Monday, April 28, 2014

That 'Doubting' Thomas: A Bum Wrap?

Just don't single him out as the 'doubting' one. That's all I ask.

OK, I grant you, Thomas refuses to believe the other ten apostles had seen the Lord: Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails.... (John 20:25).  But then, didn't those same ten apostles refuse to credit the witness of the women and Mary Magdalen who burst in with a report of resurrection: It seemed to them an idle tale (Luke 24:11).  They all doubted, if you want to use that word, not just Thomas.

I grant you, the risen Christ challenges "do not be unbelieving, but believing." But the word doubt can't be found in the resurrection story texts at all until we come to Matthew's account of Jesus' appearance, presumably to a larger group, on a mountain in Galilee: They all worshipped him, but some doubted (Matthew 28:17).

If we must use "doubt" as a label, let it be doubting Peter, doubting James and John, doubting Thaddeus, Nathaniel, Bartholomew and the rest before we get around to Thomas. Actually, the big words in the famous story is believe, not doubt:  "Be not unbelieving!"  The opposite of belief, biblically speaking, leans more in the direction of unfaithful or untrusting rather than doubt in some intellectual sense, the way we moderns, with our creedal, doctrinal questions tend to read it. 

Better labels

Call Thomas deeply committed before you start throwing 'doubting' at him. This apostle doesn't get many lines in the the Fourth Gospel's passion drama, but his one-liners sketch character forcefully. When Jesus stops marking time over across the Jordan and decides to go up to Jerusalem after Lazarus has died, who is it that voices the fear all the rest of them feel about walking into danger? After the others have grilled Jesus on why he would behave so recklessly, Thomas calls them to order bravely: Let us then go with him that we may die with him (John 11:16). He's bought the message and taken the man to his heart very deeply. Call him brave Thomas.

When Jesus speaks mystically about going before the apostles to "prepare a place" and tells them that they "know the Way" he goes, who speaks up his Master the mystic who has mystified them all more than once? "Master, we do not know way you are going. How can we know the way?" One can easily imagine this has been his role all along: to ask the questions when the others mumble confused assent and look uneasily at their feet when Jesus pulls one of his mind-boggling utterances. Call him inquiring Thomas, searching Thomas.

Only after exhausting these other descriptors is it fair to pull out the "doubting" bit.  And even then, as noted before, it's not quite right apt. "Belief" in John is pistis, deep personal trust far more than the cognitive assent "belief" conjures up in our mind. Thomas apparently walked into a sort of resurrection fever when he arrived at the upper room after missing Jesus' amazing appearance. He didn't trust this second hand experience. I think he was so deeply committed to Jesus and his Way, so shocked by Jesus' death, he needed to know this all was really true.

Jesus invites him to be more open to the witness of others, to give them more credit, perhaps to stop thinking he's the brightest one around. Or that questions are the only way to explore the Way, which can only be known fully by risking the act of trust that walking it involves.

After all that, it might be OK to call him doubting, along with the rest of us who hesitate from time to time as we follow a Master who keeps stretching us into challenging territory.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Man Who Wouldn't Go Away

A passionate performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion had just concluded. The music starkly pronounced Jesus dead. Gone. I had never felt it so keenly, as if hearing the Story for the first time. I almost gasped: O my God, they really killed him!

Then the strangest thing happened: we all stood up, and the minister started talking directly to Jesus. Such a familiar Good Friday prayer, but, still stunned by how carefully the final chorale had put Jesus into the tomb, I was unexpectedly taken aback by the audacity of talking to Jesus as if he were right there.

But that’s what the Story claims, isn’t it? No matter how hard the authorities tried, no matter how much the apostles may have been secretly, unconsciously relieved it was all over and ordinary life could begin again, he was back.

Like a sprouting dandelion whose taproot you couldn’t quite get at last summer, like someone you’ve injured who comes back to you wanting to restore the relationship, like hope that arises unexpectedly when you thought despair had taken control, he was back . . . Not just once in that startling upper room surprise on Sunday night, but repeatedly, and always unexpectedly.

They told stories about what it was like:

+  They did not expect these visitations, for they, too had written him off as gone forever,
but he “showed himself by many proofs.”

