Sunday, October 30, 2011

Who is my neighbor? Part I: "Goodbye Solo"

This week I find myself working on an article on "The Good Samaritan" figure in contemporary film.  Rather than looking at films that explicitly retell the story, I have decided to look at a few films whose characters enact elements of the narrative form found in the parable: persons in need being aided and assisted by those whom the narrative audience would consider least likely to come to assistance.

I've narrowed by thoughts down to three or four films.  Since the article is not due until the end of November, I thought I'd use my blog for the next couple of weeks to reflect on a few films I've been watching lately.

The first film I'd like to reflect on is a lovely indie shot by the Iranian director, Ramin Bahrani, entitled "Goodbye Solo."  This 2009 film was shot in, of all places, Winston-Salem, NC, here in my neck of the woods.  In the film, a Senegalese cabby, Solo, is offered $1000.00 by one of his fairs, an older white North Carolinian named William, to drive him later in the week to Blowing Rock, up in the Appalachian mountains.  When Solo finds out that William is planning only a one way trip, he suspects him of wanting to go to the mountains to jump off Blowing Rock.  The narrative unfolds with Solo trying to help William, offering a place in his home, finding him a hotel, taking him out nights to socialize, while trying to find out and resolve William's secret.  The film's characters are a study in contrasts. Solo is surrounded by friends, has a newborn infant and a bright and charming step-daughter, and spends meaningful days in a lively and exciting immigrant community.  William, on the other hand, goes to the movies alone with the sole purpose of having brief conversations with a boy at the teller window, a boy who is utterly unaware that the old man talking to him is likely is mother's long-estranged father.  The contrast between the two characters is also artfully illustrated in the cinematography.  Through much of the film, we see Solo's cab driving through the hauntingly gritty post-industrial night-time streets of Winston Salem.  The final scenes provide a shock to the senses, with the yellow cab driving in the colorful morning excesses of the late-October North Carolina mountains.  The film concludes at Blowing Rock.  Yet the narrative remains unresolved, with William's fate implied only by the image of leaves and sticks blown upward off precipitous rocks.

Whether intentional or not, this film captures beautifully the apocalyptic context of Jesus' parable.  There is a sense of urgency to Solo's efforts.  Solo's frenetic and bubbling wit, his chaotic life, and lively friendships contrast so sharply with William's tense and laconic vocalizations, his chill loneliness, and flat apathetic aspect.  Yet the film is not a cheap morality play. While Solo is deeply disturbed by William's plan, and as a "Good Samaritan," tries everything to prevent it, the main point of the film is not so much either to focus on Solo's good will or the tragedy of William's suicidal desire.  Like Jesus' parables, the film elegantly expresses the sense of urgency, expectancy, and surprising nature of new life, the coming Kingdom of God, even in the face of human despair and decay.

By looking at the parable again through the light of this film, I am reminded of how strong the compulsion is to moralize the parable.  After all, Jesus does conclude the parable with the command, "go and do likewise."  But what if the parable is more about the man who was robbed as it was about the one who stopped to help him?  Note that the expert in the law is asking "who is my neighbor?"  and Jesus concludes the parable with the question, which of the three (the Rabbi, Levite, or Samaritan who encountered the wounded man on the road) was a neighbor.  The narrative draws the parallel not between Jesus' interlocutor and the Good Samaritan, but between Jesus' interlocutor and the wounded man on the road.   By moralizing on this parable, the church preaches this as a story about how we are to help others.  However, the question is not so much,  "who are we a neighbor to?" but "who will be a neighbor to us?"  I don't think we're being urged to compare ourselves with the Good Samaritan.  Jesus compares his audience to the wounded man on the road.

