Secularism and Biblical Studies

I think there’s a general perception that Biblical scholars have a secular worldview. I know that when I first began thinking about graduate programs, that was my expectation. My undergraduate experience was in a religious studies department at a public university, and while many or most of the students had a religious background that informed their studies, it was clear to me then that we were expected to check those at the door, so to speak, and approach a religion from the outside in. For me, with interests (at that time) in the formative periods of Judaism and Christianity, that wasn’t hard (perhaps surprisingly?). It was clear to me that even if we thought of the same texts as sacred, my religion was not the same as that of second Temple Jews, or even of the early Christian communities. My little cousin looks astoundingly like his grandfather but is clearly a different person.

[Now that I think about it, that was kind of a strange situation to be in—many public universities don’t have a religious studies department at all. I’d like to talk with my professors there about how their teaching is influenced by the type of program it is, whether they would teach from a different perspective in a different situation, and whether they have to tread carefully with the constant spectre of the state breathing down their necks. But I digress.]

I think that this perception becomes a stigma, even. The Bible is a career to you, and you spend your whole life picking it apart and de-sacralizing it, so to speak. How can you possibly take it seriously as a religious text? (Your mileage may vary, however—I’d be interested to know whether others have the same sense.) The question of how such a thing is possible is a great topic for another day. The point is that it is the case; the more I get to know others in my field, the more I realize that most of us do have some sort of faith commitment.

And yet– and yet—we’re still expected to check those at the door. It’s not that we pretend they’re not there; we just don’t really talk about them. We talk as if they didn’t inform our every thought; as if they didn’t matter. This is less true in theology departments, as I’ve since learned—there’s more of a space, in classrooms and conversations, to be more than a brain with legs. One of my great memories from [mystery program] is of the last ten minutes of a seminar class dealing with canon formation. We’d spent the past two and a half hours taking the canon apart, looking at how canonical choices were made, asking ourselves, “What is a canon, anyway?” and coming exhaustively to the conclusion that really, we had no idea. (That also is another post for another day.) Finally one man—an Episcopal priest, and a very good one, as it happened—sat back and said, “Okay. So what do I tell my congregations about this?” And suddenly everyone started talking at once. This was a fascinating intellectual question, but also a serious challenge to faith. What did it mean to be part of a “religion of the book” if we couldn’t decide on the nature or the content of the “book” in question? And we all really wanted to talk about that; and in that place at that time, we could.

Those kinds of conversations are rare in the classroom; and my experience so far has been that people want to have them in private but need a real atmosphere of trust before they’re possible. For me, this blog is a place to make that possible—hence the insistence (however illusory) on privacy; I want it to be very clear that these are not the things I am publishing or teaching. This is a separate space.

So, now we get to the question: is this a good thing? Isn’t this fragmenting of ourselves completely artificial? Isn’t this insistence on an “outside-in” attitude toward religion just a holdover from the Modern period? Aren’t we just placating the atheistic god of Science, trying to be a science (which we’re clearly not—don’t get me started on the “social sciences”) in a vacuum-sealed world cut off from our essential humanity?

And I would say: “Yes, it’s a good thing,” but with footnotes. Yes, we should check our beliefs at the door (but we should also realize that that’s impossible). Yes, we should insist on critical distance from the text for ourselves and for our students (but we need to have so much patience with students for whom that comes hard). Yes, we should keep the “public” conversations—the papers and the conferences—on the “secular” level (even though secularism doesn’t exist in the way it was originally conceived). And here’s why: that is the only way (that I can think of, anyway) we can all have a place at the table. That’s the only way I, the then-nonbelieving child of a low-church Episcopal priest, could have fallen in love with this field with the help of a Jewish convert professor and a deeply committed Catholic friend (who, incidentally, ended up studying Hinduism, in large part because he didn’t feel able to maintain that critical distance). There needs to be a safe space to talk about how your work informs your faith; but we also need the space in which we talk about the work itself to be safe. It can’t be okay, for example, for Jewish scholars to be the targets of proselytization at conferences. As I see it: for now, at least, secularism is like a language that’s foreign to all of us; but it’s the only language we all speak.

(That’s what I think these days, anyway. I’d like to know what you think.)

