Finding a better story 3

In the last post in the series, I posted some general observations about the cultural context in which the Genesis 1 creation was composed. I contend that the Biblical creation story, as well as other parts of the primordial history (Genesis 1-11) were written to challenge the literary-symbolic world of the Ancient Near East, in order to engender a way of life within Israelite society that was not rooted in the pagan mythos, but in a vision of all life having its origin in the shalom of God’s good creation. By examining how Genesis does this, we can garner resources to do likewise in our world today, with imaginations based on the shalom of God’s creation in a world whose dominant mythos is rooted in violence.

There are many sources on which we could draw to demonstrate the nature of the world Genesis challenges, but the most potent for my purpose is the Babylonian epic Enuma Elish. Enuma Elish served as the ‘official creation myth’ of Babylon during a large part of the first millennium BC. It was performed every year at the spring festival, a practice that demonstrates its importance to forming the social imagination of Babylon. Also, among the Ancient Near Eastern epics, Enuma Elish most closely parallels elements of Genesis, so it is especially useful for showing how Genesis specifically engages the mythopoetic* devices of the ancient imagination. Furthermore, Enuma Elish was adapted from an older Sumerian epic that cast the gods Anu, Enlil, and Ninurta as the heroes, and was later adapted by the Assyrians who substituted their own head god Ashur for the Babylonian Marduk. This demonstrates a fundamental continuity in the mythos of the ancient Mesopotamian societies that shaped the world in which the Israelites lived, most dramatically during their time in exile.

I present here a summary of the Enuma Elish narrative with commentary on its role in forming the ancient Mesopotamian social imagination.

* “mythopoetic” refers to the imaginative devices that construct cultural mythos, and has nothing to to with “mythical” as opposed to “factual” or “historical”.

In the beginning, the world exists in a formless state, from which emerge two primary gods, one male and one female. The gods in Enuma Elish represent various facets of the physical world, with Apsu the god of fresh water, representing male fertility, and his wife Tiamat the goddess of the sea, representing chaos and disorder. Apsu and Tiamat give birth to gods who in turn give birth to other gods, including Ea. The younger gods make so much commotion that Apsu decides to kill them, but Ea hears of the plot and murders him. Ea sires Marduk, god of spring (replacing Apsu’s role in fertility) and patron of Babylon, with his wife Damkina. Tiamat is enraged and vows revenge, creating 11 monsters, and takes a new husband, Kingu, and puts him in charge of her army.

Tiamat prepares to unleash her monsters. Meanwhile, Ea learns of her plan and attempts to convince her otherwise. He fails, as does Anu his father. The gods become afraid that no one will be able to stop her. Marduk steps in and agrees to defeat her if the other gods will make him their king, a proposal to which they readily agree. The council of gods tests Marduk, and upon his passing the tests they enthrone him as king. Marduk assembles his weapons and goes out to fight, killing Tiamat and dismembering her body. The text goes into graphic detail describing the mutilation of Tiamat’s body, and Marduk uses her carcass to create the heaven and earth. He creates a barrier to keep the raging waters, imprisoned in the sky, from escaping and unleashing chaos upon the earth.

Marduk establishes order by creating dwellings for the other gods, who take their places and go about setting up seasons of the year. The city of Babylon is established as the the audience room for King Marduk. The gods begin to grumble about the hard work of building and farming, and so Marduk decides to create human beings as a labor force. The gods finger Kingu as the instigator of Tiamat’s rampage, and so Marduk kills him and uses his blood to create humankind to perform menial tasks for the gods. The gods honor Marduk, building a house for him in Babylon and praising him for his greatness. The fifty throne names of Marduk are pronounced, declaring his dominion over the earth. Then a blessing is pronounced, and the people are instructed to remember and recite Marduk’s deeds.

This summary is greatly shortened, leaving out most of the rich detail of the text. I encourage readers to read the full text carefully and pay attention to the language used to describe the emotions of the gods, the connection between death and creation, and the exaltation of Marduk.

