A Very Short History of Who Said What About the Pentateuch, and When

The author of the Pentateuch was virtually unanimously believed to be Moses until the 17th century. And even then, it was not until the 19th century that skepticism regarding Mosaic authorship caught on like wildfire so that the traditional view quickly became the minority view. Throughout the 18th century, serious debate regarding its authorship was waged by heavy hitters like Witte, Astruc, Eichorn, and Ilgen, who ultimately paved the way for the more substantive departures to come in the 19th century by positing the existence of a ‘Jawist’ and an Elohist, on the (rather anemic) basis of the variation throughout the Pentateuch of ‘divine names’.

Through the 19th century, a number of hypotheses were offered to replace the traditional view. Geddes suggested that the Pentateuch was the synthesized product of a multitude of fragments. Franz Delitsch posited a process whereby an initially straightforward sacred tradition was gradually supplemented until finally arriving at its canonical form, somewhere in the Exile period. Hupfield and Graf were pioneers of what has come to be called the ‘Documentary Hypothesis’, which taught that a definite and identifiable group of sources from varying Hebraic cultic traditions, were ultimately brought together into what we now know as the Pentateuch.

Wellhausen ingeniously took this notion and ran with it, presenting a ‘coherent’ reconstruction of ancient Hebrew history. He suggested that Israel’s religious history developed like all religious histories supposedly develop: They began, he said, very simple, with little cultic flair, disorganized and decentralized. By the time of the Deuteronomist, however, there was a push for a unified Temple worship, or, at least, the birth pangs thereof, and so the Pentateuchal sources were further redacted to reflect this (although, apparently not particularly well, since the ‘evidence’ for the previous, ‘decentralized’ religion of ancient Israel is supposedly still plainly visible in the text).

Finally, by the time the Priestly redactor came around, there was little left of the old Prophetic faith, with its emphasis on ethics and such. In its stead, we are told, there is an almost obsessive attention devoted to cultic practice – an elaborate sacrificial system, a colorfully defined Temple, and, most importantly, a ‘central sanctuary’.

Wellhausen’s reconstruction, or at least some variation thereof, has become more or less axiomatic in mainstream academia. Although he largely popularized the Documentary hypothesis, there are a few glaring methodological limitations, not least that its conclusions are largely unverifiable and, worse, unreplicatable (irreplicatable? Unreproducible? Irreproducible? Words are difficult.)

That is, of the manifold scholars who have followed in the footsteps of these skeptical trailblazers, few of them have arrived at terribly similar conclusions about the particulars of the formation and authorship of the Pentateuch. Generally, if a theory is good, it should easily replicated by those who go through the same process whereby it was reach.

But because the Documentary Hypothesis and its various cousins are almost entirely conjectural, they are impossible to work with. As a purely conjectural foundation, they back scholars who operate from them into a corner in which they are forced to content themselves with building entire careers on little more than glorified guesswork.

Nevertheless, the Pentateuch is complex. At some points, Moses is said to be meek, whereas he is elsewhere said to be mighty and bold. Contextually, these hardly need to be contradictory, but they do present a challenge. And, too, the Law codes, especially of Leviticus and Deuteronomy (and elsewhere) have their share of seemingly irreconcilable commands, but often this appears upon closer examination to be a case of non-overlapping casuistic scenarios. Even in cases in which apodictic commands appear to grate against one another, they do not, upon closer examination, need to be read as contestants in a zero-sum duel.

Moreover, reading through the Pentateuch, one is struck more by the remarkably theological consistency between even apparently disparate passages. The uniform witness of the Pentateuch is to God’s unique identity. He is the only Creator – the only one who can bara. He shares no common ground with the pagan deities, and has no difficulty dispatching them – and their subjects – when necessary. Whatever apparent diversity there is to be found in the beautifully complex books of Moses only underscores the broad theological unity thereof.

Thus, given the well-nigh unanimous testimony of the Church through the ages regarding Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, we ought to defer to those who have gone before us in regards to its Mosaic authorship and accept that the man himself was behind it – especially given the flimsiness of the skeptical objections by 17th-19th century elites.

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A Post About A Book About Sanctification

“To be sanctified is to have your faith simplified, clarified, and deepened.” Writes David Powlison, author of How Does Sanctification Work. “You know God. You love God. How other people are doing matters increasingly to you. Becoming more holy means, [among other things], that you are becoming a wiser human being.”

He goes on: “You are learning how to deal with your money, your sexuality, your job. You are becoming a better friend and family member. When you talk, your words communicate more good sense, more gravitas, more joy, more reality.”

“You are learning to pray honestly, bring who God really is into the reality of human need. It means you live in more clear-minded hope.” And finally, “You know the purpose of your life, roll up your sleeves, and get about doing what needs doing. You are honestly thankful for good things. You honestly face disappointment and pain, illness and dying.”

According to Powlison, Sanctification does not simply boil down to vaguely thinking about one’s Justification. Although the scriptures say “remember your Justification,” it does not mean that each time I sin, my responsibility is simply to remind myself that I am fully, freely, and forever forgiven because of the work of Christ on the cross.

And it does not simply mean that we try super-hard to be super-good outside of the power of the Holy Spirit. According to Powlison, our whole salvation was purchased by Christ, for Christ, and is accomplished through Christ, including our Sanctification. As we “remember [our] Justification,” we submit to the Spirit whom Christ sent, and the Spirit conforms us, over the course of a lifetime, to the likeness of the Christ whose righteousness is already imputed onto us.

There is absolutely no version of Sanctification that happens outside of relationship with other people. Powlison lists ‘accountability relationships’ as an indispensable resource that the Spirit uses to hammer us into the likeness of Christ. Sanctification involves using all of the ‘tools’ that He has given us. Powlison writes that we are given a ‘truckload’ of tools, and none of them are end-all-be-all; neither accountability nor ‘spiritual warfare’ nor ‘rooting our identity in Christ’ are individually efficacious to root out our sin nature. God has bestowed us with a ‘truckload’, and we submit to His work by using all of them.

There’s no ‘formula’ for Sanctification whereby we follow seven simple steps and come out the other side as a new creation. The process is always scattered, unfolding at a rickety pace, in fits and starts, as we stumble and grasp at straws before submitting again to the Spirit whose work isn’t scattershot and rickety. The essence of Sanctification, he says, is submission to the Spirit – we “remember our Justification” when we allow our Justification to bear its fruit; because we are Justified in Christ, the Spirit comes to us to Sanctify us, completing the work of the cross.

The call to Sanctification and the call to live on mission are essentially the same thing, Powlison writes. God does not simply Sanctify us because it pleases Him for us to reflect the perfect righteousness of His Son (although this is one reason), but because it pleases Him for His elect to draw others into the fold by embodying a righteousness that proves contagious, that gets others God-sick. Our Sanctification, which others see as they know us through the years, is one means by which God seeks out the lost. Sanctified people are de facto missionaries because they are being sanctified, publicly, and it causes people to want to know the God who does the Sanctifying.

Sanctification takes place chiefly in the context of discipleship: you are sanctified as you are discipled, and you are sanctified as you disciple. If we are not being discipled by other believers who are being Sanctified, then we are likely not growing in grace, and we are likely not being “transformed, from one degree of glory to another, into the image of Christ”. And, if we are not discipling others, Christian and non-Christian, then we are probably not being changed by grace. Sanctification is for sinful people, and our ongoing struggles with sin do not derail our Sanctification. But sluggardliness can.

If we are hiding from community and accountability, we are probably hiding from God, even if we think we aren’t. We are conformed together, the passage from Ephesians says, into His image, and we need each other.

