Red Dead Redemption 2 Review: Your Own Private WestWorld

I ride up to the crest of a hill, my trusty mare stamping at the earth as we come to a stop. Across the valley (modeled after Colorado, it seems), a stagecoach pulls into view, rolling down the deep ruts of a well-traveled road, unaware of the danger that awaits it.

I check my pocket watch. It’s right on time, like my informant at the train station promised. Through binoculars, I can see two men riding atop the wagon, one driver, one riding shotgun. A few riders flank the vehicle, rifles in hand.

Nothing too serious. With the right tool, I’ll make quick work of the guards and the driver. If my lock-breaker won’t do the trick, a well-placed stick of dynamite will open the strongbox that holds my reward. I just need my lever-action rifle to kick things off, the one I’ve customized with dark wood covered in dark leather, black metal accented with gold engraving.

Unfortunately, I have to open up a menu and scroll through more than a dozen longarms to get what I’m looking for. It’s a game, so maybe I could live with that, but I’m tacitly asked by to ignore the massive hammerspace my horse must have in the invisible quantum field that surrounds my saddle. Having to choose what to take with me when I leave camp would have been far more interesting.

That’s been my experience of the game in the (frankly embarrassing) amount of time I’ve spent on it. Things seem great until the game’s systems ruin the immersion with rigid, often-nonsensical responses.

On an HD TV and and Xbox One X, the game is stunningly beautiful–except for the people. Their expressions are just a bit much, their faces waxen and on the wrong side of the uncanny valley. Not too beautiful, but still inhuman.

The physics of the game veers from the believable to the frustratingly sudden. I’ve lost a number of horses (typically after reaching the max level of bonding–and thus unlocks–with them) to having them suddenly run headlong into trains or wagons (after I’ve jumped onto said train or wagon). Likewise, in the midst of thrilling chases, I’ve been launched ragdoll-like, my horse crumpling beneath me on some unseen sharp edge of the terrain.

But it’s not the physics of the game that really destroys the immersive potential. It’s the asininity of subsystems of the game that infuriate. For a game about the last outlaws of the Old West, it makes little sense to include an “Honor” system that rewards not doing many of the game’s draws–robbery, theft, gunfights and bucking the law. What’s worse, the Honor system has nothing to do with getting caught by others. Even without witnesses, you lose Honor for looting a body or taking something that’s not yours. That’s not fun.

This is exacerbated by the fact that “restoring” or improving your Honor to a high level (where there are in-game perks) is tedious and uninteresting. Help people in radiant events while traveling, kindly greet all the people you come across, perform repetitive and dull chores (“move this from here to there” in camp). There’s nothing interesting about being a white-hat in the game except for mechanical benefits. Being a roleplayer first and foremost, I see that as exceptionally bad form in design.

The “law enforcement” system also makes little sense. There is one fun/interesting aspect: witnesses to crimes will try to run away and contact the sheriff or other members of “the Law.” You can chase them down and threaten them to keep them from tattling. Unfortunately, everything’s downhill from there. The witnesses don’t actually have to run to a specific point to summon the Law–once they make it far enough, they simply disappear to be replaced by lawdogs.

The excitement of this is further diminished by a number of other flaws: rob a store and an alert automatically goes up to the law when the robbery begins (unless you’re robbing a business’s secret side business). Wearing a mask only slightly delays identification of you as the perpetrator, even in a place where no one should know your name. Of course, if you can evade fast enough, you can leave the scene of the crime, hide out for a few minutes, and come back like nothing ever happened. Without changing your appearance.

Be identified while committing crimes and a bounty will be placed on your head–this bounty increases for each infraction, but killing an officer of the law only raises it by $20. According to the internet, the 2016 value of that amount is about $2,891.65.

If your bounty gets high enough, bounty hunters will start to seek you out–though they appear randomly and without cause for being able to track you down in the wilderness. Of course, you can avoid this by going to any Post Office and paying off your accumulated bounty. Apparently the Old West works off of the ancient Germanic weregild system rather than 19th century American justice.

This is complicated by the fact that many of the “iconic” outlaw activities of the Old West net very little income compared to bounty you’re likely to generate during the activity. For instance, robbing a train got me about $100 in goods and cash while generating a bounty of $380 for defending myself from the near-instantaneous onslaught of lawmen from their hiding places in the wilderness where they must have been waiting for just such an offense to occur.

Playing the game, I can’t help but compare it to WestWorld. The game seems more like an Old West themepark than any verisimilitudinous experience. Scripted actions, often clearly weighted toward “game balance” rather than any sense of authenticity serves as a constant reminder that the whole thing is a conceit, a game. NPCs are robotic and caught in activity loops, wooden and predictable. Actions have only short-term consequences before everything is reset to its “natural state.”

The story missions are mostly good and the characters within Dutch van der Linde’s gang have at least a modicum of depth–though most of the dialogue is canned and you have very little opportunity to control Arthur Morgan’s treatment of his companions (which, again, makes the Honor system seem arbitrary and ridiculous).

Red Dead Redemption 2 is being hailed as a massive success in open-world gaming, but I just can’t agree. The game doesn’t do anything that Witcher 3 didn’t do better–and more believably. And when a fantasy setting feels more real than a pseudohistorical one, its hard not to think that the creators have strayed pretty far from the goal.

Is the game fun? Yes, yes it is, but only as a game. Does it feel like the systems of Grand Theft Auto have been conveniently ported to the Old West without much scrutiny. Yep. If you’re looking for immersion that gives you an easy time imagining yourself in Arthur Morgan’s shoes, you’ll find ocassionally satisfying bits (particularly while hunting, where animal behaviors are linked to some real-world expectations–at least in terms of diurnal/nocturnal cycles) but you’re ultimately going to be disappointed. I don’t regret picking up the game (even in limited edition at full price) and I have enjoyed the time I’ve spent on it, but I just can’t help but feel that the game could have been much more.

I’ll probably keep playing it for the time being to kill time, but not without the feeling that I could be employing my time to higher and better purpose. If I manage to finish it before Fallout 76 drops, then I’ll finish it. If not, I doubt I ever will. Certainly not in the near future given the games set to release before the end of the year or in 2019.

Gnosticism: Ascension without Virtue, Salvation without Sacrifice

Why am I talking about gnosticism, an age-old system of belief? Because there’s something fundamentally enticing about what it offers, something that appeals to the less-impressive aspects of human nature, and it manages to keep popping up in society in unexpected (and frankly fascinating) ways.

What is gnosticism? Well, there are a number of variations, but I’ll give a description of those things that tend to be similar across those differences. If you want to look up specific examples, look to Merkavah mysticism in Judaism, Catharism, Marcion of Sinope, neo-Platonism and some forms of hermetic belief–though take caution, the extent to which any of these systems of belief fall into gnosticism and/or the way in which each influenced the development of the common ideas is subject to scholarly debate.

First, gnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis, meaning “knowledge.” The idea of there being “secret knowledge” that leads to salvation is key here. But that’s perhaps getting ahead of ourselves. In a brief retelling of the gnostic story, there is a supreme God (the Monad, meaning “the one”), the true God, who is only spirit. This God creates lesser spiritual beings often referred to as Aeons. The Monad and the Aeons together constitute the Pleroma, the fullness of God.

In the version of the cosmology known from the Nag Hammadi texts, the lowest Aeon, Sophia (“wisdom”), creates a spiritual being of her own (often referenced as the “Demiurge,” the “son of chaos” and known in the Sethite and Ophite versions of gnosticism as Yaldabaoth/Ialdabaoth ) without the permission of the Monad, and hides him in a cloud that obscures him from all else and all else from him.

Being an emanation of an emanation (despite the lack of photocopiers in the ancient world) and hiddent from all true knowledge, the Demiurge is considered at best to be supremely foolish and at worst to be blatantly evil. The Demiurge believes himself to be the only being in existence (in other words, God) and creates the material world in which we live.

So, for the gnostics, the material world is evil, essentially a prison created by the Demiurge from which our spiritual selves–our souls–cannot escape without attaining the (secret) knowledge of the Monad. Salvation here is not about love, sacrifice, self-improvement, repentence, faith in God or any of the other things that make Christianity such a powerful faith. It is a prison break.

A few notes before we move on. First, I see a similarity here between gnosticism and some forms of fundamentalist Christianity–not in belief but in result. In fundamentalist apocalyptic Christianity, salvation lies in saying “the magic words” about belief in Jesus. Because of the belief that God will destroy the material world anyway, there is no need to take action to reconcile, improve or ameliorate it. In other words, salvation is deeply perosnal and requires little or no concern for others. It would be unfair, of course, to say that all apocalyptic fundamentalists or gnostics have no desire to love or help others, but the system of belief makes that easier, not harder. In both, ritual action takes the place of compassion–see Cathar views on marraige, sex, and food, for instance.

