All posts by Anthony Bartlett

About Anthony Bartlett

The several shifts in my career and life-world (religious vows, priest, social worker, husband and father, immigrant, academic, teacher, theologian) have accumulated a considerable set of perspectives on a number of quite relevant things. It would seem a shame not to use the tools of a blog to air some of these in public. I am currently living with my wife in Syracuse, New York. My children are at college and working. My dog is deaf, barks loudly and fails to appreciate my wisdom despite being named Sofia.


(Warning: some plot theme spoilers.)

The release of Christopher Nolan’s space epic, Interstellar, prompts  immediate                comparisons with last year’s orbital movie hit, Gravity, and for several reasons.

A ringed spacecraft revolves around a reflective sphere.

There is the suffused religious tone of both films, pitching audiences headfirst into             the cathedral geometries of outer space. Gravity also plays a key role in each storyline.

In the case of the eponymous feature almost the whole thing consists of the accelerating effects of gravitational force, as the spinning earth pulls matter around it or toward it in a constant terrifying plunge. In Interstellar gravity acts as some kind of unifying field allowing improbable “ghostly” communications across the galaxy.

Gravity Poster.jpg

In addition a family team wrote the story and screenplay for each of the films: father and son, Alfonso and Jonas Cuarón, in the case of Gravity, and two brothers, Christopher and Jonathan, in the case of Interstellar. It seems that blood relationship allows the trust and shared imagination for these cosmic explorations.

There is certainly a trend. Space allows for visual hints of a great Other hidden somewhere in those trackless spaces and possibly in relationship to us. Is there not a person or persons watching us unseen from the depths of this dark cosmos? In Gravity two of the spacecraft entered in the course of the action have religious icons, a Buddha in the Chinese space-station, and an Orthodox Virgin and Jesus in the Russian module. In Interstellar the space-mission is named “Lazarus”, using the gospel story as metaphor for the possibility of finding a new planet to sustain life when the present one is dying.

But right there is the rub, a vast difference between the two movies. In Gravity everything pulls you back to earth. When the female astronaut, Stone, acted by Sandra Bullock somehow survives her fiery re-entry and emerges from her module into a shallow lake and then onto land she grasps a handful of mud and mouths “Thank you.” The earth here is our home, filled with life and hope. Nothing in that vast blackness up there could compare to it.

In contrast, in Interstellar, the earth is cooked, fried, a roiling dustbowl of failed crops and certain starvation. Our only hope is to begin again somewhere else, in some alternative planet reached via quantum anomalies which somehow appear in our solar system. You could say the first movie is Hebrew biblical: God created the earth as good and did not     intend it to be a waste (Genesis and Isaiah). The second is Gnostic and Greek: our destiny is always away from here, up in the sky, guided by beings who belong on a supernal plane far beyond.

These are alternatives with a two thousand year pedigree. And along with them goes a parallel division, although not quite so marked. The transformation of the earth requires a theology of the cross, it requires self-giving. In Gravity the male astronaut, Kowalski, has to let go of his life in order that Stone might survive and return to earth. In Interstellar Cooper, the lead astronaut acted by Matthew McConaughey, has to take an enormous risk but in true hero fashion he ultimately survives and finds glory.

This underlines the difference. We can only remain on earth with our seven billion brothers and sisters if we’re prepared to surrender some things. Otherwise it could be the way of Nolan and the Gnostics, with a few hundred thousand of us floating gloriously somewhere else in space.

Reading Eden

My-Bible-Story-Book1-189x300 EditTo read Genesis 3-4 you have to rid yourself of simplistic assumptions.

This is not a straightforward tale from a children’s picture book.

The author is actually trying to answer Ecclesiastes’ question:

“Consider the work of God; who can make straight what he has made crooked? (7:13)

She is trying to explain God’s actions, at the same time as human actions which interact with God’s actions.

So it gets complicated.

Other authors in the Old Testament showed little concern for this narrative; unlike for Christians, beginning with Paul, who made the figure of Adam pivotal. For the Hebrew writers it was Exodus which played the key role, not Genesis. They did not fossilize and absolutize the meaning of the Genesis text the way we did.

For example, should we not ask the question why did God put the forbidden tree in the middle of the garden in the first place (3:3)? He could hardly have made it more noticeable and intriguing! And if we say this was a test, why was a test needed at all? Adam and Eve were happy, they enjoyed God’s company, and presumably he enjoyed theirs. Unless perhaps he wanted something more from them?

Perhaps he wanted to offer them freedom, to see if they would love and obey him even when they were free?

And right there comes the first complication. How could God offer Adam and Eve freedom without making the possibility of disobedience absolutely real to them? A live option? In which case it was God himself who introduced knowledge of good and evil to humankind.

Our first parents acted on this knowledge, but it was there before them. You see what I mean? Adam and Eve had no cultural models. They were as fresh and innocent as dew on a buttercup. They were children who’d never had a candy, or seen T.V., or heard their parents quarreling. Their only model was God.

Or the serpent…

Whoa! A second complication! “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made.” (Standard Version) The serpent or snake is compared to other animals–there is no hint of a supernatural being. If it was a supernatural being there would of course be no question of its intellectual ability or wits. So God made this creature along with the other animals and placed it in the garden. Where is the explanation of this particular creature’s presence, given its devious attitude? There is none.

We have to wait until the last book of the Christian bible, the Book of Revelation, to learn that the serpent is the same as “the devil”. There is a question of course about what the author of Revelation himself means in his context, but at the level of the story in Genesis, and its original meaning in the Hebrew setting, it is not useful at all to rush in and conclude we’re talking about an other-worldly master of evil somehow using the mouth of a snake to speak.

In other words, there is in the Genesis story a very strong implicit suggestion that it is God himself who introduced the snake into the mix, just as he set up the tree in the middle of the garden.

Furthermore, if we compare this story with the following one, of Cain and Abel, we see that there is a unique parallelism between these two stories (familiar conversation of God and humans, crime and punishment, curses etc.). And in both accounts God somehow digs the ditch which humans fall into (God “prefers” Abel’s sacrifice without any cogent explanation of why this should be the case).