As mentioned above, the text was ritually recited every year on the fourth day of the spring New Year festival to reinforce its mythopoetical function in Babylon. The next day the king of Babylon would take his place at the head of a ritual procession representing the gods, with the king identified with Marduk. The king led the procession outside the city gates and then back in again, and while much of the rest of the festival is unknown there were entreaties to the gods to “fix the destinies” of the universe.

The king is identified with Marduk, and the procession invokes the imagination of the conquering king’s armies carrying out the ongoing work of making order from chaos by assimilating peoples outside Babylon into the empire. We have inscriptions and writings from Babylon and Assyria identifying their conquests as such. Creation comes from a primal state of chaos and happens by violence and bloodshed, with the heavens and earth rendered from the slain carcass of Tiamat the chaos-monster-goddess, and the human race from the blood of her slain consort (this is known as “creation-by-combat”, a common theo-sociological motif in the ancient world). Humans are created to render menial service to the gods, which legitimates the social stratification of Babylon and its division between royal, priestly, and common classes. From other writings we know they viewed creation as always in danger of reverting back to chaos, with the threat of the waters escaping from their heavenly prison, but for the efforts of the king and priests in taking forward the conquest of Marduk both on earth and in the spiritual realm. Chaos and violence have ontological priority, and the “war against chaos” (also known as chaoskampf) is ongoing, without end.

Genesis paints  a very different picture of creation and human origins, and we will examine that in my next post. Shalom!

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The opposite of “liberal”

The opposite of “liberal” is not “conservative”. It’s “authoritarian”.

Likewise, the opposite of “conservative” is “radical”.

Continued opposition of the terms “liberal” and “conservative” in the public discourse is likely a carryover from 19th century British politics, where the major parties were the Liberal and Conservative parties, but what we call political “liberalism” and “conservatism” in the common parlance today are both rooted in classic liberalism. “Liberal” comes from the Latin liber, which means “free”, which is the term that came to distinguish modern philosophers such as Locke, Rousseau, and Jefferson.

In that sense, anarchism can potentially be seen as a “liberal” philosophy.

Think on that before you denounce someone as too “liberal” or “conservative”.

Shalom!

The Bush II and Obama administrations and the transition from American hegemony to the “Post-American world”

This past weekend the Common Root conference was held in Minneapolis. Tom and Christine Sine of Mustard Seed Associates led the first plenary session, and my friend Jordan Peacock wrote the following as a summary statement of one of their points:

The Pax Americana is not necessarily the strongest ’empire’. It stands together with global capitalism, which, while largely birthed from the Pax Americana, shares no allegiance to it, and will likely outlast it.

I think this is an excellent point, and one that bears fleshing out a bit by contrasting the approaches of the Bush II Administration and what we’ve seen from Obama so far. The neoconservative plan seemed to me to clearly be an “American empire” kind of strategy, with American military power as the trump card in the world political game. “Regime change” and militaristic power politics, whether through direct military intervention or the funding of “satellite” armies in places like Israel and Colombia, seem to me to be parts of a larger strategy for attempting to maintain a specifically American hegemony over world affairs. The purpose of the use of military and other overtly violent forces in this fashion seems to have been to make the world safe for “democracy”, by which is meant the interests of “American” corporate entities (often really more multi- and trans-national) who have exploited the twin Bush II tools of unilateral military intervention (or the threat thereof) and implementation of neo-colonial “free trade” policies, combined with other corporate-friendly measures, such as the widespread loosening of labor, safety, and environmental regulations at home and undercutting the social safety net (which was already quite sparse in the aftermath of Reaganomics).

The adventure in Iraq is a signal example and convergence of the combination of military and corporate objectives with the toppling of the Hussein government and the swift looting of the country through a forced rewriting of Iraq’s economic laws in an attempt to create a “free trade paradise”, causing a descent into chaos and insurgency that, contrary to what you hear from the corporate media propaganda machine, really only picked up steam as the effects of the combination of economic deregulation and the insistence on American corporations rebuilding the country (translation: looting Iraq and fleecing American taxpayers) destroyed the ability of the average Iraqi to obtain basic needs and services.