+  He could appear in the middle of a locked room as if out of nowhere, but eat some fish as if he had a body like ours.

+  He could appear in the guise of a stranger and speak words that set the heart ablaze with love and hope, then disappear in the twinkling of an eye.

+  He breathed himself into them so that something of himself came alive in them more fully than ever before.

Whatever the “real history" behind these stories they bear witness to an uninvited encounter with a Reality that would not go away, that pursued them, even after the dramatic appearances stopped.  For Those outside those intimate encounters in the upper room, on the Emmaus walk, at the lakeshore breakfast and mountaintop appearances, he was back as a spreading virus of Jesus-Spirit of hungering for compassion and justice that kept infecting more and more people—and does still.  Not all who claim his Name have got it, but many do; it has reached many who would be surprised to know its Name.

For He was, and is, the sign and seal and sacrament of something deep in the heart of reality that will not die, no matter how hard we kill it.They called It zoe, Life-eternally-springing,* the Life that makes whole the world—because That is what It is.

It is Easter Monday. The trumpet blasts have faded. But the zoe which is the essence of his reality waits still to surprise us anew. 


*   The Greek word zoe indicates eternal life here and now, and connects this life with creation itself: "all that came to be was alive with His zoe."

Image: Michaelangelo's 'Risen Christ' in the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Good Friday Reverie on Creation

A Lamb slain from the creation of the world.  (Revelation 13:8)

At the heart of life
death dwells,
but life springs from that heart.
So much more true
than we ever imagined,
this paradox.

The very elements making up our bodies,
the cosmos as a whole,
were forged in dying stars,
the first to flare forth.
Dying yields life.
The very ground under our feet,
the fruit of myriad deaths
becomes the grist for greenly springing new life
that yields, in turn, life which soon becomes earth.

So is it strange that Jesus dying,
as he does upon the rough wood of the cross,
was seen, by some, as an ikon, an image, a glimpse of
a cosmic "Lamb slain from the foundation of the world"?
What happens on Calvary is many things,
including the vivid glimpse of how Things work.

Gargantuan violence fills the universe:
death and suffering, woven into the heart of the process
of cosmic life, dwell in our carbon-based selves.
Seeing this can cause sentient creatures like us to quail,
seeing that we are fated to suffer and die like all the rest.
Which is why the angels always say Do not be afraid.

The reality, both brutal and exquisite is that life and death
locked in the creative balance Darwin saw.
Facing death leads living creatures to adapt with
greater development and complexity.
That is the path that brought earth to birth us
offspring of the Great Tree of life,
offspring of the God who birth it all.

Bigger than one man, what happens today on Calvary
bigger than local or imperial politics,
bigger than something merely human,
important and real as all means to humans.

It is a showing, a revelation, of something structural to Reality itself,
from bottom to top, a truth that means
even the blood of martyrs can be the seed of things living and true.

Good Friday's death may make us squeamish,
its memory uneasy if we let it,
for the bone of who we are becomes exposed:
our creatureliness, our vulnerability,
our mandatory participation in the rhythm of life.
Coming near cross and altar threatens to sweep us
into the tidal waves of the universe itself.
The green dragon of life lurks hidden by the altar frontal.

So many ancient myths tell us of that at the birth of the cosmos
a great ox, or cosmic human or primal mother was sacrificed, slain,
and all things sprang into life from this.
The myths say this because this Mystery is at the heart of things.

Do not be afraid,  the angels always say when we stumble upon them.
Do not be afraid: this is the way it is, this dance of life and death.
Do not fear that life goes down to death, for life springs from death.
unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground it remains alone, 
but it it dies, it bears much fruit. 

Shall we then resent that the bright flaring of our lives
arises out of the past and dies into the future?
Shall we be so attached to our single organism and our unique mind
that we cannot see how much we are each patterns of the cosmos, working out,
in our brief adventure, new patterns that enrich the whole?

That we are lives that die into that deepest Ground which is divine
to bear—who knows—new life in forms we even cannot begin to imagine?

                                                       —RCM, Holy Week 2014

Friday, April 11, 2014

Passiontide Storytelling: What To Do With “The Reproaches”?

