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Sunday, September 21, 2014  

Five Years

Friday was the fifth anniversary of my ordination to the ministry, as we Lutherans tend to call it, of Word and Sacrament (that is, to pastoral/priestly/clergy-like ministry). I pulled up a  picture of the bishop praying over me--kneeling, slightly more hair, everyone in red--for social media and submitted, graciously I hope, to an anniversary recognition today at church. I've spent too much time around committed ministry lifers to be anything but slightly embarrassed at marking such a trivial milestone. But then again, people who came into professional ministry in 2009 are, I've read here and there anyway, about as likely to be doing something else today as to still be working in the church. This is partly because careers are a bit of a joke for people launched into the job market in that particular year, partly because by upbringing or economics or whatever else people my age and younger are less likely to stick with one job for decades at a time (see also), and partly because the church world is going through painful transformations that are likelier to leave junior clergy un- or under-employed (there is also a non-trivial but not large, as far as I know, segment of the cohort of 35-year-old ordained clergy who just aren't good at the job).

But here I am, despite my own very close brushes with leaving (if the University of Chicago had had an opening for an undergraduate adviser four months earlier than they did, I'd be helping freshmen switch their biology sections right now). I'm glad I'm here. And I'm lucky/blessed to be, however you prefer to depict the morally random quality of these things. I don't think I've learned a whole lot that would be worth imparting, but five years of daily work in this world has surprised me in a few ways.

First, ordinary human suffering is no joke. Like plenty of people who do what I do, I imagined spending more time in the midst of life's acute traumas than I have done. We expect high emotion and problematic coping and stress and all the rest from such traumas--extreme poverty, public conflict, level-one trauma centers, deathbeds--and perhaps not coincidentally we write a heroic role for ourselves in them. What I didn't expect is the emotional toll of the daily sorrow--the divorces, the estrangements, the hatred of work, the bouts of depression, the substance abuse. Actually sitting down and talking over these experiences with people is a relatively small part of my work, smaller than I would have guessed. But it comes up at the oddest times, and it can blindside you with its force. Unlike what a lot of us perhaps had in mind, or unlike how we may imagine a more conventionally "helping" profession, there is often no solution, either. Some people will never get sober. Some people will never mend their marriage or make peace with their life. Being faithful and compassionate in those situations is really demanding, because you can't encounter people solely through their pathologies. You have to walk with the whole of their damaged humanity, which requires a kind of acceptance most people don't have to practice.

Second, people are kinder and more accepting than I would have guessed. My wife was sick last Sunday so I had the boys with me at the beginning of our 7:30 liturgy, the baby still unfed. As I began the announcements, I found myself gesturing toward the narthex with a banana in my hand. "You are probably wondering why I have a banana in my hand," I said. People laughed. They were not mad. Someone watched my baby and fed him so I could preach and celebrate the sacrament. I had been grumbling to myself about how ungodly the hour was and how punishing our worship schedule is, primarily because I expect myself to be capable of doing everything, but the people were happy to help. For the most part, I've found that to be the case. Some of my colleagues have ended up in churches that are dominated by small, sore-headed people but that's not the norm. And the truth is that it's hard to be on the receiving end of such kindness, especially if you're the sort of person who, for whatever reason, wants to talk about a guy who got crucified all the time. So there has been some growth along with the learning there as well.

Third, stuff changes, a lot more quickly and drastically than I expected. Ordination is very much like marriage in that you are making promises that a different you will have to fulfill. I do things today that I wouldn't have countenanced five years ago, and yet I'll still find myself surprised by the vehemence with which I'll hold to something that a lot of people don't see as a big deal (tip: don't ask me to rebaptize you). Why? Who knows! I express my faith differently than I did when the stole was first placed over my shoulders, and that has made me (I hope) more patient with what seem like people's odd beliefs, and also more committed to those things that don't change as a loom of sorts on which all the inevitable changes can happen without the whole thing falling apart. I almost wonder if that is what is meant by being "pastoral" as one hears it now, especially the Roman Catholic world in discussions and debates over Pope Francis's leadership style--negotiating the inevitability of change and variation against the necessity of some kind of stability. This is genuinely hard, and it only gets harder when money, institutional culture, and real estate are involved. I've never been the biggest admirer of the outgoing Archbishop Francis Cardinal George, but it must be acknowledged that he's had an impossible job--a job no one will ever do to anyone's complete satisfaction.

So there it is--an impossible job! Five years of attempting the impossible is something to enjoy, I suppose. I hope there are a lot more.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 11:29 PM

Monday, September 08, 2014  

Tomorrow and Today
Rev. Ben Dueholm
Isaiah 25:6-10a; selections from “Archaeology” by W.H. Auden; Matthew 6:24-34
Rockefeller Memorial Chapel
September 7, 2014

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God, creator of heaven and earth, and from Jesus Christ the redeemer and savior. Amen.