Indeed, Iraq-as-originally-conceived could be considered a case study for the Bush II approach to Pax Americana. Key to neoconservatism is the concept that the welfare of corporations is intrinsically linked to the welfare of the nation-state and its security interests and policies. This convergence of military, corporate, and political machinations is the engine that drives the neoconservative American empire project. The very name of the neoconservative thinktank, Project for a New American Century (PNAC), illustrates the imperial designs of the people who made up the backbone of the Bush II administration, as does their stated belief that “American leadership is both good for America and good for the world”.

I want to say, at the outset of my brief foray into what we’ve seen so far from Obama, along with his campaign rhetoric, that in some ways Obama substantially continues some of the Bush II tactics and underwriting assumptions unchanged. Glen Ford, editor of Black Agenda Report, cites no less a media authority than the New York Times calling Obama “center-right” and then goes on to say:

The ideological pillars of America’s first Black presidency have been planted wholly within the parameters of governance allowed by big capital and the imperial military. Obama’s “transition” is more accurately seen as a “continuity” of rule by the lords of finance capital and their protective screen of warriors and spies. The Obama regime, still incomplete, already wreaks [sic] of filthy rich thieves and gore-covered war criminals.

The two biggest differences I see between Bush II and Obama-so-far are:

  1. a re-assertion of government playing a role in establishing some kind of common welfare through a kind of social democracy (NOT the same thing as “socialism”), albeit in a much-weakened state compared to LBJ’s “Great Society” and “war on poverty” programs, over and against the explicit undercutting of the social safety net that has occurred systematically since Reagan; and,
  2. while the desire to maintain America as the foremost world power, the notion of American hegemony seems to have given way somewhat to something perhaps more analogous to America as a “senior partner”. Obama was seen carrying a copy of Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World, which argues for “not.. the decline of America, but the rise of everyone else”. Zakaria sees this story, that of “the rise of the rest”, as the defining narrative for the rest of the 21st century. Obama’s talk, at least, regarding initiatives such as strong diplomacy and sitting down to talk with people with whom Bush II would not, may reflect a similar understanding of America’s role in the coming years.

The basic thrust of these same-nesses and differences between Obama and Bush II seems to me to be that Obama seeks to implement policies that will create greater stability in the world, at least as it relates to America, both at home and abroad, by strengthening regulation of the economy at home that will prevent unrest and by allowing the “junior partner” nations of the world a greater role in determination of world political action. That contrasts strongly with Bush II’s neoconservative agenda focused around American hegemony which in practice led to more destabilized conditions both at home and abroad.

However, this “change we can believe in” is a “change” designed to fundamentally underwrite the corporate consumer capitalist status quo and the continued advancement of an “economic growth” agenda. In other words, it’s a “change” that is geared towards producing “more of the same”. With a decreased link between the welfare of corporate entities and the welfare of the United States, I believe we will indeed see the Sines’ prediction play itself out in world affairs over the coming years. William Cavanaugh (in Theopolitical Imagination and Being Consumed) argues that the universality claimed by the modern nation-state is giving way to the universalizing tendencies of the global market, and the global market almost entirely consists of action by corporations. Also, Brian Walsh argues (in Subversive Christianity) that capitalism is a necessarily expansionist, even imperial, economic system. If the empire of global corporate capitalism is unconstrained by national borders, as is largely (and increasingly) the case due to “trade liberalization”, then its expansion, by definition, must increase beyond the hegemony of the USAmerican political nation-state entity.

Not only that, but it is also the case that the one-and-only responsibility of a corporation is to increase its value for shareholders. Indeed, neoliberal architect Milton Friedman called ascribing any other purpose to the corporation “fundamentally subversive” (he was specifically referring to the idea of corporate social responsibility). A corporation-based economy must grow or it will collapse, and the same is true of the current global debt-based monetary system – new debt must constantly be created to generate money to pay the interest on old debt, according to an ever-increasing practically exponential growth curve.

The empire of global capitalism is highly complex. Whereas the nation-state depends on territory for its very existence, the corporation theoretically is a territory-less entity. While I would argue that this is not true, strictly-speaking, because no economic activity can truly take place without there being land and material products involved somewhere, somehow, according to the currently-accepted rules of the game a trans-national corporation does not depend on the territory of any one nation-state, nor is it accountable to any entity outside its shareholders except insofar as maintaining relations of accountability and corporate social responsibility allow it to maximize profits and therefore value to shareholders. In addition to the “territory-less” nature, though, there is not any one entity that can serve as an object of wrath for those who oppose this evolving empire. Corporations are legion, they are interconnected, they are buttressed by international organizations and agreements, and We the Consumers play a major role in keeping them in business.

