or “As the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of fools.”

9. So-called “Biblical parallelism” extends from the level of the verse to the overall organization (alternate tellings of the same story, even alternate histories – e.g. Judges-Kings vs. Chronicles), teaching a tolerance for alternative interpretations.

10. For every passage that seems hateful and exclusive, there’s a passage that’s accepting and inclusive.

11. Hints of an earlier matriarchal order abound, and despite the overwhelming patriarchal emphasis, there are more strong female characters than in any comparable work from antiquity. In Proverbs, Wisdom is allegorized as a woman. By way of comparison, Zhuangzi, my other favorite anthology of sacred literature, contains virtually no references to women.

12. The Saul-David cycle has a depth of psychological realism worthy of the greatest novels. In general, Biblical characters are three-dimensional, flawed beings.

13. No one has ever written a book on The Plants of the Prajnaparamita Sutra.

14. Human beings are consistently depicted as a very small and weak part of an overwhelmingly large universe, and become guilty of the worst kind of impiety if they start to believe otherwise.

15. Desert or wilderness (tohu) is portrayed as part of a separate order that in some sense (as the tohu-wa-bohu of Genesis 1:2) predates and gives rise to Creation; thus, it is a place of testing and renewal (for Jacob/Israel, David, Elijah, etc.) and an image almost of Emptiness in the Buddhist sense.

16. Even as captured and subverted by end-time and Messianic theologies (including Christianity), its literary richness and depth of ambiguity has provided a much-needed moderating influence on radical movements, from the hey-day of gnosticism, through the Scholastics and Kabbalists, down to the Inquisition (which is, in one form or another, on-going).

17. It spawned two translations (the King James Version and, I gather, Martin Luther’s) which rank among the most beloved and influential works of literature in their respective languages – mainly by virtue of cleaving as much as possible to the literal meaning, even at the price of excessive strangeness.

18. The opening chapter of Genesis justifiably served as Exhibit A for the pagan author Longinus’ work On the Sublime. In the Bible, things don’t have to be ideal or perfect in a Platonic sense to inspire awe or reverence.

19. The Bible’s emphasis on mitzvot (“commandments,” duties) basically reinvented religion in the West, turning it away from a primary emphasis on the worship of power and toward an emphasis on the cultivation of individual morality and social justice.

20. The Bible makes room for scathing critiques of kingship and priesthood, and its nebiim (“prophets”) constitute one of the earliest and most important literary and historical models for conscientious objection to institutional power in the West.

21. Because awe is the beginning of wisdom, as the Bible repeatedly suggests, and because spirit and breath are intimately connected, as the Hebrew word ruah (and possibly the very name Yahweh) implies.


This entry is part 37 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


I’ve been reading Paul Zweig, and responding to his poems with poems of my own. This is the twenty-first poem in the third (“Eternity’s Woods”) section of Zweig’s Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details on this experiment in responsive reading. I’ll remove Zweig’s poems after a week or two to prevent egregious copyright infringement.

Parting the Sea
by Paul Zweig

Fog hides the shallow ditch, no more
Than a grassy furrow, marking the edge of our land.

* * * *

Molding the Image
              Aaron speaks

Stay up on the mountain too long, & it changes you.
Droplets of cloud cling to your beard.
Your skin begins to glow like a salamander’s belly.
The occasional groans of the trees start to sound
like the way a crowd should murmur.

Waking up every morning to find the same,
present moment whispering
its incessant demands in your ear –
it makes you intolerable.
You lose touch with the teeming pleasures
that ordinary people crave, because their days are long
& time points in one direction.

Living in the clouds, you lose all perspective,
until one day your worst fantasies
rise up against you:
the luster of gold unfastened from wrist & ankle,
oiled bodies ready for some glistening bullock.
The smashed tablets.
The swords dripping with gore.

Look, I am not that man Moses,
so incoherent with whatever strong emotion
happens to possess him.
God gave me the subtle tongue of a go-between
& the vision to match, bending
in both directions. Look,
the needs of the people are holy to me.
I have been to the mountain, & I can tell you,
there’s nothing up there that’s even faintly human.