Knowing that there is no formula by which Sanctification plays out challenges us to seek out every opportunity to submit to the Spirit’s work in us. This means that every opportunity to share the gospel with someone – say, a homeless person that you have an opportunity to buy lunch for – is to be used for the kingdom. It is not simply a good thing to do, it’s part of the Spirit-wrought process whereby we grow into our identity in Christ.

To paraphrase Powlison, Sanctification is what happens as the Spirit works out the life of Jesus in our own lives. Even if we have jobs and homes and pets, we are, in essence, itinerant evangelists who insert ourselves into the life of our communities as witnesses to the gospel of grace.

“Ministry ‘unbalances’ truth for the sake of relevance; theology ‘rebalances’ truth for the sake of comprehensiveness,” Writes Powlison. “Put another way, because you can only say one thing at a time, a timely word must be a selective word focusing on the need of the moment. And this selective focus produces a kind of imbalance.”

He concludes: “But stepping back from the need of the moment, many things can be said, and this larger theological picture helps us maintain balance.” So it goes with Sanctification.

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How Does Sanctification Work can be purchased on Amazon and probably other places, too.

Marduk’s Cubicle

When you’re a religion major, it’s not uncommon to meet some disgruntled freshman, fresh out of his second-semester Old Testament class, railing against whatever it was that his parents raised him to believe, citing disparate factoids that his professor briefly covered, ripped from their context and wielded as shoddy weaponry in their crusade to have cool, edgy new opinions. One such factoid is the Ancient Near Eastern belief in what has come to be called the ‘heavenly court’ or the ‘heavenly council’.

There’s an entire chapter devoted to the subject in Peter Enns’ enjoyable if gratingly polemical The Bible Tells Me So, in which he goes to great lengths to make the ‘court’ seem as outlandish as possible, and suggests that its existence in the ancient Jewish imagination means that that most of we think that we know about the Old Testament is basically wrong. He published the aforementioned book pretty fresh off of being terminated from Westminster Theological Seminary because the angry, rich parents of some uppity seminarians complained that his Old Testament classes weren’t enough like Sunday School, so his hyperbolic approach may have reactionary.

In any case, the ‘heavenly court’ is alluded to primarily in ‘poetic’ sections of scripture, which muddies the water. It is not immediately obvious, for example, whether the imagery used in Psalm 82 should be taken as an affirmation that the ‘heavenly council’ is a concrete body that actually exists rather than a simply a literary device. Likewise, in 1 Kings 22:19-23, Micaiah alludes viscerally to the heavenly council as he describes a vision given to him by the Lord: The wicked king Ahab has requested his counsel on whether he should go to war with Ramoth-gilead – but not before having his messenger pressure Micaiah for a favorable prophecy. He replies:

“Hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on His throne, and the whole heavenly host was standing by Him at His right hand and at His left hand. And the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab to march up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ So one was saying this and another was saying that.
“Then a spirit came forward, stood before the Lord, and said, ‘I will entice him.’
“The Lord asked him, ‘How?’
“He said, ‘I will go and become a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’
“Then He said, ‘You will certainly entice him and prevail. Go and do that.’
“You see, the Lord has put a lying spirit into the mouth of all these prophets of yours, and the Lord has pronounced disaster against you.”

It is unclear, too, from this passage whether the council is a real entity or simply a common Near Eastern trope that YHWH, through the mouth of the prophet, is satirizing. The verbal prophecy is notably acerbic in tone, and was delivered as a response to Ahab’s complaints regarding his history of unfavorable prophesies. Adding to the formal ambiguity of the passage is the fact that it is puzzling to contemporary readers. Taken at face value, it not only suggests that there is a council of divines with whom the one God YHWH consults, but that He sometimes permits (even solicits!) them to sabotage individual humans (see also: 1 Sam 19:9-14). There is an inordinate demand, even within more conservative religious communities, for demythologized readings of passages of this sort.

What is not ambiguous is the of the book of Job, wherein the council (“the sons of God”) present themselves to YHWH and become spectators of the peculiar exchange between YHWH and Satan. He asks YHWH for permission to torment Job in an effort to incite him to curse YHWH, and permission is granted. He is not, however, given permission to harm Job himself. Later, a similar scene plays out, this time with Satan requesting permission to harm Job himself, again in an effort to incite him to renounce his faith. Again, permission is granted.

It is oft-suggested that the book of Job is ahistorical – that it is chiefly a poem, or a satirical play – and this may be the majority view among modern scholars, but this is an unsatisfactory theory. Although it is true that there is no substantive internal indication that Job is meant to be understood as a tale from history, there is intra-biblical evidence that the man, Job, was a historical figure. Ezekiel 14:15-20, for example, names Noah, Daniel, and Job together in a group.

Now, the reference to Job alone in this prophesy would not by necessity mean that he was a historical figure – the prophets were good rhetoricians (and so is the Holy Spirit) who put the imagery of the Near East to great use in their sermons and prophecies. But it is noteworthy that Ezekiel mentions three men: Noah, Daniel, and Job. Between these three, Daniel is certainly as historical figure, and one can probably expect consistency from Ezekiel here. Which means that, beyond reasonable doubt, it can be assumed that Ezekiel – and thus, probably, all of the ancient Hebrews – believed Job to be a historical figure. And in that case, it is unlikely that an ahistorical tale about a historical figure would be included in the canon (or inspired by the Spirit).

Thus, it can be inferred that the ‘heavenly court’, a common trope in ancient Near Eastern mythology, is, in fact, a historical body – not simply a bit of familiar mythological imagery that the Old Testament writers put to use for rhetorical purposes. As such, the other mentions of the heavenly council throughout the scriptures, although they occur in a variety of genres and therefore must be examined critically, should be understood to refer accurately to a real entity.

Pagan sources are somewhat varied on precisely how the court worked, but a few things were generally agreed upon: The universe was created by the council of gods, either by cooperation or by competition with one another. The world was divvied up and each god took a territory. Together, they bestow kingship on humans (or take it away), and oversee questions of justice and the miscarriage thereof. They hear oaths, treaties, blessings, and curses. They make divine decrees, declare war, and commission the building of holy temples. In some iterations, the gods in the assembly would make obeisance to a higher god.

In the Hebrew scriptures, the assembly was not a gathering of equals, as YHWH appears to have been the final, and perhaps singular, authority over the other supernatural beings with whom He would gather. The other members of the court, the ‘lesser gods’ (Ps. 96:4-5; 97:7-9), would carry out the will of YHWH, sometimes, apparently, by influencing humans (1 Kings 22:20-22) Strangely enough, Satan was apparently granted some degree of access to the court (Job 1:6-12; 2:1-7; Zech. 3:1-2), which has led scholars to suggest that the Jews originally envisaged him as a member of the court whose duty was to keep watch over humanity’s conduct on earth. However, a lack of slam-dunk intra- or extra-biblical evidence supporting this view makes difficult to demonstrate, so there is little reason to depart from the traditional understanding, best articulated by John, that Satan was an antagonistic figure from ‘the beginning’ (John 8:44; 1 John 3:8; Rev. 20:2).