Let’s not blame the teenagers

Yesterday, a colleague in the religion department sent along a link for David Brooks’ most recent New York Times column, “If It Feels Right…”  In it, Brooks discusses the results of a sociological study done of American teenagers and moral decision making.  Brooks is pretty pessimistic about the future of American teenagers and their capacity to make moral decisions; he bluntly calls the study’s findings “depressing.”  But as someone who talks to teenagers everyday about morality, I am more optimistic.  Frankly, I find the study a little unfair and an indictment of American adults, not teens.

It must be noted first that while I am surrounded by teenagers (a fact that I am reminded of daily as I hear Justin Bieber belted out in the hallways), I teach a small subset of that population: I teach at a private, college prep high school of students who have had years of religion classes.  These facts alone will distinguish my students from the average American teen.  But from what I see and hear from my students when they aren’t being careful to impress their religion teacher, their opinions and decisions are not all that atypical.  They still are teenagers, and are not exempt from the pressures of their age or culture, despite their educational background.

To begin, Brooks and the sociologists he cites are correct in the first assessment: students find it difficult to identify a moral issue.  I completely agree.  I assigned a morality research paper at the end of last year (after 8 months of morality class) that asked students simply to ask a moral question and answer it.  I can’t tell you how many papers I got back that questioned the legality of gay marriage, abortion, or the death penalty.  My students, even with all their privileges, could not write a moral question that did not primarily ask about law (but they could identify which were the hot moral issues debated in the public sphere and formulated vague questions about them).  However, this skill can be taught–it is what we practiced in my morality class this week.  Parsing out the abstract legal, scientific, medical, religious, or personal issues present in a moral question is difficult, and I am not surprised that most of American teens can’t do it–most American teens are not enrolled in a class that asks them to practice this skill.  Is it really fair to judge students as morally illiterate if we don’t teach them what morality is?

The second thing to say is: yes, the siren song of relativism is particularly compelling to youths subject to peer pressure.  It’s hard to be morally stringent in an age group/maturity level that so values social standing.  And I suspect it will only become more compelling to them as they advance to higher education and learn about cultural differences that form the cornerstone of what relativism values.  But again, this issue is one that can be taught.  My class is covering relativism today and tomorrow.  (Sidenote: we teach this lesson through the lens of female genital mutilation.  It’s a bit sensationalistic to go to one of the MOST EXTREME moral quandaries, but it’s also really interesting to gauge their reactions to it.)  And for the most part, students can see the intellectual inconsistencies with relativism.  They struggle with it, but they can see why relativism is impractical or unrealistic.

What I find over and over again is that students *know* what is moral.  They can give me the “religion teacher” answer they think I want to hear.  They are smart enough to know what is expected of them, or at least, how to please an authority figure.  What is less clear or compelling to them is *why* they should do the moral thing.  They haven’t been given a compelling enough reason not to always act out of (usually short term) self interest.  The problem isn’t moral illiteracy, it’s moral laziness.  But this is because moral courage is harder to inculcate.  In this regard, they are not all that different from most adults I know.  And that is what I see as the particular challenge–not to show them what’s moral, necessarily, but to demonstrate what benefit there is in being moral in an attempt to draw out that courage.  Some of the hardest questions I have received in the classroom have been to ask me why I personally subscribe to a particular belief where the benefit is not as obvious to a teenager (example: how to explain my commitment to fair trade coffee).

My point is: let’s not blame the teenagers.  Let’s not get all depressed about the moral state of American youths before we really consider what we can do to teach moral decision making.  Brooks is right when he says that this study says “more about adult America than teen America.”–if the teens are morally illiterate or lazy, it’s because we haven’t taught them any other way to be.  I’d say this study is a clear indication that a class on ethics is not beyond the jurisdiction of a public school education.  Of course, it can’t espouse a particular belief set, but understanding different approaches to ethics and exactly what goes into a decision is a skill that does not need a prescribed belief set.  My students love morality class if only for the opportunity to give their own opinions about “what would you do?” scenarios and argue with their classmates.  We should give all teenagers that opportunity to examine their own decisions and learn about ways others do the same.  Before we go lamenting the future of America, we should give teenagers the chance to develop their own moral sensibilities and understand why moral courage is a positive virtue to attain.

Ag and Ram: why cuneiform is fun. Also, dinosaurs.