Across the centuries on Good Friday, a haunting Gregorian chant called the faithful to come forward and venerate the “wood of the cross on which the salvation of the world was hung.”

“My people, what have I done to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me.
I brought you out of Egypt but you have prepared a cross for your Savior.” (1)

The “The Reproaches” continue in many Roman Catholic and high-church Lutheran and Anglican parishes, paralleled in the liturgies of the Orthodox churches. In poignant terms, God is pictured confronting his people about the death of Jesus—a theme that became central to medieval and even modern sermonizing.

Along with these verses, the fixed Good Friday prayers prayed for the conversion of the “perfidious Jews.”  Such prayers played a big part in inciting holy week violence against Jews, from early medieval times until the end of the 19th century in many places.

Post-Holocaust Changes

Since the Holocaust, an increasing number of Christians have awakened out of this anti-Judaic delusion, horrified at the “final solution” the piety of centuries helped foster when the Nazis transformed it into a chillingly thorough national agenda.  (2) Many liturgical churches now shy away from using them at all because of their unsavory historical associations.

Still others go so far as writing the High Priests out of the story entirely, shifting the blame entirely onto the Romans—a move which I find unconvincing and unnecessary, to say nothing of the fact that the Temple authorities take an integral role in the Scriptural drama (3). That some Jewish authorities felt that the nation was threatened by a man and a movement they perceived as bound to lead to insurrection is, quite simply, the way human authorities respond.

I rejoice that others seek to redeem and revision traditional readings, bringing out the implicit human universality in the Passion narratives, which is the way I always understood them. God’s “people” — Christians, Jews, all humanity can and does resist God’s purposes for the world. Offloading guilt onto scapegoats—humanity’s historical default category—insulates us from all the ways, great and small, that we, and humanity itself, “crucify God” and God’s creatures in our injustice, environmental degradation, and mistreatment of each other. Both the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels bear witness to this, to say nothing of daily news reports.

Liturgical Re-visioning

A fine example of liturgical re-visioning of The Reproaches can be found in the 2006 Evangelical Lutheran Worship Book, which imagines God addressing not just Jesus' persecutors, but the church:  “O my people, O my church, what have I done to you?” No longer is "my people" them but us—which is how I always understood it.  The new Lutheran Reproaches also include very specific repentance:

O my people, O my church, what more could I have done for you?
I grafted you into my people Israel, but you made them scapegoats for your own guilt, and you have prepared a cross for your Savior:
R. Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal One, have mercy on us. 

Likewise, the liturgy prays that Jews, "called and elected as Your own may receive the fulfillment of the covenant's promise,” a studiously Anglican-style ambiguity, but far from the ancient “perfidious.” I take it personally to mean that I stand in solidarity with my Jewish brothers and sisters as we both await the age of Messianic fulfillment.

Holy Week tells us we are all “standin’ in the need of prayer.” Why not stand together, even if we live in distinctly different traditions, all of which deserve respect?

1. For a complete text of the contemporary Roman Rite version see:

2.  See the account of Pope John Paul II's Liturgy of Repentance in Rabbi David Rosen’s address at Georgetown University:

3.  As in previous posts, I feel that conjectural reworking of the reported facts of the story will never have the weight in history of Scripture itself. Thus it remains crucial how we understand, preach, liturgize and teach texts themselves, which most of the Christian world believes are "revealed."

4.  See Evangelical Lutheran Worship, ELCA, 2006

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Passion Narrative: Who Are These “Jews”?

The Jews, the Jews, the Jews—hoi Iudaioi in Greek—are everywhere in the Holy Week readings. But who they are is not as simple as the surface of the texts suggests.

Many, if not all preachers know that “the Jews” is used in many different ways. It doesn’t always mean the whole Jewish people. Very few parishes, however, use translations that make this clear, especially on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. Church-goers easily get the impression that "the Jews"en mass rejected Jesus. In past centuries, such distortions led again and again to religious murder. No less.

