|The Private Intellectual
Ecclesiastes-Based Real Estate Advice
Thursday, February 06, 2014 On Good Books and Bad Readers
A professor who taught T.S. Eliot at the University of Chicago once told a student that he'd been reading Four Quartets for his whole adult life, and that those poems meant something very different to him as a young man, as a scholar in the prime of his career, and again as he neared that career's end. The poems are great because they change with us, he said. This is the sort of insight that comes with the luxury of a lifetime of study, especially once it's freed from the demand to stake out and defend an ideological reading, but it's available to anyone who falls in love with a work that is rich enough to sustain repeated reading. And it's a comment that I remembered as I read a particularly poignant note on yesterday's "creation debate" between Ken Ham and Bill Nye. Both men were asked what would change their mind about the origin and age of the universe, and while Nye said that fossil or cosmological evidence could change his view, Ham said that basically nothing could convince him that his supposedly Biblically-based view was wrong. As Steve Thorngate, writing at the Christian Century, pointed out, this answer wasn't simply a rebuke to science as a method of understanding the world:
Ham’s answer also presents a discouraging view of what it means to be a Christian and to read the Bible. No one is ever going to convince him to understand the Bible differently than he does now? (I know those aren’t his words, but that’s the implication of how he shuts down the question so entirely.) Not new information about the Bible or the world, or new experiences or relationships, or even new revelation from Ham’s relationship with the living God?
In my relatively short life as a Christian, I’ve changed my mind about lots of things, repeatedly—including what exactly we mean when we say the Bible is true. Lots of Christians have done this, of course (and not just liberal ones). The Century publishes a whole series of articles about how and why. It’s part of the joy—and the responsibility—of a living personal faith.
You can read a thousand critiques, serious and merely jeering, of Ham's performance. It can't account for natural phenomena with any kind of adequacy. It's an irrational lurch toward a philosophical foundation that it can't really provide. And it's worth pointing out that his argument effectively attempts to enshrine his understanding of Scripture as official Christianity for the purposes of law and public policy, such that even Christians who don't especially care about origin-of-life debates should be wary of it. All of this is true.
But I am stuck on this issue with the poverty of reading. Like Thorngate, I'm a Christian of comparatively recent vintage, and like him my understanding of the Bible has changed a lot even in that time. And why wouldn't it? I read Eliot differently than I used to. I found Hamlet to be a brilliant and empathetic figure when I was 17, now as a father and a middle manager in the customs house of life's moral ambiguities I have a lot more sympathy for Polonius. If the Bible is not "merely" a great book--whatever we might mean when we say that--it surely is not less than a great book, not less pliable to our own changing endowments as readers. The story of the binding of Isaac terrorizes and mystifies me more now than it did before my first son was born. The Sermon on the Mount strikes me today as much more a picture of the world as Jesus saw it and urged us to see it than it is a manual for spiritual athletics or a prefatory condemnation of human sinfulness as I may have seen it before. Moreover I don't imagine for a moment that how I read these things today is in any way final.
The same process is at work, perhaps even more powerfully, in Genesis itself. While I've never been one to read it as a day-by-day account of life's beginning, I've also never minimized it as some just-so story about why we don't like snakes and why childbirth is so painful. But I was, like many others, steeped in a theological tradition that saw in the story of the creation and fall the picture of a perfect world and the interruption of something we call "sin," variously interpreted, inaugurating all of our difficulty in refraining from murder and inappropriate intercourse (not to mention self-righteousness, self-delusion, and moral judgment). I don't think that's wrong, exactly, but I've come to see this passage less as about a curse placed on the man and the woman than as a curse placed on the land. It's the beginning of privation, work, the incessant demand for surplus, the root of all distinctions of function and class among people, the great unresolved war over access to life's goods that permeates most of the verses that follow. Some people think Genesis 1 represents a resistance to the Babylonian gods, their wars of creation and enslavement of the human race, and that Genesis 3 (the older part) narrates in mythical form our transition from a hunter-gatherer existence to an agricultural one--in other words, the beginning of almost everything we think of as history or culture. In that sense, maybe it's a much more "historical" story than even the great church fathers and mothers seemed to appreciate.