First we need to talk about the way the cuneiform script works. It’s made up of logograms, syllabograms, and determinatives. In other words, some signs represent a whole word or concept; some signs represent a syllable (ta, bi, šum, kal), etc.; and some signs represent the category or class into which the preceding or following word falls. The fun part (and depending on how late you’re up translating, “fun” may or may not be a cruel joke) is that many signs can fall into more than one category. So, for instance, the sign KI (which stands for erṣetum, “land, earth,”) can also be used to represent the syllable ki as a part of a word, and can ALSO be a determinative that indicates that the word immediately before it is the name of a city or state. Also, most signs can be used to represent more than one syllable, and most syllables are represented by more than one sign. (So, for instance, the same sign can be used to denote mal and ga2).

For a while this is as confusing as it sounds. Then you start to get the structure in your head and it gets easier (I am still working on this part). Then you start reading texts that come from a different time period, and all of the signs have changed their shape, so you have to memorize them all over again. And so forth.

But the part that is actually fun is that the crazy script makes it possible to do wordplay beyond the dreams of Shakespeare. And the point of the above was to talk about something I noticed the other day.

So the word for “love” in Sumerian is KI.AG2. (The “AG2” is probably pronounced closer to something like “ang;” the “ng” sound is a phoneme that exists in Sumerian but not in Akkadian, so it’s a little hard to track down.) The AG2 sign, as expected, can stand for the syllable -ag in an Akkadian text. But it can also stand for the syllable -ram. And the word in Akkadian for “love” is…wait for it… râmum.

That made me happy.

Finally, another thing that made me happy: a Dinosaur Comics episode in which T-Rex ponders some difficult theological questions. I’m posting the comic as an image here, but you should really visit the site, because I am completely serious when I say that Ryan North’s intellectual curiosity puts us all to shame.

http://www.qwantz.com/index.php?comic=2038

What to teach?

In the comment section of my last post, Mary asked me these questions:

In a world where you were totally in charge of religious education (and what a glorious world that would be), would you teach Catholic and non-Catholic students differently in your school? Is there a core of religious education that everyone should have, and if so, where would you draw those lines?

I’ve been mulling over this for the past few days, as I have been lesson planning for my current classes.  I teach juniors a yearlong course called Morality (which is so fun to teach) and seniors a semester course called Social Justice (which is also fun, but the students find it personally and academically challenging).  But this week, I also gave a presentation to freshmen religion classes on the school’s service learning program and why we do service, so I spent way more time than I usually do with our first year students; all of these facts together have certainly influenced my ideas in this post.

The first thing to say is that I would under no circumstances teach Catholic and non-Catholic students differently from one another.  What is challenging about teaching both demographics isn’t lack of familiarity (Catholic students are often just as ignorant about the intricacies of doctrine as non-Catholic students are) or even diversity (I enjoy hearing about what diverse faith traditions my students uphold; often the discussions we have where a non-Catholic speaks up gives a great opportunity to dig into the point deeper, a clear case for the fruitfulness of ecumenical/interfaith dialogue!).  What is challenging is that I simply have to pretend that I teach all Catholics.  In my last post, I pointed to this problem, as my department is a religion department and such a department seeks to make “better Catholics.”  It seems to me that the best way to avoid this issue is to opt for the “theology” model of teaching, rather than the “catechetical” model.  It would not solve the issue entirely, but catechesis attempts to demonstrate truth, rather than search for it, and it is that “I already have the truth, you just need to accept it” presumption that makes it difficult to teach non-Catholics.

The second thing to say is yes, there is a core of religious education all students should have; ideally, a well formed high school curriculum should prepare a student to speak intelligently on the Catholic faith tradition.  The questions that remain then are: what is the essential material necessary for a clear understanding of the Catholic faith? And more importantly: how can that information be presented in age-appropriate fashion?

My basic idea is as follows:

First year–Liturgy: Sacraments and Saints
Sophomore year—Bible: Old Testament and Jesus
Junior year—Morality: Fundamental theological topics and Moral Decision Making
Senior year–World Religions and Catholic Systematic Theology

I’ll start with Junior year.  Junior year is absolutely the perfect time to teach Morality; the topics discussed are incredibly necessary for today’s teenagers.  Students are just about 15 or 16 years old and beginning to face serious moral decisions; as a result, they enjoy the class a lot and delve into the issues deeply.  Additionally, I found last year that the first few months of Morality are the perfect time for a short overview (about one quarter’s length) of fundamental theological topics as they relate to Morality: Jesus as a moral teacher, the Church as a moral guide, sin, anthropology and conscience, etc.

Sophomore year, as a precursor to Morality, is an excellent time to teach Bible.  One year is obviously not enough time to teach the Bible (I’m sorry, Mary), but I think it’s a time when they are growing a little more serious and are capable of understanding things like biblical criticism and myth in a more sophisticated way.  I also think ending the sophomore year on Jesus is a good set up to Morality.