Second, though it may be tempting, I would caution against drawing parallels with Buddhism here. Buddhist thought is remarkably complex, diverse and nuanced, so it is impossible (as in most things) to make a fair generalization with some applicability to all schools of Buddhist thought (I’ve heard that there’s a saying that it would take a lifetime just to read the names of all the schools of Buddhism). Nevertheless, I’ll point out what I think are some differences. Enlightenment in Buddhism does come from “secret knowledge” in a sense, but this “secret knowledge” is existential rather than abstract or categorical–it’s the realization of the connectedness of all things. Additionally, Buddhism doesn’t seem to use the mind/body dualism of gnosticism, instead viewing reality as matters of truth or maya (illusion). Because of these things, the path to enlightenment in Buddhism requires both growing realization of truth and action based on that truth–primarily compassionate action. For more detail and investigation, see Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

With that out of the way, let me make clear why gnosticism is heterodox to true Christian theology. First, Christian gnosticism sees Jesus as a savior-figure because he is the purveyor of gnosis necessary to transcend this world, not because of his demonstration of God’s love for us or the salvific act of his death on the cross. Alongside this, gnosticism views the material world as essentially evil and bad. This contrasts entirely with God’s declaration in Genesis upon creating the material world that “it [is] good.” The Incarnation of Jesus tells us that material embodiment is important to God, even if it doesn’t tell us exactly how.

Gnosticism sees the Monad as inherently unknowable. While it’s only logical that finite beings will never be able to fully understand an infinite being, Jesus is proof that God has revealed at least parts of God’s self to us. I note that there’s nothing within gnostic thought that absolutely prevents a similar view, but it does not seem to be a focus.

Gnosticism has little concern with sin under any common Christian conception. In gnosticism, the moral equation is simple–flesh bad, spirit good. The gnostic’s duty toward sin is to escape it, not to rectify it. There is no need for sanctification, for making oneself “good” in a moral sense because that idea just does not compute in gnosticism.

Additionally, gnosticism is individualized.  Is it possible to walk the Christian faith alone? I used to think so, but I am thoroughly convinced that the ultimate goal of Christianity to bring all things into right relationship with all else, and that obviates the possibility of sanctification (though perhaps not faith and certainly not Grace) in solitude.

In other words, gnosticism is what Bonhoffer would call “cheap grace.” It requires very little of the believer other than conviction that he has attained secret knowledge that accurately reflects the truth of existence. And that appeals to human nature–we’re always looking for the path of least resistance, the way to get the most “bang for our buck,” a religion that allows us to be and do what we were always going to be and do without wondering if there’s a better way. It’s easy.

So that being said, where do I see gnosticism in modern society?

There are certainly avowed gnostic believers of various stripes at work in the world today. The different sects and factions of purposeful gnostics are difficult to describe in short, except to say that these groups are diverse and often mixed with other esoteric ideas, particularly magical thought.

There are also perennial attempts by what I can only describe as “New Age” movements to draw upon gnostic-type ideas to appeal to potential adherents. The Secret, modern cults (particularly alien-belief cults, it seems), and other groups claiming to hold the truth of enlightment (and yet in unenlightened hypocrisy being willing to share such knowledge only with a chosen few) all draw something from gnostic tradition in the fabrication of their own systems of thought. I realize it is unfair to bring the great diversity of New Age thought and groups under this single umbrella, so please forgive my gross generalization.

Much science-fiction also draws upon gnostic ideas to set motifs, themes and subplots. Phillip K. Dick (one of my favorite sci-fi authors) often dabbled in–or dove in head first–to gnostic ideas in his works. To what extent he came to embrace some form of gnosticism in his own personal belief is perhaps debatable but ultimately quite likely. Look to see just how many of his works have been turned into films (though most of these are lighter on the side of gnostic thought).

The turn-of-the-millenium trilogy The Matrix also drew upon themes within gnostic Christianity, though the series made possible entire textbooks on the philosophical questions within the films, much to the joy of college professors needing something with which to relate to freshman students.

I have no issue whatsoever with gnostic ideas appearing in fantasy and science fiction–we generally refer to these as speculative fiction for a reason, and the ideas within these works should challenge our beliefs, contemplate alternative cosmologies and provide a space to explore alternative ideas.

The space where I find gnosticism most fascinatingly reborn, however, is in the semi-religion of materialist science. I’ve talked elsewhere about my skepticism regarding mind uploading, but it is not the only culprit here. Many scientifically argued bases for human immortality fall into this mold, as often do the general philosophies of transhumanism or posthumanism, though they do not inherently need to be so closely allied with gnostic thought. It is the imposition of a layer of religious thought that prioritizes the science over the existential effects or consequences of the science that leads to a blind gnostic hope that we can somehow escape all evils (if we’re only smart enough) rather than having to dig in the dirt, confront our demons, and pull out our own evils and destructiveness at the root.

But it is not just gnosticism that runs this risk–perhaps it only provides a convenient scapegoat to the warning I really want to give: to be given any serious consideration, any idea that claims to “improve” the human condition, whether secular philosophy, religion (even, I would say especially, Christianity) or other ideology must seek to do so by the confrontation and alleviation of suffering (almost undoubtedly through some form of personal growth and sacrifice) rather than simply offering some form of easy escape.

 

Stealing History (for your stories)

If you follow this blog, you know that I’m a huge fan of history. Do you know what I’m an even bigger fan of? Good stories.

Yes, at its best, history is a collection of “good” (narratively speaking, not factually or morally speaking, necessarily) stories. There are heroes and villians, drama and plot twists, the exciting and unexpected. The academic historical approach concerns itself not with the strength of the narrative, necessarily, but with the determination of questions like: “What was life like back then?” “Why did X event happen the way it did, or at all?” “What might patterns in history tell us about the future of humanity?” and, perhaps the biggest bugbear of all, “What actually happened?”

These are great questions, and an understanding of historiography is a significant boon to the worldbuilder in her craft. At times, the truth is even stranger than fiction–what delight when we stumble upon such usurpations of our expectations!

But let us set both historian and worldbuilder aside for this post, shall we? What I’m interested in, here, are stories. Stories that come from history, yes, but which are not beholden to the determination of historical fact. Let us talk of the writer’s craft, of the art of good storytelling, and that ephemeral search for inspiration.

Some of the most enduring fiction takes the seeds of history–even if only for context–and waters them to blossom into something apart from, and often more existentially significant, than the history that spawned it.

Some examples:

One: The legends of King Arthur, placed as it is within an array of historical contexts (often not far removed from the storyteller’s own anachronistic understanding of history), but always concerned with issues of Englishness (perhaps it’s more fair to say “Britoness”), chivalry and good rulership. From Geoffrey of Monmouth to Sir Thomas Mallory (or T.H. White and Disney, for that matter), the story has morphed and grown as a contemplation of these ideas quite apart from any historical basis.

Having studied at the British Library and the National Archives as part of my senior honors thesis on “Henry VIII’s Use of Arthurian Legend as Tudor Propaganda,” I can say with some confidence that there never was a King Arthur (though there was a Prince Arthur–Henry VIII’s older brother who died young), but I can also say definitively that that doesn’t really matter to the value the King Arthur story has even in the modern age.

Two: The early tales of Robin Hood lack the moral fortitude or noble birth of the hero, having more in common with medieval tales of Reynard the Fox than the Disney fox. At least as of current scholarship, the likeliest origin of the Robin Hood tales is with a supporter of the Lancastrian uprising around Nottingham in the 1320’s (see the excellent “Our Fake History” Podcast for details in two forty-five-minute sessions). But origins mired in 14th-Century factional strife and medieval vendetta rather than a “rob-from-the-rich-and-give-to-the-poor” morality seem not to have stopped stories about “Robin of Locksley” (previously Robert, Earl of Huntington) from carrying the imagination from the late middle ages to the very modern (cue Bryan Adams, Kevin Costner, Cary Elwes and Mel Brooks). The history of Robin Hood tales also demonstrates that the stories took on a life of their own completely independent from any historical basis–and perhaps rightly so, because these stories tell us something about popular ideas of morality versus the law, bad rulership and justice undone. They’re stories about a certain view of the world.

Three: Romeo & Juliet. While I’m particularly a fan of the Baz Luhrmann film, this story originates with a very real set of historical events–a much surer foundation than either Arthur or Robin Hood–but stands wholly apart from those events.

You see, the original author of the story, Luigi da Porto, was the nephew of Antonio Savorgnan, the leader of the Zambarlani faction in Venetian-controlled Friuli in the early 16th-Century. Da Porto was also a student of the famous humanist Pietro Bembo. On Fat Thursday in 1511 began the “Cruel Carnivale” in the city of Udine, the culmination of long vendetta between the Zambarlani, formed of Savorgnan, his peasant militias and the artisans and poor folk (mostly loyal to Venice) on the one side and the Strumieri, composed of the rural nobility and their retainers (mostly loyal to the Austrians and the Holy Roman Emperor) on the other. A large number of Strumieri nobles were murdered during Carnivale, some of the rural castles sacked and burnt, many others driven to flee for their lives.

But on that Fat Thursday, just as the violence and chaos was ramping up, da Porto had the good fortune to see the beauty Lucina Savorgnan (Antonio Savorgnan’s second cousin) sing at a party that evening. As the story goes, he fell in love with her (though she married another and I’m not sure whether the love was ever requited). This experience, set against the backdrop of dueling factions (quite literally) in northern Italy, caused him to write the original Romeo & Juliet  that provided the basis for Shakespeare’s enduring tale.