To deny all this is to ignore the different levels of the text and interpret it in an extremely narrow legalistic sense. Those who did this in the Christian tradition, formulating the heavy-handed doctrine of “one original sin”, did so out of a culture of Roman law. These fathers of the church ignored, I think, or were insensitive to, the more feminine Wisdom framework of thought in the Old Testament. If we connect the Genesis story with this framework we get a much richer, more provocative account of the human problem and condition.

Wisdom writing is concerned with how human life might turn out well, with how it might be lived successfully. We know that the author of Genesis 3 had a wisdom perspective (3:6), so what if the overall story is not about figuring out one catastrophic original crime and its supernatural penalties, but a much more wide-ranging and daring discussion on the sources and meaning of our actual human alienation and suffering?

The root problem seems to be desire itself and the deadly competition and rivalry it leads to. The story tells that the first parents were not “made” with desire but desire emerged in the process of their becoming human. And God took a direct hand in this. The very set-up of the Garden of Eden has to be God’s education of the infant-like Adam and Eve. He was teaching them their humanity, the possibility of desire. The fact that they failed their exams does not negate the fact they were in school. And, despite failing, what they took away with them and would always remain with them was indeed desire. God awakened desire in them and God’s purpose was that they might desire God! They took the more glittering path of desiring “stuff”, the fruit of the tree. So then God took violent measures against them–he expelled them from the Garden. But that action by God is predicated on the kind of humans they had become–full of rivalry and violence! And as a result they got the kind of God they asked for–one who expels and likes blood sacrifice!

But the writer knew this could not be the end of the story. The picture of God she presents is ironic, unsatisfactory, unfathomable. There has to be more to come, a deeper design at work.

And so, yes, there is this verse. At 3:15 God addresses the snake, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike you head, and you will strike his heel.” Who is the woman? It can only be Wisdom; and her offspring will strike at the head of the snake, meaning they will reject the logic of violent desire which the snake had so eloquently expressed. And the snake will retaliate in the only manner it knows how.

What the author of this story is looking for is a way to deal with desire and violence and really she hasn’t the foggiest idea of what that could be in practice. BUT she does know the crucial questions to ask and she does so in a subtle, profound way. And it is this deep wisdom which also gives confidence to predict the coming of a human one who would reverse the logic of violent desire. The author knew that God created us with desire so that one day would also come its transformation.

Edge of Gospel

Last time I had fun reviewing two movies. This time it’s a and a fairy tale, Edge of Tomorrow and Maleficent. So, first a major spoiler alert, core plot details will be discussed! If you’ve not seen these movies and want to experience them first-hand read no further.

The genre always has freely imagined worlds, apt to show us something fresh about our human situation. But now fairy tales can get complete makeovers, and radically change their meaning. Abandoning their hallowed formats they too can become surprising mirrors of our condition. According to the argument of Virtually Christian–one I find confirmed over and over again–such imaginative movies may act as a kind of echo chamber and prism of subversive Christian possibilities. Especially the type of movie which pushes the envelope of intense violence and revenge is likely to flip into a one-eighty Christian mind-change (metanoia). Such a movie acts as a kind of Large Hadron Collider, smashing human particles into each other so hard they suddenly reveal entirely new human properties. Or–looked at another way–because our artistic matrix or seedbed is so infected with Jesus’ undoing of human violence, actual artistic creation will again and again show glimmers of this revelation. Movies become a spontaneous gospel distillation and public revelation, but outside formal doctrine or church.

Edge of Tomorrow is a cleverly crafted tale of a U.S. military officer, Major Cage, working in media relations, who suddenly finds himself drafted for a terrifying D-Day style assault on a French beachhead, against an Alien army of vicious spiderlike killing machines. He is almost immediately annihilated but then, in the key storyline, he wakes up directly to find himself back in the previous day and about to experience the nightmare all over again. He literally “dies daily” and it is this relentless succession of deaths and revivals which drives the plot both in events and meaning. He teams up with a famous veteran soldier, Sergeant Rita, to whom the same thing had happened previously. She explains to him that he has been infected with the blood of an “Alpha” Alien whom he killed just before being killed. As a result he shares the Alien capacity to reset time–whereby they are able to learn from what just happened and then go back and start over: in this way they can never be beaten. Tellingly the Aliens are called “Mimics,” and although the name is never explained it is tempting to interpret their ability to learn their enemies’ behavior, and then start over in time, as an endless loop of mimetic behavior. The Mimics continually reset in imitation of the enemy! Even so mimetic time is an endless repetition of the same-old-same-old.

Together Cage and Rita battle through a Sisyphean series of deaths and rebirths until they finally reach the “Omega” Alien, the neural core of the alien horde, the center where all the reset information is always telegraphed. Both Cage and Rita sacrifice themselves to destroy the Mimic bio-construct. However, in the process Cage is again infected with blood, and wakes up once more, but this time in the aftermath of the Mimics’ destruction.

As with all time-reset stories there are a few plot imponderables, but in a way they don’t matter. There is inevitably a sense of “resurrection!” The overriding sense of a radical interruption in mimetic time is what delivers the dramatic pay-off, and it works because there is an underlying Christ-motif validating such a break, one not achieved by military victory but by surrender of competitive violence itself. The Christ theme is signaled (in inverted form) in the “Alpha and Omega” language, and at one key moment of the narrative a  picture of Jesus as Sacred Heart remains in frame long enough to suggest itself thematically as a symbol of “dying for the other.” Moreover, if we compare the screenplay with the original Japanese illustrated novel (All You Need Is Kill ) there is a clear shift from sacrifice of the human other, to a self-surrender on the part of human first-persons, in order to break the cycle and bring about the qualitatively new. By virtue of this shift time itself is changed, no longer the repetition of the same-old-same-old, but given instead a sense of radical openness to a new, “resurrection” future. The very name of the movie calls attention to this shift in time. “Edge of Tomorrow” hints both at the never-ending mimetic conflict, but also at the in-breaking of a future that is genuinely new.