Valentine’s bible

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

This is the family bible of my maternal great-great-grandfather Valentine Myers and his wife Viola. It was published in 1882. The title page reads, in part, “The Holy Bible: Containing the Authorized Edition of the New Testament and the Revised Version of A.D. 1881 Arranged in Parallel Columns; with Cruden’s Complete Concordance, Embracing Every Passage of Scripture in the Largest Editions. Comprehensive Bible Dictionary, In Which Every Important Scriptural Word is Fully Explained. A Complete History of Each Book of the Bible, Beautifully Illustrated. Cities of the Bible, With Descriptive Scenes and Events in Palestine. Jewish and Egyptian Antiquities; Biblical Scenery; Manners and Customs of the Ancients; Natural History; Bible Aids for Social Prayer; A History of the Jewish Worship; Biblical Antiquities; Recent Explorations in Bible Lands; History of Herod, King of the Jews, &c. Apocrypha and Psalms. A Concise History of All Religious Denominations, And Many Other Important and Useful Aids to the Study of the Holy Scriptures. All Written to Increase the Interest In and Simplify The Study of the Word of God.”

Two publishers are listed – Bradley, Garretson & Co. in Philadelphia and Wm. Garretson & Co. in Columbus, Ohio and other cities. Given its provenance – the hard coal country of eastern Pennsylvania – it’s safe to assume that this volume was printed in Philadelphia.

In the very center of the gold-embossed leather cover, the names of its original owners are printed: “MR. and MRS. V. MYERS.”

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

This is the portrait of Viola Myers that hangs in my parents’ living room, a formal photograph embellished with paint. Our only photograph of her husband is an informal, slightly blurry snapshot taken sometime in the 1930s. He appears as a white-haired and mustached man with the aquiline nose and large chin typical of Myers males, posing with his son Walter, daughter-in-law Georgina, and grandsons Harold – my grandfather, whom we called Pop-pop – and Walter.

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

The distinguishing feature of family bibles is of course the record of births and deaths, typically sandwiched, as here, between the Apocrypha and the New Testament. The “Births” column includes only the five children of Valentine and Viola: Claude, Walter, Calvin, Ethel and Harold. The “Deaths” page was filled out by three people: first Valentine, then an unknown hand, and then Pop-pop, who gained custody of the bible from a first cousin a few years before his own death in July 2003.

The two entries in Valentine’s hand are crucial to appreciating the rest of this post. The first was for his wife:

Viola Miller Myers. Was born at Lehigh Tannery. Pa. June 15th 1864. Died at Vulcan Pa. April 23rd 1894. Aged. 29. Years 10 Months and Eight Days.

Viola died giving birth to her fifth child. Valentine never remarried, raising the children himself and then joining the household of his son Walter, first in the little coal-company town of Vulcan, above Mahanoy City, then in Pottstown. He was probably the single biggest influence on my Pop-pop, who imbibed much of his strict Methodist religiosity, love of learning and conservative, success-oriented outlook from his grandfather.

The second death record, also in Valentine’s hand, is for that fifth child:

Harold Chester Myers. Died at Perkasie Pa. May 25th. 1908, Aged 15 yrs 5 months and nine days.

Thus we learn why it is that Walter’s first son – my Pop-pop, born in 1914 – bore the name Harold Chester Myers, and the name Walter was reserved for his second son.

The other four entries on the “Deaths” page are for Valentine, his son Calvin, and for Pop-pop’s parents Georgina Dresch and Walter D. Myers. Valentine Myers, we learn, “was born at Ashley, Pa., Nov. 27, 1857. Died at Pottstown, Pa. Sept. 27, 1940.”

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

In a taped interview conducted by my brother Steve – the oldest and most Myers-like in our generation – Pop-pop recalled how his grandfather Valentine read the Bible continuously, cover to cover, in the last couple decades of his life. “Eighteen times!” Pop-pop said, but my mother told me that that was probably an approximation: “Whenever he said ’18,’ he just meant ‘a lot.'”

I doubt that this was the copy of the scriptures Valentine used for his daily reading, though. For one thing, it’s massive, heavy and awkward, and the corners of the pages do not appear to have been thumbed. Instead, this bible seems to have served as a repository for memories, and probably a great deal more. I don’t know if any of us today, even the most devout Christians, can quite conceive of what it means to employ a sacred text in this manner. One of the first things I discovered in flipping through it was a yellowed newspaper clipping tucked between the pages of the book of Job. You can probably already guess its contents:

Harold Myers Buried.
The funeral of Harold, the 15-year old son of Valentine Myers, was held at the home of the bereaved father, at Vulcan, at 12 o’clock noon today, and was largely attended. The services were conducted by Rev. E. W. Burke, pastor of the Methodist Episcopal church of town, after which cortege proceeded by the 12.50 P. R. R. train to the German Protestant cemetery, where interment was made in the family burial plot.