Diverse groups of "Jews"

Hoi Iudaioi means, in its most basic sense, the Jewish people as distinguished from other tribes and tongues. But those Jews who followed the Jewish man Jesus, of course, didn’t reject him. The “great crowds” of Jews at Passover “heard him gladly” and mourned his death (Mark 13, Luke 22; see blog #3 in this series). When the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel tells the Samaritan woman that “salvation is from the Jews,” he takes his stand firmly in the tradition of Moses and the Prophets, as remembered by the Jews, a.k.a. Judeans, who returned from the Exile (John 4:22).

But while “many of the Jews...believed in Jesus,” others reported the incident to the authorities, who are also called “the Jews” in many verses (John 11:45-46). These Iudaioi, those Judean leaders and their followers who get into verbal brawls with Jesus in John’s gospel, are the target group Jesus accuses of being blindly resistant to the light of God, not all those other Jews (1).  It is from this leadership group and their supporters alone that the disciples huddle behind barred doors after Jesus execution “in fear of the Jews" (John 20:19).

The Odd Rigidity of Most Modern Translations

While the Fourth Gospel clearly uses hoi Iudaioi in different ways, an oddly rigid refusal to paraphase these words seems to possess most translators. The NRSV translators, for example (who paraphrase a great many other words to aid reader understanding) stick doggedly to “the Jews” in these gospel passages. They know about the different uses, but refuse to indicate them. Is the weight of historic Christian scorn for "the Jews" so strong that it lingers still in their work, however unconsciously? Because of such bloody history, this matters.

Some, however, seek to make the truth clear. Consider the different message these two translations of John 7:11-13 deliver.

NRSV: The Jews were looking for him at the festival and saying, “Where is he?”...While some were saying, “He is a good man,” others were saying, “No, he is deceiving the crowd.” 13 Yet no one would speak openly about him for fear of the Jews.

New Living Translation: The Jewish leaders tried to find him at the festival and kept asking if anyone had seen him....Some argued, “He’s a good man,” but others said, “He’s nothing but a fraud who deceives the people.” 13 But no one had the courage to speak favorably about him in public, for they were afraid of getting in trouble with the Jewish leaders.

“Judean leaders” or even “the leaders” would be better, in my opinion. But these translations  support the historical and spiritual reality: Jesus wasn’t against Judaism as such, but against the hypocrisy, resistance to God and abuse of power that can arise in any religion, nation, or group. They too often flourished among Christians themselves! 

The New Living Translation is a giant step in the right direction, as are a few others.  Pray God the day comes when all the Holy Week lessons are read from translations that make clear what “The Jews” means. Soon.

Next: What to do with "The Reproaches"?

1.  John's version of Jesus' verbal brawls with opponents are most likely influenced by the violent hostility between some Jews and the emergent Jesus movement in the decades after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Those Passover Crowds: ‘Hosannah’ or ‘Crucify?’

I’ve done it myself in decades past: said the crowds who hailed Jesus on his entry to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday shouted “Crucify him!” by Good Friday.

Such sermonic drama has little, if any, biblical warrant. (1) There were crowds, yes; but with hundreds of thousands of people in and around Jerusalem at Passover, “the crowds” are not exactly one unified mass. One gospel says “many” greeted him as he entered Jerusalem (Mark 11:8), another “the multitude of the disciples,”(Lk 19:27) still another “crowds” (Matthew 21:8 & John 12:12). In any case, “the city was stirred” (Matthew 21:10).

Mocking or mourning?

On Good Friday, most of those jubilant crowds have turned to mourning, not mocking. Luke 23 makes clear that during Jesus crucifixion “the people stood watch." The “rulers” sneer at Jesus, not "the people," for when “all the people (Greek: multitudes) who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away.” (Luke 23:48).

Little wonder. During the preceding week, “the great crowd heard him gladly” as he taught them in the vast Temple courtyard (Mark 12:37). As Jesus carried his cross “a large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him” (Luke 23:37). “All the people” who beat their breasts surely includes some of these folk. Their lamentation is over yet another Jew executed by the Roman Imperium in the person of Pontius Pilate, who was recalled by Rome not many years later for excessive brutality. One among hundreds, even thousands of Jews slaughtered at his command, Jesus is yet another Jewish martyr.