In the past couple of weeks, I've finally gotten around to reading Putnam's book "Bowling Alone."  While some of the data in the book is probably quite dated by now, the trends he points to about the increasing isolation in many parts of American society--the dissolution of families, churches, and neighborhoods--have likely only accelerated in the past ten years.  "Goodbye Solo," however, points to hope.  There are small pockets, perhaps among the ones whom the "majority culture" prefers to ignore, where people are experiencing the apocalyptic hope and vibrancy of renewed community.  Maybe there is hope that some among us are experiencing life and community in various subcultures, whether among Latin American sojourners, or among the "Wall Street" tent protesters that have set up in the hearts of urban America.   I hope only it is not too late for the rest of us to give up our craven desire for isolation and find a group where we can join.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

But Even the Dogs Eat the Crumbs that Fall from the Master's Table

It has become popular for some churches to celebrate the Feast Day of St. Francis (it was on Tuesday) with pet blessings.  I have never been to one, but have always wanted to.  For some people, this may be kind of a controversial ceremony.  It makes for great publicity for the church.  The church need not be some stuffy, rigid haven of orthodoxy.  What a wonderful opportunity to present the church as an inviting community, by posting pictures on the church website of parishioners with their "fur babies" being blessed by their pastor!

Several years ago, Janka and I were adopted by our own creature, a now 100 lb Rottweiler mix who decided one morning he was going to be part of our family.  After greeting Janka at the car as she was leaving for work and giving her a kiss on her hand, he followed me to our front porch where I proceeded to slam the door in his face, hoping he would get the message and go away.  Later, after I had gotten ready for the day and was pulling around the house from our garage, I saw him still sitting on our front porch.  Lo and behold, he was still around when I got back later that evening.  The neighbors said he stayed by the door the whole day, waiting for me to come and let him in.  We took him in that night and "Bear" has been with us ever since.  He has been a great and loving companion for us, a huge and humorous presence in our home, a loyal protector, a gentle giant.

It is strange to me that there are so few dog stories in the Bible.  As I understand it, the ancient Israelites were a herding folk.  Other symbols of their herding life, such as the staff and harp, continue to have great meaning, even in the Christian tradition.  Dogs did apparently play a role in Israel's herding life (Job 30:1) and were likely used as watchdogs (Exod 11:7?; Is 56:10-11).  They may have even played a role inside the family home; although I'm thinking the rhetoric in Matt 15:27 indicates that having dogs in the house would have been considered ritually impure and a practice among Gentiles (it is the Syro-Phoenecian woman talking here).  I'd love to know whether archaeologists have found any evidence of dogs in the home as part of an ancient Canaanite herding culture.  In most cases in which dogs are mentioned in the Bible, they are associated either with violence (consider the stories of Naboth, Jezebel, and Ahab), ritual impurity, and/or slurs of one sort or another.   There does not seem to be the association of dogs with loyalty and protection.  This is a cultural difference.  As Janka and I have witnessed, we have seen a growing acceptance of dogs in the home over the past decade or two in Slovakia.   We think it has something to do with growing affluence and the influence of Western culture.  Anyway, the evidence, at least with regards to dogs, would mean that dear St. Francis would not have thrived so well in biblical times.

So are there any good pet stories in the Bible?  I can really only think of one, Balaam's ass.  Of course any story where there's a talking donkey is bound to be good.  But the cool thing about this story is that God reprimands Balaam for unnecessarily beating his donkey with his staff; and then commends the donkey as being more spiritually acute than the seer himself (Num 22:32-33).  Of course, this probably is a piece of irony poking fun at this foreign prophet.  Still, I suspect the conversation between Balaam and his donkey would have been perceived by ancient audiences as a kind of magical realism, qualitatively different from other theophanies and miracles that are so much a part of the biblical world.  In any case, Balaam's ass makes the short list of characters in the Bible who are given a vision of the divine.   When we come to think of pet blessings and the like, perhaps we should recall this story and at least consider that our pets, in some ways, may be more spiritually acute and less stubborn than we ourselves.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The King James Anniversary

For my blog this week, I thought I'd push out a post I made for my Old Testament students about the 400th Anniversary of the King James Bible a few weeks ago.

The KJV holds sway still over many people in the English speaking world.  In times of illness and despair, for example, my mother still cites from it by memory as a form of solace.  The majestic poetry of the KJV provides believers a sense of the awe and wonder of the divine.