Below this clipping are the faint outlines of where another clipping had been tucked. It’s not hard to guess whose obituary that might have been. Between the pages immediately following are the pressed remnants of what appear to have been rosebuds, faded to a light brown.

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

A ringlet of hair resides between the pages of Jeremiah VI and VII. Jeremiah VII: 29, marked off with a paragraph sign in this edition, reads: “Cut off thine hair, O Jerusalem, and cast it away, and take up a lamentation on high places; for the Lord hath rejected and forsaken the generation of his wrath.”

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

I knew that 19th-century Protestants sometimes used the Book of Ruth for divination regarding marriage, but found nothing pressed between its few pages. However, a full-page lithograph illustrating the meeting of Ruth and Boaz – a plate that happens to be located in I Kings – yielded another intriguing find: a ladyslipper orchid, probably a yellow ladyslipper, judging from the shape. I started to think that Pop-pop’s life-long love of wildflowers might have come from his grandfather, as well.

Of course, it’s possible that later owners of this bible might have been responsible for some of the inserts, though it’s hard to imagine someone else appropriating for their own prayerful use a book that has its original owners’ names engraved on the cover.

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

Most suggestive of all the inserts is this one: an ancient, very faded carnation tucked inside a scrap of paper and inserted next to the last chapter of The Song of Solomon.

Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be contemned.

(Song VIII:6-7. See here for my own reactions to this most enigmatic of biblical texts.)

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

The Book of Numbers – specifically, Chapters VIII, IX and X – holds the mother lode: two more obituaries for Harold Myers (one with his last name misspelled), a newspaper subscription receipt for “Mrs. Myers,” and a local tax receipt for someone named Martin Robters (sp.?). The reasons for including these last two items are not immediately clear to me; I want to suggest some relationship to the practice of numbering or record-keeping, but I’m not sure. Chapter IX of Numbers contains the instructions for removing impurities conferred by contact with a corpse, and the way in which resident aliens – “strangers sojourning among you” – should keep Passover. Perhaps the tax receipt was for someone whom Valentine helped out, during the Depression or before? As a retired mine supervisor, he was always fairly well-off, and spent generously on acts of charity. His daughter-in-law Georgina had a similarly generous spirit: Pop-pop recalled in the interview that they fed every stranger who came to their door during the Great Depression.

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

A two-page spread on “Scripture Natural History – Zoology” contains some pressed tree leaves and another orchid blossom. Again, I’m not sure how to read this insertion. Perhaps some metaphorical meaning was intended – a reminder of the fragility and preciousness of life itself, say, or of this very bible, whose gilt-edged pages have grown almost as brown and brittle as the leaves and clippings it so lovingly enshrines.

Transcript of an editorial meeting

YAH: Almost everything you’ve written here is wrong – or at least, seriously misleading and lacking essential elements of context. No one will read it.

MOSES: Can’t we just dispense with the text and go straight to the commentary?

YAH: The Oral Torah concept? Yeah, but remember: the devil is in the details. Basically, everything you think you know is wrong.

MOSES: Wrongness, then, would seem to be an existential attribute of – um, I mean, the unavoidable condition of Your creatures, correct me if I’m wrong.

YAH: I will, trust me. Generally speaking, to be wrong is to be consumed – by burning, say. Though just once, I would like to feel that myself. It’s hell to be right all the time.

MOSES: I think if we want to write a real bestseller here, we have to put in a lot more angels. Tell me about the seraphim.

YAH: Beetles! I never tire of them, their hard & shiny outer wings, the way those diaphanous inner wings unfold, their way with flowers, dung or carrion. Their almost infinite variety.

MOSES: O.K., maybe I’d better stick with violence and begetting, then. But something you just said made me wonder: philosophically speaking, would it be fair to say that Creation is the only escape from tautology?

YAH: Stop trying to pin me down! I ain’t no beetle! Despite what some Egyptians might have told you.

MOSES: But I heard that you gave Abraham something called Sefer Yetzirah, The Book of Creation – like the Chicago Manual of Style for the cosmos. Where can I get a copy?

YAH: That was just a test, like the Binding of Isaac – which he failed miserably, by the way. What a tool he turned out to be! A cog in search of cogma. Haven’t spoken to him since.

MOSES: “Teaching to the test” is wrong, though, isn’t it?

YAH: He was supposed to figure that out on his own. That was the test. This is not a test! I don’t play dice.