That other crowd

Who then makes up the “crowd” that cries “crucify”? As the story is told, this group is “all the assembly,” that is, those among the Jewish rulers who turn Jesus over to Pilate, fulfilling their duty in to suppress civil agitation lest matters get out of hand in the volatile crowds. Some curiosity seekers no doubt came along, this combined "crowd" is “stirred up” by the high priests.

Confusion about the repeated use of words for “crowd” comes easily if you don’t read the texts carefully. Out of this, a distorted, dark and anti-Jewish reading arose in which the "fickle" crowds become proof positive that Jews were Christ-killers. All Jews; for all time.

Getting the story straight matters enormously. Throughout history, Holy Week stories have been repeatedly the pretext for Christian mobs to attack Jews as “God-killers,” a term codified into Christian canon law as early as the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E.  Blessedly, the 20th century brought an end to such Holy Week violence, but it is a long, shameful, bloody history—much worse than most contemporary Christians realize.

Now, even with Vatican II’s explicit repudiation of the "God-murderer" charge, many Christians still believe the simplistic bromide that “the Jews rejected Jesus.” Some Holy Week storytelling, especially stories about the ever-so-fickle crowds, distorts the story and colors attitudes toward Jews.

“Thou shalt not bear false witness” demands we get the story straight. 

Next: Who were 'the Jews'?

(1)  I am very aware that some biblical scholars believe the Passion narratives are full of inaccurate or distorted facts. Be that as it may, the gospel text is the story enshrined in Scripture, which will pass on to future generations. It is the story the world, and especially the Jews, have had to deal with. That story, as it is told, needs to be read as carefully and accurately as possible.


Monday, April 7, 2014

Passiontide Pitfalls 2: Law vs. Love—or Law the Means of Love?

I really shouldn’t have been surprised (see yesterday’s blog) to hear the age-old bromide about the contrast between Judaism’s alleged “oppressive legalism” and Jesus’ gospel of love and freedom rolling off the lips of the “progressive” preacher this past Lent.

As unfair as it is to Judaism, both ancient and modern, getting that impression from the New Testament isn’t all that hard. Paul’s contrast of law and Spirit seems, on the face of it, clear enough, though recent scholarship raises some serious questions about such a simplistic reading. (1) Christians, especially Protestants, have often read the Gospels through the lens of Paul, rather than Paul through the lens of the Gospels.  

Jesus and his halakah

The Jesus of the Gospels (2) makes fairly clear that following him involves his own version of what Jews call halakah, religious law, or, if you prefer, mitzvot, commandments. He bids disciples to forgive generously, give graciously to “those who ask,” follow the Ten Commandments, refrain from oath-taking, purify the heart from indulgence in lust or anger, settle disputes amicably, and much more. Such instructions are not “suggestions” but the requirements of “a house built on solid ground” rather than “on sand.” (3) As the Fourth Gospel states it: “If you love me, keep my commandments,” one of which (in that same Gospel) is “Love one another.”

Such statements fit hand-in-glove into Jewish categories typical of Jesus’ own time. Various teachers and groups vied in the late Second Temple period with each other to define what “normative” practice would be. Jesus’ disputations with “scribes and Pharisees” about the exact details of Sabbath law also sound rather typical of Jewish disagreements about how to apply Torah commandments in any age. In fact, virtually every aspect of Jesus’ moral and ethical commandments appears in rabbinical teachings codified in the next few centuries in what became the Talmud. (4)

None of this quite fits the “love vs. law” stereotype. Both the Pharisees and Jesus offer halakah designed to help us know how to love God and neighbor. Such commandments can be practiced in a legalistic or a life-giving spirit in either Christianity or Judaism. 

Jesus does define the “greatest commandment” as love, but so did Hillel the Elder before him. (5) So what distinguishes Jesus’ teaching from theirs?

The real disagreements

First and foremost, Jesus disagrees with the Pharisees about the expansion of Temple purity laws into everyday life. Matthew’s gospel hears him saying that these extensions bind an unnecessary “burden” on people. His famed clashes over touching lepers and the woman with an “issue of blood” are illustrations of this stance pushed even further.

