Sunday, April 26, 2009

Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine by Harold Bloom

This is the book I referred to in my comments to Day 28 of Rick Warren's A Purpose-Driven Life:

Listening to NPR a few weeks ago there was an interview with a guy whose name I wish I could remember who wrote a book whose title I wish I could remember about the four or five distinct personalities Christians attribute to God and try to paste together into this thing called the Trinity. One of those personalities is the Old Testament God the Father, who seems based mostly on the early Jewish deity Yahweh, who was more of a trickster figure in that pantheon than the benevolent type we think of today. Yahweh’s code was pretty much I’ll be there when I want to be there and not necessarily when you need me or want me.

Well, this difficult and thought-provoking book is certainly about that, but it's about a lot of other things, too. Bloom is a literary critic, and he takes a literary critic's approach to the characters of Jesus and Yahweh in the Bible, both of whom appear to be more than just one character in the various books that make up the foundational documents of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

Bloom quotes Mark Twain at one point in his text, who observed that "the Christian's Bible is a drug store. Its contents remain the same, but the medical practice changes." And this is precisely the story Bloom tries to tell with regard to Yahweh, who seems to get reincarnated and transformed into several different deities by several different cultures over the course of time.

It's a convoluted tale—the tale of how the gods of the three modern "montheistic" religions came to be—and to be fair to Bloom, he is actually less trying to tell the tale than he is simply providing literary commentary on the characters the tale contains. But the tale itself seems fascinating. Here's one of the more descriptive sections on this subject:

"Jesus" in my title primarily means Jesus-the-Christ, a theological God. Yahweh, in his earlier and definitive career, is not at all a theological God, but is human, all-too-human, and behaves rather unpleasantly. Christianity transforms Jesus of Nazereth, a historical person about whom we possess only a few verifiable facts, into a polytheistic multiplicity that replaces the uncannily menacing Yahweh with a very different God the Father, whose Son is the Christ or risen Messiah. Both of these divinities are shadowed by a ghostly Paraclete (Comforter) named the Holy Spirit, while Miriam, the mother of the historical Yeshua or Jesus, lingers nearby under the designation of "The Virgin Mary."

The American Jesus stands somewhat apart from this pragmatic polytheism because he is the primary God of the United States, and has subsumed God the Father in what I continue to suggest we call "the American Religion." This Jesus has a burgeoning rival in the Holy Spirit of the Pentecostalists, and perhaps our future will see divided rule between these somewhat disparate entities. All this matters because Christianity wanes in Europe (Ireland excepted) and is exemplified primarily in the Americas, Asia, and Africa, competing in those latter continents with Islam, which now becomes more militant than at any time since its aggressive inception.

Yahweh is the protagonist of the Tanakh, which is distinctly not identical with the Old Testament. Jesus Christ is the protagonist of the New, or Belated, Testament, which revokes the Covenant between Yahweh and Israel. Politicians and religious figures (are they still separate characters?) speak of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but that is a social myth. It would make about as much sense if they spoke of a Christian-Islamic tradition. There are three rival so-called monotheisms, but the Jews are now so tiny in population, compared with the Christians and Muslims, that they could vanish all but completely in another two generations, three at most. This book therefore is not a polemic favoring Yahweh over his usurper. Perhaps it is, in part, and elegy for Yahweh. If he has vanished, he still ought to be distinguished clearly from Jesus-the-Christ and even from Allah, who in some respects does remain closer to the God of Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Ishmael, and Jesus of Nazareth than do the Christian deities. I am aware that these truths are scarcely welcome, but what truth is?

So first there was Yahweh, the God of the Tanakh—the old Hebrew Bible. He's the god of the Jews and he made a covenant with them. Then along comes the historical person, Jesus of Nazereth, who, decades after his death, some people decide to make a god for a new religion called Christianity. They write a new Bible for him, and call him Jesus Christ, and say that he fulfills the prophesized Messiah from the old Bible. Except they have to change the old Bible to make sure it fits well with the new one they're writing:

Aside from the inclusion of the apocryphal works, the crucial Christian revisions [to the Tanakh] are its elevation of Daniel and the difference in endings, from II Chronicles to Malachi, the last of the Twelve Minor Prophets:

And in the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, when the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah was fulfilled, the Lord roused the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia to issue a proclamation throughout his realm by word of mouth and in writing, as follows: "Thus said King Cyrus of Persia: the Lord God of Heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and has charged me with building Him a House in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Any one of you of all His people, the Lord his God be with him and let him go up."
II Chronicles 36:22-23

