Renouncing Self-Centered Renunciation

CrossofashesWith Ash Wednesday we begin a season of self-denial featuring prayer and fasting. We also renounce other pleasures to help us curb our desires a bit more than we do the rest of the year.

There is, however, a paradoxical effect to self-denial that we can fall victim to if we are not careful. It is possible for self-denial to focus ourselves on ourselves. It is I who am fasting. I am giving up pleasures I normally indulge in. If we become so fixated on ourselves, we are puffing ourselves up, not denying ourselves. Isaiah shows how self-centered such fasting becomes by accusing fasters of quarrelling and fighting and striking others with their fists. It seems that self-denial has made us grouchy and we have to make up for what we are giving up by giving ourselves an alternate pleasure: striking out at other people and putting them down.

Likewise, Jesus warns us against putting on long faces so that others will admire our fasting or blowing trumpets to call attention to our almsgiving (Mt. 6: 1-2). Once again, our self-denial is being compensated for by self-indulgence in other ways. Admiration from others is very satisfying. Why don’t we fast from seeking such admiration? Maybe because this renunciation is harder than renouncing food and other indulgences. If we come to realize this, we become aware of deeper levels of our desires that need to be turned into a more positive direction.

Given this pitfall, I suggest that we might emphasize the needs of other people and renounce ourselves by thinking of them rather than about ourselves. Isaiah suggests that a better fast would be to let the oppressed go free and loosen every yoke. (Is. 58: 6). This is what Jesus enjoined on us at the beginning of his teaching ministry when he proclaimed the Year of Jubilee that would free all people of their imprisonment in debt and thus give all a new start in life (Luke 4: 16-20. Instead of puffing ourselves up, we can build up other people. Perhaps we will find this to be a greater renunciation that cutting back on our eating habits. In any case, renunciations of food and other pleasures will help us grow spiritually only if they are the basis for reaching out to other people. When we really think of others, we have less room in our hearts to think about ourselves.

Above the Circle of the Earth

treespath1The Babylonian exile was traumatic for the Jews. Those who were taken to Babylon had to live in an alien environment quite contrary to everything they believed in. But an interesting thing happened during this exile. The sages and prophets who were living in exile came to close quarters with the mythology and sacrificial religion of their captors. When the Jews had come close to the Canaanite religion earlier in their history, the clash had taught them a few things about what the God they worshipped was all about. When the prophets saw the sacrifices of children to Moloch, they knew that this was not the kind of sacrifice Israel’s God wished and they protested these sacrifices with all their might. In Babylon, they came up against a mythology of a violent creation that took place with the dismemberment of Tiamat who, of course, was the deemed the cause of all the problems among the deities and who had to be punished. Moreover, the reason for creating the world was to make servants who would serve the gods. The sages and prophets learned from this mythology that this was not what their God was about. The God who had delivered them from the Red Sea was freeing slaves; not making them. This God had created a people by delivering them from violence and from a violent culture. They were hoping their God would do it again, and God did just that when the Persians defeated Babylon and allowed the Jews to return to their home.

The Creation narrative that begins the book of Genesis can easily be read as a refutation of Babylonian mythology. Far from creation emerging from violence, creation emerges from the Word of God which allows creation to be. The prophet we call Second Isaiah also proclaims Israel’s God to be far different, fully Other, than Marduk and his pantheon. “With whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal?” asks Israel’s God in a question so rhetorical that it stops all human mouths (Is. 40: 25.) The violence in Babylonian mythology mirrors the violence of Babylonian culture and other human cultures as both deities and humans live in the same system of retributive violence. But Israel’s God “sits above the circle of the earth” (Is. 40:22.) That is, God is outside the system. From God’s vantage point, we are all like little grasshoppers. This God is the creator “of the ends of the earth.” Not only that, but God “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless” (Is. 40: 29.) Far from creating servants, God serves the creatures God has made and God serves most especially the powerless, like a rabble of slaves in Egypt and an exiled people in Babylon. Grasshoppers may be small in size but they are great in God’s care.

This vision of God as one who serves is embodied in Jesus as presented by Mark. Coming from outside the human system of violence, Jesus exorcises those who are possessed by their violent culture. Jesus serves Peter’s mother-in-law by healing her of a fever, thus allowing her to imitate Jesus by serving him, the disciples, and her family. Meanwhile, Jesus goes on to serve the many people who come to be healed of sickness and violence. Now God has come from “high above the circle of the earth” to serve us grasshoppers size.

Both Isaiah and Mark are showing us that creation is not a one-shot deal. Creation is a continuous process. God renews the strength of those who wait on God so that we can “mount up with wings like eagles.” Jesus uses the same creative power to heal sicknesses and drive away the violence that possesses us.