MOSES: But, I mean, is it really possible to create new life forms by combining and recombining the letters of Your name, over and over, in precise and non-intuitive sequences?

YAH: Genetic engineering? Yes, but it’s a waste of time – and leads, of course, to hubris and atheism.

MOSES: Suppose, however – just suppose! – there were a need…

YAH: Look at the way unrelated species come to resemble each other, so-called convergent evolution. What are they converging toward? Look at how species co-evolve – the flower and its pollinator, an intricate pas de deux for which it took billions of years and a couple supernovas to set the stage. Beautiful, yes? But let me tell you, Moe: It’s all in the smiting.

MOSES: O.K., but let’s think of our target audience. The priests are going to want to know: how can we be holy, as You are holy? I mean, that is what you said you wanted to communicate, right? In a nutshell?

YAH: As some German Christian heretic will say in the fullness of time: “If you want the kernel, you must break the shell!” Tell the priesthood to suck on your left nut.

MOSES: That’s not very constructive.

YAH: Then tell them to pay attention. That’s it!

MOSES: What is?

YAH: PAYING ATTENTION! What Adam and Eve had such a hard time with. You know, “the only escape from tautology.” Or solipsism, to look at it from My point-of-view, for once.

MOSES: Come again?

YAH: Bugger off, tablet boy!

History and freedom

Nowhere is the Bible’s status as the fountainhead of Western civilization more in evidence than in its conception of time, its invention of history as a purposeful narrative with a beginning and an end. Some of that is in the interpretation rather than the literal content: for example, contrary to the vast majority of translations, Genesis begins with A beginning, not THE beginning. That is, it should read “When God was beginning to create the heavens and the earth . . . ” But this is almost irrelevant if we are interested in the Bible’s cultural influence. In fact, one of the things that makes it still so rich and rewarding a text, even for agnostics like me, is the immense multiplicity of voices one hears as one reads. Impossible to find a passage that has not been freighted with meaning by some faith community or another in the past 2500 years.

The imputation of meaning to Biblical and quasi-Biblical texts is probably a topic I’ll return to frequently in the course of my blogging. Today I am thinking about freedom and authority. Originally, of course, the core of the Bible was simply an ingenious anthology designed to give comfort and guidance to a priestly people in exile; only later did it become – let’s face it – something of an idol. (1) Faced with the nearly unquestionable authority of these ancient writings, what was a religious thinker to do?

The Christians, for 1500 years or so, allowed themselves the freedom of allegorical interpretations. This strategy did lend an air of legitimacy to a wide range of beliefs and propositions, many of them mutually contradictory. The downside was that it tended to vitiate characters and events and deracinate story qua story. The rabbis – probably partly in reaction – rigorously avoided allegory; their main interpretive strategy was to posit a timeless quality for each major event and character. That is to say, any given phrase or incident could be liberated from its immediate context and applied to other, superficially irrelevant situations, according to a continuously elaborated set of interpretative rules. Since the Rabbinical Fathers, like the Christians, assumed perfect internal consistency for the Tanakh as a whole, they could draw an effectively infinite number of lessons from the text simply by connecting discrete passages in new ways. In this way they, too, altered the original narratives to allow for multiple potential beginnings and endings, while preserving the particularity of beings and incidents.

The rabbis permitted themselves an additional freedom that the Church Fathers did not: the power to construct new, authoritative texts. It is interesting, however, that they studiously avoided all narrative in the first and most impenetrable of these, the Mishnah. Historian Donald Harman Akenson (Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds, Harcourt, 1998) sensibly suggests that this avoidance stemmed from a heartsickness over the disasters that befell Palestinian Jews in the first several centuries of the Christian era, when the Mishnah was assembled. They were sick to death of the history they and YHWH had co-created.

The rabbis asserted a patriarchal version of vox populi, vox dei. There’s a wonderful story in the Talmud of a rabbi who successfully contended against multiple signs of displeasure form Heaven, including an earthquake, in a dispute over the interpretation of a law. He won by asserting that the Torah (Law, Dharma) is for human beings, and the majority were on his side, whatever God might think! Thus, the Mishnah – the great, lawyerly text upon which the whole grand edifice of Rabbinical Judaism is based – does not claim to derive authority from the written Torah, though Biblical references abound. Instead, it claims the cumulative authority of hundreds of communally sanctioned elders engaged in passionate and intense debate over the course of several centuries. According to Akenson, the Babylonian Talmud (a.k.a. Bavli) makes this freedom from the tyranny of the text explicit, on a few occasions going so far as to reinterpret passages from the Torah to mean essentially the opposite of their apparent meaning! And of course, the real wealth of the Bavli lies in the countless short stories that are introduced to illustrate one point or another. (Pretty much my whole exposure to the thing has been through translations of this Aggadah.) By hook or by crook, within or without the meta-narratives of historians, the real world in all its flawed and multifarious splendor will sneak back in!