This seems to be the world into which we are headed, a world where “change” occurs to ensure “more of the same”, with the locus of imperial activity increasingly translocating from nation-state entities (particularly the United States) to transnational corporations and the entities that ensure their preeminence (such as the WTO). This does not mean that the emerging empire will not favor certain nation-states (or at least certain people in them), as mentioned above, certain nation-states will enjoy “senior partner” status (hence the continuing neo-colonial nature of global capitalism), but the world is shifting from under the dominating shadow of the United States to global corporate consumer capitalism, as illustrated by a comparison of the Bush II administration and what we’ve seen so far from Obama.

This was first posted on the Common Root discussion forum, but I wanted to also open it up for a possibly wider discussion here. Shalom!

Missio Dei in need of help

Missio Dei is a Christian community on the West Bank of Minneapolis, in the vein of what could be called “neo-monasticism”. The community seeks to live out the way of Jesus according to the principles of simplicity, prayer, and hospitality in an ethnically diverse part of Minneapolis, the most densely populated square mile between Chicago and Los Angeles, where over 2/3 of the population is low-income or below the poverty line. Community members live in one of two houses, one of which was recently served an eviction notice by the city of Minneapolis.

The lowdown on the situation, as told to me by community founder Mark van Steenwyk:

Minneapolis served an eviction notice to Clare House (the missio dei owned community house) over our failure to obtain a rental license. Basically, we don’t need (nor want) a rental license because it could potentially restrain our mission (among others things, it could make it illegal for us to discriminate…as well as make it harder for us to get any variances on housing usage). The city has been very unhelpful to tell us any of our options, even though there are other ministry houses and religious orders that don’t have rental licenses. We’ve refused to get a license as we sought the same status that these other communities have.

We’ve been trying to get legal help, but nothing has really turned up yet. We’re thinking that we’ll just have to settle up with the city before we can proceed. That may be costly. Alternately, legal help may also be costly.

Please pray for us. If you have any strings, please pull them. If you are able to help in any way, please let us know. This could be a SERIOUS blow to Missio Dei.

I have been acquainted with Mark for a couple of years through various networks related to common interests, and I have met few people who are as dedicated to making Christ known in post-modern America. Mark is committed to preaching Jesus in deed as well as word, and to not only developing individual believers but disciples in community who will be the hands and feet of Jesus in the neighborhood. Please join me in praying for Missio Dei in this time of trouble, and if there’s anyone out there who might be able to help or is connected with someone who could, please contact Mark either through the form on the Missio Dei site or by email.

Rewriting “Anarchy” page

As you may have noticed, the tab at the top of my blog that read “Anarchy” has been changed to “Christ-archy”. That is because since I started this blog my thinking has evolved somewhat, and I desire to change the content of some of the articles to which those tabs link to reflect that evolution. Since those articles are always linked at the top of the page, they provide a kind of framework that informs (or ought to inform) one’s reading of the articles I post from day-to-day in the blog. Therefore, I think I ought to edit them to reflect my changed understanding from the times at which I originally wrote them. It is also the case that I’m less happy with the way some parts of them read than others, so I want to tweak them a bit.

The only change I’ve made so far is to change the title from “Anarchy” to “Christ-archy” and add this paragraph to the beginning:

I used to consider myself an “anarchist Christian”, or a “Christian anarchist”, or however you want to put it, but the term I prefer for myself now is “Christ-archist”. “Christ-archy” should not be confused with desiring a theocracy, but what it does mean is that I absolutely, unequivocally believe the God revealed in Jesus Christ to be the source of all authority, and the one to whom all authority is accountable. Any authority that does not submit itself to God and seek to operate according to the politics of Jesus is illegitimate. Since I’m not aware of many earthly authorities who do this, that means there are a lot of bastard governments (and corporations, other economic entities, and social organizations) running around out there!

