Poets and Canons

I recently purchased a copy of the famous Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s Unfortunately, It Was Paradise (translated and edited by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forche, with Sinan Antoon and Amira El-Zein; UC Press, 2013; Kindle Edition). This is a collection of poems of mourning and his coming to terms with the loss of his ancestral homeland.

By no means am I a reader of poetry; but even a cursory, “first impressions” reading of the first series of poems shows how it is the author who creates a literary canon, and not the reader. What we call “canon” is simply the collection of writings by an author (or school of authors) bound by inter-textual linkages the author(s) creates intentionally.

Briefly, the first four poems in the series are: I Will Slog Over This Road; Another Road in the Road; Were It Up To Me To Begin Again; and, On This Earth.

Th first poem introduces a word or phrase that will then become the main theme of the following poem. For example, in I Will Slog Over This Road, Darwish says: “On the roof of neighing, I will cut thirty openings for meaning.”

The “neighing” (of horses) then becomes the center theme of the next poem, “Another Road in the Road.” He says, “No widow wants to return to us, there we have to go, north of the neighing horses.”

This poem then introduces the image of the rose, “I will have to throw many roses before I reach a rose in Galilee.”

In “Were It Up to Me to Begin Again,” the poet continues with the image of a rose: “”Were it up to me to begin again, I would make the same choice. Roses on the fence.” Later, he introduces the theme of love, and family:

We have on this earth what makes life worth living: April’s hesitation, the aroma of bread at dawn, a woman’s point of view about men, the works of Aeschylus, the beginning of love, grass on a stone, mothers living on a flute’s sigh and the invaders’ fear of memories

In other words, the sights, smells, and memories of home and family life.

This then becomes the basis for the next poem, I Belong There.

This is an example of inter-textuality, and how only a writer can create it, never a consumer.

So, it is the author, in accomplished and serious literature, who set the tone and creates the canon. The readers are left to enjoy, study, learn, and grow from what is written. The Scriptures, then, are the literary gem of a school of writers who worked together and created an interwoven narrative across the entire story, for all ages.

Afghanistan and the Thucydides Trap

As we look at the images from Afghanistan from this past week, it is always helpful to remember why things happen. I thought my posts on Plato and his truly nefarious influence on humanity were done, but then things happen, and the printing press rolls again.

Consider the Think Tanks, the nexus between government power, international corporations, and . . . academia. Yes, the nexus of financialized and weaponized ideas. Like, “wouldn’t it be a good idea if we . . . ?” Afghanistan, against the wishes of Platonists and all variations thereof, is Exhibit A for us that re-wiring shepherd societies does not work, no matter how many books, papers, or counter-insurgency manuals are written and discussed.

But what I want to focus on today is an idea promulgated by American think tankers called “The Thucydides Trap.” It’s a pseudo-intellectual “idea,” really, a half-idea, that uses the ancient Athenian historian Thucydides to justify American foreign policy today. It was, as Thucydides explained, the rise of Athenian power that caused fear in Sparta, and not the other way around.

The Thucydides trap is named after the first serious historian, Thucydides the Athenian, who set out to explain the destruction of Athenian society as a consequence of a very long war against Sparta and its allies. During the Cold War, some American academics used The History of the Peloponnesian War as a kind of blueprint. They saw America as Athens and the USSR as Sparta; in their mindset, the one a democracy, the other a closed society; the one a naval power, the other a land power.

Whatever the facile comparisons, the Trap is up and running again, this time between the US and China, with the same comparisons.

The problem is that, well, one wonders how well the promulgators of this idea . . . actually paid attention to what Thucydides actually wrote. Why do I say this? Because Athens lost the war, and did so because of the same kind of policies we are seeing today — expeditionary warfare, brutal occupations, internal societal tension, and poor leaders (including demagogues), among other things (yes, there was also a plague). In short, they were eliminated by their own empire.

It’s hard, because empires, following the Scriptural approach to these matters (see Tasks), always build too high. It’s the internal logic of empire. Their builders do not realize it’s a fool’s errand to begin, and simply do not know when to stop once they’ve begun.

