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.