You might say that these gospel motifs are entirely superficial, grafted in simply to make the movie culturally familiar, and without structural significance. But this reflects a very prosaic, Augustianian view of secularity. In contrast, the overall Girardian argument is the culturally deconstructive power of the gospel, disclosing our violence and deeply pervading the saeculum. My intuition simply takes the argument one step further, claiming that the positive phenomenon of Christ’s nonviolence undergirds the disclosure, and is now continually emerging into view in and for itself.

Maleficent is just such a case of emergent symbolism (or re-symbolizing), not this time in terms of mind-bending science fiction, but by means of taking a familiar fairy-tale and overturning its most time-honored, satisfying tropes. Again the only credible cultural source for this astonishing turn is the gospel, in particular, the rehabilitation of the scapegoat. The eponymous Maleficent is the evil Fairy-Godmother of Sleeping Beauty  fame. She herself is the victim of betrayal and abandonment, and this provides the motive for her hatred and her casting of the evil spell on the king’s daughter. However, she feels obliged to keep an eye on the little baby until it comes of age, and little by little she is moved to compassion out of her own, fundamental “humanity.” She relents on her curse but she is not able to undo its exacting release clause. The delightful twist is to make the “true love’s kiss” come from Maleficent herself, rather than some callow boy-hero.

The fairy tale changes to become a story of conversion in the face of innocence (non-violence), an ultimate refusal to continue the cycle of victim-making. The larger-scale result is to bring the king’s realm of “greed and envy” into harmony with the fairy kingdom where apparently no violence is done. Riding on these traditional but reverse-engineered themes is a gospel-inspired narrative of compassion, forgiveness, and eschatological change. Once again “same-old” time is being shifted toward something beautiful and new.

The question then is, if our symbolic universe is being morphed frame by frame in this astonishing contemporary way, into a gospel-sans-writing, what is the response of the organizations that found themselves on the writing? Are they ahead of the curve, or behind it? How much time-bending surrender of violence is part of our Sunday screenplay?

Nonviolent Bible Interpretation VI: Gospel = Theological Nonviolence

To conclude a series on nonviolent interpretation of the bible we turn necessarily to the man from Galilee.

Jesus as cultural figure is so commonplace (both as doctrine and meaning), it is very difficult for us to get behind him, to identify a sense of his extrordinary novelty and singularity. Further below is a small thought experiment to try recapture this.

Jesus made a pivotal intervention in human history, explicitly teaching nonviolence (“turn the other cheek”), but even more crucially, displaying it in extreme, primordial circumstances.

The gospels set out the singularity of Jesus in terms of his identity as the Christ and of his relationship to the Father. The latter issue preoccupied the first centuries of Christianity and they understood the Christ/Messiah very much in the light of Jesus’ divinity.

But the relationship was conceived in Greek ontological terms, of being (“one being with the Father”), rather than the quality of the relationship, its phenomenology, as transformation of the nature of relationship itself.

Hence, the experiential basis of Jesus’ uniqueness was swallowed up in a doctrinal metaphysics of being, and we lost a human sense of why these immense claims were or could be made about him.

At Matt. 11: 25-27 we hear Jesus say, “Thank you Father that you have revealed these things to the simple, not the wise or intelligent.” The root meaning of nepios is those without speech or words (Latin infans), i.e. the pre-cultural child or unlettered adult. Jesus is saying clearly that his stuff is not revealed to those invested with conventional cultural knowledge, but to those ready to be humanized from the ground up. Those who are speechless in the old way, who are ready for a new human start.

He goes on directly to say no one “fully knows” or recognizes the Son except the Father, and no one recognizes the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. In other words, it is not possible to know the Father/Mother within the established cultural order. It is only in the revolutionary relationship that Jesus establishes that it is possible to begin truly to know God. What could possibly explain this exceptionality about himself?

If it is not some arbitrary demand to confess “Jesus as Lord” it has to be the radical nonviolence of God which cannot be known without the radical nonviolence of Jesus.

Conversely, when Jesus asks at Matt. 16:13-17 “Who do men say that I am?” and Simon Peter answers that he is the Christ, Jesus comments that it is “not flesh and blood that has revealed this, but the Father.” Flesh and blood is the universal cultural system we are in, and to recognize the Christ/Messiah is to be moved by the Father/Mother. Thus the nonviolent God also works to make known in our hearts the Messianic nonviolence of Jesus and allow us to confess him as the Christ-of-nonviolence.

Scholars uncritically assume that what is currently in their heads, and the heads of half of humankind, was always there, but it wasn’t. The affirmation of a crucified teacher of nonviolence as the key to history could not have happened without a transcendent event. Let’s try this thought experiment.

Imagine MLK Jr., that his fight wasn’t with racism, or militarism, rather with the religion of his own people. They possessed a national territory which they had achieved by exodus from the rest of America after the end of slavery, let’s say somewhere like California. There was a central institution, a temple, which everyone attended at regular intervals, by obligation. The people believed God had led them to California and the temple was the place he had chosen for his worship. However, the territory was currently occupied and under the control of the Nazis who began in Germany but were now in power everywhere. To fight the Nazis was like taking on the world order itself. But the people could never quit resisting, because the presence of the Nazis in the land was a blasphemy to God. At the same time there was the belief that the presence of the Nazis was a judgment by God on the sins of the people. So there was the added sense among opinion leaders that they now had to be absolutely faithful to God’s rules, in order to end the terrible Nazi curse they were under.

MLK began to preach: he behaved as if none of this mattered, the land, the temple, the rules, the Nazis. All that was important was a totally new move by God that had to do with him and his preaching, with relationship to him. Through this relationship there was the possibility of love, nonviolence and forgiveness for everyone around you. This was God’s move in the world.

What would people say?