The Tanakh's conclusion is the heartening exhortation to "go up" to Jerusalem to rebuild Yahweh's Temple. (Of course, today a restored Temple would be a universal catastrophe, since Al Aksa Mosque occupies the sacred site, and must not be removed.) In order to lead into the three opening chapters of the Gospel of Matthew, the Christian Old Testament concludes with Malachi, "the Messenger," proclaiming Elijah's return (as John the Baptist):

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and deadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.
Malachi 4:5-6

Belated Testament as truly it is, the New Covenant is most intense in the belated Gospel of John, which I find both aesthetically strong and spiritually appalling, even setting aside its vehement Jewish self-hatred, or Christian anti-Semitism. If the New Testamenet triumphed in the Roman mode, and it did under Constantine, then the captive led in procession was the Tanakh, reduced to slavery as the Old Testment. All subsequent Jewish history, until the founding more than half a century ago of the State of Israel, testifies to the human consequences of that textual slavery.

In other words, the early Christians twisted the old Hebrew Bible for their own purposes and called it the Old Testament. The god of their New Testament didn't fulfill any prophecy from the old Jewish Bible. Instead, the old Jewish Bible was turned into something called the Old Testament so the New Testament could fulfill it. Bloom writes as if this re-invention is all but indisputable.

It is now altogether too late in Western history for pious or human self-deceptions on the matter of the Christian appropriation of the Hebrew Bible. It is certainly much too late in Jewish history to be other than totally clear about the nature and effect of that Christian act of total usurpation. The best preliminary description I have found is by Jaroslav Pelikan:

What the Christian tradition had done was to take over the Jewish Scriptures as its own, so that Justin could say to Trypho that the passages about Christ "are contained in your Scriptures, or rather not yours, but ours." As a matter of fact, some of the passages were contained only in "ours," that is, in the Christian Old Testament. So assured were Christian theologians in their possession of the Scriptures that they could accuse the Jews not merely of misunderstanding and misinterpreting them, but even of falsifying scriptural texts. When they were aware of differences between the Hebrew test of the Old Testament and the Septuagint, they capitalized on these to prove their accusation...

What makes this usurpation all the more remarkable in Bloom's eyes is that fact that he sees the Christian Messiah—"a Messiah who is God Incarnate, and dies on the Cross as an Atonement for all human sin and error"—as irreconcilable with the Hebrew Bible.

Only by a strongly creative misreading of the Tanakh could so immense a disparity have been redressed. The New Testament is held together by its revisionist stance toward the Hebrew Bible. A considerable splendor ensues from this revisionism, whether one is comfortable with it or not. The persuasive force of the Gospels, and of the entire New Testament structure, testifies to the power of an imaginative achievement, riddled with inconsistencies, but more than large enough to have weathered its self-contradictions, including a Jesus whose mission intends only Jews as beneficiaries, and disciples who address themselves only to Gentiles. What could Yeshua of Nazareth have made of Martin Luther's outburst "Death to the Law!" which in many German Lutherans who served Hitler became "Death to the Jews!" The Germans would not have crucified Jesus: they would have exterminated him at Auschwitz, their version of the Temple. No less than Hillel, Jesus affirmed the Torah, Yahweh's teaching and Covenant.

I think this really drives home one of the central theses of the book—that the Jesus Christians worship today, is neither the Jesus of the New Testament nor the Jesus supposedly prophecized by the "Old Testament"—both of whom were Jews who came to redeem the Jewish people.

A quick sidebar is in order here on the "Hillel" referenced at the end of that last passage. He is, of course, the ancient Jewish scholar, Hillel the Elder, who, from what I've read of him, seems wiser than Jesus in many worthy respects.

The attributes of humility, patience, love of one's fellows, and the pursuit of peace, which Hillel displayed, did not diminish the stringency of his ethical and religious demands, or prevent him from placing full responsibility on man, whom he required to act for his own perfection and for the public weal. Man is obliged to make endeavors, for "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" But he cannot achieve much through seclusion and separation, and he must remember, "And being for my own self, what am I?" Nor may he forget that his time is limited and he dare not procrastinate—"And if not now, when?" (Sayings of the Fathers, I.14). Man's relations with his fellow man were defined by Hillel not only in the rule attributed to him as a reply to the proselyte who asked to be taught the whole Torah while syanding on one foot—"What is hateful to you do not do to your fellow"—the like of which the would-be proselyte might also have heard from others, but in the demand that one must not pass hasty judgment on the actions of another person, just as one is forbidden to be confident of one's own righteousness. The principle is "Be not sure of yourself until the day of your death, and judge not your fellow until you come into his place" (Sayings of the Fathers, II.5). However, a man's humility and self-criticism are no excuse for keeping aloof from the community. Hillel even instructs the Sage who has acquired the qualities of saintliness and humility, "Sever not yourself from the community...and where there are no men strive to be a man" (Sayings of the Fathers, II.5-6).