Like any revered cultural object, the KJV also attracts its share of fetish-like behavior.  I'm not so sure, for example, that requiring children or youth to learn their Bible stories from the KJV is quite conducive to them seeing the relevance of the Bible in their lives.

I have attached two lovely little clips in the blog (click below).  They are both interesting and informative--and very well done.

One other aside: on one of my trips as a translator from the Berlin Cathedral, where I worked as a guide, to St Paul's in London, Canon John Halliburton took me up the steep stairs of the Cathedral for a private tour of the St. Paul's Cathedral library.  What a thrill it was for this young theology student to be allowed to rummage around among some of the ancient manuscripts stored there.  At one point, Canon Halliburton climbed up a ladder and unlocked a special case and brought down an original Tyndale Bible and placed in my hands to peruse.  One of the precursors of the King James, the Tyndale was the first English language Bible translation made from original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts.  It was a thrill to hold it in my hands.  I'll never forget this act of kindness.  Nor will I forget the comfort level he had in handling these old volumes, even licking his fingers as he turned the pages!  Oh well, talk about fetishes...  As I increasingly use more database resources and ebooks, I must keep in mind that old books are to be both treasured and used.  

Click on the link below to go to the video:

September 1, 2011

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Importance of Hydrating

I did something today I never thought I'd ever do. I registered for my first 5k, a race I'll run this Saturday. Those of you who know me, know me as a chubby (a polite word for fat) man. I always have been. And while I am taking it off, I will likely always be somewhat chunky.
But somehow, in the past couple of years, I have become more aware of the importance of exercise. So when a student introduced me to the couch to 5k program last spring, I started doing something I never thought I would, actually trying to run. Well, "running" is a kind word for what I do, more like slow jogging. Still, as I have increased distance and time, I have come to realize how important it is to drink water, both before and after my exercise. Since I have also been more thirsty than usual, I notice water everywhere. My students, many of whom are athletes, carry water bottles with them. Water is an essential for us. But it also has destructive power. This is clearly illustrated by the recent flooding in the Northeast, the Tsunami in Japan. As a fundamental element, water is both a destructive force, yet also a source of life and vitality.

This leads me to reflect on the importance of water in the biblical narratives. Why, for Christians, is baptism such an elemental symbol? I think it is because, the water of baptism is a narrative symbol of both God's provident creative energy, as well as the destructive power of chaos. Consider the first creation account in Genesis 1. There we find a God whose prime activity is dividing the waters, placing the dome in the midst of the waters to separate the waters of heaven, from the waters below, dividing the waters below by placing the earth in its midst, and so forth. In the ancient cosmology of the priestly creation account, waters are above the sky and below and surrounding the earth. These waters, the abode of the leviathan, are also those that feed the wellsprings of life, and provide the crops rain from above. Or consider the Noah account, the deluge has both a destructive and purifying power. One could also consider the story of Moses being pulled from the Nile, an echo of salvation of the Noah story. In a sense, the parting of the Red Sea, and in the next generation, the crossing of the Jordan are also improvisations on this theme. Again God shows God's creative power by pushing back the waters to create a new people, letting them collapse again upon the forces of chaos and destruction that pursue.
When I remember my own baptism, I'm certain I was not aware of the powerful symbolic dimension of that profound act, as I am today. So, now, maybe its time to seek out a new baptism, stretch my legs a little and be rewarded with an ice cold cup of water after I cross that finish line!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Forgetting Joseph

My apologies to those of you who started following me in January.  With the start of the new semester, I am making a resolution to stay current with this blog.

For many folks in the US, this has been truly a week of reflection and remembering, as the 10th anniversary of the September 11 tragedy has come and gone.