This is a minor journey I've been on. But it's nothing the great faithful have been immune to. When he wrote On Christian Doctrine, Augustine solved the problem of obscure passages in Scripture by reading them in light of clearer ones. It's a fine way of reading and very useful; it is commonsensical among Protestants who talk about "Scripture alone" but are less committed to a six-day creation than Ken Ham. It's pretty much the opposite of how we read, say, Hamlet, though. And indeed, as Augustine's career wore on he seems to me to be more likely to read the clearer passages in light of the more difficult texts on election and judgment. Where light once illuminated the mysteries, in time the mysteries impose themselves on the light. It's the same thing with Luther, who grappled mightily with God's hiddenness in Genesis and Isaiah long after insisting on the clarity of God's self-revelation.
So there is a sense in which this debate, if that's even what it is, goes deeper than "the Bible versus science" or "what the Bible really means" into what it means to be a reader of the Bible. I have no particular objection to people believing that the world is 6,000 years old and the seemingly-ancient universe is God's little tromp-l'oeil, so long as they don't seek to impose it by law or custom on anyone else. I believe some strange things too, as do we all. But we should all object, if we treasure the Bible or even books in general, to the idea that it's only true or good or real if we insist on seeing it the same way no matter what changes in or around us. That's not what books do, and it's not what we demand if we truly honor them. posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 12:39 AM
Tuesday, January 14, 2014 Love for Sale
My most recent feature in the Christian Century explores the ethical questions around prostitution, trafficking, and laws on sex work. I had the chance, in writing this, to conduct some really powerful interviews, and I'm grateful to everyone who spoke to me (as well as to Robert Kolker, whom I did not interview but whose astonishing Lost Girls proved invaluable). A taste:
The gathering debate over prostitution makes one thing clear: the culture wars over sexuality won’t end with the inevitable advance of same-sex marriage, contraception coverage and the acceptance of sex before marriage. The sexual revolution once aimed to re-center sexual ethics on love rather than heterosexual marriage. But revolutions are loathe to end where their early enthusiasts planned. More and more, the sexual revolution seems apt to turn on love itself as a norm. Hanna Rosin and others have described the preference among many young adults for casual sexual liaisons over courtship and commitment as a way to focus on a lucrative career rather than on relationships. Emily Witt, writing for n+1, delved into San Francisco’s extreme pornography industry—finding in it a way people escape from the shackling of sex to love or even to pleasure and personal autonomy. Enthusiasts for polyamory speak of “primary” and “secondary” sexual partners, much as one would speak of insurers. Prostitution may still be illegal. But the language of commerce is already commonplace when people talk about sex.
How you feel about the selling of sex is likely to depend on how you feel about selling and how you feel about sex. This accounts for the divisions the sex industry creates on both the left and the right. Some small-government enthusiasts are eager to interfere with business when that business is sex; some liberals and feminists are eager to interfere with sexual autonomy when it takes the form of business. The debate over how much prostitution is somehow coerced is in large measure a stalking horse for the deeper ethical question: Should selling sex be acceptable? There are strong intuitive and emotional reasons to say no, to keep the logic of lawful commerce out of this most intimate, vulnerable interaction. The traumatic stories and dead bodies may persuade us that sex work—that sexuality itself—can never be truly safe.
On the other hand, everything else in our world is for sale, and sex is already the responsibility of consenting adults. Perhaps we prohibit prostitution because a last cobweb of mystification clings to the plain truth that sex is not special—and that confining its expression within the bounds of love or even lust only serves to protect some outdated ideology. Perhaps the trauma and the danger persuade us only that the sexual revolution is not yet complete.
Read the rest here.posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 10:27 AM
Monday, January 06, 2014 Why Your Bible Should Have the Apocrypha
Last Sunday my church (like most Lutheran and many other churches) had the option of reading a passage from the book of the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach in place of a more standard Old Testament lesson from Jeremiah. Since the passage was so thematically appropriate, and since I like Sirach (also known as Ecclesiasticus or ben Sira), I decided to use it. But as it was a book totally unfamiliar to many of our people, and since questions about it started reaching me days before church, I found it necessary to say a little bit about the book and why, despite the fact that it's not in many of the popular Bible editions people own, I wished to have it read in worship.
While I was glad to do this, it's unfortunate that it was necessary. Sirach should be in every edition of the Bible, along with the rest of the Old Testament "Apocrypha" or "Second Canon." My friend Jim Skaggs has been sharing discussions of the Apocrypha on his blog, which taken together cover the question in greater depth (maybe start here and poke around a bit). I'm going to add a very little here by way of practical arguments. I'm not a scholar of the text or history of Scripture; my own view on the matter falls basically in line with Luther, St. Jerome, and the many others who found the Hebrew text of the Old Testament to contain the core of the faith while placing the "second canon" of books found only in the Greek translation in an honored but less central position.* But nothing I say here depends on accepting that particular view. I'm simply offering four reasons your Bible ought to contain these books, and if it doesn't, you should find one that does, and then read them.