Yes, da Porto’s story takes some liberties, transferring the scene to Verona and putting the lovers in opposing factions rather than on the same side. But the context of the story–exile as a common form of punishment, lasting feuds that contiunously claimed the lives of family members and retainers, violence and unrest in the streets that the government could not contain–all of this comes from a discrete historical time and place, and the direct experience of the author.

So where am I going with these examples?

For the writer, who isn’t particularly bound by what “actually happened,” history provides a veritable treasure trove of ideas to develop into plots, settings and stories.

In writing the Game of Thrones series, G.R.R. Martin drew heavily upon–but did not allow himself to be bound by–the history of the Wars of the Roses.

The writers of the TV series Black Sails pulled not just from Treasure Island (itself borrowing heavily from the fictitious Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates) but from the most recent scholarship on early modern piracy to tell its tales convincingly, using many historical persons but taking plenty of liberties with them.

Tolkien borrowed more heavily on the literature of the Anglo-Saxons and the ancient Nordic-Germanic peoples of Europe than their histories in creating Middle Earth (taking even the very name from Viking mythology), but none of that literature is divorced from its own historical context.

The History Channel has been recently making its money off of historical fiction (and reality TV) rather than “serious” history, and on the far-more-humorous end is Comedy Central’s Drunk History and its inebriated retellings of historical events renacted by well-known actors.

The writer can rip from history the juiciest bits without being encumbered by historicity or the concerns of historiography. Reading, listening to or otherwise devouring history will provide a steady diet of interesting plots and “what if” prompts that need not be detectably related to the events that created them. In that sense, the histories devoured don’t even have to be very good (academically speaking) histories–we’re not concerned with the truth of the situation here.

And that opens up to us a second realm for our burglary–mythologies and superstitions. Having recently binged the entire series of the Lore podcast (well worth the time), I cannot number the story ideas that came to me during my listening, many of which are so easily adapted to my own Avar Narn as to surprise even the skeptic within me.

It doesn’t matter whether the Thunderbird is real or what people who claim to have seen the Mothman of Point Pleasant actually saw–the story is what matters! A few tweaks and twists, your own personal touch a different setting and off you go.

If you haven’t bought into the idea that all great artists steal ideas wherever they can, think about this: only God creates ex nihilo; we humans create new things by combining old things in new ways. Lean into it.

And here is one place where I can rejoice in, rather than lament, the almost complete lack of historical literacy of the average modern person–most people are not going to have any idea who Shackleton was or what happened to the Mary Celeste (even in the general sense since, as far as I can tell nobody knows what happened to the Mary Celeste). So when you take such a cosmic egg and hatch your own original story from it, who will be the wiser? Even better, those who do see the influence will feel so smart about recognizing it that they’ll like the story more not less. I speak from arrogant experience. Ask K.

In other words, for the fiction writer especially, there is much to gain and little to lose by raiding history for its secret stories and unpolished gems of ideas. Grab your whip and your fedora (but forget to say, “It belongs in a museum!”) and get searching!

To get you started, a few of my favorite historical podcasts, all of which have been mentioned above or elsewhere on the blog:

(1) Hardcore History by Dan Carlin. To me, this is the end-all-be-all of historical podcasts, Well researched, inimitably told and stretching through multiple three-plus hour sessions per topic, my only complaint about Mr. Carlin’s work is that there isn’t more of it (which, given the investment of time and effort into what he does put out is entirely understandable). The best aspect of Hardcore History? Mr. Carlin’s ability to imaginatively communicate the idea of being there.

(2) Lore by Aaron Mahnke. Mr. Mahnke tells stories of myth and superstition in a captivating way, leaving any judgment of the reality of the events retold open to the listener. When the truth just doesn’t matter and the topics range from the spooky to the outright bizarre, you have a veritable gold mine for fiction writers.

(3) Our Fake History by Sebastian Major. In a voice that sometimes  reminds me of Mr. Carlin above, Mr. Major dispels common (and not-so-common) (mis-)conceptions in history “to figure out what’s fact, what’s fiction, and what is such a good story it simply must be told.” That last part is the undeniable bread-and-butter of the writer, so need I say more?

Jeff Sessions, Romans 13 and Separating Families

(Note: I started writing this post this morning and then had to prioritize work. Now that I’m returning to finish, I’m given to understand that the President is signing an executive order ending family separation. I thought about not finishing the post, but I figured I might as well given that the points I’m arguing below have more applicability than just this situation).

Given how much coverage, discussion and debate the crisis at our border has already had, I’ve been reluctant to write about it myself–what is there that hasn’t been said? I have realized, though, that, even if I’m rehashing the same ideas, it means something to publicly stand with my righteous brothers and sisters calling for an end to this abominable practice. So that’s what I’m doing.

Since theology is a large part of what I write about, let’s start with the theological arguments that have been made in favor of the issue. First, let me point out that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a member of the United Methodist Church. I must admit embarrassment by that, but also some satisfaction with the response from at least some members of the UMC–over 600 members of the UMC, both clergy and laity, have filed a complaint against Sessions under the UMC Book of Discipline–our version of canon law. The complaint alleges that Sessions’ actions–and his use of scripture to justify them–constitutes potential child abuse, immorality, racial discrimination and the teaching of doctrines contrary to those held by the church. Details can be found here.

As both a Methodist and an attorney, I am quite interested in how this plays out. I find the latter three claims to be quite straightforward under the circumstances, but the child abuse claim is an interesting one to me because it will be difficult to resolve. The major issue here is one of causation–are the AG’s actions a direct-enough cause to hold him to culpability? I see arguments on both sides, though I lean toward affirming–in part because we’re not talking about criminal culpability, but a desire to reconcile Mr. Sessions to the teachings of the UMC. The tougher question is what we mean by the term “child abuse?” Herein lies my biggest reservation with this portion of the complaint.

Is the government’s policy wrongly causing children (and parents) to suffer? Undoubtedly. Is this a violation of human rights and general decency? I believe so. Is this practice causing deep trauma, some of which will never heal? Unreservedly, yes. Should we call it child abuse? I’m not so sure.

Yes; it matters. If we expand the societal definition of child abuse, more parents will be subject to claims of abusing their children–not criminally, but giving the poisonous and often hateful nature of online forums and public denunciation in our society, great potential to harm remains. This issue concerns me not directly because of Jeff Sessions, but because of how the construct of “child abuse” might be unreasonably expanded in the future if we are quick to call Jeff Sessions a child abuser.

When we talk about child abuse, I don’t think that there is any question that physical injury, endangerment, or sexual exploitation constitutes child abuse. I think we’d all further agree that emotional abuse is real and can have lasting effects on persons of any age, but especially children. Here, though, is where we run into problems. First, where do we draw the line between negative emotional treatment that is not abusive and treatment that is? Second, how do we separate emotional trauma that results as a byproduct of particular actions from emotional trauma directly inflicted? Are they both “abuse.” I do not have answers to these questions–they require much deeper moral, spiritual and logical analysis than there is space for here. So, I leave this topic with a caution: If you believe that Jeff Sessions is complicit in the violation of human rights by needlessly separating families, fine; I can understand that. If you want to call him a child abuser, I am very hesitant to agree. Is he wrong, morally, in the general sense? Absolutely.

Is he wrong theologically? Also absolutely. Let’s spend some time on that. Sessions stated that there is Biblical support for the governments separation policy by citing Romans 13:1, which reads: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”

Okay, that is something that “the Bible” says. But coming to the conclusion Mr. Sessions would have us reach requires a very particular–and not very logical–approach to interpretation of scripture, one that ignores (and must ignore) much for the argument to not fall apart under its own weight. Benjamin Corey would call this the “Swiss Army Knife” approach to Biblical interpretation, where we see the Bible as intended to apply usefully and directly to any human situation whatsoever and then to pick and choose verses from the Bible, while ignoring others, to accomplish that. For Corey, and I agree, the fundamental problem of this (see what I did there?) is that it views all parts of scripture as equal in authority and status.

Let’s start local, shall we? Let’s be legalistic for a moment and invoke Rule 107 of the Texas Rules of Evidence, the “Rule of Optional Completeness.” This rule allows an adverse party to inquire into any part of a writing when the other party has introduced a portion of that writing into evidence.

If we read all of Romans 13:1-5, we get the following: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who dos o will bring judgment upon themselves. For rules hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.”

The presumption of these verses is righteous rulership by a just ruler who sees himself as a servant of God (and presumably also the people). It does not address behavior when the authorities are acting unjustly and immorally. If we are to act as “a matter of conscience,” it is conceivable that there are situations in which resisting authority is the righteous action.

Both in Biblical history and the ancient world in which Paul lived, we have a multitude of examples of unrighteous rulers. Chronicles and Kings give us plenty of rulers of Israel who “commit the sins” of their fathers before them or who “did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” The dominance of Rome and its rulers in Judea certainly demonstrated exploitative and unjust rulership. It is important, and perhaps ironic, that Paul writes this letter to the Romans and includes the words of 13:1-5. At the time Paul is probably writing, the Roman authorities had little interest in the nascent Christian movement, mostly because they weren’t really sure how to differentiate them from Jews. Persecution would soon ramp up, but at this point things were still relatively calm. Even so, Paul’s argument about the divine right of kings, though supported by the Old Testament stories of the early kings, was not entirely borne out by the long history of kings of Israel and Judah. That oughtn’t be ignored in evaluating Paul’s words.