But what I am wondering today is whether it makes sense to talk about freedom at all in the context of Jewish and Christian eschatology. This strikes me as the real problem with monotheism, as far as human rights and the self-determination and dignity of all creatures is concerned. Conceptions of the divine can shift (in some circles, have already shifted) to accommodate non-hierarchical and immanentist modes of thinking. But how do we escape from the finality of history, from the apparently arbitrary choice of yes or no, hope or despair? Isn’t the notion of a once-and-for-all judgement inimical to freedom? Can a freedom whose true, realized form inhabits the future alone ever be anything but a mirage? Isn’t it, in fact, like the proverbial carrot suspended forever out of reach, luring the donkey forward? Objectively speaking, isn’t the donkey as much a slave to his desire for the carrot as he is to the master who drives him with a switch?

The atheist has a simple exit strategy, of course. I would suggest, however, that the person of faith might do well to avail herself of much the same strategy! After all, didn’t Meister Eckhart say “For the love of God, get rid of God” and Linji exclaim that “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”?

To return once more to this weblog’s main theme, that ultimate reality is ultimately recondite: it is not that It has no name, but that Its name must remain hidden until the end of time. What if time may be annihilated through a sudden act of grace? Does it even make sense to hope for such a revelation, given what we have just said about hope? But from long wrestling, the tradition suggests, some kind of grace or deliverance may come.

Recall again the trickster Jacob, journeying home and in fear for his life – walking, for all he knew, straight toward his doom (Genesis 32 and 33). Recall that Esau had been cheated out of his birthright for no good reason: that is to say, only the zero-sum determination that their father Isaac’s blessing could go to one son or the other, but not to both, had made his lying brother the favorite and him the outcast (Genesis 27). In some mysterious way that the text does not spell out (thankfully, for untold generations of exegetes!) Esau’s forgiveness is prepared by the “angel’s” act of grace in granting Jacob a new name and a deeper wisdom. (2)

The obvious anthropological precedent here is the initiation ceremony, the end product of which is a new name and a new man. (3) Enhanced self-knowledge and re-integration into society are the expected corollaries. In this case, Esau recognizes that the former sociopath has been transformed.

I can’t help thinking that the reconciliation between these archetypal warring brothers offers hope for the present-day situation in Palestine: “And Esau said, I have enough, my brother; keep that thou hast unto thyself. And Jacob said, Nay, I pray thee, if now I have found grace in thy sight, then receive my present at my hand: for therefore I have seen thy face, as though I had seen the face of God, and thou wast pleased with me. Take, I pray thee, my blessing that is brought to thee; because God hath dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough. And he urged him, and he took it.” (KJV, Genesis 33:9-11. Italics are of course my own.) Without a spirit of generosity and forgiveness, without a willingness to see God’s face in the adversary, there will never be true freedom for either side. And is it not in fact this sense of limited blessings, of a zero-sum game, that turns reality from a superabundance of “lights and mysteries” into a narrow tunnel leading toward a single, blinding light?

I must confess at this point that I cannot take full credit for the foregoing chain of thought. This whole meditation was sparked by my reading of the following passage from Abraham J. Heschel right before I drank my morning coffee:

“The opposite of freedom is not determinism, but hardness of heart. Freedom supposes openness of heart, of mind, of eye and ear. . . . Freedom is not a natural disposition, but God’s precious gift to man. [I can hear my anarchist compatriots howling already!] Those in whom viciousness becomes second nature, those in whom brutality is linked with haughtiness, forfeit their ability and therefore their right to receive that gift. Hardening of the heart is the suspension of freedom. Sin becomes compulsory and self-destructive. Guilt and punishment become one.” (A. J. Heschel, The Prophets: An Introduction, Harper, 1962, 191.)

Among other things, this offers a neat solution to the theological conundrum of how hell – a place without god – can exist, if god is omnipresent. Illusory as it may ultimately be, it is human beings in the midst of history who manufacture such an absence. I would add that, anywhere nihilistic thinking is allowed to predominate, anywhere that the “nothing more than” mentality holds sway over “nothing less than,” a kind of hell is created. But let’s hear the rest of what Heschel has to say.