1. The case for excluding these books altogether has only rarely (and recently) been made. The first Bible of the Christian Church was the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures made in the second century before the time of Christ. The debate between the canon preserved in the Septuagint and the canon of the Hebrew version (preserved in what we call the Masoretic Text, which is actually of later date than the Septuagint) is an interesting one, historically speaking and not without consequence. But in no source I can find were the books found only in the Septuagint considered corrupt, misleading, or erroneous. Unfortunately the terms "apocrypha" and "apocryphal" have come to denote inauthenticity or even fraudulence, which is not their meaning in Greek (that would be closer to "pseudepigrapha," which is another body of ancient literature). Every Bible contained the Apocrypha, whether set apart from the Hebrew canon or not, until quite recently. Evangelical and fundamentalist hostility to the Apocrypha appears to be an effect rather than a cause of the creation of cheap Bible editions in the 19th century that excluded the "second canon" for economic reasons.
2. The distinction between "authoritative" and "beneficial" is not as useful as it once was. Historically, as I understand it, the debate over the Apocrypha hinged on whether the books should be considered as "authoritative" for doctrine or morals, or whether they should be read as "beneficial." You can dress this distinction up in different ways: "authentic," "inerrant," or "inspired" on one side, "useful," "beneficial," etc. on the other. But at this point these terms do not have stable meanings, even within Christian traditions that have a fairly coherent identity such as Lutheranism, Roman Catholicism, and Reformed. In a sense, the more inclined you are to a verbal inspiration or literalist approach to Scripture, the more you stand to gain from reading books that share the worldviews, cadences, and points of reference of Scripture without carrying along the metaphysical baggage of inerrancy.
3. Without it your understanding of Christian thought and literature is inevitably incomplete.
Luther loved to quote Sirach: If you would serve the LORD, my son, prepare yourself for temptation. Kierkegaard, who was arguably the most protestant Protestant of his age, wrote the story of Tobit quite powerfully into the argument of Fear and Trembling. You'll find allusions to the Wisdom of Solomon in the writing of John Donne. As far as I know, every Christian writer, whatever their label, read and knew these books through the first 16 centuries (or more) of Christianity. If we cut ourselves off from those texts, we won't be able to read them as well as they are meant to be read.
4. And without it, your understanding of the world of the Bible is incomplete. Scholars of the Bible, whatever their stripe or religious identity, are accountable for knowing these books. For one thing, there is overlap in time between the composition of the canonical and apocryphal books. For another, the history and thought of the (relatively brief) period between the testaments is interesting in itself and very helpful for understanding the world of the Jewish diaspora through which Christianity at first spread. Sirach contains what I believe is the most complete description of Second-Temple worship we have. Just as we can't understand Christian thought without reading what Christian thinkers read, we can't understand the world of Jesus without reading what his contemporaries wrote.
So if your Bible lacks these books, go and get one that has them. If nothing else, it will be a sign that the editors and translators of your version know what they are doing and are making a genuine effort to provide a set of canonical texts that is properly informed by their literary context and their reception by ancient readers. And there's nothing wrong with being edified.
* Later a Hebrew version of Sirach was discovered, which has raised its status in many eyes. posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 4:20 PM
Monday, October 28, 2013 Lou Reed, 1942-2013
The bridge of my acoustic guitar is still spotted with blood, something I left there during a late-night rendition of "Heroin" in 2004 or 2005. It's a song about addiction--one of the best, for my money--that invites a kind of compulsive excess, a "how fast can I really play this" acceleration that mimics the junkie's life-threatening rush. Well, after an hour or so longer at Jimmy's than was strictly advisable, I burrowed deep into that song, obnoxiously unheedful of the existence of neighbors, playing it so fast that I nicked my third finger and bled quite a bit before I noticed anything.
I played "Pale Blue Eyes" for a bunch of totally uncomprehending school kids in Taiwan. Why? I don't really know, except that it's an awesome song and I played it every chance I got. I also played it for a church group in Glencoe, Illinois. Same reason, I suppose.
What is it about his songs that makes them sink into your bones if you play them even a few times? How is it that I have played "I'll Be Your Mirror," a two-verse wisp of a song, roughly a million times, most recently to my fussy five-month-old, and never gotten tired of it?