Still in Romans 13 (verses 8 and 10), Paul writes: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law….Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is fulfillment of the law.”

So, even within the same chapter (remember that chapters are an artificial interpolation, so I use this term to mean “very nearby in the text”), Paul provides us with scripture stating that the government’s position is violation God’s law because it is causing harm.

As a side note, my instinctual response to a leader that cites Romans 13 in, however understated, a claim to divine right and authority is that that person doesn’t understand servant leadership and therefore cannot be the type of ruler described in this passage.

As important as the local landscape of Romans 13:1 is, we must interpret Paul’s words here by reference to the Bible as a whole–with particular attention paid to Jesus’ words and actions.

Here, let us start with other things that the Pauline epistles say of similar tone. I should preface this by saying that, although Romans is one of the epistles about which there is little doubt that Paul is indeed the author, both Ephesians and Colossians are of more disputed authorship, with many arguing that they are Deutero-Pauline, that is, in line with Pauline thought but not written by Paul himself.

Ephesians 6:5-6 reads: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.” Colossians 3:22 says almost exactly the same thing. This repetition leads to three primary interpretations, I think: (1) the author of Ephesians and Colossians is the same person; (2) the writer of Ephesians had access to Colossians, or vice versa; or (3) this statement is based on something Paul said or wrote that is not directly attested.

If we are comfortable that these epistles conform with Pauline thought, regardless of authorship, we need not resolve the authorship issue (which is good, because we can’t).

Modern Christianity has rejected slavery in all of its forms–we have reject Pauline thought here in favor of “doing no harm” as a truer practice of Christian love. If we have rejected this logic as flawed, we have decided that, inspired as the author(s) of the epistles might have been, they are prone to error in judgment at times. So why not conduct the same analysis of the statement in Romans 13?

For the best resolution of any ambiguity here (which I’ll admit remains somewhat speculative and incomplete), we have to look to the words and actions of Jesus Christ.

In Matthew 22:15-22, when confronted by the Pharisees about whether Caesar’s tax should be paid, Jesus tells them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Here, Jesus clearly separates temporal rulership from divine rulership. What’s more, if the interpolated punctuation accurately reflects the rhetoric employed, Jesus has set temporal rule and divine rule in contrast or opposition to one another.

If we want to put a fine point on it, we might refer to Mark 9:37, where Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

Or Mark 10:14, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

Here we might also comment that Jesus Christ, as Messiah, defied messianic expectations by refusing to foment military overthrow of Roman (and generally foreign) dominance. There are several viable interpretations for this–nonviolence, a lack of interest in immediate temporal affairs over divine and eternal ones, a theological statement through choice of action that comments on how the Jews might have misunderstood God (especially those in the apocalyptic schools of thought of the time). I tend to believe that Jesus’s focus on love and mercy says everything it needs to about the evaluation of temporal power. Combined with Paul’s words on Romans 13 on love that follow the argument for obeying authority, I think there’s plenty here to support the stance that Jesus’s words (and actions) tell us not just that we ought to oppose unjust authorities of the world, but that we ought to do so peacefully whenever that is possible.

If we look to Jesus’ actions in driving out the money changers at the Temple, we see that (related in Matthew 22:12-13, but also in Mark 11:15-18 and Luke 19:45-47) Jesus does not shy away from taking action against those who abuse their position–though the extent to which there is any real “violence” in this act is highly debatable, as I’ve explored somewhat in my series, “The End of Violence.”

When we look more completely at the statements of Romans 13, comparing it to other parts of the scriptures, looking to our own traditions and to our experiences of rulership in history and even in the modern world we know, and when we apply logic to prioritize ideas that are contradictory (or at least not readily in line with one another), we see that we must take the position that Paul’s statement in Romans 13:1 needs to be read as speaking to a specific situation and time, needs to be nuanced, or needs to be rejected altogether in light of the example of Christ and our call to love our neighbors–especially when loving our neighbors requires standing against injustice.

Would that anyone who wants to support an argument using scripture would take such a broad and careful approach before relying on a single verse at face value!

Sci-Fi Christianity, Part I: Inverse Xenotheology, or, Anticipating First Contact

Okay, I have to admit here that the title is a little bit of a stretch, and I’m using it more because there are so few opportunities to (seriously) write words like “xenotheology” in non-fiction work.

“Xenotheology” is the word for the burgeoning (yet speculative and perhaps still a little premature) field of the study of alien religious systems and theologies. By the inverse of xenotheology, I mean to look at the repercussions in Christian theology that might result in the instance that we make contact with other intelligent lifeforms in the universe (or multiverse, if the physicists are right). See; the title’s a stretch.

Nevertheless, I continue. I read an article this morning that piqued my interest and spurred me to write this post; you can find it here. In the article, scientists at NASA discuss the ways in which an ancient but advanced civilization might be detectable millions of years down the line–what they call the “Silurian Hypothesis” after Doctor Who (sounds like the name of a “Big Bang Theory” episode). That, of course, got me thinking about the Fermi equation, and the likelihood of eventually encountering some alien species. And that (again, of course, because most things do) got me thinking about Christian theology.

To be fair, there are plenty of scientists (and speculative fiction writers) who believe that if we find other intelligent life “out there,” we still might not be able to communicate with or understand them. Their existential position (as a perceptual framework or paradigm for understanding existence as a whole) might be so different from ours that there are so few common points that real communication might be difficult at best. How could that be, you ask? That’s perhaps the most troubling aspect of this thought–the whole point is that their understanding of existence would be so different from ours that we could not readily conceive of it (nor them of ours)!

This in and of itself would beg a deep theological question: if Christianity is the true faith, how could it be applicable and accurate to something so radically differently situated from us? I say this without intending to devalue other religions, which I do believe have valuable things to offer the seeker of truth while maintaining that the person (divine and human) of Jesus Christ gives us the most truthful understanding of God and the cosmos. A troubling prospect, indeed; a seed of doubt that, by its very nature, could not be resolved by human minds. Is that an insurmountable issue? Of course not, there are many existential questions that we humans are incapable of resolving without divine revelation–the problem of evil and suffering, for existence. Becuase of all of this, I can only point out the question without offering any potential resolution except to say that it, like many other things, must be a matter of faith.

Lesser (in terms of difficulty in resolving, at least) existential questions follow. In such a situation, we would have to work out a new understanding of the relationship of Scriptures and Jesus to our suddenly-expanded reality. Here are a few scary (and, thankfully, improper) resolutions: (1) Christianity is proof that God favors humanity, allowing for crusades and persecution of alien species, or at least latent and continuing racism. While we no longer live in a society of monolithic religion, it is possible that Judaism and Islam could reach the same conclusion (because of human nature, not because of the nature of those religions, just as with Christianity), resulting in a hostile stance for humanity as a whole. I think it’s more likely, though, that some maintain such a belief privately, resulting in continuing issues of race (though in a slightly-new context) for centuries or millenia to come. (2) The “baby with the bathwater” approach: Scripture doesn’t tell us about aliens and neither does Jesus, so none of it must be true. This, of course, is a logical fallacy–there are plenty of things Jesus doesn’t talk about (molecular biology, cars, computers, black holes, particle physics, string theory) that nevertheless exist and that have not (at least when intellectual rigor and honesty is employed) destroyed the plausibility of Christian belief, despite how much the Enlightenment (and modern materialists) may have attempted such. (3) Christianity is supplanted by alien religion (assuming we could understand it) under the idea that a culture more advanced than us technologically must be more advanced than us spiritually–one only needs to read the Old Testament and look at the world around us to know that people generally have not changed much, if at all, in their nature because of technology. There are more possibilities than could be recounted here; I’ll leave you to your imagination.

Additionally, there’s the possibility that an alien culture that is like us enough that we can relate to them has had their own revelations from God that mirror those from our own Scriptures and the Incarnation. If that were the case, the type of thought I’m concerned with in this post might be moot.

However, my understanding of God sees great purpose in God’s remaining often hidden from us and not directly revealing the nature of all existence to us in some undeniable way. This makes room for faith, and it is possible that some of life’s ambiguity is necessary for our free will to exist in the way that allows for meaningful relationship with God and for following Jesus on the path of sanctification. That’s a topic for another time.

I think it more likely that we find alien religion much like we find other human religions–not devoid of some existential truth and not without some ability to point the seeker to the reality of the Creator, but mixed in with misunderstandings and fallacies that result in a system of belief that misses more than it gets right. Again, being subject to human failings in interpretation, I certainly wouldn’t say that Christianity has everything right–far from it. But, God’s revelation through the Incarnation lays bear more existential truth and gives us more to work with in the search for capital “T” Truth than any other system of belief or understanding of God known to man.

Rather than revel in the negative possibilities (which doesn’t seem very Christian at all, does it?) perhaps we should discuss theological principles that might need adjustment to conform our understand of God and the meaning of Scriptures and Jesus in light of new experience.