Senior year is really interesting; students are willing and able to handle more depth.  I think it’s incredibly important to teach World Religions during the senior year, as the students head off to college and beyond.  But I think senior year is also the perfect time to teach a genuine theology class, preferably a class that does theological method and a run through of Catholic Systematics.  I say this because a lot schools opt to teach a yearlong Catholic doctrine course to freshmen.  It is understood as a primer that sets all students, Catholic or non-Catholic, on a level playing field of Catholic literacy.  However, I think this idea is not entirely age appropriate; freshmen are not ready for intricacies of Catholic doctrine.  I think a class that seeks to educate on Catholicism would yield far richer fruit when taught to seniors.

So, then, what are freshmen ready for?  Given especially that all students won’t be Catholic, how can a freshmen year course in a Catholic religious education department capture their attention?  To answer this question, I had to reflect personally and ask: what spoke to me in high school, and made me think that being Catholic was something I ought to consider?  The answer is definitely not “doctrine” or even “theology.”  The answer is definitely liturgy.  Most people are not interested in faith because they checked a Bible out of the library and read it cover to cover; most people are interested in faith because of an experience, a community, or a ritual that spoke to them on a deeper level.  Saints and sacraments are two of the most compelling and interesting aspects of Catholicism and they are ideas that can be taught with great ease to a variety of grade levels.  If the goal of a freshmen year religion course is to get students to engage with their faith in a deeper way and to start a conversation about what makes Catholicism interesting or special, liturgy seems like the perfect entry into that discussion.

As I conclude this post, I am painfully aware that I have been teaching for less than 2 years, and I teach only two of the 4 classes offered by my department.  I don’t presume to think that the curriculum I’ve outlined here is superior for any reason, but they are my ideas for what I would like to see taught (and to teach) in high schools.

Sin, Pollution, and Samaritans

So here’s something that blew my little Sunday-school-trained mind* as an undergrad. Take the Good Samaritan story, Luke 10:25-37. The priest and the Levite see the man dying in a ditch and pass by on the other side; the Samaritan takes care of him. Who is the neighbor? The one who takes care of him. Great.

Fact number one: I didn’t know who the Samaritans were until I was 14 or 15.

Fact number two: I didn’t know who the Levites were until I was in college.

It’s not as though there was no explanation at all. I had some vague idea that the Samaritans were usually crooks and scoundrels. I’m pretty sure I thought that, since the priests were obviously the people in charge of the temple/religion, the Levites must be the people in charge of the government. (I mean, it makes sense, right?) At some point along the line I learned that the Samaritans were a competing religious group descended from the people who were left behind in Israel during the Babylonian Exile, whose center of worship was not Jerusalem but Mount Gerizim to the north, and that the Levites were (by this time) temple officiants and assistants to the priests. So that was some progress.

Then I hit the lecture on ritual purity and the difference between pollution and sin in my undergraduate Israelite Religion course. And, as I said, my mind was blown

There are lots of ways to become impure in ancient Israel. Some of them you can avoid; some of them you can’t. You can probably, for example, avoid picking up a dead lizard. If you’re lucky, you’ll avoid having mold grow in patches on the walls of your house—but that’s not really under your control. If you’re a woman, you can’t avoid menstruating. If you’re married, you can’t really avoid having sex. Some things you’re required to do: bury your parents, for example. Any of these things will make you unclean. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re sinful or wicked, or that it’s a bad thing to be a woman or to have just had sex or just moved that cow that died in your backyard—they just put you in a position where it’s dangerous to approach God, and so you have to perform the appropriate rituals before you can come to the temple. The priests and the Levites, who are closer to the divine presence in the temple and mediate between God and the people, must live up to accordingly more stringent standards while they’re doing their jobs. Some aspects of the sacrificial system have to do with ethical considerations, but some don’t, and it isn’t always clear on which is which. (It doesn’t help that prophets use the language of impurity as a metaphor to talk about the moral defilement of Israel.)