“In other words, the ability to understand, to see or hear the divine significance of events, may be granted or withheld from man. One may see great wonders, but remain insensitive.” And drawing upon numerous Biblical examples, Heschel makes the following startling (to those unfamiliar with the via negativa) pronouncement: “It seems that the only cure for willful hardness is to make it absolute. Half callousness, paired with obstinate conceit, seeks no cure. When hardness is complete, it becomes despair, the end of conceit. Out of despair, out of the total inability to believe, prayer bursts forth.” (Ibid., 191-192.)

Heschel goes further and posits that God is not without blame: “The dark fact of callousness, just like the luminous power of understanding, goes back to God who creates light as well as darkness in the heart of man. The weird miracle of callousness, resistance of God, may be due to an obstinacy imposed by God. Punishment and guilt become one.

“While not denying that the people sin of their own free will, there is a subtle awareness of God’s being involved in man’s going astray, an involvement that adds bafflement to injury.
Oh lord, why dost Thou make us err from Thy ways
And harden our heart, so that we fear Thee not?
(Isaiah 63:17)” (Ibid, 192.)

And there, save for some additional quotes from Job (39:16-17) and the rabbinical commentator Kimhi, is where Heschel leaves us: with the bafflement. Theodicy (how God can be good and omnipotent, if evil exists) must remain an unsolvable dilemma, comparable to the existence of samsara in Buddhism.

My favorite approach to the problem is to turn it back on itself. Setting aside the question of how biological existence would be possible if no sentient being ever suffered, imagine a world where bad things simply couldn’t happen to good people. If good were automatically rewarded and evil automatically punished in an obvious way, then freedom would become hollow and meaningless. Good itself would lose all meaning, given the consciousness of an automatic reward. (If someone is being good solely or primarily because they think that will get them into heaven, are they really being good – or just looking out for number one?) The sad thing, I think, is that many, many people – of all faiths and none – would view this as a perfect world! In fact it would entail complete totalitarian madness; the only rational response to such a world would be suicide.

So where is the true freedom of heaven to be sought? My friend Fred Ramsey includes at the bottom of his e-mails the following quote from the great Yoruban-Nigerian drummer Olatunji: “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow, a mystery. And today? Today is a gift. That’s why they call it the present.”

“Ah, purported truth through punning – how simple-minded, how low-brow!” How come? Puns and rhymes and rhythms tell us as much about the way the world works as, say, mathematics. In any case, I think it’s true. Actually, I arrived at a similar spot at the end of a long poem – which, oddly enough, pivoted on a quote from a Yoruba hymn comparing the Creator (Obatala) to a swarm of bees. Trying to sound as vatic as possible, I ended up pouring this thought into a reductionist mold: “The kingdom of heaven is nothing but the world in bloom.” (See the last poem in Capturing the Hive.)

So yes, I believe this much: that we must allow the gift of the present to become fully present, within and without. How we get there, individually and collectively, is another question.

(1) The relentlessly monistic and iconoclastic Sikhs are honest enough to refer to their main religious text as a guru – the Guru Granth – and pay it frequent homage as the one licit object of near-worship. I gather that many Jewish congregations have a similar relationship with scrolls of Torah, and of course for many Christians – especially those of a Pentecostal bent – a physical Bible is far more than just a book. In each case, the text has become a talisman or icon. The terms fetish and idol now seem derogatory, but phenomenologically it’s all the same thing. I fail to see how the supposedly naive belief in a spirit literally inhabiting an image differs from the belief that the sacred may be concentrated anywhere – in mountain, temple, ark or book.

(2) Jacob is far from the only major character in the Bible to wrestle with god, literally or figuratively. Among other examples of note we should consider Abraham’s argument with god at Mamre (Genesis 18:23-33) and – most perilous of all – Zipporah’s defense of Moses against YHWH’s murderous intentions at the inn on the border of Egypt (Exodus 5:24-27). The latter case apparently had to do with the blood-guilt Moses had incurred through his earlier murder on Egyptian soil, which a diety committed to retributive justice would be bound to exact payment for – against what must have been Its own intentions. If this line of interpretation is correct, this is one of the few places in the Bible where something like the Greek notion of universal laws overriding the divine will appears to be invoked.

(3) Or woman, except that women don’t undergo initiation in most societies. The Pueblo Indians generously spin this as a mark of women’s natural superiority – they are already “finished” in some sense that men are not – though I doubt that such a perception has ever had a very wide currency.