I want to thank you all for welcoming me to your community this morning, and I especially thank Bromleigh for the invitation. The University of Chicago, and this chapel itself, are places that I have no hope of untangling from the accounts I am sometimes asked to give of myself and my journey to faith. I didn’t go to church very much when I was a kid. I became a Christian while I was a student here, and church folk sometimes want to know how that happened. And while I ad-lib this story every time, there is always a pivot here: “well, I went to an Ash Wednesday service at the campus chapel,” or “I read the Sermon on the Mount in a bookstore in the basement of a seminary.”  This story, which I have often told and which is always different and yet always the same, is not one I am going to tell from this pulpit. If you should, for whatever reason, ask me for it after worship today, I will be abashed and reluctant and then I will, with relish, launch right into it. 

Because stories connecting the person we are with the person we were and the person we expect and hope (or fear) to be are essential to our lives. These stories give us something to cling to in tough times, when adversity challenges our identity. They give us a way to interpret things that happen to us and around us. This is not just a cultural thing. The capacity to make up stories is, apparently, part of our biology. We need it in order to make sense of a world that is throwing more stuff at us than our brains can process. 

And what’s true of us as individuals is true of our families and communities as well. We tell stories about our families that connect past to present and future. We identify with political ideologies that tell stories about the world: if you think of yourself as a “progressive,” you may tend to tell stories about how much power of growth and change and improvement is locked up inside of our world, waiting to be liberated. And if you think of yourself as a “conservative” you may tend to tell stories about how fragile the world is and how important it is to preserve those practices and beliefs that have carried us to this moment.

I know I’m not alone here in being a compulsive consumer of stories: stories about lives, about places, about civilizations, about the beliefs that have shaped me and all of us. It’s why country music is so awesome—it tells stories. If you’re anything like me you have been listening to a whole lot of Kris Kristofferson songs lately. I can’t get enough of “Me and Bobbie McGee,” the song about how freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose: “Somewhere near Salinas, Lord I let her slip away / Searching for the home I hope she’ll find / And I’d trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday / Holding Bobbie’s body next to mine.” 

There’s just one problem with our innate urge to make the world into stories: it tends not to be especially accurate. I’ve seen it called “confabulation.” A writer named Will Storr describes it this way

We live, moment to moment, in an emotional reality of love, hate, feuds, sorrows and dreams. We spin seductive, reductive narratives of heroism and villainy, struggle and victory, to parse reality and give ourselves esteem and our lives meaning…In the chaos of the daily world and our irrational behaviour within it, our brains conjure the illusion of order; they wrench a plot from the chaos and then place us heroically at its centre. 

Stories have limits but life ignores limits. The song ends but life goes on. You found Bobbie McGee on Facebook and you see pictures once in a while, she’s had a little too much sun and some scary health problems. It turns out you’re just as content to be living in all those tomorrows you would have traded, once upon a time, for one last day with her. 

And, OK, there’s actually a second problem: religion is one of these confabulations, a story that imposes order on the chaos of life by turning it into a coherent narrative. We were in a garden and had everything and it all went to hell. I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see. Things may be bad now. But in the words of the prophet this morning, “It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God for whom we have waited; this is the LORD for whom we have waited.” And we’d trade all our yesterdays for a single tomorrow on that mountain, at that feast. 

Now I love these stories. They’re good and they’re necessary. But even the best, holiest, truest, most beautiful story we tell ourselves has the potential to lie to us, to make the past from which we are coming or the future into which we are going way, way more important than they really are. And much more under our control. 

This is part of why Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, which we hear today, is so challenging. Jesus was plenty fond of stories. His life is deeply entwined in the story of Creation and the story of the people of Israel. He told stories to interpret the world. A man asked him “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus answered “A certain man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho.” 

But when the time came to talk about ethics in the clearest way he could, the stories are gone. The appeal to yesterday and to tomorrow is gone. In fact, Jesus urges his followers not to worry about tomorrow at all, or about how we will be fed and clothed tomorrow. 

“Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus says. “They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?” 

Don’t worry about these things, Jesus says, because Gentiles do that. “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

That last line is a rather pedestrian translation. The old King James is actually better: “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” And here’s the thing: we are hard-wired to worry about tomorrow’s evil! We need to! Anxious people aren’t sick, they’re wise! At least that’s what I tell myself and my therapist. 

And it would be easy enough to shelve this whole passage as good advice about living in the moment, being serene and lily-like, and cultivating our inner peace. Advice that I’ll never take, but good advice, and if you can, by all means go for it. 

But that’s not it what this is about. That’s not why this is the most important sermon pretty much ever. Jesus is making a drastic, thrilling, maybe even frightening claim about the importance of today; the importance of Now. 

Not the importance of living into a brighter, fairer tomorrow. 

Not the importance of preserving what is good for a dangerous future. 

Not even waiting for the LORD who will act to save on that day, some day. But the importance, the eternal, infinite significance of Today.