So, tearing ourselves with reluctance away from Leviticus and getting back to the New Testament: The point isn’t that the priest and the Levite were terrible, cold-hearted people who saw a dying man and said, “So long, sucker.” The man was on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, no? Meaning—as I understand it—that they were probably on their way back to Jerusalem and back to service in the temple, and here’s this dead or dying guy on the road. If they help him, they’ll become impure—and then they’ll have to wait, and sacrifice, and so forth, and they decide that their role in the Temple is more important than their duty toward their fellows. The story’s still about helping people who need it, but it’s really a much more subtle thing. In prizing care for those in trouble over adherence to ritual norms, Luke’s Jesus is putting himself in the role of an Israelite prophet, and situating himself within a dialogue on the role of ritual and sacrifice in Israel’s relationship with God that goes back to some of the earliest Biblical texts.

*I’m not denigrating Sunday school as such. Much.

Context and Meaning

So Carmen responded to my post on Esther with the following:

But the deeper issue here is something I’ve thought about a lot as a witness to your career. What intimidates me most about the Old Testament is that it seems like you have to know *a lot* of history in order to understand its meaning properly (or even at all). (I would definitely say that’s true of the NT, but it’s simply more familiar to Christians, so learning the history seems less insurmountable). And even though I’ve attempted, my knowledge of OT history is woeful. I simply can’t learn everything you learn, so I remain intimidated by and ignorant of the OT–this is not a viable option, so how do I do a book like Esther justice?

To which I replied:

This is a really, really tough question for me. I believe two things pretty strongly: 1) Meaning depends on context. So you have to take the contexts of the biblical texts into account when you’re trying to figure out their meaning. 2) Everyone should be “allowed” to approach/deal with biblical texts. But I don’t quite know how to reconcile those.

And then I started to write a further comment, only to find it ballooning rapidly out of control (I start to sense a theme…). So I’m bringing it up here in a post all its own.

In terms of attaining a “proper” understanding of a text:

Yes, meaning depends on context. But each text has more than one context. There’s the context within which it was written—which I do think deserves a certain privileged status—but there’s also the context within which it is read. I do believe that a text actually means something different when it is read within a Christian context vs. a Jewish context vs. an academic context vs., I don’t know, an angry Marxist college student context.

This is the real challenge for historians: we can’t actually get back to the way the earliest readers would have experienced the text. We cannot truly access the world in which they lived. We can try, and we should try; but there is always a gulf there, and we know it. So what are we actually doing when we do history? In some ways, this is the challenge also for people of faith, as well: how do we reconcile the world we live in with the stories that we as a community call foundational? The way I am thinking about it at this moment (ask me tomorrow and you might get a different answer) is as a conversation. We as historians, perhaps, are using the Bible to talk with ancient cultures about who they are; perhaps we, as people of faith, are talking with ancient cultures about who we are. I don’t know whether that makes sense. I’m trying it out.

But then why do I believe so strongly that the way I read the text is better than the way (just to pick on them, but not to say that they’re the only people who read the Bible from an ahistorical perspective) fundamentalist Christians read it? This is also a troubling thought for me. If there are alternative truths and many meanings to be found within a text depending on where you’re standing, how can I possibly say that some readings are better than others? Why do I believe that there’s a core of meaning that remains the same, although we can only imperfectly reach it? In other words, why am I not a poststructuralist? (Caveat: I may be completely misunderstanding what poststructuralism is.)

I think that, for me, it has to do with the honesty with which one engages with the text. If I take this engagement as a conversation, then both sides have to be allowed to speak. My voice, my experiences, my needs count. But so do those of the original authors. Maybe I have the privilege of participating in the creation of meaning; but I don’t have the privilege of ignoring what my interlocutor says.

So yeah, it’s important to learn something about the context in which the Bible was written. We have to make assumptions about that context, no matter how much or little we know, and we’ll get closer to that core of meaning the more we know with whom we’re speaking. But that doesn’t mean I have any more of a right to the Bible than you do, or any less (this is nice to think about) than my teachers, who know so much more than I do and almost certainly more than I ever will. Compared with the impossible vastness of what remains to be known, we’re basically all in the same boat.

Finally, one of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is joy. For me, reading the Bible is a joy. Not all the time—I mean, no matter how hard I try, I just can’t seem to get excited about royal succession and the breakdown of the United Monarchy. But I study this entirely for the joy I find in it, and because the harder I look at a text the more fun it gets. (I’m looking at you, Leviticus.) It’s not like I’m going through a decade (or more) of grad school for the money or the prestige—for me the academic life is and has to be driven by joy. So I guess I’m saying that it really saddens me to see you feeling anxious and intimidated and burdened by the texts. I don’t think that’s the point at all. Honestly, I don’t think you have any obligation to read the Bible. If it doesn’t bring you joy, if it doesn’t teach you wonder, if it’s not a story that becomes part of who you are, why do you need it? How can it possibly make you a better Christian?