What is not clear is the extent to which their subservience to YHWH was willing or coerced. The Qumran sect identified the beings who abided on YHWH’s council as ‘the holy ones’ – a term that shows up often, especially throughout the Psalms and elsewhere. If this is the case, then the heavenly court is presented, it would seem, in a positive light. The ‘holy ones’ are portrayed worshipping YHWH joyfully and carrying out His will with apparently unadulterated enthusiasm. A cursory reading of the Old Testament suggests that this is unlikely. Of the passages often believed to associate the ‘holy ones’ with the heavenly court (Dt. 33:2-3; Ps. 68:17; 89:5-8; Zec. 14:5), only Ps. 89:5-8 is demonstrably a reference to the court:

Lord, the heavens praise Your wonders—
Your faithfulness also—
in the assembly of the holy ones.
For who in the skies can compare with the Lord?
Who among the heavenly beings is like the Lord?
God is greatly feared in the council of the holy ones,
more awe-inspiring than all who surround Him.
Lord God of Hosts,
who is strong like You, Lord?
Your faithfulness surrounds You.

The rest, with the possible exception of Zechariah 14:5, read rather like references to the people of Israel. Thus, although the ‘holy ones’ of the council ‘greatly feared’ the Lord, it cannot be assumed that they treasured His authority or carried out His will with a glad heart, as did the ‘holy ones’ of Israel (in theory, of course). Given the incongruity between the inherent ‘territorialism’ of the pagan conceptions of the heavenly court and the unambiguous ‘unilateralism’ of the Biblical accounts of the court, an interested observer may venture to guess that the arrangement was never to the liking of the ‘lesser gods’ over whom YHWH presided. So much so, it would seem, that the Babylonian Enuma Elish declares that ‘Marduk is supreme in the court of the gods,’ not YHWH, and that ‘No one among the gods is his equal,’ – if he couldn’t be ‘supreme’ at the office, at least he’d brag as though he were at home.

All of which is to say, the existence of the ‘heavenly court’ doesn’t seem to be particularly at odds with a fairly traditional understanding of the God of the Old Testament. It does not, as some have suggested, destabilize the notion that Israel was consistently monotheistic in orientation. At most, it implies a kind of soft Henotheism, but hardly the sort that ought to stir up controversy. A council of ‘lesser gods’ who serve the unilateral will of YHWH, whose disobediences and rebellions are only possible by His sovereign permission, is no particular challenge to the vision of continuity between the Old-and-New Testament conceptions of the Godhead that have been passed down. The ‘heavenly court’ poses no challenge to ‘the faith once delivered’.

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For reference, see:

Min Suc Kee: “The Heavenly Council and its Type-scene.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 31, no. 3 (2007)

Clinton E. Arnold. Powers of darkness: principalities & powers in Pauls letters. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998.

Gatumu, Kabiro Wa. The Pauline concept of supernatural powers: a reading from the African worldview. Paternoster Biblical Monographs. Milton Keynes , MK: Paternoster, 2008.

In Praise of Guilt: Reflections on ‘Wise Blood’ and ‘Mexican Bus Ride’

Grindhouse Theology

I was once in an unpleasant game of pool when my then-girlfriend’s older sister felt compelled to grill me on the fact that I, like her sister, was a Christian. More specifically, the sort of Christian who goes out of their way to get a degree in Religion – to plumb the depths of what, in her estimation, is an embodied absurdism, an intellectual suicide and, worse, an antiquated bit of heavy-handed social control, which, by now, ought to have done us all a favor and withered away.

This one-time potential in-law had not, evidently, been made aware of the debt that the best of modern civilization – East and West alike – owes to ‘Religion’ as such; be it Christendom’s faithful preservation of the ‘humanities’ through the inevitable ‘dark ages’ following the Empire’s long-approaching collapse, or the Islamic world’s insatiable appetite for what has, today, blossomed into the ‘STEM’…

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Becoming What We Are: Reflections on ‘Angst’ and ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’

Grindhouse Theology

LikeAngst(1983),John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killeropens as the titular character is released from prison. And likeAngst, it follows the ex-con as he attempts to navigate a world that does not, and cannot, have a place for him.

I remember seeingHenryfor the first time. I was probably fifteen. It came on IFC around three in the morning – I didn’t often sleep in those days. As the credits began to roll, I couldn’t move, or speak, or breathe. I had seen something, which I could not unsee, and the likes of which I suspected I would never see again.

Its final images, still, are among the most haunting I have laid eyes on. And, yes, I have seen whichever French movie you are now picturing in your mind that supposedly one-upsHenry‘s ‘disturbing factor’.It is not a particularly bloody film, especially…

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Thirty-Three Propositions from Eph. 2:1-10

Eph. 2:1-10 reads as such:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

There are some things to be derived from this passage. These are thirty-three of them:

  1. Paul’s readers were previously “dead” in their “trespasses”.
  2. Paul’s readers were also previously “dead” in their “sins”.
  3. They used to “walk” in their “trespasses” and “sins”, but not anymore.
  4. When they “walked” in their “trespasses” and “sins”, they did so “according to the ways of this world”.
  5. When they “walked” in their “trespasses” and “sins”, they did so “according to the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens”.
  6. The “ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens” is “the spirit now working in the disobedient”.
  7. Both Paul and his readers previously lived among “the disobedient”.
  8. When they lived among the disobedient, they “in our fleshly desires”.
  9. When they were living “in our fleshly desires” among “the disobedient”, they “carried out the inclinations of their flesh.”
  10. When they were living “in our fleshly desires” among “the disobedient”, they also “carried out the inclinations of our … thoughts”
  11. During the time when they lived “in our fleshly desires” among “the disobedient” and carried out the “inclinations” of their “flesh” and “thoughts”, they were “children under wrath”.
  12. When they were “children under wrath”, they were so in the same way “as the others were also”.
  13. God is “rich in mercy”.
  14. God had “great love” for Paul and his readers.
  15. God “made us alive with the Messiah”.
  16. God did this even “though we were dead in trespasses”.
  17. The reason that God “made us alive with the Messiah” is “because of His great love that He had for us”.
  18. Paul’s readers “are saved by Grace”.
  19. God raised Jesus “up and seated” Jesus “in the heavens”.
  20. God raised us up “together with Christ Jesus” and “seated play the immeasurus in the heavens”.
  21. He did this to “display the immeasurable riches of His grace.”
  22. The “immeasurable riches of His grace” are displayed “through His kindness to us”.
  23. The “immeasurable riches of His grace”, which are displayed “through His kindness to us in Christ Jesus” will be displayed “in the coming ages”.
  24. Paul’s readers are saved by grace “through faith”.
  25. To be “saved by grace through faith” is something that “is not from yourselves”.
  26. To be “saved by grace through faith” is “God’s gift”.
  27. Paul’s readers are not saved “by/from works”.
  28. The “faith” through which Paul’s readers are “saved by grace” is not, itself, a work.
  29. Because Paul’s readers are “saved by grace through faith”, which is “not from yourselves” and “not from works” but is “God’s Gift”, thus “no one can boast”.
  30. Paul and his readers are “God’s workmanship”.
  31. Paul and his readers were “created in Christ Jesus”.
  32. “Good works” is that for which Paul and his readers were “created in Christ Jesus”.
  33. The “good works” for which Paul and his readers were “created in Christ Jesus” were “prepared beforehand that we should walk in them”.

Most of my posts are extended comedy routines about things I find important, but not this one. I could write for ages about why Eph. 2:1-10 is funny, and important, but today it can speak for itself. Go do some good works that God prepared beforehand.

Aronofsky’s Demiurge (A Spoiler-y Reflection on ‘Mother!’)

mother-poster

As the credits began to roll, the audience with whom I saw Darren Aronofsky’s newest film, Mother!, reacted with hushed groans and awkward laughter. This was not the film anyone expected to see. I freaking loved it.