The matter did not end there. MLK clearly had enemies among the temple and rules people. But instead of hiding out in the desert and spreading his teaching untroubled by authorities, he headed to the temple and he shut it down, claiming full authority over this central symbol. All the people gathered round him, hanging on his every word. They expected something overwhelming: that this totally new outrageous teaching would get a sudden all-powerful confirmation from God, so that it would wipe out all opposition, including the Nazis. At this point the temple authorities understood a direct challenge has been made and they decided to take MLK out. For some inexplicable reason he did not protect himself or even hide sufficiently carefully, but allowed himself to be discovered and captured. His followers are disoriented and scattered, the crowd turns against him. The temple authorities hand him over to the Nazis who torture and humiliate him in the most horrendous and public way, making him a joke and a disgrace to the whole world. He is strung up in a public place and dies a slow, crushing death. He shows great courage and perseverance but he dies all the same. Next day is Sunday. He remains dead. The only possible conclusion: this man suffered from terminal religious delusion.

From where then will come the psychological resources to assert not only the teaching of this man, but that he does indeed represent the true meaning of God? The man who preached these things had entered a pit of unmediated horror and all that could be felt was the echoing brute triumph of violence. It beggars belief that unlettered disciples could invent the gospel out of violated, condemned hearts, and afterward continue peacefully in nonviolence and forgiveness.

To entertain this understanding in respect of Jesus is willful a-historicism, projecting on first century Galilean Jews the default sense of Christian truth embedded after two thousand years of slow-drip cultural presence. As one of our group said, Christian meaning is imprinted in people’s minds today as a kind of collective myth, and they assume it would always have been as easy to embrace the story culturally as it is now. They don’t recognize how profoundly they have been shaped, and how impossibly this easy acceptance could have occurred originally: absent the transcendent event of the Resurrection.

The Resurrection is the unnegotiable affirmation of theological nonviolence, and it could not have been imagined into existence! It is only when we understand the profound newness represented by Jesus and his death that we also recognize the organic truth of the resurrection. If the resurrection is understood simply as a confirmation that Jesus is divine then the suspicion will at once arise that it’s a religious fiction. In its proper context, of Jesus’ revelation of theological nonviolence, it becomes unavoidable.

Finally, a key aspect of the gospel narrative is Jesus’ mental suffering in the garden of Gethsemane. Matt. 26: 36-46 shows his horror facing the cross. The fact that the Father/Mother wills it does not demonstrate a perverse will to punish, rather the converse: because the Father/Mother is given over entirely to the risk of creation and its violent self-affirmation, so in imitation Jesus must surrender to the generative violence of human culture, in order to transform it. Jesus removes himself three times from his disciples, separating himself from actual humanity to do something new. Mark’s exthambeomai is to be out of one’s mind, paralyzed with terror. Matthew uses the standard word for grief (unto death), but keeps Mark’s ademoneo, the strongest word in the NT for depression and stress, a loathing for existence. These are very powerful words and they represent the depth of Jesus’ alienation from life as he faces the truth of human culture and its bottomless foundation in violence. Jesus must enter this human hell in order to bring it to love from within. The narrative of Jesus’ internal agony is unique in  ancient and classical literature: no other hero is shown to undergo such terrifying loss of self-meaning. But it is precisely this interiority or subjectivity in crisis that guarantees Jesus has entered the core of our violent existence in order to bring it to love.

It is the infinite gesture of self-giving in Gethsemane that is raised up in resurrection. Gethsemane is the phenomenological core of resurrection: the story of one is not credible without the story of the other.

To confess Jesus, therefore, is to confess the dramatic in-breaking in human history of theological nonviolence.



The minute hand of my watch

Crossing the hour bows its head

In prayer, all the way to deep

Meditation at the meridian,

Headfirst into the abyss of six.

Almost without noticing

Its movement becomes

A rising up, to alleluia at eleven

And the full sundial glory of noon.

But the humble hour hand shadows

Everything, conserving every revolution

In its lower slower sweep, until

All time is gathered into love.

The second prays incessantly, up,

Down, it makes no difference,

The heart-attack tempo of our days

Ticking toward its truth

Nonviolent Bible Interpretation V : Science of Human Relationships

So far we have been trying to undo, or deconstruct, violent bible interpretation (eternal decrees, literalism, empire, commodified soul). Now we can turn to the constructive side: a positively nonviolent interpretation.

If we read Genesis holistically, rather than legally and piecemeal, we gain a completely different sense of the human condition. Rather than an isolated legal fault condemning all, there is a profound and extended description of anthropology. This is the biblical anthropology identified by Girard: a science of fundamental human relationships arising in the bible.

To take up Genesis this way is a radical hermeneutic, just as Luther’s “only faith and only scripture” was a radical hermeneutic for his time. But Luther depended on an embedded interpretation of Christ’s death, one that understood that death in legal terms of compensation. In this sense Luther did not challenge a violent hermeneutic; he may well have served to intensify it.

Luther derived his understanding of the “sin of Adam” from the powerful impact of Augustinian tradition. It is a “vice of origin” which brings eternal death. Augustine, in his argument with Pelagius, used a faulty Latin translation of Romans (Kirwan 131-32). At 5:12 he believed the text read “in him all have sinned” rather than “because all have sinned.” Although this has been corrected in later translations it served to cement in tradition the notion of direct sharing in Adam’s personal sin.

It has been well said that Romans 5 is about a “communion of sinners” (with Adam) just as there is a “communion of saints” (with Christ). This idea stands in contrast to the thought of one man’s individual sin transmitted to all. The concept of original sin set the whole of humanity (and Christianity) on the wrong end of a legal judgment by God: rather than seeing it as trapped within a structural condition of desire and violence which it is God’s salvific intention to treat and reverse.

If you look at the accounts of the Garden of Eden and Cain and Abel (Genesis 2-4) it is evident these stories are doublets or mirror images and cannot be interpreted separately. They have the following features in common: familiar conversation between God and humans, warning about a crime and its consequences, commission of crime and resulting curses, mitigation of punishment. Most of all they have instigation or provocation in common.