I was out and about today when I heard the news of Lou Reed's death and was not able to listen to his music, but it would have been practically redundant. So many of his songs, including ones I haven't played, listened to, or even thought of in years are still somewhere in my mind, word for word. I'm not going to attempt to play rock critic here--he made some garbage music, he was a huge jerk, you can read all of that from people who are good at it. But some of those lines, my goodness, I'll just never forget them. Take this from the heartbreaking "Halloween Parade," an AIDS-era lament for the decimation of New York's gay and trans scene:
No consolations please for feeling funky
I gotta get my head above my knees
But it makes me mad, and mad makes me sad
And then I start to freeze
In the back of my mind I was afraid it might be true
In the back of my mind I was afraid that they meant you
I brought that one to English class in 12th grade when we were sharing song lyrics as poetry. Some of the other students snickered at the lyrics--"There's a girl from Soho with a t-shirt saying 'I Blow'"--but I was irritated because it was very serious and mournful and frightening. I was probably committed to riding with Lou from that point on, now that I think of it.
Or this, from the cruelly underrated Ecstasy:
Sometimes when I think of Baton Rouge
I see us with two and a half strapping sons
One and a half flushed daughters preparing to marry
And two fat grandsons I can hardly carry
Daddy uncle family gathered there for grace
The dog and the barbecue pit go up in space
The dream recedes in the morning with a bad aftertaste
And I'm back in the big city worn from the race of the chase, what a waste
So I try not to think of Baton Rouge
And of a of a of a mariachi band
And of sixteen and a crisp green football field
And the girl and the girl I never had
I listened to that album every day and twice on Sundays in the summer of 2000 (I could go on with this sort of thing--Set the Twilight Reeling made my high school yearbook quote; I cut up a bunch of cows and chickens in the Deep Springs butcher room to Live MCMXCIII and Berlin, which I do not recommend listening to when you're around that many sharp objects; etc.). I went to the show for that tour, which was good, surliness and all. The hurt and the hostility were always so close to the surface in his music. Where Dylan was evasive and elusive, Lou Reed bled and shouted and got insufferable. And he wrote some beautiful things:
I need a guru, I need some law
To explain to me the things we saw
And why it always comes to this:
It's all downhill after the first kiss
Or the thunderous anthem, really a rare instance of forgivable monster rock, that wraps up that album:
Big sky big sky holding up the sun
Big sky big sky holding up the moon
Big sky holding down the sea
But it can't hold us down any more
Big sin big sin big original sin
Paradise where I've never been
Big snake breaks the skin
But it can't hold us down any more
I could do this all night, just with lyrics I have from memory. This, after all, is just from one rather late rather obscure album, and my taste in Lou Reed's music is by no means hipper-than-thou. So go listen to it. Just be careful--it can do things to you.posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 1:01 AM
Friday, September 06, 2013 A Guide to Short-Conning Pastors
My apologies for the long hiatus, friends. I wish I were breaking the streak for something more than this, but at least this is pretty good (if I do say so myself):
Having spent a number of years now in the kinds of churches that entertain the travelers of the grift circuit, I’ve learned a few things about rip-off attempts. I’ve seen some great efforts—even some leaving me uncertain that they were scams—and others that were just shamefully bad. How can you increase your odds of walking away with some cash?
Don’t appeal to naked pity. Straight-up sob stories are not usually effective. We hear a lot of them. We give a lot of our money, and sometimes our congregation’s money, to fund social service agencies and other emergency aid outlets. And a lot of us are compassion burnouts. We need variety in our lives like anyone else.
Do appeal to more complex motivations. Be in some other kind of trouble, something that doesn’t immediately call dollar signs to mind—ideally, something that is at least partly of your own making. Remember that our business is aiding sinners, not victims. Protection from danger is a good thing to need, or moral counsel for a serious dilemma. Most of us imagine helping people in tight spots or wading into morally ambiguous waters. Let us do that!
Wednesday, July 03, 2013 How Not to Make a Liberal Argument
In the New Republic, T.A. Frank makes a lengthy argument for liberals opposing the Senate's immigration bill. It will be familiar to those who have followed the debate over the years: competition from current and future illegal immigrants will hurt wages, diminish the power of unionized workers, and stress the safety net on which low-wage workers rely.