Identity Issues

For my first post, I thought I might talk a little bit about my job as a high school teacher and how it relates to my graduate theological education.  I have never thought of myself as  a teacher.  I didn’t grow up thinking I would teach, and I couldn’t have guessed even a few years ago that my first job would be as a high school teacher.  But now that I am a teacher and have taught for a year now, it feels like a really good use of my talents and passion.  But I still struggle a lot with what exactly I am trying to accomplish.

If you are familiar with Catholic high schools, you might notice that some identify the faith related departments as “Theology,” some as “Religion,” or “Religious Studies.”  Given the amount of time I spent in graduate school studying theological method and terminology, the distinctions being made here are immensely important.  The school where I teach identifies our department as “Religion,” and my job title is technically, “Religion Teacher.”  The argument that corresponds to this selection is that the purpose of such a department is to make a student more religious.  A Catholic school takes responsibility for its students’ spiritual and religious development, and it assumes a Catholic faith tradition as its starting point.  Quite simply, a department that labels itself as “Religion” aims to make its students better Catholics.

A smaller number of Catholic schools have a “Theology Department.”  (I find a larger number of Jesuit schools make this identification; the coincidience is not lost on me).  In my job search last year, I found descriptions on the websites of “Theology Departments” usually possess the phrase “theological study” or some equivalent.  These descriptions put their departments solidly in the Christian history of “faith seeking understanding,” the Anselmian description that marries faith and reason.  These departments identify spiritual and religious development as an explicit goal of their teaching, but what they add is the idea that faith is a topic to be studied, to be analyzed and parsed with the fullest range of one’s intellect, rather than something to be transmitted from the teacher to the student, like a math equation or an historical fact.

At the crux of these terms is the important difference between theology and catechetics.  Catechetics is the teaching of faith; it explains what exactly the doctrine states and attempts to demonstrate the truth of that doctrine.  A Catholic catechesis program entails teaching the content of Scripture and Tradition.  Theology, however, presumes a starting point of faith commitment (and a deep knowledge of its contents) but seeks a deeper level of understanding.  Theology applies one’s intellect to the contents of faith, pushing its boundaries and perhaps critiquing its conclusions in the committed search for truth.  While it seems obvious to me that part of my job is catechesis (even my Catholic students are largely ignorant on the contents of the Catholic faith), it is even more obvious that the outcome of my teaching is more closely aligned with the intellectual goals of a Theology Deparment rather than the religious ones a Religion Department.

One of the reasons for this difference is that at least half of my students are not Catholic.  Most are non-Catholic Christians: Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, etc.  How, then, can I teach students who are not Catholic how to be more religious in a religion they do not profess?  And to be honest, I find the term “Religion Teacher” very flat.  It lacks the richness and depth of the term “theology,” a word that evokes the wisdom of the Church fathers, the diligence of medieval monastic scholarship, and the faithful criticism of modern academics.

What I feel is a more accurate description of what I do is teach the contents of Catholic faith so that students can intellectually grapple with their conclusions and evaluate their own faith life in light of those conclusions.  For Catholic students, the results often compel students to grow in religiosity.  For non-Catholic students, those evaluations infrequently result in any formal conversion to Catholicism, but they might grow in the faith life of their particular tradition (organized or not).  It feels like a misnomer to call this process catechesis or even religious education, but rather a combination of theology, religious education, and religious studies (studying a religion from outside that particular tradition).

Most of my contention with the term “religious education” and the goal of “making better Catholics” comes from an experience I had during at the end of my second semester teaching.  In a formal setting, a diocesan official asked me if I thought of myself as an evangelizer, and my classroom as a locus for evangelization. Given that he knew the demographics of my school, he was referring specifically to the fact that most of my students are Christian but not Catholic.  Evangelization is a complicated issue I will pick up in another post, but the overwhelming conclusion I gained from this interaction is that I could not answer “yes, I do understand myself as a Catholic evangelizer, seeking to defend the faith and convert non-Catholics.”  But I could not answer “no, not at all” as that could not have been the appropriate answer for a “religion teacher.”   And that is the duality I am trying to grapple with here, the interplay between theology, religion, and catechesis, bearing in mind the audience I teach and the stated goals of my department.  I’m not sure how that should translate into a job title, but “Religion Teacher” does not seem accurate.