But let's get back to Jesus. The Jesus worshipped today is what Bloom calls the "American Jesus," a new god who has come to eclipse the other characters he supposedly abides with in the Trinity. The Trinity is something the old Catholic Church invented but which began to crumble when the Protestants began to flex their muscles as part of the Reformation. Bloom says the early Protestants when back to Yahweh for the inspiration of their movement, recognizing that in the Trinity Yahweh had become something different, something called "God the Father," who only seemed to exist so that he could have a Son that could die for all of our sins. But somewhere in the 400 years since the Reformation, Christians seem to have lost sight of Yahweh again—at least here in the States—and seem too focused on the other two Trinitarian characters. And Bloom thinks this has less to do with the religiosity of ancient Jewish and Christian texts and more to do with the secularism of Greek culture and the Renaissance.

Whoever you are, you identify necessarily the origins of your self more with Augustine, Descartes, and John Locke, or indeed with Montaigne and Shakespeare, than you do with Yahweh and Jesus. That is only another way of saying that Socrates and Plato, rather than Jesus, have formed you, however ignorant you may be of Plato. The Hebrew Bible dominated seventeenth-century Protestantism, but four centuries later our technological and mercantile society is far more the child of Aristotle than of Moses. Jesus, even had he been Yahweh Incarnate, could not have apprehended or comprehended a globe that might seem to him a world under water, already downed, as if even Yahweh's first covenant, with Noah, had never been cut.

To Bloom, the only place that Yahweh still exists is in Islam.

I repeat that the future of Christianity is not in Europe or the Middle East, but in the United States, Africa, and Asia. This coming Christianity is dominated by Jesus and the Holy Spirit, rather than by the figure of the Father. A pragmatic separation between Yahweh and Jesus widens, and Yahweh has not survived in Christianity, but only in the Allah of Islam. The dying God has also turned out to be Yahweh, and not Jesus.

And Bloom spends a good deal of time speculating on Yahweh's death and the forces that may eventually bring it about—tying them interestingly to the social and economic forces now conflicting with each other across our planet.

All gods age, Yahweh included, thought his dying may not prove to be final, since Islam could yet prevail. Gods ebb with continental economies, and Europe's augmenting godlessness could be a symptom of its final decline in relation to globalization. The Jesus Christ of evangelical Protestantism and of Mormonism is the not-so-hidden God of the corporate world in the United States.

Why was Christianity triumphant from its adoption by the murderous Emperor Constantine until its gradual intellectual displacement since the Enlightenment? If you are a believing Christian, there is no problem: the truth has made you free. That is also Islam's answer. Cultures rise and ebb; Gibbon ironically viewed the fall of the Roman Empire as Christianity's fault. Since the American Empire is only ostensibly Christian, our eventual decline and fall will have to be ascribed to some different culprit. Chinese and Indians work harder than we do, while Europeans increasingly evade labor. Norwegians, French, and many other nationalities notoriously embrace absenteeism. Was Christianity's concealed persistence a kind of work ethic, inherited from the hard existence of Judea? We still identify capitalism with Protestantism, and Puritan ideas pervade our market economy. Business leadership in the United States is an oddly pragmatic blend of American Jesus and Machiavelli.

For me, the reason Yahweh keeps getting passed over is that he is a singularly difficult god to deal with—and all too human one as Bloom argues extensively. Even his name—given as YHWH in ancient Hebrew—is a kind of cruel joke, indicating that he will be where he wants to be and not where he doesn't, a far cry from the omnipresence attributed to his Trintarian descendant God the Father.

I like Donald Akenson's cheerful remark "I cannot believe that any sane person has ever liked Yahweh." But as Akenson adds, that is irrelevant, since Yahweh is reality. I would go a touch further and identify Yahweh with Freud's "reality-testing," which is akin to the Lucretian sense of the way things are. As the reality principle, Yahweh is irrefutable. We are all going to have to die, each in her or his turn, and I cannot agree with Jesus' Pharisaic belief in the resurrection of the body. Yahweh, like reality, has quite a nasty sense of humor, but bodily resurrection is not one of his Jewish or Freudian jokes.

This idea that Yahweh is reality is the most thought-provoking of the book, well worth the price of admission, and even better than Bloom's literary comparisons of Yahweh to King Lear and Jesus to Prince Hamlet. Thinking of God as simply the expression of "the way things are" puts the whole "why do bad things happen to good people" question into a new perspective, and to think of Yahweh as a literary character who embodies that spirit makes me almost willing to run off and read the Old Testament just to see how well that interpretation stands up.