This week, for my classes, I have been going through the Exodus narrative.  There is a particularly striking line at the beginning of the story, that the new Pharaoh has forgotten Joseph and the things he did to save Egypt from famine.  Of course the Exodus story is a narrative of Israel's liberation from injustice and oppression.  Yet this other dimension, the dimension of remembering and forgetting, did not strike me until I read through the story again this year.   Of course, it is a bad thing for the descendants of Joseph and his brothers that Pharaoh has forgotten that Joseph's wisdom and action saved Egypt from famine.  By forgetting the unique and important contributions that Joseph (and his kin) brought to Egyptian society, Pharaoh and his people are able to view the Israelites as so much chattel, forcing them into a regime of brutal slavery.

Yet the forgetting does not stop there.  After growing up in Pharaoh's household, Moses' story becomes a journey of remembering, remembering who he is, remembering who his people are, and figuring out his response to the oppression he sees.  Unable to temper his anger and fear, we see this young "bi-cultural" Moses flee both identities, running off to Midian to marry into another family and culture altogether.  It is only here that YHWH comes to him, revealing not only the divine name and charging Moses with an important task, but reminding him that his God is the YHWH of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, i.e. the God of his people.

The other dimension of forgetting is readily apparent in the multiple complaints of the Israelites to Moses in their flight from Egypt and journey to Horeb.  Again and again, the people complain to Moses, yearning for their former life in Egypt.  What a strange and yet realistic portrayal of human nature!  The people have so quickly forgotten the oppression and injustice of their past situation, even after witnessing one remarkable event after another through their liberation.  When memories are weak, hope grows so ever more fleeting.  People submit willingly and readily to systematic injustice, when they are allowed (or encouraged) to forget the true horrors of their past (or present) bondage.

Those of you who are politically astute can probably more readily draw parallels to contemporary situations than can I.  I'm wondering, though, how much of this week was one of honest remembering.  How much of our own story, and its interconnection with our neighbor's stories, have we forgotten over the past 10 years?  Can the three great religions that see themselves as the children of Abraham remember his great-grandchild, Joseph?  Or are we more like Pharaoh, enslaving and oppressing our neighbors, as we forget their intrinsic value?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Exodus, Sci-Fi., and the Colonial Impulse

I think it was a good decision to get rid of cable this past fall and just have the internet as my sole source of entertainment.  I signed up for Netflix the same day I got rid of cable.  Needless to say, I've been watching a whole lot more movies.  In fact, Janka and I so enjoyed our winter evenings together, cuddling by the fire, turning on the Christmas lights, and watching movies with the laptop on our laps.  Well maybe that last part isn't so romantic.  In any case, we caught up on a wide variety of films.  I've been contributing some articles on the Bible and film to the forthcoming Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception History, so I've been thinking a great deal about how movies convey and repackage certain biblical themes. 
One of the movies Janka and I watched this past week was Dune, the David Lynch film based upon the novel by Frank Herbert.  Neither of us had ever seen it before. I was struck by how the story encompassed key narrative themes of the Exodus event.  The main character, raised in a royal household, exchanges his power to become the redeemer for an oppressed race whose resources are being exploited by an oppressive imperial power.  When you think about it, this is quite a common narrative for science fiction flicks.  The wildly popular Avatar had the same basic storyline.  The Matrix films also shared a similar narrative.  All of these films portray a main character undergoing personal sacrifice for the redemptive purpose of a group, a sort of retelling of the Exodus and Passion stories. 
What strikes me in particular about Dune and Avatar, however, was that the main character was an outsider, one who came from a supposedly more advanced society to learn the simple native ways.  Both Dune and Avatar played on the "noble savage" motif that one often finds in accounts of encounters between Westerners and Native Americans in films like Dances with Wolves.   This element bothers me, maybe because it is so blatantly colonial.  But is it part of the Exodus narrative?  True, Moses had an Egyptian sounding name, and was raised in the oppressor's household--but there is no doubt that he was an Israelite.  Why are contemporary audiences captivated instead by narratives in which the person from the more "advanced" or "developed" society comes to "natives" to learn their ways and lead them to redemption.  I wonder if my post-colonial theorist friends would reply that the Moses story is just too dangerous for colonial imaginations.  A "native" learning the oppressors' ways and then returning to liberate his or her own people is a far more subtle and dangerous narrative, probably not the stuff of fantasy-laden Hollywood movies.  Fancy that! Exodus just might tell a narrative so subtly dangerous in its prophetic call for liberation that even David Lynch had to tone it down.   