I am disproportionally excited about the book of Esther.

For my first post, I thought I’d deal with a topic I love and get excited about but which probably won’t be part of my eventual focus of scholarship (so all the more reason to talk about it here): namely, the book of Esther and why it is fantastic.

[Edit: This turned out to be waaaay longer than I anticipated. Don’t expect this to be the normal length of my posts.]

I’ll refresh you briefly on the storyline, since a) it’s really complicated, and b) it’s not a book that Christians tend to read very often. [As it turns out, the plot is complicated enough that I can’t come up with a brief summary. Feel free to skip the following.] The setting is Susa, one of the Persian capitals, during the time in which Israel was a Persian vassal state. King Ahasuerus divorces his queen, Vashti, then chooses a new one by rounding up all the pretty women in the kingdom and having what most commentators euphemistically refer to as a “beauty contest.” Esther, the niece [cousin? One of the Greek texts seems to refer to her as his wife, if I’m not remembering completely wrong, which is quite possible] and ward of Mordecai, wins this contest and becomes queen. Mordecai discovers a plot to assassinate the king, which he reports to Ahasuerus through Esther.

Haman, Ahasuerus’ second-in-command, takes a dislike to Mordecai, who refuses to bow down to him as requested. [Apparently prostration/supplication of the king or other high official was a Persian custom of long standing which signified respect for rather than worship of royalty. Mordecai was not the only person to take it amiss—Alexander the Great had huge problems with his Macedonian generals when he tried to institute the custom after conquering Persia. Anyway.] Haman decides to destroy not just Mordecai but the whole Jewish race, and convinces Ahasuerus to appoint the 13th of Adar (a day which he chooses by lot) as an institutionally-sanctioned pogrom. Esther, urged on by Mordecai, invites Ahasuerus and Haman to a feast. Instead of asking anything at this feast, she invites them to another feast the next day.

Haman, who apparently has not had enough revenge, builds a gallows for Mordecai. That night, though, the king has insomnia, and has the book of records read to him (presumably as a soporific). He is reminded that, though Mordecai saved his life, nothing has been done to reward him. When Haman comes to see him, he asks what should be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor. Haman—thinking that the king must be talking about himself—suggests all manner of public acclaim, which Ahasuerus then commands that he carry out for Mordecai. [Oh SNAP. In other words, reversal of fortune is one of the key themes in Esther.]

At the feast the next day, Esther drops a couple of bombshells: she is Jewish, she and her people are about to be slaughtered, and Haman is the perpetrator of this wicked deed. Ahasuerus, furious, leaves the room to pace about his garden, and Haman falls on her couch to beg for mercy. Re-entering, the king accuses Haman of assaulting the queen, and has him hanged on the gallows erected for Mordecai. He gives all of Haman’s property and honors to Esther, who passes them along to Mordecai. Due to an idiotic flaw in the Persian legal system [which, as far as I know, was made up by this author and didn’t actually exist], no decree or law given by the king can never be revoked. So instead of telling his people not to kill all the Jews, all Ahasuerus can do is decree that all the Jews are allowed to fight back. Two days of enormous slaughter follow, at the end of which the Jews have defeated all their enemies. Esther institutes the holiday of Purim to celebrate this victory, while Mordecai takes Haman’s place as Ahasuerus’ right hand/Jewish doppelgänger.

Whew. If you’re still reading, here are a few of the things I love (most of which come from other people, notably Fox’s Character and Ideology in the Book of Esther. I’m putting the citation at the end of the article,* because I borrowed from it so heavily, and because it is really terrific.)

-The writing is amazing. The entire book is structured chiastically to emphasize the dramatic reversal of fortune between Haman and Mordecai (see Jon Levenson’s or Michael Fox’s Esther commentaries for more detail. The former is said to be very very good, and I can definitely affirm that the latter is wonderful.). There is enough wordplay to keep you busy for years. The characters—Esther’s sly strength, Ahasuerus’ weak-willed braggadocio, Haman’s anxious grasping for power, Mordecai’s quiet righteousness—are developed richly but concisely. For someone like me, who’s still something of an English major at heart, it’s pure fun.