In fact, using this interpretation as my model, a few pages later when Bloom writes, "If you have lost your grandparents in the German death camps, are you to trust a Yahweh who must be either powerless or uncaring?" I respond with, no, Yahweh is not powerless or uncaring. He is POWERFUL AND UNCARING. He acts according to his own devices, not ours. He is Melville's white whale.

And if that is Yahweh, then maybe Jesus is ultimately an attempt to repair that harsh reality and to offer God's humble creations some sort of solace. Bloom questions:

How can what is so far beyond us also love us? The Christian answer has to be the Atonement, in which the embodiment of God's love for the world and its people accepts sacrifice as the only mode of reconciling God with them, and so forgiving them for every sin, Adam's onward.

But using this conceit I say that Yahweh didn't sacrifice himself as Jesus to save us from our sins, he did it to punish himself for his own sin of creation. Only by becoming one with the suffering he had caused can the Creator be reconciled with his creation. And such a reconciliation can only truly be realized if Jesus actually died on the Golgotha cross, never to rise again.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Drop City by T. Coraghessan Boyle

Another T. C. Boyle novel and another winner as far as I'm concerned. Like every other novel of his that I've read, this one is about two groups of very disparate characters who come in contact with one another—this time a group of communal hippies at the end of the 1960s and the simple and survival-focused folk who live in the Alaskan wilderness. Their clash of worldviews is both brutal and entertaining—in the traditional Boyle style—and is well foreshadowed in this interchange from early in the novel between two of the hippies before they make their journey to Alaska.

And then Alfredo was onto travel, the names of places clotting on his tongue like lint spun out of a dryer, no two-thousand pound Wisconsin cheeses for him—it was London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Venice, Florence—he was an art student at one time, did Marco know that? Yeah, and he'd sketched his way across Europe, from the Louvre to the Rijksmuseum to the Prado. That was the only way to do it, like a month in every city, just living there in some pension or hostel, meeting people in cafes, scoring hash on the street and going straight to the bakery after the cafes close for your pane and your baguette. He must have talked without drawing a breath for a solid fifteen minutes.

Somewhere there, in the space between Amsterdam and the Place de la Concorde, the crows started in, a bawling screech that came out of the trees and circled overhead as the big glistening birds dive-bombed an owl they'd flushed from its roost. "The owls get them at night when they're helpless, did you know that?" Marco said, glad for a chance to change the subject. "That's what that's all about. Survival. And imagine us—imagine if there was another ape species here to challenge us, and I don't mean like gorillas and chimps, but another humanoid."

Alfredo didn't seem to have anything to say to that—he believed in universal harmony, brotherhood, vegetarianism, peace, love and understanding. He didn't want to know about the war between crows and owls, let alone apes, or the way the crows mobbed the nests of lesser birds—sparrows, finches, juncos—to crush and devour the young. That had nothing to do with the world he lived in. "Heavy," that's what he he said finally. Heavy.

Marco is a character I really like in this novel. He's one of the few hippies who actually take to the rough and difficult life that's waiting for them when they get to Alaska, finding in it something more compelling than all the free love and drugs that permeate life at Drop City (the commune). And in Marco's journey from one world to the other we see Boyle exploring some new themes in his traditional clash of cultures narrative. Unlike some of his other novels, what starts out in stark opposition to one another in the end becomes so intertwined that they can no longer be separated.

A couple other tidbits I wanted to make note of. First, from Sess Harder, the original man of the wilderness, speculating on whether his new wife will have the stamina of will it takes to endure the long and dark Alaskan winters.

Everybody wanted out when the night set in, the night that never let up, when the cabin walls seemed to shrink till you felt like you were in one of those Flash Gordon serials where the walls came together like a vise to squeeze the pulp out of you. Flash always managed to escape, though. So did the better part of the women who came into the country, which was why there were three bush-carzy bachelors for every female in Boynton. The night took inner resources, and most people, women especially, didn't have anything more than outer resources to keep them going—shopping, gossip and restaurants with sconces on the walls, to be specific.

This is very much a novel about inner resources, and those who have them—hippie or otherwise—survive. It's also a novel about those who live by a code, and the need to stay true to it even in the harshest conditions.

She hadn't heard. She knew the nephew was gone, and the little pie-face with the false eyelashes, and a handful of them kept pestering Sess—they'd pay him anything, whatever he wanted—to mush them and their guitars and she didn't know what else on into Boynton. And he was willing, why not, cash was cash, but the trapline came first because once you set those traps you were obligated by every moral force there was in the universe to tend them, if only to curtail the mortal suffering of the living beings that gave you your sustenance, because you didn't waste, you never wasted—waste was worse than a sin; it was death.