The presence of the serpent (snake) in the Garden is left unexplained. At the level of the story the snake is simply the most cunning of the creatures; there is no thought of a supernatural Satan. It is a story-telling device to introduce the language of rivalry to Eve. But from a mimetic perspective it is God who already established the relationship of rivalry by setting up the prohibition against eating of the fruit of the tree in the first place. (A “test” is always a “model-obstacle.”) This mimetic component is reinforced at the end of the story when God gives as reason for excluding the first parents from the garden, “Because the man has become like one of us…and…he might…take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever;” 3:22.)

The instigation is corroborated when we look at in the second story. God arbitrarily prefers Abel’s sacrifice to Cain’s, without having given any ordinance for animal husbandry or animal sacrifice. He explicitly made Adam a tiller of the ground, not a pastor of sheep. God’s preference in fact can be seen to up the sacrificial ante for Cain, provoking him to kill his brother not a sheep. After this Cain has God’s sevenfold protection! It is no accident that Cain goes on to be the founder of the first city (4:17).

An unprejudiced reader cannot help but sense these subtle implications in the text. In other words, the story works to introduce problem themes of rivalry, violence and sacrifice as part of the actual process of becoming human. The thought of “God” is deeply implicated in the process and must therefore be understood as being subjected to deep questioning by the author. What is called the “historical grammatical” method, favored by conservatives, must surely recognize these textual features. It is only a secondary, imposed level of “interpretation” that can bend the meaning back to a simple legal matter of “original sin followed by bad consequences, and needing the sacrifice of Christ to forgive.”

A fundamentalist interpretation is itself an anthropology, since it depends on the law of mimetic exchange and displacement on the victim, implicit in substitutionary atonement. In other words it already makes God subject to a deeply human (anthropological) mechanism. God can’t just forgive: he has to provide a victim, for himself! As one member said, to forgive on condition of compensation (in particular the horribly violent death of a son) is not to forgive. The difference in the nonviolent hermeneutic is that it sees God subverting the mechanism itself, in order to transform actual humanity. Which then seems the more likely?

Another core aspect of Genesis 2-4 is its account of desire. The woman observing the fruit of the tree was awakened to desire on three levels: it was good to eat, good to look at, desirable for gaining wisdom. In a highly concise story this is a significant amount of text, developing a theme. It shows the author is fully alive to the issue of desire undergirding the whole drama. This is greatly reinforced in the Cain story where desire is described as so powerful that it has assumed a displaced, externalized role (4:7) : it is now itself the subject, desiring the figure of Cain who has abandoned his self to desire! As AA says, the disease of alcoholism is a subject in its own right, “cunning, baffling and powerful.” The intense commentary on human desire already evident in Genesis has, again, been passed over in favor of a purely legal interpretation.

Toward the end of our study someone made the telling point that the beginning of the human world for Jesus did not occur with Adam but with Abel (Lk. 11: 50-51). In other words for Jesus the story of Cain was the hermeneutic key for our human condition, not the story before it. But presumably he also read them together.


Nonviolent Bible Interpretation IV: Soul

Last time we looked at how a structure of military power (empire) was able to recruit Christian meaning (the cross) to its side. This time we looked at the way Christianity adopted a shaping concept from its surrounding milieu, one which quickly became the object of desire in a mimetic Christian worldview.

The Hebrew concept of soul (nephesh) is not defined in the bible but is presented in a variety of existential meanings. (Bullinger’s Critical Lexicon says nephesh is translated 44 different ways in LXX, grouped under four main headings, of “creature,” “person,” “life,” “desire.” ) In contrast the Greek concept of the soul is clearly defined, chiefly by binary opposition, by what it is not: i.e. immortal (not dying), immaterial (not matter), simple (without parts). This is an effect of mimetic construction, holding something back through desire, from forces which threaten it (death, decay, multiplicity). Add in intellect, and shazam, you have the immortal soul!

As someone in the group said this Greek way of thinking was “black and white,” while the Hebrews thought in fuzzy edges. The metaphysical or essential clarity of the concept helped in establishing it as supreme object at stake in a dispute between heaven and hell. Its core value as an individual thing or commodity helped turn Christian salvation into a salvationist business with rival companies offering competing deals.

Today neural science and Mimetic Anthropology show us that the human soul cannot be separated from the material relationships whereby the body identifies spontaneously and holistically with the other. The soul is whole-self human communication.

At Matthew 22:37 we see  clearly that Jesus is not thinking in Greek dualist terms, he talks of a tripartite humanity (heart, soul, mind). He uses these terms as aspects of the human self, but they are not fixed essences, neither are they exclusive. At Matt. 10:28 we hear “both soul and body” can be destroyed in Gehenna, i.e. death can be the outcome for personal human life (the soul) along with the flesh. Gehenna is an apocalyptic image, a place of fire, of endless violence, and must be understood in contrast to the in-breaking of God’s kingdom of life. Jesus’ words suggest the intense pain of the self when the God of life is refused in favor of endless generative violence. His image must also be understood from the present perspective of the apocalyptic moment and its clarity of choice now: the outcome of loss is “to be feared.” It is a precipice we stand upon, not the architecture of the precipice itself as became fixed in the imagination of the Middle Ages.

Paul makes no significant use of the concept “soul.”

Reading Tertullian’s De Anima (On The Soul) we saw how the distinctive Christian concept emerged. Tertullian describes the origin of the soul as separate but simultaneous with the origin of the body: a living immortal soul, passed down from Adam, arrives at the moment of sexual discharge at the same instant as the body is conceived. The body comes in the fluid, the soul in the warmth. “I cannot help asking, whether we do not, in that very heat of extreme gratification when the generative fluid is ejected, feel that somewhat of our soul has gone from us? And do we not experience a faintness and prostration along with a dimness of sight? This must be the soul-producing seed…” (Chapter 27)

Tertullian (160–225CE) was strongly influenced by the materialist/spiritual “fire” of Stoicism. Augustine (354–430) was much more inclined to the other-worldly philosophy of Plato (specifically Neoplatoism) where the soul arrived individually from heaven. At the same time Tertullian’s “traducianism” (the soul passed down from Adam) had the huge advantage of explaining original sin. Throughout his life Augustine hesitated between versions of the-soul-from-heaven (pre-existent souls or souls specifically created by God for each act of conception) and traducianism. He never came down finally on one side or the other, and there has to be a reason. I believe he instinctively favored the heavenly soul, conforming to the Neoplatonic vision of the Confessions, and yet he adopted Tertullian’s theory of sexual generation to provide the scenario wherein original sin is transmitted. It was precisely the involuntary desire-led character of sexual arousal which signaled the fall of Adam and the communication of original sin. “(C)arnal concupiscence (libido), which, while it is no longer accounted sin in the regenerate, yet in no case happens to nature except from sin. It is the daughter of sin, as it were; and whenever it yields assent to the commission of shameful deeds, it becomes also the mother of many sins. Now from this concupiscence whatever comes into being by natural birth is bound by original sin…” (On Marriage and Concupiscence, Bk. 1, see chapters 7 & 27.)