The most fundamental question of all would be to decide whether Christianity retains applicability given the existence of other intelligent lifeforms. I think most Christians would unhesitatingly answer, “Yes.” If we believe that the God’s revelation through Christ is True, no new understanding of our universe should change that. The second question, then, is whether Christianity should be viewed as applicable to aliens. Again, if we believe that Jesus, as He claims to be, is “the way, the truth and the life,” we must answer this question affirmatively. Which means that we must come to an understanding of God’s salvific work in Jesus (and God’s overall Great Plan for existence) that applies equally to all sentient beings capable of understanding (I’m willing to believe and hope that my pet, Berwyn, is an innocent subject to Grace despite how frequently he’s a “bad little dog.”).

These questions answered, we must look to ways in which Biblical interpretation must change to account for the new situation. I’m going to argue that some (admittedly more progressive) interpretations of the faith would not have to change at all.

In light of the existence of intelligent extra-terrestrials, we would do well not to interpret the story of Creation literally. Instead, we should seek to understand what early Genesis tells us about the existential condition of sentient beings (I use this phrase as a more-expansive variant of “the human condition”), the foundation upon which God’s plan for all Creation builds. As we would by necessity need to presume that Christ had a hand in creating all alien species as well (following the beginning of the Gospel of John), we would need to accept that the metaphors contained within Genesis are equally applicable to aliens and that, likewise, the path to salvation is open to them.

Alongside this, we ought to be less concerned with historicity in the Bible and more concerned with what the Bible tells us about the existential condition, as the latter will be far more universally applicable than the former. The ancient context of the writings will continue to be an important interpretive tool, but even this is entirely separable from historicity.

We would also have to find ways in which the experiences of alien cultures and beings help us to better understand Jesus and Scriptures–otherwise, we prove ourselves hypocrites in the belief that there is divine revelation (however difficult to discern) through existential experience.

Certain things might need to be interpreted more generously than current trends allow. If there are species that are not biologically binary (as in, distinctly “male” and “female”), then our understanding of sex and gender ought to expand. Otherwise, we might have to exclude entire species as “against the law of God.” In such a light, finding that homosexuality, transgendered people and other non-cisgendered folk are somehow abhorrent to God seems downright foolish.

We would also have to find a new humility–if we find that the Incarnation is not a common feature somewhere within the religions of all alien societies, we will have to sort out why God chose to condescend to humanity and not some other species in a way that impresses upon us the need to “make disciples” while not becoming self-righteously arrogant or assuming that our species has some special favor from God. This, I think, would be a great struggle but a fascinating aspect of the path of santification.

There are many more (and more specific) aspects of Christian theology that will need re-evaluation (as they perenially do anyway) to account for such a new discovery, and this post is admittedly a stream-of-conciousness response to something I came across this morning, so I must admit that this post is a collection of initial impressions–not a researched and long-considered topic like some of my other posts.

Still, I find it interesting (though this could be my own bias), that it appears that a more liberal/progressive theology is already better situated to account for the existence of other intelligent life in the universe than a more conservative theology. That by itself cannot be considered proof of the superiority of one interpretation over the other, but it is something worth pondering.

Pilgrimage, Day 13: Reflections

For the previous entry, click here.

Today will be the last post journaling my pilgrimage to the Holy Land; early tomorrow morning, we set off for Tel Aviv to return home. This is an amazing place, and there’s still much more to see, but I’m ready to come home. The pace of our touring has driven me to the point of exhaustion, and my brain is supersaturated with new knowledge and ideas. Even today, a scheduled half-day on our agenda, seemed a chore.

I am sure that there will be a number of posts in the near future that are more theologically focused and that draw on the many things I’ve learned on this journey. For now, I’ll share some general reflections on the trip as a whole (after a brief run-down of the day’s sites).

We started the morning early as usual, traveling to the Mount of Olives and working our way down to the Church of All Nations (at traditional Gethsemane). Along the way, we discussed the reason for Jesus sending the disciples to fetch a donkey only when he’d already ascended the Mount of Olives and was ready to descend into Jerusalem, the course of Jesus’s movements through the Old City during Passion Week (while overlooking the city–this made things very easy to follow) and generally discussing the Crucifixion and Resurrection. After lunch, we went to the Garden Tomb (very unlikely to actually have much to do with the Passion, though there’s some evidence that the stoning of Saint Steven occurred there) to celebrate Communion. While the rest of our group took the bus back to the south side of the Old City to the hotel, K and I decided to walk through the nearby Damascus Gate and through the Muslim Quarter back to the hotel (she had not yet been that way). As has been the case with all of our experiences, all of the people we met along the way were friendly and warm.

Before we left, while working on the preparatory materials, I posted about my struggle with my position on the historicity of many Biblical events. I’d like to follow up on that now.

I’ve never really doubted the historicity of Jesus Christ, his ministry, death and resurrection (though I’d still be a Christian if I did, because there is something eternally True about who Christ is and what the Incarnation means for existence and about the nature of God even if the events described did not actually happen). It’s mostly been parts of the Old Testament that I see as more metaphorical or literary than historical.

The first comment I have on the subject after my experiences here is that visiting the places I’ve now been, seeing the things that I’ve seen, and knowing the things I now know, I feel an added realism and gravity to many Biblical events–they seem less distant, abstract and simply allegorical (even if I didn’t consciously think of them as abstract or merely allegorical) than before.

That said, I’m not sure that my overall position on historicity has changed. One reason for this my fundamental approach to scripture. As I’ve said before, I follow Barth in seeing the person of Jesus as the essential revelation of Christianity, the lens through which anything else in our faith must be viewed. This causes some immediate conundrums (conundra?) that must be resolved in reading the Old Testament, which will discuss momentarily. Secondly, I tend to see a greater emphasis on the human side of scripture than to look for a heavier divine hand in the text’s creation. This is a fundamental point on which I disagree with Dr. Beck, who by my understanding (based on hearing him speak for two weeks and fully admitting that I might have misunderstood, so if you’re interest in his ideas, I recommend skipping my opinion and going direct to the source) favors a reading of scripture that emphasizes God’s direct hand in the events described, sees a greater level of divine guidance in the writing of scripture than I, and looks more to divine providence in the outcomes of events described than I tend to attribute to them. Before I give an example of our differences, I would like to reaffirm that Dr. Beck makes some very strong arguments for his position that are well worth considering whether you end up agreeing with all of them or not–certainly you’ll find some that make perfect sense. His books are readily found on Amazon under “John A. Beck.”

By way of illustration, let’s look at the Book of Joshua–something we were confronted with in our visit to Jericho yesterday. When considering Joshua, Jack tends to take the position that the story as written follows–at least in the fundamentals–actual historical events. He is careful to look at the archeological and scientific evidence very objectively, I think, but (as is mine), his fundamental conclusions are influenced by his starting theology (as all interpretive acts are).

From the get-go, I am admittedly biased against the Book of Joshua. It is a book of the Bible in which God apparently condones killing and the removal of people from ancestral lands by force. This does not comport with my understanding of the person of Jesus Christ and therefore does not comport with my understanding of the Triune God. As such, I am inclined to believe that much of the “God told us to take this land from the Canaanites” reflects the broader theology about how gods worked at the time.

There is, however, a hitch to this. In Joshua 5:13-15 (an amazingly tightly written piece of scripture, I might add), before the siege of Jericho, Joshua encounters an angel who describes himself (itself?) as “the commander of the army of the Lord.” The angel is holding out a sword to Joshua, drawing on the ancient Egyptian motif of the “presentation of the sword” in which a deity presents the leader of an army with his sword as an endorsement of and prediction of victory for an upcoming battle, an example of which can be seen at the mortuary temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu (there relating to victory over the mysterious “Sea Peoples”). But when Joshua asks whose side the angel is one, the angel simply says, “No.” This is typically translated as “neither,” but the simple negative is more accurate. When we look at the pieces together–that the angel, not Joshua, is the commander of the army of the Lord, that the angel (and therefore God) is not on either side of the battle and that the fall of Jericho initially occurs without bloodshed (for God causes the wall of the city to fall without an assault), we see something pointing toward the message of Jesus: God’s victories are not achieved through the perpetration of violence. And then the next sentence, in echo of similar statements made about the Moabite god Chemosh, the Joshua tells his men that “the city and all that is in it are to be devoted to the Lord” (through complete destruction, returning us to a narrative that runs counter to the teachings and example of the Messiah. (Thanks is owed to Dr. John Harmon for pointing out to me this passage in Joshua and the ancient Egyptian practice it plays off of).

If the archeology were heavily in favor of the Joshua narrative, I admit that I would have to incorporate the likely historicity of Joshua into my theology, however much might have to change to do so. Currently, it is not. At Tel Es-Sultan, there is not sufficient evidence of the events described in the Bible ever having occurred, though Kathleen Kenyon’s modification of some of her early analysis leaves the possibility open. The next city Joshua attacks, Ai, also remains problematic historically and archeologically. The very name “Ai” means “the ruin;” thus the site of the city is most likely Et-Tell (Khirbet Haijah), whose name means the same thing.