When I have finished a substantial portion of the rewrite I will post a notice and invite people to comment and perhaps suggest further changes. Shalom!

The Bible and “plain meaning”

I have been involved in two discussions (using the term very lightly) lately, one on this blog and one in another, where I have been accused of over-intellectualizing, getting too into scholarship, and not taking the “plain meaning” of scripture.

I’m not going to mince words. This is an absurd charge to make. It is only because people are so out of touch with the fact that the Bible was written over a span of centuries, thousands of years ago, in a culture that operated on very different foundational assumptions than the late modern Western world that people can say things like that. It is because people (quite likely myself included) are prejudiced towards our own understanding of what it means to be a person-in-the-world and so we universalize our own place as if it were the time and place from which all other people have lived, experienced the world, experienced God, and written about that experience.

It is precisely because the Bible speaks to us from a time and place that is very different from our own that scholarship is needed. It is simply irresponsible to teach or to expound on the scriptures if one has not done some serious homework learning about the various contexts involved – the ancient near eastern background to the Old Testament, and the Second Temple Jewish and Imperial Roman background of the New Testament. If you don’t have some knowledge of these, all kinds of errors are likely in interpreting the writings the church has (more or less) always affirmed as the inspired record of God’s work within history. It is not because of some intellectualizing fetish, but because of a love for God and for the message God has given us, both in the written words and especially the Word-made-flesh to whom the written words witness, that I dig into the essential background for studying the scriptures with understanding.

If you don’t know that Paul is poking at imperial propaganda in Romans 13, you can easily make the mistake of thinking Paul’s project is to underwrite the state’s authority; if you don’t know about the Babylonian worldview to which Genesis 1 is a challenge, you won’t catch even a glimpse of the full breadth and depth of the Biblical vision of creation.

It is precisely because I believe the Bible itself contains the writings through which God desires to speak to us, in our time, that I seek to study what the writings said in the times in which they were written – at least with as much understanding as it is possible to attain. It is because I love the scriptures that I do what I do, it’s because I love them that I desire to hear them speak to us from their time, instead of imposing the presuppositions of late modern American culture upon them. I’m not naive, I don’t assume that we can ever truly and finally transcend our time and place to hear the message in some pristine, unadulterated sense (nor should we be able to, but that’s another matter to discuss), but to tear the scriptures from their contexts and re-inscribe them into our own without hearing first with ears to hear how the word calls to us from a time and place in the past that is very different from our own is an act of supreme violence against the text, and even extremely irresponsible particularly when it is done by people in pastoral positions who have the responsibility to teach and to help people grow as disciples.

Christian Truth-with-a-capital-T is not a set of precepts, though it is not a bad thing to make concrete theological propositions based on the word we have received. But Truth is not in our constructions, it is in a man who lived nearly two thousand years ago, a man whom we believe still lives today and is with us even to the end of the age. The Jesus who is with us is the Jesus who walked the earth healing, teaching, and living out God’s will to the fullest, and unless we get to know him for who he was we cannot know him for who he is.

Shalom.

Finding a better story 2

Since I have this unfortunate tendency to start a series and then never finish it, I’m not going to make any promises about how long this will go, how many installments it will have, or even if it will be all that coherent. However, I went back and re-read my “Finding a better story” entry from a few days ago and decided I really needed to elaborate more on some points in it and on the Biblical, historical, and philosophical background of some of the statements contained therein. In some ways this could be seen as an attempt to formulate a more comprehensive statement of what I believe about the church and theological politics, or it might just end up being a collection of thoughts related to the idea – we’ll see what happens.

A great many people today read Genesis with little-to-no knowledge of the historical context in which the stories compiled into the final form we have today were composed, or of the social realities of the world to which the texts witness. In our modern penchant for finding the one meaning that stands outside of time and is universally true in all contexts, we have come up with all kinds of applications for the text that have very little to do with the message it was actually written to communicate in the world in which it came into being. Understanding that message is extremely important if we are to understand its place in the Biblical canon and more appropriate applications for the text today.