From Augustine onward the die was cast: the combination of a soul created directly in heaven and original sin generatively transmitted in sex became fixed teaching in Aquinas and was quietly assumed and carried over by Luther in his account of justification. The soul thus became the fearful battleground of church powers and crisis-ridden human conscience seeking salvation.

But today the soul is more and more inseparable from the body, a complex made up of billions of cells, individual propagating units, all in communication with one another via electrical and chemical signals. The meaning, function and purpose of this complex can be understood simply as communication, i.e. the soul. Jesus is a revolutionized human body whose communication (soul) is peace. As the Risen Christ he offers this new meaning to all bodies. As Risen his communication is also beyond death. We do not know how it works but we believe that at the point of death any human soul can reach out in communication with Christ and so find life. “My desire is to depart and to be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23).


Beloved Lies and Lepidoptera

butterflies[1]Nature has provided for butterflies a bush of special delight. It is called Buddleia and in high summer it can be found crowded with the showy-winged insects all attracted by its sweet yet faintly rank scent. When numbers of them start feeding it’s a riot, as if they can’t get enough of the stuff. In my yard in England we had a bush, while two yards down there was another one. When mine was crowded the other one was too.

When there’s the threat of war, when the world begins to sweat the scent of violence, the news media flock like common butterflies to their backyard bush loaded with all that deadly nectar. They tell their breathless stories, fluttering their bright wings, highlighting all the violence as if it was naturally and singly on tap in their bush and their version is the only possible one. They do not see, don’t want to see, that just a couple of yards down there’s another bush with another riot of butterflies telling the same story of violence but from a completely different perspective.

Even worse–and this is where simple Mother Nature can no longer guarantee the metaphor and we have to allow in a specifically human element–one set of butterflies is secretly sipping from the very same poison nectar as the other. The more one riot of fluttering wings tells the story from their point of view the more the other riot of wings, two yards down, drinks excitedly from the purest well of the same violence! The more the story is told from one point of view, the more its content is imitated, but precisely from the other point of view!

Western news media depict Russia as aggressors in the Ukraine just as surely as Russian news media depict the West in the same way. And the more one side flutters feverishly the more the other, glancing covertly behind them, does the same. Even as you read this I am sure the thought is suggested, well, really aren’t the Russians aggressors? But that is simply our in-built response to the whole systemic rivalry between “Russia” and “the West” outside of which the massive interests of cultural institutional violence will not allow us to think.

Thanks be to God through Christ we can become free of this thinking! One day the earth will wake up to the horrible untruth of systemic rivalry, be it between individuals or political powers. Systemic rivalry is the original sin of our human condition and people feel it gives special meaning to existence. But it is more and more implausible the more it pushes us toward disaster. One day we will wake up to the possibility of peace as the meaning of existence, and toss our beloved lies into the dustbin of history!

Nonviolent Bible Interpretation III: Church

If the Christian community decided the canon over three centuries then inescapably it plays a critical role in interpretation. Church comes prior to scripture, if only in order of time. So, in turn, this begs the question of church. What in fact is church? What is the community of interpretation?

The content to this question is so big, spanning so much time, we can’t cover everything. What we’re interested in are key elements which can bring us to where we are today, with some degree of insight. We will approach the topic in bite-size chunks which hopefully move us forward swiftly to our present situation.

Any gathering of Christians is a church, an ekklesia, a calling of people to come together, in the name of Christ. The individual, local sense is almost always the sense Paul gives the word. (And it is always the case in Acts.) The name chosen, “ekklesia,” was entirely neutral in this way. It had no religious connotation. A “church” is a particular community.

But Paul also gives it a general and ideal sense at 1 Corinthians 12:27-28. Here, there is an emergent order of authority, but it’s to be underlined at once that all the roles are charismatic and non-institutional, i.e. they are conferred by the Spirit, not by institutional office and power.

Matthew 16:19 (“On this rock I will build my church”) is famous as a text conferring on Peter special power and office. These Matthean verses could certainly be analyzed in detail, but there can be little doubt that the term Cephas/Rock, as a nickname or metonym for Simon the brother of Andrew, had come to mean some kind of overall role and jurisdiction in the community tradition in which Matthew was writing. It is the emergence of the Petrine church.

In our study it was not a matter of debating the theological merits of the text, but recognizing it as reflective of something real in history.

The Johannine literature provides an essential context and counterpoint to this reality, beginning with the third letter, 3 John. The Elder (author) “wrote something to the church” (the first time the word is used in the Johannine literature), but a certain individual, Diotrephes, who “loving to be first of them, he does not welcome us” (v.9). Moreover this first-in-the-church person “refuses to welcome the brothers,” and those who want to receive them “he puts out of the church” (v.10). Raymond Brown analyzes this as the emergence of the Petrine church, its asserting authority over the much more “anarchic” Johannine communities based in direct personal mimesis, love and constant visiting and welcoming.

Brown also believes that the gospel of John with its edgy tensions between Peter and the Beloved Disciple in chapters 20 and 21 , represents both an ultimate recognition of Petrine authority and a subtle non-conformity.