Now I don't know the issue well enough to be anything but agnostic on the probability of these effects. I do know that many scholars find positive net affects to native-born workers in low-wage jobs (though they often find negative affects to less-recent immigrants), but others do not. I'll have to leave that question to the experts. But I do want to point out something Frank repeatedly does in this article:
The country I want for myself and future Americans is one that’s prosperous, cohesive, harmonious, wealthy in land and resources per capita, nurturing of its skilled citizens, and, most important, protective of its unskilled citizens, who deserve as much any other Americans to live in dignity.
But if that was how I felt about protecting Hong Kong’s working class, why shouldn’t I feel that way about America’s?
For instance, buried on page 20 in Appendix Two” of this pro-legalization report touted by the Center For American Progress—trumpeted in a press release with the headline “How Immigration Reform Would Help the Economy”—is an estimate that if half of the current unauthorized labor force were deported the wage of a low-skill U.S. worker would rise by $399 a year. By contrast, legalization would raise that worker’s wage by less than half that much—and that’s assuming no further illegal immigration. (emphasis added)
The same phrasing recurs another several times in the article. And granting for the sake of the argument that it's all true, it's a curious kind of liberalism that seeks to bolster the wages of low-skill workers in one country by deporting competing low-wage workers from a much poorer one. In other words, the argument throughout, from beginning to end, only makes sense if the only group of low-wage workers whose fate is of moral concern is the one that happens to have been born in this country. If you were born in the Dominican Republic or the Philippines or Mexico, your much more severe poverty is not a problem for us to solve or even to be concerned with.
Now that is a position one could take. But it is not, by any definition I acknowledge, a liberal position. It is a nationalist position. T.A. Frank and anyone else is welcome to take the view that American lives and American welfare are just categorically more important than the lives and welfare of non-Americans, but they ought to be more clear about it. We already have an amply-represented nationalist tendency in our politics. We don't need to re-label it as "liberalism."
Now nation-states are what they are and public policy is what it is. There are unavoidable practical and moral limits on implementing the conviction that the value of human life is independent of one's place of birth. But letting people come here to exchange their labor for money and their money for goods and services and to do it all in a place where the quality of governance is higher, schools are better, and infrastructure is more productive is one of the least difficult and least costly ways to alleviate poverty for non-Americans. It's more effective than foreign aid, more effective than trying to badger developing countries into cracking down on corruption, more effective than invading a country and doing some nation-building. As a bonus, it dramatically enriches the existing American economy (in aggregate--that no one denies) in a way that allows even the worst possible (though hardly certain) outcomes for the native working class to be alleviated through fiscal transfers. Frank points out that the safety net is a tough sell when you have lots of immigrants about, but a politics based on (largely ethnic) nationalism is not exactly serving the safety net well now, and it's impossible to imagine a nationalist victory on immigration reform that is paired with a more-generous development of the safety net or stronger labor laws.
Lest anyone think of this view as a kind of new-fangled cosmopolitan version of liberalism, I would maintain that it comes from the oldest source: "The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God" (Leviticus 19:34). As Marilynne Robinson (among others) has persuasively argued, this is where American liberalism--not its stingier European homonym--really began: in the Old Testament's commands to deal generously with immigrants, widows, the landless, freed slaves, and other people who could plausibly be treated, and so often have been, as competitors for scarce national resources.
So by all means, work and argue and advocate for the interests of the native-born working class. But if your case for doing so requires ignoring entirely the moral claims of poor people in other countries, please don't call it liberalism.
Saturday, May 18, 2013 The Unwalled City
My column for the latest issue of Let's Talk is up, on the body, solidarity, and the Boston bombing:
We are perhaps now so accustomed to the “security theater” that has characterized the twelve years of the War on Terror that we have lost sight of the essential vulnerability in which we live. There is a small kind of nobility in the creation of so many “hard targets” such as federal buildings, as if a truck-bomber wouldn’t settle for blowing up the office tower across the street if the reinforced-concrete flower planters thwarted his plan to blow up the place where Social Security checks get printed. But we ourselves are the ultimate soft target. As social beings we like to congregate. We might endure security theater — the ostentatious, if practically dubious, display of anti-terror muscle — at some already unpleasant and unsociable venue like an airport. But until we give up our desire to test ourselves, body and soul, against our limits, and to do it in a pulsing, cheering crowd of our fellow bodies, we cannot be assured that our very desire for embodiment and union won’t be used as a kind of weapon. We human beings, as Lucretius put it, live in an unwalled city.
Read the whole thing! posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 9:40 PM