Secondly, and even more importantly, the clashes are about Jesus himself. The Gospels report claims to be, at the least, a prophet and more than a prophet. He doesn't appeal to the chain of teaching by the Sages from the Great Assembly on, but speaks “with authority, and not as the scribes and the Pharisees” (6), apparently claiming direct inspiration from God. Jesus heals non-life-threatening conditions on the Sabbath, and declares direct forgiveness of sin, for example, all on his own authority, or, as the Fourth Gospel puts in, because he is following the immediate internal directions of God.

Whatever else this is, it is not “love vs. law.” Our historic disagreement with rabbinical Judaism is about the person and status of Jesus, not the content of his teaching.

Christians who accept Jesus as a divinely inspired “prophet and more than a prophet” readily accept his authority to say and do such things. But the Gospels give us no valid grounds on which the historic denigration of Judaism as a “legalistic” religion can be based.

The law of love, one might say, demands better of us. 

Next: Those Palm Sunday Crowds

1.  See N.T. Wright, Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul and Krister Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays

2.  I deal here with Jesus as presented in the Gospels, not the various re-imagined "real" Jesuses who might, or might not, lurk behind the texts. The scriptural Jesus is the Man presented to the world by the first and second generations of his followers, and the Figure who lives in Christian imagination, teaching, and dialogue with historic Judaism.

3.  See Matthew 7:24-27

4.  See the classic A Rabbinic Anthology by H. Loewe and C. G. Montefiore, which gives rabbinical comments on many subjects, including forgiveness, love of the enemy, and sensible applications of the commandments.

5.  "Love of one's fellow man was considered by Hillel as the kernel of the entire Jewish teaching" in the New World Encyclopedia at

6.  Matthew 7:9


Sunday, April 6, 2014

Perils and Pitfalls of Passiontide Storytelling

I heard it from the pulpit in another state just a couple of weeks ago: “Jesus taught a religion of freedom and love to counter the oppressive Jewish religion of fear and law.”

The sermon, in this liberal, progressive congregation, went on to describe the elaborate pettifogging burden of “613 detailed laws” that Jews had saddled themselves with by Jesus’ day, and Jesus’ genius in boiling them all down to two: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.  No mention, of course, of the rabbinical sage Hillel the Elder, the real author of this alleged “simplification,” or of the fact that Jesus himself surely knew that a lion’s share of those 613 Torah commandments applied to temple and judicial officials rather than to daily life.

But there it was, hanging in the air, this age-old stereotype, confirming life-long impressions of many of the hearers. A stereotype peddled by a theologically sophisticated, even avant-guarde Protestant minister, and repeated in a variety of ways in both liberal and conservative churches to this day, on occasion fueled by some “liberationist” readings of the Gospels.  Jesus vs. “them,” the Jews—or, at the least, the Pharisees. 

The Holy Week Drama

Jesus, of course, had opponents, and eventually, enemies. Every return to Holy Week, the most emotionally intense part of the Christian Year, promises to sharpen stereotypes of this adversarial relationship, from the supposed fickleness of the Jerusalem crowds to the reasons for Jesus’ death.  Holy Week, therefore, has been, and can be still, a perilous time for re-telling this story, for it is so very easy to fall into time-worn stereotypes of both Jews and Judaism, especially in an attempt to make this tragic—and triumphant—tale more dramatic.

Much teaching and seminary training in recent decades has blunted the sharp edge of Christian anti-Judaism a great deal. But these stereotypes still roll all too often from the tongue of preachers and rise up too easily in the minds of Bible-readers, even those with no desire to denigrate Jews or Judaism. The narrative reflex is old and deep.

In this short series of blog essays I plan to share what I’ve learned in almost five decades of intense Jewish-Christian dialogue and reading of texts both Jewish and Christian. This bears on the Gospel narrative, especially on Palm Sunday and Holy Week preaching, teaching and meditating. The foci will be three, though the essays may be more than that: 1) Stereotypes about Second Temple Judaism;  2) The Passover crowds on Palm Sunday and Easter; 3) “The Jews” and the death of Jesus. 

