Archives for category: Bible study

Oh, Hobby Lobby. What have you done?

Having lived in Seattle for much of the past dozen or so years, I was oblivious to the corporate entity until the 2014 healthcare case. At the time I assumed it was, quite literally, a conservative lobby group that was fighting the ACA and claiming exemption from their responsibility to female employees. So, it was a bit surprising to hear that it was actually a retail chain. Now, here they are again in the news. This recent development for the company is both shocking and yet not surprising at all.

One may be excused for thinking that a business purporting Evangelical Christian values–that has gained legal ground on such a basis–would employ staunch ethics. However, given the moral universe inhabited by many corporate families, the fact that they can both withhold birth control from their employees and import stolen artifacts from the Bible lands is actually very consistent. It has to do with their theological anthropology, among other things.

Theological anthropology is a fancy way of talking about a biblical view of the person. It usually begins with Genesis 1:

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Gen. 1.26-27)

This rendition of the creation narrative usually takes precedence over the second (yes, there are two) creation story, Genesis 2.4-25, in which God uses dirt to make the first human: adam (human) from adamah (soil). In the first creation narrative both human parties are there from the beginning, male and female. It is designed to be hierarchical with humanity atop the rest of creation. As Lynn White identified in his 1967 article (as in, fifty years ago), “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis,” it is this hierarchical view of humans over creation that fundamentally shifted and shaped human ecology, the relationship between us and nature. He traces it in particular to the emergence of Frankish (religious) culture and calendars that narrate man’s dominance while providing a linear trajectory from creation to apocalypse. This is the time in history when Christianity percolates throughout Europe, gaining power in various ways. According to White’s analysis, when humanity no longer sees themselves bound to the soil along with the rest of nature, but breaks out of the cycle of seasons because God has other plans, then nature merely exists for the benefit of humankind. In other words, when we read dominion with too heavy an accent, it forms an ‘arrogant eye’ (Sally McFague, Super, Natural Christians, 1997).

What does dominion over the earth have to do with denying women contraception? Well, after a while the arrogant eye takes a rather liberal interpretation of ‘dominion’. Going back to the creation narratives, the first sets up a hierarchy, while the second introduces “Adam” before “Eve” and thereby furthers the hierarchy. As White summarizes, “Finally, God had created Adam and, as an afterthought, Eve to keep man from being lonely. Man named all the animals, thus establishing his dominance over them.” (1205) So, here we have an interpretation of total superiority over the rest of creation, starting with women, that informs relationships between men and women in conservative Christian anthropologies.

The turn to Iraqi artifacts may seem a little less obvious, but do not underestimate the powerful gaze of the arrogant eye. It reaches into jungles and deserts, mountains and wadis. 

In terms of theological anthropology, a sociocultural element intersects gender hierarchy such that anyone deemed Other is relegated to a lesser level. (This is the realm of Orientalism, and postcolonial theory.) The rhetorical focus on the Bible allows for the objects of interest to be placed in a kind of metaphorical time capsule, uprooted from contemporary persons and places. Such an obsession with material things of the Bible is endemic to evangelical Christianity, and therefore unsurprising in the Hobby Lobby owners. Objects deemed “historical” are dislocated from their place of origin, the people who created it, and anyone since then who has interacted with it. In this way a bizarre duality emerges that permits fetishizing ancient cultures while simultaneously denying connectivity between cultures, peoples, and religious beliefs. The Bible Lands are valued, but not the people inhabiting them. Material evidence of Bible texts are necessary for ‘proving’ superiority over others, but the message of scripture to be humble and love one’s enemies is never heeded. Jesus himself becomes wiped of any Jewish Palestinian provenance, just as the objects themselves cannot be faithfully traced.

In a worldview that normalizes the secondary place of other persons, and treasures clay shards over the ground from which they came, it is no wonder that the company’s acquisition of material objects is unethical. They have made it clear that the Bible is their number one priority but not the Spirit and the message it communicates.

 

Let’s talk about bilingual code switching..

In Hebrew class this spring, we studied the book of Daniel–well, some of it. The middle section of the text came to us in Aramaic. Now, when I say ‘text’ I’m referring to what we have in the Hebrew and Protestant Scriptures, handed down from a group of scholars, the Masoretes. As a beginning Hebrew student, my relationship with these guys is complicated. They gave us vowel pointers which is good, but also made reading rather difficult in other ways. Challenges aside, I found that decoding Daniel was actually interesting and even got excited about some of the implications for today.

For example, the narratives that make up the first six chapters are stories of what God does for his people, beginning with delivering them into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. This won’t necessarily come as a surprise once you’ve read 1Kings, especially the part about King Manasseh. In verse one of chapter one, God gave Jerusalem to the Babylonians (a complicated statement embroiled in betrayal, threats and punishment), then in verse 17, God gives wisdom, insight and knowledge to four young Israelites bound for the royal court. It’s an interesting parallel: seeds of redemption are sown in Daniel and his friends just as Yahweh appears to have sealed the destruction of the Israelites. Life from the ashes of death.

Then in chapter two, it switches from Hebrew to Aramaic, the lingua franca of the time. This part fascinates me, especially since I don’t fully understand it. One scholar, Portier-Young, brought contemporary sociolinguistic study on bilingual speakers into the discussion. Additionally, power and empire studies relate here, as well. The narratives were (most likely) written at a time when the Israelites had recently lost their temple and, essentially, their identity. While it would seem to make more sense for the whole text to be in Hebrew, it’s possible that the narrative vignettes about Daniel and his friends in the royal court were intended to be shared with whomever would listen. Anyone in the empire could hear about the power of Yahweh to deliver (his) servants. Talk about a testimony!

What about the rest of the Hebrew text? Chapter seven begins the sequence of visions and revelations, which were possibly written at a later time, using the Daniel character who, back in chapter one, was given insight into visions and dreams. (If that sounds sacrilegious, think about how many writers there were for the X-men films, based on the comic books and the time lapse between the two forms. The beauty of narrative is how meaning compounds when characters are resuscitated). Back to Daniel, the vision is recounted first in Aramaic, then in Hebrew (chapter eight), the first code switch. Visions in and of themselves are coded language, so we get the impression that narrative is no longer a ‘safe’ genre. Whatever encouragement the authors are intending for the Jewish people must be veiled.

The part of the story that caught my attention most revolved around the verb “to stand.” Daniel stands before two powers: earthly (Nebuchadnezzar) and heavenly (the holy messenger). In the face of earthly powers, Daniel stands with God-given knowledge, insight and wisdom. In the face of heavenly powers, Daniel falls and must be strengthened by the holy messenger, and is told to “stand in [his] standing place.” This contrast, simple as it is, teaches us something about where to look for our source of strength, how to stand before kings and rulers, courts and nations. For many of us raised in an American church, it’s nearly impossible to understand the place of the powerless. Yet, I think we’re learning to at least listen to the stories of those made to feel like second-class (or worse). Daniel is one such story that can remind us that life is not all victory all the time. That coming out on top is not the norm. My prayer is that Daniel can become a text today as it perhaps once was that crosses cultures, societies and languages, for the purpose of proclaiming what good things God will do.