The archeology at Ai shows that the city was occupied starting around 3100 BCE that was violently destroyed around 2400 BCE. Those Biblical chronologies offered by scholars who affirm the historicity of the conquest of Joshua place the conquest sometime after 1445 BCE and probably around 1400 BCE. Et-Tell was not resettled until Iron Age 1 (roughly 1300 BCE to 1000 BCE) and, even then, was probably settled peacefully. There are some scholarly opinions that the Biblical story has confused the conquering of Bethel with Ai; the two cities are only about 3 km apart. This is possible, but the uncertain archeology is further troubled by the fact that the beginning of the Book of Judges gives a different story about the Jews coming into Canaan.

The beginning of Judges, following on the heels of the Book of Joshua, describes a more gradual settling of Canaan by the Jews (lead by Caleb, as the book opens with the phrase “After the death of Joshua…”). Here, the Jews make incremental gains against the indigenous peoples, first settling the Negev Desert and only later capturing the hill country of Judah. Jerusalem is the first named city to be captured by the Jews, and though Jericho is mentioned (it is the “City of Palms” in Judges 1:16), it follows upon the mention of a gift of springs by Caleb to Aksah and Othniel. The spring at Jericho may be the link between paragraphs.

Current archeology sees the Israelites beginning to define themselves as a people relatively peacefully within Canaan and then eventually absorbing the Canaanites. Overall, though, the proper historical understanding of the Book of Joshua and the description of the Israelite conquering of Canaan is–while highly questionable–unresolved. Thus, it remains open to interpretation.

As mentioned, above, starting from different theological positions–each resulting from a prioritization of certain aspects of God over others–different results may be reached by reasonable people.

And so, I remain skeptical as to the historicity of certain events described in the Old Testament, though I do believe that the events described by the Bible do more accurately reflect historical events from the time of David onward.

I am completely convinced by Dr. Beck that an understanding of the geography of the Bible provides an invaluable interpretive tool in pursuing the meaning of any particular piece of scripture–regardless of historicity. Here, I continue to have some issues that I have not settled on an answer to, yet.

Why is the geography of the Bible so important. I don’t think that this is a mere artifact of the human influence on the writing of scripture–too often do the geographic details tie events together in ways that add to narrative complexity and create new skeins of interrelatedness for such a simple answer to be sufficient, I think. As I’ve said in other posts, I often find the “poetic” truth of the Bible to be one of its most convincing and convicting aspects–the geography of the Holy Land adds to the depth of this poetry in ways I cannot ignore.

As I noted earlier in this journey, standing in places where Jesus stood (or at least very nearby) and seeing the sites of many Biblical events (most of which I believe are historical, some of which I carry my doubts about) added a gravity and sense of realism (not historical but existentially tangible) to my relationship with Biblical events that lacked before I came here. That alone was worth the trip. The tools taught by Dr. Beck also would have been sufficient in isolation to make the travel well worth it. Being here has undoubtedly changed me, but I have yet to discover all the subtle ways that it has.

I also commented on previous entries how unsettled I have been by the conflict that bubbles in this land, occasionally erupting to the surface like some angry volcano. I still cannot say that I understand the complexities of the Israeli/Palestinian dynamic, but I must admit that, by knee-jerk reaction, this trip has given me far more sympathy for the Palestinians than the Israelis. But that must remain a personal observation–I remain too out of my depth to attempt any objective evaluation or to offer any solution. The current sociopolitical climate does, however, accentuate the need for Jesus in our lives to draw us away from conflict and toward love and mutual respect.

I feel that I must end this post with thanks to Dr. Jack Beck. It has been a true pleasure to hear him teach and preach and to be in fellowship with him these past two weeks. His passion is infectious, his faith inspiring, his knowledge daunting.

Pilgrimage, Day 12: The Lost

For the previous entry, click here.

Today, we had the good fortune (or perhaps divine grace) to travel parts of the West Bank that are often inaccessible to Westerners for security concerns. Specifically, we were able to travel in and through the area around Nablus, a city where bullet holes in many buildings, the proximity of aggressive Israeli settlements and the presence of Palestinian banners of a distinctly militant nature are a constant reminder of the tension in the region that regularly spills into violence. The most experienced of our group members who travel frequently in Israel said they had not been able to visit the region for the past several years (not that there was constant violence, but the timing never worked out).

That’s a shame, because the modern city of Nablus (from Greek Neopolis) contains several essential Old and New Testament sites. First among these is the town of Shechem. Shechem makes an early appearance in Scripture: in Genesis 12:6, God appears to Abram and told Abram that his children would be given that land, confirming God’s first covenant with Abram. In response, Abram builds an altar to the Lord there.

Jacob builds his well in Israel at Sychar, only a stone’s throw away from the site of Shechem. To this we’ll return for the most important episode that takes place here.

Later, in Joshua 24, Joshua assembles the tribes of Israel at Shechem to renew the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. The split between Israel to the north and Judah to the south also occurs at Shechem, when the Israelites rebel against Rehoboam after he listens to his friends instead of his elders.

Before we discuss Shechem’s most important event, we need to understand something about the Samaritans. Fortunately, we were able to do just that today.

Although the Samaritans appear frequently in the New Testament, only about 840 of them remain today. Where do they come from, and why is there so much animosity between them and the Jews in the Gospels?

When the Babylonians took the Jews into captivity, they did not take all of the Jews; some remained in the land of Israel. This caused a fundamental rift between those who went into captivity and those who did not. First, let us remember that in the 6th century, deities were largely thought of as localized. Those who remained in the land assumed that Yahweh remained with them and that the captive Israelites had been removed from God’s presence. Following the vision of Ezekiel (and the maintenance of their Israelite heritage during the captivity), the captive Israelites tended to see God as leaving Israel and traveling with them, leaving behind the land. The extent to which either group realized that God could be in both places simultaneously is unclear.

The return of the captive Israelites brought the brewing conflict to a head. In addition to this theological dispute, the two groups conflicted over the ownership of the land, as captive families returned to find ancestral lands occupied. Further, the captive Israelites distrusted the native Israelites for intermarrying with other local peoples who were pagan; they believed that such associated diluted the purity (of thought if not ethnically) of the natives. For their part, the natives asserted that the captivity had corrupted the Israelites who left by exposing them to Babylonian religion and culture. Both parties believed (and continue to believe) that they are the “true” Israelites and that the other group has been corrupted away from true faith.

When the returning captives began to rebuild the Temple, they refused to allow the native Israelites to take part. Correspondingly, the nascent Samaritans moved their site of worship to Mt. Gerizim, claiming that it was the original place Joshua had determined the Temple should be upon coming into the land. Perhaps coincidentally (but probably not), Mt. Gerizim overlooks Shechem. The area became known as Samaria.

Not only did we visit Mt. Gerizim this morning (where the ruins of a Byzantine church stand over the likely location of the Samaritan Temple (which was destroyed by the Hasmonean rulers), but we were able to enter into the current Samaritan worship space (and outdoor Temple in Nablus) and to converse with a Samaritan whose father is the second-highest priest in the religion.

There are “Five Ones” that define Samaritan belief. One God; one book (the Pentateuch); one prophet (Moses); one Temple (Mt. Gerizim); one afterlife (resurrection and paradise).

It was into this land, at Jacob’s Well in Samaria, that Jesus came. John 4:4 states that Jesus had to go through Samaria (he is going back to Galilee from Jerusalem). Geographically, this is patently untrue–it would have been easier and faster for Jesus either travel west to the “International” or “Coastal” highway along Israel’s coastal plain or to travel east from Jerusalem to the “King’s Highway” in the Transjordan Highlands. He goes north along the “ridge route” through Samaria for some other purpose. Resting at Jacob’s Well, Jesus encountered a Samaritan woman. After a bit of rather confrontational interaction (she is surprised that a Jew would talk to her at all and is therefore suspicious), the woman believes Jesus to be a prophet and tests him by asking whether the Temple or Mt. Gerizim is the proper place to worship. Jesus answers by telling her, “Woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come (emphasis mine) when worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:21-24).

Sarcastically, the woman responds by saying that the Messiah is coming and will explain everything. Jesus responds by telling her that he is the Messiah. He has gone specifically to that well for that woman in particular and to show that his salvation (while it may come from the Jews) is not only for the Jews. The only other time that Jesus states specifically that he is the Messiah is to Peter near Caesarea Philippi–once for the Jews, and once for the Gentiles (at least as Jews would have considered the Samaritans). This mirrors the “feeding of the thousands” stories, where one feeding miracle is done for Gentiles and one for the Jews.

At the site of Jacob’s Well, I decided not to drink the water from the well. On the one hand, I was turned off by how commercial the site seemed (you could drink from the well for free, but you had to pay if you wanted to take some of the water with you). On the other hand, I believe Jesus when he told the Samaritan woman that “he who drinks from this (Jacob’s) well will be thirsty again, but he who drinks the water I give him will never thirst.” The well, then, seemed unnecessary.

After lunch, we visited Tel es-Sultan, the site of the earliest Jericho settlement. Dr. Beck shared some interesting insights with us (as he shared most of the information above with us), but I remain unconvinced about the historicity of the Joshua narrative. I’ll discuss why sometime soon.

We ended the afternoon in the Judean wilderness, getting a feel for the desolation meant in the wilderness stories in the New Testament. This terrain is different from the wasteland closer to the Jordan Rift Valley. We reviewed the story of the Good Samaritan and Psalm 23 before having some individual quiet time. Powerful stuff.