The question then is: Will we allow Jesus to bring us out of the exile into which violent human culture has captured us so that we can return to the world God created from the beginning—outside the System—or will we prefer to stay in exile?

The Tree of Salvation

YggdrasilRonald Murphy’s fine book Tree of salvation: Yggdrasil and the Cross in the North provides some intriguing insights into the relationship between mythology and Christianity. As the title implies, the main focus is on the Germanic cosmic tree Yggdrasil. Indeed, this Tree was converted to the Tree of life from Eden and the tree on which Christ was hung when the Norse cultures were converted to Christianity. Moreover, these people were told to abandon Odin and the other deities but were allowed to keep Yggdrasil, which became the structural principal of the stave churches and the round churches as Murphy demonstrates at length.

Although a Christian could hardly worship Odin, there are some interesting elements in his myth of interest to a Christian who uses Girard’s critique of myth. Odin had one eye, having sacrificed it for wisdom. Although the victims of primordial collective violence are arbitrary, anything, such as a physical blemish, that makes a person stand out makes that person a likely target. More interesting yet, Odin hung on the tree Yggdrasil to gain more wisdom. It is the Girardian thinker James Alison who coined the phrase “the intelligence of the victim” to indicate that the victim understands what the persecutor do not. As a likely target for violence because of his deformity, he would already have understood the sacrificial dynamics of society more than other people. The early medieval Germanic poem The Heliand and the old English Dream of the Rood both write of the cross as the cosmic tree, namely Yggdrasil. Murphy analyzes these poems well for their rich theological vision where redemption is glorious with no punitive aspects to it. (See Violence and the Kingdom of God.

Of greatest interest is the role of Yggdrasil in the Ragnarök myth. The Ragnarök myth is unique in world mythology as far as I can tell because of its future orientation. Normally the chaos  precedes civilization and culture emerges out of it. According to Girard this emergence is possible because of the collective violence that puts a tourniquet on the chaos. With the Norse, the chaotic violence concludes civilizatoin. All social order breaks down and Yddgrasil, always subject to attack by the serpent that eats at its roots, is subject to more intense attack. As humanity unravels and reaches the brink of destruction, Yggdrasil saves the couple Lief and Lifthrasir by sheltering them unto the danger is past so that they can start humanity anew.

When Murphy describes the Yggdrasil symbolism in the stave and round churches in Scandinavia with all the carved and painted leaves and the enormous central pillars in the round churches, he suggests that the church has become Yggdrasil that offers shelter from the culture of violence. Only, rather than sheltering only one couple, it shelters everybody who comes into it, making the church a symbol of what it ought to be in human culture.

The Viking culture is notorious to this day for its wanton violence and cruelty, especially for people like me who are descended from inhabitants of the British Isles. Horrible as their violence was, maybe it was that very violence that helped them understand the Gospel in new ways that we could profit from today. Their dread of eschatological violence is quite a contrast to the fascinated desire for the same in American culture today. Perhaps they had some instinct for knowing that chaotic violence would be the result of their sacrificial way of life if they were not turned around. With this emphasis on deliverance from violence, there is little or no room for a penal notion of Christ’s Atonement. Murphy’s book is a great place to start to learn about the Norse contribution to Christianity.

Liturgical Animals (3): Stories and Ritual

eucharist1Ever since stories started to be told it has been known that we resonate with them and with the actions of the characters at a very deep level. Aristotle famously called it catharsis where our own emotions are purified when we identify with the emotions of a character on stage. Girard’s theory of mimetic desire gives us increased awareness of the phenomenon. It is no accident that Girard discovered that the best novelists and playwrights had discovered it, not least Sophocles who had inspired Aristotle’s concept of catharsis. (See Human See, Human Want.)

The discovery of mirror neurons adds further scientific and anthropological understanding to the way we resonate with stories. (See Mirroring Desires.) Realizing that our mirror neurons are activated by the intentions of others, we now know that the actions of actors on stage or on the screen also activate our mirror neurons. This is why we are so affected by what they do and most particularly what they desire. By identifying with a thief who is the protagonist of a story, we easily find ourselves desiring the thief’s success although in real life we would normally not desire that at all. But then again, perhaps the story has revealed a hidden desire to steal successfully. Or, perhaps a desire that wasn’t there has been created by the thieving action. Or a combination of both.