-It’s a brilliant satire on imperial politics. The entire Persian political and legal structure seems to be based around presenting an image of overwhelming power and authority over an enormous mishmash of people. Everything is about dat, the unbreakable law and irreversible decree of the king. We see this panoply of administration: couriers, satraps, royal councillors, viziers, guards, eunuchs, and low-level bean-counters. But it’s all utterly ridiculous when you look at it closely. The councillors– “the wise men, the ones who know the times”– convince the king that his wife’s refusal of his drunken whim will bring down destruction over the whole empire! All women everywhere will disobey their husbands! The massive social upheaval will plunge them all into chaos! And so the king sends out the obviously silly edict that “every man should be master in his own house,” while the enormous resources of the largest empire ever to exist up to that time are devoted to rounding up all the pretty girls so that the king can have sex with them all and choose the one he likes best.

Then, at the other end of the story, we get the decree to destroy all the Jews. Esther reveals to Ahasuerus that there is a plot to destroy her people, the Jews. Ahasuerus is shocked and appalled, even though he himself just a couple of days ago signed off on the decree to do it. But wait! A decree from the mouth of the king and signed by his seal cannot ever be revoked, no matter how ill-considered. And so the only alternative is to send out another decree, authorizing the Jews to resist being slaughtered wholesale. You end up with, essentially, a massively destructive civil war decreed by the king because the oh-so-righteous legal system can’t let him admit he’s wrong. (In another clever move by the author, any doubts one might have about the morality of the bloodthirsty ending are effectively sidestepped: the responsibility lies with the idiotic political system, not with the Jews.)

-Esther herself is a huge badass. Feminist interpreters tend to be divided on her—some see her as an early model of feminine strength, others see her as a weak-willed tool of the system/bimbo. I lean toward the former interpretation. Esther is powerful precisely because she knows the system and her place in it, and uses her knowledge to best advantage. She wins the queenship, it is implied, because she listens and learns and is clever. She makes friends with Hegai, the eunuch who runs the harem (the first one, the one for all the women who haven’t had their chance with the king yet. There is a whole other harem for those deflowered but disappointed.). The women going to spend the night with the king can take anything they request from the harem to the palace (there’s titillation for you), and Esther only takes what Hegai tells her to.

Then you get her persuasion of Ahasuerus. She doesn’t just run up and ask him for favors; she picks her time. She approaches him without leave (punishable by death if the king so chooses), and he, pleased to see her, offers her whatever she wants. Instead of making her demand, she asks him to a banquet. At the banquet, he reiterates his offer–”What is your wish? It shall be given to you. What is your desire? As much as half of my kingdom, it will be done.” Even then, she doesn’t blurt it out—instead, she asks them both to come back to another banquet the next day, and then she will make her request. (This is sort of necessary to keep up the chiastic structure of the book, but it works out brilliantly for her character as well.) Only at this banquet—after Ahasuerus has practically begged for her to ask him for something—does she spit it out. She asks, not for revenge, but for her life and the lives of her people. She keeps it on the personal rather than the ideological level, as suits this selfish and muddleheaded king: not “don’t do this, because it is wrong,” but “don’t do this, because I am of value to you.” (This idea presented courtesy of (I believe) Fox’s commentary.)

The way Esther is positioned in the story makes her the quintessential Jew successful in a foreign court (a character type that you see in characters like Joseph, Daniel, and Zerubbabel as well). She is the arbiter between the childish decadence and intrigues of the Persian court, on the one hand, and the righteous but powerless and, it seems to me, somewhat naive Jews, on the other. This is a role somewhat shared by Mordecai, and there’s a lot of arguing back and forth about which one is the “real” hero, but Esther is the one able to adapt to and succeed in these new circumstances—the symbol of the Jewish people’s ability to adapt and succeed under foreign rule.

*Fox, Michael V. Character and Ideology in the Book of Esther. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.

Hello and Welcome!

We, Carmen and Mary, would like to welcome you to this, 606 Howard Street. The original 606 Howard Street was the house in which we lived during the second year of our master’s degree program. We remember it as a place of shared meals, adventurous paint choices,*  some fantastic parties,** and, most importantly, the kinds of protracted, all-encompassing, intense and illuminating conversations that fueled our intellectual lives inside and outside the classroom. Today we introduce the new 606 Howard Street, which we hope will be a way to continue these conversations with one another and, in addition, to bring a wider audience into the dialogue. Take a look at the pages under the header, which lay out what we are and are not trying to do with this project, our expectations for discussions, and a bit about ourselves. We’re still figuring out where we want to go with this to some degree, so don’t be surprised if things change as we go along. Thanks for reading!

*Pro tip: Go with paint colors that are a shade lighter than you think you want.

**We try to forget the dysfunctional heater and the mice.