The trailers were vague, but suggested that the film, which stars Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem as an unnamed couple whose home is gradually invaded by an ever-multiplying family of belligerent troglodytes, was going to be a horror film, or at least a thriller or some sort. And it was, although one so oblique that it hardly counts as a film at face value, let alone a genre film.

My roommate turned to me and barked, “What did you bring me to?” before rubbing his beard pensively and continuing, “I’ll be thinking about this movie for a year.”

If you’ve seen, like, anything Darren Aronofsky has released in the last decade or so (and, really, anything he’s ever released) it will not be surprising that his new home-invasion thriller is actually a spiritual meditation.

There are, I imagine, plenty of articles that will lay out precisely how each of Mother!‘s jarring, phantasmagorical images correspond to this or that passage from the Bible, or the Talmud, or the great works of Hebrew Pseudepigrapha, but I want to zero in on a handful of specifics, and the implications thereof.

There will be spoilers ahead. Actually, all of them. If you have not seen the film and aren’t planning on it, I have included a fairly detailed synopsis below. If you have not seen it and plan on seeing it, read no further.

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Not unlike his 2014 retelling of the biblical story of Noah and the ark, Mother! is an eco-parable. Rather ingeniously, he dramatizes the biblical story of creation and the Fall – and of multiplying and filling the earth, and, finally, of the flood – from the perspective of Mother(!) Earth.

Jennifer Lawrence is Mother Earth, envisioned here as the nameless bride of a nameless Javier Bardem – a poet, and an illustrious one. They are in the process of rebuilding their house, a beautiful mansion situated on the quiet countryside. It burned down before they met, and our heroine has taken it upon herself to restore it to its former glory.

Soon, a strange man (played by Ed Harris) arrives at their doorstep. He is new in own, and had been under the impression that their idyllic mansion was a Bed & Breakfast. Javier Bardem forgets that hotels exist and invites him to stay the night, much to his young bride’s annoyance. Their unexpected visitor manages to traverse one boundary line after another – he smokes in the house, even after the woman of the house requests that he stop, he pries into their personal life in ways that anyone marginally versed in etiquette would know to be inappropriate. And he is sick, quite so: before retreating to bed, Lawrence witnesses her husband assisting  their guest as he expels the contents of his stomach into their toilet. In a blink-and-you-miss-it shot, we catch a glimpse of the strange gash in Ed Harris’s side.

The next morning, his insufferable wife (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives, also unannounced. Lawrence discovers that while she slept, her husband gave Harris permission to invite his wife to stay with them “for as long as they need”. Naturally, she is not pleased, as their guest’s wife proves to be even more prying and unsavory than he. More than anything, she presses – and presses some more – as to why the couple does not have children. Noticing Lawrence’s reticent body language – as these types always do – she corners her while the men are out exploring and reframes her question: Why doesn’t she want to be a mother?

Noticing the terror in her eyes – as these types always do – Pfeiffer realizes that she does want children.

Almost on cue, Harris and Pfeiffer’s own children show up uninvited, barging into the house to have a shouting match, which ends with the elder son bludgeoning his younger brother to death in the den before fleeing the scene of the crime.

Bardem leaves Lawrence alone to follow the family to the hospital. A few hours later, he returns alone. Finally, she thinks, things may return to normal.

They won’t, of course. Without warning, Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer return to the house – with their entire extended family. Our heroine is horrified. Her husband welcomes them with open arms and invites them to make themselves at home. Without mentioning it to her, he had invited the family to hold a funereal gathering in their kitchen.

More friends and family arrive by the minute in full funeral dress, with baked goods wrapped in tin-foil and absolutely no sense of restraint toward their host’s property: While Bardem delivers a speech in honor of the deceased son, rowdy guests co-opt the master bedroom to have sex while others dislodge a washroom sink from the wall, breaking the water main and flooding the house. Bardem doesn’t mind, but Lawrence finally snaps, expelling the guests from her house in a rush of fury so commanding that even her husband counts the cost and opts against gas-lighting her again.

After the dust settles, they are alone again. Still riding the adrenaline rush of the evening, She breaks again from her passive disposition and challenges him to have sex with her. He obliges, and she conceives.

We jump forward approximately nine months. The house is finally complete, and the baby is almost due. Bardem has finally completed his magnum opus, which he gives to Lawrence to read. “It’s perfect,” she says, “It’s beautiful.” His publishers agree. And so do his readers. It sells out nearly immediately.

As she sets the table for dinner one night, there is a knock at the door.

It is a group of devotees. They have come from far and wide to meet the poet. Lawrence asks him to send them away so that they can dine together in peace, to which he agrees. After a few moments, he has not returned. She checks on him to find that the group has multiplied, and he has done nothing to deter them.

Several devotees enter the house through a side door and begin using her appliances. She tries to kick them out, but they inform her that “the poet says that his house is our house.” More devotees force their way inside, and his publicist spots her. Gleefully, she clutches Lawrence’s face, “It’s the inspiration!”

The devotees begin tearing the house apart. One steals the phone while Lawrence tries to call the police. “That’s my phone!” She cries. “I have to have something of the poet’s!” the devotee snarls back, and then hobbles away.

Police arrive and begin shouting at the guests through a megaphone, followed by a swat team in riot gear. They open fire on the devotees, who scream in terror and become even more destructive as they scramble. The pregnant Lawrence runs for safety, looking for her husband. She happens upon his publicist, who warmly greets her as she fires rounds into the covered heads of several hostages. “Close the door,” she says.

The house becomes a war zone – literally. Grenades go off in the corner of the screen, and the house is filled with dust and ashes. A friendly soldier grabs Her and pulls her to safety. As he instructs her the way to the safe zone, his skull breaks apart from the impact of a sniper’s bullet. She screams and flees, now bloodied from the commotion, up the stairs, which are lined with guest reaching out their arms in religious devotion to her pregnant stomach. They’re awaiting the coming of the child inside her. She begins to go into labor.

At the top of the staircase, she finds her husband. He hugs her and brings her into the master bedroom to have the baby. is born, healthy and strong. Bardem hands him to Her. The commotion in the house has died down. “Send them away,” she entreats her much-Beloved husband. “They’ll listen to you.”

He ignores her, and asks to hold his child. She refuses until he sends them away. “I could not get them to leave even if I tried.” He replies, and asks again for his child. “That’s not true,” She snaps, “And you know it.” She holds her ground.

“I do not want them to go.” He finally admits.

She clutches her baby desperately while he menacingly scoots his chair closer. “Give me my son.” He growls. She doesn’t.

Hours pass by, and she has fallen asleep. When she wakes, her baby is gone. Rushing out the bedroom doors, she sees the crowds passing the baby amongst themselves, touching him with their hands, oooh-ing and ahhh-ing. She screams. “They just want to touch him!” Bardem laughs, enraptured at the love that enlivens the crowd.

As they pass the child along to one another, its neck breaks.

Lawrence screams in terror and sprints down the stairs to take back the corpse of her baby. When she arrives, it is on a platter, half-eaten. The devotees have baby in their teeth. She falls over, sobbing uncontrollably. Bardem picks her up. “They killed him!” she cries. “I know,” He whispers gently, “But we must find a way to forgive them.”

This is the last straw for Mother. Calmly, she lifts herself to her feet, makes her way to the basement, and opens the furnace. Pouring oil all over the floor, she lights a match, and sets the mansion and all of its occupants ablaze.

Except for her husband, who comes out unscathed.

He carries her back up the stairs and into the ruins of their home.

“What are you?” She asks, as she begins to draw her final breaths.

“I am I.” He smiles.

“Where are you taking me?”

“To the beginning.” He whispers. “We must start over again.”

“Why? Why am I not enough for you?” She protests.