Friday, January 14, 2011

Desire of violence lurking at the door

I think all of us have been thinking some about violence and anger this week.  There is not necessarily anything wrong with anger.  It can be a basic, healthy emotion, and an important element for bringing about positive social transformation.  The Cain and Abel story (Genesis 4), one of the primeval narratives that comprise the first eleven chapters of Genesis, captures the very human theme of crossing the line from anger to violence.
After God approves of Abel's sacrifice and not Cain's, Cain becomes very angry and his countenance falls.  God asks Cain why he is angry and warns him that sin is lurking at his door.  I think I can understand why Cain got angry.  In verses 4 and 5, the story doesn't explain why Abel's sacrifice is accepted and Cain's not.  Many interpreters read God's words in verse 7, "if you do well, will you not be accepted?" into the narrative gap to explain that Cain must have done something bad that his offering was not accepted.  I think that rips up the story, though.  God's acceptance of Abel's sacrifice and not Cain's is put as a simple matter of fact; as if to say some folks sometimes have favor and sometimes not.  God's favor may be a bit capricious that way.  But this doesn't mean God has rejected Cain, just his sacrifice, and just this time.  Whose sacrifice God will accept may be different next time.
I think Cain's disappointment and anger fester into violence because, as the text says, "sin is lurking at the door, its desire is for you."  In other words, Cain equates his self worth with the value of his sacrifice.  This is the wisdom of this narrative.  Human society excites us into equating our self worth with every other kind of sacrifice but our own striving to simply "do well," in other words be good human beings.  The commodification of humanity lets in the desire for violence that is always lurking at our door.   

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Comfort Ye, Oh Comfort Ye!

Wow, I was really struck by the prominent place of Scripture in tonight's memorial service in Tuscon.  Isn't it amazing that these ancient texts, one from Isaiah and one from one of Paul's epistles, would be picked up and used by tonight's readers, without hardly any commentary?  The Isaiah 40 text read by Napolitano was so powerful, "....but those who wait on the Lord shall renew their faith, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint..."  What could be more profound than such words when facing a national tragedy as our own?
What gives this text such profound and universal appeal?  What narrative do we share with those who have cherished this text before us?  This text celebrates and signals the return from exile.  In the prophetic understanding, the exile was part of God's punishment for Israel's sins.  I find it a little scary to think that what happened in Tuscon had anything to do with God's punishment.  So I don't really think we share that element of the narrative.  But the sense of exile was a real undertone in the entire ceremony tonight, wasn't it?  In particular, Arizona is in the midst of controversy right now politically because some folks who have been there awhile think that other folks just now coming have less of a right to be there.  But, except for a native American minority, all of the folks in that auditorium were in a sense exiles, real strangers in a land not their own.
Maybe that was why I was struck by Isaiah's comforting words.  His are words to exiles returning from a hard, long journey, offering them hope that they too will have a home again.  Maybe this too jives with the Native American blessing with which the ceremony began.  All of us are guests of the Creator in this land.

What key is it in?

Reading the Bible is like playing jazz, not that I know much about playing jazz.  But what I do know is that jazz has structure, chord changes, and a melody that floats over the changes.  Jazz musicians not only have to be trained in their instruments, they have to understand chords, harmonies, and music theory.  Most of all, jazz musicians really have to listen, listen to what the other musicians are doing, listen to the music as it is being created, birthed all around them.
Biblical interpreters need similar skills.  They need to look at the structure of the text, hear historical, cultural, and literary overtones, listen to other interpreters down the ages, and then, add their own voice to the music that is being made.
This blog will be about some of my daily thoughts, listening to the culture around me, connecting what I am seeing and hearing to biblical passages, and how they might relate.  As such, this blog is an attempt at engaged cultural commentary, but also commentary on the Scripture and its meaning in today's society.