Real-life consequences, then and now

Necessity drives such stereotype-purging. Not so very long ago in historical time, Holy Week served as prime time for attacks by Christian mobs on Jewish towns and neighborhoods. An elderly Jewish man told me recently that he knows Jews in cities like New York who still steer clear of even walking near churches in Holy Week. Here is an inherited reaction to almost twenty centuries of ugly Holy Weeks, reinforced by vivid memories of bullying in childhood by Christian kids calling them “Christ-killers.”

The Christian world, even the “enlightened” section of it, has not yet fully outgrown some of its deeply inherited misunderstandings. In a second post tomorrow, I’ll begin by taking on that preacher and his all-too-easy sermonic flourish, (hoping that, for most of my readers, I will only be confirming what they've already learned).

Next: Law vs. Love or Law the Means of Love?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Aronofsky’s “Noah” and the Flood This Time Around

“Why did God kill everybody — the animals, too?” my rector’s five-year old daughter Sarah asked him when he had finished reading her the usual kiddie version of Noah: adorable animals, jokes about crowding and smells, and a rainbow at the end. “I don’t like that story!” she declared.

Not what he expected; but the five-year old really got the dark and horrific side of the story the “cutesy animal” story was at pains to minimize. All of humanity gone. Kaput. Swept away. Exterminated. The animals, too. All except Noah’s family and menagerie.

Director Darren Aronofsky gets that horrific side and much more in this stark re-telling of the biblical legend—a film more creatively faithful to the core message of the original Noah story than any literal, verse-by-verse depiction of the story could ever be

Fundamentalist agita vs. creative interpretation

Fundamentalist critics fume about “departures” from the Bible: the inclusion (from the rich trove of ancient Jewish midrash—interpretive story-telling) of the Watchers, or fallen angels; Noah’s character as morally ambiguous, even dangerously flawed; and (horrors!) a retelling of the creation story that dares show the universe and all life evolving. To add insult to injury, the story has been “hijacked” by an “environmentalist agenda.”

Bravo! say I. Aronofsky has created his own bold Noah midrash for our times, set in a mythic and miraculous landscape, lest it be mistaken for literal history.

At the film’s beginning, he rather brazenly states a warning about our own Flood, our impending environmental apocalypse: “Cain founded an industrial civilization that progressively devoured the earth.” Oil wells and dark cities appear. A literal translation of Genesis itself says that humanity had “wrecked its way on earth, and wrecked the earth,” so he’s on good ground. Think fracking. 

Impending floods—then and now

I saw “Noah” yesterday, just after reading about the latest U.N. report listing the dire effects of climate change already apparent on island nations, low-lying countries like Bangladesh, crop failures, coral reef death and population displacement. This leaves aside the quieter and far darker side of our earth-devouring civilization: massive destruction of species habitat and the death of countless species—with more to come.

After such a blatant start, the film becomes more nuanced and subtle. The righteous Noah is not all good. His adversary, Tubal-cain, a descendant of murderous Cain, spouts muscular market-place bromides about domination and the power of human enterprise. His part in the plot, however, eventually creates an ambiguous foil to Noah’s rigid, and eventually murderous righteousness, and leads toward the eventual triumph of mercy over justice. 

Massive destruction can be very real

And, oh yes, all of humanity dies like flies. You can read about it in the Bible or see it this week on the big screen. Stark, horrific, though not particularly gory. 

Just as horrific, in its own way, as a West Coast mudslide exterminating a whole neighborhood, one built on dangerous land compromised by clear-cut logging. Dozens died like flies. Happens a lot on planet earth, that stuff. The Bible is full of warnings about the greed and selfishness, the governmental negligence and corruption that lead to some of “that stuff.” More of it to come, according to the U.N. Report: the death of tens of thousands and more.

Aronsky’s got it right—the Word for our day, that is. The bible-thumpers are so wrapped up in the literal details of their long-ago tale that they can’t even hear what the Spirit might say to them through it in our own day.

Read some intelligent reviews here:
+ Fred and Mary Ann Brussat in Spirituality and Practice at
+ "Who Gets to Decide if Noah's Biblical?" in Religion Dispatches at
+ "Noah vs. A Kitschy Jesus: A Tale of Two Movies" in Religion Dispatches at