This is where the debate about whether or not violence or any reprehensible actions should be allowed in movies or on the stage of even in books. Does the violence observed or read about make one more violent or does it cause a catharsis, thus acting as a safety valve that prevents violence in real life? As far as I can tell, the answer goes both ways. After the Columbine school shooting, a video game was blamed for motivating the killers to go on a shooting spree, but this accusation overlooks the huge number of boys in the same age bracket who did no such thing. What we are left with, I think, is the need for us to take some responsibility for what we watch and read and more important, for how we react to them. For some, watching cops and robbers programs are mild entertainment. For others, it is more a thrill of surrogate righteous violence. If it is the latter, is this surrogate thrill enough or does it lead to inflicting violence against the “bad” guys in real life and feeling righteous about it? Or, do we act these feelings of righteous indignation without knowing what we are doing? Which puts us in the position of those who crucified Jesus.

Which brings us back to liturgy. It is worth noting that Greek plays were performed as parts of religious festivals, making the expulsion of Oedipus, for example, a liturgical event. To this day, plays and classical concerts often have a quasi-liturgical atmosphere with dimmed houselights and norms for audience decorum similar to what is usually expected in church. The more raucous and extroverted actions at rock concerts and Pentecostal services are liturgical in their own right with different liturgical norms. The thing is, liturgies and plays and concerts all stimulate the same mirror neurons in similar ways.

In Christian worship, the liturgical action is bound up with stories about Israel and most particularly, the story of Jesus. The stories are drawn out in the readings from scripture and the central story of Jesus, the Paschal Mystery, is compressed in the Eucharist where the story is fed to us literally in the bread and wine. Listening to the Word activates the mirror neurons, hopefully making us identify with the heroes and heroines of faith and most particularly with Jesus. Even from ancient times, certain people have been held up as good examples to imitate. As for Jesus settling a good example, since he compared himself to a burglar at one point, we can feel naughty and subversive in following his example and yet also feel righteous about it (Mt. 24;43). The pitfall is that we might identify with the owner of the house, and so try to keep Jesus out so that our lives aren’t subverted and turned upside down. This is just one example of how a story can twist us around in several directions, leaving us to wonder which end is up.

In general, plays and concerts are not repetitious the way the Eucharist is, which tells the same old story time after time to make it sink more deeply into us each time. It should be noted, though, that many people like to hear the same symphonies time after time and some people have favorite movies they see more times than they can count. Children have a ritual sense with their favorite bedtime stories that they want to hear night after night at the same time each night. In the Paschal Mystery, there is disclosure of the deepest truths about the way we humans live but also how we ought to live and could live by absorbing the character of Jesus. This is a story that never ends.

In Exile with Jesus

Flight_into_EgyptIn his book Banished Messiah, Robert Beck argues that Matthew frames his Gospel narrative of Jesus as a story of exile and return. With the two passages from early in Matthew’s Gospel, we can see where Beck got this idea. Before he is old enough to know what is going on, Jesus has been exiled twice. First to Egypt to escape the slaughter Herod intended for him, and then to the backwater up at Nazareth where, according to Nathaniel, nothing good could come. All this after Jesus had been born in Bethlehem, the city of David, close to Jerusalem where the action was. Not until the end of his life does Matthew have Jesus reach Jerusalem where he enters as the rightful king who is unjustly put to death.

Exile is how Empire sustains itself. The Jews knew this only too well as their exile to Babylon was one of their most formative experiences as a people. It was during their exile that the Jews came to understand fundamentally how Empire and its pagan religion operates and it was through this learning that the Jews began to really understand who really rules the world and has done so since the time of creation.

Jeremiah’s oracle that God was going to “ransom Jacob” and “redeem him from hands too strong for him” are as stirring as similar oracles of return in Second Isaiah, but Jeremiah’s oracles are all the more remarkable because he made them when he was just about out the door on his way to exile in Egypt as the Babylonians took over Jerusalem.  More remarkable yet, Jeremiah had redeemed a piece of family property just before the axe fell on his people.

Exile, then, is the condition of the powerless, the one rejected by Empire. Exile is the fate most of us fight against tooth and nail starting with our earliest socialization as children. We want to be in an in group, not an out group. We want to be at the center of power, not the periphery. And yet the periphery was where Jesus found himself by the time he was old enough to find himself. The Empire knew it could not welcome Jesus and Jesus knew that just as well.

All of this suggests that if we want to be where the action is, we’ll miss out on the real action. The real action may not seem very exciting: growing up as a human being in a backwater somewhere, where nothing good can come. And yet it is by growing up with Jesus, away from the centers of power, that we come to learn of what is important in life. We learn to value other people as people, not for what power that can broker for us. Here is where we find the lost coin, the lost sheep, the lost everything else, including what has been lost within each of us until we find Jesus where nobody else is looking.