I’m not going to attempt to undertake a full-on commentary on the whole book of Genesis, but there are a few particular highlights I think need to be hit, with a keen eye on the ancient near eastern context, in order to better understand the book and the important role it plays in the canon and in the formation of the Christian story. In many ways, Genesis is far more than just a prologue to the story of Israel (which itself is far more than simply a prologue to the story of Jesus).

The first and possibly most important highlight is the account of creation in Genesis 1:1-2:3. This may surprise some people to read today, but there is absolutely no indication in the text that the creation story is intended to be a scientifically-accurate depiction of the processes by which the world came into being. The 20th century debate over creation vs. evolution could hardly have been further from the author’s mind. Rabbinical and scholarly interpretations of the creation story have differed widely from ancient times until now on how literally, versus symbolically or allegorically, the account should be taken, and there has never been a consensus on how closely the events depicted therein had to match the facts of natural history for the story to be theologically true – and this long before the advent of modern science.

The likely reality is that Genesis 1:1-2:3 was originally composed as a liturgical text for use in worship rituals. Its form generally corresponds to other texts from ancient Mesopotamia that were used for this purpose, and it is highly probable that the purpose of the Genesis creation account was precisely to provide an alternative imaginative basis for conceiving of God, the place of humans in the cosmos, and the ordering of society than the mythologies of other ancient near eastern nations.

It’s difficult to date the composition of Genesis as a whole, much less its component stories, with any precision. The book contains much that is likely of great antiquity, going back to more than 1000 BC (if not centuries earlier), as well as marks of editing from later periods, possibly as late as the exilic and post-exilic periods. The creation account in Genesis 1 could have been composed at pretty much any time between the 12th and 6th centuries BC, give or take. The worldview it challenges was certainly dominant for at least that span of time.

The single work from ancient Mesopotamia that most closely resembles Genesis 1 is the Enuma Elish, a Babylonian creation myth. In the ancient world, there was not the separation of “religion” and “politics” we supposedly have today. Instead, the usual function of what we call “religion” was to give storied support to political, social, and economic structures. The religio-politico-socio-economic structures formed a tight web, the glue that held cities and nations together. Enuma Elish was performed every year in Babylon at the spring festival as a ritual re-enactment of the myth, and so the story was of great importance in determining the accepted nature of society in the Babylonian empire.

To understand Genesis 1, it is necessary to understand not just the Enuma Elish, but the broader worldview the myth underpinned and the forms of social organization it legitimated. In Biblical times, the strength of a nation’s gods was viewed as directly proportionate to the strength of the nation. If a nation was powerful and prosperous, its gods were mighty. If one nation conquered another, its gods were revealed to be stronger than the gods of the defeated nation. So Egypt’s gods were the most powerful, and then when Egypt declined and Assyria rose to prominence Assyria’s gods gained preeminence, and so on (a framework that greatly aids our understanding of the Exodus narrative!).

Furthermore, almost universally in the ancient near east, members of the ruling, priestly, and in some cases other economically powerful classes were seen as having some kind of special relationship to the gods. For example, the Pharaoh of Egypt was viewed as the manifestation of the god Horus, who was reborn into each new heir to the throne. In Mesopotamia, the term “image of god” (Hebrew tselem elohim) was a technical term that ascribed attributes of at least representative (and perhaps inherent) divinity to those who were deemed images of gods. To be the image of a god principally meant two things: 1) that the person who was image of the god mediated the god’s presence wherever he was, and 2) that the authority of the god was re-presented by that person. So to say that the king of Babylon was the image of the god Marduk (as he was held to be), was to say that Marduk’s presence was seen with the king, and also that the king’s rule represented the authority of Marduk, who took on the role of king of the gods and creator of earth (contrast this with the Genesis statement that all humankind is made in the image of God).

A final point that needs to be mentioned is that societal structures in ancient near eastern nations were ordered to be earthly representations of the mythic divine reality. The myths explained not just how things got to be the way they were, but why it was necessary that things were that way. In other words, the myths legitimated the world in which the people whose lives were ordered by those myths lived.

The next time I write on this theme I’ll explore the Babylonian creation myth, Enuma Elish, in order to demonstrate the mythic underpinning of the dominant modes of society in the ancient near east and enhance our understanding of how Genesis challenged that worldview and the order of life according to it.