Jazz Riff on Genesis 1

It was a great honor to be invited to give the Dillard series of lectures at Trinity United Methodist Church this year. Wow, what a turn-out! and what wonderfully warm, hospitable, and thoughtful folks I met there, people deeply invested in the pursuit of understanding, committed as much to the humbling business of query and investigation as to a rich faith.

My part was a small one — to deliver four lectures on the general topic “The Power of Story and the Greatest Ever Told.” By way of beginning and end, I offered this wee meditation:

Flexibility in What Is Fixed — Constitution and the Bible

When Republicans opened the 112th Congress with a reading of the Constitution, they faced a challenge that threatened to undermine the whole purpose of the reading, to demonstrate adherence to the original document. The trouble, you see, is that the times they’ve gone a-changing… For one thing, blacks actually count today not as three-fifths of a person but as a whole person; and (gasp!) women have the right to vote. So they read a watered down version that simply left out the ugly stuff. But like the Bible, the US Constitution has a resilience that allows principles to remain while the context may change. Like the Bible, though, it requires intelligent, thoughtful interpretation of both those broad principles and the details that lie therein. Besides, if such documents were completely static, with no possibility to bend in meaning with new times and circumstances, they’d have passed into the ether of irrelevance long long ago.

The Whole “Blood Libel” Thing

That Sarah sure does have a way with words. Palin’s latest, not an “oops” moment but actually something she posted online, upped the righteous hackles of a lot of people and left others going, “huh?” So, what is it? In short: “blood libel” is an accusation originally and historically used as a means of inciting hatred against Jews. (Reminder: Palin has worked hard to be sure that no one doubts her evangelical Christian identity.) It has evolved to include anyone falsely accused, which is how Palin appears to have intended it when she claimed to be the victim of a blood libel following allegations that her rhetoric and politics contributed to Loughner’s twisted decision to shoot in Tucson.

The Writing’s on the Wall

Ah, the power of the written word. Did you know that this phrase comes from the Bible? This phrase, which we use to tell that something’s sure to happen, comes from Daniel, one of the latest books of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. Today’s RefDesk.com quote of the day puts a new spin on it. Here’s an excerpt from Bible Babel that explains the phrase’s biblical roots:

You-Tubing a Bible Babel Interview

A hot summer day, slow river, cooler of bevs, swimsuit, and a few good friends — ingredients for a lazy day of tubing. At least that’s what “tubing” brings to mind around here in Richmond. Drinking, chatting, napping your way through an afternoon on the James in July. In cold weather places, tubing is a winter thing, too. But qualitatively different. You take that great big inner tube like the ones that go inside semi-truck tires, hike it up an icy hill, climb inside, and with a push, commit yourself to fate. Bouncing, whooshing, and careening down the hill, tubing inevitably sends someone to the hospital. The responses I’ve received from posting my interview with Virginia Currents host May-Lily Lee to Youtube some time ago have been a little like winter tubing. Most were really fun responses and exchanges with people interested in the stuff of Bible Babel, but there was also a great krr-smash(!) — inevitable, I suppose, when dealing with the Bible. In the interview itself, I got a bit brain-and-tongue twisted at one point. Meaning to note how ancient the biblical texts are, but recognizing that they don’t all date to the same ancient period, I fumbled around for “…years ago.” I suspect that was where the trouble started, sort of like hitting a tree root that sent me barrelling against a guy who totally misunderstood me. The especially bonkers part of it is that he was furious with me for exactly the opposite of what I think or do. He thought that I was taking particular biblical texts and plopping them down in our time and place as immediately applicable, with no appreciation for their ancient historical or literary context… oh, and that I think I have all the answers. If only I did! But I know that I don’t. Besides, I love the questions, the conversation and multi-faceted interpretations. That’s where it’s at. And when it comes to talking about the Bible, there’s no clean slate. Everyone’s got a “take” of some sort on it, so we trudge our tubes back up the hill for another wild ride. 

Michelangelo’s Bible

One of the most iconic images of western art is Michelangelo’s “creation of man” in the Sistine chapel. You know the one — a stirring painting depicting an impressive old man God reaching from the clouds to touch the outstretched hand of a young Adam. But just what, exactly, is that image based on? Genesis tells the creation of human beings in two places — the first chapter, in which an invisible God creates humankind, male and female, in God’s image; and the second chapter, in which an anthropomorphic God fashions a human out of humus and breathes life into this creature. It is endlesslessly fascinating to me how biblical texts are interpreted and reinterpreted, sometimes uncovering hints or suggestions embedded in the rich layers of biblical texts and sometimes adding layers to the layers that are already there. This is the Bible as living text. And interpretation at the hand of creative masters in their medium of choice is intriguing delight. The Vatican Museum in collaboration with the Italian Il Sole 24Ore is publishing a series of four volumes called “The Painted Word” that discusses the ways that artists interpreted the Bible in the visual feast that is the Sistine Chapel. Mom, Dad: great gift idea, but in English, please.

Ardipithecus and Eve

They call her “Ardi” and judge her, at 4.4 million years old, to be the oldest intact skeleton of an ancestor to humans discovered yet. ardipithecus.jpgDiscovered in Ethiopia, she’s all the news, not least because she’s different from the chimps that many scientists had thought we humans evolved from, so many millions of years ago. Ardi wasn’t a knuckle-dragger, but she probably did spend lots of time in trees (the thumb-like appendage among her toes makes it likely that she could climb pretty well.) She most certainly walked upright.

A Serious Man, That Job

The Coen brothers are out with a new one. Among my favorite film-makers today, the Coen brothers just released “A Serious Man,” based in part on the biblical Job. I’m eager to see how they handle the story. Do they present their Job as a saint, of storied patience, like the popular characterization of this biblical figure. Or do they show their Job railing against his friends and even God, agonizing about his fate with alternating quietude and fury, as he appears in the biblical texts? I wonder how they present the origins of their Job’s suffering. Is God be implicated, or no? And how does it end, since the biblical Job’s final statement is a bit of an enigma, or at least affords a couple of different interpretations. Whatever the case, I anticipate some humor, gritty poignancy, and a fresh “take” on the timeless problem of undeserved suffering.