Circling Back to the Text

In the previous posts In the Same Boat and Who Reveals Whom?, the issue of David’s treatment of Uriah the Hittite came up. One of the points made there was that Uriah, as a Hittite, was a foreigner, and so the horrible abuse David meted out to him should be seen in that light as well.

In listening to some of the recent Tarazi Tuesday podcasts at the Ephesus School Network, I learned something that puts David mistreatment of Uriah in a new light. Uriah is actually not a foreigner; he is living on his people’s (as we would say today, ancestral) land. This new lesson just reinforces that reading and re-reading the Bible without preconceptions brings out important nuances we would otherwise miss if we do not keep reading.

Uriah, as Father Paul reminds us, is a Hittite. The introduction of the Hittites does not appear with the story of David, but much earlier, with Abraham. In Genesis 23, we are told of Sarah’s death. Abraham, as a sojourner trusting God to provide, has no place to bury his wife. So he approaches the Hittites and asks from them a burial place. They offer him the choicest place, gratis. Abraham does not want to take advantage of their generosity, and for a nominal price offers Ephron of Zohar some money. Ephron eventually agrees, and the cave and surrounding land in Machpelah become Abraham’s land to bury his wife.

Abraham receives hospitality and generosity from the Hittites who long inhabited the land. He was a stranger in the land where they lived for generations. He had nothing, not even a plot for his wife and they graciously gave him one. But later, his descendant David would abuse one of the survivors of those people still living on that land, Uriah, and treat him as expendable.

The inclusion of the Hittites in the Bible is thus a powerful indictment of human arrogance, power, and ingratitude.

Sounding out the Readings

We are currently in a cycle of readings centered on the Gospel of Matthew. Textually, none of the four Gospels are actually titled by the authors. The idea that people with the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were the authors is, at a quick glance, more of a product of ecclesiastical tradition and such.

But, then again, maybe not.

It has been a basic thesis of this blog that reading (actually, hearing) the Bible in the original languages is the way to go. The original languages provide the field of vision that makes the story come alive fully. This is because we have a play on words in those languages, or repetition, or parallel poetic structures, and so on, that are authored this way.

It helps to appreciate this, otherwise you might have a hard time understanding why Matthew is called Matthew.

In Greek, Matthew is written as Ματθαῖος. Nothing extraordinary here, so far at least.

Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, however, the word μαθητης is repeated. This is the Greek word that means disciple.

If one compares the name of the Gospel author with the message of the book, then one notices the following:

Ματθαῖος and μαθητης sound similar in Greek. Even though they are spelled differently, the message is clear. The Gospel according to Ματθαῖος is the book of how to become a disciple (μαθητης) of Jesus.

You won’t get that in English.

To Whom Is This Word Addressed?

In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter addresses a group of devout Jews living in Jerusalem, although they are from all parts of the Roman Empire, from as far away as Rome and Egypt (2. 5 – 11).

What is interesting about all this, often times missed in our discussions of Pentecost, is that these people were the ones earlier calling for Jesus to be crucified, that is, they are the same group Jesus asked His Father to forgive from the Cross.

In his first words to this group, Peter begins with the prophet Joel, which makes sense since, as an Old Testament prophet, he is familiar to the hearers. Peter is explaining to the hearers that God’s promise is not an empty word; it has been fulfilled by God.

The next words are important. He says to them:

“You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, — because it was impossible for him to be held in its power” (2. 22 – 24).

Notice what Peter says: “You crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law.” Is this hyperbole? No. Peter is saying to the people there that they crucified the Messiah of God. Not by association. They were the ones calling for his death in Luke 23. How would a devout Jew react to this? How would anyone? What would you do if you thought you were doing the right thing only to realize you were the one who transgressed God’s law?

But Peter does not stop there. The tour de force is how he ends his speech. Responding to their question “what do we do now,” Peter says to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (vv. 38 – 39).

So, the law cannot grant forgiveness of sins; at most it can only identify what sin is. God’s forgiveness is, as Saint Paul will tell the Corinthians later, granted by “the word of the Cross,” but it is also granted by Jesus from the Cross. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23. 34).

When we repent, we put our trust in God’s forgiveness. Repentance should free us and open our eyes. When our ears open, so do our eyes.