“Nothing will ever be enough.” He says. “Or else I could not create.”

She gives him permission to use what is left of her love for him to create the mansion afresh. It begins to reanimate around them. We watch as the first frames of the film play out before us again – the burnt house becomes new again, and a new woman appears in His bed. The events of the film will play out again, apparently, as they had before the events of the film, perhaps forever.

*

The subtext is fairly on the nose: We are guests in Mother(!) Earth’s house, and She can expel us, infinitely, on loop, if she so desires, as we see in the Bible.

Indeed, the first eleven chapters of Genesis narrate a cyclical expulsion and recreation narrative: In Genesis 1-2, God creates, and in Genesis 3, humanity is expelled from the microcosm of Eden. In Genesis 4, Cain is expelled from ‘the land’ for Killing his brother. Finally, in Genesis 6, the Earth expels humanity once and for all: God opens the floodgates of heaven, and the world is flooded, killing everyone, save for the ‘righteous’ family of Noah.

But the ‘righteous’ ones whom God preserved to create the world afresh are a cancer, too, and Noah’s son Ham is expelled from ‘the land’, and Noah becomes a drunkard, and their descendants build the Tower of Babel in a strange campaign to dethrone the gods. They’re expelled, too. Around this point, the reader gets the sense that there’s not going to be a version of this that doesn’t end in expulsion.

Which leads the reader to pose the question: Why did God create, instead of not create?

And here lies the – perhaps unintentional – subtext beneath the subtext.

Aronofsky’s Mother! offers an answer to the reader’s question.

Why did God create – why does He invite guests into His home whom He knows will destroy it? Because His appetite for love is insatiable, and they will love Him. ‘Mother Earth’ is not enough. His capacity is bottomless. He craves the affirmation of His creatures like the Poet craves the admiration of his devotees. He is like an artist who creates from neurosis – to be understood, to be loved, to be wanted by multitudes. Nothing, and no one, is enough.

And so, embedded within Aronofsky’s eco-parable is a kind of theo-critique. That is, intentional or not, the message of the film is that ‘Father God’ puts ‘Mother Earth’ through endless cycles of abuse to oblige His devotees, ultimately, because He treasures the love that they pour out upon Him.

*

I remember a dreary Sunday morning, sometime during the latter Bush’s Presidency, when I asked my Sunday School teacher if God was lonely, if that was how come He made everything and everybody. She cocked her head and said, “What do you think?” I said, “I think I’d be lonely if it was just me up there in heaven all those years with nothing to do.” Another kid chimed in, “That sounds boring.” And another, “I’d make everything football. And then it would all be football. Then I’d never be bored, ’cause it would all be football.”

One little girl was the theologian of the group, though I am not sure for which religion: She raised her hand and said, “Maybe ’cause he wanted somebody to love Him.” The teacher nodded her head and said, “Ahhh,” before writing on the board: “GOD CREATED MAN TO HAVE FELLOWSHIP WITH HIM.” She went on, “Imagine if you didn’t have aaaaaanyone who loved you. You wouldn’t be very happy then, would you?” She underlined the sentence that she had written. “God made everyone so that eeeeeeveryone would love Him.”

We ohhhh‘d in unison. That was the day that I learned that God is a parasite who creates people because He’s lonely and wants to be loved. Now, it sounds pathetic when you say it in a sentence, and Mother! will be lambasted by Christian talk show hosts and culture warriors for implying it, but it’s probably what most people believe, at least implicitly.

And so, Mother! does not amount to an ‘attack on the Christian faith’ (as several more uppity critics have have clamored) so much as an ecological critique on what is probably one of our culture’s standard assumptions about God. The offense of Mother!‘s ending, one hopes, will be jarring enough to shake the public loose of this vision of God as sycophant and God as leech. 

Indeed, Bardem’s Poet bears no substantive resemblance to the Trinitarian God at the center of the Christian story. He is more like a demiurge, perhaps, even, Marcion’s demiurge. He’s an antigod, who drinks people dry to satiate what’s lacking in Himself, for the love they can give Him, who enlivens worlds to crucify them for His iniquity.

This is as good a starting point as I can think of to introduce people to the God who really did create the world from Love – not Mother Earth’s Love, which He takes out on loan, but His own Love, which He pours out, to overlay the vast nothing that covers the face of the deep, to create beings who are not Himself, not to plumb their depths for the Love that they can feed Him, but to spill the Love from His own veins into theirs, to multiply His own contentment into them, to build a cosmos out of people He does not need, with Love He does not lack, to propagate His own joy into creatures He will not forsake.

And, as such, this view of God – the Christian view – changes how we answer the questions that the expulsion narratives in the early chapters of Genesis pose to us. Like Bardem’s Poet, He offers His son to be torn apart and devoured by the masses. But the two couldn’t be further from each other: The Poet gave His son as a sacrifice to appease his devotees – to wring more affirmation from their weary bodies, to enjoy their awe. The  Trinitarian God at the center of the Christian narrative, however, gave up the Son so that He could create the world. The Godhead – Father, Son, and Spirit – knew, like the Poet, that His creatures would destroy each other and destroy His ‘house’, and more – they would grow so destructive that  they would necessitate their own destruction. And so the Godhead – Father, Son, and Spirit – determined together before creation, that the Son would present Himself as a sacrifice to redeem God’s creatures. The God whom we meet in Jesus is everything Javier Bardem’s demiurge isn’t.

*

Mother! is a better film than Noah, although Noah has better theology. Whereas Noah saw God Batting in Mother Earth’s corner against a belligerent Humanity,  Mother!   breaks ‘Father God’ and ‘Mother Earth’ apart without warrant, as though each have conflicting agendas.

Nevertheless, like Noah before it, Mother! proves itself to be a near perfect jumping-off point to share the gospel with filmgoers jostled enough by Aronofsky’s provocative suggestions that they are moved to search the scriptures.

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I Love Bultmann, and He’s Terrible

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Moses Sees the Promised Land from Afar, as in Numbers 27:12, by James Tissot

Rudolf Bultmann is a welcome headache. Drawing a hard distinction between the kerygma – that is, the gospel itself, in its most irreducible form – and the mythic cultural adornments within which it was ‘buried’ in the scriptures, he pioneered a rather scintillating new movement in the twentieth century.

As young Rudolf saw it, the virgin birth, Resurrection, miracles, etc. were not just primitive oddities emanating from the imaginations of the ‘ancient unsophisticates’ who saw and spoke with Jesus (and touched him with their hands), but, in fact, are the gospel, given to us in words inexpressible, to be imbibed and believed, transformed by, and saved by, albeit ensconced in the mythic worldview of the Second Temple Jewry, adorned in the language of ‘proto-Gnostic redeemer myths’ and colored by the flamboyances of the fabled mystery cults. Dizzy yet?

The images by which we receive the gospel are not, themselves, the gospel, he would say. Well, all theology is anthropology, as he’d also say, and Bultmann’s hermeneutic of demythologizing says more about the dangers of modernism’s presumed objectivity than it does about the New Testament. Scientism makes for bad theology.

I should mention here that I like Bultmann. And I look forward to talking these things over with him. One thing I venture to imagine is that the cavernous futures accompanying kingdom come are filled with theologians who never tire of saying “This is greater than I imagined.” So Barth will get his “I told you so,” over Harnack, and J. Gresham Machen, probably, will get his “I told you so,” over the whole lot of them (or maybe Ratzinger). And somebody will get their “I told you so,” over me. I hope it’s Chris Thrutchley.