But why should the Johannine groups come under the emerging hierarchy in the first place? It is because the non-institutionalized communities were particularly vulnerable to the emerging threat of other, dualist, world-denying viewpoints (docetism and gnosticism) which were multiplying around them. There was the constant possibility of any new leader asserting himself, claiming a brilliant new non-fleshly “truth” (2 John: 7), and the insistence then on listening solely to him. Only a legally constituted identity system could provide an effective counter to them.

Here then is the beginning of hierarchical orthodoxy, a.k.a. what most people have come to understand as “church.”

The number of Christians grew progressively through the second and third centuries, so at the beginning of the fourth they were estimated to be about 10% of the Roman Empire, about 6 million people. They also grew in social status and intellectual self-confidence, with an author such as Tertullian arguing trenchantly and wittily against pagan practices and beliefs. Pagans read Tertullian simply for the pleasure of his writing. By the end of the third century Christians constituted a sufficient body to become politically recognizable and significant. The Emperor Diocletian and his understudy Galerius adopted an ideology of restoring the ancient pieties and virtues of Rome. This quickly turned to persecution of Christians, involving the destruction of buildings and scriptures and the demand for sacrifice to and for the emperor. The persecution was severe in many places, but mostly centered in the eastern part of the empire.

Constantine was a Caesar in Britain and Gaul, and was positioning himself as a contender for the imperial throne. He seems simply to have ignored Diocletian’s decrees of persecution. Advancing on Rome in the year 311 to do battle with his rival, Maxentius, he claimed to have had a vision and a dream of Christ, telling him to adopt Christian symbols for his army. According to the church historian Eusebius he constructed a battle standard with a spear and a crossbar depicting the cross, surmounted by the first two letters of Christ’s Greek name, Chi and Ro (X & P, the latter intersecting the former). The whole thing was hung with a jewel-encrusted cloth on which was attached a portrait of Constantine and his children. With this “sign” at the front of his troops he proceeded to win the battle, and many subsequent battles in his eventual conquest of the whole Roman empire.

Constantine was a master of imperial propaganda, already proclaiming himself a Sol Invictus (sun deity) on his coins, and engaging in energetic building programs. The sudden adoption of Christian signs in the midst of a deadly persecution and before a pitched battle for control of the imperial city amounted to a semiotic revolution of blinding force. Whatever Christianity represented to paganism it was in one stroke turned into a mimetic reflection, a mirroring back, of all the Roman violence that lay before it, both physically and historically. Those who had not directly experienced the compassion of Jesus would only see this strange transcendence turning the violence offered to it, by Diocletian, around on its enemies. For this is de facto what happened: Constantine won all his battles carrying the “labarum” (as the battle standard came to be known), or with the Chi Ro emblazoned on his soldiers helmets. As far as the church was concerned the immediate cessation of persecution in the West, followed by the declaring of Christianity a “licensed religion” in 313 (Edict of Milan), would have made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to refuse Constantine’s version of events. What was the hierarchical church to do? Throw the new-found toleration and status back in Constantine’s face and say “We prefer to be persecuted”? As it is, Constantine is regarded as a saint in the East, and by the Anglicans. In the Roman Catholic tradition the story is even more impacted: the popes assumed the right for the church itself to wield the sword and have final rule over emperors.

In every case two conclusions are necessary.

The labarum was a masterstroke of revisionist, generative symbolism, in one stroke twisting the cross out of its native compassion, making it instead a talisman of violence. Its infinite compassion was obscured beneath the machinery of imperial force and instead the raw event of killing was made to stand forth. It was a cultural intervention of incalculable import whose threads reach through to the “taking the cross” in the crusades, to Anselm’s reading of the cross as an event of violence to “satisfy” a higher divine violence, all the way to its full displacement as swastika, “the crooked cross.”

Secondly–and this is the arrival point of this study–the meaning of “church” was militarized, in as much as it became compatible with military force. Before Constantine, even if Christianity was not coherently pacifist through all of its believers, as a movement it was politically indifferent to the endless foreign and civil wars of the emperors. In contemporary terms it could be called, at the very least, neutral and non-combatant in the empire’s wars. After Constantine all that changed. Empire became suddenly and progressively identified with Christianity, and we’re still more or less in the same situation today. And as we study the community of interpretation derived from the first millennium of Christianity, this is clearly and implicitly part of what “church” means.

One of our members concluded that, “We don’t really know what ‘Christian’ means. We don’t understand all the paths by which Christianity has got to be what it is and means now.”

In a parallel vein, someone else concluded: “Reading the bible like we’re doing is like early Christians pushing against the structures of Judaism, trying to open something new. Except today we’re pushing against the churches, all of them, from Baptist fundamentalism to Catholicism.”

Nonviolent Bible Interpretation II: Literal Truth.

Our second study in the area of Violent/Nonviolent interpretation of the bible quickly routed us to a key Girardian principle as a way of understanding.

The topic was the verbal “inerrancy” of the biblical text (the popular name for which is the literal reading or literalism). But before we got down to thinking about how slippery words are, how unreliable as a final authority, we took a detour through Girard’s concept of “differentiation.”

In human culture “difference” between humans is constructed out of sacred violence. The phase of loss of difference–when a human group enters so intensely into rivalry that individuals become simply hostile mirrors or doubles of each other–is called “undifferentiation.” It can only be settled by the group victim. All the violence is heaped on the scapegoat who is killed, but the situation that provoked the crisis is remembered and rigid differences are then constructed in the wake of the terrifying violence and in the name of its peace-bringing victim. Competition over resources (food, territory, women) is strictly managed by establishing differences: who gets what from whom; and who, where and what is the “enemy” to be excluded. At the same there is the sense of an absolute “sacred” authority running through all this and holding it all in place. It is a description of any primary society, but the same basic principles hold in any “developed” culture founded in and through violence.

Last week we saw how the violence of God’s eternal decrees underlie the fundamentalist reading of the bible. This time the focus was on the text itself. The two in fact overlap. God’s authority is intimately tied up in the text. If the latter should come into doubt so would the former. In turn this would create a crisis in the differences established by means of the text (role of women, sexuality, hierarchy). We understood the crisis provoked in scripture-based differentiation to be the root reason for forcibly insisting on the authority of the text.