Acts 2.42

As this blog is about “Scripture, Liturgy, and Anything Else,” it helps to make a few connections.

In Acts 2.42, we hear that the early Jewish believers in the Lord “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

Teaching, table fellowship, and prayers. In other words, liturgy. Although it is not called that by Luke, but that is what liturgy is — the apostles’ teaching in the context of table fellowship and prayers.

All Orthodox liturgies (outside of Lent), whether they be of Saint Basil the Great, Saint John Chrysostom, Saint James, etc, have these common aspects to them.

And while the current Liturgies celebrated in the Orthodox Church have had their share of developments throughout the centuries, they have maintained these essential characteristics across vast geographical regions. By accident or inertia? No, because Scripture demands this to be the case.

The final aspect is something we should not overlook — Luke tells us the early believers devoted themselves to these. Devotion to the teaching and fellowship is a sign of the Spirit. We talk a lot today about parish renewal, Is devotion to the apostles’s teaching and fellowship the missing link in parish life? Perhaps this is something for us all to consider!

Arc of the Covenant II — Christ is Risen!

In the post Arc of the Covenant, the point was made that Jesus’ arc is actually part of the larger arc of Scripture. His arc, if you will, is to carry the word of God to wherever God leads Him. The decision to crucify Jesus was an attempt by the religious authorities and the state power to bury into oblivion the Good News of the Scriptures. In the absence of Jesus, the word of God could continue to be manipulated by religious and non-religious powers for their own purposes, often times against the weak and the needy.

Hence, the Gospel of Luke has stories and parables of people, like the wounded man saved by the Samaritan, or Lazarus at the gate of the rich man’s house, or the prodigal welcomed back, who could have been erased from memory by having been forgotten and buried by the world. But no, they come to be remembered instead!

And so, if the death of Christ was supposed to lead to the loss of the “message of God,” then what does the resurrection of Jesus from the dead mean but that this word is a word of life that can never be buried into oblivion?

Not only can this word never be buried and forgotten — Jesus’ “interpretation” of the word of God is the only valid and correct one (see https://literaryliturgist.wordpress.com/2021/03/12/hold-it-there/)! So, against the tendency of burying the Old Testament as many like to do — don’t do that! Jesus’ resurrection is a message from the Father that this is a living word!

Moreover, in this sense, the arc of the covenant of Scripture extends as a word of hope, until Jesus returns. This hope necessitated the rise of the New Testament connecting all believers in His word to the promise God made a long time ago that they would all be made a part of His household.

All of it matters, from Genesis to Revelation. Indeed, He is Risen!

Our Friend

In one of the earliest posts on this blog (Whose View?), we discussed the importance of knowing the original languages of the Bible, as the language makes the vision possible. What you and I “see” in Scripture is what the authors place there.

This importance of knowing languages can be seen in one of the shortest, and frankly, largely ignored Pauline letters, Philemon. Bracketing the writings of Paul in the New Testament, Philemon closes out the series of canonical writings to the Gentiles that begins with Romans. If Romans is the call of the apostle Paul to the Roman society, especially to the patricians, for them to accept and submit to the Gospel, then Philemon is the test case of whether and how this happens.

In other words, Philemon is a magnifying glass looking at Paul’s call in one specific Roman household, which functions as any Roman household.

The thrust of the letter is simple enough: Paul is returning to the Roman (now a believer) patrician Philemon his (i.e., Philemon’s) runaway slave Onesimus. Appealing to Philemon’s love and respect for Paul (verses 10 – 20), the apostle calls on the patrician to welcome back Onesimus, whom Paul met in prison and who cared for Paul, and to receive him with open arms and generosity.

Oh, and to call him a brother (verse 16).

Let’s stop here and look at this. You are a Roman patrician, with power over someone’s life, especially that of slaves in your household. The whole neighborhood knows you lost a slave who ran away. Now, he shows up at your door with a letter from someone named Paul that will need to be read out loud in an assembly for everyone gathered to hear. On top of this, when you would have at least severely punished Onesimus, you cannot, because of what this letter is asking of you. And on top of all this, you have to refer to this slave. . . as your brother. You — a Roman patrician!