In any case, Bultmann spent his career expositing what he saw as the gospel in the Gospels. That is, a sort of existentialist  soteriology in which ‘believers’ are ‘saved,’ by faith in Jesus, from something like the existential void, here and now. “The only way to find peace with God, yourself, and others,”he might say,”is through Jesus.”

If he sounds like an embodiment of the worst in contemporary ‘evangelicalism,’ it’s because his ideas – at least, their ghosts – have seeped into the thought and writings of their more widely read authors. If your hip, nondenominational pastor has preached a ghastly sermon from Mark 4:35-41 on how Jesus can calm the storms in your heart, blame Bultmann. (And William Barclay).

I should mention again that I like Bultmann. Actually, a lot. As I said earlier, he suffered from captivity to 20th century’s native scientism. But I have often wondered what he might do given access to the merciful obfuscations provided by modern quantum physics. Dawkins can shrug it off if he wants, and so can John Shelby Spong, but the days are over when we could pretend we were hot on our way to grasping the secrets of the cosmos. For the moment, at least, quantum physics, for one, has so muddied everything that the universe-slash-multiverse seems more arbitrary than ever.

If course, there seem to be something like laws, some sort of consistency. Mankind is still subject to the whims of ‘creation,’ but ‘the whims of creation’ isn’t just a figure of speech anymore. Creation really is whimsical. How great and terrible.

I suspect, then, in ages future, that our centuries long sojourn in ‘Rationalism’ will be a curiosity studied in classrooms, mocked by too-confident students, before they are reminded by their teachers that they, too, hold presuppositions, most of them probably errant, that they assume to be bulletproof. Bultmann was an entrenched genius – both ahead of and indebted to his generation’s worst presumptions. Were Bultmann with us now, he might be less inclined to demythologize. After all, gravity ought to crumple us. Time is inexplicably unidirectional. Some of that Interstellar movie was scientifically accurate. Given the whimsy of everything, a virgin birth is pretty pedestrian.

Resurrection, too. It is out of the ordinary, yes. Certainly noteworthy. We should call it a miracle. But it’s quite arbitrary to take vivification as a given but revivification as a puerile fantasy. Bultmann erred in assuming that the ‘Resurrection’ of Jesus meant only an impossible resuscitation. And it did mean that. But the miracle of it was that nobody, not Rome, not hell, not a garden tomb, could keep the incarnate Son from carrying out the redemption He’d colluded with the Father and Spirit to carry out from the foundation of the world.

I’m speaking figuratively here. Of course the dead don’t rise, as far as we know, or can know. Of course it’s a miracle that one did. But its historicity is no more implausible than abiogenesis itself, which Christians also believe was of divine inauguration. Whether or not Bultmann’s kin want to admit it, the floorboards have dropped out from beneath the demand for ‘demythologizing’ the scriptures – at least, in theory. 

Bultmann imagined himself to be an apologist, and he was. And, to a certain extent, he was a good one. Having first encountered his work as a sophomore  in college, his ‘redeemed existentialism’ struck a familiar chord with me. I still remember the days when I wasn’t sure why I shouldn’t kill myself. I still remember the void. I didn’t climb my way out of it. My emotions never started working right, and things never started being okay. I never pulled myself up by my bootstraps. At risk of sounding nauseatingly saccharine: Jesus did that on my behalf. Bultmann, love-struck Modernist that he was, theologically shoddy but hijacked nonetheless by divine mercy, was always eager to insist that Jesus alone, be grace alone, through faith alone, can make your not-okayness strangely livable.

Getting the Egypt out of Israel (and Us)

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The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, by John Martin (1852)

God exists or doesn’t, and everything takes shape accordingly. Our expectations should change given the reality of God or lack thereof – and our values.

Of course, most of the folks I know who think there’s probably no God also think quite Christianly. One of my best friends in early high school became an atheist after I introduced him to Marilyn Manson. The challenge Marilyn posed to our Bible-Belt Christianity was more than it could bear, and he jumped the boat, though I stayed nominal, for the most part. But damage done is damage done.

After Marilyn and company poked holes through his loosely enculturated religious mores, his politics changed as well. Fifteen-year-olds rarely nurse well-developed political convictions, but the inherited conservatism that he’d brandished uncritically up to that point evaporated and within a few years he was a progressive Democrat with a fairly robust social ethos. It took losing his grandma’s religion to come ’round to Christianity’s obstinate conviction that the measure of a society is its benevolence toward its poor. Our damnation will be that we churn out ‘destitutes,’ which Marx understood, and now so does my old friend.

Though I’m not to the left-of-center politically, those who are understand what most of us deny – that no culture that tramples the poor underfoot can be worth its salt; that the best of societies should be on guard for raining sulfur if their political machinations match what the prophet Ezekiel said about Sodom and Gomorrah:

“As I live,” declares the Lord God, “Sodom, your sister and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy. Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before Me. Therefore I removed them when I saw it.” (Ezek. 16:48-50)

So if, perhaps, their policy proposals are hasty or uncreative, the progressives among us nevertheless have a significant overlap with Christianity’s social vision. I don’t, of course, mean that political progressivism is somehow synonymous with atheism, because it isn’t. It can’t be, actually, and I think something closer to the opposite is the case.

There is, rather, something inherently atheistic about most political Conservatism. This is not derogatory, but it is a diagnosis. Much contemporary Conservative thought begins with “There is no thread that runs through humanity, and I owe no one anything.” Consequently, underlying much mainstream Conservatism is the notion that the status quo, the power structure, is basically kosher. If God exists, that’s not true.

The book of Leviticus, for example, ought to be plenty evidence that, no, things as they are cannot be accepted, embraced, or even escaped – only redeemed. On the other hand, mainstream Liberalism is undergirded by the notion that progress/justice is natural, or somehow self-evident. Moses suggests it’s the opposite – namely, that what’s common is unclean and we’re all guilty, communally, for everything. Justice is unnatural and we’re called to it, together.

It is easy to get lost in the weeds as one peruses the strange middle book of the Mosaic saga. The sacrificial system itself is convoluted and many-splendored, and embedded at the halfway point of the Pentateuch – which, more than any other section of scripture, weaves an almost Dostoevskian yarn. The natural assumption to make if you’re a disinterested reader with a somewhat-less-than-cursory knowledge of Ancient Near Eastern cultures is that the Hebrew sacrificial system was chiefly an exercise in satiating an irascible deity, and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong, though you’d be close. What emerges on a close reading of Leviticus is God’s slow struggle to ‘desecularize’ nomadic Israel’s communal life and, gradually, to deEgyptianize the Hebrew consciousness.

All of this sounds rather ethereal, and it is. We are not used to reading what appears to be a laundry list of sacrificial regulations as a slow-burning sacrament whereby Israel translates the holiness of God into day-to-day life and, in doing so, inculturates the humaneness of God. “The idea of sacrifice was not unique to the Hebrews in the ancient world, as animal, grain, and drink offerings were common to the religious cults of Mespoptamia and Syro-Palestine,” writes Andrew Hill, “While the parallels between Israelite and ancient Near-Eastern sacrificial practices attest to the universal need for humans to placate the gods, the Hebrew sacrificial system was distinctive in that it was directed toward the goal of personal and community holiness.”

If the ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ divide laid out in its pages seem arbitrary, it’s because it is. Offerings are made to impute ‘cleanness’ on things ‘unclean,’ and to ‘sanctify’ clean-but-‘common’ things and impute ‘holiness’ onto them. If a ‘clean’ or ‘holy’ thing makes contact with an ‘unclean’ thing, – a dead body, for example – it becomes ‘polluted’ and must begin again. I recall playground games that weren’t entirely different. It is tempting to assign moral weight to ‘uncleanness,’ but you’d only be half-right to do so, because ‘sin offerings’ are a different animal – pun regrettably intended. They were not, as it is sometimes assumed, a stand in for good character. Curiously, they seem to have done more to shape good character – or, even, to define good character to a people who consciences were being recalibrated – than anything.