And in this eternal now, our self-justifying stories and our heroic tales don’t matter. They no longer justify anything and they no longer explain anything. They can’t lie to us any more. There will never be a better day to open our hand in generosity. There will never be a better day to quit drinking or say those words that need to be said or to make amends or come clean or fall in love or tell the truth or speak up. You can’t serve two masters, both God and wealth—or, as I’ve come to think of it, the God of Today and the God of Tomorrow. Strive first for the Kingdom of God. Strive first for today, with its daily bread and daily troubles and daily mercies, and everything you need will follow. History, as W.H. Auden tells us today, is made by the criminal in us, that part of us that is enslaved to tomorrow. Goodness is timeless. Goodness is always in season, always right now. 

Underneath this whole awesome command to be good, to be fully and joyfully and un-anxiously good right now, is Jesus’s message that this timeless Goodness is capable of loving us back. The eternal Day that arrays the lily in unfading glory, and feeds the sparrow with perpetual abundance, is for us, too—we who have such little faith. In the heart of that day, in the silence where we hush the stories we tell ourselves, there justice, there is freedom, there is peace, there is heaven. There is the gracious voice of God.


posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 11:59 AM

Friday, April 18, 2014  

Rev. Ben Dueholm

One Art, by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Today we see Jesus losing everything. He loses his disciples, and then he loses his freedom. He loses his good name and his standing in his community. He loses his city and his people and his future, he loses his safety, he loses his mother, he loses the breath in his lungs and in the end he loses his life. I think the poet has her tongue firmly in her cheek when she says that the art of losing isn’t hard to master, but in today’s story it is an art that Jesus had to master very quickly.

And in the middle of this parade of loss, something unusual happens. Jesus is being interviewed by the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, the cruelest man in the province. And Pilate asks him if Jesus believes, or says, that he is a king. And Jesus tells him, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asks him, “What is truth?” 

In this horrible day, this day of mastering all kinds of loss, in this hot and stuffy room surrounded by brutal wicked men, the wickedest man of them all opens a door to Jesus. Those who belong to the truth listen to your voice, do they, Rabbi? Well, tell me, what is truth? 

A way out is suddenly there for the grasping. Beyond this question lies the return of lost disciples. Beyond this questions lies a warm bed for a man who hasn’t slept and a hearty meal for a man who hasn't eaten. Beyond this question is another chance, another day, the opportunity to piece together some of what has been lost, if only you can satisfy this sophisticated and vicious man’s curiosity, if only you can give him what he asks for, if only you can become more valuable to him as a living guru than as a dead rebel. If only you can be a successful philosopher instead of a failed prophet. 

And the answer Jesus gives in his moment of direst need is—nothing.

Now we may imagine that Pilate asks his question with a cynical sneer. And we may imagine that Jesus refuses to answer because as he preached to his followers you should not give what is holy to dogs, and you should not cast your pearls before swine. We may even imagine that Jesus was the one testing Pilate, and not Pilate testing Jesus. 

But in any event, Jesus sees this door open, and then he lets it close. The art of losing is not too hard to master. 

And thank God. If Jesus had answered Pilate in this moment, all would truly be lost. Jesus has lived and breathed and eaten and walked truth up until now and if he had turned that truth into mere words—if he had summed up the deep truth of God for Pilate—it might have won him back the day or the year or the lifetime. But he would have lost the truth. Because every truth spoken in words turns stale. It gets picked at and criticized and debunked. It becomes a cliché. It is made to sound foolish. Answering Pilate’s question may get you out of that room, but after you are all gone and the room is no more and Pilate is dust, your truth will grow old too. Words grow old. Words die. And in the middle of a tempest of death and destruction, Christ refuses to make truth a victim. He refuses to add truth to the sacrifice. He offers instead his silence, his nothing. If you are willing to imagine it, he offers his failure. His losing.

It has been a season of losing in our community. Funeral upon funeral lately, prayer after prayer, card after card, tear after tear. My church mouse even died. I used to hear him behind my wall. We were companions—unwilling ones, it is true. But for a moment in this life, we were two conscious bits of the universe sharing some space, breathing the same air. And then the mouse died. Everything dies. Every presence becomes an absence. Pilate was here, and now Pilate is gone. Pilate’s fortress was there, and now it is no more. 

And there are a million half-true and well-meant things you can say to this flood of loss. There are words that offer the illusion of an escape, a way out of the room. But they aren’t the truth. They are not words of life. 

Because the truth that Pilate sought was not in words, but in the Jewish teacher before him. It was not a secret to be divulged. It was hidden in plain sight. It was in his faithfulness, his steadfastness, his giving of himself. It was in his willingness to lose, his willingness to be lost so that the world might somehow be won that the truth was laid bare. It was in his willingness to be silent and truthful and to go to his death, rather than to betray the truth with words and live. And this is a truth that can be crucified, it can be murdered, but it cannot be buried forever. It’s a truth that cannot be spoken, but that speaks for itself. It’s a truth that we are forever losing, but that finds us in turn. 


April 18, 2014 (Good Friday)
Wauconda, Illinois

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 10:21 PM

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