What will the other patricians think?

Here we do not “know” how Philemon chose. It is not for us to know but to learn. Were Philemon to welcome back Onesimus and call him a brother, then the Roman power ethic would have been conquered in his home. While his social status and Onesimus’ would have remained the same, his power over Onesimus would not.

This is why Paul refers to our recipient as Philemon, borne out of the Greek words “friend” and “our.” Philemon is literally, “Our friend.” Anyone who lives by the Gospel is a friend of the Lord, who alone tests the heart.

Identity

What happens to your identity if you bear the name of Christian? Do you lose your identity? In Colossians, Saint Paul says that, in the renewal of the “new self,” “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free, but Christ is all and in all” (3. 11).

I have given thought to this matter over the years, coming to the conclusion that, well, you lose your identity as a believer in the Lord. The loss of identity is part and parcel of the start of the “new self” Paul mentions in Colossians. Our identifying markers have gone the way of the wind. How can one love the neighbor if one still holds onto identity? “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2. 20).

Now, I am not so sure this is what Paul is saying. This is true, but also partially true. Let’s think about this as if we were living in the first century Roman Empire.

In many regions of the Near East and Eastern Mediterranean, clothes function as social markers, but also tell a story. Clothes are an indication of social status as well as location. For example, just by being able to read the design on a traditional headscarf (i.e., hijab), one could know from which village someone comes.

Slaves wore or did not wear certain clothes; for example, they were often deprived of shoes. The higher social classes dressed better, of course. Does this now mean that if a slave became a disciple they would then have new clothes?

Likely not. Their identity remains the same, this is who they are socially in the Roman Empire. Someone from the Galatia region of Asia Minor does not change their clothing, which may be specific to the region in which they live, to look like the clothes, say, from Galilee or Antioch. Why should they?

So I think Paul is saying that your identity remains the same. What changes is the power one identity has over another person or tribe — it no longer has this power! The Gentile believer who eats with the Jewish believer forgoes the power of their identity over the other, since they are both seated at a table that is not theirs, i.e., at the Lord’s table.

So in loving the needy neighbor, there is then no need or place for you to assert your identity. Jesus told a parable about a Good Samaritan (Luke 10. 29 – 37). As the hearers, we need to know his identity as a Samaritan, as this is part of the tension of the parable. But in his service to his fellow suffering human within the parable, the Samaritan’s identity doesn’t matter.

In the next post, we will see how this mechanism functions in Paul’s Letter to Philemon.

No Distinction

Following the previous post, Luke-Acts, we will look at the dichotomy between notions of civilization and barbarism.

The Romans, a highly refined civilization, practiced crucifixion, a cruel punishment. The British, in the heydey of the Pax Britannica, invented the concentration camp; the United States used depleted uranium against Serbia and Afghanistan, not to mention the use of atomic bombs against a civilian population.

Civilization can be such a broad term, and barbarism, well, misunderstood.

In his Letter to the Romans, Saint Paul says that he is “a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish” (1. 14). Greek here is not meant to refer to a culture or an ethnicity — it is a stand-in for any civilized people (like the Romans). Barbarians, on the other hand, are those people, both within and outside the Roman Empire, both conquered and unconquered, who were considered unlettered and uncultured. Their speech might also be seen as unrefined and their dress and manner uncouth.

But for God, no distinction is made between these two groups. So why does Paul make this distinction? He does so because it is a common social denominator in Roman society — in other words, this is how the Romans divided the world (us and everybody else).

So, in speaking of the “Greeks and barbarians,” he is addressing a salient point of how the Romans saw their empire and its mission to bring civilization to the barbarians — slow down, Paul says, because your civilization includes behaviors that are truly barbaric. The pageantry of the empire simply masks those behaviors.

Who fought in the Roman army? People from the lower ranks of Roman society, including slaves. People who had no rights.

On the other hand, barbaric cultures, as they were called, had established tribal notions of honor and acceptable behaviors within the society.

Paul calls on the Romans, who had a refined culture, to look at their actual practices, and he calls on the barbarians to forego their tribalism as the identity marker to share fellowship with the nations.

So, at table, there is no distinction by God and there should not be any within the church as well.