One of our members underlined this with a reference to the Civil War, citing the work of Mark Noll, which showed that the South clung to a literal reading of the Bible, including slavery, believing that a challenge to this would lead to a total loss of the bible’s authority. It seems clear that what was at stake was an overall worldview of difference mediated by the bible, one that could only be “decided” in the crushing violence of civil war.*

Thus, when there is a direct debate with a fundamentalist interpretation we must always remember that it is a question of primary difference and order which is being defended and this goes to the root of human identity. Ultimately it’s not about the bible, it’s about difference. At the same time, it has to be recognized that the bible will make an extreme and dangerous tool for establishing difference, with an eternal incomprehensible violence claimed at its core and behavioral codes and worldview stretching back to semi-desert tribal society three thousand years old.

In sum what is happening is that the engine of meaning or interpretation is violent difference. But what if the whole point of the bible, and above all the gospel, is to introduce ANOTHER engine of meaning, whereby difference is NOT settled by violence, but by love? What if Jesus does what is always claimed for him, recreating human nature from the ground up? What if Jesus’ “eating and drinking with sinners” is truly the final model, in which difference is swallowed up in love? What if in fact Jesus’ divine erasure of difference (as engine of meaning) is what deep down is driving our world in its “secular” history?

In this context we began to look at some of the claims about the biblical text, understanding that we are not dealing with the individual meaning of words but an overall transformation of meaning itself. It is this engine of transformation which helps us decide about any particular item of biblical scripture.

Meaning is always the issue. The moment you claim “inerrancy” for the biblical text there is a question of what you actually mean by that. We quoted from an online article by a defender of inerrancy: ‘Formerly all that was necessary to affirm one’s belief in full inspiration was the statement, “I believe in the inspiration of the Bible.” But when some did not extend inspiration to the words of the text it became necessary to say, “I believe in the verbal inspiration of the Bible.” To counter the teaching that not all parts of the Bible were inspired, one had to say, “I believe in the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Bible.” Then because some did not want to ascribe total accuracy to the Bible, it was necessary to say, “I believe in the verbal, plenary, infallible, inerrant inspiration of the Bible.” But then “infallible” and “inerrant” began to be limited to matters of faith only rather than also embracing all that the Bible records (including historical facts, genealogies, accounts of Creation, etc.), so it became necessary to add the concept of “unlimited inerrancy.” ‘

The author then goes to cite the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy held in Chicago in 1978, as the gold-standard of what inerrancy actually means. In the Council’s official Statement the word “authority” is mentioned twice. In its first two articles of affirmation and denial it is mentioned three times and “authoritative” once. It is clear what is at stake. In article XII we get to the classic sticking point: “We deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.”

19th century geology and biology offered what was felt as a devastating challenge to the authority of violent difference: God makes everything by authoritative decree, humans destroy creation’s order, God renews creation with violent differentiation. If these accounts are falsified then authoritative difference is lost. But to read the texts simply in these terms actually loses their prophetic engine of meaning: God creates without violence, and the core issue behind the flood is human violence!

Those who claim inerrancy do not deny metaphor in the bible but they mention it very little! “All flesh is grass” is a metaphor. The Song of Songs can surely only be understood as an extended metaphor. Why not Genesis 1? And why cannot the flood account be an ancient mythologeme (extended story-metaphor) given a radical re-reading by the inspired author?

In more technical terms of linguistics, words never totally lose a metaphorical quality. They only achieve a (more) precise meaning in relation to other words, and ultimately the conversation with words is endless (both Wittgenstein and Derrida came to this conclusion). Translators know this at first hand: the moment the original language of scripture is translated a shift in meaning is helplessly incurred. To try to cope with the shift translators use what are effectively paraphrases and thus they never quite capture the subtle resonances of the original. (See for example the huge range of English renderings for the Hebrew word for “word,” dabar.)

The thing that is therefore pivotal is not the words as such, but the engine of meaning at work in words, and the possibility of change in this engine. What indeed is a more creative act on God’s part, to reassert violent difference, or produce an entirely new basis of meaning?

Article V of the Chicago statement said, “We deny that later revelation, which may fulfill earlier revelation, ever corrects or contradicts it.” This strikes me as actually anti-gospel. What could Matthew possibly mean when Jesus says, “You have heard how it was said, I tell you…”? One of our members who was schooled in all-the-bible-says-the-same-thing engine of meaning told us the way this was parsed was that Jesus simply “raised the bar on the law,” arriving at its legal essence. Aside from Paul’s critique of the law as being practically unfulfillable, this makes many of Jesus’ anti-legalist statements and actions incomprehensible; plus it becomes a complete mystery as to why Jesus’ contemporaries should have sought his death ( i.e. if he simply wanted to perfect the law). Much more consistent to understand that Jesus really did introduce a new principle of meaning, one that lurked deeply in many corners of the Old Testament text but which found its concrete and singular realization in him. When Jesus says he comes to fulfill the law he does indeed affirm its radical purpose or intention, but he contradicts the engine of violent difference by which it is articulated and put into practice. Ultimately Jesus took the violent difference of the law upon himself in order to liberate its transformative human meaning. Thus he releases the new generative meaning for which the law was always striving.

Lastly, a flat single-horizon scripture ends up in negating the singularity of Jesus and his subsequently claimed divine status. It is out of his world-redefining singularity that the high confessional doctrines of the Son of God progressively emerged. To confess these and at the same time read all scripture with the same lens leads to a muddled, non-primitive and purely doctrinaire Christianity. And of course a violent one.

* This is not to say that the Northern cause was not also about difference in its own way. However, its difference was tied up in the concept of the Union and what that would mean in a longer, bigger game of U.S. world power and status. Meanwhile actual U.S. society, north and south, rejoices in three very direct “horizontal” ways of producing difference, money, prisons, and guns. Finally, the “liberal” or Enlightenment interpretation of the bible and/or culture very frequently understands itself in violent differentiation…from “fundamentalists.”