All along the way today, my heart broke for some of the living conditions of the Palestinian people. The factional strife, arguments over the rightful ownership of the land, and willingness to resort to violence to achieve some abstract ideological victory remains strong in this land, in some way unchanged since Jesus’s day.

Thank God for our Savior.

For the next entry, click here.

Pilgrimage, Day 11: Dead Things

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Today’s missive will likely be relatively short on account of exhaustion. We started the morning at 5:00 a.m. to be on the bus early so that we might beat both other visitors and the heat to Masada.

If you’re not familiar, Masada (“the fortress”) is another palace-fortress built by Herod the Great, this one on a mountaintop overlooking the western edge of the Dead Sea. In ancient times, at least, the point on the Dead Sea that Masada guarded allowed passage to the eastern side and to the (formerly Moabite) city of Bab edh-Dhra. As a side note, some scholars believe that Bab Edh-Dhra is a candidate for the ancient city of Sodom, but the historical details of the city (size, period active, time and nature of demise) do not seem to fit very well.

Masada, even in ruins, is impressive. In addition to the fortifications, Herod built not one, but two palaces atop the plateau. The first, the Western Palace, was nice enough, but Herod wanted to build a “hanging” palace that occupies the very edge of the habitable space on the mountain. He did this and, like the Herodium, then had a personal palace and one for guests. The fortress also boasted a swimming pool (because why not?), a tannery, a Roman-style bathhouse, several dovecotes and cisterns for over one million gallons of water. Herod’s goal was to build a palace-fortress that would be siege-proof. Only a winding footpath–called the Snake Path for its serpentine nature–wide enough for two at a time made its way up the mountain to the fortress. Storehouses were built that could hold years of supplies–grain, oil and other foodstuffs and goods. Soil was brought up the mountain so that additional food could be farmed to extend the fortification’s rations.

But Herod isn’t really the center of the story here. During the Revolt of the Jews against Roman occupation in 66 C.E., the Sicarii captured the fortress (how remains a mystery). The wilderness stronghold (little grows near the Dead Sea and even today only sporadic and artificially-irrigated date palm farms can be found) became the fortress of last refuge for many Jews, not all of them Sicarii or even rebels.

In 72 CE, the Romans laid siege to Masada, perhaps bringing as many as 9,000 fighting men (and maybe 15,000 people total) against 960 defenders. The Romans first built eight forts at the base of the mountain and an encircling wall to prevent any escape. Then, over several long months, the Roman forces built a dirt ramp up to the fortress’s western wall. They attacked with a metal-clad siege tower, battering rams and ballistae supported by auxiliary archers and legionaries. The defenders fought bravely and fiercely to repel the Romans, but the attackers managed to achieve a break in the wall. Strangely, they then pulled back, waiting for the next day to launch a new assault.

The defenders knew that they were done. Rather than become subject to the Romans (through surrender or capture), they elected to take their own lives. But since Judaism forbids suicide, the men killed their wives and children and then drew lots to determine who would slay whom, repeating the process until one man was assigned to kill the remaining nine, set fire to the buildings, and then kill himself. And that’s exactly what they did.

To this day, Masada remains a warning used to teach children about the consequences of allowing Europeans and Westerners to come into their country to assert control. “Masada shall never fall again” is the preferred slogan, often used by the IDF.

Though we ascended by cable car, a number of us decided that we would walk back down the Snake Path. This was a mistake, one my knees have so far not let me forget. The Fitbit says I traveled 9 miles and 60 floors over the course of the day today. Much of this was the Snake Path.

After Masada, we went to Ein Gedi, a wilderness spring in the Wadi Arugot to which David fled from Saul. We went on a hike through and up the spring’s stream to get a feel for oasis geography as set against the geography of the rest of the Judean wilderness.

We followed the hike (and accompanying lecture) with a quick bite to eat and a short drive to Qumran. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves near Qumran, and current scholarship links the Dead Sea Scrolls to a radical Jewish sect in existence around the period from 1st Century B.C.E. To 1st Century C.E. called the Essenes, who are believed to have copied or created the scrolls at Qumran before hiding them in the nearby hills. The ruins there are a minor interest, but probably would not be either a national park or a tourist stop if it were not for the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The day ended with a trip to a (very commercial) nearby beach on the Dead Sea for a quick float. I opted not to participate in this given the very abbreviated time available to change, float, rinse off, shower off and then change clothes to be ready to leave.

Tomorrow, we will (depending upon safety and stability in the region), head toward Nablus and Shechem in Palestine-held territory before another hike of the wilderness and a visit to Jericho.

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Pilgrimage, Day 10: Life and Death

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In contrast to our evening at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre yesterday evening, we started our morning at Beit Sahour, a Palestinian town near Bethlehem where the angels are said to have appeared to the shepherds and announced the birth of Jesus. The site we visited in particular is a Franciscan chapel (the Franciscans are the custodians of most of the Christian holy sites that are not co-governed by multiple Christian denominations) built near the ruins of a Byzantine church.

It’s impossible to locate the site of the angels’ appearance with any certainty, of course, and the nearby Israeli settlement of Har Homa is rapidly expanding into the few actual fields remaining in the area.

Dr. Beck took this time to speak to us about the popular misunderstanding of the location of Jesus’s birth. I had known that Jesus was more likely born in a cave than the barn-like structure often depicted, but this talk filled in many details. First of all, a manger is not a building, but a device for storing food or water for animals. This made perfect sense to me; “manger” is French for “to eat.”

I hear it often mentioned (and have said myself) that there’s a translation error naming Jesus and Joseph as carpenters, because there are few trees in Israel. That’s true in its point: there are very many trees in Israel, but few of a type and size that would yield construction-grade wood for structures. This is one reason the remains of so many Biblical sites can be seen today–they were built in stone. Wooden barns like we tend to think of in the U.S. (or parts of Europe) simply were not a thing for the Israelites. You may recall that David formed an alliance with the king of Tyre that involved the delivery of the “cedars of Lebanon” for the construction of his palace (and later the Temple). But I digress.

There were two types of mangers commonly used in 1st Century Israel. The first, made of stone, was for holding water. The second, made of wood, was for holding barley and other grains used to feed the sheep raised by the families in the vicinity of Bethlehem (and elsewhere across Judea). Some mangers were “hybrids”, a stone base with a wooden fixture that could be added to the top to convert from water storage to food storage and back again. It’s likely that Jesus was placed in something like this after his birth. But let’s go back to that cave thing:

As it turns out, many homes built in the south of Israel (Judea proper, we might say), were constructed over a cave–the cave was used for storage or, more often, for the stabling of the animals husbanded by the family. This protected the sheep or cows from heat and cold as well as predators when they were not out grazing. It provided the added benefit of giving some heat to the home above, as living creatures huddled in a small area tend to generate lots of heat.

So, Mary likely gave birth to Jesus in a cave under the home of a relative–that’s where the animals would be and that’s where a manger would be in which a baby could be lain. But what about that inn?

As it turns out, this is really a mistranslation. Judean homes of common people in the 1st Century were usually constructed with one central room and a narrow hallway-like second chamber that was mostly partitioned off from the main room and which was used for guests to sleep in. The (Greek) word used in Luke can sometimes mean inn, but it more often is used to signify this guest room. Elsewhere in that Gospel, the Luke author uses the more common word for a traveler’s hotel, so we know that that word is in his vocabulary. It’s most likely, then, that Luke is telling us that Mary and Joseph’s relatives claimed to have no guest room for them (I note that my NIV translation uses “no guest room” rather than the oft-cited “no room at the inn.”

After Beit Sahour, we went into Bethlehem proper. Like Beit Sahour, Bethlehem is in Palestine, which means we traveled through checkpoints and beyond the massive security wall between official Israel and the territories it occupies. We interacted with a number of Palestinian Christians over the course of the day and found the Palestinian people, regardless of their faith, to be kind and hospitable.

In Bethlehem, we visited the Church of the Nativity. In 614 CE, the Persians invaded the area that is now Israel. Wherever they found them, the invaders destroyed Christian churches, of which there were many. Constantine’s mother, Helena, built the early Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Ascension (on the Mount of Olives) and the Church of the Nativity. The Byzantines built many more. Of all of them, the Church of the Nativity was the only one to be spared. Why?

The three wise men. As you likely remember, the “wise men” were magi. Magi (s. magos) is the origin of the words “magic” and “magician”, just as “wise man” is the origin of the word “wizard” (though in a slightly more roundabout way. The magi were Zoroastrians, probably priests of the religion in Persia at the time and had a reputation for mystical arts–astronomy and astrology among them. This jibes with the idea of the three magi following a star to find Jesus despite his being in a faraway place.

Anyway, in 614, the Church of the Nativity had a mosaic above the entrance depicting Persian holy men. When the invaders saw this, they decided not to destroy the church out of respect for their earlier brethren. St. Helena’s version of the church had not lasted until 614; the church had been destroyed in the Samaritan Revolts of the early 6th Century and then rebuilt under Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in 565.

We were able to travel into the cave–complete with manger–where Jesus is said to have been born. Again, we can’t be sure of the specific location, but the tradition from very early on (Justin Martyr visited as a pilgrim sometime around 100 CE) that the cave is located in the area carries great weight for the general locality.