They are never prescribed for premeditated wrongs. One could not, for example, set aside a choice animal on Tuesday to sacrifice on Thursday as recompense for his scheduled visit to the whorehouse on Wednesday. There is no sacrifice laid out for those who plan atrocities – which is interesting, because that leaves only ‘unintentional sins’ to be atoned for by sacrifice. This ought to jostle us at least a little bit, since most of us assume we can’t be held accountable for wrongs we didn’t even know we were participating in.

What this testifies to is that although the division of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ foods, and objects, and bodies may be arbitrary, the concrete division between cleanness and uncleanness is not. That is, to be declared ‘unclean,’ or ‘clean,’ is a formality to be abided by, but hardly the end-goal in itself. It is an exercise of sorts directed at awakening the Hebrews to something deeper: Namely, that ‘uncleanness’ is the norm. That long-discarded Augustinian trope, ‘inherited guilt,’ gets something right – that everything that is, is unacceptable by virtue of being. It is not, in truth, that the neighbor became unclean by waking up with his arms around his wife who died in the night. He was already polluted, because he is himself. We are not made unclean through carousing or debauchery, as though our default mode was ‘love thy neighbor.’ We are unclean because we are ourselves, and given time we will grow up into the mongrels we were born to be. We rarely sin on purpose, as Leviticus seems to realize, and we don’t need to. We victimize because we’re ourselves. It’s our nature.

*

‘What is man that you are mindful of him?’ the eighth Psalm goes. One is rightly confused when, in the middle of a quaint service at cozy bible church, this particular line is preached in such a way as to denigrate mankind, to imply that it is somehow surprising that God is mindful of humanity. We are what He made, after all, and He did not seem displeased at the outset.

The tone with which the verse is read affects the meaning more than one might imagine. If, for example, it were read from the pulpit as ‘What is man that You are mindful of him?” then our impression might be that the Psalmist cannot fathom why the God he addresses might treasure a humanity so dingy and commonplace. This is certainly the reading with which I am the most acquainted. If, however, the verse is read as such: “What is man, that You are mindful of him?” – then the meaning changes.

Not, of course, that some new doctrine arrives out of it. It only reinforces what is already well attested throughout the scriptures: We are, somehow, the image of the God who made us, which Jacob took to mean that when we see the face of our neighbors we really see the face of God. Calvinists of old took this to an extreme: We should not depict the Lord in any artwork, they said, not because He isn’t worth depicting, but because He has depicted Himself already – inerrantly, we might say, in Jesus of Nazareth, the ‘true Human,’ the ‘firstborn of many brothers’ in the ‘new Creation,’ who is, Himself, the ‘radiance of God’s glory, and exact representation of His being’ – but, also, in humanity at large. To make images of the Godhead is idolatrous, they believed, because it usurps not only the risen Jesus, but also humanity itself as the image we have been given of the Lord.

So when I say that we are polluted because we are ourselves, I do not mean this like the Gnostics mean it. Our body – ‘this mortal coil’ – is not the problem. Rather, we have bad souls in broken bodies and the product is disastrous. This is not by design; it is devilry. We bear the image of God in ourselves by virtue of existing, and not one inch of us does not exist to glorify the God whose face we see in one another. We are God’s glory and joy, overlaid with muck and mire so thick we’d be irredeemable if not for the insanity of the cross. We are exactly as repulsive, as we are, as we would need to be to move God to crucify Godself in a move to redeem what’s mad in us. We are precisely the sort of folks who would nail the incarnate Lord to a tree and sell his clothes for petty cash.

And, of course, we are ‘society.’ The ‘institution’ is us. We’re the stuff ‘the System’ is made of, and – not unrelated – we’re the stuff holocausts are made of. The decent folks down the street are well equipped to transform their city into a quiet dystopia, and, since we’re already suspending our disbelief, they already have, and you helped. We are unclean, and we are our cities. And our cities are unclean. And we are unclean, and we are the government, and we are the cops, and we are the prison system. We are the world you ought to expect given the fact of depravity.

Regrettably, white-knuckled denial of this fact is what underpins the better part of Conservative thought today. The norm, the structures, ‘the System,’ is fine, we are told, and whoever is trampled underfoot ought to reflect on how they went and got themselves underfoot. In any case, they’re certainly not entitled to anything like charity, we are told, or if they are, they certainly aren’t entitled to mine.

Well, that may be. Assuming, of course, that there is no debtor’s thread that runs through the whole of humanity, binding us together and obligating us to see to one another’s wounds. If there is no such thread, it is because there is no God – such a thread could not emerge arbitrarily, or even be unfurled at random, suddenly enjoined at the whims of a ‘Lawgiver.’ If there is a thread of sorts that runs through humanity, indebting each one to her neighbor, demanding kindness, or empathy, or even something so flamboyant as dignity, it can only be that it emerges from the nature of the God upon whom the drama of existence plays out. It must be that, as beings, we participate in Being itself in part by carrying on with one another according to a moral thread that transcends our mores and flows out from the very nature of Being. And we cannot participate in Being if there is no Being in which to participate, nor can we be obliged to anything.

If, however, there is a God, then the thread is real, and I am bound to its demands simply by existing. Not, of course, that someone can be entitled to another’s income, or to their space, or property. But the God who ‘owns the cattle on a thousand hills’ (Ps. 50:10) certainly owns mine, and is free to distribute His property however he pleases. By participating in Being at all, I noose myself to everyone I know and do not know, and so become their debtor, and there is no end in sight – we owe everything, to everyone, forever, not least to work alongside them for their liberation from the cycle of oppression.

 

*

 

Recommended Reading:

A House for My Name by Peter Leithart, 2000, Canon Press
A Survey of the Old Testament by Gleason L. Archer Jr., 1964 (rev. 2007), Moody Publishers
A Survey of the Old Testament by John Walton and Andrew Hill, 1991 (rev. 2009), Zondervan
The Politics of Yahweh: John Howard Yoder, The Old Testament, and the People of God by John C. Nugent, 2011, Wipf and Stock
The Reactionary Mind by Corey Robin, 2013, Oxford University Press

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Originally published at Misfit Theology.

A Few Questions for the ‘Healthcare is a Human Right’ Crowd (or, The Death and Birth of Subsistence Functionalism)

 

 

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Evening, by Caspar David Friedrich (1824)

I do not, myself, know anyone who doesn’t think that ‘universal healthcare’ is an idea worth aspiring toward. One who does not dream of a world in which everyone is properly covered in medical emergencies is, frankly, either sadistic or unfeeling. This is, perhaps, ad hominem, but I’ll indulge the fallacy for this occasion:  If you want people to be without healthcare, something is wrong with you. 

I am not, of course, rehashing that repugnant adage, echoed uncritically in the dimmer corners of the blogosphere, that reticence about ‘socialized medicine’ amounts to a quiet genocide. “If you don’t support Obamacare, you want people to die,” one cherished friend posted to his Facebook wall, to no one in particular. “Rationalize all you want. Healthcare is a human right, and repealing/replacing Obamacare is taking it away from millions. They will die, and you pulled the trigger.”