We switched gears after that and visited the Herodium, the massive fortress palace built by Herod the Great (and site of his tomb). The engineering marvels there rival Caesarea Maritima: Herod didn’t think the mountain (read: large hill) on which he wanted to build the structure was big enough, so he took the top off of a neighboring mountain/hill to build his site higher (and to provide a “skirt” of fill dirt around the outside of the main palace/fortress for additional strength). The Herodium proper was a circular fortress five stories high with a tower seven stories high; the interior contained a Roman-style hot bath, a garden open to the sky and surrounded by column-lined porches, massive cisterns and a marble staircase leading inside. On the hill below the fortress was a Greco-Roman-style theatre (later filled in when Herod built his tomb). At the base, a second palace for guests and a swimming pool. Water had to be brought about three-and-a-half miles (past farmer’s fields) to supply the pool.

The Herodium was meant to be seen from Jerusalem–another sign of Herod’s grandeur and dominance. When Jesus told the Disciples on the Mount of Olives that they could command a mountain to through itself into the sea were they to pray with enough faith, he was likely pointing at the Herodium–a mountain that had already moved and that was within eyesight of the Dead Sea (which tradition held was the proper place to dispose of pagan and unholy things).

As magnificent as the Herodium was (and its ruins remain impressive, though no where as near as the complete building would be, even in our own time), its bookends easily overshadowed it. Being in the area where the Savior incarnated into this world carries a certain gravitas, as one would suspect. And our late-afternoon experience moved nearly as much.

We visited the Tent of Nations, winner of this past year’s World Methodist Peace award. The Tent of Nations (whose motto carved in an entrance stone is the picture on this post) is the result of the unshakeable faith of the Nassar family. The 100-acre plot in the West Bank known as Daher’s Vineyard (after family patriarch Daher Nassar) was first registered to the Nassar family under the Ottoman Empire (when few people bothered to register their land because doing so required the payment of exorbitant taxes). The family maintained the land’s registration under the British Mandate, the nation of Jordan, and eventually under Israel.

In 1991, the Israeli government attempted to confiscate Daher’s Vineyard as “state land.” Despite the Nassers’ ability to demonstrate a clear chain of title and right of ownership, they remain to this day engaged in a lawsuit with the Israeli state in the Israeli military courts (which handle matters in occupied territory such as the West Bank). The Israeli government has tried to take the land through misuse of legal process, through purchase (the details of which mimic the tale of Naaman’s Vineyard quite closely), and through the surrounding of the land with five Israeli settlements. Those settlers have attempted to oust the Nassers from their land through the threat of violence, through general harassment, and through the destruction of crop trees, the Nassers’ livelihood (and which take at least two years and sometimes as many as ten to replace through the planting and raising to fruition of a replacement).

The Nassers are Palestinian Christians. Their response to repeated oppression is the kind that only faith can engender. First, they decided that they would eschew all violence in any response, because violence only begets violence and they intend to love even their enemies. Second, they refuses to think of themselves as victims. Third, they refused to leave.

This required them to find a fourth way, one heavily inspired by their belief in Jesus. The first tenet is that they “refuse to be enemies.” The second is that they use avoid violence through creativity and pursuit of justice in the courts. Israel has prevented any utilities from being provided to the farm, so the Nassers have built large raincatching systems and cisterns to store water for both irrigation and domestic use. They had no power, so they set up solar panels to provide electricity where needed. The Israeli government refuses to issue them permits to build new buildings on the ground, so they have built into the caves on the property to provide additional housing, storage rooms, and spaces for their programs.

If such a noble and peaceful defiance of oppressive power is not enough, the Nassers turned Daher’s Vineyard into the “Tent of Nations,” supporting cross-cultural discussion between Jews, Muslims and Christians; providing summer programs for children to learn about recycling, sustainable farming, and caring for Creation in ways that help them to feel self-empowered and to make the choice to resist oppression through creative solutions rather than violence; and to generally be that “City on a Hill” that both inspires and instructs others so that they might move to a peaceful dialogue and respect for one another than eventually leads to some resolution of the tragic conflict between (some) Palestinians and (largely) the Israeli government.

I cannot say enough about how inspired I was in the two hours we spent at Daher’s Vineyard. Their website is http://www.tentofnations.org. I invite you to go learn more about them, consider donating for the planting of additional trees in the vineyard (which both help strengthen their claim to the land under Israeli law and provide support for the family and the programs run by Tent of Nations), or even consider volunteering to help with harvest and/or programs. They have a place for you to stay on site and provide room and board to their volunteers, who they are happy to take for–as they told us–“a day or a year.”

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Pilgrimage, Day 4: First Revelations

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Today started at 5:30 a.m., as we scrambled to get our bags packed, eat breakfast and portage said bags out of the Jaffa Gate and down to the bus to leave before 7. Uncharacteristically for me, it’s about 11:00 p.m. local as I write this. Something about the combination of this place and the fellowship of those journeying with me has given me more energy than I typically have.

Our day started with a whirlwind trip through Ceasarea Maritima and its aqueduct, then to Muhraqa Carmelite Monastery (for its position on Mt. Carmel near where Elijah confronted the priests of Baal), to Tel Megiddo, to Nazareth (particularly Mt. Precipice, where the photo above was taken. Er–the photo that would be above if the internet would allow me to upload it) to our hotel on the eastern (formerly Gentile) side of the Sea of Galilee.

In case it wasn’t apparent, the day was packed, with over six miles walked and at least five hours in the bus.

I have much to say about the day’s experiences, but I’ll focus on one idea in particular and leave the rest to germinate further.

Consider on the one hand Caesarea Maritima, a piece of Rome in the Middle East created at the command of Herod the Great, lover of all things Roman as well as power and luxury. And perhaps genius builder. Herod wanted to have a palace (complete with swimming pool) that appeared to float on the sea. He also wanted to create an artificial harbor (reportedly larger than the Athens harbor) on the dangerously shallow coast line where Strato’s Tower had stood.

This required an unprecedented use of hydraulic cement–that is, cement that will set even underwater. The Romans had invented the stuff and used it to build bases for piers and other small-scale projects, but Herod used it both to lay the foundation of his palace and breakwaters for the harbor. The site had no potable water, so Herod built a Roman-style aqueduct to bring water in from thirteen miles away.

Not to be without the finer elements of Roman culture, Ceasarea Maritima boasts a large ampitheatre and a chariot stadium that could have fit 20,000 people. Unwilling to have the same beige limestone look as Jerusalem, marble and granite were imported by sea to create columns, statutes and sheathing for those facades that were not plastered and covered with frescos. Intricate mosaic tilework covered the floors of many buildings and homes, which had indoor heating through the innovative Roman technology for underfloor steamworks and used the tides to sweep latrine waste out to sea twice a day. The remnants of clay pipes providing running water remain evident.

The city must have passed the test, because Pontius Pilate lived in Herod’s Palace there as much as he could (when business did not call him to Jerusalem), as did later provincial overlords. Caesarea Maritima boasted trade (at least for the import of luxury items), the latest in first century CE technologies, and art and architecture worthy of the Empire.

On the other hand, consider Nazareth. If, as I was before today, you’re not familiar with the geography, here’s what you need to know: Though an urban sprawl today, Nazareth was a tiny village in the first century, perhaps a dozen homes and just enough land cleared for subsistence farming. Those homes–they were mostly caves, perhaps expanded for a little extra comfort, but caves nonetheless. These dozen or so cave-homes occupied an elevated bowl shape surrounded on all sides by rugged mountain terrain. Until the Israelis literally (I assure you that the word is being used correctly) cut through the mountainside to build a road, there was no easy way to get to Nazareth. Pick the spot you think will be easiest to climb, and set aside several hours to do it.

This is probably exactly how the people of Nazareth liked it. Given their proximity to the ultra-fertile Jezreel Valley below and the numerous nearby settlements (Nain and Shunem, to name two) where they could have lived, this village’s isolation must have been highly intentional. A handful of Jewish families willing to scratch out an independent living to practice the faith of their forefathers and to avoid contamination by the Greco-Roman culture seducing their many peers. The kind of place our dear President would likely call a “shithole.”

When Jesus uses Rome as an example of the often-corrupting influences of wealth, status and power, he can point to Caesarea Maritima (named for Augustus Caesar) on the coast as a very concrete example of his meaning. At the same time, the King of Kings himself hailed from the unlikeliest and humblest of origins–a dirt-poor and poorly-regarded settlement of religiously-fanatic survivalists. The juxtaposition of these two real, geographically significant places brings sharply into focus the tension between those seductive but ultimately unfulfilling vanities with the extent to which God proved willing to condescend to be present with us in the world. Two very different ideologies (and here I mean God’s in choosing to use Nazareth, not the Nazarene peoples’s own ideas) placed in such close proximity in the same land.

Let it sink in.

Tomorrow, we’ll spend much of the day in the Golan Heights, visiting a first-century synagogue where Jesus almost undoubtedly preached, the village of Dan in the far north of the country near the borders with Lebanon and Syria (if the weather is clear enough, it might be possible to see Damascus from there) and Caesarea Philippi. It’s hard to think that on this pilgrimage we’ll be so close to the continuing devastation and heartache of the Syrian civil war.

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