Well. Hastiness is not a virtue, and there is among those like my aforementioned friend a certain disdain for questions of practicality when principles are on the line. No one, by default, has a well developed ideological attention span, and that is not, per se, a vice. But the notion that ‘healthcare is a human right’ has implications, and they are staggering.

For starters – at risk of parroting what has become a cliche – healthcare is a service requiring labor, and a laborer. Until we have fully automated healthcare machines – which is probably inevitable and will certainly be the crux of the modern Luddite controversy – any and all medical treatment will require actual, real human doctors. Now, if healthcare is a human right, then the sick have an inalienable right to the services of doctors who provide it. (I warned you that, early on, I may sound like caged bird amening the usual Rand Paul talking points, but track with me). If we all have a baseline, irreducible right to healthcare, then we all have a baseline, irreducible right to the labor of whoever is able to provide it.

Well, so long as we’re in a place where plenty of folks are studying to become doctors, the sentiment may never bear bad fruit. And yet, if the public has an inalienable right to healthcare but the milieu changes and very few are studying to become doctors, then what? In the absence of an automated system of machinery providing comprehensive healthcare to the sick without requiring the services of a human doctor, how might we maintain a universal healthcare system in a world with a deficit in doctors who could provide it?

Do we institute a ‘Draft’ in which everyone registers at 18, and is liable to be called on by their country to become a doctor ‘for the good of the community’? That’s certainly the most practical solution – and it isn’t without historical precedent, (i.e. the military). If so, how might we gauge the ‘Draft’? Is it random – perhaps by way of a lottery system, as was used during Vietnam. Or do we aptitude test from a young age? Or something else? In any case, we can, potentially, see to it that the supposedly inalienable right to ‘healthcare’ is secured – but only by indenturing some citizens.

This does not, of course, mean that they won’t be paid. We are a civilized country, after all. ‘Indentured’ is not, at least, entirely the same thing as ‘enslaved’ – citizens conscripted into the medical profession would be paid, perhaps generously, for their work. Indeed, it is not simply ‘work’, as such; doctors, like soldiers, would be premier countrymen – American heroes.

This invites us to reconsider, at last, the question of whether ‘forcible indenturing’ is inherently wrong. Is it not, after all, acceptable in the service of some higher good (such as healthcare for all)? Marx himself certainly thought so – he did not, as one might assume, dismiss slavery out of hand as unsalvagably evil; there is, he suggests, a time and place for chattel bondage – and the time is probably nigh that his legacy is retrieved from the distortive grip of the U.S.S.R.

Well. Marx is a remarkable social theorist, and certainly not worthy of the well nigh universal scorn of which he has been the postmortem recipient, but I’m inclined to disagree – it is not, as a matter of fact, morally acceptable to indenture a human being for utilitarian ends, even if those ends are inexhaustibly beneficial. If healthcare is an inviolable human right, then freedom from forcible indenturing is not. And I happen to think that the latter, distant and ethereal as it may sound, is infinitely more important than the former. I would not, frankly, subject anyone to citizenship in a community in which they are owed healthcare by merit of their existence, but are not owed the dignity of freedom from involuntary indentured servitude.

Of course, one certainly might disagree. But in that case we have to reckon with what, exactly, constitutes a ‘human right’? A more direct question, perhaps, would be ‘do people have a right to determine the trajectory of their own lives apart from institutional coercion?’ If not, why? Why does the notion that every human being ought to have healthcare (and food, and water, and sun, and so on) obliterate the notion that human persons should not be institutionally coerced into following a particular path that may grate against their desires? This is not, in fact, a question of ‘individualism’ over against ‘collectivism’, as it is often framed by pundits, so much as it is a question of humanism – with its emphasis on humanity’s innate dignity, and the naturally outflowing right to pursue happiness in the directions that one so desires (provided, of course, that in doing so they do not infringe upon the dignitious rights of another), which has always been, I should point out, the basis for such notions as sexual autonomy, and so forth, – over against a kind of ahumanistic subsistence functionalism – whereby questions of human dignity are co-opted by a threadbare commitment to securing basic subsistence for all by annihilating prospects of social mobility, autonomy, and so on. When pressed on this, I have found, friends enraptured by the functionalism I have outlined above will reply that ‘autonomy’ is, at best, a luxury for the bourgeoisie, unnecessary and, at worst, a kind of stick, carrot and string designed to dull the masses to their more basic needs – such as, again, food, water, and healthcare.

Well, if that’s what you think, then that’s what you think, but that, again, has implications. If, to be painstakingly unsubtle,  healthcare is an inalienable human right, and, consequently, the government can indenture individuals to doctorhood (for the good of the community), then, naturally, whom else can they indenture? And, to bring it a little closer to home, what else can the government coerce ‘for the good of the community’?

Studies indicate, for example, that two-parent families are indispensable for the healthy development of children. That is to say, depriving a child of a two-parent household does concrete psychological damage that treatment can only rectify in part. This is not to say that children of single parents are ‘damaged goods’, but simply that, to again be painstakingly obvious, the mechanics of human evolution, and of generations of environmental adaptation have wired us to need certain ‘structural’ constants – one of which is the ‘two-parent’ family – and when these constants are permanently interrupted, our development is wounded, and lifelong emotional shrapnel embeds itself in the psyche of the deprived. In light of this, the question emerges: Are two-parent families a human right? If so, can the government forcibly preserve an unhappy marriage (or assign a replacement parent) to protect the rights of the children? If two-parent families are a human right, and it is not, in itself, wrong for the government to indenture individuals in order to protect the inalienable rights of the community, then it is within the government’s right to ‘indenture’ citizens into permanent ‘spousehood’, or ‘parenthood’ in order to guarantee that no child is deprived their ‘inalienable right’ to a two-parent family.

This is just a thought experiment, to clarify. If ‘healthcare is a human right’, then ‘determining one’s own life’ is not, and, if determining one’s own life is not a human right, then it is not, in itself, wrong for the government to determine your life for you. To be, perhaps, more specific, this would mean that, conceivably, the government could criminalize embodying LGBTTQQIAAP+ identities in public and we wouldn’t have, at least, de facto grounds on which to oppose them. The precedent will have been set, and any future government that could pseudo-philosophize its way into a working theory whereby non-cisgender, non-heterosexual embodiments of of sexual identity could be construed, honestly or not, to ‘harm society’, could justify suppressing whole groups of people and forcibly ‘indenturing’ them into heteronormativity. A conservative regime could, on the basis of some dubious psychological studies, regulate, say, gender presentation ‘for the greater good’ – and more.

The takeaway, then, is that healthcare can only be a ‘right’ in a world where humans are owed basic subsistence and nothing else. Implications matter, because they tend to give birth to themselves over time once the precedent has been set. And a world in which healthcare itself – not ‘access to healthcare’ or ‘opportunity to afford healthcare’ and so on – is an inviolable ‘human right’ is one in which the best progressions of modernity could unravel, what leaps we have made toward liberation for the oppressed could evaporate.

I dream of a world in which healthcare is universally enjoyed – where no one dies in the street because they were turned away at the hospital, where vaccinations are universally accessible, and no one goes bankrupt from hospital bills. To abhor such a future is inhumane. To desire something less is inexplicable. Healthcare is not a luxury. It is a necessity. But as a necessity, it is also privilege. It cannot be owed, at least not within the framework of the humanism that has freed us from the varied feudalisms from which we have come, and will, if we can keep it, carry us further into freedoms we have not yet learned to desire. We trade this humanism for ‘subsistence functionalism’ at our own peril – and not only our own, but that of our progeny, and theirs. Healthcare is a right only if almost nothing else is. This is a bitter trade off, and the consequences are well worth considering.